“Catherine Nicholls!” Someone barks, and I sit up, confused. I look up to see Mr Price’s pudgy face inches from mine, and realise I must have fallen asleep in class. Again. The angry science teacher’s breath smells like my dog when he comes out of the ditch, and I involuntarily lean back, trying to get to clean air.
“Sorry sir,” I mumble, and his big steel coloured eyes narrow. This teacher’s always hated me, ever since I dropped a big power pack on his foot in year 7. That was nearly four years ago, and this physics teacher seems hell bent on giving me the worst time possible.
“Well, seeing as my teaching is obviously the most uninteresting thing known to you, perhaps you would like to have my job this lesson, and teach us all about nuclear reactors.” He spits, and I fight the urge to roll my eyes. He waits for me to respond, and when he gets nothing but a blank impassive stare, he walks back to the board and gets on with teaching the rest of my fellow inmates. I sit back in my chair, and catch my best friend Lara smirking at me. I grin back and she laughs a little. Lara’s one of those people you just can’t help but get along with, she’s a very friendly person, and can take anything said about or to her. We’ve been friends ever since junior school, we moved to this area around the same time, and are inseparable. “Catherine!” Mr Price shouts, and I look up. “For the third time, what is the atomic number of plutonium?!” I sigh quietly and the lesson continues.
My name’s not Catherine, it’s Cat, but my mother realised when we moved that I’d get bullied, so my preferred name in school is Catherine. That way nobody has any reason to pick on me for my weird name. When I finally get out of this hellhole I’ll go by my real name again and anyone who disagrees won’t matter in the slightest. But in high school, you get picked on once, you’ll get victimised the rest of your school life. When the bell finally sets us free, I almost sprint to my locker to get my PE kit. I hate sports, but I’ll take Miss Harley over Mr Price any day.
“Listen up girls!” Miss Harley booms, “We’re having a change of activities today! Your choices are badminton, netball or tennis! No exceptions!” Immediately everyone in the changing room begins talking excitedly, we’ve been stuck on hockey and football for three months now, and it’s freezing outside. Lara and I look at each other.
“Badminton!” We say at exactly the same time, and laugh. Lara’s like my sister, we know everything about each other, and do everything together. Lara ties her dyed cherry-black hair up and I leave my brown hair down. Oh yeah, I’m a rebel. I take a hairband on my wrist though, just in case Miss Harley decides to make me use an elastic band. We grab racquets and sit on the cold rubbery floor of the sports hall. Miss Harley begins calling instructions and I start to tune out, but then Lara nudges me, knowing my tendency to forget things. I scowl half-heartedly at her and listen to the blonde track-suited PE teacher at the front holding someone’s racquet. She throws us all shuttles and we set up nets and start practicing. I’m pretty good at badminton, as is Lara, and before long, we’re playing a match. Lara’s blue eyes are shining with effort and enthusiasm, she’s really competitive, and her movements are quick and precise. I dive forward and return her shot, only to trip over backwards as she aims it for the back of the court. I send it soaring over the net, scramble to my feet as it comes flying for my face.
Miss Harley blows her whistle, and Lara catches the shuttle, signalling the end of our match. I fall to the floor dramatically and Lara drops the shuttle on my head. I get up and we all walk over to the teacher for further instruction.
When the lesson finally ends, we grin and go to get changed. My last lesson is Drama, while Lara has ICT the other end of the school. I walk in and laugh at the paddling pools set out in red spotlights. The rest of my class look worried as the teacher is nowhere to be seen. The subject is the witch trials, and we’re put through more and more crazy exercises each lesson.
“Today,” Miss Clarke calls, “We will be studying the drowning of witches.” She steps out of the wings dramatically and a little creepily as she says this, and tells us all to change. I’m so glad I remembered to bring my spare clothes. We get changed in the toilets and I put my uniform in my bag before I leave. My spare clothes are my grey leopard print jeans and a black vest top. I tie my hair back and then decide against it. Either way it’s going to get soaked. I sit with the others around one of the three pools and listen to Miss Clarke as she explains the task. Pretty simple really, create a piece showing the witch’s story of how they were accused, tortured and drowned. We’re put into groups and get to work. Surprise, surprise, they make me the witch. How fun for me. I get dunked repeatedly as they try to figure out the best way to do it. Something unsettling stirs in the corner of my mind, and makes me especially nervous about having to breathe out while under water, but I ignore it and carry on 'drowning'.
Chris accidentally forgets that I’m under and I have to kick him to let me up before I actually drown. “Oops! Sorry Catherine!” He splutters as I cough and choke.
“It’s fine,” I mutter, “At least it wasn’t the ladder this time.” I grin at him through water clouded eyes; a few weeks ago he tripped over while I was on top of the gigantic ladder and knocked it over. I had to jump and land almost on top of him to avoid breaking something. He goes a little red and looks away. I flick a little water at him and tell him to stop being embarrassed about it, there was no harm done. Chris is one of those really clumsy guys who can make a disaster out of anything. He’s a nice guy, but very accident prone.
Finally we sort something out and perform our piece. I get drowned twice, once at the beginning and at the end to link the story. By the time we’re done, I’m soaking wet and freezing. I get changed and stick my head under the hand dryer until the final bell goes. Eagerly, I start walking home.
On the way I notice how quiet it is, there are no cars driving by, which is odd for this time of day, and all the kids have disappeared. It’s just me walking along a deserted street, nothing else moving except the odd red and gold leaf falling from a tree. This road could be used as a zombie film set it’s so quiet, I can’t even hear any birds, just my own footsteps. I spot something strange the other end of the street, all I can make out is that it’s grey and tall, but that’s it. I blink and it disappears, and I feel a shove against my shoulder. Surprised and off guard, I trip and fall into the road, just as a car drives towards me down the road at a ridiculous speed. I scramble to my feet and leap for the kerb, as my feet touch the tarmac the car whizzes by over the spot where I was lying just seconds ago.
“CAT!” I hear someone shout. I whirl to see Lara running towards me, her cartoon strip printed bag bouncing off her back with every step. She reaches me and glares. “You didn’t wait for me!” Oops.
“Sorry Lara, I forgot.” I murmur and she mock-punches me.
“You’re so forgetful Cat, you’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached to the rest of you!” She laughs and we carry on walking. She begins chattering away about the non-uniform day tomorrow, but I say little. I feel uneasy, it’s like someone, or something, is watching us with cold, malevolent eyes and dark intentions. I shiver, and try to ignore the terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach.
We reach our street and say goodbye to each other before going to our own houses; Lara lives in number 37 one end of the street, I live in number 11 at the other end. As soon as I open the door I am attacked by my big slobbery Labrador, Max.
“Hey buddy!” I laugh as Max bowls me over and gives me a thorough hello.
“Hi Cat, how was your day?” My mum calls from the kitchen.
“Fine until I was flattened!” I call, fighting to sit up. Max, seeing this as an invitation, sits on my lap and wriggles happily. Mum walks into the hallway, her dark hair pulled into a ponytail, her face red from cooking, and bursts into laughter at the sight of the reclining Lab. “Very funny, but can you help me get away from the door?” I snort light-heartedly. She manages to get enough breath to go and get a dog biscuit from the tin. She shows the dog and his ears go up as if they've had electricity go through them. He leaps to his feet and runs to get the treat from her outstretched hand. He leaves a big glob of drool on her hand and I get up, laughing. She rolls her eyes and goes back into the kitchen. I dart up the stairs to my room, Max on my heels.
I get changed into my favourite top and black jeans, let my legs fall from beneath me and collapse onto my bed. Max jumps up and keeps nudging me until I fall off and hit the wooden floor. He then lies down in my place and has this big slobbery grin on his face. There's a piece of paper stuck to his face, he must have nosed through my drawings while I was getting changed. I glower for a few seconds then I can't help it, I collapse into a fit of giggles, he looks so cute but so silly! I reach up and take it from him gingerly, the drool's made it all gross and sticky.
I look at it and shiver. It's the thing that's been plaguing me since I was little, the grey figure from the road. I haven't told mum about it simply because she won't believe me. She believes in ghosts, poltergeists and things that go bump in the night, but not this. I remember when I was younger, about seven or eight, and pointing out the grey figure to her in the supermarket. She had huffed and told me off for wasting time, which was so unlike her, the shop was busy, and she was stressed. I'd told her it was following us, and again she told me off. A crate of potatoes had fallen almost on top of me, it was my mum's panicked jerk on my arm that had saved me from being crushed. I remember how scared she'd been, how she'd shouted at the manager for unsafe shelves – and the grey figure that had pushed the potatoes in the first place. I shiver at the memory, but that grey figure's been following me almost all my life. Every time I see it something bad happens, it's taught me to fear it, and most of the time, I have my eye out for it, though sometimes I relax enough to forget the trouble it causes. That's when the worst attacks happen. There doesn't seem to be any way to protect myself...
“Cat! Tea! Now!” My mum shouts up the stairs. I chuckle quietly and Max and I head downstairs for tea, I all the while keep my eye out for the grey figure, just in case it decides to do a double act. A double act is rare but it happens. “Cat a little help would be nice?” Mum calls from the kitchen, and I walk in to find her practically juggling the hot frying pan and the plates. I grab the pan from her, ignoring the burning sensation of the hot metal handle. “Watch it! You're burning yourself!” She snaps, grabbing it in her oven glove clad hand and dumping the plates on me. I roll my eyes and put the two plates on the side, she dishes up and I carry them through to the table waitress-style. I glance at mum's wedding photo and wince. She's scribbled more lines on my Dad's face today. He must have sent her a nasty text. Again. I turn the photo round so we don't have to look at it, which is my usual habit. The only reason we keep that thing is because Dad took all the photos of me when I was little with him when he left, bar this one. Mum walks in and sets out the sauces and stuff. She tsks, and I look at her questioningly.
“You forgot the cutlery.” She smirks, and I scowl light-heartedly.
“I'm not a maid mother!”I say in my poshest voice, and she snorts.
“You are under my rule slave!” She retorts in her best superior tone.
“Which rule was that, the tyranny or the dictatorship?”
“Both,” She laughs, “Now go get the cutlery!” I groan jokingly and trudge to the kitchen. “While you're in there you may as well feed Max!” She calls. Max scampers in, he knows what 'feed Max' means all too well.
“Hungry buddy?” I ask, and his tail wags like a twitchy hamster in the winter. Grinning, I measure out his food and put it in his bowl. He licks his chops and I put it on the floor, patting him before grabbing the cutlery from the drawer. I go back through and sit down. We tuck into our tea, which turns out to be omelette and chips. I drown my chips in vinegar and bury them in salt.
“Would you like some food with your salt and vinegar?” Mum mutters.
“No thanks,” I reply, smirking. We finish eating in silence, and as I'm clearing up I see that Mum has turned the photo back round. I look at my younger self and feel a pang for the old days, when I still believed the world was a good place where everything was always going to go to plan. The white dress is a little loose on me, I've always been a little on the skinny side, and my hair is only just reaching my shoulders. My brown eyes are shining with childish happiness, and the bouquet of roses in my hand has all the thorns removed, you can see where they were cut. Mum looks so much younger in the photo, and a lot happier. Her brown hair pulled back into a bun, little glass diamonds dotted here and there, one little strand has escaped the confines of the mass of clips, but looks less artificial. I can't look at this damn photo any more, I think, putting it face down and taking a deep breath. I finish cleaning up and go up to my room again, to find Max has beat me there. He's snoring his head off on my bed, and I roll my eyes, how can I look into those big brown eyes and tell him off?
Something smacks me in the back of my head and clatters to the floor, startling me. I turn and find a cross, the type Christians use in churches and stuff. I am so not a believer in that rubbish, and toss it into the bin in the corner of my room. It's late now, and I'm tired. I tell Mum I'm turning in and push Max to the end of my bed, knowing he'll just jump back on later if I kick him off. I get ready for bed and gratefully climb in, snapping my lamp off and starting to go to sleep. Something cold touches my face, and I sit up, frightened, and turn the lamp back on. The cross is on my bed! How the hell did it get there?! I pick it up, open my window and throw it onto the street below, watching it shatter into a million pieces. Stupid cross. I get back into bed and go back to sleep.
I wake up ridiculously early, a half-remembered dream haunting my thoughts. All I can remember is a voice telling me it was an angel, and that my current path was going to put me in hell... or something like that. Whatever. I look at the clock and gasp, it's two in the morning! What the hell?! But more creepy than that, I see the impossible. The freaking cross is on my nightstand! I saw it smash! How and why is it back?! Something tells me it's supposed to be some kind of Christian miracle. Ugh. I creep downstairs and grab Mum's lighter, and take the cross outside. I tie leaves and stuff on it with string and set it alight, making sure it stays on the tarmac and away from anything flammable.
“See you in hell cross.” I mutter, watching it blacken and crumble away. As it does so, I feel a negative energy sweep by, as if angered and frustrated by my defiant acts against this cross. It also makes some long forgotten memory tug at the back of my mind, but I can't get at it, it's like there's a wall there, a wall that barely lets the shadow of that memory free. I sweep the remains into a nearby drain and go back inside, irritable and confused.
A voice, a pleasant voice, whispers “Well done.” I stop in the hallway, cautious.
“Who said that?” I whisper, but there is no answer. I shiver, and blame it on frayed nerves and a long night. I check the clock in the kitchen and find it's three am. I know paranoia will deny me enough peace of mind to sleep, and I realise that this is the most free time I have ever had on my hands; I'm busy from the moment I get up in the morning until the moment I go to sleep at night. I now have four hours to kill, which unsettles me as I don't know how to pass the time.
Then it hits me – I can finally do some research on that grey figure! I've never had the chance, and I've let it terrorise and haunt me far too long. It's time I found out what it was and how to deal with it once and for all. I practically sprint up the stairs, two at a time, eager to dig out my laptop and fire it up.
Opening my door, I immediately freeze. The grey figure is there again, and it seems satisfied with something. My eyes narrow and my fists clench involuntarily, I hate that thing, I hate it so much! It points at my laptop case and disappears. Wasting no time, I warily pick up the heavy case, and pull out my laptop and charger. I go to plug it in, and pause. It seemed so eager for me to plug this in.. I look at the socket. It's turned on. I left it off, I always turn them off! I hear a very slight crackling sound too.. Not trusting it, I grab my phone instead, and use the internet on that. I load up Google, then realise I don't know what the hell it's called! Frowning, I simply type in 'Grey Figure' but just get a load of rubbish that has nothing to do with this grey menace. I think a moment and type in 'The Grey' thinking it's worth a shot. It comes up with a lot about aliens and extraterrestrials, which gets me thinking. I click on a random link and it takes me to a website about how they abduct people and how they are all alien clones of each other and stuff. That's not much help, however I do save the address. I read through the entire site, and my alarm clock goes off, making me squeak in surprise. I turn the ringing thing off and sigh before grudgingly getting ready for school, showering and dressing in my non-uniform clothes in a slight daze, knowing I'm going to regret my sleepless night more than ever today. I brush my hair, shaking it out for extra effect. Checking my outfit in the mirror, I have to admit I did pick well here, a white, black and red band T-shirt and black skinnys, with black and red chequered converses, it's my favourite outfit by miles. I remember to pick up a pound on the way out and meet Lara at the end of the road.
She looks awesome in purple jeans and a black top, her hair worn down and long. We start walking, and she looks at me strangely.
“Cat, you look like crap!” She says, and I raise an eyebrow and glance down at my outfit. “Not your clothes! Though they do look awesome by the way, your eyes! What did you do, stay up all night?!” I look down sheepishly. She rolls her eyes and groans. “Why the hell did you do that?!”
“It wasn't my fault,” I mutter, and she looks at me quizzically and I hesitate. I haven't told anyone about the grey figure since I told my mum when I was little, but I need another opinion. Besides, I'm so tired of all the secrecy. “There's this.. thing, it's been following me as long as I can remember,” I start, and she interrupts.
“You're not going to try and tell me Slenderman's after you are you?” She laughs somewhat tensely.
“No!” I snap, and try again. “Look, this thing has been trying to kill me, it's dangerous Lara, and nobody believes that it exists! It pushed me into the road yesterday, and last night it tried to electrocute me! I swear Lara, I'm not making this up, this thing's after me, and it doesn't look like it's going to stop.” I tell about the cross too, as I guess it has something to do with this.
“What does this thing look like?” She asks after a few minutes. She looks concerned, and this puzzles me as it's not the 'oh dear, call a psychiatrist, this chick's off her rocker' look I'm expecting, but something different, something worrying.
“I've never seen it clearly, but it's a big grey figure.” I reply, and her face turns into a pale, blank mask and her pupils turn to pin points, her breathing shallow.
“You mean,” She gulps after a very long pause, “You're being targeted by a Grey?!”
“I don't know, but what ever it is, it hates me, that's for sure.”
She puts a hand on my shoulder and looks more serious than a hitman at a funeral. “Cat, there's something I have to tell you. I'm a Satanist, and right now, you're being targeted by one of our worst enemies. Father Satan can't protect you because you're not in his protection, but if you don't start getting his protection soon, that Grey's going to kill you.” Immediately, the word 'Satanist' brings up the classic stereotypical images of 'devil-worshippers' sacrificing kids and animals, but on hearing the words 'Father Satan' the stereotypes suddenly become just that, stereotypes. It's like they've ripped away a mental block in my head that I never knew was there. I don't know why, but I believe her, and every Christian influence disappears, exposing the lie. Suddenly, I remember.