His muscles had already begun to tense for action even before he heard a thing. When he heard the car pull up, Michael ran to the door and opened it.
His mother had left him concerned and now she was home. He was puzzled, then, to see her turning towards the opposite side of the road, eyes following those of her youngest son and leading to the stranger who was standing in shadow. Danger was the first word that ran across his mind.
Michael moved out into the open and beckoned his mother to come inside quickly.
She turned with a smile, that was not quite hers, and indicated with a shrug of her shoulders that all was well.
He was reminded of dreams he had had, dreams in which a dark stranger made his way to their door, knocked and was invited in. The stranger, who appeared familiar at first, changed completely once he had gained access. No longer a man at all, the thing clad in darkness, would smile its triumph before getting ready to set about its work. That was the point at which Michael would wake, sweating, stifling a scream of warning, legs preparing to run, to run at the invader.
“Quickly before he gets us,” he spilled out still in the flood of panic.
His mother looked back at him questioningly. She was confused by his actions and showed it in the slightly embarrassed smile that flickered along her face. There was something else that Michael saw that night, something almost concealed, something that was close to contempt.
“Don’t be so stupid Michael, it’s only Nick.”
Michael looked towards her, this time it was his turn to wear a questioning expression.
“Nick, Michael. The man who made Brian live again,” added Pete by way of explanation.
And by then the stranger, who was known as Nick, had started to cover the ground between them and, as Michael studied his features, a spark of recognition lit in the twilight of his memory.
“We need to talk,” said the stranger.
Then it came to him; it was the voice on the phone, the one that sounded like Dad’s. Michael listened harder to the underlying tones. He looked once more at the figure, half expecting his father to be standing there, fully wishing that it had all been a lie, a joke that time had played upon them, but it was still just Nick, the stranger who had made Brian live.
“Can we go inside? It’s not safe out here. He has his spies everywhere.”
Once inside, they sat around the kitchen table.
Michael tried to gauge the intentions of this man who had just, quite literally, come out of the dark. The features that had brought back memories were now different, the light of the kitchen was sharper.
Nick was anything between thirty-five and forty years old. There was a flurry of grey starting to appear at his temples, but beyond that there were no tell-tale lines or wrinkles. Michael found himself staring rudely at the visitor whilst his mother made tea. Above his left eye socket was the faintest of marks, something that had long since healed. A childhood accident, he thought. Nick caught his gaze but didn’t display any signs of annoyance, he merely smiled back and nodded, making Michael want to apologise; which he didn’t. There was something else written within the gloom of Nick’s eyes.
Laura brought cups of steaming tea to the table and then sat down. She ought to have been full of questions, asking what on earth could have prompted him to find them and how, indeed, had he found his way to where they lived? She was not.
Michael watched, in growing confusion, as his mother went about the business of entertaining an uninvited visitor without venturing close to an enquiry. Chris, on the other hand, showed deep interest in the stranger. Always reserved, Chris betrayed this with sharp head movements, ones that were distinctly birdlike. He was following the action, letting his eyes assess each of the players, sizing up what was going on. Pete sat comfortably to the side of Nick, almost serene.
Once Laura was seated alongside the rest, Nick began.
“You are in grave danger; all of you. There is a force out there that means you harm.”
He looked into the faces of those who sat around him and felt sorrow for what they must now endure.
“You have come to its notice, as I did, and once it has you in his sights, it is almost impossible to escape. The most you can hope for is to hide. There are many hiding, even those that are still conscious, and that is what it wants. It wants the good to be so afraid that they do nothing.”
The gathering was stunned into silence by this keen imitation of a soothsayer. The dark message was delivered in tones that appeared to be at odds with the warning. The voice held a youthful quality that belied the speaker’s age. However, when he spoke again, it was the Nick of today whose vocal chords had undergone the prerequisite sandpapering of time.
Laura smiled, the smile that had hardly flitted from her face since her return. Michael wondered if she might not be indulging the quiet ravings of this madman, a kindly madman by all accounts, but nonetheless, a MADMAN.
At the mention of the threat, Chris had flinched. Michael had seen it though nobody else seemed to have done so. A sharpness had cut across his eyes suggesting the memory of pain. It had only been a momentary flicker of a change, but Michael had definitely seen it. A second later, Chris did a reconnoitre of the other faces gathered at the table to see if he had been spotted. Michael was looking down into his cup of tea by then and Chris felt relieved that he had gotten away with whatever he had been thinking about.
“What is it?” Michael asked.
Nick turned to him then and looked deeply into to his eyes.
“Some thing old. In the past it has been known by many names. You have heard of Pan, the Pied Piper?”
“Stories for children,” Michael returned.
“Stories for children, yes. It is still coming for you.”
This was certainly a lunatic sitting before them but the others were listening.