After recovering from a mysterious illness, a little boy inherits an imaginary friend who makes him do violent things…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from We Hear Voices, a near-future horror novel from author Evie Green—available now from Berkley.
Kids have imaginary friends. Rachel knows this. So when her young son, Billy, miraculously recovers from a horrible flu that has proven fatal for many, she thinks nothing of Delfy, his new invisible friend. After all, her family is healthy and that’s all that matters.
But soon Delfy is telling Billy what to do, and the boy is acting up and lashing out in ways he never has before. As Delfy’s influence is growing stranger and more sinister by the day, and rising tensions threaten to tear Rachel’s family apart, she clings to one purpose: to protect her children at any cost—even from themselves.
Across London, Professor Graham Watson had found a way of getting through the days without his wife. Unfortunately it involved working all the time. As it happened, his professional life had never been busier, and what had started as a desperate attempt to fill every hour was, he thought, turning into something different.
He had almost stopped going home altogether because (although he couldn’t say this out loud) the Marylebone flat was haunted. It was properly, objectively haunted; Graham had never believed in such things, but now he had to. He would walk into a room absently, expecting to find Imogen there, and there she would be. She would be in the kitchen, standing at the counter making a pot of tea. In the bathroom, stretched out in the bath, a glass of sherry beside her, her perfect little pink-nailed feet emerging from the bubbles. He would freeze and stare, willing her to be real, smelling her perfume, wishing that she was his actual wife and not this mocking, malevolent ghost.
Then it always went the same. Someone would scream (him), and sometime later he would come back to consciousness crouched in a corner, pulling his hair out strand by strand, with no idea of how long he’d been there. Every time there was a pile of white hairs and scalp flakes next to him, and his face was wet with tears, his heart beating much faster than was healthy.
When he was at work it didn’t happen. The ghost didn’t go to his office; Imogen had hated it there. He was focusing on one particular part of his work, the part that had fascinated Imogen. He had off-loaded all the patients he could, apart from these ones. He was immersed and obsessed.
His boys had come over for the funeral, from Australia, Dubai, and New York, and as soon as it was over, they left. One of his daughters-in-law, Michelle, called occasionally to ask how he was doing, but his sons had no interest.
They had adored Imogen to the point of donning quarantine masks and gloves and braving international air travel during a pandemic to get to her funeral. They wouldn’t do the same for him; he had overheard them saying how much they wished it had been him who had died, not her. He had been a distant father, aloof, sending them to boarding school at thirteen because that was what you did, leaving every tearful phone call to his wife to deal with, every difficult thing to Imogen to sort out. His payback was this: they didn’t care about him, and that was fair enough.
It was dark outside, and it was nearly six, and that meant that he and Lauren had to go downstairs to receive their new patient. Graham wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing with this particular admission, but it turned out that when you were a distinguished professor in your seventies (and when the only forthright person in your life had just died), there was no one above you to tell you that you were wrong. He was managing all of this as scientifically as he could, but things were about to go up a gear, and a part of him was far more nervous than he could possibly have admitted. Lauren was maybe thirty-two, and currently, although he would never have told her this, she was the most stable presence in his life. When he stood in the doorway of her office, she beamed up at him.
“This is exciting,” she said, and hastily added: “Don’t worry. I haven’t told anyone.” He watched her tap on the keyboard of her computer until the screen went blank, and then she tidied the papers, dropped the post down the chute, and said: “Harmony, do we have enough tea, coffee, milk, and cookies for tomorrow?”
“We do, Lauren,” said the female voice from the speaker. Lauren had made a point of setting Harmony to be a woman.
“Great,” she said. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Lauren.”
“Right!” She grinned at Graham, shaking back her shiny hair and picking up her bag.
“Shall we?” he said, and they went out onto the landing, where Lauren called the small lift, the one that was camouflaged to look like a bookcase, and they squeezed in together, which always felt slightly awkward. Both of them pressed their thumbs to the track pad, and Lauren told lift Harmony to take them to floor minus seven.
Graham’s consulting rooms were on the second floor of what looked, from the outside, like a normal town house. If you didn’t know, you would never have imagined that, beneath it all, an underground hospital stretched down fifteen floors, across the whole terrace. Most of it had nothing to do with him (it was part cosmetic surgery, part real medicine for people who wanted to skip waiting lists and recover in five-star luxury), but level minus seven? That was his.
It was the psycho-pediatric department, and it didn’t exist. There was one long-term patient now: Kitty had grown up here. She was technically too old for a pediatric hospital, but her parents had offered more and more money for Graham to keep her, and he was bound by a complex set of obligations. Graham was sure that right now it was the best place for her, so she was staying. Her symptoms had been bizarre when he first saw them, but now they looked premonitory. They were the forerunner of a thing he was seeing now all the time. He needed Kitty in place as his patient zero.
Although Graham knew it was dark outside, down here it was daylight in such a way that he felt there was a sunny sky just around the next corner. They went through thumb and retina scans, as well as a chat with a human to check that no one had cut off their thumbs and pulled out their eyes to get in.
“Perfect,” said the receptionist. She checked the time. “Well, we’re all set down here. We’re very excited to meet our new patient. Do you have the forms?”
Graham and Lauren had each signed a watertight confidentiality agreement and had it witnessed by a lawyer. Lauren handed the documents over and Graham led the way into Giraffe ward.
It was a bright space, with beds at one end separated by curtains, and an entertainment area at the other. Graham had modeled the space’s look on the pictures in the brochures his patients’ parents would sometimes show him, when they said, with guilty eyes, that “boarding schools are different these days.” (Often they were talking about five-year-olds.) He had styled it to look like those photographs and tried to make it as appealing as he could, because telling a child they were going to be detained indefinitely seven floors underground was a pill that needed some heavy sugarcoating. He always emphasized the security, making sure everyone knew that no stranger could get in there, but he never spelled out that it worked in reverse, too.
Now three of the four children who were currently resident were sitting on beanbags, playing on an Xbox and laughing. The fourth, Anita, was alone with a book, muttering to herself.
“Hey, Graham,” said Majid. “We’ve got another controller. You playing?”
Graham saw that the game was a complicated one involving role-play and dragons. He looked at the three children on the beanbags: they were Majid, Peter, and Suki. He knew them all well, and had some serious doubts about Peter, though this wasn’t the moment for them. Majid, the eldest, was twelve. Peter was only seven, and Suki was nine.
“I’m too old for that,” he said, though he did sometimes join their games. He would always join a driving one. Those ones were great. These ones? He would never keep up. Similarly, there was a gym down here, and they often invited him to visit it with them, but he only sat in a corner and supervised.
“Can I play?” said Lauren.
“Yes, you can, Lolly,” said Suki.
It was Peter who had started calling Lauren Lolly, and they’d all picked it up. Lauren loved it. She pulled up a beanbag and grabbed the controller that Majid held out to her. Soon she was laughing and chatting as if she, too, were twelve years old. These kids loved Lauren.
“Is Kitty around?” Graham said to the nearest nurse.
“She’s out for her walk,” he said. “Angela’s going to keep her out all afternoon under the circumstances.”
Twenty minutes later, the doors opened again. Two security people, both men, both in black, walked around the ward, checking it in silence. Then a woman came in, leading a very cross little girl who had long dark hair and a scowling face. Graham thought she was looking worse than the last time he’d seen her, and he was glad, in spite of his misgivings, that he had managed to arrange this. Her family had accepted his offer with alacrity, subject to all the security provisions. They could have continued to hide her away themselves easily enough, but, like Kitty’s family, they seemed to have decided that she was better off where no one at all could see her.
“Here you are,” the nanny said. She was a very thin woman in her fifties, wearing a knee-length skirt and a high-necked blouse. “See? It’s lovely! And you can talk to the other children. See how happy you’ll be. Look! Here’s Mr. Watson!”
“Professor Watson,” he said reflexively. “But actually Graham. You always call me Graham, don’t you, Louisa?”
Louisa looked at him and narrowed her eyes. “How long do I have to stay here?” she said. “I don’t like it, Graham. I’m better now. It’s not fair. How long?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “It depends on various things. A couple of days, to start with. I promise we’ll look after you, and I promise you’ll have fun. And you can talk to the others. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? To meet other children who know what it’s like.”
He watched her look at the other patients, sizing them up. The three who were playing with Lauren hadn’t stopped their game, but Anita was suddenly standing beside them. Graham jumped. He hadn’t seen her move.
“Look,” Graham added, putting a hand on each girl’s shoulder. He saw a security guy step forward but ignored him. No one was telling him he couldn’t touch his patient’s shoulder. “This is Anita. You have a lot to talk about. Anita, this is Louisa.”
He saw the girls looking at each other and saw the thing that passed between them.
“Hi,” said Anita.
“Hello,” said Louisa with a tiny smile. “A new child.”
“Welcome to the house of weirdos,” said Anita. “Did you do something bad?”
Louisa’s eye flicked to the nanny and then away again. “Mmm,” she said.
“All of us have a…” Anita tapped her head. Her voice was cut glass, like that of a character from a British film from the nineteen fifties. “You’re here, so you do, too.”
“Yeah. What’s yours called?”
“Did you nearly die with flu?”
The girls walked off, deep in conversation. This was exactly what Graham wanted. Lauren showed the nanny into her private side room, and one of the security people left. Louisa came with two attendants at all times, and that was nonnegotiable.
Graham said good-bye to Lauren, had a look in Kitty’s room (she was back from her walk, sitting on her bed wearing headphones and sing-
ing loudly; she signaled to him with a finger to go away), and went back to the office. He didn’t want to move onto level minus seven because he needed to maintain professional distance, but he couldn’t go home either, so he usually slept at work. It no longer felt odd letting himself back into a silent consulting suite.
Graham could have retired years ago. He and Imogen had been married for nearly forty years; they had both known that, at some point, it was likely that one of them would die and the other would be left alone. He didn’t know why it had devastated him to the point of hallucination and psychosis. He longed to die, too, and he considered it often. It was the children who stopped him. Not his own kids (they would be fine with it) but his patients.
He was looking at an epidemic within a pandemic. A rash of children with increasingly difficult voices in their heads. The children changed slowly and then dramatically, and people around them got scared, and then, if they could afford it, they tucked them away for residential treatment on level minus seven along with Kitty, the first of them all, who had been here for thirteen years.
Nothing he did made it better. He kept them safe and kept the world safe from them. Some of the kids who were here now had done terrible things. Now their behavior was largely contained, controlled with medication, and he was running a very exclusive version of a young offenders’ institution.
He walked around the desk and tried not to look in the mirror. The mirror was grand, because everything here was grand. It was what people expected.
He spun back, thinking that he’d seen a different reflection, a woman, a ghost.
“Are you here?” he said, feeling his heart pounding, his sanity slipping, but she wasn’t. There was just a haggard man, a man who seemed to have grown a beard by mistake. He thought he might as well keep it. It made him look a bit like Santa Claus. If he squinted, he could almost become Steve Jobs. Men who looked like that were respected. The man in the mirror nodded. They were in agreement.
He turned back to his desk and took the sleeping bag out of its drawer. Years ago, when he used to cycle to work, Graham had had a tiny shower room installed here. Now it was his main bathroom. Early each morning, he would shower, dress in clean clothes from his cupboard, and take himself out for breakfast and lots of coffee before the cleaners arrived, timing his return to ensure he strode back into the office when Lauren was at her desk so he could present it as his arrival for the day. It was ridiculous, but it was better than going home and losing his mind in something that he didn’t want to look at with a professional eye.
He thought sometimes about the space program. If it happened (and he supposed it would, because the money was all headed that way), then hundreds of people would get used to sleeping in little pods, a bit like the space under his desk. Thousands. By the time they got to the supposed second Earth, they would populate it with millions, though it felt unlikely that that would actually happen. Graham felt the whole idea was stupid hubris. He was glad he was going to die and miss it.
He was hungry, and even if he’d been at home, he wouldn’t have bothered to cook. He had been lazy—he knew that—and left that side of their life to Imogen. Throughout their marriage, he had made a show, from time to time, of producing scrambled eggs for breakfast or making a basic pasta dish for supper and expected (and received) plaudits for it like an indulged child.
He reached for the receiver of his desk phone and punched in a number he knew well.
“Hello, Domino’s,” said the voice at the other end.
“Hello,” he said. “I’d like to order the meal deal, please.”
Excerpted from We Hear Voices, copyright © 2020 by Evie Green.