‘Thanks Jameel’ Mackenzie says smiling to the shop assistant, clutching the latest edition of the Doctor Who magazine.
‘Goodbye Mackenzie.’ Jameel says, smiling back. ‘I’ll see you in a fortnight’s time?’
‘Aye, you will’ Mackenzie replies and swings the shop door open.
It is a beautiful hazy summer day and the schools are closed for the holidays. It is one of those days where everything seems to be at a slow pace. People and cars seem to be meandering here and there. The suns heat on the roads and pavements has softened the tarmac, making it sticky and pliable. Mackenzie imagines people’s feet and car’s tyres sticking to the tarmac, hindering their progress. Maybe that’s why everything is moving slowly?
‘Well, look who it is lads’ comes an unwelcome voice. ‘It’s Mackenzie, the Paki lover.’
Mackenzie turns to see the familiar sneering freckled face and bright ginger hair of Mark Taggarty, and by his side are his two goons, brothers Scott and Andrew Robertson, who seemed to snigger at everything their unlikely leader says. They aren’t twins, but they both dress in identical Adidas sportswear.
‘Can a girl no go into a shop for a magazine Taggarty?’ Mackenzie quips.
Andrew chuckles and blushes. Mackenzie is a confident and pretty girl and it is obvious her charms have not gone unnoticed. Taggarty silences him with a cutting glance.
‘Shut it, Mackenzie. Mackenzie; isn’t that a boy’s name anyway?’
Both the goons snigger on cue.
Mackenzie Galloway likes her name. It is a unique name, even if a little peculiar for a girl. After a spout of bullying at school, from the very same facetious three, her parents had explained that she was named after her great grandmother, a strong Scottish woman who had raised a large strong family.
‘This again?’ Mackenzie says under her breath. ‘It’s a unisex name Taggarty, u-neee-sex. Look it up. Maybe Jameel can sell you a dictionary.’
Mackenzie is surprised and, somewhat, impressed with her retort and can’t contain a burst of laughter. Taggarty’s goons can’t contain their sniggering either, which only aggravates Taggarty further.
‘You think I’d be seen deed in there like, Paki lover?’ Taggarty edges closer towards her. Mackenzie can see the rage in his eyes building up and his hands clenching into fists. He has never physically hurt her before but she has never stood up to him like this before, and she has never seen this look in his eyes before.
‘Well you ken what happens to Paki lovers eh?’ he scowls. And just as Mackenzie braces herself, expecting to be punched, something catches Taggarty’s attention over her left shoulder. The menacing look seems to dissipate from his eyes and a sneering smile returns to his freckled face.
‘Aw here they come, lads’ Taggarty informs his goons, who seem to come alive with excited energy. ‘It’s the Crackers!’
Mackenzie looks over her shoulder to see an odd couple, oddly dressed in matching purple and blue shell suits, holding hands as they approach the shop. Taggarty and his goons are now moving off in their direction, obviously feeling they can have more fun tormenting the Crackers, than Mackenzie. But Taggarty pauses and turns to her.
‘Get oot of here Paki lover, i’ll deal wi you another day.’
And she believed he will. As she slowly begins to walk away, she can hear the taunts begin.
No one really knew the Cracker’s real names. All the kids just knew them as the Crackers. They live in the same three-storey building as Mackenzie, in basement flat 3A, below the Galloway’s, who live in the middle flat, 3B. They are a deaf couple. The man must be in his fifties, with a skeleton thin frame, and the woman in her early thirties, who is clearly obese. They are an odd couple. Mackenzie would go as far as to call them creepy. Even Mackenzie’s parents have called them that from time to time. As well as other names, not really fit for a child’s ears. But her parents have had run-ins with the Crackers on many occasions. Usually about the noise. The Crackers are seldom seen but often heard. They are always arguing in their incoherent mumbling talk, or ‘mong-talk’ as Mackenzie’s dad would call it, and moving around in their flat at all hours of the day or night and because of their disability, they couldn’t tell how loud they could be. But that isn’t what really upset her parents. It is the banging and crashing around. The Crackers seem to communicate through vibration, and when they would argue, the banging would start and gradually become louder and more frequent.
And then there is the DIY. The Crackers love their DIY. And again, at all hours of the day or night. Sometimes Mackenzie’s dad would catch them from the window, taking wood and bricks and equipment from their beat up van and carting it down into their basement flat.
‘That’s mare stuff they’re bringing in!’ he would call to Mackenzie’s mum.
‘Oh terrific’ was her usual tempered response as she knew it would probably prompt another tense encounter with the Crackers. For Mackenzie’s mother, it is the smell she can’t bare the most. The times she has rang their bell to complain and when that door swung open, the smell would turn her stomach.
‘What the hell are they building now?’ her dad would rhetorically ask.
The Crackers may be noisy, odd and a bit creepy, but as Mackenzie turns to see Taggarty and his goons mocking them with their pretend ‘mong-talk’ and circling the frightened couple, the woman clinging to her partner with one arm and waving the other around trying to shoo the cruel children away, not unlike the planes circling King Kong at the top of the empire state building, Mackenzie realises that nobody deserves that kind of treatment. And with a heavy heart she begins to turn away. But before she can, her eyes lock onto the man’s. He is blatantly staring at her with afraid, but cold, eyes. It makes her feel uneasy and she turns and heads down the sticky pavement away from the turmoil.
After reading her magazine up her favourite tree in the park, Mackenzie decides to return home for some dinner. As she enters the main door of the building, the earlier disturbing encounter with the bullies and the Crackers returns to her mind. A couple of hours have passed and she wonders if the Crackers made it home safely. Maybe I could knock on their door? she thinks, bypassing the stairs that would take her up to her home. She had been given strict instructions by her parents to stay clear of the Crackers, but the King Kong scene flashes through her mind and she finds herself walking down the corridor towards the stairs that lead down to the Cracker’s front door. The landlord still hasn’t fixed the landing light, maybe he never will, so the corridor is dark and every so often the light blinks on for a second and then off again. It creates a creepy atmosphere and Mackenzie realises she is afraid. As she slowly turns the corner, the stairs which lead directly down to the Cracker’s door is even darker. She lingers at the top of the stairs, breathing heavily, before deciding against the idea. As she figures they should be alright, she becomes aware of a wondrous smell. Food. Exotic Indian spices. So the fear and her newly discovered hunger convinces her to abandon her compassion, and she turns and heads back down the corridor and up the stairs to her home.
As she reaches her front door she takes a deep breath in through her nostrils, taking in the rich warm aroma that hangs in the air. She knows the smell isn’t coming from her flat, but from the flat upstairs, 3C, where the Gupta family lives.
Mackenzie would sometimes play in the communal garden with the Gupta’s youngest son, Bobby. And she would often have to defend herself and Bobby from the awful Taggarty who would shout racist abuse into the garden.
‘Is that your Paki boyfriend!?’ he would yell.
‘He’s from India, ignoramus!’ Mackenzie would call back to him.
‘Aye whatever, Paki lover’.
Taggarty’s parents had a lot to answer for.
Mackenzie opens her front door and walks inside and is rudely greeted by a bland, over cooked, vegetable smell. She reluctantly closes the door behind her.
Two weeks have passed and Mackenzie is sitting with her parents at the kitchen table negotiating another bland meal. The small television set is broadcasting some boring sport programme about cricket. Whilst trying to fork the soggiest green bean ever to sully someone’s plate, she has missed the transition from sport to the news. She never paid any mind to the news; it is always doom and gloom, and tonight is no exception. It is only when a freckled face she recognises appears on the screen, with some text, that she bolts upright to attention.
The text is as follows-
Mark Taggarty, age 11, missing from the Glenrothes area since Friday 19th July. Please contact the police should you know of his whereabouts or if you have any relevant information relating to this case.
‘Jesus, another one’ Mackenzie’s mother whispers and turns to Mackenzie’s father. ‘How many is that now?’
‘Well the Taggarty boy makes the sixth.’ he says, grimly.
‘Six?’ Mackenzie gasps. Her parents try to give her a reassuring look, but she can see the worry written all over their faces.
‘Mackenzie, didn’t you know that boy? Isn’t he the one who was bullying you?’
‘Aye, he went to my school.’ she says. ‘He used to bully me about my name.’
‘Well he’ll no be doing that any more will he?’ her father says, in a misguided jovial voice.
‘Aw dad!?’ Mackenzie groans and slams her fork down onto the table. She hurriedly gets up and rushes to her room, with her dad yelling his apologies to her as she goes.
She closes her bedroom door and lies face down on her bed. Mark’s disappearance has frightened her, but something else is playing on her mind. She just can’t decipher the mixed up thoughts in her brain yet. Her memory takes her back to a fortnight ago. The name calling and that fire in Mark’s eyes. She thought she was going to get a beating for sure. She had been glad that the Crackers had appeared that day to take the brunt of Mark’s wrath away from her, even if she did feel sorry for them. And suddenly her mind snaps to the cold and fearful look that Mr Crackers had given her as she fled the scene. Was he blaming her for walking away and not defending him and his partner? Or was he just sick of another bully making a fool out of them? Mackenzie wasn’t used to such dark thoughts. Her mind was now taking her to a place that made her feel nervous. Just how sick was Mr Crackers of bullies? Sick enough to do something crazy? Sick enough to kidnap? To murder? Her mind’s eye is filled with Mr Crackers’ eyes. That unnerving glare. And she all at once knows the answers to her own questions.
She shoots up from her bed, onto her feet, and begins to pace the floor. They have…somehow, managed to seize Mark. But had they killed him? Maybe not. She makes for the door, and into the kitchen where her parents are still sitting at the table, now with a coffee. They are surprised by her demeanour.
‘Look sweetheart, I’m sorry about what I said, it wasn’t very…’ her father begins but Mackenzie shakes her head at him.
‘Never mind that. It’s the Crackers.’ she blurts out.
Her parents give her a bemused stare.
‘The missing kid…Mark…the Crackers…two weeks ago…’
It starts to dawn on her parents.
‘Whoa, hang on a minute sweetheart’ her father says getting out his seat. ‘You can’t just accuse people of…’
‘That’s a serious accusation honey’ Mackenzie’s mother interrupts. ‘You could get the Crack…the couple down stairs into a lot of trouble saying a thing like that.’
‘Good’ Mackenzie yells. ‘Because I know they’ve kidnapped Mark.’
‘Keep your voice down young lady’ her dad says sternly.
‘Now hang on honey, you can’t accuse people without proof, now how do you know it was the couple down stairs that took Mark?’
Mackenzie knows she can’t convince her parents, let alone the police, based on a look in someone’s eye, but instinctively, she is certain.
‘I mean, they are creepy’ her father says in that jovial voice again. ‘But kidnapping?’
‘Dad…mum…’ Mackenzie insists looking at one parent to the other. ‘I’m not just making this up.’
Her mum is wearing a dismissive expression now.
‘Now listen to me Mackenzie’ she says, firmly. ‘I don’t want to hear any more of this from you. Our relationship with those two is bad enough without you accusing them of being kidnappers.’
‘Your mum is right sweetheart’ her dad interjects. ‘Now, not another word. Before you get all of us into deep shi…trouble.’
Mackenzie feels like she is going to burst, and in a way she does. Into tears. She runs back to her bedroom. She slumps down onto her bed and sobs for a while, before falling asleep for an hour.
She awakes to the familiar sound of thumping and muted voices. The Crackers are at it again. The Crackers! Her mind is crystal clear. She knows what she has to do. She has to go down the dark stairs to the Crackers’ house and try to get inside. She has to find the proof. She has to find Mark.
She pulls on her anorak and tucks her sonic screwdriver torch into her pocket and leaves her bedroom. She finds her parents in the living room. Her dad is complaining about the noise again.
‘I tell you what, they may no be murderers, but they’re going to make one oot o me!’
Mackenzie’s mother looks at the clock on the wall.
‘Bloody seven o’clock.’ she says. ‘What a time to start bloody DIY!’ She notices Mackenzie standing at the living room door.
‘Oh hi honey, are you feeling better?’
‘Much better. Can I go and play at Bobby’s?’
‘It’s getting late sweetheart’ her father says.
‘Dad it’s the summer holidays, and I’ll just be upstairs.’
‘Back at ten’ her mum instructs. ‘Or however long they’ll have you upstairs.’
Mackenzie says bye to her parents and leaves the flat. She pauses on the landing as she hears the faint sound of, what can only be, a drill coming from downstairs. She takes a deep breath and creeps downstairs. She reaches into her jacket pocket and takes out her torch and switches it on. She peers down the corridor that leads to the stairs that will take her down to the Crackers’ house.
‘Am I really going to do this?’ she asks herself quietly. ‘Can I do this?’
Her mind flashes to Mark’s freckled face from the news report and she finds that her legs are slowly carrying her down the corridor. She turns the corner and shines her torch down the dark stairs. Something flashes when illuminated and for a brief frightening moment she thinks it is eyes. Mr Crackers’ eyes. But it is only the brass number and letter on the door, 3A. Re-summoning her courage, she takes her first step down the stairs. It makes an unwelcome squeak that seems to echo up to the top floor. It is enough for her to reconsider her actions.
What am I doing? This is stupid, not to mention dangerous. Maybe mum and dad were right and I’ve got this all wrong? I should go back home and watch TV and let the police find the real kidnappers.
And yet despite her rational thought, she takes another step down the stairs. To her relief, no squeak this time. Another step and another. Another creak and another tense wait. Another step. Her torchlight illuminates the whole door now. It is a brown colour. Grimy. Not homely at all. She realises she has never been this close to the Crackers’ door before. She has always anxiously peered down from the landing, but never took one step down these stairs. And now she is half way. And boy did her heart know it. It is beating hard in her chest and pulses loudly in her ears. She carefully descends the rest of the stairs until she is standing at their door. Now she is here, she is unclear of her next move. Just tackling the stairs was difficult enough. But now what? Her first thought; try the handle. Nah, too risky. She decides to look through the letterbox. It too is risky, but she knows if she is careful, she might be able to get a good view inside the flat. She reluctantly switches off her torch and replaces it in her anorak pocket. She reaches up with both hands and gently lifts the brass letterbox flap. Holding her breath, she leans in close and peers inside.
Movement. She can see dimly lit bodies moving around in a large room at the end of a corridor. The Crackers. Then her ears picks up soft music. The Crackers are holding each other. They are dancing. They look content in each other’s arms and a pang of regret ripples through her mind. She even thinks they look sweet. Just a normal loving couple dancing in their home. And when the music stops, Mackenzie feels ashamed of herself. She has betrayed her parents and now she feels like she is betraying the Crackers. She is about to gently release the letterbox flap and creep back upstairs, back home, when Mrs Crackers speaks.
‘Is it time, my love?’ she says. Quite clearly and articulately. No mumbling. No mong-talk.
It takes Mackenzie a second to register.
‘Yes, my love’ replies Mr Crackers. No mumbling. No mong-talk. ‘It’s time for justice. It’s time for the purification.’
The Crackers appear to have no disability. They can talk to, and hear, each other fine. It is a trick? A ruse, all along? But…why would…?’
And then it sinks in, like a cold wet mist enveloping her skin. A sharp jolt of electricity tears up her spine and into her perturbed brain and her whole body shudders. She is right about them. At least, the Crackers are not at all as they portray themselves to be. Mackenzie’s mind is racing. Should she run upstairs, burst into her home and reveal what she has seen and heard to her sceptical parents? Call the police? And tell them what? That I’ve been peeping through my neighbours’ letterbox? Why would the Crackers put on such an act?
‘Join me…’ Mr Crackers says, cutting through Mackenzie’s questions, and he holds out his hand. ‘In the purification chamber.’
Mrs Crackers looks at her husband with such reverence and takes his hand.
‘Yes, my love’ she says. ‘To the purification chamber. It’s time for justice.’
They walk off to the right and out of sight.
The act? Justice? Purification chamber? What did it all mean? Mackenzie’s mind begins to race again and her curiosity has her misguidedly reaching for the brass door knob. Before she can stop herself, the knob turns and the door jars open slightly. A wave of panic washes over her and a wave of stench fills her nostrils, unlike anything she has smelled before. And I thought mum’s cooking smelled bad? Her face screws up uncontrollably and her hand holding the letterbox flap automatically goes to her nostrils to try and guard against the foul smell. The flap falls with a clonk that immediately makes her forget the smell. She waits, silently panicking. She expects to hear heavy footfalls and for the door to swing open any moment. But after a strained wait, the only thing she can hear is her heavy breathing, and the door remains motionless and ajar.
Ok, so the door is unlocked. And now it is open. And what does she think she is going to do next? Go inside? She peers up the dark stairs behind her. The stairs that would lead her home. To safety. But her mind returns to Mark. Is he in there? Can she find the strength to rescue him? Her compassion and curiosity seem to temporarily quell her fears and she surprises herself again to find her hand slowly pushing the door open. She steps inside. Add trespassing to the list of things I’m in trouble for. Lying to her parents. Being a peeping tom. She figures she would be grounded for at least a year. Presuming i survive the night. Her thoughts are rudely interrupted by someone moaning. The hallmark sound of the Crackers that her family have heard so many times before. But this time, she knows it isn’t coming from the Crackers. But from whom? Mark?
She quietly creeps down the corridor, her heart is palpitating uncomfortably and her fear has returned with gusto. She reaches the doorway to the room where the Crackers had been having their jig. The horrendous odour is apparent. She peeks inside the room, particularly to the right where she had watched the Crackers disappear. She becomes aware of a peculiar sound, like scratching, and notices a record player in the corner with the turntable still spinning and the needle jumping in and out of the same groove of the record that the Crackers had been dancing to. It adds an eerie atmosphere to an already eerie situation. Then she notices another doorway. It must be where the Crackers have gone. It must lead to the purification chamber. Whatever that is? And her morbid curiosity leads her to the doorway. She is equally afraid and surprised to find another dark stairway leading down to another level. A cellar? A sub-basement? A purification chamber?
Mackenzie steels herself. She has come this far. She is in so much trouble already she doesn’t think another set of stairs would make any difference. She knows she has to go through with it. She has to find Mark. The truth. She knows it will haunt her otherwise. More so than the memories of this hazardous undertaking. And then, that moaning again, combined with the smell makes her stomach turn. She fears she will erupt vomit everywhere any moment. Her mouth floods with saliva and she manages to swallow the uncomfortable feeling away.
Moaning again. This time, more frenzied. Mackenzie is moving, albeit slowly and quietly, but she is moving. Creeping down those stairs. Towards that terrible sound and smell.
‘And so…’ comes Mr Crackers’ booming voice. ‘We offer another sacrifice to our glorious behemoth of divine justice. We bind his lips to silence the hateful and spiteful words of such a foul imp and cast him to the walls of our exalted chamber to await his judgement day.’
Mackenzie reaches the bottom of the stairs to find a candle lit vaulted room. In the dead centre of the room are the Crackers. Their backs turned to her. And between them, sitting strapped to a chair, is a naked child with a mop of bright ginger hair that can only be Mark Taggarty. Mackenzie, amazingly, stifles a scream. She knows it is time to turn and run, but Mrs Crackers lets out a wail that makes her freeze. Mrs Crackers begins to chant in some strange gibberish language.
‘We offer this abomination’ Mr Crackers continues ‘in the knowledge that you will come for him, for to purify this realm from impiety and profanity.’
Mrs Crackers’ chant becomes more fervent as Mr Crackers reaches down and unfastens the straps subduing young Mark. Mark struggles in vain as Mr Crackers over-powers him, gripping his skinny arms tightly, pulling him to his feet. Mackenzie clasps her hand over her mouth and she watches through tearful eyes as Mr Crackers drags Mark to the far wall. Mackenzie’s eyes have adjusted to the murk of the room and as she focuses on the back of the room she can see a large hole in the wall. Fear grips her like never before. She knows that Mr Crackers is going to put Mark in the hole. In the wall. She can see what she thinks is another child already in the hole. A lifeless body. A decaying corpse. The realisation petrifies her. She can’t move, run, or scream. She can only watch as Mr Crackers pushes Mark into the hole. And as he turns to face his captors she notices his wild terror-stricken eyes, and his lips, which have been crudely sewn closed. As Mrs Crackers chants her demented unintelligible babble more intensely, Mr Crackers quickly starts bricking up the wall. It is then that Mark notices Mackenzie standing there, horrified. And he starts to moan and groan, trying to plead with her, to save his life. To do something. Anything. But Mackenzie is so terrified she is rendered inutile. Tears pour from her eyes as Mr Crackers speedily bricks up the wall until Mark’s frantic desperate face, his beseeching eyes, can be seen no more. As Mr Crackers finishes bricking up the wall, all that remained of Mark were the sounds of him thumping and banging on the wall, and incoherent moaning and mumbling. The exact noises that the Crackers are known for. Although Mackenzie now knows it was never the Crackers making the entire racket, like she and her parents had thought and often complained about. It was the children in the walls, futilely trying to escape and call for help before hypothermia or asphyxiation or dehydration silenced them forever.
As Mackenzie feels the slick warmth of her own urine running down her legs, Mr Crackers finishes his sermon.
‘We are beholden to you oh great ruler of justice and balance. We trust in your absolution. And we are beholden to you for your gift. Our witness. She witnessed the fiend’s crime. And is witness to his punishment. And just as she had forsaken us in our time of need, she now has forsaken our young devilling in the walls. A crime in itself befitting of such a punishment.’
Mackenzie’s heart stops. He can’t mean…me? They know I’m here!? And with that thought, Mr Crackers whips around and locks those cold, crazy eyes on hers. Mrs Crackers whips around wearing a deranged smile on her face.
‘Yes, you Mackenzie’ Mr Crackers hisses and lunges towards her.
She makes it half way up the stairs before a bony but powerful hand latches firmly onto her ankle, pulling her back down into the gloom and horror of the Crackers’ purification chamber. She starts to shout and cry out as the Crackers fasten her securely into the chair.
And up three flights of stairs, in flat 3B, Mackenzie’s father mutes the television. He can hear the familiar and irritating sound of thumping and moaning. Mong-talk.
‘Those bloody Crackers are at it again.’ he informs his wife, who simply rolls her eyes.
He unmutes the TV and turns the volume up until it drowns out the unpleasant sounds.