'Ophelia drowned,' said Anna in a miserable voice. They'd been studying Hamlet at school and she'd wanted something nice to happen to the Danish noblewoman. Anything. Anything at all. Anything would have been better than just going and drowning like that.
'You should have known better, stupid,' muttered Worm with one of his dour expressions clamped down neatly between his eyebrows. 'It is Shakespeare, after all. Everyone's always dead by the end of Shakespeare – in his tragedies, anyway. The genre's very name kinda gives it away, don't you think?'
Anna didn't answer. Worm had always gotten a weird pleasure out of spoiling stories for her by telling her their endings, in particular when they were lousy, sad endings. He'd done it since the day she'd met him, and that had been years ago; more than years, perhaps. They'd been not-enemies ever since she could remember. Besides, she'd always sort-of guessed how the endings would go herself, but that wasn't the point, was it? If you didn't say it out loud, it wasn't real.
Worm always said everything out loud.
'That's why you like plays so much, isn't it, Charlie?' he observed in a badgering voice, picking at the threads of her thoughts. 'Because they're out loud and you know they're real. Not like books, where the words on the pages could mean anything. It's only when you read them out loud that you know they can't go and change on you, eh?'
The thin leaves of the peppercorn tree muttered to themselves on all sides.
Anna wasn't terribly fond of the tree they were sitting in, to be honest. She didn't particularly like heights, and she wasn't a tall girl, which made the scramble up into its branches less than simple. Still, she'd never actually told Worm that she loathed it (although she supposed he knew anyway, all things considered) because she didn't want to insult him, and besides, he loved the tree so much. It was where they always met, practically every afternoon. Hidden there they could talk freely about life and family and school. Sometimes she even bounced her homework ideas off him. Worm took the same classes as she did, but they never spoke there. He never spoke to anyone there, actually. The moment he crossed the threshold of the school-yard he would go so quiet that sometimes she half thought he was actually turning translucent. Truth be told, Worm was a bit of a genius in a frightening way, and he was of the opinion that it wouldn't do her any good if people knew how close they were. He could be noble like that, when the mood took him. Noble, and thoughtful, and kind – when he wasn't being brutal... like the time with the dog.
It had always snapped at her on the way home from school, that dog. Sometimes Anna used to stop and stare at it in a kind of transfixed horror, watching the way that the dog's little body contorted in knots of rage against its gate, snarling and growling in it's desire to escape and sink it's nasty little teeth into her skin. One day someone must have left the latch a bit crooked, because the dog had gotten out, and it had done just that, bitten her, or nipped her really, just the snatching tips of white ivory scraping at her right ankle, like a bee-sting. And then Worm had killed it. Worm had horribly killed it. Anna had looked on as the dog's body stopped contorting and grew still, like a sack, like something that had never breathed. The blood had gotten somehow onto her own hands and she'd had to wash them, scrub them, beneath a tap in a yard around the corner from the dog's house, her brain almost exploding with the rush of terror that someone might think she was the one responsible. And Worm had vanished on the spot, like he always did the minute he got a sniff of trouble. He could be like that too, could Worm.
Sometimes he scared her.
Still, they were friends, and she was loyal. Loyalty's a virtue, that's what Worm always said.
Anna tapped at a bunch of the tree's small, pink stone-berries, and looked between the branches, out at the sky. It was getting dark. She hadn't realised how long they'd been sitting there for. She wriggled, and her bottom hurt from where the knobs and gnarls of the bark had been pressing into her.
'I still don't see why Ophelia had to drown,' she continued, as though her friend had never spoken. 'Just because she loved Hamlet and he was, well, what he was... couldn't they have seen what was happening, and done something? The others, I mean?'
'I think,' said Worm, in a knowing voice, 'that they loved her too much. It made them oblivious to what was going on. Love does that; blinds people to the roaringly obvious.'
Down on the ground, footsteps crunched against the old twigs and pink baubles that the peppercorn tree had cast away. Silhouetted against the gravel Anna could see the darkened outline of her mother, lit up strangely by the yellow of a flash-light.
The girl pulled into herself with the speed of a knee-jerk. She was surprised her mother had come down to the tree, and she glanced sideways, nervously, at Worm. She'd never told her mother about him. She'd always been certain, deep down, dead certain, that her mother wouldn't have approved of their friendship.
Anna was literally holding her breath. Perhaps her mother wouldn't spot them?
'I can see your sneakers, Anna. What on earth are you doing up there? Aren't you always blathering on about being scared of heights every time I ask you to climb a chair and get me something from the tall cupboard? Not that it matters, but your Grandma Miller rang and she wants to talk to you about the holidays. Anna, are you listening to me? And... were you talking to someone up there?'
Oh, God, there was no way out now.
'Er, yes, Mum. A friend, he—'
'He? Anna! You know full well that you're to introduce boys to me first, and not go hanging around with them at this time of day!' Furious, her mother's torch swung upwards, slicing the dusk with a fat beam of white light, and setting the peppercorn's leaves aflame like points of narrow-leaved silver. Anna half closed her eyes, aware in advance of the yelling her mother would do when she got an eyeful of the wild-looking Worm. Worm, who was right there beside Anna.
For a moment the torch-light wavered, casting her mother into darkness behind it and making it impossible for Anna to see her face. But then the beam lowered again slightly, and a confused expression fluttered across her mother's face. 'Anna...' Then, unexpectedly, her mother laughed. 'Honestly, darling. I'm too tired for your jokes, it was a ridiculously long day at work. Now be a good girl and come talk to your grandmother.'
Taking the warmth of the light with her, and her laughter, Anna's mother turned and started off back towards the house. Her daughter hadn't even had the time to argue. It was all too weird. After all, Worm was right there, as plain as the nose on her face. The light had been right on him!
'Worm—' she started, then stopped.
An unexpected jab of cold fear wriggled into her. She turned her eyes on him and in the remains of the dimming light she saw for the first time that there was no Worm. With a silent squeak of fright she scrambled to shimmy down from the tree, opening her mouth to call her mother back, when the image of dog's blood and dog's life dripping off Worm's hands materialised, full-colour, inside her mind—
Worm's fingers, long and hard and belonging to nothing, caught her around the neck. She didn't even have time to scream, and then there was a crack against the ground. Just the one.
The night turned a funny shade of silent, the sound of no-noise lapping gently at the peppercorn tree even as a wildly jerking beam of torchlight ran back towards a woman's fallen daughter.