Author's Note: So, hello there, I'm fresh and dandy and new on a website again! It's a strange feeling. My name is Zen and it's a pleasure to meet you. This is a story I wrote over the summer and my style's probably already changed considerably since, but I was wondering what readers would make of this, so here goes nothing. It's a little whimsical mystery and the problem I've been having is that the last chapter is so different from the other chapters I don't know how best to define this. I've been trying to get into the voice of a confused kid who knows nothing at all of what's going on, with his own priorities and concerns - his own world. If anything I would really appreciate some criticism of any kind, but for the most part, I'd just be glad if this story is even read. Best, Zen :D
That night there were supposed to be shooting stars. My telescope was propped up on the balcony rails and I was waiting and looking up to the sky.
I felt warm air on the back of my neck. The door behind me opened. Mum squeezed her feet into plastic slippers a few sizes too small to come out and stand beside me. She was a big woman - feet the size of alley cats. Most shoes were too small for her, and I always felt too small beside her as well. I think, secretly, so did Dad.
"Just a minute," I started to say, but she was already standing over me and plucking the telescope from my hands.
"If there's a language where 'a minute' means 'three hours', Kim, I don't speak it."
"I was looking at something."
"What were you looking at?"
I pointed over the dark stand of trees to the curve of the Hill surfacing above the Enclave houses, the black hump of something ancient that looked as though it came from the sea.
There was a dull glow the colour of rust at the edges and orange at the centre cresting the Hill. The light billowed and stretched with the wind.
"That light over the Compound."
Mum lifted the telescope. She held the instrument for minutes, staring with an expression I had never seen before and I couldn't say I altogether liked.
"It's a fire." She lowered the telescope and wiped her hands on her trousers. Her fingers twitched.
I knew it. I knew it was a fire! I had known it was a fire all along. I reached for the telescope with a thrill of excitement. "Let me see."
"You've already seen it. Besides, it's big enough that you can see it without the telescope."
She burst into a fit of hacking coughs and tapped the telescope against her chest. "God, there's a lot of smoke in the air!"
Mum collapsed the telescope in her hands. "Time to go inside. The smoke's getting in my eyes."
The smoke was getting into my eyes as well. I could feel it like blackberry bristles all over the soft parts of my eyes. Blinking back tears, I let her steer me back into our flat, and she closed the doors and drew the curtains over them, shutting out the angry glow over the Hill.
In the morning the bite of smoke was gone, but when I yawned I could smell it and taste it on my tongue. It had a taste like bitter salted treacle and it stuck to the roof of my mouth like treacle did too.
Dad had already left to go to work. I heard the floorboards creak as he strode past my room, just before the sun rose.
Dad worked at the Business Park, like a lot of the parents did in Enclave, and he usually left before Mum and I woke up to get on the shuttle bus out of town.
Mum worked at the Compound, like most of adults who didn't go to the Business Park seemed to. Before the strike, she used to bow her head over her coffee and stay that way for ages every morning at breakfast, massaging her face like she was trying to peel it off. Sometimes I used to wonder if Mum was scared of going to work, which seemed really odd. I thought grown-ups could do what they liked, so I didn't see why she had to stay and work for a place that made big Mum look so small every morning. When she went on strike, I thought things got a lot better. For one thing, she walked with me to school sometimes.
As far as I could tell, striking was when somebody took a holiday when they weren't supposed to in order to get back at somebody else. I thought about what would happen if I went on strike from Blue Junior, just to annoy Mr Singspiel, but apparently striking was a privilege for adults only.
Mr Singspiel was my form teacher.
I changed into the white plimsolls the school provided, left my shoes in the shoe locker, and made to go to my classroom along with the two hundred other students of Blue Junior. Year Six were on the top floor. I took the three flights of stairs two steps at a time.
"Kim!" shouted Monica from her desk as soon as I entered the classroom. "Did you see the fire over the Compound last night?"
I told her I had.
She thrust a finger into the face of the tall boy with droopy eyes standing over her. "See, Max. Everybody saw it!"
I shoved my bag into a locker at the back of the classroom and went back towards them.
"Morning, Kim." Sophia smiled at me from the front. She was writing the date onto the whiteboard in neat blue letters. The pencils and pens on her desk were lined up in length order.
I was sorely tempted to move those pencils around but I knew how much that would upset her, so I smiled back instead. "Morning, Sophia."
"I can't believe you missed it, Max," Monica continued to gloat. "It was so big the whole sky was glowing. All the fire engines were there. There was so much smoke it set off all the fire alarms three streets away."
Max turned to me with a weary grin. "She's exaggerating, isn't she, Kim?"
"I'm not exaggerating!" Monica looked furiously between us. "Kim. Tell him I'm not exaggerating!"
"Kim agrees with me," Max said without a pause.
"Kim didn't say anything!"
"But why would he agree with you anyway?"
"You take that back or I'll hit you!"
I let Max say what he liked. They would have argued whatever I'd said. Monica thought of it as a kind of sport to warm them up before school started.
I could see the clock out of the corner of my eye. It was getting near eight and the desk in front of mine was still empty.
Monica was glowering at me, but seemed to be thinking along the same lines as I was, because her eyes too fell on the empty desk. "Where's Smarty? I wanted him to look at my science homework."
"I could look at your homework." Max held out one of his huge ungainly hands.
"You think I'll let you use it as a pillow and drool on it again?" Monica slid her book out of his reach, looking disgusted. "No thank you."
"Have it your way. He's probably just ill." Max glanced over his shoulder, as though expecting any moment Smarty to breeze in through the doors. "He could be stuck in traffic."
"But Sophia's here and she comes the same way as Smarty," I pointed out.
"An accident then?"
"Don't say that, Max," said Sophia softly, returning to her desk and opening a book. "Smarty's mum hasn't asked me to pick up worksheets for him though, so I don't think he's ill."
Monica leapt to her feet. "I think he's waiting in the corridor to make a big entrance."
She stalked across the room to the door and flung it open, stunning a red-faced Yuri Williams who had been running up the stairs, but Smarty wasn't there.
Smarty's house was on the other side of the Hill. I wondered if he had stayed out all night to watch the Compound burn. It seemed like the sort of thing he would do.
Smarty was obsessed with the Compound. He lived and dreamed on stories about it. Maybe it came from living in hearing range of gunshots, on a road where trucks going to and from the Compound went by every other day, carrying barrels and crates and mysterious cases, all stamped with hazard symbols and warnings.
It was the Compound wall though that drove Smarty absolutely crazy - the concrete Compound wall, all bristling with wires and blinking cameras and thick enough to stable horses inside the concrete itself. Smarty thought the wall was hiding something from him, and Smarty took that personally.
We spent one afternoon just watching the wall from the top of the Hill once. Yes, 'watching', like we were expecting a wall to do something.
"Bet it's all for research," Smarty had said. "They might be doing something really dangerous in there and we'd never know because of that stupid wall. They could be raising an army of supersoldiers, or studying aliens, or making mutant monsters, and none of us would know about it."
I didn't think either of our mums, who worked together at the Compound, would have been too happy working around aliens or mutants, but when I told him as such, he sighed, and looked even more bullish than before.
"Guess we'll find out when it's only too late then."
We only had a few more minutes before Mr Singspiel would arrive to take the register. This was the part where Smarty was supposed to come striding into the room, smelling faintly of smoke, waving a camera and laughing. This was the part where he was supposed to be all crazy and wild-eyed and screaming things like, "I saw it!", "I told you so!" or, more likely, "I nearly died trying to get closer!" and we were supposed to gather round and laugh with him as he showed us his photos.
The door slid open. Monica, Max and I looked up, but it was just Lynn Essen coming in late with plasters on her knees, snot hanging from nose, and her face red and blotchy from crying. She had tripped in the playground again. As her friends briefly clustered around her to twitter concern and prod at the bruises on her shins, Mr Singspiel closed the door behind him with a snap. It was signal for the rest of us to scramble to our desks and sit down quietly.
He tapped a stack of sheets on the edge of his desk, slid a plastic bag under his chair and pulled the black register out from the drawer.
I liked Mr Singspiel - he was pretty cool as teachers went. He knew enough to keep people like Smarty and Max happy and he could talk down Monica without going purple in the face from irritation. Mrs Finch had fainted with the effort in Year Four. Mr Singspiel sometimes let us out early on Fridays, and, when it rained, he brought his pet tortoise from home to wander around the classroom. He was our class's form teacher and I had a feeling a lot of teachers felt a bit sorry for him.
"Okay, class, good morning."
"Good morning, Mr Singspiel," we chorused back, except for Max, who was already falling asleep behind me. They used called him Max the Girl and Maxi Dress in the playground until last year. These days his dad made him train with weights and bells and do press-ups and chin-ups and sit-ups in the morning and evening, and he was always tired, but not as skinny or girly-looking as he used to be. I tapped the front of his desk with my pencil and he started.
"I'm going to start with some bad news. Other teachers thought it would be better for you not to know, but as you're all intelligent individuals - don't laugh, Monica - and soon to be going into Senior School, I think you are mature enough to know the truth."
I turned and met Max's eyes. Was Mr Singspiel going to tell us about the fire at the Compound? In which case, would we soon learn the truth about what went on at the Compound behind those thick concrete walls? Smarty was going to kick himself when he found out he missed this.
Mr Singspiel leaned against his desk. "Alex Martin's house burnt down in a fire last night."
Alex Martin – that was Smarty.
We responded first with silence, absorbing, trying to understand. There was then a collection of gasps - any noise to fill the unsettling quiet - but Simon and Flick were grinning at each other, mouthing, "Wow! and "That's so cool!" and I could see similar going through the minds of others. It was in their blushes and bitten lips and guiltily glittering eyes.
Max shivered, started flexing his fingers in front of him like they itched.
For my part, my nose itched. I was thinking about the salty-treacly smoke and the Compound fire. I was thinking about how Smarty's house had burned down on the same night as the Compound fire.
Monica's hand leapt into the air like a flame. "Mr Singspiel, what happened? Is Smarty- is Alex alright?"
"Sit down, Monica," said Mr Singspiel, motioning her to do so with a gentle hand gesture. "Don't worry, don't worry. Alex is alive and well enough. He's in hospital being treated and he will be back with us soon. Neither his brother nor his parents, however, survived the fire. When Alex comes back to class, he will need you all to be understanding, supporting and the best possible friends he could have around him. Is all that clear?"
There was a chorus of 'Yes, Mr Singspiel's and fervent nodding. For a moment his gaze landed on me and maybe Max behind me, so I nodded in response, the strange tingling buzz still filling my ears, and saw Max do the same out of the corner of my eye.
Mr Singspiel smiled again and took up the register. "Good. When he eventually wakes up, he will need somebody to take his homework to him in the hospital. Kim? Max?"
"That's mean, Mr Singspiel, making someone in hospital do homework," grumbled Monica.
"Nobody ever escapes homework in this school. Especially when I'm setting it," Mr Singspiel replied with a grin and he looked at me again. "Kim?"
I nodded although I personally agreed with Monica. Then again, Smarty would probably agree with Mr Singspiel. He was one of those kids who thought algebra was a hobby, unlike Flick and Simon, who probably thought they could wear algebra with a skirt.
"Good. Now let's take the register. Lara?"
"Good morning, Mr Singspiel."
Something hard prodded the back of my neck. When I turned to face him, Max was withdrawing his pencil, and there, on his face, there was that same strange expression as the one I had seen on Mum the night before, and again I wasn't sure I entirely liked it.
"Smarty lives near the Compound, right?" Max whispered, as the register went on over our heads.
"Just the other side of the Hill," I said. "We all know that."
"And the Compound was on fire too last night," he continued.
"We all know that too," I said, trying not to sound irritated, because it was obvious what he was trying to say.
"It was probably sparks or a pigeon on fire." Max lowered his voice and narrowed his eyes. "Something from the Compound, right? The Compound sneezed and Smarty's house caught it. Plague rat jumping ship."
"Something from the Compound," I agreed, wishing Max didn't sound so ghoulish. "Now shut up, Max."
As soon as Mr Singspiel left the room for break, Joss Ellenby looked around, wide-eyed and excited, and exclaimed, "All dead!" and the nervous tension buckled and the whole room spoke.
There wasn't enough anybody knew about the Compound for anything new to be said. They forgot about the Compound fire quickly. It was all about Smarty and his house burning down, what he must look like in hospital, whether he was covered in bandages and if the bandages covered his mouth like a mummy, and, if they did, how he managed to eat.
"I bet he's got a massive tube going down his nose," Flick was saying at lunch. He started to push a straw down his nostril, before Mr Singspiel spotted him and took both him and Simon, who had been egging him on, into the corridor.
Nobody mentioned Smarty's mum and dad or his brother. Not even Monica or Max or Sophia, so I didn't say anything about them either.
The bell chimed for the end of the day. Over the sound of lockers banging and chairs being lifted onto desks, Mr Singspiel raised his voice. "Kim, Max, Sophia and Monica," he called, pointing us out one by one with his ruler. "If you four don't mind staying behind, please? Don't worry, Sophia, nobody's in trouble."
They class emptied, although a few lingered in the doorway in the hope and fascination of seeing us, their fellow students, getting told off. Mr Singspiel shooed them away and closed the door behind them.
We lined up in front of Mr Singspiel's desk.
When we were in trouble, Smarty usually stood at the front. Smarty wasn't as clever as Max, he wasn't as patient as Sophia, he wasn't as loud as Monica, and he claimed that he wasn't as observant as I was, whatever that meant, but he was lot better at sorting out what was important from what wasn't than we were. He was always coming up with ways to solve our problems.
Mr Singspiel was a sharp-faced man with eyes that always seemed a little bit sad. He never actually was sad himself. It was simply the way his face was drawn - the bits that sagged and the bits that crinkled.
"I wanted to tell you that if any of you feel down, or under pressure, that you can come to me. Is that understood?"
We nodded. We could understand when somebody was trying to make us feel better, even when we ourselves didn't know how exactly we were feeling wrong.
"These sorts of things are hard for adults to understand too," Mr Singspiel continued and he scratched his head with a sheepish smile. "How well did you know Alex's family?"
"We know Laurie, his little brother," I said, when it became clear nobody was going to take the lead. "Knew him. Sorry."
Don't cry, Monica, I was thinking. Please don't cry.
I could see her going white with effort not to start. She always was the first to cry, or, as she called it, 'leak'.
"Is Smarty really alright?" asked Sophia, blowing her hair out of her mouth as Mr Singspiel handed Monica a tissue.
"Alex is unconscious," Mr Singspiel said, "but that is all. You have no need to worry."
I wanted to know what he meant by 'all'. "No burns?"
"None. He's a lucky one." Mr Singspiel folded and closed his fingers. "He isn't in any condition to take visitors yet, but when he does wake up, as his closest friends, I put forward the names of you four to go on the list. The Children's Hospital is small so they only allow a small set number of visitors per patient. I phoned your parents this morning and they seemed to think it was a good idea that you would be able to visit. Does that sound good to you?"
I asked, "When is he going to wake up?"
Mr Singspiel looked at me.
Then all of a sudden he clicked his tongue and flicked me between the eyes. "You shouldn't scowl so much, Kim. You're making a target area for your form teacher's Super Flicking Fingers."
"You're not answering my question though," I muttered, rubbing my forehead.
"That's because I don't want to. I don't want to lie to you if I can help it. What kind of teacher would I be to lie to my students? It's only a little step towards smoking at the front of the classroom. Don't repeat that to your parents!"
He laughed and it was infectious. I couldn't help smiling with him despite what he had told us, despite Monica rubbing her eyes beside me.
"Alex will wake up sometime within the next five days. The hospital will let me know, and when it does, I will make sure that you four are the first to hear about it. Satisfied, Kim?"
I wasn't, but Monica and the others were, so we left the classroom and went to the locker room together in silence.
"Let's go to the Star Ship today," I said as we changed our shoes to go home. I saw Sophia looked momentarily hopeful out of the corner of my eye. I knew she wanted to say something. She kept opening her mouth and closing it and playing with the keychain on her bag.
"We'd pass Smarty's house on the way. We'd probably see the Compound from the Hill. We can try and work things out – "
"I'm going home!" Monica swept her hands over her face and she glared at us with bloodshot eyes. "I don't want to go anywhere near the Hill. I don't want to see the house. I don't want to think about Smarty and I don't want to think about dead people. If any one of you calls me this evening to talk about the Compound or Smarty's house, I will hit you tomorrow morning so hard you won't even be able to say I hit you."
"Another time, Kim," Max said when I turned to him for support. "See you tomorrow."
Max and Monica went home together. Max's dad was on strike like Mum. He picked the two of them up in the back of his van. Good thing everybody else had gone home, otherwise people would have started calling them the Married Couple.
Sophia left the locker room running her key-chains through her fingers like a rosary. There was something worrying her, but I knew better than to ask her to spit it out. Whatever was bothering her, she would tell us in her own time, whenever that would be.
I walked home on my own. I thought about the smoke on the air and the orange glow over the Compound. All trace of smoke had long since gone but now I knew that some of it had come from Smarty's house. Of the sirens in the night, one of them had been an ambulance taking him and his family to hospital. If I had pointed my telescope out from a different window, got the perfect angle between a block of flats and a pharmacy sign, I would have seen the house of my friend going down in flames.
I turned up the hood of my coat against the cold and the wind and continued walking home, past the great grey brick of a building that took up most of the street with its windows dark like eyes, and came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. I wondered if breathing in the smoke from the fires had meant I had sucked in bits of Smarty's house - maybe a roof tile, or a chair, or worse. My stomach twisted.
We used to share the floor with a lady called Mrs Heathwell, who smelled of boot polish, and used to come round and shout on the door whenever I had Smarty and Monica over. Mum told me she had gone away because of an infected cat bite to the ankle. I thought she was probably still haunting her flat as a ghost. The 'FOR SALE' sign was beginning to look really faded in the front window.
Mum didn't notice when I went into the kitchen. She had her back to the door and was looking out over the balcony with one hand shading her eyes and the other holding the phone. She was looking towards the Hill.
"Tell them we refuse to go back until they can guarantee our safety as workers. We should use this, Robert. If we play this right, we could - "
She turned at the sound of me pulling out a chair, mouthed, 'Nearly finished', and went back to her conversation. "Exactly! Doesn't that sound good? We could - let's continue this tomorrow, Robert. My son's just come home. Alright. Good bye."
The phone beeped when Mum closed the call.
As she bent down to open the fridge, I asked, "Was that from work?"
"It was, but you don't need to worry about it." Mum poured out a glass of orange juice. She set it down in front of me. "Mr Singspiel called today. He told me about the fire at Smarty's house. He said Smarty was in hospital."
"I can go and visit him, can't I?"
"As many times as you like. When he wakes up, I'll take you there myself if I'm still at home." She took a huge gulp of water from her cup. I mimicked her, tossing back the orange juice, but I drank too quickly and ended up coughing.
My eyes stung and watered.
Mum looked as though she had choked on her drink too, even though she hadn't. Her eyes were red and shiny.
She was struggling to find the right words to say to me, although I could guess what she wanted to say. After all, I was eleven. You were supposed to be smarter when your numbers were up in double digits.
I wanted to tell her I was alright, but the words stuck in my throat, because Smarty's parents were dead. His annoying little brother Laurie was dead, and even though Mr Singspiel said Smarty would wake up soon, they weren't ever going to wake up again.
I had seen dead things before, like road kill and meat in the supermarket. Dad had explained what happened when people died in a long conversation on a walk on the hill.
"Is it like going to sleep?" I had asked him, when we had found a dead blackbird on the Hill near the Compound. "If I fall asleep, could I die?"
"You won't die if you go sleep," Dad said. "But dying is a lot more than sleep, Kim. It's the end of something. There won't be a tomorrow to plan things for. There won't ever be another breakfast, another day at school, another day out with friends, or another walk."
"That sounds sad."
Dad laughed. "For us, yes, but not for the dead. Say bye to the bird, Kim."
I did and we covered it with a muddy brown leaf from a nearby horse chestnut. Then we went on to the Star Ship, where Dad met the Martin brothers.
My throat suddenly felt tight as though squeezed in a fist.
I swallowed and tried again, "Mum -"
The phone rang and I started, as did Mum. She picked up the handset from the table.
"Yes?" she said, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Hello, Mrs Rutter. Yes, I've heard the news. Oh, no, the radio's thankfully out of action and I binned the newspaper as soon as I saw the photos. I didn't want to look at those, let alone leave them out for Kim -"
It was Sophia's mum. I quietly finished my drink, got up to take my bag to my room and start on homework. I left the glass in the sink. I wondered what Sophia's mum had to say, and what had been in the newspaper that Mum had thrown away. A surreptitious glance in the paper rubbish said she had done a very thorough job getting rid of it.
Neither Sophia nor Max called that evening. Having said that, I didn't really want to talk to them either. It was a curious feeling of numb mindlessness. I struggled to hold a pencil for more than ten minutes and the maths wasn't even that hard. Multiplying fractions never took this long normally.
Mum's voice continued to hum through the door. I put my head on the desk and looked out of the window. The square panel of glass framed the top two floors of the grey concrete block next door. Dad called it the Sixties Monstrosity, which I thought made it sound a whole lot more exciting than it actually was. If it was a Monstrosity it ought to at least be able to fly and breathe fire. I thought it was just another bunch of offices. All the windows were the same with the same greying green curtains.
Sometimes I asked Mum if we could move house, to maybe somewhere outside of Enclave where I could point my telescope out of my own window and see the night sky instead of breeze blocks and piping, but there wasn't going to be any chance of that any time soon. Mum and Dad were working hard at the Compound and Business Park and everybody I knew was going to the new Enclave Senior School from September. I was going to go there as well.
The windows of the Monstrosity were beginning to glow with lights. The shadows of the dinosaur models on my window sill lengthened. I tried stretching out for the rainbow-feathered caudipteryx, but it was just out of reach, so I slid along the desk until the model came just within pouncing reach.
A light flashed on in one of the green-curtained rooms of the Monstrosity in the floor a little below mine, and I froze where I was.
The curtains were pushed aside by a long arm opening the window. As a man in a white coat adjusted the slats of some blinds, I caught a glimpse of a sight of something very un-office-like.
Two more men in white were manoeuvring a body onto a bed, one holding its ankles and the other its armpits - a woman in a dress that crinkled like paper. I felt a bit sorry for her. It looked cold.
As they set her down gently onto the pallet, one of the men's backs blocked the meagre gap through the curtains and when they disappeared there was a long tube line running from her nose to a machine that had been brought to squat near her bed. I thought for a moment about Flick with a straw up his nose.
Her mouth and chin were covered in bandages. Her eyes were closed. Her hair was cut short like a boy.
The man at the window finally sorted the snag in the curtains and closed them with a flourish, leaving the window open.
"I'm guessing the Monstrosity's not an office block any more," I said to the row of staring dinosaurs on the sill.
They replied with a cool plastic silence. I sighed and took up the pencil again, setting the caudipteryx on my textbook as a paperweight.
Three days passed in rain and drizzle. The clouds moved slowly. People drifted around in raincoats that were all shapelessly the same and everything was slow, grey, and lonely, but for three days I found that was just what I wanted. Mum told me that executives at the Business Park were organising a funeral for the Martins in the weekend. As I saw it, the slower the clouds rolled, the longer it would take before the weekend arrived.
The talk about Smarty's house fire spread at Blue Junior as feverish as flu. The fire had got onto the front page of the paper, but Mum had taken to shredding the paper as soon as it arrived every day, so I had yet to see a copy for myself.
A story spread at school that the Compound fire was caused by a broken gas hob in one of the soldier's bungalows. Joss Ellenby was using the news as the base for a joke, the punch line of which was something along the lines of, "The soldiers should learn to cook for themselves", so he had probably heard it from a parent who worked at the Compound and had been complaining at home. It probably wasn't supposed to be a joke. A joke about Monica and Max being married did go around, but Monica put an end to that with one punch, one nosebleed and two evenings of detention.
We were somehow always too busy to go to the Star Ship and too busy to talk. There was always somebody's parent coming to pick one of us up. Perhaps our parents thought we would make each other sick by being together.
I wondered what Mr Singspiel had said to our parents when he called them. I sometimes felt in class that he paid us four a lot more attention than the others. He'd ask us how we were and what we had been up to since Smarty went to hospital. I suspected he told our parents to keep us busy, to take our mind off the fires and the dead.
Three days after the fire, Sophia was still chewing the inside of her cheeks and Max and Monica were arguing about how the fire could have got from the Compound to Smarty's house. Monica insisted that she didn't want to know, and that she didn't care, but she could never resist an argument.
I was only halfway through the exercise on dividing fractions when the bell rang. Mr Singspiel, passing by collecting sheets from desks, came to mine and looked over my shoulder. "That's not like you, Kim. I didn't want to give extra homework if I could help it, but you're going to have to finish that sheet at home."
I left the classroom as quickly as possible.
The phone rang from the kitchen counter just as we sat down for dinner - cauliflower cheese, with the gloopy white sauce just bubbling under the tough cheese crust - and Dad went to pick it up. He held the handset to his ear, and he listened in silence to the other side. Until I was five I thought he had leaned over a barbecue and cooked his face until it was 'well done'. Dad's leathery face was set in a permanent frown, but as he listened to whoever it was on the other end, it softened, into, dare I say it, a smile.
He came back to the dinner table with the phone still in his hand. "That was Mr Singspiel, Kim," Dad said. "Your friend Alex Martin woke up an hour ago. I said Mr Singspiel could take you to see him tomorrow after school, with the rest of your bunch."
Mum started beaming, talking loudly and quickly, she said something about relief, and I let her words wash over me because I felt the strangest sensation that the clouds outside that refused to part were thickening instead.
Mum had reached out for my hand. I hadn't realised that I had stopped eating, or that the fork with the skewered cauliflower on it had missed my mouth and was on its way towards my ear.
"I'm fine," I reassured them, and they laughed.
I ignored the feeling of clouds and the thought of smoke and dived into the cauliflower cheese, and after dinner, Dad gave me two biscuits from his chocolate orange collection. I went to sleep buzzing with the thought of tomorrow, and for a moment I remembered the woman in bandages in the Monstrosity, wearing a paper dress, and wondered if Smarty had been made to wear one as well.
Monica was louder than usual throughout the day and nearly got detention for disrupting Geography, but we knew Mr Singspiel didn't really mind, even though he pretended he did.
After lessons finished we went with him to the staff room, waited patiently outside. Max was all for kicking down the door and finding out what teachers really got up to in that most mysterious of rooms, until Mr Singspiel returned carrying a basket of fruits. Max stopped struggling against my hold. We followed Mr Singspiel to his car.
We came to the yellow plaster walls of Enclave Children's Hospital sooner than expected. As we circled the topiary work three times, looking for a parking space, we naturally fell into silence.
"No need to be nervous," Mr Singspiel assured us, but I couldn't help the butterflies, or maybe the gibbons, or maybe the velociraptors (I had a prehistoric jungle in my stomach) fluttering and jumping and swooping as we took the elevator to the fourth floor, as directed by the man at the front desk, and came to a stop at the room at the end of the corridor.
The plaque read in black capital ball point pen: MR ALEXANDER MARTIN
I didn't think I had ever seen Smarty's full name written down before, even though I knew it, and for a fleeting instant I doubted that the person on the other side was even going to be Smarty at all. Worse still, if he was wrapped up in bandages like some kids at school had said, would I even recognise him?
Mr Singspiel knocked with the back of his fist, and a nurse with lips so small she looked like she had sucked a lemon opened it. "Mr Singspiel? Come in."
We pushed and shoved to get into the room.
The voice that rang out from the bed was loud and clear.
"Hello, Kim and company! Hello, Mr Singspiel! Help me, please. My brain's turning to mush already. Look, they've even stitched me up to stop it leaking out! Have you brought something for me to do? Have you brought ice cream?"
Smarty was sitting up in bed. He was waving his hands around so wildly I was worried the tubes on his arms would tangle, but he was fine. No bandages, no tubes down his nose, no weird burns, although there was a long row of black stitches on his forehead and a patch of his black hair had been shaved off for another row behind his ear. Apart from that, he looked the same as ever. I breathed out and felt the cloudy tension in my chest begin to disperse. They had put him in those green hospital pyjamas but at least he wasn't wearing a paper dress.
"How many times do we have to tell you, Smarty? We aren't your slaves," Max said, but he was smiling.
"And how dare you lump us into 'Kim and company!" Monica said. "Don't you think you're going to get away with that just because you're ill and because of - because."
Monica liked to surprise us with her tact sometimes. I was surprised she stopped there, but it was much too late. Smarty already knew what she had been about to say. The corners of his mouth twitched. He suddenly seemed stiff and plastic in the bed, and faded.
"Because?" Smarty repeated, "You're not going to let me get away because of because? It's okay, Monica. Dead is dead. They're all nearly ash. They're in the morgue now. In the lockers for dead people, burnt like toast -"
"Stop it," Monica snapped.
"Leave him, Monica." Sophia held back Monica's raised fist.
Monica glared at Smarty. When he looked away, she lowered her arm and shook Sophia off. She snarled, "I don't want to hear you say anything like that again."
Sophia lent forward and wrapped her arms tentatively around Smarty's shoulders. "We're really happy you're alive."
Smarty looked taken aback, but that looked of amused shock broke the frigid mask set over his face. He finally smiled, properly, although it was the saddest smile I had ever seen. "I wasn't sure if I was, but, seeing you guys here now, I'm glad I'm alive too."
Mr Singspiel had set the fruit basket on the side table and was looking around the room. I was disappointed by the lack of bleeping machines, but Mr Singspiel was nodding in approval. "You're a lucky boy getting a room all to yourself, Alex."
"I am lucky. I was the only one to survive the fire after all," Smarty said, and I saw a brief twitch of a shutter, a momentary emptying of his eyes, like I'd looked hard at a roast dinner on a plate and found a highly elaborate sticker instead.
"Did the nurses tell you what happened?" asked Mr Singspiel, sitting down in the seat beside the bed. "Or do you remember?"
"I don't remember a thing about what happened," Smarty said, "although that's probably for my own good. I don't want to remember Laurie or my mum and dad dying in front of me. A police woman came this morning. She told me the house exploded in an accident with the gas."
"That was the result of their investigation, yes," Mr Singspiel said.
Smarty suddenly put his hand to his forehead and closed his eyes.
"Headaches?" Mr Singspiel asked, watching Smarty closely.
"Sometimes. I end up seeing lots of little black stars. The doctor said I was hit by a brick in the explosion, and that's why I was out for three days," Smarty replied through his teeth.
Mr Singspiel nodded and rose from the chair. "Then I'll finish my bit quickly. We're all very sorry, Alex, for your loss. If you ever need anything, you know who to talk to. Everybody here only wants the best for you."
Smarty thanked him and after discussing schoolwork and some pointed warnings by Mr Singspiel to eat the fruit or else, Mr Singspiel left the room, closing the door quietly in his wake.
We exhaled as one. Monica dropped into the seat Mr Singspiel had vacated with a sigh.
"Finally! Now we can talk, so, Smarty, what really happened?"
He held up his hands. "Like I said, I don't remember."
Max was round-eyed with astonishment. "You weren't lying?"
Smarty shook his head. "I truly remember nothing, except a lot of fire, and that it was hot, and that getting my head hit by a brick really hurt. That's honestly it."
"If he doesn't remember, then I don't think we should force anything out of him," I said.
For once, the others agreed, with even Monica reluctantly pursing her lips.
"How have things been at school?" Smarty asked. I couldn't help noting that he ran a hand lightly over the stitches behind his ear.
We told him that it went on as usual and that he was the talk of the lunch hall. A reporter had even once come to school during Tuesday lunch break to ask us some questions before Mr Singspiel had led him away to the staff room. The idea didn't make Smarty as smug as it usually would have done.
Then we admitted that we hadn't been to the Star Ship for days and he looked a little put out. At me he even looked a little disappointed, but when he was about to say so, I said, "Well, what did you expect?", and we moved on, away from the subject of those three days of uneasy suspense waiting for him to wake up.
I asked, "Where are you going to live once you're out of hospital, Smarty?"
"No idea, but I doubt they'll let me live in the Star Ship. Wish I could though!" Smarty scratched at the stitches on his forehead. "Maybe I'll end up living with Mr Singspiel. Who knows?"
"You are definitely not living in my house," said Monica archly.
Max, however, grinned. "Could you imagine calling Mr Singspiel 'Dad'?"
"That was a bad idea and I take it back," Smarty said quickly and Max glowed with triumph. "The doctor says I'm going to be in hospital for the next five days being checked over. I won't be out of here for a while."
"Why? You look fine. There's nothing wrong with you. If I took out those stitches, I wish your brain would leak out of them," Monica retorted and Max rolled his eyes.
Smarty laughed. "They're just checking on my headaches." He yawned luxuriously. "You would have thought after three days of unconsciousness I wouldn't need sleep anymore."
"Get some sleep then, because you need it," Monica purred. "Beauty sleep."
"You're obviously the expert then," Smarty replied before his eyelids began to droop. "Bring some ice cream next time."
As though summoned by her charge the sour-mouthed nurse opened the door with a bang.
"That's the end of the timeslot," the nurse announced and indicated the way out with a sweep of her arm. "Please follow the signs on your way out."
We hovered by the bedside and said a few more goodbyes, but Smarty was already slipping away into sleep, one hand touching the line of stitches on his forehead as though even he was struggling to believe they were really there, so we left as quickly and quietly as we possible.
Mr Singspiel was waiting for us in the corridor, chatting with a couple of nurses who hurried away on our arrival. He dropped us home one by one at our houses, with mine, the furthest from the hospital being the last we reached.
"He seemed alright," Mr Singspiel said conversationally as we backed out of the drive of Sophia's house.
"No, he didn't."
Smarty had seemed scared.
Mr Singspiel looked at me in the rear-view mirror. "Cheer up, Kim. Alex is tough and a brave kid and he came out of a house fire with only a couple of scratches. As he said, he's a lucky boy."
I didn't really agree with him. I nodded and let him chatter until we reached back home. The sky on the horizon was still heavy with clouds.
"Try not to be so sullen, Kim," Mr Singspiel told me, as he dropped me off in front of the Monstrosity so that I could walk the few metres to the block of flats. Looking up at the grey row upon row of concrete storeys with their green-curtained windows beginning to glow, a shiver ran along my spine that had nothing to do with the cool wind in the aftermath of rain.