Author's Note: May contain scenes that are disturbing for small children. I'm not sure. Kids seem to be made of stronger stuff these days, but whether that's a good thing or not is debatable.
When I tried the door in the morning the chair was gone. Dad had shoved it back under the kitchen table as he went to work.
Mum didn't come to breakfast and I was partially grateful for it, partially infuriated, because as much as I liked the quiet mornings, the very thought of the parents' evening was making my skin crawl with agitation. I turned up the dial on the toaster and opened wide the balcony door. Soon the small kitchen was filled with the distressing smell of burnt toast and I waited for Mum to come running.
The door to Mum and Dad's bedroom stayed shut. Throwing down the final spoonful of cereal, I gave up waiting and went to knock.
"Mum?" I called through the door when she didn't come to open it. "Aren't you going to work?"
There was a papery rustling in the hallway and the day's post dropped into the hallway. I heard movement inside the room and the door opened with a click of the turning handle.
Red eyes, grey cheeks, lips bitten raw, and shadows everywhere - She looked as tired as a frayed rope.
Mum brushed the hair from her face, composed her face into a smile. "Work. Yes. Kim. Could you get the phone from the kitchen for me?"
"Are you ill? Do you want toast?"
"Ill? Yes, yes, I must be ill. No toast. Just the phone will do, Kim." Mum smiled again as I dashed to the kitchen. I felt her eyes follow my back as I went. When I gave her the phone, she turned away as to go back into her room. "I'm going to be catching up on a sleep today. You might have to fix dinner for you and your Dad in the evening."
She might as well have suggested I picnic in the Garden of Remembrance. "I'm not making dinner for him."
"Kim - " Mum started to say with a flare of her eyes, but she stopped, and for a moment she was staring, staring both at me and through me, a gaze that was both appraising and somehow fearful. She shook her head and smiled one more time. "Buy some milk from the supermarket on the way back. Be good at school."
She closed the door. The lock clicked.
What was going on? That was all I could think as I ordered the day's post into a pile on Mum's chair, and fled to school. I was running even though I wasn't late. After the encounter with a Compound researcher only too happy to point a gun in our direction I was sticking to the main roads, to the shops, to the houses, avoiding the alleys and shortcuts I usually took. I kept thinking about the Green Man and how Mum had reacted to my half-truth. She had been worried. More importantly, she hadn't wasted her questions. She had believed me. Mum had thought the threat of a crazy who burnt houses and killed children was real.
I jumped high enough to hurdle a traffic cone when the man in the corner shop came out to his porch to light a cigarette. He applauded and gave me a thumbs-up.
People still hissed and pointed, stopped to stare when I ran past them up to the top floor, waved masks of the Firestarter they had made on their half-day off at me, but I could already sense it, already feel the prickle of a changing tide. There was a new story in the air, a new fascination to marvel at and it didn't take me long to realise that the same thought as mine was doing the rounds in the classrooms just as feverishly as it bounced the inside of my own head.
I was earlier than usual. Sophia had yet to line up the pens and pencils on her desk and she was adjusting the cushion on her chair. The classroom had been left in the way it had been organised for the parents' evening. The desks formed a wide open circle around the edges and there were names, written in red and underlined twice, bold on the board - Emily Hunter and Fabian Singspiel. Presumably Mr Singspiel and Miss Hunter had been introducing themselves and would have been speaking from the centre of the circle of desks.
"We probably ought to put it back the way it was," Sophia said. I sighed resignedly.
Of course, everybody else present in the room chose that moment to become conveniently deaf and continued to talk amongst themselves. In the end, it was Sophia, me roped in by Sophia, Max roped in by both me and Sophia, Patricia Coffin who we suspected had a crush on Max, and a Joss Ellenby feeling somewhat guilty about pictures of the Firestarters pursuing me around school, who moved the chairs and desks back together before the bell rang. The others talked and the parents' evening was all anybody wanted to talk about. Oh, some like Quentin brought up rioting and fighting in the Compound between the soldiers and the workers, but nobody had any interest in that when there was something that seemed so much bigger! The parents' evenings had happened at Yellow and Red Juniors as well. That was tantamount to making it an international issue.
"Crazy Kim!" shouted Flick and Simon in unison and they came snaking between the desks with their split-faced grins.
"Did you get anything out of your rentals about the 'safety talk'?" Simon drew quotation marks in the air and stared eagerly.
"No. Has anybody?"
"What? That isn't fair, mate. You were a dead cert!"
"We thought you'd do your nut and throw and table or something," Flick said with a wobble of disappointment. "Real downer, Kim. Crazy Kim."
Flick and Simon went back to their corner at the back of the classroom and left me bristling in their wake.
"I tried calling you later and your dad picked up," I heard Sophia's voice say as though through the crackles of space. "Ignore those two."
I grimaced. "What did he say?"
"Just his name. I told him it was me and he hung up on me. He sounded really angry. What happened?"
The harsh memory of the previous evening surfaced unwelcome as scum. I hadn't peed in the bottle, but I had thrown the old water bottle in the bin first thing in the morning. Even seeing the thing had made me want to scream. "Everything went crazy."
"Because of the parents' evening?" Sophia prompted, and when I nodded, she put her hands together in her lap and stared at the names left up on the board. "My mum came back crying. She thought I didn't see. She told Dad she wiped her eyes when she was making dinner and got chilli in them."
"What do you think Mr Singspiel told them that could have been that bad?" I asked nobody in particular.
Sophia groomed her phantom beard. Max sat down in Monica's empty chair and scratched his head.
"Something big about the town," Max said at the same that Sophia was saying, "Something bad about us kids."
Suddenly Sophia clapped her hands together.
"How about this?" Sophia said in an excited whisper. "We find out everything, anything, that people saw yesterday, and put them all together. Anything people heard or said or saw."
"Or had go crazy?"
"There are twenty-one of us here. We could definitely find out something."
"It'll be really hard getting around everybody at lunch or break. How - ? " Max started to say.
Sophia tore out a page from her rough book and folded it into a little square. "Everybody's got to be in during class."
She held up her silver sharpener.
The scary thing was that people agreed very quickly. At first they didn't seem so keen, but then Joss Ellenby pointed out that when the note got round to them they would be able to read what other people had said, and when Sophia said they didn't need to write their names there were nods and nervous grins all around and an uneasy apprehensive anticipation.
But when Mr Singspiel came into the classroom to take the register it was clear it was going to be much more difficult than we had thought. Twenty-one students should have already been in the classroom. Even accounting for the ones that were late, there would be five more empty tables: Milo Ostermann, Lynn Essen, Harley and Hugo Yeager who usually sat on either side of Max, engrossed in their work, and Glenn, which was astonishing. Her mum had once brought her to school with a forty-degree fever.
"Good morning, class."
"Good morning, Mr Singspiel."
"It was a pleasure seeing all your parents again yesterday." Mr Singspiel wiped the board clean and turned to the class. He flashed an easy smile at us, then sighed and put both hands on his desk. "I don't like to keep secrets from you, so let's come clean." The thrill of disbelief that washed around the room was swiftly dispelled. "I finished marking your science tests yesterday morning and your parents got your test results after the talk. I can't say they were too pleased with how you did. I would like to say anybody who got lower than fifty per cent will be doing a retest next Monday. Unfortunately that was nearly all of you, so to be on the safe side, the whole class will be doing a retest after school on Monday."
There was a loud, united groan and a clamour of shouts. Mr Singspiel raised an eyebrow. "There's no point complaining. You brought it on yourself. I don't know how much time it takes to scribble monsters on my whiteboard but you could certainly have used that time more wisely."
There was a small part of me that wildly and hopefully whispered that Dad had been mad at me for the score on my test, but I thought about the post-stick notes he had once left on the fridge door, the ones wishing me luck, the ones which came with a chocolate-orange biscuit wrapped in film, and all the other times I had come home with a score that I hadn't particularly been proud of and needed to get signed.
This wasn't, this couldn't, be the explanation.
Others were thinking the same. Sophia was chewing the ends of her hair, rolling her hands around in front of her. Lara's jaw was hanging open, but that might have been at the injustice of being kept back on Monday. Max muttered, "No way," and rolled back from his desk.
The day began and when the bell rang for first period, Sophia tapped Lara on the shoulder to borrow her ruler. She slipped the sharpener onto Lara's desk as Mr Singspiel went to the far side of the classroom and we were ready to go. I tapped the front of Max's desk to make sure he was awake, and got a terse growl of, "Shut up," in reply.
They did well hiding the movement of the sharpener. After Lara set it on James' desk, I didn't see it until Violet Janice threw it into my lap, although I was pretty sure Quentin passed it to Walker Reed when he went to open the window. Mr Singspiel was back at the front of the classroom and writing a paragraph on the board to copy. I unfolded the note.
The first line in neat blue letters was Sophia's story about her mum, and it was followed by a note about a long talk into the night with her dad. The next line the handwriting changed - Lara. She said her mum had kept on going to the window and peeping out of the curtains, enough times that her dad had snapped and it had resulted in a massive shouting match that made the neighbour's dog start howling.
James said nothing happened straight after the talk. His dad had congratulated him about his science test, and avoided talking about the parents' evening, but during the night one of his parents had come into his room, sat on the floor beside him and stayed for what could have been hour, could have been longer, just watching him apparently sleep. He had been too unnerved to move, let alone turn over in his bed to find out who his mysterious companion was.
Walker, I hadn't ever really spoken to him, to be fair nobody did. I didn't know much about him. It turned out he was the eldest of four, with three little sisters, and he had spent the evening looking after all them by making dinner, ironing their dresses, and checking their homework, when their mum and dad had gone out from the house and not come back until just as he was leaving for school. Sam or Violet had put an arrow to his line and written, 'You should be really worried', beside it.
Sam's parents had been a little more forthcoming - they had brought up Sam's test results, they had talked about other parents who had been there, they had called Mr Singspiel a 'clearly very competent and capable man'. They had to sign a form to keep the contents of the safety talk secret. Sam had been advised to trust Mr Singspiel and do as he said.
I worried about where Mr Singspiel fit into any of this. He paced up and down at the front of the classroom, this time reading out from a textbook. I copied down what he was dictating, feeling like a traitor if I trusted him, but also feeling like a traitor if I didn't. I owed him for those hospital visits. I owed him for those biscuits in the staff room and the reluctant comfort I got that he had shared it, shared the feeling of sudden emptiness when Smarty faded away.
I wrote: My dad locked in my room and didn't want to let me out. He had a long talk with Mum. Mum's staying at home today.
I slipped the sharpener back to Max, and resumed copying from the board.
It was working - there were things going on, and although it was small we were seeing a kind of picture coming together. Lots of little pictures, making a big picture, that was the kind of big picture I liked. Most parents had been frightened and it was about something in the town. Whatever it was had forced us and our parents apart like an icy wedge. We weren't our parents' number one worry any more. The secret about something in the town was. I wondered if they were trying to protect us by signing the form for silence. All the same, a sudden wall had been built between parents and children and it was looking far from weak. When it came down to it, grownups had all the experience in wall building we had yet to learn.
Something silver in the corner of my eye, but you had to be expecting it to notice anything. Max had passed the sharpener to Joss.
It was going so well. I looked up to the board to finish copying notes on photosynthesis, then dropped my head down to write, but in that momentary up-down movement, there was a black and white blur in front of me and I saw a glimmer of eyes. I saw a face.
I raised my head, the sound of scritching pens on paper Loud around me, and saw Smarty staring back at me from his desk.
He was sitting with his elbow hooked over the back of his seat with a huge lop-sided grin, which would have been funny had he not been dead.
He had no feet. His legs disappeared somewhere around the bottom of his shins, smoothly fading away towards the floor.
I set down my pen and stole a quick glance around the room. All heads were down. Class went on - the zip of pens running along the edges of rulers, the dull scrubbing of rubbers, the soft quiet breathing of concentration, as well as the odd rustle of a sweet wrapper being secreted away. Nobody seemed to have noticed that somebody dead had reappeared within our midst. The ghost looked amused. Its black eyes were glinting. I could hear the slow beat of blood in my ears.
What? I tried to convey to Smarty's ghost, and push down the relief that even if I was seeing things, at least I wasn't hearing things. What do you want?
Somebody tapped my desk. I whirled round to find Mr Singspiel standing over me, looking concerned but somewhat annoyed.
"Kim, stop daydreaming. Are my lessons really that boring?"
I could see the ghost grinning in the corner of my eye and nodding furiously. I suppressed a shiver. "No, Mr Singspiel."
Mr Singspiel flicked me between the eyes, and I wondered if this was the modern version of caning inattentive little children. "Focus," Mr Singspiel then said, but he frowned and eyed me intently. "You're not feeling ill are you?"
As far as I knew. So long as I didn't make a habit of seeing things, I was going to be fine. "No, Mr Singspiel."
He gave me a long considering look, before continuing between the aisles.
I bent over my book and glanced up at the ghost. It wasn't looking at me anymore, but towards the front of the classroom, where a thin little hand had been raised over Caitlin Burner's head.
Mr Singspiel went to her desk. "Caitlin. What's the matter?"
Smarty's ghost gave me a two-fingered salute, mouthed something again that I couldn't understand, and then he was gone. He didn't fade. He didn't vanish. His desk was simply empty, as though nothing had ever been there to start with, which was true. There hadn't been anything there, but his disappearance came with a suddenness as jarring as opening a window during traffic.
In her high, clear voice, Caitlin said, "Kim, Max and Sophia are passing round notes."
For a moment there was stillness. Pens stopped and figures froze, as Caitlin offered up the silver sharpener to Mr Singspiel.
I couldn't see his face. Mr Singspiel took the sharpener and went to the bin. He unscrewed one side and a shower of pencil filings fell out. The other side, however, resulted in a square of lined paper floating lightly onto his palm. Horrified betrayal pervaded the room and a vicious, frightened hissing started up as Mr Singspiel unfolded the note. He read it thin-lipped, white-cheeked, his lips shaping the words as he read them, before he pocketed the note and turned to the class with the silver sharpener in his hand.
"Whose sharpener is this?" Mr Singspiel's voice was dangerously controlled. His eyes flicked from Sophia, to Max and finally landed on me. "Kim? Is this yours?"
"It's mine," said Sophia quickly, looking round at us, stricken and white.
"You also say Kim and Max?" Mr Singspiel returned to Caitlin, who nodded.
"They planned it. They told us to tell on what our parents were saying and doing last night," Caitlin continued, although she was withering under the fierce glare of Yuri Williams behind her. She finished by saying, utterly miserably, "My mum said I was supposed to help my teacher."
"Judging by the practised ease by which it got round from Sophia to Caitlin, this probably isn't the first time you three have done this. Well?"
Maybe we were each waiting for either of the other two to speak first. Maybe we were all still stunned that quiet and unassuming Caitlin could have gone against our plan.
Right. That was where I had gone wrong. I had fallen into the Sophia Trap.
Either way, there was a sullen silence as we said nothing and our classmates watched.
"Kim, Max, Sophia, stand up."
I rose, pushing off from my seat, folded my arms. Max and Sophia followed.
"Detention this evening. The three of you, after school, staying until five," Mr Singspiel said, brusque and cold. "Today, tomorrow, and on Friday when everybody else will go home early. You can sit down now."
Caught. Whatever secrets our parents had learned that had strained and stretched our families thin was being held above our reach, perhaps now even beyond it. If there was anything anybody wanted after the parents' evening it was to look good in the eyes of their parents. Caitlin knew what she was doing. After our triple detention, nobody was going to be telling us anything.
Mr Singspiel threw Sophia's sharpener into the bin with such force it rattled at the bottom and the bin turned on its edge.
Class resumed in silence, and I got some vindictive pleasure from seeing Caitlin squirm in her seat as Yuri brushed past on her way to the bathroom. Break time she remained isolated at her desk, and although the eagerness with which the others had wanted to talk about the parents' evening had been shot-shattered into too many pieces to get together again anytime soon there was chatter in the room that Caitlin was very pointedly excluded from. In the end, she fled to the baseball pitch outside. Jonas Maxwell said he had seen her swinging on the monkey bars until her hands had started bleeding from broken blisters. That explained the wads of plasters wrapped around her fingers when she came back for the beginning of third period. Caitlin's usual friends didn't even pretend to be interested.
Then again, we didn't have much luck with our classmates either.
Joss Ellenby was apologetic. He gave me a half-hearted shrug as he said, "How about we ignore the parents' evening for a bit? It might have been just one weird and crazy night. That's what makes things crazy, right? Crazy things are one offs. They're not normal. Maybe tonight or tomorrow, maybe in the weekend, things will go back to the way they were."
I wasn't convinced, but the rest of the class either listened without a word or nodded in agreement, and for now it seemed this was it.
Mr Singspiel came to find Sophia, Max and I at lunch in the lunch hall. He had called our parents to tell them about our detentions. Mum had picked up the call for me, but Max wasn't so lucky and his dad Michael had been called at work.
"What will we be doing, Mr Singspiel?" Sophia asked.
Mr Singspiel crossed his arms and said, "I haven't decided yet. Something useless to waste your time - copying the dictionary maybe. You wasted school time, so school can waste yours."
"That makes sense."
"I'm glad you think so, Max. Enjoy lunch."
Except I couldn't, and I didn't, because the ghost of Smarty chose that moment to slide into reality again. As Mr Singspiel turned away I saw it follow in Mr Singspiel's shadow, gliding without its feet and its eyes swivelling around the room. Sliding was the word I had been struggling to grasp earlier - when Smarty appeared, it was like a film had been slid over my vision and Smarty was something painted onto it. I blinked. It disappeared.
"You're staring into space again," Max said, after waving his hand in front of my face.
"If you don't want people to call you Creepy Kim instead of Crazy Kim, don't do it," Max finished with a raised eyebrow and I wholeheartedly agreed.
The day ended without any more incident until the last period, when a light-bulb popped in Mrs Frank's classroom and showered the back with smoky black shards of hot glass, causing enough panic that she dismissed her class early, and Mr Singspiel almost had a riot on his hands when Flick and Simon heard the other Year Six class leaving down the stairs and started stamping their feet and demanding the same. Mr Singspiel refused to listen. He continued to quaintly draw a polar bear on the board with slow measured flicks of the board-pen.
The bell for the end of the day came at last and the class emptied in a flurry of swinging bags and excited shouting - probably the noise of Flick and Simon saying how unfair it was that Six-S had gotten out earlier than we had. The stampede to get out swirled around us, eddied, roared, and then was gone as quickly as it had started.
Mr Singspiel shut the door with a snap.
"Now then," he said, turning to face the classroom, its space suddenly vast and airy. "Kim, Max, come and sit nearer to the front."
There were shouts and laughter coming up from the running track and the baseball field, punctuated every now and again by a shrill whistle, but I could feel the gentle quiet settling over the school like a soft cover on a birdcage. The last car had started up from the gates. I sat at the front at Lara Anderson's desk, with Sophia chewing the ends of her hair to my left and Max picking at the desk graffiti to my right.
Mr Singspiel came back from rummaging the bookshelves at the back of the classroom with three thick books, red and black, leather-bound, stickered with red and white tape so that we knew not to take them away. I knew we were in trouble as soon as I saw the gold printed letters and Aardvark to Argentina, but at least copying out the Children's Britannica was a lot more interesting than the dictionary. We pulled out our rough books and started without complaint. The ticks of the clock echoed in our ears.
After half an hour of silent copying, Mr Singspiel stretched his arms and yawned. "Not nice still being in school is it?"
If Mr Singspiel hadn't put us in detention, he wouldn't have to be here, so if he was getting bored that was entirely his fault. I finished copying out a paragraph about a mad Roman Emperor who liked horses and married his sister.
"An old colleague of mine works at the Compound," Mr Singspiel continued, as none of us responded. Sophia twitched. "He told me there were three Blue Junior students on the hill yesterday."
A scream of a whistle. Somebody on the pitch called, "Time out!"
I forced my hand to keep moving and didn't look up. I could feel Mr Singspiel's gaze on my back. My skin crawled.
"How did he know they were Blue Juniors?" Max asked with interest.
"He saw your navy blazers when they ran away."
Your. I heard the slip, but was it really a slip? I didn't know. There was no way to tell. I swallowed thickly, dared a glance. Mr Singspiel's mouth was turned upwards in a smile. He sat back in his chair like he was about to gently rock it and send himself to sleep.
"He said they had been watching the Compound. I can't for the life of me understand what could be so interesting!" Mr Singspiel laughed to himself and folded his hands together in front of him. "I would ask if you knew anything, but I know you won't tell on your friends in a hurry. Not after Caitlin set such a wonderful example today."
"I feel a bit sorry for her," Sophia said.
"Really? You're very forgiving, Sophia," Mr Singspiel said heartily. He held up the bin in which he had thrown away her sharpener and made a show of filling it with rubbish from his desk. "Anyway, three minors shouldn't be going to the woods or the hill on their own. What happened to playing Frisbee in a garden? That's safe."
"It is, Mr Singspiel," Sophia agreed, sounding remarkably sincere.
"If not for yourselves, then maybe remember for the sake of the grownups," Mr Singspiel's smile broadened. "We feel better knowing where our kids are."
We lapsed into silence again, Mr Singspiel going through exercise sheets and spelling tests, but every now and again I suspected he was doing a puzzle in the back of the Enclave Watcher. I couldn't imagine otherwise what he could find so funny from our grammar and comprehension. My hand began to ache, so I put down my pen and shook it in front of me.
Had he been warning us away from the Compound? Did he really think we were the three who had been watching it yesterday, or had he tried a wild stab in the dark that so happened luckily to be right? He hadn't pursued us or pressed us. There were only the three of us here. This would have been the perfect opportunity. Did that mean he was letting us go?
Lights flickered and a dark-eyed face appeared at Mr Singspiel's shoulder, mouth open in silent laughter, and then disappeared. Smarty had been laughing, loud, perhaps derisively, but I wondered, who at? More importantly - my pen ran out of ink and I started unscrewing it to change its cartridge - I wondered if taking some of Mum's sleeping pills would help me get rid of the ghost. If it was waking dream, surely that would work.
"What are you looking at, Kim?"
I started, caught sight of Max also staring at me. Mr Singspiel had followed my gaze to past his shoulder and was looking concerned and uneasy. "I wasn't looking at anything, Mr Singspiel."
"If you're getting tired, take a break," Mr Singspiel said, and I felt my face lift into a smile.
The dull ache and cramp in my fingers throbbed but I went on with the tedious task of the detention, and the hours passed without any more comment. The sunlight coming into the classroom was thick and yellow. Mr Singspiel finally looked up at the clock and said we could go. We collected our bags thankfully from the back of the classroom, saying goodbye and hurrying to get out as the sun began to set.
Mr Singspiel waved from behind his desk. "Goodbye. I will see you tomorrow morning. Not to worry - I shan't breathe a word about your trip to the hill."
"He's on their side," Max said, tying the laces on his shoes in the locker room.
I snorted. "What side?"
"The adults' side." Max ran his hand round his neck and I remembered the bruise of his father's hands. "It's us against them. It always has been, we just hadn't noticed until now. They've always been hiding things from us. Now they're panicking because a crazy adult is breaking all their secrets apart!"
"I don't think Mr Singspiel means us any harm. He's just stuck in the middle somewhere. I trust him," I raised my hand to stop Max interrupting and he looked thunderous. "I think he cares about us. He was warning us. Besides, I still don't think it's our parents that are against us. It's the Compound we need to worry about, Max. Right?"
"You trust him? Singspiel?" Max snapped his jaw into a tight thin line. "I'd rather trust my dad."
He strode out of the building without another word towards a maroon car, waiting to pick him up.
Sophia finished putting on her shoes. She didn't say anything, but there was a reproving echo in the air that said she was tactfully holding something back.
"You think I'm too trusting."
Sophia put her tongue in her cheek and stroked her chin like was thinking about it. She said, "Do you want a lift home?"
"I've got to go the supermarket. Thanks though."
We walked out of the school gates and separated there. I saw Mrs Rutter poised at her steering wheel. She gave me a gentle wave.
"See you tomorrow," I called after Sophia as she got into the car.
Then she was gone and I was on my own on the road. I walked the long way round again, down the roads that were bright in the evening light or would be well lit with street lamps. I might have trusted Mr Singspiel, but his probing, searching questions had told us that there were people out there interested in what we had been doing. I thought of the tall man with the gun.
It was easy to feel useless. Adults in the Compound had everything. They had guns. They had soldiers with ghost powers. They could beat up my mum for not going to work for a few days. They could set my teacher on me, and warn me to keep away from whatever it was they were doing.
A crow croaked, burst out of its tree in a clatter of wings. Its keening cry was low.
They should be embarrassed. The job of the Compound had failed. The guards were supposed to be keeping watch on the ghost soldiers. Instead, that thing the Green Man had wreaked havoc in the Compound, gone on the run, and burnt down two houses without being caught. The walls of the Compound were supposed to keep the soldiers separated from the townspeople. Now there was a great blue tent pitched around a giant hole. So much for all that concrete and vicious barbed wire. I guessed experiments were experiments, be they mixing chemicals or messing around with bodies. Experiments blew up because they weren't expected to blow up.
As I came to the shopping parade I halted by a line of motorbikes, locked to a rail like old horses to a trough.
I had just called the Green Man a thing. A chill ran up to spin along my bones. I shook my head as furiously as had I shaken water out of my ears. No, no, no. That was wrong. He was a man. He was man who liked to hurt children and see things burn. If Bird wasn't a thing, then neither was he. Someone had said it once. Humans were monsters enough. We didn't need anything else.
But if the Green Man was a thing, we could kill it. If it wasn't human it was fine, wasn't it? Roadkill didn't send grownups to prison.
Smarty's funeral was on Saturday. For a moment I fantasised riding up to the sundial, like a mad Roman Emperor, on a big white horse with the head of the Green Man in my hands. I shook my head again and sighed. Max, Sophia and I had run away from a man with gun. We could hardly take on a Compound ghost-soldier yet.
Two blue-chinned construction workers were smoking outside of the convenience shop with their backs against the truck and smeared with cement. I wondered if they were building the Enclave Senior School. Around last month Mr Singspiel and Miss Frank had taken the whole of Year Six there to observe the workers climbing up and down scaffolding and pouring concrete into moulds. It had been busier then. We could hear the hammering and drilling from Blue Junior.
The automatic doors slid open and I was caught in a blast of air conditioning and advertising jingles. Bright food packaging flashed from between shelves so chilled that stepping away was like a change of seasons. I bought the cheap milk, the one with green caps, and a carton of chicken noodle soup. The old man at the counter gave me his usual gap-toothed smile. I didn't know his name. The ballpoint name written on his label was watery from being touched with hands wet from restocking the fridge.
"Late night home?" the old man said. "How was school?"
"Ah, well, I won't ask no questions about what you did."
"Just passed round notes."
"Just, eh?" his eyes glittered. "That don't sound like repentance to me. Anyway, that'll be three pounds, fifty eight pence."
I took the plastic bag. When I turned to collect my change, Smarty was behind the counter, drumming his fingers against the cigarettes and alcohol cabinets with a wry, knowing smile. I wanted to will him away. Granted, I probably wouldn't be disappointed if it didn't work, but on the whole, the dead appearing before me in a supermarket was not something I wanted to become a habit.
Change rattled in my palm. The old man looked towards the ghost by the cigarette cabinet, gasped, and for a moment I dared to think he had seen Smarty too, but instead, he said wearily: "Son. Things like they are, I can understand if you're scared, or stressed, but believe me, you don't want to start on those. Smoking," he picked up a packet and turned it over to show me something blackened, shrivelled, lined with blue streaks of blood and yellow, grimy nodules, on the other side, "puts the Devil's hand in your chest!"
My face grew hot as I realised the misunderstanding and I left the supermarket with my stomach turning. The ghost didn't follow me. It was gone before I glanced back at the counter, never, of course, having really been there.
The construction workers had left, leaving a trace smell of exhaust fume and cigarette spice behind them. Moths and flies gathered on the street lamps.
I had walked a few steps from the entrance when a car rushed past me and buffeted me in its slipstream. I shivered. It was getting cooler as the evening drew on. I looked left, right, along the emptying streets before I crossed. My footsteps sounded loud, so did my breathing. Maybe I was thinking too much into it, but I remembered what Lara had written on the note, the story of her mum peeping nervously out of the curtains as though expecting something in the streets.
We didn't know if it was just the one ghost soldier loose in Enclave. It might have been many. It might have been a pack, all dressed in the green uniforms of the Compound soldiers and doing whatever they liked. It was much more likely that I didn't know most of the bad things that had happened in Enclave than that I did.
The sky was a blazing orange. A car came up behind me with its headlights on and the bass pumping. As it went by its beam shone white light into a stand of trees on the other side of the road and, amongst the leaves, lit up the shiny round cheeks of a dark crouching shape. Its teeth were white. Its gums were pink, but all that paled when in that momentary flash of white I saw that its face was streaked green and brown as the plants around him.
A Man in Green.
The car bumped and hopped away along the road and the stand of trees grew dark. I stared, even though I knew better, unable to tear my eyes away from the place where, like the moon from behind the clouds, the face had appeared in the bushes.
Deep and dreadful fear rooted me cold and dumb to the spot. I couldn't see it any more but that didn't matter. I rocked on the balls of my feet. I knew it was there, and so as the next car came I burst into a run, running to keep track with the car beside me and using it as a shield and a barrier. Of course I couldn't keep up with the cars, but that didn't matter when I was already moving. I had stared at it and I had ran away. Didn't they say running from a dog marked you as prey? I tripped on a curb, my breathing ragged in my ears. I scrabbled up and kept going.
I looked over my shoulder and a dark shape loped across the road.
I saw its outline light up white in some oncoming headlights - it was a broad-shouldered, tall. It was padding along the sidewalk, sticking to the shadows of the chestnuts. The headlights threw a long dancing shadow from its feet.
I could hear his all-too-real footfalls, rapid and eager.
"Hey!" I screamed at a car that shot by. "Help me!"
The man in the car scratched his shirt collar and hammered the accelerator.
There was my shortcut. I didn't care if it was dark and narrow. I leapt between the concrete walls, stumbling through the cat piss and old beer, crushing shredded newspaper, kicked up an aluminium can and winced as it clattered behind me. Home, I was nearly home.
"You're making a habit of this," remarked a voice I didn't want to hear - Smarty's, spoken into my ear, and he was running with me along the top of the narrow concrete wall. He was swinging his arms and his legs even though his feet were missing. "Run, run, come on, rabbit, run!"
I didn't have the energy or the time to laugh. I rounded the corner and didn't stop to look or listen until I came to the flat. I reached the third floor. I stopped to take in a lungful of air to quench the burning punishing my sides.
I froze and listened. I listened hard for minutes, waiting for the sound of pounding feet to drift up the stairs. I had the upper ground. If it came up now, I thought desperately, I could shove it on its broad green shoulders before it knew what had got him. Even grownups died falling down stairs.
I heard dripping. The plastic bag from the supermarket was leaking chicken noodle soup onto the step. The sound shattered the adrenaline infused visions rushing through my head and all of a sudden the taut bubble of fear popped inside me. Mum was in bed and Dad was coming home soon. For now, there was nothing coming up the stairs. There were no sounds coming up the fire exit either. I hadn't thought I had run far or fast enough to escape, but maybe it had got irritated when I started yelling at the cars and you only had to look at cats to know that predators could be fickle.
"Dinner," I said firmly to myself. It came out a little weaker than I intended, so I squared my shoulders and repeated it again: "Dinner."
The door to our flat wasn't locked but it hadn't been forced open either. Relief washed over me. Mum had got out of bed and had probably gone to one of the shops in the afternoon, so that meant we wouldn't have to have chicken noodle soup, or at the rate it was going, dripping through the bag, we wouldn't have to have another Power Cut Special.
"Mum," I called into the flat, kicking off my shoes. "I'm home."
There was no answer from inside. The lights in the kitchen were off. She was probably still in bed. I went into the grey kitchen clutching the bottom of the plastic bag so that it didn't drip all over the floor.
"I got noodle soup," I called a little louder into the silence. "Mum?"
There was a light coming out from under her bedroom door. My heart was still drumming. I still felt cold, stunned, and weepy-eyed, like I had walked headfirst into an icy storm, so I took the milk bottle and washed it in the sink, washed out the plastic bag, then tipped out what was left of the soup into a Pyrex jug to dump in the microwave, dried a couple of bowls from the rack, sat in my chair and rubbed my hands until they stopped twitching. With that done, I went back to lock the door and then quietly down the hall to Mum and Dad's bedroom.
I turned the door handle, and peeked in. The curtains were closed, but in the dim light I could see her shape under the covers and her head turned away into her pillow. "Mum, I'm home. How are you feeling?"
She slept on quiet and peacefully without showing any sign that she had heard me. I had expected her to leap up, snarl, to tell me to be quiet and let her be, but this made a nice change.
I whispered: "I'm sorry about the detention, but I'll tell you about that later."
Not even the trigger word of detention got her moving, but she said she had needed to rest. I didn't want to disturb her. She had gone to sleep with the light on. Switching if off, I closed the door.
I noticed then the thin yellow light coming out from under the bathroom door. There was the harsh squeaking of somebody scrubbing skin over and over again. Steam curled out from under the door and moistened the toes of my socks. Water was running, splashing into a basin, but I hadn't taken so much notice of it until now when I had paused for breath.
I took a chance and knocked. "Dad?"
The scrubbing stopped. "Kim?" came the reply. "Why are you so late?"
I didn't want to be having this discussion with him. "Didn't Mum tell you?"
He hesitated, and there was a thick and ponderous silence. "What was your Mum supposed to tell me?"
"I had detention with Mr Singspiel," I said clear and loud, steeling myself for whatever came next.
Water splashed against the side of the bath. "Is that all?"
Well, it wasn't, but I wasn't going to tell him about the ghost and the Man in Green any time yet. "Are you disappointed in me?"
I waited for an answer. When it didn't come, I raised my hand to knock on the door, but it came just before my knuckle connected with wood. "No. I'm not. I have never been disappointed with you."
Those words were like a warm chocolate-orange biscuit to my ears. They made me glow, feel sweet and light. "You'll have to sign my rough book later though. Anyway, why are you home early?"
"I told the office your Mum was sick and needed someone to take care of her." Dad continued to scrub. It sounded more like he was peeling his skin off than treating himself to a luxury bath. "Go to your room."
I licked my lips, suddenly nervous. "Mum said I was doing dinner. I got chicken noodle soup from the supermarket."
Another thoughtful pause. There was probably a lot on his mind. "That sounds good. I'll heat it up. Go to your room. I'll come and find you when everything's ready."
I left him to finish his long bath and hand-scrubbing and retreated to my room, where the first thing I did was open the curtains to look out over the Monstrosity, glowing a rusty red against the setting sun. It was a dirty red colour, unwashed, unclean, I thought of stains on a butchers' apron, and then I looked down to see Bird sitting up in her bed again, her curtains wide open.
Bird smiled with her eyes and made to swing her legs out of her bed. A few weak, tottered steps later, she was standing with her hands on the window ledge and looking up with a kind of fierce pride. What do you think? she seemed to be saying across the gap.
I found the board-pen and the whiteboard where I'd left them and wrote one word on each side to make my message big and clear: WELL DONE
A dip of her head, very bird-like, although probably more hawk than sparrow. Thank you.
I rubbed out the message and started a new one: SORRY ABOUT LAST TIME.
Bird waved a bandaged hand in front of her face, as though brushing it aside, and I remembered then that she was a grown up. She wasn't like me and the others who could sulk and begrudge for months until an uneasy common ground for an apology was found. She was a ghost soldier from the Compound, like the Man in Green.
I tapped the pen on my chin, then wrote: I MET YOUR FRIEND. When she read it, Bird frowned, and confusion came to her face. I underlined FRIEND and waited for a change in her response, but when she only looked even more confused, I rubbed out the message and tried again: ANOTHER SOLDIER LIKE YOU CAME AFTER ME. I could still see it in my mind's eye - the black shape stalking across the road, breath hissing through gritted teeth, quiet footfalls and a pink-gummed grin in a round green face.
I could see her knuckles clenching the edges of the window sill. Her eyes flickered like she didn't know where to look until Bird slowly raised her head, and, all of a sudden, started banging her hand against the glass and pointing behind me. She would've jumped up and down, for sure, if her legs had the strength.
The door behind me creaked. I whirled around with a sharp intake of breath, caught a glimpse of face red and slick with sweat and steam and eyes that gleamed in the dying sun, before white plastic descended over my eyes, and warm hands, soft and crinkled from bathing, locked around my neck. It was a white supermarket plastic bag near identical to the one I had got only moments before, wrapped about my head, and it clung clammy to my cheeks as I struggled to breathe. I scratched at the hands holding the bag in place and cried out.
"Stop struggling. It'll be over faster."
Dad's voice came clearly through the plastic. I yelled and kicked out with my feet. I hit something - the chair. I thought I heard its wheels spinning. Something hard at any rate that made him lose his grip and momentarily get a spoonful of air into the bag. Then he was holding it over my head again and I was sucking wretchedly on plastic film, gasping for air. Dark stars burst. They scattered golden sparks, bloomed into huge red ferns and condensation from the vapour of my breath rubbed against my nose.
I chewed a small hole near the corner of my mouth. Air seeped in, but that was enough for now. "Mum!"
The plastic muffled my voice and Dad shook me by the neck.
"Just you try calling for her. Just you try, you little monster!"
I was taking short, tight breaths. I snatched at the material, clawed at his hands, lightheaded despite the tiny air hole. I felt a giddy sense of happiness that at least I wouldn't be able to see my own Dad kill me, but the next instant as I struggled in his hands I was gripped by another conviction.
Mum had been very quiet in her bed. Mum hadn't been breathing.
"Stop struggling," Dad repeated, but his hands shook on my neck and he didn't realise that his nail had caught on the plastic and torn a hole near my chin.
"You came back early to kill Mum." The words rang loud and true inside the plastic bag. "You killed our Mum. She's dead. You killed her."
He bellowed and seized my head as though to crack it against the desk or the window. All I knew was that the plastic bag moved and I could see through the hole I had chewed through, and the next moment there was a sound of shattering glass and a dandelion of jagged cracks bloomed on my window like it had been smacked on with a giant hammer.
Dad stopped moving, although his hands were still clenched tight about my throat. He stiffened.
I rolled my eye sideways as far as it would go to see out of a tear in the plastic.
In a sparkling spray of glass, the window burst into the room. A gust of cold air threw me to the side and tore me out of Dad's hands. I wasted no time reaching for the plastic bag to rip it from my face.
"Don't take it off," said Smarty in my ear.
"I don't listen to voices in my head."
"Every sensible thought you have ever had was a voice in your head. Keep it on." I felt a cold chill like a breath on my neck. "Or I will. And keep still."
I stopped and stilled in my hiding place. Both my elbows touched wood. I must have been pushed under my desk. I felt out with my hand. Yes, there was a wad of blue tac above me on the desk's underside. I peered through the tear in the bag.
A white foot wrapped in bandages and the edge of a paper dress appeared on the window ledge.
Bird stepped down into my room, or rather, she floated, like she had floated my model dinosaurs, an inch or so off the floor. I couldn't see Dad, but I could hear shuffling and clinking glass. The glass on the floor shifted and glittered red, then piece by piece began to rise up, up and up above the desk and out of sight.
The lock clicked. Somebody rattled the handle. There was a bang as Dad ran his shoulder into the door, or kicked it. I couldn't tell.
I held my breath as thousands of tiny, red shards of glass hung around in the air, rotating gently and catching the light, just like my dinosaurs had done.
Speaking of my dinosaurs, there they were too - floating alongside the glass - the triceratops, the ankylosaur, the troodon, the caudypteryx. I could see them, all bright pliable plastic, somehow made dirty by the red light that fell on them from outside.
Glass cracked and Dad staggered forward with a scream.
I cried out and there was a rushing noise like rain, and the glass and dinosaurs moved in one rustling, glinting cloud.
There was a tearing noise, wet and watery, like a lemon being stabbed onto a squeezer and twisted. A smell raw and metallic oozed into the room.
I gasped and curled my knees up to my chin. Hot liquid had burst on my foot that had been sliding out from under the desk, but that didn't stop a long black stain splattering across the front of my face and running downwards to my neck. I could feel it through the plastic bag. It dribbled warm and sticky. I touched the stain then moved my fingers, trembling, to the tear in the bag.
They glistened black in the shadow of the desk, red in the last light from the window.
There was a loud thud that shook the floor, a crackle of glass, and the tinkle of a few blackened shards skidding across the floor.
I held my breath one more time, fisted my hand in the plastic bag, and pulled it from my face.
Bandaged feet floated in front of the desk. They were covered in whiplash streaks of red.
Dad was face down on the floor, his mouth crushed into a slowly spreading bright red stain on the carpet. All I could see was his head and shoulders and there was no knowing where flesh ended and the cotton of his shirt began.
"Ah...ah..." A small sound came out of my mouth, high, pathetic, a struggle for the gasp before the cry, but no sound came out and I couldn't move from under the desk.
A hand reached down from above, the bandages clean, took my wrist and pulled me out. I knocked my head on the edge of the desk but didn't say anything. Just gasped and unfolded as Bird helped me to my feet. I started to turn but she put one hand on either side of my head and forced me to look at her instead, silhouetted against the half-light. Her eyes roved over my face with a horrified, wide-eyed questioning.
"He killed my mum," I croaked. "And he tried to kill me. He put a bag on my head."
My throat was sore but Bird still looked at me as though she needed to hear more, like she thought I was holding something back.
"Thank you for saving me with your," my tongue twisted, "special ghost powers."
Bird stared. I couldn't know what she was thinking, only that I had caught her by surprise. She bent down and wiped something from under my eye with a thumb, and smeared blood across my cheek. I was probably crying.
"What are we going to do?" The details, the facts, the small little encyclopaedic pictures, were coming together and when they eventually fit into a shape it would spell trouble in huge red, blood-black letters. "They'll come and kill you for killing one of us, won't they?"
A dog went mad and bit, it got put down. The Compound was Bird's master and kennel. She had killed an Enclave civilian. That was like finding your dog had savaged the neighbour. I didn't want that. She couldn't die when all she had done was try to save me. Dad had been trying to suffocate me by the window. She would have seen everything.
The phone rang in the kitchen.
Bird and I both started. I sucked in a breath too small to be useful and told her, "I need to get that. Could you take me there? I can't walk on the glass."
Bird covered my eyes, gently held me in her arms, and floated us over to the door. I imagined what she would do next - push aside the body lying red, minced, macerated away from the door with a touch of that ghost power, far across the room, perhaps right to the window, unlock the door without even touching it, set me down lightly in the corridor - and every step seemed as though it was a step deeper into a dream. She did exactly as I thought.
I ran to the kitchen. My feet squelched when they slapped against the floor. I took the phone and tossed it for an instant as its screen flashed orange before I finally got control: "Yes?"
"Good evening, this is Mrs Longby. The flat below? What is going on up there? It sounded terrible, what an awful racket! My daughters are too scared to come out of their room."
I recognised that tart, nasal voice before she said where she was calling from. It was the mother of the three blonde girls. "Sorry, Mrs Longby. It's fine, it was just my dad."
There was a pause. "Is that Kim?" Mrs Longby said. "Are you alright? What happened? You're sounding shaky. Did your dad do something to you?"
Bird drifted down the hall into the kitchen and stopped in the corner of the room, gazing at the fridge. I was momentarily stunned that she remembered my name when I was certain only Mum knew what her daughters were called. I opened my mouth. "He...he..." The words wouldn't come. It looked as though something was catching up with me. All those easy lies I had told, now I couldn't lie when I really needed to. "He..." I gritted my teeth together.
"I'm calling the police," Mrs Longby told me forcefully, and I could see her on the other end cupping her hand over her phone so as not to upset her daughters.
"Don't!" I gasped, and then felt a right idiot, so added. "I've already called them."
"Good boy," Mrs Longby said approvingly, and I remembered why I didn't like her so much. She had a tendency to treat little children like pets. "Do you want me to wait with you until they arrive?"
Would she get suspicious if I turned her down?
"No. I think I'll be alright," I said, and I hoped I injected it with another wavering uncertainty that she wouldn't have the heart to insist. "Thank you."
"Okay, but I'll be putting in a call to the police as well."
Before I could protest, she switched off with a business-like click.
I switched off the phone and turned to Bird. "I know the town better than you do."
She looked insulted but nodded. Yes.
"I could help you get out of Enclave, or find somewhere to hide."
Bird shook her head like she didn't want me to go with her, but I wanted to get out of the flat. It was beginning to smell. I had left bloody tracks in the hallway and the keypad on the phone was slippery, maybe with cold sweat, maybe other things. Besides, the police were on their way and we needed to hurry, and more importantly I wasn't going to let her go on her own.
Thank you for reading!
Best, Zen :D