He sends me down to harvest.
He does it hard, like always. I land on my hands and knees. Smack onto the tarmac. The impact vibrates up to my elbows and makes my teeth rattle. I let a groan hiss out through clenched teeth and sit back on my haunches, savouring it. Pain fractures from my kneecaps up through my body. My hands are bloody from where I scraped the skin off my knuckles. My spine is burning, my head is pounding, but I swim in it. I put my hands in my mouth and suck until they are warm and the cuts are numb. He tries to hurt me, but I don't let him.
Opening my eyes is like being birthed all of a sudden. The lights are harsh, even though it is night-time. I see the sky like a lapwing blue and the streetlamps bursting isolated suns. I have to crouch there in the street until it stops killing me. The air is sharp and my breath hangs in small clouds of moisture. I gorge myself on the diesel scent of the air, the grit buried in my palm and the frost steaming against my cheeks. I could roll in it.
Get up, Seven. Get to work. His voice comes on the air in whispers. It kindles this hot coal that lives smouldering in my stomach. I grind my teeth.
"Yes, sir," I say aloud.
I raise my head, intending to get to my feet, but know immediately something is wrong. Something clicks over in the dark and the world shifts. A pain catches in my chest, tearing through me. I can't move. It stabs and tugs, pulled taught like a fish-hook in my back and I can't stand without wrenching it. And it all keeps coming at me – the lights and the crashing sound of the wind and the breath searing my lungs. I lie there, shivering with each new onslaught of sensation. And it is beautiful and I swallow it down – it is delicious, but it is too much. I close my eyes, I cover my ears, clamp my mouth shut and try not to feel.
In the blackness there is only his voice, incessant. Get up Seven. Get up.
"I just can't believe it," Patrick says for about the fifteenth time. "How could he be so rude to you?" He stalks next to me and casts a wild glance in my direction. His cheeks are red more from agitation than the cold. His blue eyes are wide with irritated bewilderment.
"Yeah," I sigh into the air. I can't muster up the energy for outrage. I knew exactly what I was getting into when I agreed to go to a party hosted by Dan Hutcherson. "I don't really care about it," I say, scuffing my trainers along the pavement, making scars in the frost. "He's a dick."
"I mean, you were only trying to help, Charlotte - his girlfriend. He should have thanked you. I just can't believe he treated you like that."
"Yeah, I got that," I say flatly. I pull my khaki jacket closer around my shoulders. Patrick is a good friend, but he does get carried away.
The hostility pauses on Patrick's face. He looks at me and breaks into his free and easy laugh. "Sorry to keep going on about it." I smile. His laugh is infectious. "I just can't imagine anyone so blind to people's feelings."
We reach my parent's house and turn to face each other. "That's because you're the exact opposite," I say. Patrick smiles down at me, hands deep in his pockets. Little curls of brown hair poke out from beneath his black beanie hat. He gives a bashful shrug.
"You weren't so bad yourself tonight, Diane. You were a proper Samaritan."
"I just don't like watching people get dicked around like that."
"That's what I mean," Patrick says. "It's cool."
"Oh, well, thanks." I feel my cheeks get hot. This is weird. Patrick is giving me compliments. There's this strange pause and I can hear the white static of the silent night. Patrick seems to be waiting for something. "Well, thanks for walking me home."
"That's okay," he says. There's another pause. Patrick takes a cavalier, sauntering step forward. He's standing very close to me. I can see the faint creases around his mouth as he smiles. He's looking at me very intently. "Diane," he says. I cast my gaze around the street to avoid meeting his eyes. "I really-
"Oh my god!" I point over his shoulder. "Look, there in the road!"
Patrick swings around to stare into the darkness behind him. "Oh god," he echoes and his movements still. A body is lying huddled on the tarmac a few metres away. "Who's that?" he sounds scared. "Is it your neighbour?" My neighbour - an alcoholic single father who stumbles home from the pub every night. But this body looks smaller than Mr. Mckay's rugby build and pale in the half-light.
"I don't think so." I give his arm a tug. "Come on. Let's go see if they're alright."
Patrick and I both jog over to the inert figure. As we get closer, I see that it's a guy – I guess in his early twenties. He's lying on his side, knees curled up and arms covering his head. His face is hidden by a nest of tangled black hair. He's only wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans. I look him up and down, checking for any injuries. His body is very long and skinny. With a stab of pity, I see that his feet are bare and grey with dirt. Perhaps he's been mugged? But the t-shirt looks dirty as if it's been unwashed for weeks. Is he homeless? There is a tangy smell hanging around him. I wrinkle my nose and look at the pale skin. Maybe it's drugs.
"Wow," Patrick says. "He must be wrecked to pass out in the street."
"Yeah," I mutter. "And freezing." I kneel down next to him, saying "Hello? Hello?" When he doesn't respond, I check his breathing, feeling eternally grateful that Mum drilled me with basic first-aid. I lower my face close to his, listening intently for the intake of breath.
"Two in one night, eh?" he says. "Diane, saviour of the inebriated."
"Haha," I say, but I don't like him joking in these situations.
I stare into the unconscious guy's face. He looks young, the way people do when they're asleep with his eyes closed, and his mouth open a little. He is incredibly pale – white even – except for dark rings below his eyes. It gives me an unpleasant twist in the pit of my stomach. And I can't hear him breathing. I touch his arm. He's very cold.
"Patrick," I whisper hoarsely. "Will you run inside and wake my mum?"
"Okay." Patrick's voice is low and serious. He turns and jogs towards my house. When Patrick's gone, I sit up onto my knees and run my fingers gently over the guy's neck, checking his airways aren't obstructed. I find a matted string pulled taught – gotcha. It's looped through a small stone with a hole bored through it – a necklace. I untie it. Then I hear the soft exhalation and relief washes over me. He's not dead. I fold the string with its stone pendant into my hand and put it in my pocket.
I look up and my expression freezes. All my organs solidify into rock. I don't scream. I never scream, but the frightened cry is rattling around my ribcage like a trapped bird. His eyes are open. The air seems to flicker. A clicking sound slides in and out of my ear. His gaze is fixed on me and his eyes are a lightless, infinite black. The night air seems to close in around me like physical walls. I feel like I'm being squeezed. I can't breathe.
His lips start to move, churning like a cow chewing cud. "D-Diane Axel," he whispers, his tongue thick. I manage to make a hoarse, strangled sound. How does he know my name? The wrong name.
He's still staring at me, but the speech has tired him out. His eyes drift away. As his eyelids droop to cover those scary black irises, oxygen seems to return to the air. I find myself gasping, placing a hand against the ground to stop myself falling forward. I'm staring at the tarmac, my vision spinning.
I hear a noisy, scuffling sound. He's trying to get up. Something heavy presses down on my shoulder. I grunt and brace both hands against the ground. His bare feet intrude into my field of vision, pale and dusty. Wait - He's using me as a handrail!
"Hey!" I snap without thinking. I struggle to sit up with his weight on me, trying to grab the arm that is leaning on me. He mumbles something quiet to himself that I don't hear. Then his weight disappears so suddenly that I tumble backwards under my own velocity.
I struggle to my feet, cheeks blazing. I take a deep breath, trying to face down the embarrassment and plain weirdness and turn to face him. A sudden gust of icy wind buffets me, attacking from all sides, like being roughed up by a bouncer. It gusts my hair into my eyes and my scarf over my face. My hands fly to my face and I cry out before I can stop myself. Peering through my watery eyes I see his pale face watching me, surrounded by wind with those dead, black eyes.
I untangle myself once again and there's a tight, hot feeling in my chest. He isn't in front of me. I spin around in the middle of the street. Empty. "Oi!" I yell down the deserted line of houses. "Come back here!"
How dare he? My Good Samaritan instinct has dissolved entirely. I know where eyes like that come from. And I was still trying to help him, but of course as soon as he was conscious he turned on me. How dare he have eyes like that, and come to my street and use me as a leaning post!
"Diane!" I turn and see my mum, one step ahead of Patrick, hurrying out of the house with her dressing gown wrapped around her. "What's happened?"
"Um… Er…" I bluster at the sudden return to normality. "We found this guy in the street. I was checking him over, but he just got up and now he's disappeared."
"Well, should we go look for him? Was he hurt?"
"No. He was actually kind of… He knocked me over."
"So, he was an asshole?" said Patrick.
"Yeah," I said.
Mum gave me her sceptical twist of the mouth. "Well, I think I'll phone and inform the police, just in case." That's my mum – inform the police in case he needs a paramedic, not because he's a threat. I looked down the street, silent and glinting with frost, where I'd seen him standing minutes ago.
"I really don't think he needs our help."
In my room, I pull two physics books out from my bookshelf and reach behind. I drag out the heavy soft-bound book of Mr. Klunderwen's Monsters and Dimensions. It makes a thump as I drop it onto the bed. The cover is ripped and peeling, soft like some sort of animal skin. I lift it gently and turn a few of the thick pages. I've seen those hollow, black eyes before. I find the page. The drawing shows a ghoul, eight-foot tall with oversized, hanging arms and long, spindly legs. It has a drooping, skeletal face with a large jaw. It's as if gravity took a personal grudge against this creature. The artist's faint ink lines detailed its wrinkled skin and its huge, black eyes.
He had eyes like that. Ghoulish eyes. To counter the instant revulsion - my memory returned the image of him curled up in the road – how small he looked – and those dark rings under the eyes. I imagined him wandering the streets all night with no shoes and felt a sudden spasm of anxiety. What was he? And how did he know my name?
I'm Diane Fielding. I haven't been called Axel for three years.