On Monday morning, Finn devoted nearly thirty minutes to choosing an outfit, by which point he was running late.
'Are you sure you've got everything?' Carol Pickett called as her son thundered down the stairs. 'Pen? Textbooks? Lunch money? Suncream?'
'Suncream? I'm going to college, Mum, not the South of France.'
'I just don't want you getting burnt, dear, it's hot out there today! You look handsome,' she added fondly as Finn entered the kitchen. 'It's nice to see you make an effort for a change.'
'Er, I think that's a compliment?'
Carol began buttering a slice of toast. She remained trim for a woman in her mid-thirties. A nursing degree combined with five years spent as a PE teacher at Telhurst Secondary School had later held her in excellent stead for the emergency services, for which she had applied the day after her husband's funeral. She was wearing the baggy shirt and trousers for her morning shift. Finn could remember clearly the first time his mother had sported the seaweed-green paramedic's uniform, barely two weeks after the funeral; how he, eleven years old, had swelled with happy admiration.
'Will you be seeing Alexa today?'
'What? Oh – possibly,' said Finn, caught off guard. 'Haven't really thought about it.'
'How is she?' Carol asked with a sly smile.
'Yeah, she's fine,' said Finn, bending over his shoelaces to hide his glowing cheeks. 'I mean, not in that way,' he added suddenly. 'I just meant – but not that she isn't … y'know, good-looking, or whatever …'
He gave up when his mum's knowing smile widened.
'Well, perhaps you could invite her round for dinner one day. It would be lovely to see her again.'
'It's not like that,' said Finn dully. 'She's famous now, Mum. She even has paparazzi following her.'
'Just a thought,' said Carol lightly, now coating the toast with jam. 'Speaking of people coming round, I've invited Luke for dinner on Friday, so make sure you come straight home from work – and there's no need for that,' she added when Finn groaned audibly. 'Honestly, I wish you'd make a bit more of an effort, Finn. I really thought you'd get along. Do you honestly not like him?'
'He's just – I dunno. Boring. All he cares about is his stupid job. I can't understand what you see in him.'
'You don't need to, Finn. As you get older your priorities change, I'm afraid.'
'Does he make you happy?' asked Finn defiantly, slipping his arms into his rucksack and following her down the hall.
His mother kissed him on the forehead and surveyed him at arm's length. Finn had inherited her deep-blue eyes and golden locks, which she kept bunched in a frizzy bun. 'You make me happy. That's all you need to know.' Then, when Finn remained unconvinced: 'Look, I know he's not in the same league as your Dad, but I'm sure if you give him the chance, you'll end up liking him. It's only been three weeks, there's still plenty of time to change your mind.' She opened the front door for him. 'Now off you go, you can't be late for your first day. I'll see you later. I love you!'
'A ruv you doo,' Finn called back, the slice of toast clamped between his teeth.
The sun was indeed making a brave attempt to prolong summer; it flickered between browning trees and bounced glaringly off cars as Finn strolled past pedestrians, thinking. In his mind, Luke was just another name waiting to join the short list of men who had unsuccessfully walked in and out the Picketts' lives. Finn couldn't see how things would be any different this time, but at least he and his mother could agree on one thing: no man could hold a candle against Finn's father. Though a large and formidable man whose smiles were few and far between, John Pickett had been compassionate, protective and, by all accounts, irreplaceable. When he had been killed by that suicide bomber, it had hit Finn so hard that he'd had to leave secondary school for two weeks to recover. Even when he returned, he had alienated himself from the faces that shared meaningful looks as they passed him in the corridor, for nearly all of them had seen the news report and the grainy CCTV footage of the exploding train that still haunted Finn at night.
Don't think about that.
His thoughts were interrupted by a pair of arguing voices ahead.
'… and your breath stinks again, you told me you'd quit –'
'I said I'm trying to quit, babe.'
'What does that mean, "trying to quit", either you have or you haven't!' Alexa said with a scornful laugh. She was speaking into a sports car parked on the kerb, its engine still running. She hoisted a white leather bag over her shoulder. 'Are you coming, then?'
'You know I can't,' replied Garth from the driver's seat. 'I've been late for practise already this week, d'you want me to get kicked off the team?'
'Sorry – you're still smoking your five-a-day, yet I'm the one getting you kicked off the team?' scoffed Alexa. 'Of course I don't want that, I want you to walk fifty yards with me so I don't get mobbed again!'
'Can't you deal with this kind of thing by yourself now, babe?' said Garth wearily. 'Or what about Bruce, isn't this his job?'
'I'm not paying Bruce to walk me to school, Garth! I can't believe this, I won't take you two minutes, would it kill you to think about me for once?'
'Don't be ridiculous, babe – Hang on, isn't that your mate from the party, Phil or whatever his name is – Hey!'
Finn, who had had no intention of stopping by, did so reluctantly. Alexa immediately retracted from the passenger window, looking sheepish.
'Yeah?' answered Finn without an ounce of enthusiasm.
'You'll help Lex get inside, just while the paps are hanging around? Cheers. I'll call you later, babe,' Garth added to Alexa, but she was fiddling with her bag clip and didn't appear to hear. Garth rolled his eyes, revved the engine pointedly and sped off, leaving Finn and Alexa alone.
'Hi,' said Alexa, a little tentatively.
A short pause.
'So, um … how much do you charge?' Alexa asked; then, when Finn did nothing but look confused, 'You know, for bodyguard duties.'
'C'mon,' he said, beckoning her forward. They spent the remainder of the journey happily reminiscing the highlights of the party, making bets on which relationships had survived the week and discussing what their first day at college might hold.
Finally, they rounded a corner and Ketters Sixth Form College burst into view, a great slab of brick and concrete. The grubby front lawn had been decorated with shrubs and flowers in a meagre attempt to beautify the dull building, into which the last few students were already funnelling.
Alexa let out a groan.
Finn followed her line of vision. On the pavement by the front gates stood a huddle of big, ugly men clutching equally big and ugly cameras.
'Here we go,' Alexa sighed. She slipped on a pair of big sunglasses that shielded most of her face and steered Finn along by the forearm. Her face was white but determined. 'Don't talk to them, don't answer them, don't even look at them.'
Finn obeyed without question. They had barely made five paces, however, when a flurry of excited voices and frenzied clicking trailed them. Finn's heart leapt to his mouth: the college entrance suddenly seemed twice as far away.
Click click click.
'Turn around, love, give us a smile for the camera.'
'What made you decide to return to education, Alexa? Have you given up on acting?'
'Take the glasses off, darlin', let's see that lovely face.'
Then, once they actually registered Finn's presence:
'Who the hell is that?'
'Are you two seeing each other? Does Garth know about this?'
Finn spun around to retort but Alexa tightened her grip on his arm. 'Don't rise, Finn, it's what they want. Don't look back, just keep walking – Oh no,' she groaned.
Finn had seen them, too: a second wave of men swarming down the road, running as fast as their fat legs would carry them.
'Run,' said Finn firmly, grabbing Alexa's hand. 'Run, run, run!'
Together they sprinted across the paving slabs, away from the renewed shouts, curses and furious insect-like clicking; Finn had a brief illusion of them racing through the forest, nine years younger, being chased by the imaginary river monster –
He dropped Alexa's hand the moment they burst through the double doors, and, panting, peered back through the glass panes. The men were shaking their heads, and one of them even sent them an obscene hand gesture.
With hands on knees, Finn and Alexa looked at each other. Then they burst out laughing.
'What the hell is going on here?'
Finn stopped laughing at once. Looking up, he saw a short, irritable-looking man striding towards them. The impeccable suit and paintbrush moustache, which had been trimmed with slide-rule precision, gave the man an air of stubborn authority that might be found in an army general. A pair of girls standing by reception hastily picked up their timetables and hurried into the main corridor.
'Ah,' said the man slowly, catching sight of the scene outside. His stern eyes fell on Alexa. 'You must be Miss Turner.'
'Yes,' said Alexa. 'Sir,' she hastened to add.
'Miss Turner, I'm glad to have a chance to speak with you so soon. You see, as Headmaster, I feel it's my duty to make something quite clear from the off, so here is some good news and some bad news. Within these walls, your status as a – public figure – while respected, does not put you above the rest of the student body: you cannot gain extra credit or escape punishment for being in a television show. I have made it quite clear to my staff that you shall be treated as nothing more or less than a Ketters college student.'
'But that's great,' beamed Alexa sincerely. 'So what's the bad news?'
Finn had to suppress a smirk. The Head's eyes narrowed, and he leant in closer. He was barely taller than Alexa.
'Don't get smart with me, Princess,' he hissed, dropping all professional guise, his bristly moustache writhing like a caterpillar. 'Look, I didn't want you here. You think I want Ofsted turning up to find cameras everywhere and people talking about vampires and banshees and God knows what other drivel? No, thank you. I've seen your show – it's not that great. Season two was average at best; season three was, frankly, a waste of airtime. Now, if you can't find a way to keep these animals –' he pointed through the front doors at the cameramen, who were arguing with the college caretaker '– off college premises, then the onus will fall on you –'
'Come on, sir, that's not fair –' Finn protested.
'You're students: life isn't fair,' sneered the Head. 'Do not let this happen again, Miss Turner, do you understand? We have a reputation to uphold too, you know. Now, get out of my sight, the pair of you, before you're late for lesson.'
With that, he barged through the front doors to help the caretaker ward off the paparazzi, leaving Finn and Alexa alone in a state of dumb shock.
'What was that about?' said Alexa finally.
'I'm not sure,' said Finn slowly, 'but I don't think he's a Vampire Empire fan.'
'Sorry for dragging you into that, Finn. I must admit, I didn't expect them to be here, or I'd have asked Bruce to help out. You'd think they might have something more interesting to find than me on my first day at college. I know what they're like, I bet they were waiting all morning just to catch a snap of me going through those front doors … probably wanted revenge for missing the party, too.'
'Well, you should've thought about all this before you became a famous actress,' said Finn in mock condescension.
'Oh, shut up,' replied Alexa, though she grinned. They collected their timetables from reception and turned a corner into the main corridor.
An outbreak of applause brought them to an abrupt standstill. The corridor, lined with a hundred bright-orange lockers, was packed with what looked like every student of the college, all of whom were grinning and clapping. Finn, assuming this was a respectful welcome for the famous actress, was therefore very surprised when the lanky figure of Chris bounded forward and grasped his hand instead.
'Amazing performance on Friday,' he raved. 'Never seen anything like it. Unconscious before eleven o'clock, I heard. What a debut.'
'Er … thanks, Chris.'
'Make way for Pisshead Pickett!' shouted another.
'D'you need help getting to lesson, Finn, or are you gonna pass out halfway through?'
'Alright, alright, that's enough,' commanded a familiar, amused voice; Tommy surfaced at the fore, wearing his trademark baseball cap and the biggest smirk on his round face. The students dispersed, still chortling.
'If you organised that, I hate you,' said Finn, blushed crimson. Tommy's grin exploded into his infectious high-pitched laugh, no doubt exaggerated for Alexa's benefit.
'You were the highlight of the party, Finny. There's no escaping it.'
'And that's saying something, considering someone chundered on the kitchen stove,' supplied Chris on his way to his locker.
'Well, exactly,' said Tommy, as though it were common knowledge that upstaging frying vomit was an achievement. 'Man, did that stink. Anyway, now everyone thinks you're a hero – or at least, I've convinced everyone you're a hero.'
He turned to Alexa, as though only just spotting her.
'Hello, Alexa. I don't believe we properly met on Friday. Tommy Saunders –' He extended a hand, which Alexa shook. 'I'm good pals with Finny here, so –' he looked straight in Alexa's eyes, still holding her hand, '– that's one thing we have in common already.'
Alexa, who Finn expected to recoil a little, said, without breaking eye contact, 'In that case, Thomas, I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of each other. Nice hat, by the way,' she added, tapping the brim. 'Looks cute.'
With that, she moved off in search of an empty locker and was soon surrounded by Steph, Tilly and the rest of her closest admirers. Tommy watched her go, mouth ajar.
'Outrageous,' he murmured. 'She's amazing. Did you hear that, Finny? She called me Thomas.'
'Yeah, I thought you hated that,' said Finn, frowning; even Tommy's dad only ever used his nickname.
'It sounds hot when she says it.'
When the bell trilled, Tommy peeled off with Chris and performed a flourish of his cap for Alexa, who had evidently shaken off the girls and was waiting by her locker; she saluted back.
'I like him,' she said when Finn reached her. 'Are you best friends?'
'Yeah, when he's not humiliating me in front of the whole school. You'd've had the pleasure of meeting him five years earlier, you know, if you hadn't ran off to London a week before school.'
Alexa did roll her eyes now. 'Not bitter about that at all, are you, Pickett?'
Finn laughed, just as they reached a T-junction at the end of the corridor.
'Anyway, I'm going this way, I'm in Block C,' said Alexa, timetable in hand. 'Listen, Finn – would you mind meeting up at the end of the day, in case those idiots turn up again? They should be gone by then, but you never know.'
'So you do want me as your bodyguard?'
'Oh, no, you don't need to worry about anything like that. It's just a case of walking with me to the bus stop.'
'OK … but can I tell people I'm your bodyguard, if they ask?'
'If you must,' said Alexa, amused. 'So just text me or whatever when you're ready.'
'No worries. See you later.'
They headed in opposite directions, when Finn suddenly realised.
'Wait, Alexa! I, er – I haven't got your number.'
'Oh! Yes, that might help. Here.'
Though his insides were dancing in triumph, Finn kept his expression neutral as they exchanged phone numbers, as though he did such things with actresses on a regular basis. Only until they had bid each other goodbye and were safely in different corridors did Finn allow himself a grin.
He struggled to concentrate in lessons that day. The image of white-robed dream-Alexa closing in on him had replayed in his head time and again over the weekend, but reality was just as thrilling: to slot seamlessly back into the friendship he had had with Alexa, as though they had never parted ways, was one thing – getting her mobile number was more than he'd dared hope for. It was like carrying around a precious jewel in his pocket that week, and it kept him buoyed through the murky waters of gritty maths equations and mind-bending physics. They shared one lesson, Geography (in which they impishly fed each other wrong answers whenever the teacher asked them a question), and each day ended with Alexa waiting for him by the front doors for the short walk together to the bus stop.
That week, a photo of himself and Alexa clutching hands while racing away from the camera, like a still from an action movie, surfaced briefly on the internet. Though Finn himself was off the grid as far as social media was concerned (he could think of few things more pointless to spend his time on), he was bombarded with it at college. Seeing himself on the cyberspace minefield was both surprising and daunting to him, even though his face and identity, thankfully, remained anonymous. He wondered whether Alexa had seen it, or indeed the snide accompanying captions that riled in Finn the same ire that the cameramen themselves had done on that morning.
He was something of a hero in the kitchens on Friday night. He underwent a non-stop grilling at the hands of Betty, who wanted to know everything about Alexa, from her favourite makeup brand to the colour of her handbag. Even worse, unsurprisingly, was Dennis, who kept thrusting the picture under Finn's nose, reading aloud the insinuating captions in between orders, and making crude remarks on Alexa's figure. By the end of the shift, Finn was left with a fervent desire to take Dennis's phone and shove it down his throat.
His mood was not improved whatsoever by the sight of Luke's silver Mercedes parked in number seventeen's drive. He had completely forgotten about tonight's addition to the dinner table. Riley was there to greet him inside the front door as usual. In no particular hurry to advance any further, Finn crouched to ruffle Riley's ears, while Luke's droning voice rumbled down the hallway like a broken hoover.
With a dismal sense of resignation, Finn straightened up and followed the voice to the kitchen, where his mother was stirring a pot of soup.
'… and Richie's given me three new clients to sell to. One's a big corporation up in Manchester that's looking to expand, they want new computers for all its main offices. Richie's hinted at a bonus if I can bag all three,' Luke was whirring from the table while scrolling through his phone. He stopped abruptly on both counts when Finn entered.
'Finn, dear, that's wonderful timing, I'm just about to dish up!' his mother said, adopting an overly-cheery voice that Finn often associated with an oncoming catastrophe.
'Hiya, Finn. Good to see you, mate,' said Luke.
'Hi, Luke,' reciprocated Finn, though unable to honestly return the compliment. He had only met Luke on a couple of occasions, but had gleaned enough to know how little in common they had. A balding, overweight forty-something, Luke was exactly the kind of man that Finn assumed had two cars, ordered lattes instead of regular coffee for the sake of it, and played golf on the weekends. His use of the term 'mate' sounded awkward and unnatural.
'Luke was just telling me about his busy day at the office, Finn,' said Carol.
'Uh huh. You sell computers, right?' asked Finn without interest, taking the seat opposite.
'That's right – cheers, Carol, looks lovely,' Luke added to Finn's mother as she set a bowl of minestrone before him. He then digressed on a long-winded tour of the company's background and success, which he made sound, incredibly, even more boring than Finn imagined.
'Anyway, enough about me,' concluded Luke ten minutes later, when their bowls were clean. His cheeks were filled with colour: he was onto his second glass of red wine by the time Carol was dishing up shepherd's pie and vegetables. 'It always drove Sally mad, talking about work.'
'Sally?' asked Carol absently.
'Ex,' said Luke, filling the syllable with resentment. He chewed on a mouthful of pie, oblivious to the drastically altered atmosphere. It was so unexpected and uncomfortable that Finn almost felt like laughing.
'I'm sorry. That relationship should never have happened. I just hope your divorce wasn't as scrappy as mine,' he said to Carol with a weak laugh.
The pie instantly became a tasteless mush in Finn's mouth. His hands tensed over the cutlery, their edges digging into his palms.
'Oh, I – I wasn't divorced,' said Carol, her eyes widening a little in shock. 'I'm – widowed.'
The silence was deafening and took a lifetime to break again.
'Oh, God, I didn't – God, I'm so sorry, I had no …' Luke's voice trailed off pathetically. He swallowed, then nervously ventured: 'What – what happened, if you don't mind me asking?'
Carol hesitated. She chanced a glance at her son, who was staring fixedly at his plate, and looked away again.
'No, it's OK. He, um … he was … he was on a train, in France, and – it was bombed. Suicide bomber. No survivors.'
Luke covered his half-open mouth with the back of a hand.
'God, that's – that's awful. I'm so sorry –'
''Scuse me,' muttered Finn. The scrape of his chair legs seemed twice as loud in the kitchen, which might have dropped ten degrees.
He raced upstairs and swung the bedroom door shut behind him; Riley, who didn't like being in the same room as Luke, looked up from his basket in the corner, startled. The dog watched his owner pace around and around, then flinched again when Finn kicked the bed for good measure. Now Finn had a throbbing toe to add to his troubles, but the physical pain provided a distraction.
Finn threw himself upon his bed and lay there motionlessly. Moments later, Riley hopped onto the covers and rested his head on Finn's chest. The sky gradually darkened as Finn listened to the voices downstairs, then the front door opening, followed by Luke's car reversing out the drive. After a while, his mother came upstairs to check on him, but he feigned sleeping until she disappeared again.
He allowed his anger, unnecessary as it was, to dissipate through the scratching of Riley's head. His eyes wandered to the corner of the room, to the chest of drawers on top of which a framed, fading photograph sat. His nine-year-old self grinned back at him, holding in gloved hands the tail of a fat trout he had caught in Telhurst woods, in the same river he had nearly drowned in; his father held the other end, wearing his heavy coat and half-smile.
Finn sighed and closed his eyes.
Not a day went by that he didn't think about his dad, nor the brutal, random circumstances in which John Pickett had been severed from all who knew him. In his most extreme daydreams, Finn imagined himself saving his father; imagined he could have identified the nondescript, middle-aged accountant sharing the carriage for what he really was … He saw himself disabling the ticking explosive hidden inside the man's jacket … or, if he was in an especially bad mood, throwing the coward headlong through the train doors …
Alas, this irrational guilt at being unable to save his father had merely exacerbated Finn's desire to become involved in some form of surveillance work, even though his only perception of the profession stemmed from action movies and childhood adventures in the local woods. The idea of tracking undetected criminals, of anticipating events before they happened, of saving lives whether the would-be victims knew it or not, was so appealing to Finn: for how many countless others like him had lost loved ones in fatal cases of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
He opened his eyes to the shadowy ceiling, still deep in thought. This ambition was not something he had ever confided in anyone. He was not convinced his mother's reaction would be a positive one, and he was as willing to divulge personal aspirations with Luke as he was with a velociraptor. Now he thought about it, the only person who might understand – given their hours spent together spying on dog-walkers and building forest forts – was the girl whose own dreams had resided in Hollywood.
Unable to bear the stillness for a second longer, Finn jumped off the bed again. That was when a silver glint caught his eye. The bed had shifted an inch when Finn had kicked it, revealing the bottle of violet liquid underneath.
The glass was pleasantly cold in Finn's hands. He unscrewed the lid with more purpose than ever before: his restraint was cracking, fast. No doubt the ruminations over his father (and, admittedly, Alexa) had pushed his curiosity for the Tonic past breaking point. It was reckless, he knew – but in all honesty, he was rather in the mood to do something reckless.
His heart quickened as he ever so slowly raised the bottle to his lips. Cool and sharp, the Tonic trickled down his gullet. He set the bottle aside, and waited.
The seconds ticked by with indifference. Trees rustled outside the window. Rowdy teenagers were laughing on the street below.
Bitter disappointment welled up in Finn, surprising even himself. Had he honestly expected it to work? Another lava-like wave of anger crashed over him: anger at Luke, at his foolish mother for bringing him here, at the bottle sitting uselessly on the bedside table, at himself for believing even for a second that he might see his dad again –
And then, just when all hope had burnt out, it happened. As though he had been struck over the head with a club, the room swam before his eyes. Seconds later, all sound was sucked from his ears, so he didn't hear the dull thud of his knees striking the carpet … Finn sprawled forwards like a puppet whose strings had been cut and Riley sniffed curiously around his unmoving body.