“I’ve had enough. I’m getting out of here, I swear to God I am.”
Amy had been sitting cross-legged on the end of Ben’s bed, wearing the same jeans, t-shirt, and trainers she would disappear in later that night, when she whispered the words to herself, or to him or to the pitch black outside. Ben wasn’t sure which or even if she’d meant to say the words aloud at all. He just sat silently in the dark and listened. From somewhere down the corridor of the small single-storey house he was sure he could hear mum’s rattling breath ticking away the hours. Or maybe it was just his imagination and straining ears playing tricks on him. Maybe Amy’s mood was catching. Amy was fifteen, and it seemed to Ben that she’d been saying a lot of crazy stuff since she’d got so close to adulthood, and since mum had started spending most of her time in bed or in the chair on the porch displaying her cancer to everyone who passed.
Getting out of here.
At twelve, it seemed to him that he saw the world much more clearly than his sister. Dad was long gone, now only a vague memory of dark curls and sweet beery breath. Mum was sick—No. Dying, mum was dying, no get out of jail free card for her—and they were just kids and this was their home and where they went to school and where there were people to look after them. To smother them with kindness and kisses that stank of guilt and the invisible burden of responsibility that they were all so eagerly waiting to ditch.
Yes, he thought as they both sat there gazing out of his paint-chipped window, sometimes it would be easier for Amy, for both of them, if she would just let things take their course without fighting all the time. There was no getting out of here. Not for a while yet.
Ben never told the police those words she’d said in the days after she disappeared. He didn’t see the point. Amy hadn’t run away. No matter what she might have said she was going to do. He knew this for a fact because he knew his sister. And he knew that she would never, ever have left him behind on his own with mum. Uh-uh, no way.
And it wasn’t as if the police needed any more encouragement in thinking that she’d just upped and left Bracknell, heading for one of the big cities or towns and a new life. He could see it on their faces. After all, what teenage girl wouldn’t want to get away from this tiny dusty barely-town and the pressures of looking after a dying woman? And a pretty girl like Amy Kremmer? Who could blame her for escaping?
For a while, they’d buzzed uniformly round in the early summer heat of the house until eventually they disappeared, drifting away one by one. All agreed that Amy had just taken flight. It was easier to believe than the alternative, and with only three hundred or so houses to search, it hadn’t taken long to ascertain that Amy wasn’t locked or buried in anyone’s cellars or back yards. Maybe she was out there hidden in the drying farmlands and pastures on the other side of the highway, but there’d been a stream of police and local pick-ups trekking out into the horizon searching for any hint of her in the first days after she vanished, and they all came back without a trace. And anyway. People didn’t do that kind of thing in a little town like Bracknell. People here cared.
Behind the dry handkerchief on her too-pale face, mum had loved the whole sorry trauma although no one but Ben could see it. She’d loved that all that health and vitality had gone before she had. She didn’t think that Amy had gone off to the city either. Not a chance. Because despite the cancer eating her lungs, his mother was a bitch. Always had been, and always would be, and the only people that seemed to remember that were Ben, Amy and their mother herself. Since she’d got sick and saintly she’d hidden it better, from the rest of the world at least, but she still knew that Amy wouldn’t have left Ben behind. Not if there had been any choice in the matter.
Mum had cried a lot in the first days after Amy went, sucking the sympathy out of people as if it could keep her alive longer, and soon Amy’s name turned dirty and muddy. The selfish girl who ran away and left her mother dying. What kind of a girl would do that? Probably a slut. Probably pregnant. Probably a whore by now. Slowly people stopped talking and got back to living, but Amy’s memory was tainted and that made her mother happy.
Ben didn’t cry. He couldn’t bring himself to. Sometimes, his stomach icy in the dry heat of the afternoon, he would go into the dusty stale air of Amy’s bedroom and look at the things that she would never have left behind. Her favorite jacket still hung on the back of the door, her wallet in the pocket. Her lipstick and the other stuff girls used were still in the tatty pink bag on the dresser.
In the small heart-shaped box by her bed was the shoelace necklace Trav had given her before he went off to college at the end of the previous summer. There was a rumour that he’d got himself a new girlfriend and Ben figured it was true, but Amy still loved him. If she’d run away she would have worn that necklace to give her strength, like an amulet against the world. She believed in all that shit. And maybe if you believed in it, then it worked. That necklace was the most precious thing she owned. He knew that because she never talked about and rarely wore it, but sometimes, at the end of a bad day with mum she would take it out of the box and just sit and hold it, a faraway look in her eyes.
Holding the metal pendant in his own sweaty palm he would wish Amy had worn it anyway. And then he wouldn’t have known for certain that she was dead. That someone had done something very bad to her and that her cold, damaged body lay in a lonely undiscovered place and there was nothing he could do to help. Sometimes when his mother was dozing, he would watch her and the greedy monster that was eating her up from the inside out and then think of Amy decomposing wherever her monster had left her, and he would feel the knowledge of her death like a heavy tumor in his own heart. Maybe they were all rotting in their own way. Turning from something they had once been into something entirely new and far less pleasant.
By the time the summer was at its height and the tiny local school had locked its doors for the long holiday, no one talked about Amy any more. She was forgotten by pretty much everyone but Ben. Miss Bellew, the teacher at school had looked sadly at him from time to time, but he never knew whether that was because of Amy or because mum now had to use the oxygen tank pretty much all the time and a care nurse had moved into the spare room which surely must mean that soon his mother was finally going to lose a fight with someone. And this time she was going to lose to herself. The irony of that thought made Ben smile mostly, a quiet private angry twist on his face, but sometimes in the dark of the night, it would make him cry hot tears and he could never understand why.
He stayed out of the house as much as he could in those weeks. The nurse, Mrs. Cooper, a thin tall woman with the beginnings of a moustache that he couldn’t help stare at, bustled about the house, her very presence leaving a sterile bleached scent behind her, feeding his almost-no-longer mother cocktails of drugs or bowls of thin soup and washing her stained and sweaty sheets, tutting quietly under her breath as if his dying mother should know better than to soil her sheets at her age. Watching her, Ben knew when he was in the way. With a woman like Mrs. Cooper a twelve year old boy would always be in the way. And so the weeks after Amy vanished, a time in which he didn’t feel much like playing at all, were forced into a time of outdoors, of fresh air, of hanging around with kids with too many hours and too little to do with them.
The school playing field lay out to the back of the small building that served to educate all the children in Bracknell aged from four to fourteen, which at last count amounted to thirty-seven young and fragile souls. It was a vast sports area for such a small school but out here where there was way too much land for people to ever fill, the irregularity went unnoticed. And in the long, hot days of summer, so did the field itself.
By the afternoon that Ben, Cath and Wrighty sat in the middle of the wicket talking about everything and nothing in that way that only kids could, the ground beneath them was hard and cracked, the green that had covered it not that many weeks before already forgotten.
It was Wrighty that saw him first, a dark shadow out by the boundary.
“Who the hell is that?” His voice was soft, just the hint of mild alarm. Wrighty was a whole year older than Ben and nearly a foot taller, as blond and tanned as Ben was pale and dark. Ben figured that pretty soon the two of them wouldn’t be hanging out together, but he hoped the friendship would last the final year before Wrighty started getting the bus into the bigger school at Launceston. There was only so much someone could lose in one summer.
Absently pulling loose tufts of dead brown grass out from the wrinkled earth and tossing them into the still air, the three of them squinted in the sunshine that refused to duck behind the thin wisps of cloud, their bodies slowly stiffening.
A man stood very still just beyond the faded white chalk line one hundred and fifty yards away, staring directly towards them. The light glared down right behind him creating the impression of a halo of fire around his sharp edges that melted into the nothingness of the farmland and road behind him, making it difficult to see more than a blur of a shape.
“Is that Scratcher?” Cath’s braces had been fitted less than a week before, and the spray of saliva that came out with her words was the closest to watering the desperate grass had come in the two weeks since school had shut. Ben glanced at her sadly. If anything was going to force Wrighty away from him, it was Cath. Image began to matter at thirteen and Cath was never going to have the easy style of their older friend. And that was going to start counting big time to Damien Wright. Ben had seen it happen with Amy and her friends a couple of years earlier. That crazy teenage stuff took hold and real things didn’t matter anymore.
“Nah.” Wrighty, still their friend for now, shook his head. “Why would Scratcher be out here in the holidays? He’ll be in a bar somewhere in Launceston getting wasted.” Scratcher was the school caretaker and groundsman, nicknamed so because of the flaking eczema on his face and arms that he worried at constantly. “And anyway,” his head tilted slightly as he stared across the wasteland. “Isn’t that guy wearing a suit?”
Ben raised himself up on the knees of battered Levis, his green eyes focused. Had the man taken a step forward? It sure seemed that way, the image clearer than it had been only moments previously as if the stranger had moved into a patch of shadow. Yeah, he was wearing a suit, a black one, black or navy blue, Ben couldn’t decide from this distance. But he could see the shirt and tie within the exposed V at the top of the done up blazer. His breath caught in his throat with curiosity. No one, but no one, in Bracknell wore a suit unless they were going to a funeral, and even then not always.
His heart juddered.
Maybe something had happened at home. For a moment bright lights sparkled with darkness at the corner of his eyes, his mouth opening as the breath trapped in his healthy lungs forced itself out with the shock. Aaaahhh. He could hear it buzzing in his ears like when he’d finally realized that Amy wasn’t coming home.
It was the flash of light at the man’s side that set the blood rushing through his capillaries to his brain. Something was glinting there in his hand as it hung downwards. What was that? He glanced over at Cath and Wrighty and noticed that the gangly girl had taken hold of the older boy’s sleeve, tucking her body closer to his. Yeah right, Cath. Any excuse. Like that’s ever going to happen. Hating his own cruel thought and the truth that was in it, he looked back. “What’s he holding?”
“Dunno. Can’t quite make it out.” They sat frozen, like Meerkats staring out over the African plains, for five minutes or more, and the man stared back.
Cath tugged at Damien. “I don’t like it. I don’t like him. This is weird.”
It was only when the stranger started coming towards them that they pulled themselves upright, shaking the dust from their knees and the pins and needles from their ankles and feet. He was coming right at them. And he wasn’t walking or strolling. He was striding. Big long steps full of determination. Like the Terminator, the second one, coming out of the flames. Ben’s heart was pounding now, his eyes once again drawn back to the instrument that shone as it swung forward and back at the man’s side, getting too close to them, far too quickly. His pupils widened and then contracted back in on themselves in real fear.
“He’s got a knife,” he said, his face flushing, burning in the sun. “Jesus.”
“That’s not a knife. That’s a fucking machete.” Damien’s voice was low and Cath had pulled herself behind both boys now, the situation no longer just an opportunity to give her crush on Wrighty free rein. Ben could almost feel her trembling, as if the slight juddering of her body was causing the air to shake.
The man was only forty or so feet away from them now, his head tilted downwards so they couldn’t make out his face, but Ben could see the silver streaks that ran through dark head of hair and the way that the suit didn’t quite fit him right, the legs stopping two or three inches from the ankle revealing pale skin where there should have been socks. Dust from the playing field had risen like a tide, clinging to the sharp black polish on his lace-up shoes and for a moment the three children stood hypnotized as they watched those legs and feet getting closer and closer, almost hearing the rhythmical thump of those soft soles hitting the tough ground.
Afterwards Ben couldn’t remember if anyone had actually yelled out to start running. Probably. All he knew was that one minute they were standing, and the next he had turned and his legs were pumping like crazy, the hot air steaming in his lungs as it ripped and tore its way in and out, the sudden exertion shocking his system. In front of him, Cath sprinted, her thin freckly legs stretching out beneath the loose edges of her canvas shorts, her awkwardness vanished, suddenly a gazelle, for once her body comfortable with itself as her trainers pounded the thirsty ground. Just behind her was Wrighty, his running less elegant but equally as efficient and Ben focused on them as he pushed himself forward, not looking back, fighting the urge to look back, sure that he would see the stranger almost touching the thin sweaty cotton of his T-shirt.
Within moments they tumbled around the edge of the school building, leaning sweaty bodies against the cool bricks, head and eyes throbbing with excited blood.
“We gotta . . . we gotta..” Cath was leaning over, holding her knees, “we gotta tell someone.” Straightening up, she hopped from one foot to the other. “Come on.”
Ben peered round the edge of the building. The man in the suit hadn’t chased after them, but was still walking at the same swift pace across the field. Whereas when they’d run, they’d veered left, aiming for the protection of the schoolhouse. The stranger continued on the same path, a straight line, through the wicket and heading to the other side of the boundary.
“Hey.” Ben’s voice was hoarse, his lungs raw. Was this what it was like for Mum? All the time? “Hey.” He glanced back round at the other two. “I don’t think he’s following us. He’s not coming this way. Look.”
Despite Cath tugging him back, Wrighty cautiously looked round the edge of the building. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, the sprint having made it run. “We still got to tell someone. He’s dangerous. Who knows where he’s going?”
“Come on!” Cath was almost in tears, not sharing their confidence that the man wasn’t heading in their direction.
Wrighty stepped back. The stranger was almost level with where they stood and Ben pulled himself in against the wall. He thought of the machete. And then thought of Amy. I’m getting out of here. I swear to God I am. A trickle of sweat ran down the back of his neck. He didn’t look round to the other two.
“You guys go. I’m going to follow him.”
“What? Don’t be fucking stupid!” Wrighty shook his arm. “We’re all going. Now come on!”
Ben shook his head, glaring into his friend’s face. “No.” Whereas Damien’s eyes shook with controlled panic; he knew that his own gaze was firm. “I have to follow him. You go with Cath. I’ll be fine. I’ll be careful.”
From the corner of his eye he could see the dark shape come into view as it passed. It was enough to send the other two running down the side of the building and disappearing round to the front, Wrighty cursing under his breath.
Knowing they were gone, Ben relaxed slightly as he watched the back of the moving suit. He had maybe ten minutes before the others came back armed with adults. Ten minutes to keep him in sight. A stranger with a knife. Amy.
Stepping back out into the sunshine, he trotted across to the middle of the field so that he was directly in line about thirty yards or so behind the stranger. Matching the brisk pace, Ben could feel his legs shaking, his whole body weak, not from the exertion of the run, he was twelve, he could run that over and over before tiredness would catch him, but from the tingling of anticipation and terror running down his spine, stealing his energy. What if the man turned round? What would he do then? What if the man was Amy’s killer? What if he decided to do to Ben whatever it was he’d done to his sister? What if? What if? None of it mattered. All Ben could see was the man and the knife and the possibility of an answer for Amy. For him. For the witch that was dying at home.
Picking up his pace, he followed the stranger on his too-straight path out of the field and into the play area for the younger kids. The man in the suit didn’t look round once, as if as soon as the three children had run from him, he’d forgotten they had ever been there. Surely he could sense Ben behind him? Didn’t everybody get that funny prickly feeling on their soft, exposed skin when they could feel someone walking just that bit too purposefully behind them? Maybe he did. Maybe he knew Ben was there. Maybe that was all part of the plan. It made Ben shiver in the heat but he didn’t slow down.
Silently, in single file, Ben a little closer now, they strode past the swings and roundabout that had lived there since he and Amy had been toddlers and he was sure that all around him Amy’s ghosts, Amy at seven helping him on the slide, Amy at ten picking him up and dusting him off when he fell off the climbing frame, all the Amys that had ever been were urging him onwards to finish this, to see this through, to find her.
He focused on the mystery in front of him, blurring everything else, all the familiar, out. The man’s suit was black but it had pin stripes of yellow, or maybe faded white, running through it, the lines irregular, not quite straight but coming down through the outfit at a slight diagonal as if made from reject material. On the shoulders was a fine coating of dust or dandruff, and Ben could see the angle of bones protruding through the jacket as the arms swung. The man was skeletal thin. He stored these images safely in his mind for when the man had gone. When the police had taken him. He saved them for Amy. Because of Amy.
When the figure in front stopped suddenly at the base of the oak tree, Ben almost stumbled into him, his stomach leaping sickly into his mouth. But still the man didn’t glance behind to the sweating scruffy boy only a few feet away. Instead, he looked intently at the ground at the base of the gnarled trunk and then, satisfied with whatever he saw there, up into its dense leaves. He placed the machete between his teeth and started to climb. The thick branches rustled and cracked as he nimbly worked his way through them, his body disappearing. Eventually, the tree fell silent as its occupant found a perch and all Ben could see was one leg from the knee down, hanging out of the foliage, swinging slightly. The kneecap pointed through the worn suit that frayed at the hem, and above that shiny shoe he could make out one black mole against the too-pale skin.
Ben watched that leg swing for what seemed like forever, but was probably only three or four minutes, confusion and frustration making tears prick at the back of his eyes. What was he doing up there? What was he waiting for? Did he wait for Amy here? And if he was just waiting for a kid to kill then why hadn’t he spotted Ben? He must be able to see him from up there. He must do.
Looking back, he could just make out the some running figures in the distance. Wrighty and a couple of people behind him. Not Cath. Two men. Time trembled.
He started back up at the swinging leg, his heart exploding with weeks of grief.
“Where’s Amy?” He yelled up to the shoe, to the ankle, to the weird suit. “What did you do to my sister? I need to know!”
Heat buzzed through him, burning him from the toes up, eating its way through his limbs until it erupted in scalding tears from his eyes.
The leg froze.
“I need to know!”
He could hear Wrighty calling him now and he knew they’d be here in seconds. “I need to know before they get here.” His words seemed drained of echo, no energy left to travel to the tree. “I need to know this on my own first.”
The leg disappeared into the branches, its owner pulling it up to safety and out of sight. Ben howled. He was still shouting Amy’s name when Wrighty grabbed him.
The men, Wrighty’s dad one of them, didn’t find anything in the tree. They called up at first, and then despite Ben trying to stop them, the other farmer, Bill Anderson, climbed it while Wrighty’s old man kept his shotgun firmly fixed into the green and brown of its limbs. A few seconds later Mr Anderson re-emerged, his weather-battered face unamused. “Nothing. There’s no-one up there.” They stared at Ben as if he could give them an explanation. And then at Wrighty.
“If this is you kids idea of a joke then I’m going to give you the hiding of your life.” That was aimed at Damien alone. Ben didn’t have a dad to beat him, and the mothers of the town felt sad for him about that. Beating and bonding. In Bracknell the two often went hand in hand with the men and their sons.
Ben shook his head, rapidly. Too rapidly. “No! There was a man with an knife and a suit and he had a mole on his ankle and he was on the field and. . .”
“Okay, son.” The hardness went out of Mr Wright’s eyes. “It’s okay. Calm down. Maybe there was someone.” He looked around at the emptiness of the deserted school grounds and then back up at the tree. “But they’re not here now.” The anger may have faded, but Ben could see the man’s disbelief like a halo shining out from him. “Now, let’s get back. Me and Bill have got some more harvesting to get in before finishing for the day. We can talk about this some more later.” He flashed Damien a look that said he’d definitely be hearing more from his old man on this one, and then the two men walked off ahead, leaving the boys to trail behind.
“Jesus Ben, all you had to do was follow him.” The disgust was all too clear in Wrighty’s voice.
“I didn’t lose him, Wrighty. He was in the tree. I swear it. He was just sat up in the tree.”
“Maybe he came down the other side when you were yelling.”
“I didn’t lose him. He was in the tree.” His sadness threatened to overwhelm him. It was hopeless and he knew it. Listening carefully, deep inside, he could hear the delicate invisible strands that bonded their friendship snapping with each step they took.
Wrighty spat into the ground and neither of them spoke another word on the long walk home.
He wasn’t sleeping. He didn’t think he was ever going to sleep again. Neither Cath nor Wrighty had come to see him that day, although Cath’s mum had come and had a whispered conversation with Mrs Cooper, as if somehow because her job was to keep mum alive this gave her parental rights over Ben. She’d made a lot of humming noises as she listened and then when Cath’s mum had gone, she’d let out a long world weary sigh and shot him a withering glance. And that was that. No conversation. No care. He’d thought about talking to mum about it, that’s how desperate he’d got. But she’d started to smell funny and was nearly always asleep or pretending to be asleep, and when she did open her eyes sometimes as he leaned in, breath-held to kiss her goodnight, he could still see the meanness there gripping onto life. Maybe that was all that was keeping her going.
The warm night breeze teased him through the open window tickling his legs where the covers were kicked off and he stared at the ceiling and at the shapes that seemed to dance in the film that covered his eyes. He was dead inside. He was sure of it. He could feel his organs settling heavy in his back.
The hand reached in through the window and shook his calf. Ben jumped, his organs retaking their positions, and then he smiled, feeling the life flooding back to him. Wrighty! He’d snuck out to come and see him and sort things out. Eagerly sitting up, the smile froze on his face.
It wasn’t Wrighty at the window. The face that stared through it was flaky like Scratcher’s, the skin too tight over the bones under that mop of black and silvery hair. The dark eyes twinkled and Ben thought he could see universes of stars in them. The scream desperate to escape his throat fought with his lungs’ urge to breathe in, and although his mouth was open, nothing seemed to be happening. Eventually the breathing won, sucking the air in deep gasps. He hugged his knees to his chest, eyes flicking to the closed door. The man was back, the man was back, he’d vanished, he couldn’t be here, he couldn’t know where he lived, he couldn’t. . . he couldn’t. . . Bringing his eyes back to what was so solidly existing in front of him, Ben tried to focus. To calm himself down. He had vanished. And he was here now. And there was nothing he could do about it apart from see it through.
The man at the window raised one finger to his lips. The nail on it was bitten to the quick, ragged tags of skin hanging down the outside edge. He stayed like that for a moment, and then lowered it slowly.
“You said Amy. You were looking for Amy.” He sounded curious. Why would he be curious?
Ben nodded, his head incredibly heavy and his bladder screamed in panic at him with the movement.
“You are Ben.” There was a lilt in the whispered words and Ben couldn’t make the accent out. Scottish maybe? Who knew? He’d never been out of Bracknell and the only accents he’d heard were on the TV. The stranger was foreign though. He nodded again. Somewhere in his dry throat he tested his words.
“Did you kill Amy? Are you going to kill me?” He didn’t sound like himself, his tongue too thick with a quiet terror that seemed to be intensifying as the rest of him calmed. Maybe he could make it to the door and Mrs Cooper down the hall. Maybe he could live through the night. Maybe someone would believe him this time. Maybe, maybe, maybe. All plausible possibilities. But he knew, deep in the hidden place where the body clock ticks almost unheard, that if this man wanted to kill him then he would. He was dead. Tonight or tomorrow. Window open or shut. The eventuality would be the same.
The man’s head tilted and Ben could see a small shower of dead skin fall to his shoulders from his scalp. Some came from his cheek too. He stared, transfixed. Whatever was wrong with this man, it wasn’t eczema like Scratcher’s. This was something else. He thought of the cancer eating mum’s lungs. Maybe cancer was eating the stranger’s face.
“Amy. Yes. I can take you there. But there’s not much time.” Again the strange accent. “You are Ben?”
Ben nodded again.
The dark eyes continued to twinkle and he smiled. The teeth there were perfect white but his gums were receding, bright flecks of red blood appearing in the crescents between his canines. “Good. Good. Come with me then.” He raised his finger again and curled it, the move practiced, as if he were speaking to someone who didn’t understand and needed the physical clue.
Amy. The man knew where Amy was. Ben stared for a second at the strange falling apart face and then kicked back the covers and reached for his jeans, pulling them over his underpants, tugged on his t-shirt and squeezed his feet into his trainers.
His stomach in his mouth, he leaned forward to open the window further to climb out when he paused. “Can I bring something to give to Amy?”
The idea seemed to amuse the man, who licked a trickle of blood from his front teeth. “Certainly. You can try. No harm. But be quick.”
Unsure of whether he was dreaming or not, the surreal reality of the vanished man too much to really think about, Ben crept out of his room and across the dark corridor. Guiding himself by memory and habit, he stole into his sister’s abandoned bedroom and grabbed the heart shaped box from beside her bed ripping the pendant out, enjoying the coolness of it against his skin.
Opening his own door, he fought the mix of fear and almost-hope that the man had vanished again, expecting to see only the night looking back at him from the window. How would he feel? Relieved? Disappointed?
But the grinning face was still there, framed by the familiarity of his bedroom, and Ben held the pendant up. “Will I be able to give this to her?”
The man shrugged. “Don’t know if it’ll get there. We’ll see.” The grin stretched. “Now come.” He held up the machete. “Time, time, time.”
Ben stared at the sharp metal, long wide and fierce. How could he have forgotten about the knife? That’s not a knife. It’s a fucking machete. He swallowed hard. As yet, the man hadn’t tried to hurt him. But then, so far, ever since he’d appeared on the edge of the field, nothing about this man had seemed normal. “You go ahead. I’ll follow you.”
Pausing on the windowsill, he smelt the dried wood and faded paint, and felt the rush of twelve years of existence flooding over him. I’ve had enough. I’m getting out of here. Maybe this was it. The end. Maybe he’d never come back. Maybe by the next day he’d be rotting somewhere with Amy, lost and soon forgotten. He let the thought play in his head for a moment and then thought of Bracknell and mum and Mrs Cooper and realized that he didn’t much care one way or another. But he cared about Amy. He needed to know about Amy. Swinging his legs over the side, for the second time that day he followed the man that strode ahead of him.
This time it was different. This time, every so often the man with the knife would turn round and grin, checking Ben was following, and Ben would raise a hand and wave and then they would continue in silence, cutting their way through the silent town. It wasn’t long before they were crossing the field in the exact same line the man had taken and Ben wondered if the ghosts of he, Cath and Wrighty of the afternoon were somewhere ahead of him, sprinting in panic, stuck in the afternoon heat, no cool of the night for them.
He strode on, the flash of white from the man’s legs and the shine of the metal in the moonlight his only torch. Still, he knew every inch of the ground of this town, had lived in, fallen in and fought in the dust of it for all his life, and his feet, invisible beneath him carried him confidently at the swift pace the leader of their line of two was setting.
Before long, they came to stop at the base of the tree, this time Ben standing side by side with the man. What now? What would happen now? Would the man vanish again. The real and the unreal, the seen and the unseen blurred in his head.
The man was still grinning as he pointed into the branches with the machete. His gums were rivers of blood now, some escaping into the creases by his mouth, looking like a parody of an old woman with too much lipstick on. It didn’t seem to bother him though. Was he dying? Were they all just dying?
“You climb first.”
Ben stared at him, the question in his head tumbling out before he could check it. “Are you sick? Do you have cancer?”
The breeze lifted the thick hair that was more silver than it had been at Ben’s window. “I’ll be better when we get there.”
Ben looked up at the tree, knowing he was going to climb it whatever the man said or did. And knowing that when he got up there, he would vanish. One way or another. Just like the man had this afternoon. He ran his fingers over the rough bark feeling its life singing in his soul. “What do you need the knife for?” His finger dug in, finding a tentative hold.
“To open the door. To get us there.”
One foot gripping the tree, he pulled himself upwards, enjoying the way the ancient tree felt as he gripped it. “And where is there exactly?” He looked down at the man who carefully pushed him up with his free hand, full of strength despite his appearance. Ben disappeared into the branches but the man’s response was clear. “Nowhere.”
Finding a seat on the largest branch, the sweet smell of leaves and wood almost smothering him, he looked down confused. “Nowhere? How can we go nowhere? Nowhere isn’t a place.”
The machete was between the man’s teeth again, and as he pulled himself up, wrapping himself round a thick branch opposite, Ben could see where it had sliced into the corners of his mouth slightly. When he took it out, he laughed, a coppery sound, real and true and yet so very different from anything Ben had ever heard.
“Yes. The Nowhere.” He glanced around at the leaves that caressed him. “This is The Somewhere. There is The Nowhere. It’s the same but very different. You’ll see. Sometimes things from The Somewhere find themselves in The Nowhere. Car keys, toys, people.” He laughed more gently this time. “Sometimes we bring them. Like you.”
Nothing and everything was making sense. The world was stumbling for its feet in his head. “And Amy’s there?”
The Nowhere man nodded. “She talks about you all the time. She wants to see you. She came in a dream and she couldn’t get back.” He was twitching slightly and Ben could see that whatever was going to happen, wherever they were going, the stranger, was eager to get there. He needed to get there. The skin and the blood told him that.
The familiar smell of the night, of his sleeping home filled his nostrils. “Will I be able to come back?” Wrighty. Cath.
An almost invisible shrug. “Some can. Some can’t. Who knows?”
Mum. Ben thought of her mean eyes and her wheezing breath and the oxygen tank and Mrs Cooper. He thought of two vanished children, two empty bedrooms, of her dying alone. “Will she still be here when I get back?” He didn’t need to say who. He had a feeling that the Nowhere man knew a lot more than he was letting on.
“She’ll still be here. Maybe not the same, but still here. If you get back.” Lifting the machete the Nowhere man stopped grinning. “Are you ready?”
Shutting his eyes, Ben took a deep breath, gripped the necklace, and nodded.
For a moment the silence of the night was disturbed by the rustling in the tree. From somewhere in its branches a pendant tumbled, hitting the ground, and then the old life settled, the balance restored, to sleep until morning.
© 2009 Sarah Pinborough.
Originally published in British Invasion,
edited by James A. Moore, Tim Lebbon, and Christopher Golden.
Reprinted by permission of the author.