There’s something different about Andrew. Maybe it’s just that Fay’s noticed him. Or maybe it’s the way that, despite his silence, she can’t stop staring at his eyes. It doesn’t matter, though, because she’s seen him now and nothing can change that. Except, maybe, his mother, and a secret Fay can’t, or won’t, believe.
I saw him again today. It’s so wrong to say that. I see him every day. I’ve seen him every day for the last five years. But this time, for some reason, I really saw him.
He’s called Andrew Mayweather. He’s been in most of my classes since year seven and, until yesterday, I’d never seen him raise his hand or speak to anyone. It’s not that he’s quiet. Gemma’s quiet, when she wants to be. Andrew’s invisible. I don’t think the teacher realised he was there until the fight.
It’s weird how I don’t remember even one maths lesson from year seven, but I remember the fight like it was yesterday. The boys in my class had just discovered the joy of cussing one another’s mums. It’s weird how it’s only ever the boys. We don’t cuss each other’s mums. I wouldn’t even bother. There’s so many nastier ways to hurt somebody.
But the boys loved it. Most of them laughed it off and thought up better insults and a few got pissy and laughed at.
Then someone said something to Andrew. I don’t even remember what it was. I just remember seeing him and realising he was there. He had this plain brown hair trimmed short high above his ears. He’s still got it, but back then, it was the only thing I noticed. When I saw him yesterday, I noticed his nose, which is even and straight and suits his face just perfectly. And I noticed his lips, which had always been pressed in a flat line, until yesterday when they opened and I realised how full and pretty they were.
But back then, when I was only eleven and not even looking at boys, all I saw was his hair. Then his cheeks went pink and he launched himself from his chair.
The boy who’d cussed his mum, I think it was Darren, wasn’t ready and landed on his back with Andrew astride him. Andrew was tiny then – maybe that was another reason no one noticed him – but he was fierce like one of those little terriers and laid in with both fists.
I’d seen a couple of fights before. They normally went something like this: a push, a push back, grabbing each other’s arms and swinging each other round, a bit more pushing, maybe a punch to the arm or two. They weren’t really fights, but to a girl brought up by two loving parents with not much TV and lots of hugs, they always looked pretty scary.
But this one was.
Andrew was punching, proper punching, and had Darren pinned to the floor. At first he didn’t really do much, then Darren’s nose exploded and blood went everywhere and all the other kids were shouting and screaming. You’d think they’d have been ready for it. Most of the boys spent their evenings killing things on the computer. But they weren’t.
When the teacher hauled Andrew off, more of the boys were crying than the girls. Andrew was dragged out of the room, snarling at his victim, whilst Darren lay in his own blood and blubbered. I remember being so shocked I couldn’t even go and help him. I also remember thinking that maybe he got what he deserved.
Anyway, the really weird thing was that when Andrew came back to school three days later, he sidled into his normal seat and faded into the background. No one said anything, no one tried to bully him, nothing. He just turned up and got on with it and, for the last four and a half years, I forgot he existed. I think everyone else did, too.
Except yesterday, I saw him. And it happened again today. His eyes are brown. Not the nothingy brown of his hair, but a deep, mysterious brown that I imagine contain stories. I wonder what stories he’s got. I know nothing about him. I don’t know who his parents are, I don’t know if he’s good at any of his subjects, I don’t know if he’s staying for A levels.
I don’t know anything but for some reason, I want to.
‘Fay, you coming canteen?’ Gemma’s quiet in the classroom, which is weird because her voice could wake the dead. In fact, I’m pretty certain it does. There’s an old people’s home beside our school and I’m sure she’s shaken at least one of the occupants from a death-inducing coma with her shouting.
Once my ears have recovered, I prepare myself to say yes. Then I stop. Because Andrew’s just come out of the main hall and is stomping across the playground. Just watching him makes my eyes hurt. It’s like there’s a force field around him that makes it difficult to look at him. I’ve been watching way too much Doctor Who.
People get out of his way. Some of the time. None of them do it deliberately. They just shift to one side just before he reaches them. Other people don’t and he changes course, but no one notices him and no one says anything.
‘FAY?’ People on the moon heard that one. I flap my hand at her. ‘Be there in a minute.’
‘You’ll miss the cookies?’
Damn it, she’s right. ‘Get me one, please?’
‘What’s it worth?’
I turn to her and fold my arms. She flicks her newly dyed hair over her shoulder and gives me the look.
‘It’s worth the first four questions of the maths homework.’
I take a deep breath. I’ve got to do them anyway, so why not? There’s enough of my mother in me to think the why not is that Gemma should do them herself. She’s in danger of flunking in a big way and without her, who am I going to hang out with in sixth form?
I glance over my shoulder and my breath catches in my throat. Maybe Andrew.
‘Done. Six questions. Chocolate chip, p—’
‘I know it’s chocolate chip. See you in a bit.’
She bounces off, waving to at least three people I don’t know from Adam. How does she do it? I know that. She does it by putting it first, before school work or any other kind of work. It’s all about people with Gemma. I vacillate between being jealous of her and feeling sorry for her. Then they’re both overridden by guilt as I realise I’m judging my best friend like she’s some character in a TV show.
It takes me a minute to track him down. He’s in the corner of the playground, perching on the edge of the bench and shovelling food into his mouth. He’s faded even more. There are two other boys on the bench, but I’d swear they don’t even know he’s there.
My footsteps slow the nearer I get. What do I say? I’m sweating and I hate sweating. What am I worried about? It’s Andrew, I’ve shared most of my lessons with him for most of my school life, there should be a million things I can say.
I reach the corner of the bench, give a vague sort of smile to the two boys at the end and look down at Andrew. He’s still eating. He hasn’t seen me. Dammit.
He jumps at the mention of his name then looks up at me. His eyes are even darker than I thought and they suck me right in. I’ve said something so I’m sure it’s his turn, but he’s staying quiet. That’s not fair. I hear my dad’s voice telling me that life isn’t fair and scowl.
Oh god, he probably thinks I’m scowling at him. I have to say something. ‘Um, what you eating?’
‘Right. What’s in it?’
He stares down at it as though he doesn’t know. ‘Butter, I think.’ He pulls the bread apart to show thickly spread butter and nothing else.
Silence. The sort of silence that cakes my back with sweat and makes me question what sort of madness brought me here in the first place. ‘So, how about that history lesson, huh?’ That’s as lame as it gets but, by some miracle, it’s the right thing.
‘Yeah. Mr Sparrow is a moron.’ He spits it out like being a moron’s the worst kind of insult.
‘He’s not that bad.’
‘He’s not a bad guy, he’s just a crap teacher.’
‘Why is he crap?’ I struggle to keep the defensiveness from my voice. I like Mr Sparrow.
‘He’s explaining it all wrong. You don’t explain the war with dates. You make it about people, stuff kids can relate to.’
‘It makes sense to me.’
‘Of course it does. It’s really simple and you’re really smart. But half the class don’t get it and once he moves onto the politics and stuff, there’s only three of us who’ll understand anything. He’s started all wrong.’
There are so many parts of that sentence I want to ask him about, but I stick with the safest one. The one about him. ‘You know about the politics?’
‘I did the whole thing last summer holiday. Did the A level stuff, too.’
‘What? How come? I mean, didn’t you have things to do?’
‘No.’ He looks up at me and this time I don’t want to meet his eyes. But I also don’t want to miss the chance to look at him some more. I’ve been lying to myself. I pretended I was doing this because I felt sorry for him. But actually, I really like looking at him. I blush as I think about what else he said.
‘How do you know I’m smart?’
‘Because of the questions you ask. Most people ask stupid questions. You don’t.’
‘Oh. Thanks, I think.’
‘You’re welcome.’ He goes back to eating his butter sandwich and I go back to standing there feeling weird. The boys on the bench are staring at me like I’m mad. I had no idea he was that smart. I know nothing about him.
‘Look, do you think you could give me some help with physics, please?’
‘Can’t Gemma help you? She’s good at science. Or how about Billy, he’s better than Gemma and he fancies you.’
‘He does not fancy me…’ I trail off because he’s giving me exactly the same look Gemma does when I deny it to her.
‘Well actually, I don’t fancy him. I fancy someone else.’
‘Right, well, whatever, I can’t, I’m busy.’
‘Busy?’ I snigger, which I know instinctively is the wrong response, but I can’t help myself. ‘How can you be busy?’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Sod it. I’ve messed it up. I didn’t mean to be rude. I can hear mum’s voice, telling me to be honest. I take a deep breath. ‘Well, it’s just, I mean, what do you do, you know, outside of school? I don’t know because you ne—’
‘I never what? We’ve never talked, but you’ve never asked me to.’
‘That’s what I’m doing now.’
‘Don’t you think it’s a bit late?’
‘What do you mean, there’s half an hour of lunch left.’
‘I mean, we’ve been in the same classroom together one thousand, seven hundred and twenty three times. We’ve shared the canteen over five hundred times and we sat together on the coach going to Warwick Castle in year eight. So don’t you think trying to speak to me now is a bit late?’
‘Oh. I don’t know. I guess, I think now was the right time to speak to you.’
He looks at me. He hasn’t once looked at my breasts. I have nice breasts, I know I do, because they even look good in the school blouse, but he hasn’t stared at them at all. All the other boys stare at them. Billy pretty much gropes them with his eyes.
‘Okay. Good answer. Sit, tell me about physics.’
I perch on the bench beside him. There isn’t much room so I can’t help our hips rubbing together, but that’s just fine. I kind of expect him to slide away, try to reclaim his space, but he doesn’t. He stays right there, touching me and waiting for me to begin.
The trouble is, I get physics. It’s easy and there’s nothing I need to ask. I just said the first thing that came to mind because I wanted to get him alone. I don’t know what I’d do if we were alone, but I’m sure I could think of something.
‘So how come you’re so quiet?’ I wince the moment the words leave my mouth, but it’s too late to take them back.
‘Mother says quiet people learn more.’
‘Is she right?’
‘Mother’s always right.’
His eyes widen and now he does shift down the bench. ‘How can you say that?’
‘Rude things about your mother?’
‘It’s not rude. I love mum, she just gets it wrong sometimes.’
‘Mother never gets it wrong.’
‘Right.’ I’m glad he’s moved away. His eyes are flitting back and forth like I’m trying to trap him in a net. There’s sweat on the bit between his nose and his mouth and he’s breathing way faster than he needs to.
‘Anyway, you’re quiet because your mother says so, right?’
‘Right. Of course. I have to go.’ He shoves his sandwiches back in his bag and scampers away from the bench. I watch him like a hawk, but halfway across the playground I somehow lose him. One minute he’s there, the next he’s gone.
What did I say?
The day continues, but I’m feeling oddly vacant. Between last period and reg I take a sneaky trip to medical. Gemma and I discovered something a year or so back. Actually, Gemma discovered it and told me, but that amounts to the same thing. There are student records held in medical. Every student’s medical history in the school is there, complete with address and phone number, tucked in a few, unlocked filing cabinets.
Gemma wanted to stalk this boy she fancied, so we got his address and went round. After an hour in some really uncomfortable bushes and not the slightest glimpse, we gave it up as a bad job and went for ice cream. But I still remember the filing cabinets, so now I flick through to M and find Andrew’s address.
He lives three streets from me. How have we lived here this long and never bumped into one another? Although, after what happened in the playground, I can’t help wondering whether we have bumped into each other and I just didn’t notice. I scribble down his address whilst the nurse administers her usual dose of water and closed eyes to her umpteenth headache suffering student that day.
Then I slip out and get to reg late. A few minutes later, I’m out of school and jogging down the street before Gemma can find me. She’ll be pissed and rage at me on messenger for a bit, but I can deal with her text fury better than I can explain why I have to get to Andrew’s house before him.
Andrew’s road is different from mine. The houses are all individual and on far larger plots. They have gardens that, based upon the glimpses I get over gates, stretch for miles and end in a woodland. His house is the last on the left and the front garden is covered in massive fir trees that block the entire house from the rest of the street.
It’s like the house is hiding behind a wood based fringe, cowering out of sight of its affluent neighbours. There’s a tiny copse of trees just beyond it, forming a turning circle for anyone whose driven too far and doesn’t dare perform a turn on Andrew’s drive. I wouldn’t.
I settle myself into the copse and wait. A few minutes later, a car pulls up on the drive and Andrew climbs out of the back. I wait for his parents to emerge, but only his mum gets out. I’ve never seen his mum and now I’m glad I haven’t. From her face I’d say she’s about eighty, but she’s wearing this tight dress to shows off a set of curves that wouldn’t look amiss on the cover of a lad’s mag. Her face is caked in make up that tries and fails to hide the wrinkles.
She’s got these drawn-on eyebrows that arch way too high and are swallowed by a straight black fringe. The rest of her hair is black – blatantly dyed – and runs all the way down her back and over her bum. Her mouth is pursed so tight you’d think she was drowning and her eyes are the same dark brown as Andrew’s.
She’s terrifying. Someone needs to tell her to lighten up. Not that it’s going to be me. She makes Andrew ride in back, even though there’s no one else in the car. A tiny voice inside says that maybe Andrew wants to sit in the back, as far from his mother as possible.
Except, mother’s always right, apparently. I shudder and wrap my arms around myself. I was going to confront him and ask him why he didn’t want to talk to me anymore, but I’m not going anywhere near that. Then I remember he offered to help me with physics.
I let them go into the house, count to one hundred, then approach the front door. My hands are shaking and the sweat’s back. I should have had a shower, except once I take my uniform off, there’s no way I’m putting it back on.
There’s no bell, so I thump on the dark wood and take a step back. I shouldn’t be here. I could wait until school. I can talk to him tomorrow, that’ll be fine. I’ve already taken another step back when the door creaks open. It’s a real creak as well, like she deliberately lets the hinges rust. As it opens, I’m assaulted by the overwhelming scent of lavender with just a hint of something else. It’s sharp and makes my nose twitch, but I’ve got no idea what it is.
I’m already thinking of Andrew’s mum as she, like some strange woman I’ll never come into contact with. Only, now she’s standing in the doorway peering at me like I’m about to try and sell her something.
‘Yes?’ She sounds angry. I would be, too, if I looked like that.
‘Is Andrew in, please?’ My voice hardly shakes at all. Amazing.
‘Yes.’ She’s still staring at me. This close up I can see the spidery lines coming from the corners of her eyes, badly covered with foundation. How long does she spend in the morning putting all that stuff on? I feel tired just looking at it.
‘We’re supposed to have a study date.’
‘A study date.’ It’s not a question, so I keep my mouth shut and rest my weight on my other foot. ‘Andrew doesn’t have study dates.’
‘Oh, well, he said he’d help me with physics, because he’s so good at it and—’
‘ANDREW!’ She doesn’t turn around and I catch the full force of her breath in my face. It’s extraordinarily rude. I’m sixteen, but even I know that’s rude. Luckily, her breath smells of mint so I bear it with good grace. I hear Andrew thunder down the stairs and appear seconds later, out of breath and pale faced.
‘This girl says you have a study date with her.’
My brain’s struggling to catch up, but I can’t miss the way she says ‘girl’ like I thought ‘she’ a moment ago. I’m a parasite, come to leech the life from her beloved son. I don’t know why I think that, I don’t know anything about her, but as she turns her eagle eyes on Andrew, I see past her to a wall of photos.
There must be twenty or thirty frames and in every single one is a shot of Andrew. In every one, he’s wearing a smile like I wear hats. I never wear hats. I look ridiculous in hats. More than ridiculous.
Andrew’s looking at me. His face is carefully bland but his eyes are screaming at me. I want to go home. I don’t know why, but every part of me is begging to go home. If she invites me in, I have to go and I don’t want to. I don’t want anything to do with this house. I don’t want anything to do with her, or Andrew, not anymore.
‘She asked for my help, mother.’
‘And you said yes.’
‘I wanted to be polite.’
His mother harrumphs. Up till now, I’d always thought harrumphing was only done in Enid Blyton books, but it turns out I’m wrong. She peers back at me down a nose identical to Andrew’s.
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Fay.’ Impressive, Fay, very impressive. ‘I live in Glenfir Drive. My mum’s on the PTA. I’ve gone to school with Andrew for five years.’
‘Hmm.’ She turns back to Andrew and gives him the sort of look that makes my stomach curl up even tighter and my hands begin to shake. ‘You can study in the dining room. You have one hour.’
Andrew doesn’t look pleased, or even relieved. He nods with the same blank expression and leads me into the dining room. It’s huge and decorated with wall paper covered in huge images of butterflies. They aren’t colourful butterflies, though, they’re black and white and remind me of x-rays.
The table is made of dark wood and the chairs are high backed and austere. It’s the most unwelcoming room I’ve ever seen in my life. The thought of sitting in here to eat every day gives me the shivers. I take my stuff out of my bag and set it on the table while Andrew dashes upstairs to get his.
She stands in the doorway and watches me. When Andrew comes in, he sits in the chair beside me and opens his book.
‘Right, so, what did you need help with?’
He sounds as fake as I feel, but I don’t know why. It’s like we’re sharing some big secret, only I don’t know what it is. ‘Um, I didn’t get this stuff about reactive forces.’
He sighs and shakes his head, finds the right page and begins to explain it. I know it already, as well as him by the sounds of things, but I sit quiet and nod and ask just enough questions. His mum is still watching us. She hasn’t moved. I’m not sure she’s breathing either.
That thought makes me giggle and it cuts through the house like a chainsaw through a corpse. I get a vivid flash of the spinning blade slicing through flesh and clap my hand over my mouth. ‘Sorry, where’s the toilet please?’
‘I’ll show you.’ Andrew says as he slips off his chair. He leads me out into the photo hallway and down it to a door at the end. As we reach the door, he whispers to me.
‘You shouldn’t be here.’
‘Why did you run off in the playground?’
‘I can’t tell you.’
‘Fine.’ I stomp into the loo and shut the door behind me. It’s just as welcoming in here. The loo suite is this grey colour that really wants to be black, and the floor tiles mock it with their deep, undeniable blackness. The toilet is colder than it has any right to be, considering the rest of the house is too hot, and I can’t help feeling like I’m being watched.
I wee, even though I didn’t think I needed one, then splash my face with water and stare into the mirror. The mirror’s warped, just a tiny bit, but it makes me look like I’ve had a stroke.
I shouldn’t be here. I can feel something in this place. It’s like standing at the front of assembly for doing something great. The teachers think it’s something to be proud of, but what they don’t get is that by making you stand up there, what they’re actually doing is reminding everyone else that they haven’t done it. So you stand there, squirming and blushing and feeling everyone’s eyes on you, seeing their own failures.
Maybe that’s just me. But being in this house feels just the same.
I dry my face and go to the door. I want to stay in here forever, but she’ll begin to question if I do. I slide the lock and step out into the hallway. Andrew is looking away from the door and jumps as I emerge.
‘Why are you here?’
‘I told you, I don’t get the physics.’
‘Yes you do. Why are you here?’
‘I saw you.’
‘I…’ How do I say it without making it obvious I fancy him? Why the hell do I fancy him, he’s a complete weirdo. Why don’t I want him to know I fancy him? That would have been easy to answer half an hour ago, but being here, in this wretched place, I suddenly realise how little it matters.
‘I wanted to get to know you.’
‘I like you.’ I put the same emphasis on like I’ve heard Gemma use a bunch of times and it works just the same way. Andrew colours and looks at me like I’ve got three heads. I think he’s about to ask why, but instead he clears his throat and trudges back down the hall.
We sit at our chairs and resume our meaningless study. His mother is still in the doorway, still watching. Andrew’s writing something in his book, going on about opposite forces, but as I watch his pen, I realise he’s writing something completely different to what he’s saying.
She’s got my soul.
I read it a few times before I summon up the courage to speak.
‘So, why doesn’t the opposite force do more then?’
What do you mean?
I don’t even hear what he says next.
She keeps it in a box. She took it when I was five.
How did she take your soul?
I can’t believe I’m writing this. He’s mad. It suddenly becomes clear to me. His mum isn’t the horrible cow bag I’d imagined. She’s like this because she’s spent her whole life looking after her mad son. She keeps him away from everyone because she’s ashamed. I don’t think that’s okay, but at least I can kind of understand it.
I snort, right in the middle of his explanation of push and pull, and hear his mum shift against the door frame. Andrew turns around and I see the flush of red at his neck and the tip of his pencil shaking. ‘Mother, is there any chance of us having some water please?’
I half expect her to tell him he knows where the tap is, but she’s apparently decided I’m not about to murder her son because she murmurs yes and stomps away to the kitchen. We sit in silence, listening to her footsteps. Then Andrew leans in close, close enough for me to feel his breath on my neck and smell the faintest scent of earth and flowers on his skin. My breath catches.
‘Before you say it, I’m not mad. She’s a witch. You shouldn’t be here. She took my soul. You can help me, if you want.’
‘Help you how?’
‘I found it, a few months ago. I took it out one night and tried it on…’ he trails off and stares into the distance. Tears run down both cheeks and I don’t stop myself from wiping them away with my thumbs. My hands are cradling his face and I want nothing more than to kiss him. But I don’t. Because I’m not that sort of girl and because my stomach is in knots and because I can hear his mother coming back.
She sets two glasses of water on the table in front of us and resumes her position against the door frame. We continue our physics lesson for another agonising ten minutes before she shifts again. ‘I’m going into the garden. You have fifteen minutes left.’ She taps her watch and stomps away down the corridor.
We wait until we hear the kitchen door open and close. Then we wait a bit longer before he turns to me. He’s mad, clearly, but the tears are real. I know I shouldn’t stay here. I can’t go out with a mad person. And I think he would go out with me, if I asked. But there’s this small, stupid, stubborn part of me that wants to stay, because maybe I can help. Maybe I can help him find some sanity.
‘She’s got my soul but I know where it is and maybe if you came with me, I’d have the courage to try it on again and maybe this time she won’t be able to take it away.’
‘Where is it?’
‘Upstairs. In her study. In a box.’
‘Your soul is in a box?’
His face crumples and he curls up like I punched him instead of stating the obvious. He stops breathing for far too long before sucking in a huge gasp of breath like a toddler preparing for a serious scream. He doesn’t scream, though. He just starts packing up his books.
‘You should go. I don’t know why I told yo—’
‘Show me the box.’
He shakes his head, biting his lip and looking about ten years old. ‘No. I can’t do it, not unless you promise to be here when she comes back in.’
He says ‘she’ the same way I did and his eyes are wide and white. He’s petrified of her, in a way I can’t even imagine. Maybe…
‘Does she hit you?’
‘She doesn’t do anything to me. She took my soul and left me alone. She doesn’t cook me dinner, she doesn’t make my bed or wash my sheets, she doesn’t do anything.’
‘She seems really protective.’
‘That’s because she can’t risk anyone finding out.’
‘Look, Andrew…’ I screw up my face and press my hands flat against the trousers. ‘Andrew, she can’t have your soul, because magic isn’t real and she can’t just take your soul, she can’t, it’s not possi…’
I trail off, because Andrew’s got his hand out flat in front of him, palm down. Between it and the table is one of his pens, hovering in the air. It floated slowly off the table top whilst I was busy stating the obvious again. Only, it’s not so obvious now.
I flick my hand between his hand and the table, but there’s no wires there. What I feel instead is that same sick feeling in my stomach I had when the front door opened, only now the hair on my neck isn’t so much standing up as making a break for freedom.
‘What are you doing? How are you doing that?’
‘I learnt this when I was ten. It’s basic stuff. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t let me in the study, but I learnt to pick locks when I was eight.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s called a cantrip, which kind of means a simple spell. Mostly, though, it’s practice.’
‘I don’t believe you. This is all rigged up, this is a trick of some so-aaahhhh!’
Now I’m floating. I felt the moment my bum left the chair. I look down, half expecting to be drifting near the ceiling, but I’ve only gone up a few inches. Andrew’s face is pulled taut and his forehead is covered in sweat.
‘It’s tougher with a larger object, but I’ve been practising plenty.’
‘Put me down.’
‘Say please. Mother says you sh—’
‘PUT ME DOWN LET ME OUT LET ME OUT!’ I clap my hand over my mouth at the sound of my own voice. I sound crazy and I’ve only been here for fifty minutes. I want nothing more than to be away from this house. I have to be away from this house. Andrew’s crying again as I thump back into my chair.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to shout.’ Somehow, my voice still isn’t shaking.
‘Don’t be sorry. It’s my fault, I just…’ he chokes and his head thumps to his chest. He looks up at me and I recoil from the look on his face. I remember seeing the photos in school of the orphans that came on boats over the Mediterranean. Refugees fleeing hardship I couldn’t even begin to contemplate. Andrew looks just like them.
My chest is so tight I can barely breathe, but I nod anyway. Because I still fancy him and because I can maybe help him. And because I’ve realised he isn’t mad, or at least, not how I thought. And he can do magic.
Maybe I’ve gone mad as well. ‘What are you going to do, once you’ve got your soul?’
His lips press together and he smiles. As expressions go, it’s about as unpleasant as I’ve ever seen, but I keep staring because looking at him is the only way I’m stopping myself running straight out the front door.
‘I’m going to kill her.’
He means it. Crap. Crap crap crap. I scoop my things into my school bag, sling it over my shoulder and try to swallow the lump in my throat. It doesn’t work, but I didn’t expect it to. I sound like I’ve just been strangled. ‘Fine, let’s do it.’
Why did I say that?
He leaps from his seat as his face lights up. Suddenly, he’s the only thing I can see and I wonder again how I missed him for five years. He leads me up stairs that creak and groan. At the top is a small landing with four doors leading off it and another set of stairs. He points up them. ‘My bedroom.’
He turns to one of the doors, pulls out a piece of wire from his pocket and leans with an expert eye to the key hole. About thirty seconds later, the tumblers click and it swings open. It creaks, horribly loud in the silent house. If she’s come in from the garden, she’ll have heard it. We stand there, frozen at the top of the stairs, listening with every part of our bodies.
The sweat’s gone cold and clings to me like cold soup. I shiver and wrap my arms around myself as a faint mist emerges from the room and trails around us. He waves it away and steps over the threshold.
I don’t want to go in that room. Since arriving here, I’ve seen thing after thing I know is bad for me, but some compulsion has kept me moving throughout. There’s a silly, quiet part of me that’s saying that might be magic too.
So I stomp into the room and push the door closed, keeping my eyes on the dark brown carpet until I’m right in there and can’t back out.
A bench covers two sides of the room and that in turn is covered with books, test tubes, scraps of wood and fur and all manner of other assorted rubbish that could, on a good day, be called nick knacks. I’m calling it rubbish.
The other two sides of the room are bookcases and I can’t help taking a quick look. The spines are mostly dark brown and black leather and most are in a language I don’t understand. A few are in English, but written in such flowery language it takes me a few attempts to decipher them.
Caring for the cottage Garden
Herbs and Spices – A cookbook
Twenty five ways with chicken
I turn to Andrew, about to question whether there’s any magic done here at all, but he’s holding a box before him that’s covered in the white mist that assailed us when the door opened. It shuts me up, more than the title I glimpse just as I turn.
Raising and training ogres. A bestiary.
Ogres. I turn my full attention to Andrew and try not to read any more spines. The mist is coming from the box and when he places it on the work bench, he rubs his hands on his trousers then blows on them. He gives me a weak smile. ‘Cold.’
‘Go on then, open it.’
‘Hang on. I’ve…’ he peters out and takes a breath. ‘I’ve been waiting a long time to do this.’
‘Why? Why wait if you knew you could?’
‘Why would I bother? What reason have I ever had to even want my soul? At least this way, I had an easy life.’
‘But it’s your soul.’
‘A soul doesn’t mean much if you don’t do anything with it.’
‘So what’s changed?’ Hey, don’t blame a girl for wanting a bit of positive reinforcement.
My face heats up and I nod at the box. ‘Go on, open it.’ I’m the reason he’s finally getting his soul back. I’m also the reason he’s about to kill his mum, but I’m not going there.
He turns to the box and lifts the lid. More of the white mist rolls out and drifts down to the floor. Andrew reaches in and pulls out a small white shape, about the size of a pair of sunglasses. It’s white and shiny and shaped like an 8. I lean closer and realise that within the white shine is more of the mist, travelling round the 8 faster than my eyes can follow.
‘Thank you. The books say everyone’s looks the same, but if it wasn’t mine, I wouldn’t be able to touch it.’
He lifts it above his head like he’s going to wear it like a crown.
‘ANDREW!’ I scream and jump as I spin. She’s standing in the doorway. In one hand she’s clutching something I have a lurking suspicion is a wand. ‘Put it back this instant.’
‘No.’ His voice is shaking but it doesn’t matter. The effect the word has on his mother is instantaneous. Her face pales and she waves her wand at us like it’s a knife.
‘I said, put. It. Back. You’re making a very bad decision, little boy.’
‘Actually.’ Why am I speaking? ‘Actually, I think you made a bad decision. He’s your son, how could you take his soul?’
‘You know nothing, Fay Davids, now get out of my way.’
‘I know taking someone’s soul is evil.’
‘He is evil. Taking his soul was the most merciful thing I could do.’
‘How the hell do you know he’s evil? You took his soul when he was five?’
‘I took it two days after he killed his father.’
My world shrinks down to a tiny pin prick, in which all I can see are her pursed, cramped lips. I turn to see Andrew release the soul and let it sink into his head. A second later, the change happens.
It’s like looking at a bunch of beautiful flowers after watching a black and white movie. Everything about him just becomes more. The lips I liked the look of are suddenly fuller and even more kissable. His eyes stay the same rich brown, but they shine. His hair… actually, his hair still looks bad, but I believe, now, that it can be fixed.
But do I want to fix it? His mother’s words are ringing in my ear, but I don’t believe them. I don’t want to believe them. I want him to tell me I shouldn’t. ‘What happened to your father?’
He doesn’t hear me. He’s not listening. His eyes are fixed on the scary woman in the doorway, which is probably a good thing.
‘You cursed me, mother. I’ve spent eleven years outside of this world. Now I curse you.’
His extended hand shoves me aside. I catch the bench before I fall. His mother is chanting something, speaking a language I don’t know, but Andrew’s been waiting for this moment for over a decade and he’s ready.
Something leaves him, leaps across the space, and strikes her. I don’t see it, but I feel it brush past me like some vast animal scraping past me in the darkness of a cave. I whimper, catch myself doing it, and try to climb underneath the bench.
His mother’s wand clatters against the door frame as it drops. Her eyes widen and she shakes her head. When her mouth opens, she’s pleading with him in a voice that’s suddenly tiny and weak.
‘Not that, not that, come on now, my little boy, not that, please no, no, no…’
I can’t bear to hear her. She sounds like a child, begging for its life. A black line appears on her forehead, travelling downwards from her fringe and spreading like cracks in ice. Within a few minutes, her entire scalp is covered in spider thin black lines. They run down her arms and neck and, I assume, beneath her clothes as well.
She screams. It lasts all of five seconds before her throat cracks, but five seconds is a long time. She keeps screaming but it comes out thin and frail, like a person pretending to scream whilst trying to be quiet. Then that dies, too, and she collapses face first to the floor.
I turn back to Andrew just as his hands drop to his sides. Then he falls to his knees and bursts into tears. I wrap my arms around him and hold on until he stops sobbing. It subsides and I let him go, suddenly itchy in the close quarters.
He looks up at me and his eyes are still shining, despite the tears. ‘Thank you.’
I shrug. He takes a few deep breaths and tidies his clothing. He clears his throat and sounds quite different the next time he speaks. ‘I’m sorry you had to see that. It was the only spell I could find that she couldn’t counter.’
‘What happened with your father?’
His face creases and I prepare myself for another round of tears. But he’s all finished. He takes a breath. ‘I don’t really remember it. I was playing on the landing and he came out of a room, tripped over me and knocked us both down the stairs. The coroner said it was accidental death. Mother disagreed.’
‘He tripped over you and your mum thought you killed him?’
‘Mother’s always right.’
He looks past me at the body and nods. ‘Not anymore.’
The house doesn’t feel so dark as we help one another down the stairs. He leads me out to the garden and we sit in chairs made of fine black iron, staring at the flowers and waiting to feel normal again. At some point he takes my hand and I realise it’s never going to feel normal again.
Somehow, though, that’s alright. I wonder what Gemma’s going to say.