As you can see, I’m steaming ahead with my To Do List. Chapter ten of Ash is done, and I’ve even started to chip into chapter eleven. To be honest, by this stage it’s become a paint-by-numbers exercise: I know what has to happen, and all that remains is to get it down on the page. Endings are my favourite part; it feels less like writing the book and more like reading it as it comes out.
Anyway, enjoy the next instalment!
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
I don’t confront mum.
It’s a hard decision to come to, but it’s the only option left to me after a long, sleepless night of thinking and agonising. I can’t let mum know what I know, what I heard her say, what I read in those reports. I feel bad about it. Of course I do. Who wouldn’t? But there’s nothing I can do. I can’t confront mum — what would I say? — and I can’t tell anyone else — what proof do I have? — so all I can do is do nothing.
The next morning I come down to breakfast and pretend nothing’s happened. She gives me a smile as I come into the kitchen, and I smile back and ask her how she slept.
“A little rough,” she says. “I think we’ll stay in today. Aren’t you going to be late for school?”
“I’m leaving in a minute,” I say. “Morning, Rachel.”
Rachel looks at me out of those dark eyes. Her face is impassive. What did they do to you? I want to ask. What made you like this? Was it her? Was it mum? Was it Carol?
But I say nothing.
I do think about calling dad. On the way to school I dial his number, but after a couple of rings I hang up. It’s a stupid idea, and I know it. How would I start the conversation? Hi, dad. You know mum, the woman you love? Yeah, well, she’s been experimenting on eight-year-olds. I know. Crazy, isn’t it?
Dad calls me back at lunchtime. He sounds pleased that I called him. He wants to know if everything’s okay at home. I tell him it is, that I can’t remember why I called. We chat for a couple of minutes, then I hang up, wishing I could see some way out of this.
The rest of the day passes in a haze, and before I know it I’m walking out of the school gates. I pause by the bus stop. I can’t go home. Not now. Not yet. So instead I get on the bus, and ride it all the way into the centre of London, where I get off and walk, just like I used to, losing myself in the crowds, enjoying the anonymity.
It’s dark by the time I get home. As soon as I open the door mum’s in my face, shouting at me, grabbing my shoulders, shaking me, demanding to know where I’ve been. I don’t know what’s set her off, but something in the way she does it makes me suddenly angry. What right does she have, after everything she’s done? I brush her off and storm upstairs, where I slam my door and collapse on the bed. Already the secret’s like a huge weight pressing down on me, demanding to be faced, refusing to be ignored. I feel exhausted by it already, unable to face up to what it means, unwilling to follow any line of thought that leads me back to mum. I wish I could forget it all, but I can’t.
There’s a knock on my door.
“Go away,” I mutter.
The door opens. I look up, expecting mum, but it’s not. It’s Rachel.
I sit up. Rachel closes the door and stands by it, as far away from me as possible. My mouth is dry. There are a million questions I want to ask her. I start to speak, but she puts a finger to her lips, cutting me off, then, with the tiniest of possible movements, she shakes her head.
I close my mouth.
Rachel crosses the room to my desk. She finds paper and a pen, and starts to draw. When she is finished she folds the paper in half and brings it over to me, motioning for me to keep it close to my chest. I unfold the paper, burning with curiosity, but at first I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be looking at. Rachel has drawn a rough square, with a couple of smaller rectangles inside it. In one corner there is a cross with an arrow pointing to it, and an exclamation mark inside a triangle, for danger.
I frown at the paper. Then something clicks in my mind, and I look up. It’s a picture of my room. That rectangle is the desk, and this one is the bed. Which makes the corner with the cross in it over …
Rachel puts out a hand and touches my arm, stopping me from turning my head. She takes the pen and quickly draws a box with a circle on it, and an arrow pointing to the same corner. She looks up at me, but I don’t understand. I shake my head; she purses her lips and draws again, this time a curved line leading from the box to another box with a smooth-cornered rectangle inside it. And beside the box, two letters: TV.
I go cold all over. Rachel looks up at me, and I mouth one word: Camera? She nods.
I hold out my hand, and Rachel puts the pen in it. I write: Why?
She looks at me again, and this time I can see the frustration in her face. Understanding begins to dawn. Maybe it’s not that she won’t talk — maybe she can’t. Someone’s done something to her, something to do with those pictures, and those reports, and, maybe because of that, she can’t speak. Maybe she can’t even write. Maybe that’s why she’s drawing pictures for me.
I rack my brains, trying to think of a way to communicate. Eventually I write the word: Who? I point to it, then beside it I draw the Shannen logo, and a question mark.
Immediately Rachel snatches the paper and crumples it up, ripping and clawing it with tiny hands until it’s nothing more than ragged tatters. She lets the scraps fall to the floor. Her face is white, her lips a thin line, her little nostrils flared as she takes sharp breaths.
I take that as a yes.
This is crazy. My head is spinning. I always thought that was just a turn of phrase, but as it turns out it’s a pretty accurate description of what happens in these situations. I feel dizzy, and I have to close my eyes and take a deep breath before I can do anything else.
When I open my eyes Rachel’s watching me, her pale face unsmiling.
What do you want? I think the words, because I can’t say them. What are you so scared of? Who are you scared of? What do you want me to do? I watch her face, willing her to understand me.
Maybe she does, and maybe she doesn’t. I can’t tell. After a minute she turns and walks over to the window. The curtains are closed; she edges them aside slightly, and beckons me over. When I join her, she points to a BT van parked over the road. There’s a man in a hi-vis vest slumped in the front seat, asleep, and another man fiddling with a junction box nearby. As I watch, the man by the junction box glances over his shoulder at mum’s house, then turns back to his work.
I look down at Rachel and make a face that’s supposed to mean: So what? She ignores me, and carries on watching, so I watch with her. Is she trying to tell me this is some kind of stakeout on the house? If so, they can’t be that good at their job, because neither of them are paying much attention.
Then, after a minute or two, the man at the junction box glances up at the house again. And again, a couple of minutes later. Apprehension starts to grow somewhere deep inside me. He finishes what he’s doing and returns to the van. On the way, he looks over again.
I step away from the window. I’ve seen enough.
Rachel follows me as I return to the bed and sit down. Questions are buzzing like flies around my head, but I can’t ask her any of them. It’s frustrating, knowing that she knows so much more than she can say. I look at her, and she looks at me, and I decide that, whatever else happens, I’m going to look after her. Whatever it takes, she’s under my care, and I’m going to protect her against whatever it is she’s afraid of.
I pat the bed beside me, and she comes and sits down. It’s the most natural thing in the world for me to put my arm around her, and when she puts both her arms around me I don’t pull away.
For the rest of the week I feel like I’m walking blindfold along the edge of a cliff. Something is happening, but I’ve got no idea what it is or what I can do about it.
On Tuesday I pretend I’m sick. I can’t go to school now. For one thing I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything, and for another I don’t want to leave Rachel alone with mum. When I tell mum I don’t feel well she shrugs.
“It’s your decision, Jason,” she says. “Clearly you’re old enough to run your own life now.”
She still hasn’t forgiven me for coming back late last night. We make polite conversation, but I can tell she’s putting it on. It’s as if the walls that were slowly coming down between us have slammed back into place again. I can’t bring myself to look her in the eye, not after what I read on Sunday, and she makes it clear she doesn’t want to be in the same room as me.
So I keep to my bedroom, watching films online, listening to music, browsing the internet. I leave my door open, though, and I only put one earphone in, just in case.
Rachel comes to see me, at about one o’clock. She doesn’t say anything, as usual, but she seems content just to sit on the bed and flick through a book while I busy myself at the computer on my desk. She stays for an hour, then leaves without a word and goes into her room and shuts the door, and I don’t see any sign of her until dinner time. When she emerges she looks tired, her face more pinched than usual, her hair messed up like she’s been sleeping. We go down to the kitchen, where mum’s serving up the Chinese she ordered. We eat in silence, then go back to our rooms and stay there until we go to sleep.
On Wednesday I say I’m still sick, and on Thursday and Friday as well. Truth be told, I could probably have just said that I didn’t want to go to school, and mum would have shrugged it off in he same way she does my feeble lies. She can see I’m not sick, but she says nothing. It’s like she’s stopped caring about me.
All week I keep an eye on the activity in our street. The men watching us are good at making themselves inconspicuous, but they’re not invisible, and I soon get the hang of spotting which telephone engineers, community wardens, window cleaners and Jehovah’s Witnesses are real, and which are fake. Watching them is the easy part; not being able to do anything about it is a lot harder. I’m powerless: I know someone’s watching us, I can see the micro-camera in the corner of my room now (a black dot in a crack in the cornice), but I don’t know who it is, or why.
Rachel comes and goes, sometimes staying in her room for hours on end, sometimes sitting with me for the whole afternoon. When she’s in her room she locks the door, and I wonder if it’s because of me poking around in her things. One time I stand outside her door for twenty minutes, just listening, but I can’t hear even the smallest sound. It’s as if she’s not there at all.
The first time mum speaks to me all week is on Friday afternoon. I’m sitting at the computer, and Rachel is on the floor with a newspaper spread out in front of her, when mum puts her head around the door.
“When are you leaving for dad’s?” she says, without even a hello.
“I don’t think I’ll go,” I say. “Still not feeling great.”
I expect that to be it, but mum shakes her head. “No,” she says. “That’s not good enough. Your dad has as much right to see you as we do. And besides, you can’t be that ill if you’re out of bed and messing around on the computer. Go on. Pack your bag. The fresh air will do you good.”
I don’t know what to say. I can’t exactly tell her the reason I want to stay is because I don’t want to leave her alone with Rachel, but nothing else comes to mind.
I force a smile, and nod. “Yeah, I guess it will.”
I can’t tell Rachel to be careful, and there’s no way to let mum know I’m on to her. I leave reluctantly, still trying to think of reasons not to go; but there’s nothing. I tell myself I’ll just stay for one night, just to keep mum and dad happy — I can always persuade dad to let me go home tomorrow morning. He’s soft like that. Not like mum. She’s like one of those diamond-edged saw blades when it comes to cutting through crap.
I take my time putting on my shoes. Mum’s taking a call in the kitchen, but the little I overhear doesn’t tell me anything. She’s stressed, but she’s been stressed all week. She tells someone to “take care of it,” then she hangs up and comes to check on me, and I have to pretend I’m having trouble with my laces. She stands over me, waiting until I’m done, then gives me a cold hug and all but pushes me out of the door. The last thing I see before the door closes is Rachel sitting at the top of the stairs, watching me go.
It’s warm outside, but I can’t help the shiver that runs through me as I push the gate open and turn right along the road. An Ocado delivery van is parked across the street; there’s no driver around, and I try not to look at it as I hurry away.
All the way to dad’s flat I’m a ball of jangling nerves. Every word from a stranger, every look, every accidental knock and shove seems like a threat or an attack. I find myself flinching away from people, glancing over my shoulder, looking for possible escape routes. The station is crowded with Friday evening commuters, but even surrounded by the crowds I don’t feel safe. I keep thinking of all the films I’ve seen where a supporting character is assassinated in the middle of a crowd in broad daylight: sniper, knife, silenced pistol — the options are seemingly endless.
It’s worse on the train. We’re jammed together in the carriage, everyone avoiding everyone else’s eyes, all of us trying to pretend we’re alone. I can smell the breath of the man behind me, and I’m acutely aware of my own breath on the face of the beautiful girl in front of me. We stand awkwardly, my hand gripping the bar above my head as I look into nowhere and try to not sweat. A man across the carriage catches my eye, and a cold flush runs down my body as I look quickly away. I find myself imagining what a knife between the ribs would feel like. Would it be hot, or cold? How much pain would there be before my nervous system went into overload and shut down?
At London Bridge I dart and weave through the crowds, evading an unseen tail, and lurk on my platform like a fare-dodger, looking this way and that constantly until the train arrives and I jump on.
It’s one stop to South Bermondsey. I spend the journey surreptitiously studying the faces of the other people in the carriage, though I don’t know what good it’ll do. When I get off I wait until the last person has left the platform and the train has pulled away before I make for the exit myself; even then I’m checking over my shoulder constantly.
The walk from the station to dad’s flat seems to take forever. I take the long way round, avoiding quiet short cuts, sticking to the big roads with their traffic and shop fronts. The sun is setting, and it glares into my eyes, making me lower my head and look at the pavement. When I turn off the main road into dad’s estate my paranoia reaches new heights. I stop and loiter by a bin, a bench, a bush, looking back the way I came, watching for pursuers. There’s a part of me that knows I’m being ridiculous, that no-one would have any reason to follow me. It’s just not a very persuasive part.
The sun has set by the time I reach dad’s block. As I walk up the path to the main door a balding white guy with a belly gets up from his seat on a low wall and falls in behind me. I flush cold again, and sweat breaks out on my back; but I tell myself I’m being an idiot. He’s just forgotten his key, that’s all.
I hold the door for him, and he raises a hand to thank me.
I don’t answer him. We wait for the lift in awkward silence. When it comes he slips in before me and holds his finger over the buttons.
He presses eleven and the lift doors judder closed. Only eleven, I notice. I take another look at him. No. Never seen him before.
“I suppose you must know Mr. Oye, then?” the man says suddenly. “Number 53?”
My heart leaps. I begin to regret holding the door for him. But there’s nothing I can do now, so I decide to go on the offensive.
“Why do you want to know?” I say, disappointed that it’s not as aggressive as I wanted it to be.
“I’m a friend.”
Really? “From work?”
“Yeah. You his boy?”
No. I just feed his cats. I nod, and kick myself for it.
Now I’m sure he’s one of them. He has to be. I don’t know who They are, but he’s one of Them for sure. I can’t hide the suspicion from the look I give him. Be cool, I tell myself.
Out loud, I say, “She’s all right.”
“Can’t be easy, eh?”
What is this? Why are you making small talk? What do you want to get out of me? I shrug, and watch the floor indicator flicker from ten to eleven. The doors grind open, and we both step out on to the landing. I fumble with my keys as I open the gate, then the door to dad’s flat. It’s dark inside. Straight away I know dad’s not home. But still I close the gate and make a show of looking for him.
“Dad?” I wait a second. No answer, of course. I turn back to the bald guy. “He’s not here.”
He makes a show of looking surprised, but he can tell as easily as I can the flat’s deserted. “Know when he’ll be back?”
I wish I did. I shrug. “Sometimes he stays out all night.”
“Got his mobile number?”
Do I look like an idiot? I decide I’ve had enough. This guy doesn’t look like much of a threat, anyway. Whoever he is, he’s not here to kill me. “Look,” I say, with all the force I can muster. “I don’t know you, all right? You know my dad from work? Ask them for his number. Otherwise, I can’t help you.” It’s more than I meant to say, and it leaves me with my heart hammering; but it seems to work. The guy squeezes out a smile and steps back from the door.
“All right,” he says. “I’ll give them a call. Cheers.”
He turns and walks back to the lift. He doesn’t look back, and I don’t look away until the lift doors have closed. Then I close the front door, lock both locks, put the chain on the latch, and slump down in the hallway with my head back and my eyes closed.
This is insane, I decide. I can’t go on like this. I’ve had enough. I take out my phone and dial mum’s number.
She picks up after the second ring. “Jason?” I’m surprised to hear worry in her voice. There are voices in the background, too, lots of them, and other sounds: footsteps, keyboards, the hiss and bleep of radios.
“Where are you?” I say.
“At home. Are you at your father’s?”
“Yes. He’s not here. Have you heard from him?”
There’s a pause. When mum speaks again I can tell she’s trying to hold something back. “Jason, listen to me. You need to come home right now. Do you understand?”
“But what about—”
“Jason, don’t argue with me.” There’s anger now, and fear. Mum’s afraid, and that makes me afraid. “Just come home. Now. Please.”
“All right. All right. I’m coming. But …” I struggle with the words.
“Jason, what’s wrong?”
Come on. Just say it. If ever there was a right time it’s now.
“Jason, what are you—”
“Mum, I know.”
A pause. “Know what?”
“I know. I know about … everything. About Rachel. About the experiments. About the pictures, and … and Carol.” The words come tumbling out, and as I hear myself saying them it somehow makes the events become more real, though I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing. “I know about Shannen, and demanifestation, and what Rachel can do. I know she can disappear, and reappear. I saw her, at school, in London, near dad’s one evening …”
The words trail off. There’s silence on the other end.
“Mum, I don’t know what to think. There are men outside our house, and I swear I was followed on my way here, and when I got here there was a guy asking about dad, wanting to know where he was …”
Another pause. “Did you get his name?”
“No. He was white. Old. He was bald. He had a belly. I don’t … I don’t know what to do, mum.”
“Just come home, love. All right?”
“Jason. Listen. You have to believe me when I say that the safest place for you to be right now is in this house. I promise you that. As your mother, who lives you dearly, I promise you that nothing will happen. Do you understand?”
I take a deep, shuddering breath.
“When you get here I promise I’ll explain everything to you. Just … Come home, Jason. Please, come home.”
“What about the guy who was looking for dad?”
“He might follow you. I don’t know. But I guarantee he won’t hurt you. I won’t let him.”
There’s something in the way she says it — some steel I’ve never heard before — that gives me confidence.
“All right.” I nod. “All right. I’m coming.”
“Hurry, my love.”
I stop when I get to the door of the block, and peer out through the grubby wire-threaded glass. There’s nothing to see except the orange glare of the street lights. I wait for a few minutes, but nothing moves. Finally I decide that I can either wait here all night or get going, so I quietly open the door and slip out into the night.
I spot him following me long before we get to the station. Either he’s not very good at this or he doesn’t care if I see him; he walks about fifty meters behind me, stopping when I stop and leaning up against a shop window when I turn to look at him.
At the station we stand at opposite ends of the platform, hands in our pockets, eyes fixed on the distant horizon, avoiding each other. When the train comes he waits until the last second before jumping through the closing doors, just to make sure I don’t give him the slip. At least we’re in different carriages, and I have a few minutes to myself between here and London Bridge. I spend it looking at my reflection in the window, wondering what kind of explanation mum could come up with to justify everything I’ve seen.
When the train pulls in we all spill out and jostle along the platform. I make a half-hearted attempt to lose him, but while he may be clumsy he’s certainly no idiot, and he keeps up with me easily. There’s another awkward wait, then another brief respite until we get to my stop. I consider staying on the train for a bit, leading him around the houses; but what would that achieve, to be honest? Mum said I’d be safe at home, and for once in my life I believe her.
When I turn into our street the first thing I notice is that all the street lights are out. I have to half-feel my way along the pavement, hoping I don’t step in anything. The second thing I notice is how few cars there are; and the third thing is that there’s no-one watching our house any more.
When I get to the front door I stop and look behind me. There’s no sign of the bald guy; in fact, there’s no sign of anyone at all. All the lights in all the houses are off; there’s no TV glow from behind any curtains, no sound of music, no voices. It’s like the whole street is holding its breath, waiting for something.
I turn my key in the lock and open the door.
Then I stop and stare.
Mum’s house has been taken over. That’s the only way I can think to describe it. There’s so much it’s impossible to take it all in at once: bundles of cables snaking down the hallway between clip-lock boxes stacked with automatic rifles; men in Kevlar body armour sitting on the stairs; in the kitchen, what looks like a mini war room, with laptops on every surface and men and women in urban camouflage talking constantly into headsets; and everywhere the overlapping chatter of military voices, using urgent phrases like ‘mobile assets’ and ‘fixed position turrets’.
A woman in a flak jacket and a black beret steps out of the living room in front of me.
“Jason Oye?” she says. I nod dumbly. She takes a metal rod from behind her back and runs it quickly over my shoulders and chest. “Just a precaution. Turn around please.” I do as I’m told, still too stunned to ask questions. She scans my back and legs, then asks me to turn around again. “Your mother is in the kitchen,” she says, pointing in the direction she clearly wants me to go.
I slip past her and make my way to the kitchen, careful not to catch my feet on the cables coiled everywhere like black snakes. Mum’s sitting at the kitchen table with Rachel beside her. When she sees me she jumps up and throws her arms around me, burying my face in her chest.
“I was so worried about you,” she says, when she finally lets go. “Were you followed?”
I nod. “I didn’t see him come down the street, though. Where is everyone? What’s going on?”
“Just one second, love.” She picks up a photograph from the kitchen table and holds it out for me to see. “Is this the man who followed you?”
I take a look at the picture. Yes, it’s him. He’s younger and thinner, and he’s smiling for the camera, but that’s the man from the tower block. I nod.
Mum takes out her phone and spends a minute tapping something in. I look past her at Rachel; she’s sitting quietly in the middle of the chaos, doodling on a piece of paper, ignoring the people coming in and out and muttering into earpieces. Mum finishes what she’s doing and pockets the phone, then she gestures for me to sit down.
“I know this is all very confusing for you,” she says. “I know you must have a thousand questions for me. And Jason, I want you to know that I will give you the answers to those questions, but it can’t be now. This isn’t the time, all right? All you need to remember for now is that, whatever happens, you have to stay with Rachel. Do you understand? Whatever happens in the next few minutes, you don’t leave her. You have to protect her, Jason. It has to be you, and no-one else. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
I nod. I’m about to reply, but we’re interrupted by one of the operatives behind us.
“Mrs. Oye? Bogies incoming. Airbound. Bearing mark three two three four. Closing fast.”
Mum turns to her. “Stand by on the flares,” she says. She turns back to me. “Promise me you’ll look after her.”
“Mum, what is that?” There’s a sound approaching, a low chattering that grows louder and louder with each second.
“Just promise me, Jason.”
“I promise. I’ll look after her.”
The sound grows louder, and now it’s unmistakeable: the thukkathukkathukka of helicopter blades.
Mum smiles. “You’re a good boy, honey. Be brave, now. Understand?”
I nod. “I will. Are those helicopters?”
She’s still smiling. “Be brave, Jason. Be brave.”
There’s a sudden barrage of white noise from the garden, as if a hundred gas valves have been opened in quick succession. Blinding mercury light cuts black shadows through the blinds, throwing crazy patterns across the room. I look up, startled, and find Rachel’s gaze fixed on me. The light dies away, and there’s a moment of perfect silence. In the pause I can see the fear in Rachel’s eyes. I try to smile at her, to let her know that it’s going to be all right, but for some reason the smile won’t come.
Then an explosion outside blows the windows in, and all hell breaks loose.
* * *
I hope that was exciting enough for you. Once chapter eleven’s done it’ll all be over bar the (extensive) editing. Then I can move on to Kindling (already in the planning stages).
I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.