Extract

Chapter 1

 
I’m trying to pretend yesterday didn’t happen. Trouble is, they won’t let me. I thought all I’ve got to do is keep out of the way, say nothing, and they’ll see I’m safe; and I am safe, I’m totally safe, I just want to get on with my own stuff. I’m indoors most of the time anyway. I’m not called Mole for nothing. So what’s to worry about? They could leave me alone and everything would be fine, but no. The email stares at me from the screen.

We gotta talk.

Then a phone number, a mobile. I check the email address again. Nothing that gives away a name, just random letters and numbers. I think back to yesterday, read the email again, click Reply and type an answer.

Nothing to talk about.

But that won’t do. I delete the words and try again.

 I won’t say anything.

That feels wrong too. I listen to the sounds in the house: Dad washing up the supper things downstairs, Mum walking up and down the hall, talking on the phone. I’m just wondering where Meggie is when she knocks on my door.

‘What you doing, big guy?’ she calls.

I quickly cancel the unsent email and switch off the computer.

‘Nothing much.’

She comes in and walks over. She’s got a dressing gown on and a towel round her neck and her hair’s wet from the shower. She puts a hand on my shoulder.

‘Nothing much?’ she says.

‘Yeah.’

‘Sounds like fun.’

She pulls up a chair next to me.

‘You OK?’ she says.

‘Yeah.’

‘Just switched off your computer?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Screen light’s still on.’

I switch off the screen. She looks over my desk, picks up the top book from the pile.

‘I know,’ she says, glancing over it, ‘nosy little sister.’

‘I don’t mind you being nosy.’

She studies the book cover.

‘Treasure Island. You must have read this nine times, Mikey.’

More like twenty-nine times, but I don’t tell Meggie that. She puts the book down again and turns to me.

‘So what happened yesterday, big guy?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You were doing great,’ she says. ‘Mum and Dad are really pleased with the way you’re trying to face things.  But I didn’t tell them how quiet you were coming back, how you were like…closed up. Was it that bad, where we went?’
‘I chose the place, so it’s my fault if it was.’

Meggie frowned.

‘Maybe I should have fought you harder and taken you somewhere else. I was really worried when you told me where you wanted to go, Mikey, so noisy and crowded and everything, all the things that freak you out, normally. I thought you were being a bit overambitious.’

She’s probably right – she usually is – but I was trying to show some bottle. I thought – I’ll choose a tough place, a really tough place, all the things that scare the pants off me, and it’ll be a real test for me to see if I can handle it, and I was handling it, sort of, till the stuff happened. I don’t answer Meggie. Don’t know what to say to her.

‘Mikey?’

‘Call me Mole like everyone else does.’

‘Mum and Dad don’t call you Mole, and I’m not going to either.’

I stare into Meggie’s face. It’s so hard to think of her as thirteen. She seems two years older than me rather than two years younger, but it’s always been that way. It’s only when she’s got Lucy and her other mates round and they go all girlie that she seems her true age. I hear another knock at the door, then Mum puts her head round.

‘Making hot drinks,’ she says. ‘Anybody interested?’

‘Cocoa, please,’ says Meggie.

‘Mikey?’

‘Hot chocolate, please.’

‘Come down in ten minutes.’

And Mum closes the door. Meggie stands up, rubbing her hair with the towel.

‘Mikey, you still haven’t told me what went wrong yesterday.’

And I can’t. I can’t get Meggie involved, or Mum and Dad. I’ve got to think what to do, and I need time for that. It’s complicated, really complicated. I’m hoping it’ll be one of those things that’ll go away if I don’t do anything. Once they see I haven’t said or done anything, they’ll work out I’m no danger. I stare at the blank computer screen.

We gotta talk.

It’s like the words are hiding there, even with the thing switched off. I feel Meggie’s hand on my shoulder again.

‘You were doing really well, Mikey,’ she says. ‘You managed half an hour at that place. That’s good, that’s really good. Maybe that’s what scared you a bit. You’re not used to it. But I was with you going and coming back, and we can do it again, tomorrow maybe, after school. We could go to the same place, so you get used to it, or maybe another place. Somewhere you feel really safe.’

I feel Meggie’s hand leave my shoulder.

‘See you downstairs,’ she says.

And she’s gone. I switch on the computer again, call up my emails, and there’s another one: same meaningless address, but some new words.

Ring the number.

I stare at the message, call up the old one. The mobile number sits on the screen, waiting. I lean back in the chair. Outside in Denbury Close all is quiet. I stand up, walk to the window, and peer out. Darkness has fallen over the neat, familiar road. All my life it’s seemed safe and reassuring; suddenly it doesn’t. The clean cars, the well-tended gardens, the double garages, the immaculate houses – all seem hostile now. For the first time I see how many places there are to hide round here.

I make my way downstairs. They’re all in the sitting room and their silence matches the silence in the close outside. We have our hot drinks. Dad does the crossword, Mum the Sudoku, Meggie texts her friends. I stare at the fire, the only thing making any noise right now.

‘One for you here, Mikey,’ says Dad suddenly.

I look round at him, but he’s still studying the crossword. He reads out the clue.

‘Name of the ship in Treasure Island. Ten letters.’

‘Hispaniola.’

Mum chuckles, but says nothing.

‘Thanks,’ says Dad.

And they all carry on, Dad with his crossword, Mum with her Sudoku, Meggie with her texting. The fire goes slowly down. Back in my room later, as I make ready for bed, I switch on my computer again. There are four more emails from the same address. But it’s just one message, repeated four times.

Talk to us and live mikey. Talk to anyone else and people gonna die. Including you xxx

 
 
Chapter 2
 

The darkness feels good. I burrow down deep in the bed. I like being called Mole. I know they mean it as an insult but I don’t care. Moles do what I like doing. It’s natural for them and it’s natural for me. The thing is, if you don’t have the fear, you can’t understand the fear. That’s what pisses me off about my shrink. He might have studied case histories of other people like me but he can’t really understand what we go through unless he feels the fear himself.

And he doesn’t. He’s got no idea. He goes out of his house like almost everybody else does, and he never thinks twice about the terrifying openness of the world, the great, yawning void. He studies his cases and talks to his patients and gives us all his clever, wordy advice, and then he goes out and gets on with his brilliant life. I say ‘us all’ as if I know his other patients, but of course I don’t. I never see them. Most of the time I don’t even make it to his clinic.

Unless Meggie can get time off school and come with me. Usually he comes here, which is more expensive for Mum and Dad, and I feel bad about that, even though they tell me it doesn’t matter. But I guess it’s not so much of a problem now that he’s stopped coming so often. He insists I’m making progress and he doesn’t need to see me so regularly, but he knows and I know that he’s given up, because I’m making no progress at all, and the fear’s still there, only it’s bigger. It’s turned into terror.

That’s why books console me, specially novels by authors from another age, like Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. The people in their stories aren’t real and the people who wrote them are long dead, so they don’t feel real either. I’m never going to meet any of them outside of books, never going to have to deal with them face to face. So books are safe, and when I read, I feel safe too. Till I close the book.

The darkness folds around me, and now the warmth of the bed, and the silence outside in the close, and in my room. But the words don’t go away. I see them against the blackness, just as they appeared on my computer screen, and they seem to speak aloud to me, like strange robotic voices in my ear.

‘Talk to us and live, Mikey,’ they say mechanically. ‘Talk to anyone else and people gonna die. Including you.’

Yeah, right. I believe the second and third bit, so I’m keeping quiet there, but the first bit? Talk to us and live? I’m not stupid. I know what’ll happen if I make contact with these people. So ringing won’t help. Ringing will just bring them nearer, and they’re near already. I can feel them close. I push my head out from the covers and peer about the dark room.

That’s something that always chills me: how the darkness fades the longer you’re in it. I don’t want the darkness to fade; I want it to stay as black as possible, so it hides me really well, but it always eases, even after I’ve had my head under the covers. The room’s clearer than the last time I saw it, and if it’s clear for me, it could be clear for somebody else hiding here.

I stare round at the murky shapes, growing more visible by the minute. Nothing’s moving and everything’s still quiet outside the house. Doesn’t feel right, though. I slip out of bed, pull my dressing gown on over my pyjamas, and peep round the side of the curtain into Denbury Close. Nothing moving down below, nothing I can see. I look up at the sky. Dull clouds, no stars or moon.

There should be much more darkness than this outside. I don’t like it when everything’s so clear. I leave the window and walk over to the bookshelves. I know where my books are by feel alone, every single one of them, but right now I can even see the writing on the spines, the books with larger lettering anyway. I wish I couldn’t. This darkness is just too bright. I run my eye over the titles.

Oliver Twist.

I pull the book down. It’s not my favourite Charles Dickens but never mind. I take it over to the armchair in the corner, slump down with my legs pulled into my chest, and hug the book in the darkness. After a while I hear footsteps on the landing: Meggie’s, heading for the loo. Just as well I’ve got the light off or she’d see it and come and check I’m OK, and I’m not. Right now I’m a long way from OK. I open the book, stare at the blurry text, but the only words I pick up are the ones chanting in my head. People gonna die, people gonna die.

Die, die, die.

I close the book, hug it again, then hear the click of the bathroom door and Meggie’s footsteps once more, only they’re not heading back to her room: they’re heading this way. A pause outside my door, then it quietly opens and I see her head appear in the gap. But she doesn’t see me. She’s staring towards the bed. It takes her a few moments to realise I’m not there, then she turns, quickly, as if in a panic.

‘I’m over here, Meggie.’

She sees me curled up on the chair.

‘Mikey,’ she says, with obvious relief,’ what you doing sitting in the dark?’

‘What you doing checking me out?’

She closes the door behind her and walks over.

‘I often check to see if you’re sleeping,’ she says.

‘I didn’t know.’

‘That’s because you’re always sleeping when I look in.’

‘So why do you check, then?’

‘I check when I’m worried about you.’

‘But if I’m always sleeping when you look in,’ I say, ‘there’s obviously nothing to worry about.’

I don’t mention the times I’ve sat here in the darkness on the nights when she didn’t check.

‘I just know you often don’t sleep,’ she says. ‘So I’m guessing you curl up on that chair and think and worry, even if I haven’t seen you doing it.’

‘You don’t know I do that.’

‘You’re doing it now.’

I don’t answer.

‘What are you hugging to yourself?’ she says suddenly.

I hold out the book. She takes it and stares at the jacket.

‘Can’t read this,’ she says eventually. ‘Too dark.’

‘Don’t put on the light.’

‘I wasn’t going to.’

She hands it back to me and stands there, looking down. Yet again I wonder at her being thirteen. It’s almost like Mum standing next to me. She reaches out suddenly and ruffles my hair. Like Mum does.

‘It’ll be OK, Mikey,’ she says, and she quietly leaves the room. I wait till I hear her own door click, then pull the book back into my chest and close my eyes.

‘Die, die, die,’ say the words in my head.