For a week Laura was determined not to watch for Zach. Once she saw his distinctive hair skimming above the roil in the corridor outside the gym, but by the time she elbowed through the mass of kids, he was gone. Another time she was standing with Owen and Olivia in the canteen and could feel someone’s eyes on her, but when she glanced round there was nobody of interest.
Owen asked one or two questions, which Laura dealt with effortlessly in her best offhand tone, breezy enough to power a small wind turbine. Olivia wouldn’t have been fooled—or dishevelled—for a moment. As follow-up, Laura gave Owen exactly ten minutes in the infamous (and fetid) ‘broom room’ which was used by everybody for that purpose. Some kids even claimed the teaching staff knew all about it and were prone to retire there themselves on occasion, when they needed to blow steam after a stressy couple of lessons. Lots of the younger girls racketed on about sightings, about possible pairings, but except for a six-week period when she’d done a bit of dozy daydreaming over the new bearded DT head—half the school pitched up at auditions for Midsummer that term—she’d never been particularly keen on the secret lives of bees, or narwhals, or teachers.
Lads her age were so pathetic. There must be one token male in her year who didn’t walk around with a permanent stiffy, but she’d yet to meet him. At least Owen played within the foul lines. She and Olivia spent a lot of time thrashing it over, but Livs had been going with older lads for ages, she was bound to see it differently. She’d come round Thursday after swimming club, bringing an extra-large packet of Laura’s favourite crisps. They turned up the music loud, then louder.
‘Pissed at your mum?’ Olivia asked.
Laura turned the music up even louder and ate a fistful of crisps, and another.
‘Save some for me,’ Olivia said.
‘Thought you wanted to lose two, three kilos?’
‘Damien says he likes my womanly curves.’
‘Your big tits, you mean.’
‘You’re just jealous,’ Olivia said, hefting them in her hands.
They both giggled, nearly spilling a can of diet fizz, then crunched companionably together on the floor cushions—handsewn. They’d known each other since primary, and even Olivia, who’d never liked Laura’s mum, was a bit envious of their tidy house and tins full of home-baking and T-shirts that were always ironed. Her own parents were divorced, and nobody much bothered in either of the flats.
During a brief lull between tracks they could hear Laura’s mum shouting something from the downstairs hallway. ‘Better turn it down,’ Olivia said, ‘not the right time to wind her up, is it?’
‘What do you mean?’
Olivia licked some salt off her lips before answering. ‘You know. The auger.’
‘Don’t call them that!’
‘Hey. This is Olivia, remember.’
‘Just don’t use that word.’
Olivia picked up the remote and adjusted the volume on the system. ‘OK, what’s going on?’
‘Nothing’s going on. I just don’t like that Purist crap.’
‘It’s not crap. My dad says—’
‘Fuck your dad! Since when have you begun to quote him?’
‘Listen girl, you’d better watch it, and not just your mouth neither. I don’t have to tell you what’s going to happen if you start going round with augers.’
‘And I told you that I don’t want to hear that sort of language. It’s narrow-minded and ignorant and stupid.’
‘You’re calling me stupid now? You, who can barely pass a course at school?’
Laura rose to her feet, snatching up the unfinished packet of crisps, which she thrust at her best friend. ‘Here, take them with you. You might get hungry on the way home.’
They stared at each other for a short while, then Olivia too stood up.
‘OK, I’m going,’ she said. ‘But you’re making a big mistake, and we’ve been mates too long for me not to warn you. Zach’s poison. I mean it. Poison. There’s girls who’ll sleep with augers for the thrill of it, but they always—always—end up sorry. If you don’t believe me, ask Jackie. Ask her why her sister quit school last year. Ask her where Anne is now. And most of all, ask her which mulac bastard fucked Anne so good that she locked herself in her room one Monday and swallowed enough pills to sort herself for good. Real good.’
Laura shook her head. ‘He’s not like that.’
‘And you’re calling me stupid?’
Although names were listed at most of the vid monitors, Laura recognised none of them and didn’t fancy ringing indiscriminately. It was a roughish area near the East Street Canal. A boy in last year’s blades, the left one with a broken buckle, had stopped trying to barrel roll on the pavement without falling and was watching her. She would have liked to suggest some basics, like bending his knees more, but he’d probably tell her to piss off. ‘Rad skating,’ she said. ‘Much better than my brother.’ In exchange for a packet of sweets he unlocked the front door to the building and directed her to the right flat.
‘He’s one of those weirdo mulacs,’ the boy said. ‘What do you want with him anyway?’
Weirdo mulacs. Laura bit the inside of her cheek till she could speak casually. ‘I’m supposed to bring him some homework. He’s missed a lot of lessons.’
‘He probably won’t bother to answer.’ Thrusting the sweets into a pocket, he clumped down the front steps, his curiosity dampened by the mention of school. The door shut on his loud oath as he landed on his arse. Somebody ought to buy him a helmet, Laura thought. His brains are already scrambled enough.
There was no doorbell. Laura knocked several times, and after a five-minute wait, knocked again. Finally, ready to give up, she heard footsteps. When Zach opened the door, he stared at her without a word. Underneath the faint stubble she could see the angry bruise on his chin, like a slap in her own face. She lifted her hand towards it, but he stepped back and began to shut the door.
‘Wait,’ she said.
He didn’t reopen the door, but he didn’t close it any farther, either. His eyes were dark and unreadable.
‘I’d like to come in,’ she said.
‘No,’ he said, his voice hard with anger, and something else. His hand dropped from the doorjamb, and Laura surprised herself by thrusting her foot over the sill before he could shut her out. They both looked down.
‘Please,’ she said.
He shrugged then and stepped back, still unsmiling.
His flat was very sophisticated for a seventeen-year-old’s: clean white walls, blond worktable and bookshelves, soft yellow leather sofa, computer. There were books everywhere; didn’t he use a reader?
‘Do you live alone?’ she asked.
‘Just tell me what you want.’
Why did it seem so difficult to apologise to him? She’d prepared her script carefully, but he made her feel like a cliché waiting onstage for the curtain to rise. In the end she settled for a simple, ‘I’m sorry.’
He nodded, then pulled his T-shirt over his head and tossed it onto the couch table. She noticed a small tattoo on his upper chest, above his heart. A code, it seemed—at least a series of symbols in no alphabet she recognised.
He was very thin, much thinner than she remembered. Or perhaps he’d lost weight recently. She averted her gaze from the dark line of hair below his belly button, but not before he snorted.
‘What are you waiting for?’ he asked. ‘Get undressed.’
‘I’m not taking your clothes off for you. And no kissing.’ He began unzipping his jeans. He was already barefoot. ‘There are rules to this. No one touches my hair, either.’
‘Hold on. What’s going on?’
His jeans landed on top of his T-shirt. Arms akimbo, he smiled—mockingly—for the first time. ‘If you want me to get hard, you’ll have to work a bit harder yourself.’
She took a step backwards, hugging her ribs. Olivia’s words came back to her. Get out now, she could imagine her friend saying, right now.
But he didn’t give her a chance to finish. ‘What’s the problem? That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? To fuck? To find out what it’s like to fuck an auger?’
‘Did you know Anne Marsden?’ she asked.
His mouth twisted, and all at once Laura felt close to tears. She turned her head, pretending to study the rows of books on his shelves, some volumes awfully old-looking, some even bound in leather, till she could control her voice. When she looked back again, he was standing in his boxers by the window, gazing out over the canal. It was a grey afternoon, and little gusts of wind were blowing leaves onto the dull beaten water, the colour of tarnished silver. Then she realised he was shivering—shivering, in fact, quite strongly. He turned his head towards her, and the bruise looked liverish against his now pale skin. He put out a hand to steady himself on the windowsill.
‘You’re ill,’ she said.
He licked his lips several times. ‘I—’ He broke off, as another round of shivering overtook him.
Laura crossed the room.
‘Where’s your bed?’ she asked.
They stared at each other for a moment, before the humour in the situation struck them both—what the question would have meant just a few minutes ago. Even Zach laughed, despite his haggard state. He indicated a door near his desk and let her accompany him along a short passage into his bedroom. Once she had him lying down under a thick duvet, she asked if he needed a doctor.
‘Just some water.’
‘Yeah, some sweet tea would be great. No milk.’
He closed his eyes. The shivering had subsided somewhat, but red blotches had appeared under his high cheekbones, and there was a sheen to his skin which worried Laura. Max had looked that way during his last bout of viral pneumonia. She went in search of the kitchen. It was small and plain, but spotlessly clean. There was very little except some mustard, a scrap of cheddar, half a pint of sour milk, and a couple of limp carrots in the fridge. It didn’t look as if he’d been eating—or at least eating here—for a while. But she found tea leaves and a full packet of sugar.
He drank the tea greedily, then lay back on the pillow. ‘I’ll be OK now, thanks. Just shut the front door behind you when you leave.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want something else? Some food?’
‘No. Only sleep.’
But his colour was no better, and he was still shivering from time to time. She fetched a spare blanket from the top of the wardrobe and covered him, then hovered near the foot of the bed, considering what to do. In a last drowsy effort he opened his eyes again.
‘Just go, Laura.’
She went, but into the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea and ring home on her mobile with an easy lie. In the living room she kicked off her trainers, curled up on the sofa with a novel that looked promising, and settled down to wait. After about an hour, she heard him crying out and hurried to check. Though the bedding was in disarray, he appeared to be sleeping, but there wasn’t enough light from the passage to see his colour. Tentatively she laid a hand on his forehead, which felt moist but not overly warm. When she straightened his blankets, he muttered ‘Ben’, turned on his side with a groan, and then was quiet.
‘Why are you still here?’
She must have fallen asleep. The living room was dark, but some light from the streetlamps cast distorted shadows across the floor and up the walls. Zach was silhouetted in the doorway to the passage.
‘Are you feeling better?’ Laura asked.
Zach snapped on the lights. He’d dressed in a warm tracksuit, but his long hair was uncombed. Coarser than silk, she thought.
‘You haven’t answered my question,’ he said.
‘Nor you, mine.’
A burst of raucous laughter from the street below, then silence. At night the canal attracted the druggies and homeless, who wrapped their misery in cheap newsprint. But in Zach’s room the silence had the same heavy creamy texture as laid vellum, the kind sold at specialist stationers, which called out for a thick nib and rich black ink—and a hand inscribing with care. Even the first word was a commitment, each successive stroke a further act of bravery. In the end you had to mark the paper, or forever live between empty pages.
‘You’re the first girl I’ve met who’s comfortable with silence,’ Zach finally said. He hesitated, then added, ‘Sapiens girl.’
‘It’s one of the reasons I like to swim. I think I’d have been happy as a whale or dolphin.’
‘They have voices.’
‘Underwater it always sounds like silence.’
Zach stared at her with those strangely luminous eyes, then turned abruptly and headed for the kitchen. He was filling the kettle when Laura joined him.
‘You need to eat something,’ she said.
‘I won’t keep it down.’
He was starting to shiver again.
‘Zach, please tell me what’s wrong.’
‘Worried you’ll catch something?’
‘Yeah, like maybe your rudeness.’
He merely shrugged.
‘Well, if you’re not hungry, I am.’
He smiled at that. ‘How about a carrot?’
‘I’ll go out and fetch something. There must be a takeaway nearby.’
‘You can’t go by yourself. Not at night, not in this neighbourhood. I’ll ring for a taxi to take you home.’
‘I’m not leaving you alone while you’re like this.’
‘And do what? Spend the night here?’
‘Somebody will cover for me.’
‘You’ve got to be sudsing.’
Laura looked away. She’d always imagined that Olivia would be a friend for life. They’d joked about having a house together, with part-time husbands in separate accommodation. Sharing babysitting. Sharing holidays. Sharing a cottage when they were old and wrinkled and hard of hearing and incontinent. You didn’t risk that sort of friendship for someone like Zach, did you? For an auger?
The kettle had boiled, and he was trying to make tea, but spilling half the water onto the worktop.
‘Go and lie down,’ Laura said, ‘I’ll do it.’
He handed her his wallet when she brought the mug to him. ‘Here, order a pizza or something. There’s a list by the phone.’
‘I’ve got money with me.’
‘Forget it. I earn enough.’
‘How? You’re still in school.’ Her eyes swept the room, the furnishings, the books.
‘Fulgur pays us well enough.’
‘You work for Fulgur?’
His laugh was bitter. ‘You don’t know much about us, do you?’
While she was on the phone, she heard the unmistakable sounds of vomiting. At first Zach refused to let her into the bathroom, but he needed help, and eventually was persuaded to discard his pride—god, how they hated to seem weak—along with his soiled clothes. There was some blood mixed with the thin contents of his stomach.
‘You’re scaring me, Zach. I’m going to ring for a doctor.’
A disturbing thought occurred to her. ‘You’re not a user, are you?’
‘Heroin? I wish.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘There are worse forms of dependency.’
She sat down next to him on the bed. ‘Tell me the truth. Do you still want me to leave?’
She could see him struggling with himself. It was nothing like Olivia trying to resist another piece of chocolate. The stakes weren’t in kilos, or image, or self-worth. Not even in bruises from some hormone-challenged thugs. His life was set down in a language she couldn’t begin to read. Yet all she’d been worrying about was what a friendship with one of his kind might involve for her—not him.
‘No,’ he whispered at last. ‘Don’t go.’
Shame made her prickly. ‘Then you can explain before or after I clean the bathroom, but no later.’
‘I don’t want you cleaning up my mess.’
Years of practice with her mother, and teachers, had taught Laura about the leverage to be gained by disengagement, especially if she were likely to be bested in a verbal tussle. She said nothing. After a long period in which Zach’s eyes were focused on the pot plant by the window—something odd and tropical—he said, ‘It needs water.’
‘OK.’ Laura stood. ‘I’ll water it, then I’ll tidy the bathroom, and then I’ll go. On foot. A nice friendly mugger or rapist would be a welcome relief.’
‘I’m not sure I can trust you.’
‘I’m here, aren’t I?’
‘Yeah, you’re here . . . ‘
‘If I could change what I did at the club—’
‘But you wouldn’t, would you?’ he interrupted brutally. ‘Not with Boyfriend No. 1 looking on, plus all your other mates.’
‘He’s not my boyfriend.’ It was easier to discuss Owen than to think about whether Zach was right about her.
‘I don’t understand you monkeys. What is it with you and sex? He was practically ejaculating in front of everyone, yet you kept on rubbing yourself against him. And then you say he’s not your boyfriend.’
Laura could feel the heat rise in her cheeks. He deserved a sharp retort, and she was more than prepared to deliver one, except that she saw how pale he’d become again, how prominent the bruise, and she forced herself to hold her tongue. He was ill . . . grey as trodden snow . . .
He pushed off the duvet, swung his feet to the floor, and hunched over his knees, clutching his head, restlessly jiggling his legs. ‘I know it’s supposed to be bad, but this . . . fuck.’ Then he crossed his arms and dug his fingers into his skin, gouging deep marks and rocking in pain. ‘Bastards,’ he muttered, ‘bastards.’
Laura was genuinely frightened now. She crouched down in front of him and tried to take his hands, but he pushed her away. Then, as the next bout of shivering began, he slid to the floor with a low moan. She wrapped her arms around him. She could feel his heart beating, beating against her like a seal calf imprisoned under the ice.
‘I’m going to ring my father,’ she said once she’d managed to get a few sips of lukewarm tea into him, and he was back in bed. ‘He’s a doctor, he’ll know what to do. He won’t like it, but he’ll come if necessary.’
‘Perfect. Tell him to swing by the lab and fetch the HC serum.’
‘Ask your dad.’
‘He won’t tell me. He never talks about his work.’
‘I’m not surprised. If I were him, I’d also be plenty ashamed to tell my kids what I did to buy their ice cream and pods and swimming lessons and swank clothes.’
‘I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about. He’s a research scientist. You’re making him sound like some sort of criminal!’
Zach sighed. ‘He’s no worse than any of them, I suppose.’
Agitated now, Laura walked to the window and ran her fingers over the broad fleshy leaves of the plant—an unpleasant sensation, as though she were massaging a dismembered flipper. She rubbed her hand on her jeans, then raised her fingers to her nose and sniffed. It must have been her imagination, there was no smell of fish oil now.
‘Are you saying my dad has something to do with your illness?’
‘Are you ill when deprived of oxygen?’
She spread her hands in a gesture of hopeless incomprehension. Zach raised his upper body off the pillow, his colour high again, his eyes too bright.
‘Are you sure you want to know? Really sure?’ he asked.
Slowly she nodded.
He spoke fast, almost as if he were trying to outrun a stutter. ‘OK. I’ll tell you. Nobody else will. And then you tell me if you’ll be able to sit down at breakfast with your dad and eat your scrambled eggs and bacon and toast without choking.’ He took a breath, trying to calm himself. ‘We’re flawed genetically, all of us. A faulty gene which prevents our bodies from producing a key protein needed by our brain cells. The biochemical mechanisms are a bit more complicated, of course. But going too long without this factor induces the withdrawal symptoms you’ve seen. And worse.’
‘How much worse?’
They were quiet for a time.
‘Then why aren’t you taking the stuff?’ Laura asked. ‘That serum.’
‘I wanted to see if I could manage without it. At least for a while. How would you like to be dependent on the supply of a drug?’
‘Lots of people were, once. All those old diseases—diabetes, schizophrenia, high blood pressure. Still are, for some things.’
‘Not a great way to live.’
‘Haven’t they tried to fix the problem? They can do an awful lot about faulty genes nowadays.’
Zach gave a short harsh laugh. ‘You don’t get it, do you? It’s the other way round. They engineered the defective gene deliberately. To have a hold over us. To control us. To own us.’
The doorbell rang. ‘The pizza,’ Laura said, relieved to escape for a moment. But when she opened the door, it wasn’t a deliveryman.
‘There’s been a complaint, miss,’ the officer said.