Chapter Twenty-One

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‘It’s too risky,’ Laura said. ‘Let me go.’

‘No,’ Zach said.

Voices muted, they stared up at his windows from beneath the cast-iron canal footbridge. Their puffs of breath resembled the wavy speech balloons from Max’s comics, dialogue faded to tremulous wisps. The falling snow afforded a quiet which was eerie in a city that was never truly quiet, and it was all too easy to imagine themselves safely hidden in a priest hole surrounded by flaking mortared walls. But Laura had no illusions about what would happen if they were caught.

‘You must have left a light burning,’ she said. ‘The police would be waiting in the dark, wouldn’t they?’

At that moment a shadow passed behind the drawn curtains in Zach’s living room. Laura clutched his arm.

‘There’s someone in your flat,’ she said.

‘Stay here,’ he said. ‘Without keys my motorbike’s useless. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve packed a few things.’

‘But what about—’

He was gone before she could complete the question. Stubborn idiot, she thought. Owen would at least pretend to listen. Yeah, a small mean voice countered, he’d listen the same way a well-trained pet listens, a sweet spoon-fed monkey. ‘Shut up,’ Laura muttered. She didn’t want to think about Owen. And then she remembered that she didn’t want to think about any of her mates—not now, not yet.

She still had her keys to Zach’s flat. Even with his keen hearing, five minutes’ headstart ought to suffice in this weather, but she added another three or four to be certain, then made her way along the towpath until she reached the short flight of steps from which, in daylight, a decaying boat and derelict boathouse with half caved-in roof could be seen on the opposite bank. Streetlamps, set far apart on this stretch of canal, illuminated little more than the itinerant snowflakes. Laura followed Zach’s footprints up the steps, smudged parallel tracks which soon veered off to the left across uneven ground in the direction of the main entrance to his building. Careful to avoid a fall, she crossed the intervening tract, glancing frequently at the windows above her, frequently towards the towpath at her back. It was late, Zach’s neighbours all seemed to be asleep, and no abominations arose from the depths of the cut to accost her, no stalkers. No police.

She was going to need new shoes, maybe new feet. Her mum, perfect homemaker that she fancied herself, kept complete sets of both sturdy walking boots and wellies at the cottage for the family and spares for guests. But feet . . . good, another item to add to the tally of things beyond her mum’s command.

Laura stopped and wriggled her numb toes, then with a final look behind her, ducked into the rear stairwell, grateful that no motion sensor was attached to the wall of the building, merely a low-watt bulb in a grimy fixture above the door. Undisturbed by shovel or rubber sole, the steps were slippery beneath the drifted snow, and despite her caution Laura lost her footing on the third step from the bottom and with an involuntary cry landed awkwardly on a metal grate. Rubbing her chin, she listened intently for a few seconds, but when she rose, cursing half in self-disgust and half in relief under her breath, her right ankle protested. That’s all we need, she thought balefully, and yanked off a glove. It took her a few minutes to fit and turn the key—her fingers were stiff with cold, clumsy with nervousness. What if Zach came out and found her gone? What if Zach didn’t come out at all?

In the end she got her fingers and pulse under control, and with only a slight limp navigated the corridor and staircase till she climbed to Zach’s floor. Heedless of the wooden floorboards, somebody had left three sledges propped up against the wall on the landing, along with several child-sized pairs of boots in a greyish puddle, as if a bucket full of cold scummy water had been upended after scrubbing the passageway. Laura wondered where in this quarter there’d be a hill big enough—safe enough—for sledging. Could these be the neighbours who had complained to the police? A family with more kids than sense, Zach had said. She was tempted to lean the sledges against the door to their flat, a trick she’d taught Max years ago with well-filled wheelie bins, and might have done so if she hadn’t heard a low werewolf growl behind their door.

Ankle forgotten, she raced along the passage and inserted the key in Zach’s lock. In less than a minute she was inside, though she took good care not to slam the door. Heart jiggering like a sail in unsettled winds, she waited near the boot tray while her breathing returned to normal. She was reluctant to kick off her shoes, wet as they were, in case she needed to leave again quickly. Zach was planning to wear his motorbike boots, but in the tray there was also a smaller pair of black leather trainers which looked similar to Max’s current favourites. Heels worn on the outer edges like his as well, she was just thinking, frayed and snarl-knotted shoelaces, when her ears picked up the murmur of voices from the living room. Familiar voices.

On the threshold, she stood with her arms crossed until they noticed her, too angry to say a word.

‘Hi Laura,’ Max said, as if his presence were as humdrum as grated cheese and sweaty socks and long dirty toenails. He was dressed in terry pyjamas, the smart blue-and-cream striped ones he wore for a sleepover. ‘We were expecting you.’

That did it.

‘What the fuck is going on?’ she yelled.

‘Keep your voice down,’ Zach admonished.

Laura marched straight towards Zach, ready to make someone—anyone—finally pay, though the effect was ruined at the last moment by her ankle, which chose to give out as she came level with the couch table. She stumbled, and Zach caught her. Ignoring the vicious yank on his hair, he settled her on the couch, her foot elevated. ‘Leave me alone, I’m OK.’ But she lowered her voice: murdering Zach was her prerogative, not the mob’s.

‘You’ve sprained your ankle,’ Zach said as he slipped off both shoes, then her socks, ‘but I don’t think you’ve torn a ligament.’ His fingers were gentle, and she winced only once. At least her toenails were clean, she thought as she glared at Max, who glanced down at his bare feet, then curled his toes and hid one foot behind the other.

Zach helped her to remove her jacket, then told Max, ‘Fetch a towel with some ice cubes from the kitchen.’ He grinned his infuriating grin. ‘Make that two towels, your sister’s ruining my furniture with her dripping hair.’

‘I’ll ruin more than your sofa.’

He handed her his phone from the table. ‘Go on, then, ring the police.’

She maintained a dignified silence while Zach packed her ankle, but when he tried to dry her hair, she snatched the towel from him. ‘I’ll do it myself.’ In the meantime Max had brought them mugs of tea and a plate of thick cheese-and-blackberry jam sandwiches, exactly the horrid sort he himself liked to eat. She drank some tea while Zach left the room. He returned almost immediately with his backpack, a pair of elegant ankle boots which might fit her with some toe padding, an elastic bandage and dry woollen socks, a tube of ointment, and a bottle of anti-inflammatory tablets, two of which she swallowed without protest—there was no way he was going to carry her out of here. He stowed the bottle in his backpack. Sandwich in hand, he began to pace the room, passing repeatedly before the window and peering out. Finally, with an apologetic shrug, he switched off the lights, though he left the door to the passage ajar so that they weren’t entirely in the dark. Max ate as if he’d missed supper, but kept his eyes on her and attempted a grin whenever she looked his way. Neither he nor Zach offered an explanation.

‘You’d better eat something,’ Zach said. ‘We’ve got a long cold ride ahead of us.’

‘If you think I’m—’

‘Changed your mind? Fine.’ He dug out his wallet. ‘Keep the lights off and don’t answer the door. Here’s enough money for a taxi. And a number to ring—the driver’s trustworthy.’ He rested a hand on Max’s shoulder. ‘You can always have Laura drop you off at your friend’s house. Or your sister will think up a good story; stick to it. There might be some trouble, but you’ll be OK. It’s me they really want.’

Then Zach handed Max some notes and a slip of paper, nodded at Laura, and hefted his backpack over a shoulder, leaving socks and bandage like a reproof on the table next to her foot.

‘Where are you going?’ Laura demanded.

‘He doesn’t know.’ Max spoke through a mouthful of sandwich, hurriedly choked it down. ‘Don’t let him leave.’

‘Zach, wait.’ His footsteps slowed, but he kept his back to her. ‘Please, help me with the bandage.’ He turned. His face wasn’t as expressionless as he tried to make it. Beneath skin as thin as a tissue of lies lay living parchment, word-rich.

‘I haven’t changed my mind,’ Laura said.

Zach said nothing.

‘She isn’t lying. It’s the family temper,’ Max said, ‘Like shaking a bottle of warm coke, but with Laura the gush doesn’t last for long.’

Laura rounded on Max. ‘Listen, little brother, if you’re suggesting I’m anything like Mum . . . ‘

Still without a word, Zach came over and dropped his gear to the floor. He knelt by the table, and Laura forgot to be cross at Max as she watched Zach unwind the bandage, set aside the ice pack, and lift her foot; apply some ointment and deftly wrap her ankle. After securing the material with a clip, he slipped the thick sock over her foot, then held out his hand for the other foot. Max rose from the armchair, went to the window, and eased one of the curtains aside. He continued to look beyond their dim reflections towards the canal, as if he could penetrate a private dark, while Zach slowly drew the sock up over her toes, the ball of her foot, over the arch, the heel, the ankle. Her foot rested in the palm of his left hand; his right smoothed the sock into place, smoothed it over the arch and heel and ankle, smoothed it. She had to be very firm with herself—it would have been such a little lie to tell him that something was stuck inside the sock and could he please take it off and start again.

Max laughed. ‘A dirty toenail clipping, maybe?’

Laura slid her foot from Zach’s hand. In the silence that followed, her mind clicked over the implications of Max’s joke. And checked and clicked, like badly rusted curtain rings which needed replacing.

‘You’re scaring me,’ she said.

Max left his post by the window to stand next to Zach, who rose and slipped an arm around her brother’s shoulders.

‘You tell her,’ Max said.

Her blackout curtains tore. Like a voyeur waiting in the dark, Laura had a bright terrible view of two figures embracing, embracing. There was nowhere to fix her gaze. She balled a fist and jammed it against her teeth, bit down hard. How could you, you bastard? she managed not to cry. He’s just a little boy. But she didn’t manage to keep her eyes from smarting in the sudden blinding insight, however much she blinked.

‘You’re bonkers,’ Max said. ‘He never stops thinking about you.’

Max meant to reassure her, but it felt as though he’d been drilling a hole in her skull—to liberate her thoughts, or was it her demons? There were some people mad enough to claim trepanning expanded your consciousness.

‘You really hear me?’ she asked. ‘It’s not just sympathy?’

‘Empathy,’ Zach corrected.

‘I suppose you lot are far too clever to make a slip of the tongue!’

‘Since when have you started talking about simus like that?’ Max asked.

Stung, Laura grabbed her mug, gulped her lukewarm tea. ‘Ugh, it’s worse cold. You’ve dumped half a pound of sugar in it.’

‘Max knows I like it sweet,’ Zach said mildly.

‘Like Mum,’ Max added. ‘She always jokes that it sweetens her disposition.’

Laura cast a searching look at her brother but saw no guile on his face. From where she was sitting it seemed as if he’d grown recently, the crown of his head nearly level with Zach’s shoulder, his wrists pale and fragile in the anaemic light.

‘What are you doing here?’ she whispered. ‘You’re supposed to be at Justin’s.’

Max pulled the neckband of his pyjama top up over his chin and lower lip, an old childhood habit. Laura remembered his terrifying nightmares—all of his ribbed collars matted and chewed within weeks. He’d come to her bed, trembling, sometimes crying, and his fear had always soaked into the sheets and pillows and duvet, into the mattress like spilled milk—colourless but with a sour smell that had clung to her hair and skin till she showered, or threw open the window to bright sunlight. She took a few deep breaths to clear the smell.

With a crooked smile Zach tugged the fabric from Max’s teeth, but gently, the way he’d tug a slipper from a puppy, your tomorrow from underfoot.

‘Zach?’ Laura asked.

‘Max is a cognoscens,’ Zach said.

What?’

‘A cognoscens.’

‘That’s impossible!’

Zach’s eyes gleamed as though a match had been struck along his optic nerves, a look which made her wonder how he’d escaped a flick-knife or tyre iron or garotte till now. Well, that could be remedied. She turned to Max. ‘He’s sending me up for some reason.’

‘Ask Dad, if you don’t believe him.’

Which meant that even the impossible is sometimes true.

‘But how—how—?’ Stymied by the task of framing a question coherently—any of fifty, a hundred questions—Laura rose and walked to the window, not quite limping, but careful not to put too much weight on her damaged ankle. There was no pain, only some throbbing, and the feeling that her foot couldn’t bear the strain. She leaned her forehead against the cool glass until Zach joined her. With a fingertip he traced a spiral in the fading condensation, then breathed on the pane and drew a small figure—a rather lopsided seal.

‘Max would have been back at Justin’s before anyone was awake. I’ll run him over now and return for you.’

‘The police might pitch up any minute.’

‘You can wait with my backpack in the cellar. I’ll show you a warm corner where you’ll be safe.’

Safe, she repeated to herself.

‘Come away from the window,’ Max said. ‘I think somebody’s walking along the canal.’

‘Can you pick up everything we think?’ Laura asked.

‘Most stuff, if I pay attention. It’s easiest with simus, though.’

‘From far away?’

‘I can’t always tell about distance.’

They followed Max to the bedroom, where he collected his clothes and went into the bathroom to change. Six months ago he’d have still undressed in front of her. Seated on the bed with her leg raised, Laura ate a few bites from the sandwich Zach had forced into her hand, then wrapped the rest in a tissue.

‘I’ll finish it while I’m waiting for you. It’ll give me something to do.’

‘Then don’t shred it all over my bed,’ Zach said with a smile.

She shook out a second tissue to rewrap the sandwich. Zach was exaggerating, she’d only been kneading it a bit between her fingers.

‘He really is a cognoscens, you know,’ Zach said.

‘But he looks nothing like any of you!’

He shrugged. ‘Better for him.’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘Different DNA coding, maybe.’ She frowned as he added, ‘New improved model.’ She never knew how he managed to convey so much mockery—self-mockery—without the least change in tone or expression. Perhaps it was the way his eyes became as opaque as old glass—antique glass, beautiful and priceless.

‘Are there others like him?’ she asked.

‘None that I’ve run into.’

Laura understood the unmistakable implications, but before she could question him further, Max appeared in the doorway, pyjamas and toothbrush in hand. Grinning with a certain cheeky sheepishness, he didn’t quite meet their gaze, as if he knew they’d been talking about him. You moron, she thought, of course he knows. Only gradually was she beginning to grasp what this all meant, what it must have always meant.

‘How long have you been able to sense our thoughts?’ she asked.

Max glanced at Zach, then reached again for his collar, only to release it when Zach picked up a pillow and tossed it at her brother, who fielded it with his free hand to toss right back. Zach ducked, then laughed. There was an easiness in their exchange which Laura recognised as more than the usual male bonding. She’d always be excluded from parts of Zach’s life, and now from parts of Max’s as well. It doesn’t matter, she told herself sternly, you don’t need to read every word to enjoy a novel, you don’t even have to own a dictionary. But her throat tightened, her chest, and the feeling came back to her then, that terrifying paralysis when she was called on to read aloud in her first years at school. How hard she had tried to make sense of the black squiggles on the page! On a screen it had been even worse; they would never stay put long enough to share their secrets, though sometimes one or another would stop and wink. Around that time her dreams had come to be dominated by a yew-like maze whose openings would disappear whenever she was about to step through, whose hedges shifted and writhed and grew dense with thorn, while the giggling, chattering voices from the centre grew piercing with teasing: the magic spell, stupid, you haven’t learned the magic spell.

‘Sometimes you woke me,’ Max said. ‘I can still see those monstrous hedges.’

‘Even back then?’ Laura asked. ‘You were tiny.’

Max nodded and bundled his pyjamas into his backpack. ‘It took me a long time to figure out which stuff was mine, and even longer to realise nobody else was like me, but by then Dad had warned me never ever to speak of it. Though a few times I came close to telling you. When the nightmares were really bad.’

‘Why didn’t you?’

‘Why do you think?’

‘I’d never have cozzed you up to Dad.’

‘Yeah, I know. But you’d have been scared of me.’ Laura began to protest but Max cut her off with a sad half-smile. ‘Just like Dad, though he tries to hide it. Even from himself.’

Laura went to Max, who submitted to her hug. She could feel the bony jut of his shoulder blades, his ribcage. Over his head she and Zach exchanged glances.

‘Anyway, it got better when I learned to block most of it out,’ Max said. ‘And Dad gives me medicine to help.’

‘He medicates you?’ Somehow this seemed most terrible of all, like a parent plying a small child with cheap booze to keep him quiet, with tranquillisers.

‘Don’t be too hard on your dad,’ Zach said. ‘Max also needs the serum.’

‘That’s rich, coming from you.’

‘Maybe I’m learning.’ He gestured towards Max. ‘Max knows how powerless your dad feels. Fulgur has a stranglehold on its people.’

‘But your own child . . . ‘ Laura’s voice trailed off.

The drift of her thoughts hung in the still, dry air of the room like a pall of acrid smog, and Zach wouldn’t have needed Max’s gift for it to sting. Abruptly he turned and rummaged in the drawer of his bedside cabinet, while Max found something of great interest on the carpet underfoot, then in the signed and framed photograph on the wall—the one she could never decide whether she liked or hated, even less understood. In luminous black-and-white it showed a small genderless child seated cross-legged on the shore, the glistening sea rising behind it in a huge tidal wave, a glass bowl in its naked lap. In the bowl lay what could only be a human brain, from which the child was eating with a spoon. The child’s eyes were dark and lashless and followed you no matter where you went in the room, and you knew that the wave was cresting, cresting very soon. Mostly, Laura thought the child was a girl.

‘Here,’ Zach said, handing her a yellowing envelope with his name written in ink on the front, but which bore neither address nor stamps. ‘Keep it for me. If the worst happens, you may as well open it. If you’re interested.’ He sent her brother a swift sidelong glance, and something passed between them from which she was barred. ‘Or else give it to Max.’

Laura turned the envelope over. Thick enough to contain several sheets of paper, possibly some photos. It was sealed and looked as if it had never been opened.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘A letter from my parents.’

‘You haven’t read it?’

Zach addressed Max. ‘We should go. Get your shoes and jacket on, then help your sister with her bad foot. I need the toilet.’

Max shouldered his backpack while Laura hung back, still staring at the envelope in her hand. Zach had disappeared into the hallway, leaving the door ajar. They heard the soft click of a latch.

‘He needs a moment by himself,’ Max said. ‘But try to talk to him at the cottage. I think he wants to.’

‘He won’t say much, he’s far too secretive. But I guess that doesn’t stop you.’ Immediately she was ashamed of the way his chin puckered.

‘You see,’ Max said. ‘It’s already beginning.’

She gestured helplessly, for they both knew there’d be no slipping back into the old patterns. ‘I’m sorry, it’s only that . . . ‘

The sound of flushing interrupted their silence.

‘Did he know all along you’d be here tonight?’ Laura asked.

‘Yeah, but he promised not to tell. He’s the sort to keep his promises.’ Max’s eyes went to the doorway. ‘He’s very special, Laura. Please don’t . . . ‘ He blushed a bit and lowered his voice. ‘I mean, he’s nothing like Owen.’

‘Not that it’s any of your business, but at least with Owen you know where you stand!’ she snapped. Then she remembered the bombing. ‘Stood,’ she whispered. ‘Oh god, he’s dead, they’re probably all dead.’

Max closed his eyes for a moment, but they flickered beneath pale green-tinged lids as though he were dreaming underwater. When he opened them again, Laura looked away, looked back, looked and looked. It took her a while to surface, and she found she was slightly out of breath. And frightened for him—to live with this . . . to hide it, always to hide it . . . 

But his tone was matter of fact, in that way a child still. ‘Tina—have I got that right?’

‘Trina. What about her?’

‘Trina’s lost a leg, she’s in hospital. But your other mates went outside for a smoke. They’re all OK. A few cuts and bruises.’ He reached for his collar, then dropped his hand when, in reflex, Laura’s darted forward. ‘But there’s a lot of really bad feelings—hate stuff. Zach needs to disappear for a while.’

Trina. Trina, who owned slouchy kidskin ankle boots, metallic python dress boots, suede chukka boots, tooled cowboy boots, sheepskin boots, red stiletto hooker boots, vintage white leather platform boots, lace-up work boots, assorted knee boots, stretchy black velvet thigh-high boots with diamante bows.

Nothing you can do.

‘And the girl who came with Zach?’

Max shook his head.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Yeah, I’m sure.’ He move forward to tug her sleeve. ‘Come on, Zach’s going to be out in a second.’

She followed him into the sitting room, where she tucked Zach’s letter into her bag and put on her ‘borrowed’ jacket, wondering uneasily to whom it belonged. Though it was tempting to wear Zach’s boots, even if she had to crumple newspaper into the toes, there was no point ruining such a good pair in the snow. They shone; in a gesture of bravado she positioned them on the couch like two stiff strangers forced to make small talk at a funeral. As an afterthought, she set the black king from Zach’s chess set on one upper, the white queen on the other. Then, gingerly, she forced her feet into sodden leather, waving away Max’s help, and struggled with the wet laces. Together they went to wait for Zach in the hallway, Laura leaning against a wall to take the weight off her foot.

‘How’s your ankle?’ Max asked.

‘Tolerable.’ She flexed it first in one direction, then the other. ‘Not too bad, actually.’

‘What about Mum and Dad?’

‘Don’t worry about it. I’ve already rung them.’

‘And told them what, exactly?’

‘The truth.’

‘Stop sudsing me!’

‘Have a go at my brain if you don’t believe me.’

Now his voice was huffy. ‘I’m not a snoop.’

‘Then you’re a sight more virtuous than I’d be. Maybe it’s the simu in you.’

‘Yeah, you mean like how all the Africans are great athletes, the Asians disciplined, the Aboriginals drunk.’

‘What crap! You know I don’t think like that.’ She slid the zip on her jacket down halfway, it was getting uncomfortably warm in here. ‘And I can tell the truth on occasion. I said there was a bomb, and Zach was so shaken up that I was going to spend the night with him, the weekend if necessary.’

‘And they believed you?’

‘Beautiful, isn’t it? They weren’t quite sure what to believe.’

‘But—’

‘I’ve got my mobie, I’ll keep clocking in. What are they going to do, ring the police?’

‘They might.’

‘Never. They won’t even try my friends. Mum’s terrified that Fulgur won’t promote Dad. After the hospital mess, they’ll cover up anything I get into.’

‘She’ll have a tantrum when you come home.’

‘Fuck her,’ Laura said viciously. ‘Maybe this time I’ll have a tantrum right back.’

‘They’re going to ask me if I know anything. With thumbscrews and cattleprod.’

‘You’ll do fine.’ She ruffled his hair, which she knew he hated. ‘You’re turning out to be even more secretive than Zach.’

Max swayed out of reach, then with a grimace jammed his woolly cap onto his head and zipped his jacket. They could hear Zach moving about in his bedroom, probably picking out a few last essentials. Otherwise the flat was quiet, with the sepulchral hush of a theatre after the audience and actors have left, and there is only a lone cleaner collecting the discarded programmes and crumpled sweet papers and used tissues. Max prodded his backpack with a foot, whistling tunelessly. His breath smelled of Zach’s clove toothpaste. Finally he regarded Laura.

‘Zach’s not really secretive, you know.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘No, listen. He’s angry a lot of the time. Prickly. But underneath, he’s scared and lonely and uncertain. Just like everyone else.’ Max paused, kicked some more. ‘Believe me, just like everyone else.’