Sunday before dawn. It must have rained earlier—the air was damp and chill, with the raw green-tea smell of more to come. Sarah checked her alarm: five o’clock. No point tossing and turning any longer. She donned a fleecy jumper and tried reading; she tried listening to music; and finally, gazing out the open window, she tried listening for the first drops of rain but heard only the birds, the wind, the house, her fear . . . listening for footsteps.
‘Where’s Jesse, by the way?’ Meg asked. ‘Still sleeping?’
Sarah looked at her father in alarm. He read the appeal in her eyes.
‘He hasn’t come home,’ Finn said quietly.
Meg looked up. ‘What do you mean? Where is he? At Matthew’s?’
Finn shook his head. ‘We don’t know,’ he said. ‘I rang Matthew. He doesn’t seem to be feeling well. He didn’t want to speak. Jesse was there last night but left after a short while.’
Meg studied Sarah’s face, then poured another cup of coffee, her eyes falling on the late roses Jesse had cut yesterday. ‘I like their smell,’ he’d said when teased about his fondness for flowers, and gardening.
‘Don’t worry,’ Meg said. ‘He’s all right. He’ll be back.’ She smiled an odd smile, one which Sarah didn’t recognise. ‘Jesse can look after himself.’
Sarah pushed back her chair. The air in the kitchen, despite the open window, was suddenly stifling. She walked to the back door and opened it, breathed in the smell of unshed rain. Nubi slunk out into the garden. The sky was grey, a bleak liverish sky. The letter had arrived under just such a dark ceiling of cloud two years ago. Had time suddenly twisted out of shape like those incomprehensible hypercubes they’d done in maths?
The phone rang. Sarah spun round, then sagged against the doorframe when she realised it was the signal for Finn’s private line. Finn popped a piece of bacon into his mouth and turned the gas low under the frying pan.
‘I’ll get it, then we can eat,’ he said.
He snagged another piece of bacon, licked his fingers with a wink at Meg, and left the room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.
‘Come and sit down,’ Meg said. ‘It’s probably one of those interminable discussions with New York. Those people seem to keep hospital hours, they even work on Sundays.’
‘You don’t think it could be Jesse, do you?’ Sarah couldn’t stop herself from asking.
‘Not that line. Sarah, about Jesse, I hate to lecture you but—’
‘Then don’t!’ snapped Sarah, gesticulating and sloshing some of her coffee. She fetched a sponge from the sink. After mopping up the spill, Sarah opened the newspaper to the film reviews. Meg knew better than to sigh. A recent issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry on hand for such contingencies, she flipped to an article on antidepressant use among psychiatrists.
Both Sarah and Meg looked up from their reading when Finn returned. His face was grim and set, ashen. Meg moved quickly to his side and laid a hand on his arm.
‘What is it?’ she asked gently.
‘A fire,’ Finn said. He turned his eyes on Sarah, who rose abruptly, knocking over her chair, who wanted to look away but couldn’t. ‘A fire,’ he repeated. His words came to Sarah from a great distance. A rushing sound, the roar of a furnace door opening, of flames rising, swaying no she felt the hot wind tearing at her, tearing away her skin her flesh her . . . ‘Jesse,’ someone cried, and her mother was holding her and she was fighting her fighting to remain upright to remain conscious, she had to hear, to know . . .
‘I need a cup of coffee,’ Finn said. He sat down stiffly, like an old man, and stared into the mug Meg placed before him on the table without drinking.
Ayen had spoken in a tight cracked voice, so different from her usual cultured vowels that he needed to ask twice who was ringing. At first Finn thought her angry, but soon realised that it was fear distorting her speech.
‘Is Jesse there?’ she asked.
‘No,’ he replied cautiously, ‘he’s gone out.’
‘Where was he last night?’
‘Ayen, just what is this about?’
‘The research complex.’ She took a deep breath which he could hear catching in her throat. ‘It burnt down about three a.m.’
‘A fire? How? You must have superb safety systems in place over there.’
‘Look, maybe you’d best start at the beginning.’
‘Finn, it’s gone. Everything. Every last—’ She stopped, and Finn listened to the hiss while she got her voice under control again. ‘The alarms worked, and we were able to get everyone out in time. But then—it was as if a nuclear device went off. Total meltdown. I mean it when I say nothing’s left. Nothing. I’m not even sure a recovery team will be able to get inside. From what little we can tell, all the passages have collapsed and everything has fused.’
‘Jesus. I’m sorry to hear that. You must have records of your research elsewhere, though.’
‘Some, not much. But there are going to be problems, mammoth problems, until we find out what caused this.’
‘I can imagine. But why are you ringing me?’ He shifted the phone to his other ear. ‘And why are you asking about Jesse?’
‘He was here last night just before everything went haywire.’
‘You heard me.’
‘Impossible. How would he get there? He doesn’t have a clue where it is. Or did you send someone out for him?’ His voice hardened. ‘Without asking me?’
‘Then it’s impossible. It’s a high security installation. The highest.’
‘No longer. It’s a solid mass of melted plastic and twisted metal and rubble hardened to something like volcanic rock.’
‘OK. I get the picture. But why do you fancy Jesse was there?’
‘Because I saw him. Finn, I saw him in the room with the prototype just before the alarms went off. I was too shocked to react at first. And then everything went crazy. I ran to check the displays, and by the time I looked round, he was gone. Probably. At least I didn’t see him again.’
‘Are you sure? Absolutely sure? Maybe you—’
‘I did not imagine it. Don’t even suggest it,’ Ayen interrupted. ‘We’ve started something with that boy. You know it as well as I do. And now it’s—he’s—got out of control. And nobody will believe a word of it, will they?’
Finn closed his eyes for a moment. If Jesse had really been there . . . If he’d been caught in the explosion . . .
‘Finn? Are you still there?’
‘Yes.’ He cleared his throat. He mustn’t show her how seriously he took her account—how much it mattered. ‘Is there any chance Jesse didn’t escape?’
‘How the hell should I know?’ It was the first time he’d ever heard even a mild oath pass her lips. ‘I almost wish he hadn’t.’
‘Ayen! Get hold of yourself. How can you say such a thing? He’s just a boy, a young homeless kid.’
‘He’s no boy. Not any longer.’
Finn had no answer for her. Then he realised what she was in truth afraid of.
‘You reckon he did it, don’t you? Started the fire—or explosion or whatever it was?’
‘There’s no other possible explanation.’
‘Nonsense. Even if Jesse could’ve managed anything remotely like this sort of incident’—he was glad she couldn’t see his face, he’d nearly said friendly fire, how he hated their bloody doublespeak, if anything had happened to Jesse he’d make sure Ayen saw some real friendly fire—‘there must be any number of parties who would be keen to disrupt the project. And you’re going to face some pretty rigorous investigation about risks, safety measures. I hope there’s nothing you’ve been keeping under wraps.’ Finn smiled, cold as he felt. They always had something they were hiding. ‘What about the prototype?’
‘Gone with all the rest. And that’s the one thing I’m almost certain we can’t rebuild, not easily, maybe not at all . . . at least not now. There was an element of luck, of chance about the whole thing.’
‘Before you start making any wild accusations about a kid, you’d better be prepared to answer a few perfectly reasonable questions, like why? why would Jesse want to destroy the computer?’ Finn knew the answer, or at least part of it, but he certainly wouldn’t help her out. ‘And even more interesting, how? They’re going to be asking, and soon. Crackpot theories about aliens or teenagers with superpowers don’t go over awfully well with government investigation committees. Especially coming from someone who might be delusional.’
‘Delusional? Finn, you can’t be serious! I tell you, he was there!’
‘Did anyone else see him?’
‘What about your security cameras?’
‘At those temperatures?’
‘You can’t mean to tell me you didn’t have the data stored in a backup unit elsewhere?’
‘Extra security risk. We did our own backups right here on auxiliary storage devices. We didn’t anticipate the remotest necessity . . . ’
Even better still.
‘Not good, Ayen. There are going to be some very uncomfortable questions about your procedures.’
‘Damn these bureaucrats. I’m not an office drone, for god’s sake. Finn, you know I’m not imagining this about Jesse. You saw for yourself what he did with the knife.’
‘Look, I’m just warning you to be prepared. It’s not me you’re going to have to convince. Something like an electrical fault would be a lot easier to swallow. And you know how they are about funding long shots.’
She was quiet for a moment. Finn knew that she was very ambitious. He tried to remember which women scientists since Marie Curie had won the Nobel Prize. There had been some, definitely, in medicine.
‘Finn, if he’s alive we’ve got to find him. Question him. And stop him somehow. We have no idea what he’s capable of.’
‘He hasn’t come back since yesterday evening. We’ve been worried sick about him.’ That, at least, was not far from what he was feeling. ‘There’s no reason for him not to come back unless . . . ’ His voice trailed off. ‘Unless he was killed.’ His stomach twisted; he didn’t like using the word. It’s not that he was superstitious, not precisely . . .
‘Somebody should go through his stuff. Maybe we can find a clue to his whereabouts.’
‘Ayen, he has no stuff, except the few bits of clothing we’ve bought him. He was homeless, don’t you remember? I’ll have someone from my department go over his room, but I fear it won’t help you.’
‘Have you uncovered anything at all about his background?’
‘Ayen, forget about Jesse. You’ve got bigger problems to worry about right now. Anyway, what can he do without your prototype? The computer was the key, wasn’t it?’
‘He got through the highest security we’ve been able to devise, hasn’t he?’
‘Before the prototype was destroyed. Maybe. You seem to think so. But don’t ever assume anything, that’s what this business has taught me. You only saw him for couple of seconds, at most. If you saw him. Maybe the computer was behind it, projecting an illusion at you—some kind of holographic image. It seemed to have some very interesting capabilities of its own.’
‘Yes . . . I suppose.’ Her voice was doubtful, but some of the tension had left it. She wanted to believe that she hadn’t unleashed a monster on the world, or at least on the remnants of her career. Finn just wanted to believe that Jesse was still alive. The rest could wait—together with Jesse he’d find a way to deal with it.
‘Look, Ayen, if he shows up here—and where else does he have to go?—I’ll make sure he stays put. But I expect you’ll find that, even if he’s alive, without the computer he’s nothing more than a bright kid, a bit more sensitive than most.’
‘A bit, you call it?’
‘That doesn’t make him Superman. Don’t forget that he’s been staying with us for a while now. My wife’s a psychiatrist. We would have noticed if something were amiss. He’s no mass murderer, that I can promise you, no psychotic. A perfectly normal teenager with a few paranormal gifts. And aren’t they supposed to fade after puberty?’
‘There’s no real evidence for that.’ But Ayen’s voice had lightened.
They exchanged another sentence or two before Ayen rang off. Finn dropped the phone with an unsteady hand. He’d put her off for now, but Ayen was too smart—and too thorough—to forget about Jesse entirely. Finn hoped he’d given her enough to worry about. If he’d only known what he was getting into when he’d first mentioned Jesse to her . . . He leaned his head on his hands and shut his eyes, trying to think. But all he could see was a scene from one of those disaster movies he’d watched on a recent flight, where a tidal wave of flame raced along a tunnel, consuming everything in its path. He shivered. It was cold in his office. He needed a cup of hot coffee, with plenty of sugar. He didn’t dare take a drink, much as he’d like one.
‘Tell me,’ Sarah said.
Finn looked up from his coffee.
‘Tell me,’ she repeated, her voice rising sharply.
Finn spread his hands in a gesture of defeat. He couldn’t do it. He glanced at Meg for help.
‘What’s happened, Finn?’ she asked calmly enough. ‘A fire, you said.’
The kitchen door swung open and Jesse walked in.
Finn half rose from his chair. ‘Where the fuck have you been?’ he bellowed.
Jesse took a step backwards. Finn’s face was rigid with anger—the kind of anger painted in lurid colours on a grotesque stage mask. And then Jesse saw it: something else flickered behind the eyeholes. Oh god, not that—not Finn.
They all jumped at the unexpected sound and turned towards the doorway. Nubi rushed at Jesse, prancing and springing up and making little yipping cries of joy. Jesse couldn’t help smiling, albeit unsteadily. Nubi was practically wriggling out of his coat from excitement. There was no welcome like a dog’s.
‘Down, Nubi,’ Jesse said, but fondled the dog’s head and scratched him behind the ears. It was easier than looking at Finn, and far easier than at Sarah.
‘Where have you been all night?’ Finn asked again, but in a quieter tone of voice.
‘I’m sorry, I should have rung,’ Jesse said.
Jesse raised his head and met Finn’s eyes, now clear, a touch astringent, but simple and uncomplicated. Glad.
‘I had some things to take care of,’ Jesse said.
‘In the middle of the night?’ Finn asked.
Meg intervened. ‘Go and wash up, Jesse. You look tired, and I daresay you’re hungry. There’ll be plenty of time to talk after you’ve got some coffee and toast inside you.’
Jesse nodded gratefully. At last his eyes slid towards Sarah, who was gripping the back of a kitchen chair, head lowered, face hidden by her morning hair. For a moment it seemed as if he’d speak, then his shoulders drooped and he left the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ Finn said. ‘Go after him. You don’t need your father to tell you that, do you?’
Jesse was leaning his head against the cool glass of the mirror when Sarah knocked on the open door to his bathroom. He looked up, then without a word gathered her into his arms.
‘Sorry,’ they both said at the same time, almost as if they’d bumped heads. They laughed softly, relieved to have the moment over, then clung together, breathing in each other’s scent, tasting it through their pores: the lavender that Jesse had come to love, a certain sleepy musk, even the smell of coffee on her breath; the sharp male tang of soap and sweat and something else that Sarah would never be able to define but was unmistakably Jesse, something woodsy and smoky and honest.
‘I never want to own you in any way,’ Jesse said.
‘I know,’ said Sarah. ‘I don’t know what got into me. I said such awful things. Such stupid things.’
‘As long as you’re honest with me, you can say whatever you want. Whatever needs to be said.’
What’s he doing with me? Sarah thought, pushing her hair off her face. I’ll never be able to live up to his expectations. To keep up with him. Just wait till he realises I’m like ten thousand other girls. Till he gets bored.
As if reading her thoughts, Jesse put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her forward till her head rested against his collarbone. He ran his hands through her hair, again and again, only stopping when she drew back to speak.
‘Jesse, I’m nothing like you. I’m not especially clever or brave or good or anything. Don’t look for any miracles from me.’
‘Miracles?’ His mouth twisted. ‘I don’t want any miracles. Just—’ He faltered. ‘Just ordinary,’ he finished lamely, his eyes downcast. Why did it have to be so hard? Why did most people get to marry and have kids, a job, maybe a bit of money in the bank; and others were born disabled or ill or just plain unlucky—the big C before they were ten, parents who abused or abandoned them, an accident. Miracles? He’d give anything for normal, just fucking normal. But you didn’t get to choose, did you? Or did you? You might be born with perfect pitch, but that didn’t mean you had to become a cellist. Or even sing in the school choir. No one forced you to use your gifts.
Jesse looked down at his hands, resting on Sarah’s shoulders. He couldn’t change the past, no one could, but maybe it wasn’t too late for a little sanity in his life. No more fires. No more deaths. And definitely no more Ayens. A future . . . He lifted his head and grinned his lopsided grin.
‘You’re a very special sort of ordinary,’ he said.
She snorted. ‘I’m not, though. You just don’t know me well enough.’
‘Then don’t tell me. I think I prefer my illusions.’
She kissed the tuck at the corner of his mouth, the one that always reminded her of brownies, then held his eyes without blinking. ‘I never thought it would be like this.’ He wasn’t one of the lads at school. If anyone could bear the truth, it was Jesse. ‘Loving someone. You.’ There. It was said.
The room was silent as they both struggled to find a way forward to the place where they might dance.
‘Yes,’ he finally said.
Sarah remembered her mum’s words: give him time. With a small sigh she propelled Jesse gently towards the basin.
‘Go on, brush your teeth,’ she said. ‘I’m so famished I could even eat a few rashers of bacon.’
Finn knocked at the door just as Jesse was thrusting his arms into a fresh T-shirt.
‘Come in,’ Jesse called.
Finn came into the room, pulled out the desk chair, and straddled the seat so that his arms rested on the back. Jesse sat on the bed. There was no avoiding this confrontation. All right then.
‘Are you worried about the new school?’ Finn asked.
‘Get to the point,’ Jesse said. Then he looked down, ashamed of the sharpness in his voice. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered.
‘For Christ’s sake, don’t treat me like a teacher or social worker. Some rudeness is healthy, you know. Better than cold showers, even. Clears out the, uh, sinuses.’
They grinned at each other, and Jesse yawned, hugely.
‘Where were you last night?’ Finn asked.
‘I guess you already know.’
‘I was afraid of that.’
‘Was I what?’ Finn asked.
Jesse looked at him, then away. ‘Afraid? Afraid of me?’ The back of his throat suddenly felt scratchy, like a cold coming on.
Finn didn’t answer at first. Then he sighed and began to stroke his beard. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘A bit.’
Jesse closed his eyes.
Finn came over and sat down on the bed, put his arm around Jesse’s shoulders. After a while some of the stiffness eked out of Jesse’s body, and he leaned into Finn’s bulk with the same feeling of warm dreamy lethargy that came after a long hard swim, after making love.
‘Will you tell them?’ Jesse asked.
‘Do you actually believe I’d hand you over to some narrow-minded fools who’d just as soon dissect you as not? Do you think so little of me? Do you trust me so little?’
‘Damn it, Jesse, there are no buts. Not now, not with you.’
‘Because of Sarah?’
‘Sarah’s part of it, yes. But there’s you. Can’t you get it through that weird wired skull of yours that we care about you, all of us.’ He took Jesse by the shoulders and forced him to meet his eyes. ‘We love you.’
Maybe ordinary was a kind of miracle too.
‘How the hell did you do it?’ Finn asked.
Jesse took his time before answering. ‘I made sure all of them could get out of the building. No one was injured.’
‘Ayen said. Thank god for that.’
‘She saw me, I reckon.’
‘Yeah, but she was the only one. There’s a good chance that nobody else will ask about you. I’ve planted a couple of seeds in Ayen’s mind. She’s a very smart, very slick woman. I doubt that she’s going to do anything to jeopardise her standing with the right agencies. Nor her professional reputation. Scientists are a pretty conservative lot, for the most part.’
‘A cover-up, you mean?’
‘Think of it rather as a retouching job. Or sleight-of-hand, like producing a rabbit from a hat.’
Jesse picked up Peter’s top, frowning slightly. He turned it over and over in his hand.
‘What is it?’ Finn asked.
The little toy felt warm, as if it had been lying in a patch of sunlight. It was vibrating faintly—a low hum, like the sound a small electronic device might make, or the quivering of a frightened animal—those baby rabbits he’d once found in the orchard, some dead already, others trembling in his hand, his father had run over them in the high grass with the mower, they’d tried to see if any others were left inside the hole. Not much difference between alive and dead, a moment’s inattention, mere particles atoms molecules whirring and spinning through an illusion of substance. If you just reached in and—
—so much empty space, seconds and seconds of space to cross—
Jesse jerked back from the rabbit hole. He stared at Finn, but his eyes were still focused on the supersymmetry of that beautiful infinite tunnel.
‘Your eyes—’ Finn said. The brilliant blue of a cyanotype print overlaid with silver—thick, distant silver.
‘Sorry. What did you ask?’
Jesse tilted his head, and the reflection—if that’s what it had been—was gone.
‘I asked how you destroyed an entire top-secret underground complex with nothing more than a couple of coins and some cigarettes in your pocket?’
‘I—’ Jesse began. He stopped and looked sheepish. ‘I have no idea. Not really.’
‘Did you walk there?’
‘Could you be a touch more specific?’ Finn asked drily.
‘It wasn’t too hard to get a lift most of the way.’
‘The site isn’t on any map. You must have an exceptional sense of direction.’
A hint of a smile. ‘Sort of.’
‘I see. Another sort of.’ Finn glanced sidelong at the photograph he’d recently hung above Jesse’s desk, a platinum print of a bat suspended from a tree branch in summer. There was an ethereal quality to the moonlight, as though the scene had been frosted with ice.
Jesse noticed the direction of Finn’s gaze. ‘I don’t suppose a bat has any idea how it navigates either, but it does.’
‘Perhaps in time you’ll come to understand it better,’ Finn said.
‘Yeah.’ This time Jesse gave a short, harsh laugh. ‘Maybe.’
The room was quiet till Finn shook his head. ‘And maybe it doesn’t matter all that much.’
‘Like those who are blind preferring their blindness?’ Jesse asked with heavy sarcasm.
‘You’re not suggesting that if bats understood how their radar worked, it would help them to fly better? To live better?’
‘I suppose not.’ Arms folded, Jesse stared at the bat as though it might swoop for his head if he dared to speak. Suddenly he cried out, ‘But how do I live with this?’ And then was glad he’d said it.
Jesse held out a hand, palm up. The top rose into the air, spun rapidly for a few seconds, and disappeared.
Finn’s eyes swept the room. ‘Where did it go?’
‘Into the game.’
‘What are you talking about? Which game?’
‘Come and look.’
Finn went with Jesse to his desk, where he pressed the enter key on the laptop. Almost immediately the screen showed the interior of a room. This room—Jesse’s. Jesse fiddled with the mouse, and with a dizzying sweep the window swung into view, where on the sill lay the little top. Finn whirled to face the window. And there it was: the top resting in plain sight, no more subversive than a wooden bauble. Like one of those hand-carved figures Meg hung on their tree at Christmas.
‘It wasn’t there before,’ Finn said rather stupidly. ‘I’d have noticed.’
‘Is it real?’
Jesse snorted. ‘You tell me what’s real.’ He walked over to the window, picked up the top, and tossed it to Finn, who caught it easily in his hand. He looked back at the monitor. The top had disappeared from view.
‘I see,’ Finn said. Though of course he didn’t.
‘Then for god’s sake explain it to me. I’m going crazy mad trying to make sense of what’s happening.’
Jesse came across the room and lowered the cover of the laptop. His shoulders sloping with fatigue, he remained with his back to Finn, who regarded the two small knobs of ridged scar tissue protruding above the neckline of Jesse’s T-shirt. It was a struggle to keep from touching them.
‘Jesse, look at me.’
‘Real is Sarah, baking brownies for you in the kitchen. Real is a home and school and family. Real is even those scars of yours, because they’ll help to remind you that no one is perfect. As to the rest, I doubt that you’ll get an answer, at least none that’ll satisfy you. This is a helluva strange garden we’ve been granted. Vast. Complex. Incomprehensible. Indifferent. Cruel. Scary. But utterly wonderful.’
Jesse massaged the back of his neck, feeling the thickened skin under his fingertips. ‘Not always so wonderful.’
‘No, not always. Hey, even God doesn’t get to be infallible.’ Finn grinned. ‘Now why don’t we have breakfast so you can get some rest?’
Jesse rubbed a hand wearily over his face.
‘Listen, Finn, about the research facility . . . I had to do it. I’m not proud of it. If there had been another way . . . If I could’ve thought of something else . . . But there wasn’t much time any more. Do you understand? I had no choice.’
‘Yeah, I know they’d have been very persistent, Ayen and her crew. Though your method was rather drastic, I daresay.’
‘Not them. They didn’t worry me. It was him. It. Red, I called him. The computer.’
‘The prototype? I thought you weren’t going to have anything more to do with it.’
Jesse spoke in a rush, the frantic stagger and lurch of confession, almost stuttering in relief. ‘He was in here, Finn. In my head. Probing and talking and demanding. Even when he was silent. Commanding. And he was strong, terribly strong . . . ’
‘I don’t understand. What do you mean, in your head?’
Jesse shrugged. ‘Some kind of link was established when I first entered his—his what? circuits? mind? realm? reality? A switch was thrown, a connection made. And then at the park . . . well, anyway, it became more than a link. I reckon that’s how I located Ayen’s place. I couldn’t break free. I tried. And I was afraid, so very afraid. The only way I could get rid of him, I knew, was to destroy him. And fast. Before he grew strong enough to destroy me. Or control me. And whatever else he felt like doing.’
‘Among other things.’ His voice was bitter.
Finn was quiet for a while.
‘And he let you destroy him?’ he asked. ‘He’s gone now?’
No fool, Finn studied Jesse’s face. ‘Are you certain?’
Jesse dropped his gaze.
Finn hissed through his teeth.