Bracing himself against the wind, Zach gets to his feet without a thought for direction or destination. In the white forever of this place, there is no lantern to light the dark and bitter woods of memory. Even the croakers would find little use for such knotted timber.
Do you hear me? he shouts full volume in his mind. Nothing worth felling.
He angles into the blowing snow. The cold has as much substance as the snow, thick and clean and impenetrable, almost lush, and it reminds Zach of a dense text encountered for the first time, against which you pit yourself, into which you tunnel for sustenance, at school his first Mandarin characters had been like that, you have to wrest sense from the meaty snowflakes before they melt on your tongue. He opens his mouth and catches one, then another. Tears gather at the corners of his eyes, and he wipes them away quickly—angrily—with gloved fingers lest they freeze his eyes shut—his damned traitorous eyes.
His booted feet are soon clogged with snow, and heavy. With each step they amass another layer, and then another, and though he tries to shake them free, the stuff clings like down, soft and fluffy yet as tenacious as the barbs that filled his roughquilted childhood—auger, transfuck, mulac, devi, freak. He bends his head and plods on, breathing painstakingly around the icy knife in his chest. Somewhere there would be shelter. Somewhere there would be food. They wouldn’t want to kill him just yet, would they?
The cry slices through the silence. Zach stumbles and falls, the ground flying up to meet him like the breast of a great albatross. Black-vaned against the unending white, its wings beat and beat about his head. He raises his arms to shield himself, the birdcall surrounding him like manic laughter.
Where is she, you buzzards?
‘All right,’ the technician in charge says. ‘Safe zone.’
‘Slick as a lube job.’
‘Mind your language.’ Charles Litchfield runs a hand through his thinning sandy hair and glances round. Senior neuros are cut a good deal of slack, but you can never be too careful.
‘The amount you worry, I’m surprised you haven’t got ulcers yet.’ Andy’s fingers dance like spiders across the console before he raps off a series of instructions to the computer. ‘Anyway, I thought that after the funeral you withdrew your application for transfer.’
Despite occasional lapses into irreverence, Andy is top-notch at his work, and Litchfield always requests—and gets—the younger man in his unit. Laura said he played a wicked bass, too—a weekend hobby that wouldn’t be tolerated in a lesser tech.
‘That doesn’t mean I flout the rules.’
Andy’s eyes never leave the monitors. ‘You blame him, don’t you?’
‘Don’t be daft. He’s been completely exonerated. If anyone is to blame, it’s myself. I should have checked for any long-term sequelae—complications—of the virus.’
Andy says nothing though his eyebrows arch slightly.
‘We all know he’s a risk-taker,’ Litchfield says hurriedly. ‘That’s what makes him so good.’
For a few minutes Andy works on in silence while Litchfield studies the stream of raw data passing across the neural link monitor. A few jagged spikes in alpha2, and the feedforward channel seems sluggish though still well within tolerances.
‘Maybe you should’ve sent Gina or Phil,’ Andy says when he’s finished his adjustments. He stretches, then cracks his knuckles.
Litchfield’s eyes go to the tech’s fingers. There have been rumours. ‘You know perfectly well it had to be Zach.’ He raises his voice for the benefit of any watchdogs. ‘He’s the best we’ve got for this kind of job.’
‘What if he breaks? It’s hit him very hard.’
‘He’ll do. Remember who he is.’
‘Looking for someone?’
Laura whirled at the sound of Zach’s voice. He stepped out of the shadows under the massive beeches, tempering his mockery with a half-smile. Quarter-smile, actually, and still her pulse responded. She wondered if he’d notice. She knew what they said about him, about his sort—everyone did. A trickle of apprehension slid between her shoulder blades, and she glanced quickly in all directions, but there was no one in sight. Zach’s eyes darkened, and he took a step backward.
‘Right,’ he said.
He turned on his heel, his hair swinging like a sluice of black rain across his face, and strode away through the coppery leaves, which crackled underfoot. It had been a dry season. After a second’s hesitation Laura followed, catching up with him near the gunnera manicata—in summer a spectacular display like a giant’s rhubarb patch, which had so impressed her that she’d once netted it. An exotic foreigner needing lots of space, and protection from their harsh climate.
‘Wait, Zach. Please. I don’t care what they say.’
He stopped under a ginkgo tree and looked down at her. She was unusually tall, but he was even taller. All of them were, though he more than most.
‘And your dad?’ he asked.
‘He’s not going to find out.’
‘Suppose he does? Not reporting it could cost him his job. And if you’re planning to get a place at university—’
He stared at her for a moment longer before plucking a single, butterfly-shaped leaf from the branch overhead and offering it to her, a reminder of his preposterous, infuriating, magnificent unpredictability. ‘Come on, then.’ He jerked his head towards the petting zoo, often crowded at the weekend, and the brackish canal district that lay beyond. ‘I know a place where they do a decent burger and chips.’
But they both knew he meant where they’d be served.
It was a small, cheerful takeaway with a single table and a couple of hard wooden chairs squeezed into the rear, almost hidden by a rack of magazines and the drinks cooler. The dark-skinned woman working behind the counter nodded at Zach without speaking and without pausing in her chopping. Onions, Laura thought, and a heady spice which she couldn’t pin down. Nor had she ever seen such upper arms, whose skin from armpit to elbow swayed like flaccid udders as the woman worked.
The square of cardboard folded under the leg of their table didn’t quite do its job, so that every time Laura leaned forward, her coke wobbled. A bit like her feelings, which lurched from elation that Zach, who threaded a motorbike through the clusters of kids in the carpark with the same utter indifference with which he tacked in and out of the classroom whenever he could be bothered, that a flesh-and-blood Zach, about whom she’d spent most of her waking hours, and not an inconsiderable number of her sleeping ones, daydreaming and dreaming, that Zach was actually sitting right here across from her, eating . . . to stupefaction and a disbelieving admiration of her own daring . . . to dread that she’d be found out. That word would get back to her parents, and worse, to the Insects. She was a good liar, but nobody could lie their way out of this.
Zach picked up a chip with a graceful movement of his fingers, then caught her studying him.
‘What?’ he asked.
She coloured and couldn’t think of a crack response, nor even a suitable one.
‘Think we don’t eat?’
Her colour intensified, and she stared down at her own plate. She’d been hungry when they’d taken their seats and ordered. She prodded a chip with her fork, the way you’d nudge a quiescent bug with a stick or a shoe or a pencil—whatever came to hand—to see if the horrid thing would spring at you, or at least scuttle away.
‘Nice deep yellow, aren’t they?’ Zach asked. ‘Stella uses ground cockroach meal, says it does wonders for the flavour too, better than malt vinegar.’
Laura speared four or five chips rapidhit on the tines of her fork and thrust them into her mouth. She chewed ostentatiously, smacking her lips.
‘Delicious,’ she said, with a flash in her eyes. ‘Remind me to ask Stella where I can buy some of that meal for my mum.’
This time the complaints began before pudding.
‘Have you talked with him?’ her mum asked.
‘No opportunity.’ Her dad scraped up the last of his mash, pushed his plate aside, and stood, anxious to fetch the serving bowl from the dresser. ‘Anyone else ready for dessert?’
Max shovelled in his peas with a grimace. At thirteen he was always hungry, and there would be no sweet unless he cleaned his plate. Laura knew how he felt. Nobody else’s parents expected them to finish everything. Absolutely archaic. Obsolete. Superannuated. She grinned to herself. Though Zach hardly ever pitched up at school, his vocabulary was legendary. The stuff he read . . . she’d have to work hard to convince him she had a brain too.
‘What are you waiting for now? I do everything else around here as it is, do you expect me to go to your boss as well?’ her mum asked, her mouth puckering as if she’d bitten into a lemon.
Laura and Max exchanged glances. Once their mum’s voice took on that astringency, even her blackberry fool would curdle.
‘I promised I’d speak to him, and I will. But it’s another six months till the committee meets about reassignment. There’s plenty of time.’
‘Are you being deliberately obtuse? We’ve discussed this before, six months is nothing, a promotion needs to be carefully orchestrated. For pity’s sake, you don’t want to be stuck in lab work forever. It’s not good enough, not for someone like you—a doctorate and a medical degree, a list of publications a metre long’—at Laura’s frown, Max wisely broke off mouthing the familiar refrain—‘clinical trials that even the Ministry cites, expertise. With your experience, you ought to have been made a director, or leastways a division head, ages ago.’
With his back to the table, Laura’s dad began spooning pudding into their bowls.
‘Don’t you ignore me, Charles.’
‘I’m not ignoring you.’
‘If you had any consideration at all, you’d work a bit harder to get on. For me, for the kids.’ Her voice was beginning its familiar climb. ‘It’s your attitude. Look at all those younger men who’ve been promoted over your head. Huang. Chisholm. Even Botha, of all people, though everybody knows it’s only because his father-in-law—’
Laura pushed back her chair.
‘No pudding for me, thanks. I’ve got an essay to start.’
Max shot her a dirty look, but he’d be finished and off with his mates to the pitch before Mum really let loose.
‘Just a minute,’ her mum said. ‘I want to know where you were this afternoon.’
‘School,’ Laura said.
‘Not that late. Not on a Friday.’
Careful not to overdo the wide-eyed innocence, Laura merely shrugged. ‘I stayed to talk with Saunders about the team.’ That ought to mollify her. From the corner of her eye she noticed that Max had stopped scoffing down his pudding for a moment.
‘Mr Saunders, please,’ her dad admonished.
‘Watch that tone,’ her mum said. ‘Good. Very good. So when are you going to start training again? You can’t expect to take any medals if you don’t work properly. You’ve had far too much time off as it is. Your butterfly’s perfect, backstroke almost as strong, there’s no reason why you can’t be regional champion, and Mr Saunders himself told me that if you’d trim your times just a bit, you’d even have a decent chance for the national schools team. And I still don’t understand why you won’t join a club, because then you’d be—’
‘I haven’t got the time for a club,’ Laura said.
‘Rubbish. You spend enough time in front of the screen to train for two squads. Now look, I rang their head coach—’
‘You did what?’
Her mum ignored the interruption. ‘She was very interested, I can tell you. I’ve made an appointment for you to see her on Thursday evening. So make sure you’re home on time, not rushing in when the rest of us have already sat down to supper, like tonight.’
‘There’s no point going to see her if I’m not joining.’
‘Of course you’ll see her. You want to hear what she’s going to suggest, don’t you? There’s an intercity meet already coming up at the end of the month, you need to get back into form, though I’m not really worried about those county qualifying times, but I want her to have a look at your backstroke turns, and she might suggest a new—’
Usually Laura found it easy to turn on her spam filter, but tonight she remembered what Stella had said after sending Zach off to the cellar for a sack of potatoes—‘You’d better know what you’re doin’, girl’—and she felt her shoulders sag under the weight of all the words that were always being coiled round her neck like an unending chain of mail, admonishing and exhorting and soliciting. Wearily she stood up, muttered something vague under her breath, and carried her dirty plate to the dishwasher.
‘Laura,’ her mother snapped, ‘you’re not listening again.’
Better know what you’re doin’, girl.
‘Laura, come back here. What do you think you’re doing? Laura! Laura!’
As Laura left the kitchen, she could hear her mother calling after her, mere anger at first, which would soon crescendo into a paroxysm of rage if Dad didn’t manage to appease her. The whole neighbourhood snickered about Molly Litchfield’s tantrums. Even at school there’d been remarks, that dumbfuck Kathleen Slade, for one. And Courtney, who gave head to every bloke within puking range and, sod’s law, who just happened to be standing nearby when Zach had stopped to hand Laura a book, a library book for fucksake, you’d have thought it was a packet of condoms or a couple of lines wrapped in foil or a terr bomb . . .
Laura shut and locked her bedroom door, but the yelling penetrated the solid wood penetrated her skull penetrated. She went to the window and looked out over her dad’s tidy garden, then leaned her forehead against the cool pane. How could he put up with it? Maybe her mum was right after all—weak, she called him. Though sometimes lately, Laura had caught the flicker of a faint red flame in his pupils, extinguished as quickly as a match struck against the wind.
Her mobile rang. She snatched it up, then left it to record a message when she saw Owen on the display. He’d want to go out—a film, a club, whatever she chose was always fine with him. And when she said enough, he listened—no tongue slobbering in her ear, no sly hand fingering the crotch of her knickers. Though she’d thought about it—who hadn’t?—she wasn’t the sort to go all syrupy (Olivia’s newest rizword). He wasn’t ugly or anything. He wasn’t weird, or an outcast, or superclever and sarky with it. Lots of girls liked him. Her mum loved him.
Not Owen, not tonight. A shame that you couldn’t turn feelings on and off like your mobie. She weighed it in her hand, its casing cool and impassive against her skin. She could ring Zach, couldn’t she? The worst he could say would be no.
And then she remembered Courtney’s remarks. There was a lot worse than no. She knew it wasn’t fair—Owen was nice—but she rang him back and arranged to meet him in an hour. They’d go someplace popular, someplace revving on a Friday night—someplace where they’d be good and visible.