The freeze continued, promising a white Christmas. Promising Yuletide Blessings. Seasons Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year. Through deep snow may Friendship’s glow our hearts unite this Christmas. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.
Homo sapiens, of course.
There were no further bombings in the weeks before the holiday, but the three other simus at school disappeared over a single weekend. The youngest, a girl who was a year ahead of Max, had eaten lunch with Zach in the canteen a couple of times at the beginning of term, and once had matched her steps to Laura’s in the corridor to ask if there were any openings on the swimming team. Though by herself, Laura had muttered ‘check with Saunders’ without stopping, without so much as a brief smile, and had veered away towards a group of kids she barely recognised, some of the loathsome Purist types. What was the girl’s name? Lily? Leslie? Something like that. Maybe Max would know. It was a bit late to start feeling guilty about such a trivial slight, and at school there was no way she could show any but generic interest in the girl. Generic, she thought with a familiar ache. The Head had made an official announcement that Fulgur was opening a new on-campus secondary school for the gifted: ‘Naturally we will miss our cognoscens pupils, who, thanks to the generosity and continued support of the Fulgur Corporation, have enriched our intellectual life immeasurably, and provided our school with a unique opportunity to practise mutual tolerance, but it would be churlish to regret what is clearly in the young simus’ own best interests.’ Olivia nudged her in assembly, while he went on to describe the new media facilities. ‘Fartbag. The augers are being rounded up by I.S.’ Lately Olivia used auger as often as possible in Laura’s presence, priming her hotglot for an explosion, with juicy radioactive fallout. But that was the old Laura. Resigned to the growing coolness between them, she only continued to sit with Olivia to avoid suspicion. No, she was lying to herself, there was a certain longing as well—maybe it was like smoking, they said you never got over wanting a cigarette even years after you’d quit.
On the Friday before regionals, Laura came into the kitchen to pack up a sandwich and a bottle of juice, maybe some biscuits. She was always ravenous after training, and her mum was baking again, the whole house smelled like the inside of a warm oven. Three gingerbread slabs were cooling on the worktop, packets of sweets for decoration nearby—one of the seasonal exceptions to the no-teeth-rot rule—but her mum was staring at the contents of a parcel spread across the table.
‘Christmas presents?’ Laura asked.
‘It looks that way, though nothing’s gift-wrapped.’
‘Who’s it from?’
‘That’s the strangest part.’ Her mum pointed to the packaging. ‘There’s no sender’s name, only a PO box in Cape Town, and no note. South African stamps.’
‘I didn’t know you’ve got friends there.’
‘How weird.’ Laura said, examining the dark-grained Mancala board obviously intended for her dad, a battered single-stringed musical instrument, and a football in an acrylic display case which proved to be autographed by Pelé. ‘Rad, wait till Max gets a look at this!’
‘This one’s yours.’ Her mum took a white envelope with Laura printed neatly on its face from her apron pocket. ‘Open it.’
Laura succeeded in keeping her hands steady as she turned it over. The seal still intact, her mum must have just unpacked the parcel. Lifting the flap on her backpack to slip the envelope inside, Laura headed for the door. The pool snackbar was open till nine. ‘Can’t, I’m already late, Janey will murder me.’
Clipboard in hand, Janey beckoned Laura from her lane, then flipped through the top sheets to tap a finger on a printed notice. ‘I’m trying to make this inconspicuous. Collect your towel and go to my office while the others are still doing their laps. There’s someone waiting for you.’
‘Police?’ Laura whispered, though they couldn’t be overheard from the water, and the assistant coach was standing at the other end of the pool. Because of the weather, there wasn’t even a pushy parent in sight.
Janey shook her head. ‘Make it quick, there’s work to do. I expect at least three firsts tomorrow, and one new record.’ But she was smiling, Laura had been besting her own times ever since . . . ever since the cottage.
‘A bloke?’ Laura couldn’t keep the note of hope from her voice.
‘No.’ Janey met Laura’s eyes, and there was both understanding and something like regret in them. Janey was no fool, however underpaid and underappreciated. Not for the first time, Laura wondered why this tough, articulate woman had chosen to coach at all, and then a minor team. Without arrogance, Laura knew she was about the best material Janey was ever likely to get. Fulgur channelled its support into basketball and football, not swimming. ‘I’m sorry, it’s an older woman,’ Janey added, ‘but I think you’ll be glad to see her.’ She passed Laura her coach’s clipboard. ‘Here’s your pretext, should someone ask. Any papers from my desk will do.’
One slam-dunk of a heartbeat, that was all, for Laura to recognise Stella under the black knitted hat—rounded, not peaked—and metre-long scarf concealing her double chin; the last person Laura had expected. What had the woman told Janey to explain this visit?
‘Come in and shut the door,’ Stella said calmly, gesturing towards the second chair, from which Laura would have to remove a precarious stack of magazines and books, topped by some spare swimming caps, the sleek silver silicone ones embossed with the club logo.
After bolting the door behind her, Laura rewrapped her towel, which had slipped a bit, and made her way to the seat. She felt at a distinct disadvantage, almost vulnerable, in a skin of dripping lycra, especially since Stella hadn’t removed her cumbersome anorak, hadn’t even unzipped it.
‘Hurry up, girl, I haven’t got all day.’
Laura noted with surprise that Janey seemed to like reading poetry and anthropology as well as sports magazines.
‘I saw what they did to your place,’ Laura said. ‘I’m sorry.’
Stella nodded, then unwound her scarf to free her jaw. ‘I reckon I’ll never get used to the cold.’
‘Did anyone get hurt?’
‘Only my pet iguana.’ Stella guffawed at the expression on Laura’s face, a sound like a jackal’s call. Laura remembered reading that jackals were highly intelligent animals. ‘They don’t take down old Stella that easy. You can’t joke, you might as well order the coffin.’ Her eyebrows snapped towards each other like feinting pups. ‘Only so many times you can cheat the hangman, though.’
Laura would have liked to ask where the woman was staying, what she was living on, but satisfied herself with a less risky question. Stella was perfectly capable of leaving without another word if offended, never to approach Laura again.
‘How did you find me?’
‘You mean why, don’t you?’
Laura crossed her arms in an attempt to disguise her shiver. But Stella smiled, a genuine smile this time, and the two of them regarded each other with mutual respect, the one thing uniting them acknowledged at last.
‘Where—’ Laura cleared her voice of a slight hoarseness. ‘Where is he?’
‘I’ve got good ears for my age. Word is, you swim a lot. Word is, you swim like no one else in the entire city.’ Stella leaned forward to inspect the pendant that, contrary to club rules, Laura wouldn’t remove during training—and would definitely, defiantly, not remove while competing tomorrow. ‘Word is, you’ve got flippers hidden inside those skinny limbs of yours. I sure hope so. My da used to fish with a speargun. It takes some mighty powerful swimming to outrace them cunts. And the hate-tipped ones—they’re poison. You swim with Zach, it’s not going to be in a turquoise pool under gently swaying coconut palms, with the five stars of a tropical paradise to lighten his sultry skin.’ She saw Laura begin to shake her head. ‘Listen, sugar, some things never change. Once a nigger lover, always a nigger lover. Only now they call them augers.’
After the meet her mum carted off Laura’s medals as though she, her mum, had won them herself. Which, in a way, she had. Her euphoria would last as long as it took her to remember the sloppy turn in the 400-m individual medley, and the new record Laura had missed setting by a microsliver of a second in the 200-m fly. Laura made the most of her triumph: two parties, and Owen would bring her home afterwards. His absence at the meet, she’d explained to her mum, couldn’t be helped, a family commitment. In fact, he’d be at his grandmother’s birthday celebration till late, and she’d been invited.
Laura put in an appearance at the club’s victory bash, then let everyone know she was expected at Owen’s. Her parents had given her enough money for a taxi, which she’d supplemented with a withdrawal from her sock fund; harder to trace than mobie credit. The taxi driver made no comment as she gave him the address, but his frown, however fleeting, didn’t escape her notice. Though she would have preferred to make her own way by bus, there simply wasn’t enough time. She’d have to trust that no one would be inquiring. Never explain too much: how many times had she tried to teach Max the cardinal rule of crack lying? The less she said, the more likely the driver would be to forget the one odd fare among many in the pre-Christmas rush. And with such broken English, he probably wasn’t some bright student earning extra dosh at night.
She had a moment of trepidation when the taxi pulled away, leaving her, despite her mobile, to wonder whether she was heading into rough, perhaps shark-infested waters. She glanced round nervously and then, turtling further into the hood of her jacket, picked her way across the uneven pavement towards the side entrance Stella had described, not unlike crossing coarse, slippery shingle strewn with wrack. There wasn’t much light, and though she’d tucked a small torch into her bag, it would spotlight her presence. She wrinkled her nose, even the cold couldn’t deaden the pong. She ought to be relieved that she couldn’t see what lay nearby, under the crust of snow.
There was no response to the pre-arranged signal, and after several more attempts, it seemed as though something had gone wrong. The alternative—a nasty sort of stunt—Laura considered for a moment, then dismissed. Without naming names, Stella had warned her of a fair amount of opposition to her, Laura’s, involvement, but in the end the group had come to a consensus. Zach was no longer in police custody, Fulgur having produced enough evidence (or leverage) to secure his release. To dissociate themselves from any hint of terrorist activity, the Janus needed to move above ground. ‘Convince them,’ Stella had said, ‘that there are a lot more sapies like you, sapies who aren’t terror-stricken, who are prepared to work together with the simus. Who better than the daughter of one of Fulgur’s hotshot scientists?’
‘But where’s Zach?’ Laura had repeated. ‘Why hasn’t he—’ She’d stopped herself in time, but Stella wasn’t fooled. ‘Why hasn’t he gone back to his flat?’
‘He’ll have his reasons.’
‘Is Fulgur threatening to cut off his serum?’
‘The formula would be a sign of good faith.’
‘So that’s the real purpose of this visit.’
Stella’s silence like no other, Laura heard herself speaking roughly, belligerently—fearfully. ‘What aren’t you telling me?’
‘Zach does his own telling, you ought to know that by now.’
Stella nodded grimly. ‘You got it, girl. Maybe, sometimes, we need to do the telling for him.’
She couldn’t know, could she? Though Laura’s pulse rate would have betrayed her, she’d studied Stella without faltering. (What a wimp she’d been, cowering for so many years behind her lies! Why hadn’t she realised that you could practise assertiveness like your crawl?) No matter how thoroughly the simus were disliked, few people cared for police brutality, and a backlash would further the Janu cause. But to disclose the circumstances of his arrest . . . Laura’s gooseflesh was no less real for being imagined.
Whatever the woman’s suspicions, she could be as close-mouthed as Zach himself, and probably just as unforgiving. The conversation had begun to feel like a chess game predestined, at best, to stalemate. At the sight of tears, always a useful gambit but in this match ridiculously easy to muster, Stella had relented enough to admit that no one was quite certain of Zach’s whereabouts, or how far Fulgur’s protection would extend. ‘When I was a girl, we had a scrappy little dog who followed me everywhere.’ Grunting a bit, she’d bent and hiked up the right leg of her trousers, exposing a large, shiny, raised, and altogether ugly scar on her shin. ‘Till he turned on me and bit. Then my da put him down.’ She laughed. ‘Or so he thought. We kids found Rook in time and took him to my uncle’s. The scrappy ones survive.’
That simu boy—over the past weeks Laura had thought about him a lot. Zach had freed his captive, but wouldn’t go into detail. ‘We’ve given him a good scare, I’ve more than enough on my conscience.’ It had been Max who’d told her that dying was often not as scary as living. ‘And kids go to awesome places. Rad magical places like in films, only better. The boy you mean, the one who died, I did catch him sometimes. He chased dragons: hot sun, sharp salty wind, blue blue waves. His hair like black wings, his feet flying the surf. The sea tasting of fish and chips with plenty of vinegar. All the chips you can eat.’ When Laura asked why the fuck he hadn’t told anyone before it was too late, Max had regarded her with confused resentment. ‘I didn’t know where he really was. I’ve already told you, I can’t always tell. Anyway, who should I have told except Dad, and I did go to him, but something was wrong with the boy, Dad wouldn’t say, but I guess it was a neuro thing, and once Fulgur rejects you, and if you’ve got no family, and no one will give you your serum or medicine or food even . . . people who’re hungry imagine mountains and mountains of food . . . ‘ She batted his hand away from his neckline. ‘Yeah, like I asked for this? It sucks that there’s so much bad shit out there!’ Less hotly, ‘Ask Zach. One day things will change.’
‘And just how am I supposed to ask Zach?’
‘He’ll be back, Lolly.’ Max touched her wrist. ‘He’s OK, you’ll see, things are going to change.’ But he refused to be goaded by supplication; her unspoken imprecations.
Once more Laura rapped on the door, then pounded it brashly in frustration. Political stuff didn’t much interest her, mainly she’d come to see for herself what Stella might be hiding. The woman was too canny, surely, to believe someone like Laura’s dad would breach Fulgur security to a family member, whatever she might claim—or ask of Laura. Maybe these people knew all along where Zach could be found.
The echo dwindling in what must be a long, empty corridor, she yanked off her gloves to check a tad compulsively for her mobile. The old Rex Cinema was huge, a dream palace abandoned at least twenty years before, when this district had begun to deteriorate and film-goers preferred the smaller places anyway, but a sentry—of sorts—was meant to be waiting for her.
Later on, she could never decide what made her try the handle. The footfall behind her? Which she realised after slamming and bolting the metal door—a wooden one would have been axed ages ago—was probably three-quarters imagination and one-quarter stray cat or rodent. But she was in, and she had her torch. To leave now would leave her guessing forever, and hating herself for scuttling away. At least as a crab, you needn’t despise yourself for burrowing into the sand. Ever since she was seven, she’d become very good at burrowing.
Lies taste like a mouthful of sand.
She switched on the torch but didn’t budge from the spot. There wasn’t much to be seen—remnants of peeling wallpaper, once richly embossed; a twist of wires where wall fixtures had been removed, though one tarnished sconce still dangled like a wild bird left to hang before roasting; a dark red carpet, surprisingly intact if muddied; some water damage in the corner of the ceiling right above her head. She played the torch in all directions.
Somebody had cleared away the usual rubbish that accumulates in a derelict building, or the place had been kept well barricaded—nothing more than a few cigarette stubs, a board leaning against the wall, one crumpled ball of newspaper, which she had, her mother’s daughter, a momentary urge to pick up. And there was no sign of the usual vandalism, no graffiti.
The air, though dampish, was still. Too still for her to call out and announce her presence. Despite her determination to proceed, she found it hard to move away from the exit; from what might be her only exit. At last she removed her mobile and stared at it, then thrust it back in her bag when she realised that the only person she wanted to text couldn’t be reached.
‘I’ll find you,’ she whispered.
In the cinema itself all but the last ten rows or so of seats seemed to be in place, and Laura surmised that the missing ones had been sold off by the original owners, so clean were the wounds. At a guess the cinema could have accommodated upwards of a thousand viewers—a very blind guess. The vast space was as dark as an underground cavern, into which her torch shone only a narrow, meagre light. From the upper circle she felt like Jonah, entering not the whale, but the mouth of some even larger prehistoric creature whose multiple rows of teeth would soon grind her to a paste. Though she tried to plot the dimensions of the theatre, whenever she moved towards one wall, the others receded into darkness. Finally she worked her way back to the centre, doing her best to ignore the increasing chill.
A step at a time, Laura descended from the upper level along the central aisle, swinging her torch alternately to the left, to the right. Here too everything was tidy—too tidy, as though the cleaners had just come through with vacuum and rubbish bags. She paused as gooseflesh rose on her arms, no longer able to remember why she’d felt compelled to search the building. It was obviously deserted, the group she was supposed to join long fled. She promised herself she’d leave upon reaching the main floor: a cinema this size must have emergency exits on either side. For some reason she didn’t fancy turning her back to the screen.
She finds them near the bottom.
Near the bottom she finds them, three in a row, and four more in the next row down: positioned as if watching a film; slumping a bit, as if bored, or half asleep; leaning against each other as if sharing a secret, an embrace.
Straighten up, this is no time for snogging.
She gave a great hiccup of laughter, then swung about, the torch wavering wildly. Was anyone there? She clamped her left hand round her right to steady the beam of light, not very successfully. Was anyone still there? There had already been ample opportunity to attack her, hadn’t there?
A line of reasoning which might have worked while tucked up under her duvet with a cup of hot chocolate on her bedside cabinet and her terror confined to the printed page and the dustball monsters under her bed, her dad’s snoring comforting if inaudible.
To keep from bolting, she told herself she had to be sure—that they were dead, that no one she knew . . .
Don’t go there.
With great care Laura sidled along the row of seats till she came to the first body. She studied the lad’s face, his eyes closed, his mouth only slightly agape, his skin fairer than Zach’s, his hair too—he might really have been sleeping, his head reposing on the shoulder of the girl next to him, and even that track of dried spit not out of place. She bent close, so that his eyelashes trembled delicately at the stir of her breath, though it was her own eyes which stung. How had he died? There seemed to be no frontal wounds, but she wasn’t prepared to pull his torso forward to check for bullet holes, stab marks. Despite little reason to hope, she forced herself to feel for a pulse. Then on to the next body. And the next. By the time she reached the last, her hands had stopped shaking; her agitation replaced by a dry-eyed calm.
The head was tilted at an awkward angle. Laura lifted the chin, reluctance her only glove. Unbalanced, Stella’s bulky corpse tipped sideways, slid away, and settled itself into the narrow space between the rows of seats. Again no visible wounds. Maybe it had been poison; maybe some sort of gas or bioweapon. A responsible citizen would report this. A responsible citizen might need an antidote.
An irresponsible citizen would take her chances.
Six in all, the kids: two girls and four boys. Her age, Zach’s, at most a year or two older. She thought of Owen, right this moment swilling punch and stuffing himself for his grandmother’s eightieth—fourscore, a good biblical age. Moses was eighty years old when the waters of Egypt, smote with a rod, ran blood. Four boys and two girls, simus all. And as much as she’d disliked Jessica, Laura would never have wished to see her foundered here, her once vivid face washed clean of all disdain. The others were strangers.
Laura couldn’t leave Stella reduced to a wretched bundle, like a secret too sordid to out. It took some doing to manoeuvre the heavy, floppy body back into the seat and prop it upright. At least Stella’s eyes were shut; accusations have a way of staring at you in the dark.
After a while, Laura moved on to the others. She passed her torch over their faces, slowly, lingering on each to memorise a particular feature—this one’s slateblue stubble, that one’s shapely eyebrows, a scar. At first she felt disturbed by her own curiosity, as if her torch were the lens of an intrusive camera, but then she saw how the light flowed over them, anointing their waxy skin. She lowered her torch, righted another body, and with what she’d have been embarrassed to call a sense of awe, moved from corpse to corpse, clambering between the risers and kissing each forehead in turn.
As she straightened for the last time, Laura searched her memory for a word or two, a phrase which might serve. She remembered plenty of prayers, but Zach had told her simus didn’t bother with religion. And Stella? Her grandfather would tell her it didn’t matter; she knew it did.
Nothing came to mind but a lame I’m sorry. She whispered it nevertheless, and at the sound of her voice the cinema screen burst into life.