by Susan Oke
There’s no stopping Mikey in this mood. He grins at me, blue eyes bright in the moonlight, and a surge of excitement snatches at my breath. He always does this to me; it’s one of the things that I love about him. Blake and Hari stride ahead –– the Hulk and Spiderman –– full of restless energy. Mikey grabs my hand and together we run to catch up.
The fence is no problem; Hari flourishes his dad’s wire cutters, stolen for the occasion. Mikey holds back the heavy netting while I step through, his knuckles white against the wire. The ground is ridged with the aftershock of JCB-violation; lumpy shadows hint at equipment scattered around the excavation site. It’s cold and damp, and I can feel my hair starting to frizz.
I pick my way across what used to be the school’s sports field, and try to picture the site during the day: the thump and rumble of men-at-work, flashes of yellow, digger and men both, humped earth waiting to landslide, and that black lick of a wound in the ground, growing wider and deeper every day. But my snapshot glances taken on the way to the Science Block refuse to coalesce into a solid image. The shadows keep their secrets.
A single arc lamp burns at the centre of the site; bright slits of light escape between the hastily erected screens that surround the Pit.
The boys move ahead –– eager.
‘Wait,’ I hiss. ‘Somebody might still be working down there.’
‘Nah, they packed up ‘bout seven,’ Hari says. ‘Three geeks and one professor type.’ He counts them off on his fingers.
‘MI5 more like.’ Blake towers over the other two boys; a genius on the rugby pitch, but that’s about it.
‘The Prof’s got an American accent,’ Hari says. ‘Heard him shouting ‘n’ swearing at the other geeks. Real nasty.’ He drawls the last two words and laughs.
‘Must be CIA,’ Mikey says, grinning behind Blake’s back. Blake just grunts and puts a shoulder to one of the heavy metal screens, and heaves a gap wide enough for us all to push through.
Raindrop glints of refracted light outline the cab of the JCB digger abandoned on the edge of the Pit. A dank, mouldy smell hangs in the air despite the earlier rain; the edges of the pit are churned up like a post-match rugby pitch. I watch the boys play most Sundays, shouting from the touchline, urging them on. Mikey always looks for his dad in the crowd. It scares me, the way everything about him turns hard and sharp when he realizes his dad’s not there –– again. It’s been three months since his dad walked out. Nobody knows where he is.
‘I’m not walking through that,’ I jut my chin at the mud. Blake and Hari snigger. Mikey treats them to his signature glare and that shuts them up. I watch him stride off towards the Pit, shoulders stiff; he doesn’t look back. Crap. I scowl at the mud, at my brand new Converse, at the backs of the boys as they leave me behind, and then begin to squelch my way through the mire. It’s all right for Mikey, his mam gave up asking questions when he turned sixteen. But how the frig am I going to explain all this mud?
Mikey puts his arm around my shoulders and I lean into him; together we look down into the Pit. It’s deeper than I expected. Rough blocks of grey-black stone mark a ‘T’ shape across the bottom. The shadows looked solid.
‘Is this what you dragged me out here to see?’ Rain mists into my face and I rake my jacket hood up. ‘A few old stones?’
Mikey places one hand on his chest and imitates the stuck-up accent of the headmaster.
‘This is a significant archeological find. The remains of the original monastery built on this site in the early fifteenth century –-‘
I start to giggle. He grins, clears his throat dramatically, and continues.
‘As you know, my family was one of the founders of this village. I can trace my lineage back to ––‘
I can hardly breathe for laughing. Mikey has a real talent; he could be on the telly.
‘Guess we won’t get our swimming pool by Christmas,’ I say, dabbing at my eyes.
Mikey snorts in disgust and moves closer to the edge of the Pit, his feet slipping in the mud.
‘Mikey, don’t!’ He looks back, a slow grin spreading across his face.
‘You’re scared.’ There’s a taunting edge in his voice, almost mean.
My stomach twists and forces the words out. ‘Just don’t, all right.’
A rhythmic thumping makes us both look back. Blake is jumping up and down on the top of the JCB cab –– a stomping, punching dance to whatever track is pounding through his headphones. Hari is pressed against the cab door, trying to force the lock. Mikey laughs out loud and runs back to clamber up the frame of the hulking machine. He’s been drinking, all three boys have. His malted kiss, just out of sight of my house, had an edge of abandon to it. Just a couple of cans, he’d said, to my unasked question. He kissed me again, harder, and I let him.
I take a deep breath and force my wobbly knees to straighten and lock. The shouts and laughter of the three boys echo across the sports field: the three musketeers, always together, on and off the pitch. Mikey took me to see the film last week and then sulked when I drooled all over Logan Lerman –– back in his bedroom, I didn’t have to try too hard to convince Mikey that he was my handsome D’Artagnan.
I watch, not quite believing, as Mikey shins up the raised arm of the digger and hauls himself up, to stand on the lip of the tilted bucket. Feet wedged between its blunt metal teeth, Mikey raises his arms to the sky: a black outline against the light of the arc lamp. I know he’s got that ‘look at me’ grin on his face. That’s when I glance down: the arms of the JCB extend out, over the edge of the Pit. Every part of me clenches around the words I want to shout.
Shadows shift and suddenly he isn’t there. For a second I’m too scared to look. The harsh white light of the arc lamp picks out every detail: Mikey is lying on his side amongst the stones, his body curled as if asleep, black hair sprawling wet across his face. Fat rain thins the blood welling across his forehead. I bite down on the need to scream. Through my tears I can see that he’s still smiling.
The whistle signals the end of rugby practice. I’m pacing the touchline, fighting the itch to be somewhere else. Blake and Hari make a beeline straight for me, faces set. The rest of the guys follow the coach back into the Sports Hall.
That’s my name now – given in honour of my indestructible skeleton. Kate says Blake and Hari are my friends, so I smile and say ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ I remember the things we did together, but it’s like a story about someone else. I’ve been back at school a whole week and they still don’t get it.
Kate sneaks up behind and tries to put her arms around me; I shrug her off.
‘I can’t believe you’re off the team,’ Hari spits in frustration. ‘We’ve got the match against Hymers next week. They’ve got to let you play.’
‘You’ve got to appeal, or something.’ Blake frowns at me.
I can’t meet their eyes.
‘No contact sports, that’s what the doctors said. And that means no rugby,’ Kate snaps like a pit-bull, her braids swinging, beads clicking.
‘But six weeks… the season will be nearly over by then.’ There’s a pleading edge in Hari’s voice, as if somehow Kate can fix this. But Kate has her don’t-mess-with-me face on.
‘Piss off, both of you. Give us a bit of space.’
She punches Blake in the arm when it looks like he’s going to argue. Blake nods and gives Hari a shove towards the Sports Hall. Kate squeezes my hand, and forces on her see-you-later smile. She’s gone before I can say ‘thanks’.
I watch her walk away: longs legs and a too short uniform skirt, moving like she owns the school. For a second I want to shout for her to wait for me. I’ve touched the web of pale scars on her knees, hidden by day under brightly patterned tights. Hari said she threw herself into the Pit after me. I remember the sound of her voice, close, whispering my name over and over; it gave me something to hold on to.
The hospital was an agony of waiting. I thought: dad has to come now. He didn’t. I don’t know if mam told him what happened. I couldn’t ask.
I woke up to a world filled with unexpected patches of light –– in houses, at church, but especially around the school. I guess it’s a sort of freaky x-ray vision. There’s a pattern in the light, a green-gold dance that gets inside my head if I stare too long. I haven’t figured out what it means yet, but I will.
I can’t keep still, the itch sets me walking, around the building to the back of the Sports Hall. At least it’s quiet here. I can feel my headache beginning to fade, the tension easing out of my shoulders. I hold my breath and wait. There it is: that faint humming note that always comes with the light. A shoaling roll of patterns ripple across the grass –– a green-gold symmetry that calls to me. I walk out into the light; I can’t stop myself grinning as my whole body begins to buzz.
The corner of the building snags the breeze, and the howl of hundreds of kids at play roars across the field. Lifting my head I realise, too late, where I am: the Pit. Suddenly my heart’s hammering so hard it hurts. I back away from the fence, straight into the arms of half-a-dozen girls. They crowd around me, jostling and giggling; one waves something yellow in my face.
‘C’mon Wolverine, let’s see you in these.’
It’s a pair of gold spandex leggings. I know these girls; they start to circle, eyes and teeth bright. The words I need won’t come. Bodies press close, hands fumble at my belt buckle, pull at my shirt.
‘Your poor face. Let me kiss it better.’
An arm locks around my neck, wetness on my cheek. I stumble under the weight of them. A turbine whine vibrates through my skull; pain cracks across my forehead, sinks into my jaw, into the roots of my teeth. I think I’m going to be sick.
‘Go on, Sharon.’ The words echo around the pack, louder and louder.
Suddenly my trousers are around my knees. Hands and touching and heat. The turbine cuts off and colours explode into the silence. A flash of crimson leaves me blind. I squeeze my eyes shut but the colours keep coming, searing bright:
crimson, gold, silver
And then Kate’s here. She shoves her way to my side, shouting and swearing. I open my eyes to the storm of her: silver rages across her coffee skin. The pack scatters. A couple of the girls shout, ‘Selfish bitch!’ But they’ve had their fun, and regroup for a fresh hunt. The colours in my head splutter and fade, and Kate’s just Kate again.
Kate’s stare is full of violence. It’s me she wants to shout at, me she wants to punch and kick. But she just says, ‘Let’s get you cleaned up.’
Footsteps echo around me, silver-blue, bitter in the back of my throat. I’m alone. A crimson heartbeat pulses through the walls. Hurry. I start to run. A multitude of hollow sounds batter at me, challenging the hard thud in my chest. Hurry. Hurry. Ruby light saturates the air, its salt-sting sharp in my eyes, my nose, my mouth. Hurry. I strain against an invisible membrane, legs and blood pumping, forcing it to stretch, to belly out. Walls curve, draw close, condense the air to solid heat. I can’t… I can’t… Hurry! My hands stretch out, elongated, thinned to air, reaching, reaching for that crack of incandescent silver. I have it! My fingers push and prise – opening the way. A sudden inhalation, light sucked to black. Fingers, snapped back to solid, crack and pop.
I wake myself up, shouting and thrashing. Mam is standing in the doorway, a lumpy figure against the wash of light from the landing.
‘You all right, love?’ She’s trying to sound calm.
I work up a bit of spit in my mouth and fling the duvet back, t-shirt sweat-welded to my skin.
‘Yeah, just a dream.’ The same one every night.
Mam fidgets on the threshold. In or out: that’s what dad would say. I rub at my throat and rasp, ‘Water.’ She rushes off, glad to have something useful to do. I meet her at the door, say thanks and let her stretch up and kiss me on the forehead. Anything to get her to leave me alone.
Kate’s walking the path with me today. I know the shape of it now, where it turns at right angles, the short and long stretches that etch-a-sketch across the sports field. The pattern shimmers through the grass, dancing blade to tip, an arrow-straight line wide enough for us to walk along, side by side. From the corner of my eye I catch the twitch of her fingers: she wants to hold my hand.
As we near the fence around the Pit the pattern brightens, it tugs hard at the pit of my stomach. Our feet slow in unison, the tips of her fingers find mine. A sudden nagging itch spikes in between my shoulder blades, getting sharper with each step. I twist to face the School House as my stomach and shoulders begin to cramp.
The word is a hard tackle that slams the breath out of me. Kate grabs my arm and the world swings upright. There’s a man on the other side of the fence: heavy-built with close-cropped grey hair, hands shoved in the pockets of his yellow waterproof jacket, ‘UniSyk’ printed across its front.
‘Did you know that the foundations of the monastery exit the site right here, where you’re standing?’ His voice is a nasal American twang. I look down at his muddy boots, at the sodden bottoms of his jeans, and see that we’re standing on dull, lifeless grass –– the pattern has vanished.
‘We believe this part of the monastery extends right across the sports field, roughly where you were walking.’
I shuffle and try to rotate the pain out of my shoulders, but it won’t shift. The tug in my stomach turns into an ache. I feel like I’ve swallowed a stone.
‘What do you mean “this part”?’ Kate asks.
‘There’s evidence that this,’ the man waves his hand to include the Pit and the field, ‘housed the cells where the monks worked and studied. Over there,’ he turns and points towards the old School House, ‘is the most likely place for the chapel.’ He laughs and adds, ‘But I don’t think your headmaster is going to let us dig up his office to find out.’
‘You can’t anyway.’ Kate faces him squarely, chin up. ‘That’s a protected building. It’s hundreds of years old.’
The School House is the headmaster’s passion; he’s always pounding on about history and heritage. St. Gabriel’s is the oldest school in the whole of Yorkshire; that’s something to be proud of, something to shove in the faces of kids from lesser schools.
The Prof –– it has to be him –– narrows his eyes and then smiles again, only this time I can see it’s an effort.
‘That,’ he glances over at the School House, ‘was the original grammar school, built by reusing stone from the monastery itself. You’ll find that many of the older houses in the village have something from the monastery incorporated into their walls or foundations.’
The Prof takes a step forward and peers through the fence at the scars, tight and shiny, down one side of my face.
‘You’re the boy who took a swan dive into the Pit. That’s what you kids call it, right?’
I feel stuck, like I’ve sunk up to my knees in the mud.
‘We’ve got to get to class,’ Kate says. She takes my hand and I stumble after her.
‘I’m Adam,’ he shouts, ‘If you want to talk… I’m at the B&B in Crossover Street.’
I’m curled up on Mikey’s bed, watching him. Pencil and ink portraits of rugby players snarl at etchings of cyborgs and cybermen; his creations –– scattered across every wall ––stare down at both of us.
Mikey is sitting cross-legged on the floor, sketchpad resting on his knees, head bowed in concentration. There’s an intensity about him, a crackling energy gathered in the creases around his eyes, in the line of his lips pressed tight, in the urgent strokes of pencil on paper. His spiked hair dangles in his eyes, limp with sweat.
I lick my lips. I remember the taste of his sweat, the feel of his hands and breath, hot on my skin.
Mikey’s hand falls away from the page, the pencil held loosely in slack fingers. He arches his back and then slowly brings his focus back to the drawing.
‘What is it?’ I ask.
Mikey ignores me; he does that a lot now.
Before I’d been allowed to come up to Mikey’s room his mother had insisted on ‘a few words’. She’d rambled on about how much she appreciated the way I’d stuck by Mikey, twisting her hands when she admitted that, since Christmas, his other friends had stopped coming by. As if I didn’t already know that. No one wanted to be associated with a retard. Mikey was different after the accident, we could all see that: D’Artagnan was gone, in his place stalked the Dark Knight, silent behind his mask. But it was the special needs teacher who’d marked Mikey as a pariah. I wanted to slap his mother for making such a fuss and forcing the headmaster’s hand. So what if Mikey didn’t talk much now; the teachers used to complain that they couldn’t shut him up. And let’s face it, Mikey never did pay much attention in class.
I move to sit next to Mikey and he turns the sketchpad so that I can see. The paper is covered in a mass of random, shaded blocks, all hatchings and smudges and fuzzed lines. There’s something compelling about it; shapes swim in my peripheral vision, but vanish each time I turn to look. I growl in frustration. Mikey surprises me by taking my hand and smiling.
I stare hard and the blocks begin to blur together. A pyramid rises slowly from the centre of the page, swelling until I can see the grainy striations in its rocky face. I blink, and it vanishes.
‘I knew you’d be able to see it,’ Mikey says. An echo of his old grin flashes across his face.
‘What is it Mikey? How did you do that?’
‘I’ll show you.’ This time Mikey’s smile is feral.
He stands and pulls me to my feet. We take the stairs two at a time, the front door slamming shut behind us before his mam has time to shout.
They’ve fixed the fence, but they can’t keep me out. I’m wanted there. I tighten my grip on Kate’s hand. The Pit is the last place she wants to be. There! A patch of green-gold blazes under a narrow section of the fence. I pull Kate into a jog and she gasps when we stumble into a sudden depression in the ground. The fence stretches impotently across empty air; underneath there’s just enough space to crawl through.
‘Son of a bitch,’ Kate mutters between clenched teeth as she follows me through the gap on her hands and knees.
‘How did you ––?’ she stops and hisses a sigh through her teeth. I glare right back at her. Green-gold energy surges up through my body; it makes me want to shout. Kate shifts uneasily. I step close, and take both her hands in mine.
‘It’s all right. Let me show you.’
The muscles in Kate’s shoulders relax a little and I resist the siren call of the Pit long enough to hug her to me.
Just before Christmas, the discovery of an underground chamber caused a surge of fresh interest in the dig. The local paper devoted its front page to speculation about why the monastery had been razed to the ground, and whether all the monks had been to put to death or just defrocked. Kate insisted on reading it to me. As far as I could make out the monks claimed to have a direct line to God, or maybe it was the devil. Whatever –– lots of people got really pissed off and the usual happened. And then she said it was all a load of rubbish, that the whole thing was just part of Henry VIII’s master plan to get rid of all the monasteries. It was too much –– the hum in the back of my mind cycled up into a shriek. The next time I looked up she was gone.
I could’ve told her that what was down in the Pit had nothing to do with gods or devils or kings. But Kate’s not great at listening, especially when she’s got a point to make.
I force myself to slow down; Kate’s struggling with the ladder, muddy feet slipping on the metal rungs. The call is stronger in the Pit, and I have to fight the urge to jump. I picture the geek-team on the ladder, mud-slicked and sweating in their heavy boots and bulky fluorescent jackets. It helps.
‘Not much further,’ I whisper back to her. She nods and follows me down the second, shorter ladder into the icy black of the unearthed cell. The air tastes damp. Our heads brush against the ceiling; my fingers dislodge tiny avalanches of grit as I grope my way along the wall.
‘It’s here. I can feel it.’
Stumbling forwards, hands outstretched, my feet catch against raised stone. Golden light surges across the faces of a stone pyramid. It stands in the center of the square cell, its summit level with my chest, its base taking up two thirds of the floor space. I push myself up, hands pressed against its rough surface, embarrassed by my undignified sprawl. The light flares, sun-bright, forcing me to squeeze my eyes shut.
‘Mikey!‘ Kate sounds scared.
A deep note vibrates through the stone, like distant boulders grinding together. The palms of my hands buzz with it. The sound resonates in my chest –– its growl translated into the never-ending draw of a cello bow –– tuning every bone in my body to its song. I clench my jaw against the spreading ache in my skull. I can’t move.
Kate’s fingers dig into my arms as the song flows through me, infinitely slow and infinitely dense. I see my mother shaking with silent sobs as she listens to ‘The Protecting Veil’ –– she listens to that one a lot –– not realizing that I’m hunched in a ball outside her bedroom, waiting, hoping that she’ll open the door and let me in. I hear the slam of the front door as my dad walks away for the last time. He left me here. Trapped. Isolated. Alone.
Part of me knows that I need to breathe, and part of me never wants to breathe again.
I cry out as Kate jerks my hands off the pyramid; it feels like part of me has been ripped away. Kate drags me across the threshold of the cell and into black silence. I pull in a huge ragged breath. Kate holds me as I cough and sob; she holds me until I stop shaking.
Mikey is pushing ahead of me like a dog on the scent of fresh rabbit, the red of his fleece a splatter of colour disappearing amongst the undergrowth. I told him that the local paper had reported a ‘new find’ in the woods skirting the school grounds; his excited grin made me feel sick inside.
I’ve tried to talk to Mikey about what happened at the pyramid, but he won’t listen. I remember his eyes: deep pools of gold that slowly faded back to blue as I dragged him away. And I remember the way he looked at me –– like a stranger. I want Mikey back the way he was before; I want my D’Artagnan.
It hurts, the way he curls in on himself when I touch him. His white-boy skin feels rough and dry, the corners of his mouth are cracked and sore, black circles shadow his eyes. Mikey the zombie. I push that thought away. I’ve managed to convince his mam not to call the doctor, but now I’m not sure. Maybe he does need that kind of help.
Mikey said not to, that he didn’t trust the Prof or anyone from UniSyk, but I had to do something. I found Adam at the B&B and told him everything: the accident, the patterns, the way the pyramid lit up when Mikey touched it. Adam confided that the grounds of the monastery were more extensive than their original estimate, and that his team had located a second pyramid in the woodland just beyond the school perimeter. He asked me to bring Mikey to ‘look at’ the second pyramid, an experiment he said, that would help further their research. And, he promised, help Mikey.
‘There’ll be a team of experts on stand-by, Mikey will be perfectly safe.’ Another promise.
So why do I feel so guilty?
I reach the edge of the clearing in time to see Mikey disappearing down a ladder.
‘Mikey, w–– ‘
Someone grabs me from behind. I stagger forward under the weight, punching back with my balled fist into his groin: again and again and again until the weight is gone and my attacker is curled groaning on the floor. I turn and kick him in the head –– once, twice, three times –– glad of my Docs. My heart is thunder in my chest. I run for the ladder.
A handful of bulbs spotlight the pyramid, staining the top half a sickly yellow. Box shapes bulk along one wall, some flashing with tiny points of green. I hesitate just outside the circle of light, and listen.
This one’s different. There’s a sense of resignation in its song. It makes my chest ache. It feels like… like the time I went to visit Aunty Doreen in hospital: I remember her tired smile, and the shadow lurking behind her eyes. I wanted to turn and run, but instead I sat and stared at her clasped hands, all paper-thin skin and bobbly blue veins, while she chatted with mam, their voices low and conspiratorial.
I bow my head, a silent witness to the pyramid’s long song of grief.
‘What are you waiting for?’ The words slap at me. A bulky figure moves out of the shadows behind the pyramid and I stumble back. Strong hands grab my shoulders and push me forwards into the circle of light. I struggle to regain my balance and catch sight of one of the professor’s geeks moving to block the low doorway.
‘Place your hands on the pyramid, there’s a good boy.’ The Prof smiles at my surprise. ‘Don’t worry, Kate told me everything. She’s very concerned about your welfare.’
‘Kate.’ The word squeezes out of my throat. I look for her, panic snapping my head left and right.
‘She’s waiting outside. You can see her as soon as we’ve finished here. Now, do exactly what you did before, and this time we’ll record the results.’
I look back at the door to the cell and try to sense Kate’s presence, but all I can feel is the muted thrum of the pyramid’s lament. Did Kate really tell this man everything? I take a deep breath. There’s one thing I know for sure: Kate wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.
‘Last time I tripped over my feet and fell onto the pyramid.’
‘Yes, yes.’ The Prof waves an impatient hand at me. ‘Physical contact, that’s the key.’
Flecks of silver trace the symbols chiselled into the pyramid’s sides; a gentle but insistent force pushes at my chest. I frown and take a half-step back.
‘It doesn’t want me to touch it.’
‘Look, Mikey.’ The Prof runs the fingers of one hand through the grey stubble of his hair. ‘How can I explain this?’ He softens his tone, speaks slowly. ‘We believe that these pyramids are receptacles, containers, for a very special type of energy. See those markings’ – he points at the rows of symbols covering the pyramid – ‘it’s a form of mathematics. Pete here’ – he nods at the man behind me – ‘is our mathematician, he’s been working on deciphering these equations. But we need some hard data. We need to record what happens when you touch it.’
I shake my head slowly, mouth dry, as the dance of silver light brightens across the pyramid.
‘Our scans have shown significant differences in the nature of the energy stored in the two pyramids.’ His tone sharpens. ‘Mikey, this is important. We need to understand the mechanism for capturing and tapping this energy.’
‘Leave them alone! I won’t let you hurt them!’ The underground boom of my voice takes me by surprise. A wave of heat rolls through my body. I lick the tang of salt from the corner of my mouth. The Prof clears his throat; it’s his turn to take a step away.
‘Your eyes ––‘
The sound of shouting makes us both turn. Pete ducks through the door and then reappears with another, much fatter man. Between them something is kicking and swearing.
‘Christ!’ Pete jumps back, shaking a bleeding hand. The fat one grunts, both hands clutching at his stomach. The whirlwind that is Kate lunges at me, hands outstretched.
‘Don’t ––‘ she gasps.
Pete grabs at her, catching her shoulder and knocking her off-balance. Kate twists and falls backwards, even as I catch hold of her hand. The thump of her head against the edge of the pyramid is clear in the snatched-breath silence.
Silver strobes the cell, pinning each one of us in place, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Cold argent blazes from Kate’s eyes, flows across her body and engulfs our clasped hands. Bitter salt burns the back of my throat. All I can see is Kate. Our bodies stretch away into impossible distance; I can feel myself beginning to shred. And then we’re rushing towards each other, streaks of raging light: silver to gold, gold to silver.
A heavy weight slams into me, breaking my hold on Kate. Shadows flood the room.
‘Are you all right?’ It’s the Prof: we’re tangled together on the floor. Kate, Kate, Kate. I want to shout her name but all I can manage is a strangled croak. The Prof pins my arms to my sides as I buck and kick.
‘Calm down, Mikey, calm down.’ He crushes the breath out of me and I sag, on the point of retching.
‘We’ve got to get you both out of here.’
Pete scoops Kate up in his arms: she isn’t fighting anymore. In the dim light from the bulbs I see that her eyes are closed; one of her arms slips and hangs loose as Pete ducks through the doorway.
The sounds pluck at me, unruly, random notes, with no real rhythm or melody. I try to slip back into the flow of the song, silver-sweet, but it’s faded beyond my reach, its promise a dim memory, something about unity… about being together. Mikey. His face leaps into my mind –– eyes bright, lips curved into that ferocious smile –– and drags me back into the world.
‘… should have listened to Andy. He argued that the translation read “and life flowed into the tri-fold hands of god”, but I insisted that the true meaning was “energy”. It made more sense, the flow and capture of energy within a linked storage system. I’m sorry. The alternative was just too ––‘
‘Star Gate, yeah, I know.’
That’s Mikey’s voice. I open my eyes and groan as a sharp pain throbs through the back of my head. Arms hold me in a tight embrace. I breathe in sour sweat, and tense. This isn’t Mikey.
‘Kate, you OK?’ Mikey’s voice comes from somewhere in front. He sounds worried. I struggle weakly and then cry out as I’m bumped and jostled.
‘Sorry about that.’ Another voice, the Prof’s. ‘This road’s all ruts and pot-holes.’
‘It’s all right Kate,’ Mikey says, ‘we’re taking you to the hospital. You and that guy you dropped in the woods.’
I want to reach out to him but the arms hold me tight.
‘Remember,’ the Prof says, ‘it’s important that you and Kate don’t touch each other, at least until we get her head wound checked out. We just don’t know what were dealing with here. It could be dangerous for you both.’
Trees lumber past the window as the car bounces along the woodland track skirting the school grounds. It’s dark and stuffy in the car; I feel hot and sick and all squashed up. The sudden glare of headlights blind me. I squint, fighting back a roll of nausea as the car jerks to a stop.
The headmaster is staring at me, lips pressed into a hard line. I stand at attention, eyes fixed on the school logo –– the black outline of the old School House –– on his tie and wait. Kate is propped up in a high-backed leather chair, one of two in the headmaster’s study, a distant look on her face. The Prof and his geeks were bundled away by a posse of teachers, the words ‘police’ and ‘assault’ surfacing amidst raised voices.
‘You should have come to me with this,’ the headmaster says.
‘Yes, sir.’ My gaze drops to his brogues and I can’t help tracing the neat criss-cross pattern of the laces. The thick burgundy carpet around the headmaster’s feet begins to ripple with crimson light; it snakes up his legs, around his chest.
‘We’ve been waiting for someone like you for a very long time,’ he says.
I’m caught by his eyes: steel grey flecked with crimson. I’m hot. Too hot. And then he smiles. I can feel my body rocking to the pounding beat of my heart.
‘You hear the song. I know you do,’ he says.
‘Yes.’ It comes out as a hoarse whisper.
I feel the bass note vibrate in the pit of my belly, and then wind its way up my spine. I try to fight it, breath hissing between clenched teeth. The headmaster offers Kate his hand.
‘No. Not Kate. She’s not ––‘
Something cracks inside me –– green-gold energy surges through, washing away my words. He brings Kate to stand beside me. The bass note strengthens, humming through my skull.
‘You are bound together by love and life. Without Kate there would be no renewal.’ He speaks as if every muscle in his body is clenched against an impossible pain. ‘Look at her.’
Silver ebbs and flows across her skin, a tide matched in my own body. I raise my hands and stare at the runnels of gold flowing beneath my skin. A deeper thrumming strikes up through my feet. The tri-fold hands of god. I can feel it, the third pyramid, directly beneath us. An image forms in my mind: the basement aglow with reflected ruby light, the headmaster kneeling before the pyramid, eyes closed, hands pressed against the fiery symbols.
I shake my head and hide my hands behind my back. The headmaster scowls.
‘We were trapped by their grey song, imprisoned by stone words, forced to their bidding.’ He bares his teeth and leans close. ‘They denied us unity!’ I lick his spittle from my lips. Watch him take a deep breath. Grimace against the manic pounding of my heart.
‘We were ripe. On the cusp of merging. That’s when they caged us.’ The crimson pulse of his skin dims. ‘So long alone.’
Kate presses close and something urgent wakes inside me. She reaches to take hold of my hands, and I let her. The floor shudders under our feet. There’s a dull crack as the painting of the original School House thumps to the floor. The headmaster’s smile stretches tight; he wraps our hands in his.
I’m the bass note of gold – the solid core. Crimson and silver circle close, modulating their song, binding me to their harmony. I can taste them: salt-sweet. A sour note threads through the melody, and I remember Kate. She’s fading. I pour my strength into her: gold to silver. Storm-force waves of crimson tear through my shape; a silver whirlpool forces dissolution and recombination: silgol-sonver-crimd. I feel motes of gold, silver and crimson bleed from our new shape, escaping into the spaces between. And I smile. A new cycle has begun.
Mikey is sitting in the chair facing his bedroom window. If he leans forward he can look down into the street at the thick blanket of snow being slowly tramped into mush by determined shoppers. But he won’t, he won’t do anything unless someone prompts him. I perch on the edge of his desk and study his face: blue eyes pale and unfocussed, a faint smile ghosting his lips. I search for some sign that he recognises me, that he knows I’m here.
Three weeks and still no change.
The doctors’ diagnosis: traumatic shock brought on by the explosion and the death of the headmaster –– fire-fighters had to pull us from the wreckage of the old School House –– complicated by the existing trauma of his recent accident. Mikey needs familiar surroundings, familiar faces, and the support of people who love him, they said. So here I am. And so is his dad, ditching his new life in Scotland for the sake of his son. As if Mikey hadn’t always needed him.
I’m not sure what happened. I woke up in Casualty and confirmed the Prof’s story about trying to get me to the hospital, but after that everything is blurred. The old School House, the Pit and the dig site in the woods were all destroyed in what officialdom described as a ‘gas mains incident’. Only one memory is bright: the way Mikey held me tight, a golden pillar of warmth that surrounded me, and supported me, and wouldn’t let the darkness take me.
The boys are outside, waiting, just like I told them. They’d been hanging around at the end of the street for the best part of an hour. I spotted them through the bedroom window, kicking about in the snow, creating a big circle of muddy slush around their indecision. I let them stew.
Now they’re waiting on the landing, outside the bedroom door. I can hear the low rumble of their conversation. I catch an odd word or two and glare at the door. Rugby! It took awhile to breathe away the tears. Rugby––that’s what Mikey should be talking about. All three boys should be squashed onto his mam’s sofa, attention fixed on the TV, jumping up and shouting at the ref––while I sit at his feet, watching the rugby, but mostly watching him.
Time to let them in. I trail my fingers across the back of Mikey’s hand––he doesn’t notice––and then open the door. Blake and Hari file in, silent now, looking everywhere except at Mikey. And then when they do look, they can’t look away.
I take Mikey’s hand and press it against my still flat belly. By the time I knew, he’d stopped listening. Now, Mikey is wandering the spaces between, but he’ll come back to me when the time is right. He’ll come back because that’s what fathers do.
About the Author
Susan Oke spends her days working in the Higher Education sector, and her nights, weekends and every spare minute writing short stories and working on her first novel. Her short stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, both in print and online. Susan occasionally blogs for the webzine Astronaut.com. You can find out more about Susan on her WordPress site Loving Life in the Rain.
About the Narrators
Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer. He is a Hugo Finalist for Best Fan Writer, and a British Fantasy Society Best Non-fiction finalist for his weekly pop culture newsletter The Full Lid.
His nonfiction can be found at numerous genre and pop culture venues, including regular columns at the Hugo Award-winning Ditch Diggers and Fox Spirit Books. His game writing includes ENie-nominated work on the Doctor Who RPG and After The War from Genesis of Legend.
He co-owns the Escape Artists Podcast Network and hosts their horror podcast, PseudoPod, along with the Hugo Award nominated science fiction podcast, Escape Pod. He is a frequent guest and presenter on podcasts, with voice acting credits including the 2019 AudioVerse Award-winning The Magnus Archives.
His second collection of expanded essays from PseudoPod, The PseudoPod Tapes Volume 2: Approach with Caution, is available from Fox Spirit Books.
Marguerite is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to live with her true love in Merrye Olde England. She frequently wears so many hats that she needs two heads. When she’s not grappling with legal conundrums as a commercial solicitor, editing Cast of Wonders, or helping behind the scenes as COO of Escape Artists, she can be found narrating audio fiction, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games) with her partner Alasdair Stuart, or curling up with a really good book. You can follow her adventures on Twitter.