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       Execution, p.13

           Alexander Gordon Smith
 
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  ‘Hey,’ said Simon. ‘How you doing?’

  ‘We thought we should leave you alone,’ Zee said before I could reply. ‘You looked like you could do with some space.’

  I used my left hand to pull a chair out from beneath the table, sitting in it.

  ‘Thanks, guys,’ I said, shivering. ‘It’s just, you know, weird, I guess. Being back here.’

  They nodded.

  ‘Just making a cuppa,’ said Lucy. I could hear bubbling, realised that there was a saucepan of water heating up on the stove. The electricity was out, but the gas was obviously still working.

  ‘Nice to see gas being used for something other than blowing stuff up,’ I said. Zee smiled and I could see in the brightening of his eyes that he was remembering when we’d used the gas to blow up the chipping-room floor inside Furnace Penitentiary, a lifetime ago. Lucy frowned, looking like she was going to demand an explanation, then obviously deciding not to. She got up, adding another cup to the ones that were already on the counter.

  ‘Can you drink tea, or will it make you puke?’ she asked. I didn’t honestly know the answer to that. My system couldn’t handle ordinary food any more because of the nectar – as Lucy knew all too well after watching me throw up a burger on the day we’d met her – but I could still drink water.

  ‘Only one way of finding out,’ I said.

  ‘Gotta still be able to drink tea,’ Zee said, shaking his head. ‘Might as well top yourself right now if you can’t.’

  ‘Where’s the suit?’ I asked.

  ‘Outside,’ said Simon. ‘Said he’s keeping watch, but I think he’s gone to find some new clothes. Just as well, really. I mean did you see that surgical gown thing he was wearing? Every time he moved I thought his junk was gonna fall out.’

  ‘Simon!’ Lucy said, full of mock outrage, clipping him around the back of the head and doubling the level of laughter. It was weird – good weird – sitting around the kitchen table making jokes, just like having mates round after school or something.

  ‘What?’ Simon said, lifting his hands. ‘It’s true. If there were any cops left in the city he’d have been done for indecent exposure. Speaking of which …’

  He nodded at me and I realised I was still wearing my surgical gown too.

  ‘There isn’t a single thing in this house that will still fit me,’ I said, resigning myself to it.

  The pan began to rattle and Lucy wrapped a tea towel around the handle, lifting it up and carefully sharing the water between the cups. The tea-infused steam was another smell that brought back a fistful of memories, and I let them come. Better to open the door for them, even if they’re sad, than to let them burn your house down from the outside. I pictured myself standing right where Lucy was, years and years ago, making my first ever cup of tea, a surprise for my dad. It had been half milk and half warmish water, with the merest dip of a tea bag in it, but he’d told me it was the best cuppa he’d ever had.

  ‘You guys find something to eat?’ I asked. ‘I’m sure there’s stuff in the cupboards.’

  ‘Zee’s already gone through a whole pack of cereal bars,’ Lucy said, opening the lightless fridge and pulling out a bottle of milk. She sniffed it, pulling a face. ‘Probably not the freshest it’s ever been but it’ll have to do.’

  ‘He’s also eaten a tin of cold beans and a packet of cheese slices,’ Simon said.

  ‘I was hungry,’ Zee protested.

  ‘You’re always hungry,’ muttered Simon, smiling. ‘Oh, and we found something on the fridge, we’re not quite sure what it is but it looks like it could be evidence of a new monster, something truly awful that Furnace has been saving. I’m not sure if I should even show you, it’s so horrendous.’

  ‘What?’ I asked, genuinely confused. Simon handed me a photograph, and I flipped it over to see a kid, maybe six years old, beaming at the camera, half his teeth missing, his hair a mess, a pair of black glasses perched unevenly on his small nose. At first I didn’t recognise him, then I looked at those eyes, the ones that had stared back at me from the mirror for fourteen years of my life, before the warden’s scalpels had taken them.

  For an instant I was back inside that kid’s head, at school for the yearly photo, my whole class there with me. I remembered that day, the flash of the camera leaving traces on my vision for the whole of lunchtime. It seemed impossible that the same kid had somehow grown into me, this twisted beast of torn flesh. Simon was right, that kid had become one of Furnace’s monsters, something truly awful. I put the photo on the table, pushing it away, swallowing the bile back down.

  ‘Whoa, sorry, man,’ said Simon. ‘It was just a joke, I didn’t mean anything by it.’

  ‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘Just feeling a little fragile right now. Don’t worry about it.’

  ‘Here you go,’ said Lucy, placing a cup of tea in front of me. ‘This should help.’

  I looked at the tea, worried that if I tasted it I’d break down into another fit of tears. I pushed myself up, using my bladed hand as a crutch.

  ‘I’ll be back for it in a bit,’ I said. ‘I just want to take a look around, make sure nobody’s here.’

  ‘Already done,’ said Zee. ‘We searched the place top to bottom.’

  I nodded at them, walking back into the hall. It was a small house, and the only other room downstairs was the dining room. My dad had used it as an office, and when I ducked my head inside I saw it was still packed full of paperwork and books, receipts and bills and other stuff piled high on every available surface. I left it all alone, making my way slowly up the stairs. I was so tall now that I had to crouch beneath the landing, the sheer size of my arm making it awkward. I got there eventually, checking out the bathroom and my parents’ bedroom, plus the small box room that was also heaving with junk.

  My bedroom was at the end of the hallway. I’d taken the chunky ‘ALEX’ stickers off the door a while back, but their outline was still there in the flaking paint. I put my good hand against them, assaulted by my past, the tide showing no sign of stopping. It hurt, but I welcomed the pain because it meant I was recovering. It was the same pain as surgery, only this time I wasn’t being hacked apart by blades, I was being repaired by memories. Each one chipped away a little more of the warden’s work, turning me back into the kid I’d been before.

  I stepped inside, my silver eyes peeling apart the darkness. It was a lifetime ago that I had last been here, but I remembered it like it was yesterday. Of course I did. It was my last day of freedom. I had got up that morning knowing I was going to burgle a house, relishing the thought of something for nothing. My bed had been made since then, and the old clothes I’d left strewn across the floor had been washed and folded, but nothing else had been touched. The same posters hung on the wall, the same DVDs and video games littered my desk, the same drawers stood open.

  I walked inside, barely able to stand upright without hitting the ceiling. I was so tall that I could see on top of the wardrobe. There was a pile of magic kits there, the cardboard boxes torn and dust-covered, a home for spiders. I could never quite bring myself to throw them away.

  I thought about getting them out now, taking a card trick downstairs to show the others. I could probably still recall how to do the simple ones. But even as I was reaching up for them I saw my hands, realised I’d never do a magic trick again. Even though the fat digits on my left hand seemed longer now, more fully formed – the changes too slow to see, like a plant growing. I sighed, my bladed arm thudding to the carpet.

  I went to leave and that’s when I saw it, on my desk. It was a photograph, and I almost didn’t register it until I remembered that I’d never kept photos in my room, too embarrassed about my family to display them to my mates. I walked over and picked it up with my new fingers.

  It was my mum and dad, on a pier in the middle of a summer’s day, both of them holding ice creams and smiling with cream-covered lips. My dad’s didn’t have a flake in it because it had fallen out, tumbling over the edge, caugh
t by a seagull before it could hit the waves. In between them was me, older than in the picture downstairs, aged ten or eleven. No, I was twelve. I knew that because it was the last week of the holidays, before I’d gone back to school, before I’d stolen that twenty quid from Daniel Richards. Before I’d changed.

  We looked so happy that it was almost artificial, like somebody had Photoshopped it. But we had been happy back then. That summer, that day on the beach, it had been one of the happiest days of my life. I felt the tears clustering again, that awful pressure in my throat like something huge was crawling up it, trying to get out. My parents had left this photo here for me; they must have believed I’d come back.

  Beneath the photo was a pile of paper – legal documents, by the look of them. I read the header on the first page: Alex Sawyer – Appeal Hearing Denied. It was the same on the second, and the third. There were seven in all. Seven times that my parents had tried to appeal my sentence, get me out of Furnace, all rejected. I couldn’t believe it.

  I put the photo down, my hand trembling, then thought better of it and turned it over. On the back were three neat lines in blue ink, and I recognised the small, sloping capital letters as those of my dad. I read it once, my legs buckling, dropping me to my knees. I read it again, so many tears now that I couldn’t make out the words, couldn’t be sure they were real. But they were, I didn’t need to see them to know what they said. Those three lines of text were engraved on my mind, on my heart. I would never, ever forget them.

  ALEX, WE’RE SORRY.

  WE FORGIVE YOU, WE HOPE YOU’LL FORGIVE US TOO.

  WE LOVE YOU, SO MUCH, MUM AND DAD.

  Tea

  I heard a gentle cough from the landing and realised I was no longer on my own.

  I let the last few sobs fall out, my eyes burning under the pressure of so many tears. I used my sleeve to wipe them, looking up to see a blurred shape in the doorway. I felt suddenly ashamed, clambering to my feet with an embarrassed cough.

  ‘Sorry,’ I said, blinking until the figure focused. It was the blacksuit, his silver gaze like two coins embedded in the darkness. I expected him to make some sarcastic comment, to tell me I was weak and pathetic, but instead he just stood there, even more awkward than me. I realised he was wearing a baggy tracksuit that he must have found in another house along the street. His feet were still bare. It wasn’t easy finding shoes to fit when you were a blacksuit. ‘You okay?’ I asked.

  ‘Yeah,’ he said, his voice weak.

  But still he didn’t move. I took a step closer, trying to make out his expression.

  ‘You don’t look it,’ I said. ‘What’s wrong?’

  He ran a hand through his hair.

  ‘I just …’ he started, and I could see how hard this was for him. ‘I think I remember something.’

  ‘About your life?’ I said. He shook his head, but it wasn’t a denial, more like he was trying to shake the thought away. His gaze was locked on something on my desk.

  ‘That computer,’ he said. ‘It’s for games, right? I seem to remember playing … Only… It wasn’t me. It couldn’t have been me.’

  ‘Don’t fight it,’ I said. ‘Let the memories come. They’re the only thing that can save you.’

  It was obviously the wrong thing to say, as the blacksuit’s face suddenly tightened, his sneer returning. He wiped his sleeve over his mouth, his teeth flashing.

  ‘Save me?’ he said, his voice filling the room like distant thunder. ‘You really believe that? Furnace already saved me, saved me from a weak and pointless life like this. He turned me from a child into a soldier, into a superhuman. You think I’d want to leave this war and return to living like an insect?’

  He spat onto the carpet, but there was still uncertainty in his expression, in the way he blinked too fast, the way his Adam’s apple bobbed. Something was growing in him, a seed of a memory pushing free from the nectar of his mind. Sooner or later it would bloom.

  ‘We leave at dawn,’ he said. ‘So if you want some rest, you’d better get it now.’

  I pushed past him, heading down the stairs and back into the kitchen. Lucy and Zee were sharing a packet of raisins that they had found, washing them down with tea. They both looked half-dead, their eyes ringed with shadows. Simon had already given in to sleep, folded over the table with his head in his hands, snoring gently.

  ‘Find what you were looking for?’ asked Zee. I sat down, remembering the photo in my hand and sliding it over the table. Lucy picked it up.

  ‘Is this really you?’ she asked, smiling at the image of me and my parents.

  ‘Look at the back,’ I said.

  She turned it over, her hand going to her mouth as she read the words aloud.

  Zee smiled at me. ‘I knew they weren’t as bad as you kept making out,’ he said. ‘You can thank them for this when you see them.’

  I thought of the river of corpses and I knew I’d never see them again. Not in this lifetime, anyway. There was a slap of feet and the blacksuit entered, leaning against the counter.

  ‘Nice tags,’ said Zee, nodding approvingly. ‘Does this mean you’re a “tracksuit” now?’

  The blacksuit scowled.

  ‘Seriously, though,’ Zee went on. ‘If you’re gonna be hanging around with us then we should at least know your name. You remember what it is?’

  ‘We don’t need names,’ said the suit.

  ‘Fair enough,’ said Zee. ‘I guess we’ll just have to make one up for you. How about Bob? No? Norman? Maybe Algernon.’ We could all feel the anger from the blacksuit boiling up like water, the heat in the room seeming to rise. Zee decided not to push his luck, ending with a muttered, ‘Bob it is, then.’

  ‘Why are you hanging around with us?’ Lucy asked. ‘I mean, days ago you lot were trying to kill us, and now you’re here as, what, a bodyguard?’

  ‘I’m just following orders,’ he said, and his contempt was unmistakable. ‘Alfred Furnace made it clear that your compadre here is his new general. That means we have to do what he tells us.’

  Lucy looked at me, one eyebrow raised.

  ‘You’re his new what?’ she asked.

  ‘I’m not,’ I replied. ‘It’s because I killed the warden. I don’t know what’s going on, but I can tell you this right now: I’m not Furnace’s general. I never will be. I’m still going to find him, and then I’m going to kill him,’ I blurted out. ‘That’s the only way this is going to end.’

  I looked at the blacksuit, worried that I’d said too much.

  ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ he grinned. ‘Furnace has told me all about your little plan.’

  ‘So he talks to you too?’ I asked him, genuinely curious. I picked up my tea, taking a big sip. It was only lukewarm, but it still tasted like heaven in a cup. I waited for the kick in my guts, for the puking to start, but my system must have just thought it was water because it settled pleasantly in my stomach. ‘The same way he talks to me, inside your head?’

  ‘He gives me my orders,’ he replied. ‘That’s all there is to it. I keep you alive – we all keep you alive – and get you to him.’

  ‘And then what happens?’ I asked.

  ‘That’s up to Furnace,’ said the suit.

  ‘So let me get this straight,’ said Lucy, talking to me. ‘Furnace knows you want to kill him, and yet for some reason he appoints you his general and does his utmost to help you find him. Something here doesn’t add up.’

  She was right, but when I tried to think about it my head felt weird, like I couldn’t get it in gear. It did seem strange that Furnace was so desperate to meet me face to face, despite my vow. It was better not to think about it. Thinking could get you killed. I drank the rest of my tea in one go, the taste seeming to wash a little of the confusion away.

  ‘You know, Lucy’s right,’ said Zee, his forehead creasing. ‘Furnace wanted you to go to the tower, back in the city. You thought you were going after him then, but instead you had to face the warden. He wanted you to beat Cross. That’s e
xactly how he planned it.’

  ‘So?’ I said.

  ‘Furnace is clever. He knows what he’s doing. If he’s making it easy for you to reach him then there’s a reason for that, it’s part of his plan. He wasn’t in the tower, he might not be waiting for you now, either. Maybe he’s leading you there to fight something else, something worse than Cross.’

  ‘He’s there,’ I said, and I wish I could have been as confident as I sounded.

  ‘I’m just saying, that’s all.’ Zee slumped back in his chair.

  ‘But I already told you, we don’t have a choice.’

  ‘I know,’ said Zee. ‘I know. But be careful, Alex. Things might not be what they seem.’

  Quiet held the room for a moment, all of us trying to work out what was going on. I glanced out of the window, saw the tiny back yard there drenched in night, and beyond it the street where I was finally caught by the police. On that night, so long ago, I’d thought that if I could just make it past those cops, back into the kitchen, then everything would be okay, I could forget about what had happened and go back to my life. Well here I was. Surely now the nightmares would go away. All I needed was a plan. But every time I grasped for an idea it sank back into the fog of my thoughts.

  ‘Let’s get some sleep,’ I said, giving up. ‘Maybe it will be clearer in the morning.’

  ‘We leave at dawn,’ the blacksuit said again. ‘There’s no time to waste. I’ll take watch.’

  ‘Thanks,’ said Lucy, and I could tell she meant it. ‘There’s a cup of tea there for you, if you want it.’

  The suit looked at the steaming mug on the counter, then back at Lucy, and I could see the surprise registering in his expression. It was only there for an instant, hidden behind Lucy and Zee as they traipsed out of the kitchen and into the lounge, but it was unmistakable. Simon stayed where he was, still fast asleep.

 
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