Lord loss, p.2
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       Lord Loss, p.2
 

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

  I spend a lot of time writing. Diary entries, stories, poems. I try drawing a comic — “Grubbs Grady, Superhero!” — but I'm no good at art. I get great marks in my other subjects — way better than goat-faced Gret ever gets, as I often remind her — but I've got all the artistic talent of a duck.

  I play lots of games of chess. Mom and Dad are chess fanatics. There's a board in every room and they play several games most nights, against each other or friends from their chess clubs. They make Gret and me play too. My earliest memory is of sucking on a white rook while Dad explained how a knight moves.

  I can beat just about anyone my age — I've won regional competitions — but I'm not in the same class as Mom, Dad, or Gret. Gret's won at national level and can wipe the floor with me nine times out of ten. I've only ever beaten Mom twice in my life. Dad — never.

  It's been the biggest argument starter all my life. Mom and Dad don't put pressure on me to do well in school or at other games, but they press me all the time at chess. They make me read chess books and watch videotaped tournaments. We have long debates over meals and in Dad's study about legendary games and grandmasters, and how I can improve. They send me to tutors and keep entering me in competitions. I've argued with them about it — I'd rather spend my time watching and playing soccer — but they've always stood firm.

  White rook takes black pawn, threatens black queen. Black queen moves to safety. I chase her with my bishop. Black queen moves again — still in danger. This is childish stuff — I could have cut off the threat five moves back, when it became apparent — but I don't care. In a petty way, this is me striking back. “You take my TV and computer away? Stick me up here on my own? OK — I'm gonna learn to play the worst game of chess in the world. See how you like that, Corporal Dad and Commandant Mom!”

  Not exactly Luke Skywalker striking back against the evil Empire by blowing up the Death Star, I know, but hey, we've all gotta start somewhere!

  Studying my hair in the mirror. Stiff, tight, ginger. Dad used to be ginger when he was younger, before the grey set in. Says he was fifteen or sixteen when he noticed the change. So, if I follow in his footsteps, I've only got a handful or so years of unbroken ginger to look forward to.

  I like the idea of a few grey hairs, not a whole head of them like Dad, just a few. And spread out — I don't want a skunk patch. I'm big for my age — taller than most of my friends — and burly. I don't look old, but if I had a few grey hairs, I might be able to pass for an adult in poor light — bluff my way into R-rated movies!

  The door opens. Gret — smiling shyly. I'm nineteen days into my sentence. Full of hate for Gretelda Grotesque. She's the last person I want to see.

  “Get out!”

  “I came to make up,” she says.

  “Too late,” I snarl nastily. “I've only got eleven days to go. I'd rather see them out than kiss your …” I stop. She's holding out a plastic bag. Something blue inside. “What's that?” I ask suspiciously.

  “A present to make up for getting you grounded,” she says, and lays it on my bed. She glances out of the window. The curtains are open. A three-quarters moon lights up the sill. There are some chess pieces on it, from when I was playing earlier. Gret shivers, then turns away.

  “Mom and Dad said you can come out — the punishment's over. They've ended it early.”

  She leaves.

  Bewildered, I tear open the plastic. Inside — a Brazil jersey, shorts, and socks. I'm stunned. Brazil is my favorite soccer team. Mom used to buy me their latest gear at the start of every season, until I hit puberty and sprouted. She won't buy me any new gear until I stop growing — I outgrew the last one in just a month.

  This must have cost Gret a fortune — it's brand new, not last season's. This is the first time she's ever given me a present, except at Christmas and birthdays. And Mom and Dad have never cut short a grounding before — they're very strict about making us stick to any punishment they set.

  What the hell is going on?

  Three days after my early release. To say things are strange is the understatement of the decade. The atmosphere's just like it was when Grandma died. Mom and Dad wander around like robots, not saying much. Gret mopes in her room or in the kitchen, stuffing herself with sweets and playing chess nonstop. She's like an addict. It's bizarre.

  I want to ask them about it, but how? “Mom, Dad — have aliens taken over your bodies? Is somebody dead and you're too afraid to tell me? Have you all converted to Miseryism?”

  Seriously, jokes aside, I'm frightened. They're sharing a secret, something bad, and keeping me out of it. Why? Is it to do with me? Do they know something that I don't? Like maybe … maybe …

  (Go on — have the guts! Say it!)

  Like maybe I'm going to die?

  Stupid? An overreaction? Reading too much into it? Perhaps. But they cut short my punishment. Gret gave me a present. They look like they're about to burst into tears at any given minute.

  Grubbs Grady — on his way out? A deadly disease I caught on vacation? A brain defect I've had since birth? The big, bad Cancer bug?

  What other explanation is there?

  “Regale me with your thoughts on ballet.”

  I'm watching soccer highlights. Alone in the TV room with Dad. I cock my ear at the weird, out-of-nowhere question and shrug. “Rubbish,” I snort.

  “You don't think it's an incredibly beautiful art form? You've never wished to experience it firsthand? You don't want to glide across Swan Lake or get sweet with a Nutcracker?”

  I choke on a laugh. “Is this a windup?”

  Dad smiles. “Just wanted to check. I got a great offer on tickets to a performance tomorrow. I bought three — anticipating your less-than-enthusiastic reaction — but I could probably get an extra one if you want to tag along.”

  “No way!”

  “Your loss.” Dad clears his throat. “The ballet's out of town and finishes quite late. It will be easier for us to stay in a hotel overnight.”

  “Does that mean I'll have the house to myself?” I ask excitedly.

  “No such luck,” he chuckles. “I think you're old enough to guard the fort, but Sharon” — Mom — “has a different view, and she's the boss. You'll have to stay with Aunt Kate.”

  “Not no-date Kate,” I groan. Aunt Kate's only a couple of years older than Mom, but lives like a ninety-year-old. Has a black-and-white TV but only turns it on for the news. Listens to radio the rest of the time. “Couldn't I kill myself instead?” I quip.

  “Don't make jokes like that!” Dad snaps with unexpected venom. I stare at him, hurt, and he forces a thin smile. “Sorry. Hard day at the office. I'll arrange it with Kate, then.”

  He stumbles as he exits — as if he's nervous. For a minute there it was like normal, me and Dad messing around, and I forgot all my recent worries. Now they come flooding back. If I'm not at death's door, why was he so upset at my throwaway gag?

  Curious and afraid, I slink to the door and eavesdrop as he phones Aunt Kate and clears my stay with her. Nothing suspicious in their conversation. He doesn't talk about me as if these are my final days. Even hangs up with a cheery “Toodle-oo,” a corny phrase he often uses on the phone. I'm about to withdraw and catch up with the soccer action when I hear Gret speaking softly from the stairs.

  “He didn't want to come?”

  “No,” Dad whispers back.

  “It's all set?”

  “Yes. He'll stay with Kate. It'll just be the three of us.”

  “Couldn't we wait until next month?”

  “Best to do it now — it's too dangerous to put off.”

  “I'm scared, Dad.”

  “I know, love. So am I.”

  Silence.

  Mom drops me off at Aunt Kate's. They exchange some small talk on the doorstep, but Mom's in a rush and cuts the chat short. Says she has to hurry or they'll be late for the ballet. Aunt Kate buys that, but I've cracked their cover story. I don't know what Mom and Co. are up to tonight, but they'r
e not going to watch a load of poseurs in tights jumping around like puppets.

  “Be good for your aunt,” Mom says, tweaking the hairs on my fringe.

  “Enjoy the ballet,” I reply, smiling hollowly.

  Mom hugs me, then kisses me. I can't remember the last time she kissed me. There's something desperate about it.

  “I love you, Grubitsch!” she croaks, almost sobbing.

  If I hadn't already known something was very, very wrong, the dread in her voice would have tipped me off. Prepared for it, I'm able to grin and flip back at her, Humphrey Bogart style, “Love you too, shweetheart.”

  Mom drives away. I think she's crying.

  “Make yourself comfy in the living room,” Aunt Kate simpers. “I'll fix a nice pot of tea for us. It's almost time for the news.”

  I make an excuse after the news. Sore stomach — need to rest. Aunt Kate makes me gulp down two large spoons of cod liver oil, then sends me up to bed.

  I wait five minutes, until I hear Frank Sinatra crooning — no-date Kate loves Ol' Blue Eyes and always manages to find him on the radio. When I hear her singing along to some corny ballad, I slip downstairs and out the front door.

  I don't know what's going on, but now that I know I'm not set to go toes-up, I'm determined to see it through with them. I don't care what sort of a mess they're in. I won't let Mom, Dad, and Gret freeze me out, no matter how bad it is. We're a family. We should face things together. That's what Mom and Dad always taught me.

  Padding through the streets, covering the four miles home as quickly as I can. They could be anywhere, but I'll start with the house. If I don't find them there, I'll look for clues to where they might be.

  I think of Dad saying he's scared. Mom trembling as she kissed me. Gret's voice when she was on the stairs. My stomach tightens with fear. I ignore it, jog at a steady pace, and try spitting the taste of cod liver oil out of my mouth.

  Home. I spot a chink of light in Mom and Dad's bedroom, where the curtains just fail to meet. It doesn't mean they're in — Mom always leaves a light on to deter burglars. I slip around the back and peer through the garage window. The car's parked inside. So they're here. This is where it all kicks off. Whatever “it” is.

  I creep up to the back door. Crouch, poke the dog flap open, listen for sounds. None. I was eight when our last dog died. Mom said she was never allowing another one inside the house — they always got killed on the roads and she was sick of burying them. Every few months, Dad says he must board over the dog flap or get a new door, but he never has. I think he's still secretly hoping she'll change her mind. Dad loves dogs.

  When I was a baby, I could crawl through the flap. Mom had to keep me tied to the kitchen table to stop me sneaking out of the house when she wasn't looking. Much too big for it now, so I fish under the pyramid-shaped stone to the left of the door and locate the spare key.

  The kitchen's cold. It shouldn't be — the sun's been shining all day and it's a nice warm night — but it's like standing in a refrigerator aisle in a supermarket.

  I creep to the hall door and stop, again listening for sounds. None.

  Leaving the kitchen, I check the TV room, Mom's fancily decorated living room — off-limits to Gret and me except on special occasions — and Dad's study. Empty. All as cold as the kitchen.

  Coming out of the study, I notice something strange and do a double-take. There's a chess board in one corner. Dad's prize chess set. The pieces are based on characters from the King Arthur legends. Hand-carved by some famous craftsman in the nineteenth century. Cost a fortune. Dad never told Mom the exact price — never dared.

  I walk to the board. Carved out of marble, four inches thick. I played a game with Dad on its smooth surface just a few weeks ago. Now it's scarred by deep, ugly gouges. Almost like fingernail scratches — except no human could drag their nails through solid marble. And all the carefully crafted pieces are missing. The board's bare.

  Up the stairs. Sweating nervously. Fingers clenched tight. My breath comes out as mist before my eyes. Part of me wants to turn tail and run. I shouldn't be here. I don't need to be here. Nobody would know if I backed up and …

  I flash back to Gret's face after the rat guts prank. Her tears. Her pain. Her smile when she gave me the Brazil jersey. We fight all the time, but I love her deep down. And not that deep either.

  I'm not going to leave her alone with Mom and Dad to face whatever trouble they're in. Like I told myself earlier — we're a family. Dad's always said families should pull together and fight as a team. I want to be part of this — even though I don't know what “this” is, even though Mom and Dad did all they could to keep me out of “this,” even though “this” terrifies me senseless.

  The landing. Not as cold as downstairs. I try my bedroom, then Gret's. Empty. Very warm. The chess pieces on Gret's board are also missing. Mine haven't been taken, but they lie scattered on the floor and my board has been smashed to splinters.

  I edge closer to Mom and Dad's room. I've known all along that this is where they must be. Delaying the moment of truth. Gret likes to call me a coward when she wants to hurt me. Big as I am, I've always gone out of my way to avoid fights. I used to think (fear) she might be right. Each step I take towards my parents' bedroom proves to my surprise that she was wrong.

  The door feels red hot, as though a fire is burning behind it. I press an ear to the wood — if I hear the crackle of flames, I'll race straight to the phone and dial the emergency number. But there's no crackle. No smoke. Just deep, heavy breathing … and a curious dripping sound.

  My hand's on the doorknob. My fingers won't move. I keep my ear pressed to the wood, waiting … praying. A tear trickles from my left eye. It dries on my cheek from the heat.

  Inside the room, somebody giggles — low, throaty, sadistic. Not Mom, Dad, or Gret. There's a ripping sound, followed by snaps and crunches.

  My hand turns.

  The door opens.

  Hell is revealed.

  DEMONS

  BLOOD everywhere. Nightmarish splashes and gory pools. Wild streaks across the floor and walls.

  Except the walls aren't walls. I'm surrounded on all four sides by webs. Millions of strands, thicker than my arm, some connecting in orderly designs, others running chaotically apart. Many of the strands are stained with blood. Behind the layer of webs, more layers — banks of them stretching back as far as I can see. Infinite.

  My eyes snap from the walls. I make quick, mental thumbnails of other details. Numb. Functioning like a machine.

  The dripping sound — a body hanging upside down from the webby ceiling in the center of the room. No head. Blood drops to the floor from the gaping red O of the neck. Even without the head, I recognize him.

  “DAD!” I scream, and the cry almost rips my vocal chords apart.

  To my left, an obscene creature spins round and snarls. It has the body of a very large dog, the head of a crocodile. Beneath it, motionless — Mom. Or what's left of her.

  A dreadful howl to my right. Gret! Sitting on the floor, staring at me, weaving sideways, her face white, except where it's smeared with blood. I start to call to her. She half-turns, and I realize that she's been split in two. Something's behind her, in the cavity at the back, moving her like a hand puppet.

  The “something” pushes Gret away. It's a child, but no child of this world. It has the body of a three-year-old, with a head much larger than any normal person's. Pale green skin. No eyes — a small ball of fire flickers in each of its empty sockets. No hair — yet its head is alive with movement. As the hell-child advances, I see that the objects on its head are cockroaches. Living. Feeding on its rotten flesh.

  The crocodile-dog moves away from Mom and also closes in on me, exchanging glances with the monstrous child, who's narrowing the gap.

  I can't move. Fear has seized me completely. I look from Mom to Dad to Gret. All red. All dead.

  Impossible! This isn't happening! A bad dream — it must be!

  But eve
n in my very worst nightmare, I never imagined anything like this. I know that it's real, simply because it's too awful not to be.

  The creatures are almost upon me. The croc-dog growls hungrily. The child grins ghoulishly and raises its hands — there are mouths in both its palms, small, full of sharp teeth. No tongues.

  “Oh dear,” someone says, and the creatures stop within spitting distance. “What have we here?”

  A man slides out from behind a clump of webby strands. Thin. Pale red skin, misshapen, lumpy, as though made out of colored dough. His hands are mangled, bones sticking out of the skin, one finger melting into another. Bald. Strange eyes — no white, just a dark red iris and an even darker pupil. There's a gaping, jagged hole in the left side of his chest. I can look clean through it. Inside the hole — snakes. Dozens of tiny, hissing, coiled serpents, with long curved fangs.

  The hell-child shrieks and reaches towards me. The teeth in its small mouths are eagerly snapping open and shut.

  “Stop, Artery,” the man — the monster — says commandingly, and steps towards me. No … he doesn't step … he glides. He has no feet. The lumpy flesh of his lower legs ends in sharp strips that don't touch the floor. He's hovering in the air.

  The croc-dog barks savagely, its reptilian eyes alive with hunger and hate.

  “Hold, Vein,” the monster orders. He advances to within touching distance of me. Stops and studies me with his unnatural red eyes. He has a small mouth. White lips. He looks sad — the saddest creature I've ever seen.

  “You are Grubitsch,” he says morosely. “The last of the Gradys. You should not be here. Your parents wished to spare you this heartache. Why did you come?”

  I can't answer. My body isn't my own, except my eyes, which don't stop roaming and analyzing, even though I want them to — easier to shut off completely and black everything out.

  The hell-child makes a guttural sound and reaches for me again.

 
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