The leap, p.10
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       The Leap, p.10

           Jonathan Stroud
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  Whether it was a nightmare or a fit, I didn’t like the look of it at all. I stepped into the room and slowly approached the bed. Then I got close enough to see Charlie’s face and I grew really scared.

  Even in the sickly orange light, I could see that she was deathly pale. Beads of sweat were studded across her brow and rivulets of tears ran down the side of her face into the pillow. Her face was rigid with fear or pain, but her eyes flicked back and forth under the lids and her lips moved; she was mumbling something. I bent close, listening.

  ‘. . . what does it do? . . . I do not understand this fruit . . .’ Snatches of words, fragments only, meaningless. It was only a dream, but even as I looked I thought to see her complexion worsen, as if the colour that remained was being sucked out of her with a straw.

  For a moment I was frozen with indecision. Should I leave her to sleep? No – whatever the nightmare was, it was affecting her so badly she was becoming ill before my eyes. She began to shake, with violent shudders like the worst kind of flu or fever, and her colour was still draining away. I wasted no more time.

  ‘Charlie! Come on, wake up!’ I shook her gently by the shoulder. The fabric was drenched with sweat. ‘Charlie!’

  No response, but a frown flickered across her forehead. I shook again, harder. The frown deepened, she half-opened one eye, then closed it again.

  ‘Charlie! Wake up!’

  Then something horrible happened. She let out a low lingering cry – half snarl, half scream. The hairs rose on the back of my neck. I stepped back, loosening my grip on her shoulder. What had I done? Was it dangerous to wake someone from a feverish sleep? For a moment more I watched my sister, my heart thudding against my chest. At first she seemed asleep still, but then, all at once, both eyes opened wide and she looked at me, vacantly, uncomprehending. As she did so, the tortured lines began to fade away across her face.

  ‘Charlie? It’s me, James.’

  ‘Whuh?’ Her voice was very faint.

  ‘It’s James. Are you OK?’

  ‘The fruit—’

  ‘You were having a nightmare, Charls. I had to wake you.’ The light was coming back into her eyes, and she began to focus on me for the first time.

  ‘A nightmare . . .?’

  ‘Yeah, you were tossing and turning, looking really bad. I had to wake you. What were you dreaming?’

  Her brow furrowed; she trawled her memory. Suddenly, a light dawned there. She remembered it, whatever it was.

  ‘Oh, James, you bloody fool!’


  ‘What the hell did you do that for? I was about to eat . . . Oh, you’ve ruined it! You’ve ruined it! I might never get another chance!’ She struck out wildly with her fists, missed me by a mile, then writhed around on the bed like she’d gone mad. I stood there dumbstruck. Finally, she buried her face in her pillow and clenched it round her head.

  ‘What are you going on about, Charls? It was only a nightmare.’

  She flung the pillow to one side and beat her fist against the bed. ‘A nightmare? It was the best thing that could have happened and you’ve completely messed it up!’

  ‘What?’ This was stupid – I knew what I’d seen. I did my best to remain calm. ‘Listen, you were getting sick right before my eyes. You were pale, you were crying, thrashing about. It was like you were fading away. Believe me, I did the right thing to wake you.’

  ‘You had no right to wake me!’ She was sitting up in bed now, shouting. ‘I might never get back to him! I had agreed to taste it—’

  I knew she was still half asleep but, even so, my temper began to get the better of me.

  ‘Don’t give me that! You don’t know what you looked like – you were really bad, really sick. Don’t think I’d go round waking you up for fun! What was this dream that was so good that it makes you mad at me?’

  ‘Don’t lie!’ She ignored my question. ‘I’m not ill, I’m fine.’

  ‘Maybe now.’ And I had to admit that her colour was a good deal better than before. But that wasn’t the point. ‘You’re fine now – thanks to me!’

  ‘I’ll never forgive you for this, James! Never!’

  So that was the outcome of my good deed. I shouted back a little more, for form’s sake, but to be honest my heart just wasn’t in it. Charlie was apoplectic, working herself up into a rage that I just couldn’t match. It was completely over the top. From her standpoint, I’d just interrupted a dream – that was all. From my side, well – I knew what I’d seen. Or did I? It was all becoming a little unreal. By the time Mum surfaced, drawn by our shouting as a shark is drawn to blood in the water, I wanted nothing more than to go as far away as possible and leave Charlie to dream whatever she pleased.

  Of course, as soon as Mum put her head round the door, we both stopped, neither of us wanting the laborious task of filling her in on the other one’s injustice. I quickly sloped off to my room. What Charlie did, and whether she went back to her precious dreams or not, I didn’t know – and didn’t care.


  James has ruined it. Completely ruined it. If I’d had one moment more, I’d have been back with Max, I’m sure of it. But James woke me up. And now Kit has gone, and has probably given up on me completely. When I got back, I wasn’t on the hill any more, but back down in the forest, and though I’ve tried to two nights running to find the tree again, I can’t. Another chance has gone, wasted.

  I’m not speaking to James any more.

  I have given up looking in the forest. I’ll never reach the Fair. All I can do is go on searching the places we used to know.

  Other possible places

  New Park


  Skateboard rink

  IN FACT, I came close again, sooner than expected when I wasn’t even trying. It was around lunchtime. Mum had been annoying me more than usual with talk of getting me back to school. I’d missed half the term already and Dr Tilbrook thought I should rejoin the class next week.

  I didn’t want to, of course. It would get in the way of my search. I suppose Max and I did spend a lot of time there, but we never did anything much together during school hours and I sure as hell knew Max wouldn’t be hanging about there now. But I could hardly say why I didn’t want to go back, and with Mum pestering me to know what I felt, I felt obliged to reassure her. So school was booked in for a week’s time. Mum was very pleased, and to celebrate suggested fish and chips. I volunteered to fetch them if only to get out of the house for a while.

  Luigi’s Golden Fry is a couple of blocks away, over the road on the corner opposite the video store. I’ve been going there for years, off and on, and Big Luigi knows me pretty well. He knew Max too, of course, and what had happened, and when I stepped in to his shop, he put down his big chip fryer, came round the front of the counter and gave me a big greasy hug before I could stop him. He’s all right, though, is Luigi. He didn’t actually say anything, just went back round the counter and tossed the chips.

  ‘All right Luigi,’ I said.

  ‘It’s good to see you,’ Luigi said. ‘One big cod? Lots of vinegar?’

  ‘Two. Just one with vinegar, please. The other one’s for Mum.’

  ‘OK. You want curry sauce?’

  ‘No thanks. No, all right, Luigi, I will on my one.’

  Max used to smother his fish with curry. And mint sauce. That’s why he was getting so fat. I didn’t like it so much myself, but it seemed the right move that lunch time. I dawdled in the shop while the new batch of chips were bubbling, looking at the faded luncheon voucher stickers on the glass. Luigi gave me a bag of batter bits to munch. Finally he wrapped Mum’s fish up, lashed mine with sauce and handed it to me, open in the paper.

  ‘How much?’

  ‘Go on. On the house.’

  ‘No, come on, I can’t take this. Mum’d kill me.’

  ‘Go on, get out. It’s good to see you.’

  ‘Well, you too, Luigi. And cheers – thanks a lot.’

  I left the
shop, holding Mum’s parcel under my arm while attempting to pull some of the new chips out from under the smothering of sauce. I turned the corner and walked along, dipping the chips, tasting the sauce. It was very good. Then someone called my name.

  I looked up. A couple of people were in sight: a woman with a shopping bag and a young, grungy bloke with grey jeans. I didn’t know either of them and they weren’t looking at me. I looked behind – two men in the distance, heading for Luigi’s, and a young woman with a pram on the other side of the road. For a long moment I stood still on the pavement, with a chip drooping foolishly in my fingers. A car passed me, going fast, and turned the corner with screeching wheels. Then silence.

  I was mistaken, must’ve been. I ate the chip, walked on.


  Now this time I knew I’d heard it. And I thought I knew the voice too.

  I looked about me wildly. There was no sign of anything, just slabs of building, brick and road, with people moving slowly along under the leaden sky. No sign of anything. Then the voice came again. I spun around, scattering an arc of chips on the pavement. Where from? It was curiously distant, but I felt I could almost sense its direction.


  Two cars came along the road, dawdling along with revs too high, drowning the sound, spoiling my concentration. Shut up! Hurry up! They slowed for the corner, turned and were gone from sight. Their drone faded with agonising slowness. Silence grew again. I stood there, straining to hear.

  There! Across the road, from down that alley . . . Quick—

  Five seconds later, I was looking down between the houses. An ordinary alley. No one there. An old car, propped on bricks, halfway along. A line of washing suspended between garages. That was all.

  No, listen! – there it was again! A voice calling me from down the alley, past the car. Where was he? Now I was running, feet plashing hard on the cobbles, nearly twisting over in the ruts. I left a trail of chips behind me. What remained of my fish was held tightly in one hand. Mum’s cod swung wildly in its bag from my other arm.

  Down the road, past the car, under the washing. Stop a moment. Listen. I could hear the blood beating in my ears. Nothing more. A pink sheet waved feebly in the breeze behind my head. I smelled its cleanness, and then the warm curry wafting from the mess of fish and paper in my hand.


  Further on, down the alley. That was where it came from. It was nearer now, nearer and louder. And it was his voice, I knew it. I ran on, down behind the sleeping houses, past the open doors of sheds and garages, my footsteps echoing back at me from wall and gate. Down I ran, towards the end of the alley and the open road.

  ‘Charlie . . .’ Could I hear a note of desperation in that call? Was it dying down, trailing off? Whether or not, it gave me wings: a final burst of energy carried me forward, faster than ever. It came again once more, softly now, but very near, round the corner at the end, just out of sight.

  A last few pounding steps with hurting shins, and round the corner, two strides forward, straight out into the road—

  Then a rush of movement, a screeching noise, a blast of air that battered me, and a bag of cod and chips flying up and outwards in a lazy curve to collide and shatter in a thousand fragments against the moving bonnet of a car.


  Max called me today, and I answered him. And I would have seen him too if the bloody car hadn’t nearly knocked me down. I had to peg it, there and then, before the woman could get out and catch me. Worse than that, I lost the chips, and had to lie to Mum that Luigi’s was closed.

  But it didn’t matter when I got back to the forest because I found myself in a different area. I’d made a jump forwards which meant I must be closing in on Max somehow. I strode onwards with renewed energy. This part of the forest is full of pine trees, dark and silent. The layering of needles on the floor is very deep here; around some trunks, it’s drifted up like snow. Once I tripped and my arm disappeared into the needles up to my shoulder, like it had been swallowed. I trod carefully the rest of the way.

  Twice I heard horns ahead of me, and once I think I heard voices too. Perhaps I’m nearing the forest’s edge?

  IN FIVE DAYS time I was due to go back to school and I was determined to find Max before I was cloistered away again. I hadn’t long, but my experiences at Max’s house and Luigi’s had given me new heart. And there were plenty of other places where we had gone together if only I could decide between them. Which would Max choose? Where would he be waiting?

  The next day was irritatingly taken up with Mum things, mainly shopping. She insisted I went with her, and it was mainly food shopping at the superstore out of town which made it even more unbearable. James looked especially smug when he learned of our expedition and went off to school happy. We’d not spoken since he cocked things up.

  It was on the way back that we passed the scrap yard. Mum had followed the railway to get to the ring-road, and on the way back I caught sight of the tall wire fence surrounding the scrap car graveyard. This massive waste lot runs for about half a mile alongside the railway line and it is filled to the brim with rusting cars. They’re stacked four or five tall in places, and sometimes they even crush them down a bit to make them even easier to fit. There’s a giant crushing machine near the entrance that they used to run sometimes during the week though I’d not seen it in operation for years. It had a huge steel plate on a pile-driver arm, which used to flatten the car into oblivion. All in all it was a brilliant place, and Max and I got in twice to climb the stacks. It was extra dangerous because of the watchman.

  Seeing it as we drove past put it right into the forefront of my mind and, once there, I couldn’t get it out. As soon as we’d unpacked and put the food away, I was all for heading off but then Mum scuppered me completely.

  ‘You’re not going anywhere, Charlotte. We’re going out to Greg’s for dinner and no arguing. Go and wash, then watch TV or something. When James gets back, we’ll go out straight away.’

  I didn’t bother arguing. Mum has grown a bit tougher in the last few weeks, and I can’t bear her shouting like I used to. So that put paid to my immediate plans. We went out dutifully and I’m pleased to say James enjoyed it just as much as I did.

  When we got back, I went up to bed and waited for the others to get to sleep. It didn’t take long because everyone was worn out with the restraint of being polite to Graham. When Mum’s light had been off for half an hour, I slipped down the stairs and out the front. I didn’t take the bike in case anyone heard the scraping in the shed.

  It took twenty minutes to reach the scrap yard, longer than I had expected. The night was cold too and I was feeling it through my jacket, even though I’d run most of the way. The road was completely empty and the pinkish street lamps along the edge of the fence illuminated tidy spot-lit circles of wire and concrete, leaving the rest of the street quite black. I stood in front of the high wooden double front gates of Bullock’s Scrap Yard and looked at the mass of chains fixing the gates and the razor wire running along the top of the fence. Bullock didn’t like visitors.

  I shivered. The wind had picked up and I was chilled. Max and I had found a hole in the fence, but I couldn’t remember where it was. It would probably have been fixed long since. I should have brought Dad’s old wire cutters from the shed. What was I playing at, coming unprepared? I trotted along the fence for a while, looking in at the dark irregular mass of car stacks, their blackness broken near the street lamps into spot-lit columns of battered metal. I would need a torch too if I wanted to get around in there.

  No point hanging around; I would have to come back tomorrow. Then, as I turned in the road to begin my slow way home, I felt a sudden certainty within me that Max was very close indeed. Beyond the wire, out of reach for the present – but very near. Tomorrow I would find him. Tomorrow it would have to be.

  I ran most of the way home, went to bed, lay down and was soon in the forest.

  As I walked, I
found the way becoming more and more difficult. There seemed to be no end to the pinewood; on the contrary, the grim straight trunks grew closer and closer together with every few steps. The duff underfoot was softer and deeper and more treacherous than the night before, so that every step forward was slow and cumbersome. I regularly had to support myself by leaning against the trunks and the bark proved flaky and weak under my hands.

  To make matters worse, the lowest branches – all sharp, dead, lifeless sticks – grew ever closer to the ground, so that I had to duck my head as I progressed. And the light was very poor. The thick black upper branches of the pine trees blocked out the sun, which was weakening towards evening. Only the presence of a strange green-white mould on the trunks of many of the trees, which gave out a dim luminescence, enabled me to feel my way.

  I had been advancing uncertainly for some time in this fashion when I suddenly stopped dead. For no apparent reason – there had been neither sound nor movement up ahead – I suddenly felt myself in danger. I could feel the hackles on the back of my neck rising.

  There was utter silence in the forest. I had seen no birds or animals all that day. I waited ankle-deep in pine needles, with eyes wide and the mould-light gleaming.

  Then the sounds came, little pitterings and patterings like the fall of rain. Softly and swiftly from the greeny-blackness up ahead, growing in sound and number all the time. And still I saw nothing.

  I pressed my back against the nearest tree. Great flakes of mouldy bark fell away and lay glowing dimly at my feet. The pitter-pattering sounded all around me now in the shadows among the trees, and I heard a snuffling. Then the sounds cut out.

  A dry dead branch projected from the tree beside my head. It had a sharp tip. Without turning my head, I raised a shaking hand and tugged. It snapped off with a crack that stabbed the silence. Trembling, I held it out in front of me like a sword.

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