The leap, p.12
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       The Leap, p.12
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  It seemed enough to me now that I work my way deep into the yard. I could feel Max somewhere ahead. He would be waiting for me where he chose, calling the shots as usual. All I had to do was follow. Carefully, I edged forward through the gap and as I did so the moon came out fully from behind a cloud and illuminated the scene with a silver flood. I was in a narrow canyon of metal, twice my height and more in places, with the upper reaches lit by light and the bowels where I was walking plunged into shadow. The tops of the stacks shone as if they had been polished, while the moonlight rippled ceaselessly on their ruptured, corrugated flanks, making the contours fluctuate as I moved.

  I kept a watchful eye out for Max. He was here somewhere – maybe playing with me, teasing me like he used to, waiting to jump out at me from behind a bumper or perched ready to leap from the top of a wobbling column.

  The canyon came to an end at a large saloon car which was propped almost vertically against the side of one of the stacks. It had a colossal dent in its roof which held the shadow and looked like a wound. Both the side-passages ahead were pitch black. I fumbled in my rucksack for the torch and held it at the ready. Which way to go?

  ‘Max!’ I whispered it under my breath. ‘Call me!’

  No answer came but a cloud covered the moon. The canyon tops were lost from sight. I could barely see the hand in front of my face. I switched the torch on, angled it to the ground, and took the corridor on the right.

  This passage met another, at a cross roads beside a vast pile of tyres. There was a strong smell of petrol here. I turned to the left, keeping myself parallel to the railway, and headed on. Once I thought I could hear a whispering up ahead but when I hastened forward it had gone.

  Then I came to another intersection. I glanced to the right, then to the left – and, just as I turned, saw out of the corner of my eye something move far off between the stacks. A rapidly moving smudge of white that disappeared behind a pillar.

  ‘Max!’ Still I didn’t dare raise my voice. I set off down the new canyon without bothering to listen for an answer. In seconds I was at the junction where I judged I’d seen the shape. I looked down the side passage. Not a thing – but surely, there was the whispering again, up ahead. I felt his presence all around me now, stronger than before, encouraging me to come.

  I went down the side passage, fast as I could, my torchlight wheeling and swooping on the sheer walls on either side.

  ‘Max!’ I called out a little louder; I was too excited to bear the silence now. ‘Max!’

  And then I saw it. Far off along the passage between the stacks, a long low shape, a movement coming fast among the shadows. I couldn’t make it out properly, not yet, but I stopped dead, right where I was. My torch beam couldn’t reach the shape, but halfway along there was a pool of moonlight spearing through at a point where one of the stacks had toppled. And into this spotlight came the wolf.

  I had turned and was running before my mind had even framed the word. My rucksack was bouncing on my back, my torch was crazily sweeping light up and down as my frantic arms pumped the air. I knew I had no chance, I knew I would be caught, but I ran anyway because I didn’t want to die.

  And behind me ran the wolf.

  At the end of the passage, I ducked to the left, and almost immediately saw the bonnet of a car sticking out at waist height from the nearest pile. I vaulted on it, and grasping the empty window casing of the car two layers above, began to clamber up the rusty metal wall. My scrabbling trainers were only about seven feet off the ground when the wolf turned the corner and launched itself upwards. Its teeth snapped together inches below me and it fell back to the ground. Gasping for breath, moaning with fear, I swung my feet up further, using anything I could as rungs: window sockets, door handles, rust holes. Even as the wolf leaped up on to the bonnet of the lowest car and jumped again, I was five cars higher up, pulling myself up on to the flattened roof at the top of the stack.

  I lay on the car roof, panting. Below me, the wolf set up a furious snapping and yelping. I could hear it pacing about, circling the foot of the stack, pawing at the ground. My mind was awhirl, I felt giddy with confusion and terror. The wolf had broken through, it had pursued me from the forest to the town. Nowhere was safe. And as I lay wide-eyed in the moonlight, sprawled flat upon the night-cold metal, for a moment it seemed to me that I was lying instead on a narrow pillar of rock, wedged tightly in on every side by pines.

  The vision vanished, but the whining and slavering of the wolf still drifted up from below. Suddenly, it let off such a clamouring that the echoes erupted from the stacks, rebounding endlessly so that my head rang. I pushed myself up into a kneeling position and surveyed the tops of the stacks. They were all lit with moonlight, a silvery maze of narrow highroads split by coal-black canyons. If I could work my way along the tops, perhaps I could yet escape.

  Gingerly, I got to my feet. To my great relief, the stack was rock-solid. Rather to my surprise I realised I still had my torch in one hand. I stuffed it into my rucksack – both hands had to be free.

  There was no time to be lost. Perhaps more wolves would come. Fortunately for me, my stack was part of a great connecting ridge of cars and I had a choice of direction. I chose the way that led towards the distant perimeter fence.

  For a moment or two, my progress confused the beast, and I could hear that I was leaving it behind. But soon the sounds I made as I stumbled along from one roof to the next – scuffling, banging, tripping, half-falling – alerted it to my position and it began to run along the base of the ridge, howling with frustration.

  At first I did well, halving the distance to the far fence in a minute’s journey. Then my luck began to run out. The long ridge of stacks came to an end; a narrow gap separated it from the beginning of the next. I didn’t hesitate, but ran as fast as I could at the gap – and leaped. I soared over the gulf and landed heavily on the roof of the car opposite with a clang that set the echoes resounding. To my horror, the whole stack swayed.

  No time to lose. The wolf was keeping pace. I got to my feet and carried on but almost immediately found myself confronted with another gap, bigger this time. My heart failed me. I couldn’t do it. I was six cars up, and the distant ground was invisible in a well of darkness below. It was simply too far to jump.

  Then I saw the stack of tyres. They were over to my right, a little nearer than the cars and, what was more, they extended in a shapeless heap right up to the edge of the perimeter fence. They were piled so high they nearly topped the razor wire. If I could make it there . . .

  I retraced my steps to give the maximum run-up and tightened the straps on my rucksack. A frenzied howling came from below. Glancing down, I could see the mad eyes of the wolf staring up at me, reflecting the moon. I turned back, fixed my eyes on the tyres ahead and ran.

  Seven steps to the lip of the rock. My right foot met the very edge as it pushed. Into the void, arms out, legs forward, outlines of trees flashing past on either side, moonlight showering me as I fell through the air. Onto the tyres with an impact that made me cry out. My fingers clutched for safety, my feet kicked out for a hold, as the tyres I was on began to slide back down the steep scree slope towards the cliff edge. I launched myself upwards, kicking a single tyre backwards out into the air. It fell into the darkness, and I had the satisfaction of hearing a loud yelping from below.

  Now I was up at the top of the tyre mountain. The fence with its sheath of razor wire was right ahead. I had no time to get the gloves. Trusting to luck I leaned forward, arching my arms and torso over the vicious spirals of wire, and grasped the topmost loops of the fence below. Then I swung myself out into thin air. I came down hard against the fence, grasping the loops for dear life with wildly swinging feet. It was easy, like vaulting a five-bar gate, and Max had taught me that long ago.

  Now I climbed down, fast as I could. I hit the grass and ran for my bike, hearing the wolf howling and fearing at any moment that it might burst out of the fence after me. But though the beast ran a
longside, once or twice snapping at me through the loops, it could do no harm. A maze of cars separated it from the hole. For the moment it was trapped.

  In a few seconds more I had reached my bike and was off along the road, zigzagging under the street lights. I never cycled so hard. Cold air whipped my face. And all the while I listened for the sound of wolves behind me.

  So they had broken through. They were after me. Nowhere was safe. In a few seconds the adrenaline that had carried me out of the yard faded into nothing and I began to ache with fear. What could I do? Where could I go? Not content with waiting in the forest, now they had followed me here.

  Unless they had followed Max. He was here too, somewhere near. I would have found him at the yard if they had not been guarding him so closely. But I was lucky to have escaped with my life.

  I must not sleep, but I could barely keep awake. In a dream, I made my way home, left the bike out in the yard, locked the door behind me and climbed the stairs to my room. I shut myself in and switched off the light and sat myself in the shadows at the edge of the window, looking down into the empty alleyway.

  In a few moments more I knew they would come.

  TWENTY FIVE

  CHARLIE WAS STANDING by my bedside. She had shaken me awake.

  ‘Wha-smatter?’ My eyes couldn’t focus. Neither could my tongue.

  ‘Get out of bed. They’re here. I need help.’

  ‘Whadyoumean?’ I remembered vaguely that I had told her to wake me if she needed me. OK, don’t get angry. ‘Whasup?’

  ‘The wolves. They’re outside. I saw them in the street. They’re coming for me. Come on, James, get out of bed!’

  For heaven’s sake . . . Very slowly, I twisted my legs over the edge of the bed and struggled into a sitting position. ‘Don’t worry. It was a nightmare. There’s nothing to worry about.’

  ‘It wasn’t a nightmare. I haven’t been asleep.’

  ‘What? Charlie, it’s five thirty! You’re not telling me—’

  ‘Hurry up, James! They’re in the yard. They might get in.’

  ‘You know what it is, you’re hallucinating from lack of sleep. You’re really telling me you haven’t been – All right, don’t get mad. Wolves, are there? OK, whereabouts? Go ahead and show me. And don’t fret, I’ll look after you.’

  ‘I saw them from my window.’ Right, it was time to get this over with as quickly as possible. It was Saturday morning and I wanted my lie in. I brushed past her, noticing as my eyes cleared that she was still dressed, and went into her room. It’s at the back of the house, looking down on to the yard. I looked out. It was still quite black, except for a couple of bathroom lights on across the way. Charlie’s light was off and I was soon able to make out some of the details of the yard. Her bike slung across the centre of the concrete, Dad’s old shed, the washing line, the water tub, the back gate . . .

  ‘Well, the gate’s open, but there’s nothing else to worry about,’ I said. Charlie had come alongside me, peeping out from the edge of the curtain. ‘No wolves out there.’

  ‘They must be in the alley.’

  ‘They’re not. Look, I can see right along both ways. There’s nothing there. You’ve been seeing things, Charls, which is no small wonder if you’ve been up all night. What’s stopping you from sleeping? The wolf dreams?’

  ‘They broke through and chased me tonight. Nearly got me too.’

  ‘Where did they chase you? You’ve been in bed.’

  ‘No, I went out.’

  ‘You went out? Where to?’ I was quickly realising that wherever Charlie was coming from, it was way, way beyond me. I just didn’t know what to say. All the sensible stuff I was trying to come up with made no impression: she just pulled the rug out from under my feet every time.

  ‘Down to the car yard. I was looking for – there!’ Her cry was so sharp and sudden that I flinched back from her. ‘Look!’

  ‘Where? For Christ’s sake don’t do that.’

  ‘By the gate. See it?’

  ‘It’s a dog, Charlie. Just a dog. Must be a stray.’ Though I had to admit it had given me the willies too to see it moving down there. ‘Look, it’s just picking through the scraps down by the bin. Can you see? It’s not a wolf.’ I was speaking as gently as I could, trying not to sound patronising. But I mean, how old was she?

  ‘It’s trying to fool you. It’ll come into the yard. Into the house.’

  ‘No it won’t. I’ll shut the gate. Right now.’

  ‘No!’ She clung to me like a drowning man. ‘Don’t go down. It’ll get you!’

  It was time to be firm. I disengaged myself with difficulty, held her wrists away from me. ‘Charlotte,’ I said – and I never say that unless I’m being serious – ‘don’t be stupid. I’ll shut the gate, and then, wolf or no wolf, it won’t get in. Watch from the window. I’ll be right back. And stop snivelling or you’ll wake Mum.’

  I was as good as my word. I went down to the yard: there was no wolf there. I went across to the gate and looked up and down the alley. Nothing bit me, though the air did nip through my pyjamas. The bin had been knocked over but there was no sign of the dog. I shut the gate and locked it. As I went back I glanced up at Charlie’s window, but she wasn’t looking out to see her brother’s heroism.

  ‘OK. All dealt with.’ I was back in her room. She was sitting on her bed, hunched over hugging her knees, eyes wide and bright in the darkness. ‘It’s done. I locked the gate.’

  ‘Didn’t you hear them?’

  ‘Doing what?’ I was fed up of asking questions. This was getting stupid.

  ‘They were round the front. I heard them scratching.’

  ‘At the front door? Why didn’t they just ring? Or knock. Come on, Charlie, it’s the middle of the night. I’m really tired. Just leave it.’

  ‘But I heard them, I did. They were scratching to get in. They’re never going to leave me, James, not till they get me.’

  ‘Bloody hell!’ I was really angry now. ‘Let’s see them then.’ And I was out of her room and down the stairs, despite her half-whispered plea to stop. I flung the front door open wide and stepped out into the street, ignoring the pavement freezing my feet. Nothing to be seen. I wheeled round and found Charlie standing in the doorway.

  ‘Satisfied now? Come on, get inside.’ But she was blocking the way, mutely pointing at the outside of the door. I stared at it, rubbing one foot on the other pyjama leg to try and numb the cold.

  ‘Charlie, it’s always been scuffed.’

  ‘Not like that it hasn’t. See the scratches?’

  ‘No. Get out of the way. I’m freezing.’ I pushed past her and forcibly shut the door. ‘Now for Pete’s sake stop worrying. Nothing’s going to hurt you.’ Rather to my surprise, Charlie seemed to take part of my advice to heart. She wasn’t convinced, I could tell that much, but she appeared to have become quite fatalistic all of a sudden. She went upstairs to her room, put on the light and went to sit on the bed. I sat down next to her, trying to be calming.

  ‘The main thing is to get some sleep. Then you’ll feel heaps better. You must feel lousy now: you certainly look bad.’

  ‘Thanks.’

  ‘If you sleep for a bit, you’ll be better later. Then we can go out. We could go see a film if you want or there’s that tatty fair on in the park. Whatever. We’ve not been out for ages. Mum’s off out tomorrow, doing that course, so we can do what we want.’ I was burbling a bit; she may not have been knackered, but I was. ‘It’ll be dawn soon, I’ll make you a cup of tea when it’s light. I’ll just have a rest first. Budge up.’

  I lay down along the edge of her bed. She didn’t protest. I think she was just pleased to have me there. I was past caring. In a few minutes, I was asleep.

  TWENTY SIX

  I can’t hold it off much longer. I can’t stay awake. James is snoring alongside. Doesn’t know how lucky he is. I can’t put it off They may as well have me.

  I WAS TOO tired to write. The pen dropped from my hand and I let th
e notebook slide off my legs on to the bed. I got up one last time, walked over to the window. Outside, the sky was beginning to lighten. The house backs and yards were washed out, flattened by a single dark swathe of cold grey-blue. Everything was silent. No wolves were prowling here now. They were waiting for me in my dream.

  It was then that I noticed the change. Something faintly bothered me, something that was not quite right nagged at my brain. It was so hard to concentrate; what was it – something I was seeing . . . ?

  Yes. The view. The view of the yard was different from before. Subtly so. How it was different was hard to say. At first, the only thing I could be sure of was that it seemed more complex than it should ordinarily be.

  Then I realised why and it all made sense. There were trees outside the window where there had been none before. All along the alley, by the brick-walled yards and the backs of houses, they were clustering: tall, black, graceful forms with spreading branches that merged into the pre-dawn sky.

  It was not that they blocked out the normal view. They were neither in front of it nor behind it, but seemed to take up exactly the same space, coexistent. It was like when something goes wrong with a camera and you get two completely different photos superimposed on each other, each struggling for supremacy, each undercutting the other. So it was here. The forest and the street were merged.

  I could still see the bathroom lights on in the house opposite, and even see the blurry shadow of a man moving behind the frosted glass. He was probably getting ready for an early shift, dousing himself in cold water or lathering up and feeling for his razor with eyes half-closed. And yet in the very same space he occupied, a single heavy tree stood too, thickly needled branches filling the room. Its trunk seemed to rise from the floor below, spearing up across the lit space through the bathroom ceiling into the dark attic above and out through the roof into the night. The man’s shadow shifted, he moved through the tree to get a towel. My head spun.

  All along the back alley this merging was repeated, with bricks and branches fighting for every inch of territory. A man walked along the shrouded cobbles with a cigarette burning between his lips, straight through a succession of trees. At the end of the alley, almost out of view, a car suddenly passed, carving a giant trunk like a knife through butter: butter which retained its form and closed up perfectly behind it.

 
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