The leap, p.14
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       The Leap, p.14
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  It was only luck that I knew anything about it at all. What with my sugary diet over the last few hours I was beginning to get a bit twitchy, and this finally propelled me out of my room to go downstairs and maybe look for something healthy to eat, or just watch Grandstand or something.

  So I struggled to my feet and trudged out on to the landing. Here I listened carefully. No sound from Charlie’s room. Good, she was still out cold. The longer that continued the better. I made for the stairs quietly, swung round the corner and nearly died of fright.

  There was a figure at the foot of the stairs.

  My panic mechanisms were working, that was for sure. I gasped, my hair stood up, a cold shock cut a swathe across my body and my heart nearly burst out through my mouth – and all that before my eyes took in what I was seeing and I realised it was my own sister with her back to me.

  But that was bad enough, to be honest. The worst of it was that she was utterly silent, slowly descending the final stair with the stealth of a murderer and the tread of a ghost. She was moving oddly, with movements that were at one and the same time eerily fluid and peculiarly jerky. Something was very wrong. It gave me a thrill of horror to realise that she must have left her room and gone across the landing, right outside my door, with me there all the time, completely unaware.

  I could not see her face, but something irrational made me feel that I did not truly want to.

  But wait, she was still my sister for God’s sake. There was no sense in acting like a fool. I called her, softly, with a slightly shaky voice.

  ‘Hey, Charlie.’

  No answer. She did not turn or even pause. She gave no sign that she had heard a thing. She moved off along the hall, out of sight, with the same slow steps. I shook myself out of my frozen reverie and went down the stairs with a jerkiness of my own, born of uncertainty and fear.

  ‘Charlie, where are you going?’

  No response.

  ‘How long have you been up?’

  She was almost at the door now and I was still hovering like an idiot at the foot of the stairs. I realised that I was actually reluctant to catch up with her. Then I saw her stretch out for the door latch. That stirred me up a little. She wasn’t going out, not if I could help it, not after what I’d read. Maybe she thought she was off to one of Max’s old hunting grounds again. Well, not if I could stop her.

  So do something about it then! I half ran down the hallway and caught up with her, just as she began to step through the door.

  ‘Charlie!’

  I put my hand on her shoulder from behind. It was like touching a lump of meat: there was no response, no turning of the head. I pushed past her on to the pavement and looked her full in the face. And felt the cold shudder cut through me again.

  Her face was very, very pale. Even her lips seemed bloodless. And her eyes, which were wide open, were looking right through me as if she were trying to see something far off, down at the end of the road or further still, and I was directly in its path. She was frowning with great concern, but it had nothing at all to do with me or my touching her.

  ‘Charls, snap out of it. What are you doing? You shouldn’t be out. Come inside.’

  I let out a stream of blather like that, more for my own benefit than for hers. She wasn’t paying attention in any case. She was still walking, one slow step after another, down the street, brows furrowed. Every now and then, she raised her head and looked – or made the appearance of looking – up at a point roughly the height of the first floor windows. And there was nothing to see there, nothing at all.

  I was walking alongside her, reluctant to touch her again. We passed a couple of women gossiping in the road. They looked at us with blank distrust: at the girl walking robot-like along the road with a boy whispering at her shoulder.

  Every now and then her eyes made a swift movement, making a little sudden roll or swivelling up or down. And it was this that told me the truth at last – and what a fool I’d been for not realising at once: my sister was still asleep.

  She was sleep-walking.

  I stopped the chatter immediately. That would do no good, and it might do harm – I seemed to remember hearing that you should never wake a sleepwalker under any circumstances. Well, fine, but what the hell were you supposed to do? I had absolutely no idea.

  I was extra-agitated because of what I’d read in Charlie’s diary. Ten to one she was dreaming again, hunting Max through some wolf-infested jungle. What if she thought I was a wolf and attacked me if I touched her?

  This was stupid. Our front door was still wide open behind us. Anyone could just walk in. I had to get us back.

  I reached out and, stooping a little, took Charlie’s right hand in my own. It was icy cold. Grasping it firmly, I put my left arm around her waist from the back and got a grip in her belt. Then I applied the brakes, leaning back and swivelling on my heels as I did so. It was like dancing a quick step or something: Charlie was swung right round to face back up the street. And she didn’t break the rhythm of her steps but carried on walking that same slow trudge, only this time back towards the house.

  This counted as a success. I kept my hold, guiding her along, ignoring the looks I got from the two women as we passed again. Charlie seemed to be still asleep but, glancing at her face, I saw that her frown had deepened.

  Back at the house, another swivel, another quick-step, and in through the door. No point trying to get upstairs. The lounge would have to do. Along the hall, one-two-three, and turn – in through the door and into the lounge. Quick kick-step behind me, slam the door to. The sound was louder than I’d intended. Charlie gave a little falter, and uttered a sound – half word, half groan. Her eyelids flickered, her face grimaced a little. I guided her round to the sofa and, still holding her by the waist, sat myself down so that she was forced to follow. Then I disengaged myself and stood up, letting her sink back into a sitting position. The twitches of her eyes and face grew more pronounced. She muttered something I couldn’t catch.

  ‘Charlie?’

  Another mumble.

  ‘Charlie. Wake up, lovey; it’s James.’

  ‘Mm.’

  ‘Come on, wake up.’

  Her eyes closed. Now they flickered open again, unfocused on me or on anything else.

  ‘Charls?’

  ‘Carnfinaway.’

  ‘What?’ I bent closer, trying to catch it.

  ‘Carn finda way in. M’looking. Carn findaway . . .’ The eyes closed again. The breathing became slower, deeper. She was asleep once more.

  In an instant I was back in the hall where I shut the door and bolted it, top and bottom. I grabbed Mum’s mortise key from the plant stand and turned that in the lock for good measure. Then I rushed back through the lounge to the kitchen and bolted the back door too. Safe as houses. No more walking the street for Charlie now.

  I was worn out. I needed some backup, but Mum’s course would last all afternoon. It was about four now, so I probably had another couple of hours to go, maybe three. I had to knuckle down and wait.

  The next two hours were dreadful. For a start, I wasn’t able to turn on the TV because that would have woken Charlie. I couldn’t use the one in Mum’s room either because I didn’t want to leave Charlie alone. Sleeping or not, I didn’t trust her an inch. So I was forced to go on reading that rubbish novel. I sat in the easy chair, flicking the pages, unable to concentrate, keeping one eye always on Charlie’s head lolling on the top of the sofa. The afternoon wore on, and the light outside began to fail. Still Mum didn’t come back, and still Charlie slept on.

  With all the shocks and stresses I’d endured, I was feeling a little flaky, and at around six-thirty a pain in my stomach informed me that it was time for food. I duly retired to the kitchen and ferreted around for the best it could offer, which turned out to be a tin of tuna heated with instant sauce and plonked on pasta. It didn’t take long to prepare, maybe five minutes at most, and I kept the connecting door into the living room wide open so that I cou
ld hear if anything stirred. With my feast ready, I returned to the living room with it on a tray, hoping that the smell might force its way into Charlie’s nostrils and bring her back to life.

  And she was gone.

  She was gone. The sofa was empty, the room was empty and the sash window to the side-passage was wide open with a slight wind rippling its thin curtains.

  I panicked.

  I dropped the tray. I leaped over to the window and stuck my head out and looked to the left, as far as I could see round into our yard. Then I raced round to the back door and began hunting for the key which I thought was in my pocket, swearing and double-checking even when I knew it wasn’t. Then I began hunting for it, running round and round the kitchen, when all the time I should have been out of the window after her and halfway down the road.

  I found the key behind the empty pasta packet, and with more cursing and fumbling got the back door open and ran out into the yard. The gate was wide open.

  Out in the alley there was no sign of her either, right or left. Some kids were playing ball two doors up. Young kids, didn’t know their names. I ran over.

  ‘Here, have you seen a girl come out this way? About five minutes ago?’

  The kids looked at me with blank, startled faces. They didn’t answer yes or no, just looked. They were the stupidest kids I had ever seen. I controlled myself with difficulty and attempted an ingratiating smile. It made a small one cry. But the biggest one, a blotchy boy with something brown smudged on the side of his face, finally summoned up the gumption to nod his head.

  ‘You have? Where? Which way did she go?’

  He pointed. I was down the alley in a flash and they were probably still gawping at me in silence when I turned the corner at the end.

  As I came out into the street and was faced with another choice, a sudden horrible thought struck me: had Charlie taken her bike? If so, I was doomed. She probably hadn’t – you couldn’t sleep-cycle, could you? But then a second dismal thought struck: I should have taken my bike! James, you bloody fool! I was panicking still. Should I go back to get it or should I not? Then I saw our next-door neighbour, Mrs Mortimer, heading across the road to me.

  ‘Mrs Mortimer, have you seen Charlie? She’s gone out and her mum wants her.’

  ‘I passed her just now, dear. White as a sheet. Never quite recovered from – you know – I suppose. But who would, poor thing?’

  ‘Did you see where she was heading?’

  ‘A dreadful experience for a mite. You’d never get over it, not really. Poor thing, yes, she passed me on the corner of Cottonmill Road. She’ll be off to the fair. Lots of her friends going I expect. Oh, bye then, and say hello to your mother from me!’

  I was running now, down the road to the Cottonmill corner. All thought of my bike was discarded; I only had two blocks to run, and I knew where I was going. The fair in the New Park. I’d forgotten all about it. And Charlie had mentioned looking for a fair in the diary of her dreams. It was perfectly possible that she might confuse the two, go hunting in the New Park for memories of Max. Perfectly possible. And anything might happen to her in the state she was in – half-asleep, hallucinating and worse.

  I cut the corner off, ducking down the alley behind the last row of houses, trying to make up time.

  It didn’t work out like that.

  Dusk had fallen and the sky was black with clouds, except for a yellow-red smear up ahead. The alley was in deep shadow and a few lights were on in the houses on either side. There was no one around. When I had got about halfway up, I saw a couple of stray dogs nosing about in the entrails of a ruptured bin bag. As I drew near, they stopped their rootling, raised their heads and stared. They were big dogs, Alsatians maybe. I increased my speed, hoping to get by quickly, but to my dismay they left the mess of bones and tins and began to run alongside, keeping pace with me.

  Bloody strays. I tried to ignore them, but they were much closer than I liked. All of sudden, one of them darted out, snapping at my feet. I skidded to a halt and kicked out at it, missing by a mile. And then both dogs began to bark with unbridled fury, blocking the way, filling the alley with the fury of their sound.

  The second one made a lunge for my ankle. I pulled back just in time and backed off to the side of the alley, looking from side to side for help. No one was near and there were no lights visible in the houses opposite. This was bad: the dogs were barking furiously, making little feints at my legs and backing away only when I kicked out.

  Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a long thin piece of metal lying on the ground among the grassy cobbles. An old railing, a metre long. I edged my way towards it, back to the wall, keeping my eyes firmly on the dogs. Closer and closer I went. Still the dogs were circling. At last the edge of the metal touched my shoe. I kicked out wildly and, as my assailants fell back, bent down, grabbed the rail and straightened, all in one smooth movement. I stood there against the bricks, swinging it back and forth in front of me like a cudgel.

  The nearest dog crept close. I could see the spittle on its lips, see its green eyes glinting in the dusk.

  It leaped forwards, jaws open. I swung the railing down with all the force I could muster. It caught the dog’s shoulder, driving it down with a squeal against the cobbles. Then it leaped up and began racing around in circles in a paroxysm of yelping and barking, limping madly and frothing at the mouth. The other dog made a half-hearted lunge at me but my blood was up. I slashed out at it, narrowly missing the side of its head, and it turned and ran off up the alley.

  The injured dog was still obsessed with its own woes, running round and round as if it wanted to chase and devour itself. I slipped away and ran on. Thirty seconds later, with my ears ringing from the howling that echoed up the alley, I was down a side passage and out under the street-lamps again. And directly opposite, across the road, was the New Park.

  There was a hand-painted banner up on the railings beside the gate.

  NEW PARK AUTUMN FÊTE – TODAY

  Entrance £1

  A small queue of chilly people were lined up on the pavement, waiting to pay at a couple of tables positioned just inside. Beyond the railings, a whole sea of little stalls had been erected, gaudily illuminated by multicoloured lights hung from the trees. Grainy rock music issued from a few loudspeakers on poles and half the town seemed to be milling about below. I could not see if Charlie was among them.

  I took my place in the queue. The woman in front, who had a small girl in tow, frowned and ushered her child as far away from me as possible. It was only then that I realised I was still holding the cudgel. I quietly dropped it inside the railings.

  When I got to the tables I paid my pound to a long-haired bloke in a leather jacket, who sat hunched over his money tin as if it gave him warmth.

  ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘I’m looking for my sister. She’s about my height, she’s got blue jeans, a green—’

  ‘You think I’d remember? Don’t be stupid – one pound, mate.’ He’d already turned to the next in line. The man behind pushed me forward beyond the tables into the fête.

  And I stood there, like those kids in our alley, gazing stupidly at the silhouettes of a mass of people milling about sluggishly around the stalls under the hanging lights. Hundreds of thronging people, laughing too loudly, desperately intent upon having fun. And somewhere among them perhaps was Charlie, lost from me and losing herself.

  The latent panic that had been in my chest ever since I found her gone burst to the surface, and with it came the tears. Everyone around me was too big, too loud, too brash and careless of my search. I was alone. I could not call her, I could not see further than a few feet. Somewhere among the crowded stalls, she must be wandering vacant-eyed, oblivious to everything, seeking Max.

  And suddenly I was hit by the great fear that I had been denying to myself all this time. A terror that my sister might succeed in her desire, that she might just be reunited with her best friend Max that very night.

  Tears ran down my c
heeks as I elbowed my way into the crowd.

  THIRTY

  AT FIRST, WHEN I was in one place only, despair threatened to overwhelm me.

  I was slumped against the closed door. Night was falling and cold stars were coming out overhead. There was a terrible accusing silence all around. Yet I knew that inches from me, beyond the barrier of wood, the Great Fair blazed with life.

  I was just in one place, sitting on the earthen floor outside the palisade. And at that moment I had no hope, no way to turn. Far off, the band of forest at the top of the slope turned black against the sky. I was hunched up, resting my face on my knees.

  After a while, I got slowly to my feet and begun to trudge around the fence perimeter, gazing up at the sharp points of the endless stakes, each one twice my height and ceramic-smooth. There was not a chance of scaling them.

  I do not know how long I walked the circumference of the fence. My mind drifted, thinking of Max and how long it was since I had looked him in the face. I did not concentrate on where I went. I may have turned back the way I had come, once or several times, I don’t know. At one point I came to another of the Fair’s entrances. This too was securely barred. I scarcely bothered to test it, my mind was so numb, my despair so great.

  At last my feet gave way, tripping over a discarded chunk of wood. I fell heavily against the fence, and collapsed there finally into a sitting position, head to one side, hands limply in my lap.

  Until that precise moment, I had been in one place only. Then, suddenly, I was not. My vision seemed to swim and the darkness grew a little paler. I groaned.

  ‘Charlie?’

  A familiar voice close by. There was a shadow in front of me, bending slightly, still out of focus, surrounded by a whole series of obscure blotches and streaks of colour. It said something I couldn’t catch. I tried very hard to listen and to make the figure out. I narrowed my eyes.

 
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