The leap, p.4
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       The Leap, p.4
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  Finally, while the rancher was arguing woodenly with some other two-bit actor, I said, ‘What were those flowers, Charlie?’

  ‘What flowers?’ She didn’t look at me.

  ‘Did you bring them?’

  ‘Of course not.’

  ‘So they might have been from his—’

  ‘His mum or dad, or teacher or whatever. I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t me, laying them out so prettily on the side there. Bloody pathetic they looked.’

  ‘But you shouldn’t have touched them, Charls! You know that.’ I thought of the funeral and how Max’s mum and dad had looked then.

  ‘You put flowers down for a bloody road accident or something. Not for this.’

  ‘Charlie—’

  ‘Not for Max. Not like that. And they shouldn’t have covered it either.’

  ‘They want it to be safe, Charlie.’

  ‘Yeah, right. They want to cut him off. Wooden coffin boards and funeral flowers. I can’t stand it. I’d have torn up the cover if it wasn’t so bloody well nailed down.’

  ‘So why did you go back?’

  She didn’t answer me, but just stared at the TV, watching three Hollywood rejects slug it out with blanks across a studio lot. I very badly wanted an answer, but I knew I shouldn’t push her. Also, I was a little afraid of the answer she wasn’t giving me. I thought I could guess what she might say. What her pale impassive face was keeping secret. That she had gone back to the pool for Max, and that if she’d not seen him among the fronds, or maybe even if she had, she’d have kicked off her shoes and slipped herself down into the cold dark water to try and bring him back.

  We sat in the sitting room watching bad television, neither of us choosing to leave. She sat staring into the screen like she could see something beyond it, and I sat looking at the side of her face, wishing I could fathom something behind that surface too.

  SEVEN

  AT FIRST, I hoped that Max would return to me as I slept the following night, and would help to guide me. But for several days I did not dream again.

  So they had closed him off. From the moment when I saw the barrier, a great despair rose up in me, a terrible sapping lethargy that filled every waking hour, which clung to me as I slept and in the morning was renewed. The dreary weight of that one simple fact bore down on me at all times. Max was gone and the entrance was barred. I could not follow him.

  James had been unsettled by what had happened and pestered me for a reason. I had nothing to say to him even if I had wanted to. Mum was shaken up too. She still didn’t go back to work, and began to spend even more time trying to keep me occupied, loitering in my room and driving me mad with bright suggestions. At her insistence, I was taken round to Doctor Tilbrook’s for an extra appointment, and found him much more decisive than before. He made me tell him all over again about Max and asked me what I thought of it. I said I was sorry he was lost and he seemed a little cheered by this. I think he took it the wrong way.

  But I was lost too. I had no idea what I should do next.

  Mum didn’t let me out much on my own, but I spent a lot of time thinking about the things Max and I had done. A couple of days later, when Mum was out and James at school, I seized my chance and cycled off. I didn’t head far, just to the old haunts around town, tracing out our favourite routes, that kind of thing.

  Our area is quite good for cycling, but you have to know the back ways. All around the place, there’s a network of narrow terraces stretching up and down between the park and the canal. All the houses have tiny yards behind them, and all of these have gates at the end leading on to cobbled alleys. These alleys are good for speed, with the extra interest that comes from unexpected obstacles: raised cobblestones, slalomed parked cars, women hanging out washing, and small kids who are tired of life coming out of gates without looking. There’s also the advantage that you avoid most traffic, especially the main flyover system a few blocks away. There are roundabouts and dual carriageways there that would be certain death to cycle on. Max had done it once, for a dare.

  If you burn through the alleys, heading down hill, you eventually pass out into the allotments where the old men grow cabbages and weeds. There are good routes here too, if you’re quick enough to avoid the old codgers hidden among the pea canes. Beyond all this are the factories and the canal.

  I put on the brakes at the old steel factory. This was one of our chief delights, Max and I. They’d shut it when I was little, maybe before I was born, taking the soul out the town, Mum says. A lot of men who were young then now work at the new car place by the motorway, but some of the older ones didn’t find jobs, and still hang about in the pubs on the corners of our streets. The factory was something to do with the old steel industry. Lots of hefty equipment is still out rusting in the rain more than ten years later. They put barbed wire on the walls and shut it up, but Max and I knew how to get in all right. We had a secret entrance at a gate where the metal sheets were loose.

  I pushed the bike between the rusty sheets and squeezed in after it. Everything was the same. The weeds were growing up through the cracked concrete and the big stained metal husk of the old loading bay was still there on the right, unchanged. It was a while since we’d been, but there were plenty of memories to make my eyes prickle.

  The steelworks was a great place for dares. There were some cranes to climb and a couple of man-made concrete-sided pit things that would kill you if you fell in. Don’t know what they’re for. Maybe they had machinery in once. Between us, Max and I had climbed most of the cranes, and skirted both the pits, holding on to the rails on the inside.

  I left the bike by the fence and walked across to the nearest crane, which we’d guessed had been used to load lorries. Its basic shape was still firm, but the rain had contorted the iron surface into lava flows of orange-reds and browns.

  I sat on the metal base. On our first trip here, Max had climbed halfway up it, egged on by me. He’d got his shirt and jeans smeared with rust, and had a wallop from his dad for it later. After he got down, I’d climbed it too, to show I wasn’t beaten. I could match him every time for climbing, running, whatever we did. But it had been Max who’d gone up first. It was the same story, almost always: Max leading, me following. Now I was here alone for the first time, smelling the rust and the damp and hearing the scuffling of rats under the hollow platforms. The sun was up; it warmed me where I sat, but I felt an emptiness in me, reflecting the desolation all around.

  He was gone. Wherever he was, he was not in this place, where he had once been so strongly. I knew that now the decaying factory utterly lacked the life that we had given it before, when Max and I were there together.

  He was far away, and I remained behind, purposeless.

  EIGHT

  BUT NOW CONSCIOUSNESS comes. It grows like a seed in the earth, spreading slowly from the centre outwards, and I become aware of my head and its position. I am lying on one side, with my eyes closed and my mouth open. My nostrils are painful with the smell of salt. My cheek rests on something wet, rough, granular; and somewhere close I hear the crashing of the sea.

  I cannot open my eyes: something gums them shut. My tongue is dry, my lips salted over with a crust which shatters when I close my mouth. I try to flex my fingers, they are stiff with salt, and ache as if they haven’t stirred for days.

  One arm is trapped under my body. I raise the other, and hear the salted surface of my clothing crack. I lift my fingers to an eye and rub away at the crust that seals the socket until I can open the lid halfway. I can see nothing. It is quite dark around me. Close by, the sea breaks against the shore. I run my hand over the side of my chest and stomach and feel a shower of dry flakes fall off me on to the sand. I am covered all over with a coating of sea salt, as if I have been dead and floating for days.

  The rhythm of the waves lulls me. My arm falls back against the sand.

  Consciousness fades.

  The seed dies.

  NINE

  THERE WAS SOMETHING i
n that dream which made me change. Nothing precise, you understand. I couldn’t tell you what it was about that moment when I sat up in bed with sleep crusts in my eyes and the smell of sea-salt in my nose which altered me forever. It was only that I had awoken with such a pressure in my chest that if I didn’t do something about it then and there I felt I would burst.

  For a week or more, since I had seen Max in the pool, my sleep had been empty. Now I dreamed again, and strange though the dream was, it galvanised me, haunted me throughout that day. In the mornings following, I woke up with the strongest sensation that I had dreamed it again, or something very similar, but I could grasp nothing except the nagging imprint of a fading intensity.

  I felt an urge inside me, an inexplicable eagerness to know more – quite unlike any other feelings I had at the time. It injected me with more real emotion than anything else could, and the frustration of losing the images stayed with me all day long. Quickly, I began to cast about for a way of fixing the memory of my dreams in place.

  All this time the notebook that Doctor Tilbrook had given me to record things was sitting unused on the shelf where it had been tossed. I had a distaste for his gift which made me disinclined to touch it, but it gave me an idea.

  I remembered that dreams are often in your head the moment you wake up, but that they fragment and fade almost immediately. The answer had to be to record them as quickly as possible, and that meant pen and paper.

  Beside my bed was a small cabinet. I kept stuff there. Keepsakes and rubbish jewellery, things like that. It was all junk and no one but me could have any interest in any of it, not even James.

  But the cabinet had a false bottom. It was a loose plank really. You could lift it up and see a hollow space above the carpet. I used it as a secret compartment in the days when James and I were always at war. Two of the things Dad gave me were there – a penknife from Switzerland and a walnut box with a moving plastic bug. I never looked at them now, although I’d carried the penknife around a lot after Dad left.

  I found a biro and an old cheap notebook with thin rules, and hid them both in the compartment. My plan was this. Every night, before I slept, I would get the book out and put it on the cabinet beside me. Then, as soon as I woke, I would write down any details I remembered before I could forget.

  I tried it the next morning. And though I could hardly hold the pen in my sleepy fingers and barely open my eyes to see the page, it worked – in a small way. This was how my diary began.

  Wednesday

  Darkness around me. I am sitting on a beach. I feel sickness. The smell of salt is all over me. I can’t brush it off.

  That was all I got down. I wasn’t practised at fixing the details yet. But I could see the dream was very like the ones of the nights before. I tried again the next morning, and this is what I got.

  Thursday

  The sun rises over the sea. I am still sitting there, looking out at the horizon. The sickness is less. The salt smell clings to me, though I am no longer covered.

  In the next night’s dream I was walking on the beach, slow and hesitant, looking around. Each time I dreamed, the details got clearer and my writing got easier. I seemed to wake the moment each one finished, and if I wrote quickly I always got something down.

  These were no ordinary dreams. They connected for a start, and they were more real to me than anything in the day. But it was the next night that showed me truly what they were.

  Saturday

  I was standing a couple of paces from where the waves lapped. The tide was going out and the sand around was still very wet. And I could see footprints. They came out of the sea and headed off inland in a dead-straight line.

  I bent down to the nearest print. It was criss-crossed with lines and had an oval imprint in the heel. Crouching there, I bit my lip until it bled: Max’s Nike trainers had that pattern on the sole. Before I straightened, a vague dread made me scan the sand for a few yards on either side of Max’s trail, but there was no sign that anyone else accompanied him.

  So I began to run, following the trail, my feet making bigger strides than Max had done. He must have been walking, slowly, leisurely, hesitantly? But he had never once turned round that I could see, never once looked back. I longed to catch sight of him somewhere ahead, to shout and make him turn.

  It was impossible to make out where I ran. The sun was setting straight ahead. It blazed like a furnace, from its white heart yellow-red flames licked out to consume the horizon. It would have blinded me if I had looked up, but I had eyes only for the ground, for the prints flashing beneath my feet.

  The sand moved under me unchanging. My heart was bursting in my chest. I was gasping, panting, straining with the effort.

  I panicked. I admit it. I threw all my energy into calling out, hoping against hope that he would hear me. I shouted his name out loud – and woke up.

  I was in bed, on my side, one leg forward, one leg back, with my duvet tightly strung between them. I was drenched with cold sweat. My toes were clawed into the sheeting, and my heart was going so hard my body shook with it.

  I could hardly wait for the next night. Now I knew why the dreams had affected me so strongly. Max was in them. He was there – and not a memory of him either, but a living, moving Max, the Max I’d lost. If I followed, I could find him. It was strange, but it took no time at all for me to realise that what I saw in these dreams was real. I had leaped in after him. I was close behind. And somewhere up ahead was the friend that had been taken from me. Somewhere up ahead, Max was still alive.

  Sunday

  I was among tall grasses, on the top of a high dune. The waves murmured in the distance behind me. I was bent forwards, scanning the ground at my feet, but the sand between the clumps of razor-grass was bone dry and as I took each step my own prints instantly collapsed to nothing. I felt a great weariness, but then a gentle wind blew up, soft against my face, and I was refreshed. I began walking through the sharp grasses, away from the sea.

  Monday

  Still walking. The grasses had gone, and the sky above was a bright blue. The ground was orange-brown dirt, baked hard. It stretched all around, out to the horizon. No prints.

  For the next three nights my dreams did not alter. I walked in that endless expanse of orange earth. The sun was always high and the sky was always blue. Nothing happened. I saw no one. I wrote little. At last, during the third dream, with the sky and earth and my feet going on one in front of the other just as they had been for three whole nights, I suddenly felt it falling on me all at once: the weight of that terrible isolation. A great bulging knot of panic rose up in my chest and I awoke.

  On Friday I was a little nervous about going to sleep. I didn’t want that dream again. It wasn’t like you could wake up when you wanted to either. But I needn’t have worried. That night, the dream changed.

  In front of me was a high ridge of orange-yellow rock. It was a sandstone cliff, with jagged outcrops of soft rock erupting into the blue sky far above me. A little to my left was a cleft in the cliff, narrow, deep and smooth-sided, and from it trickled a small stream, which idled its way into the desert and was swallowed up. There was a narrow gap between the stream and the side of the cleft, a ledge covered with wet sand. I started along it. It was so narrow that my right shoulder brushed against the rock of the cliff, dusting my shirt with sand.

  Then I saw the footprints again. There they were, the same striations, the weird criss-crossing lines and oval on the heel. Max had told me once that the rounded lump on the heel was to give extra shock-absorption when you ran fast. But he was still walking now with the same easy steady pace that he’d had on the beach.

  I felt grim satisfaction – I’d followed him right across the desert without even knowing I was doing so. I set off up the gorge at an easy pace. No point running. He would still be a long way ahead.

  The dream ended, like ordinary, false dreams do, with a sudden weakening of the image, and a kind of pull somewhere inside, lifting you out again. The
gorge and the stream, and the footprints and cliff all receded suddenly at a great rate, and I was awake again and it was morning. I could hear Mum in the kitchen downstairs, with the radio on.

  TEN

  CHARLIE CAME DOWN on time this morning. She looked okay, better than normal in fact, and I gave her a friendly wave over my egg. She sat down. I passed her the flakes and it all seemed to be going swimmingly. Then Mum put her foot in it again.

  ‘How are you feeling, Charlie? You’re all right, aren’t you?’

  I gave Mum a black look. She was in Concerned Mother mode, guaranteed to put Charlie’s back up.

  ‘I’m fine. Could you pass the milk, James?’

  ‘Only I heard you calling out in the night.’

  ‘I’m not interested, Mum.’

  ‘I went to your door, and you were sleeping. I didn’t like to wake you.’

  ‘I said I’m not interested.’

  ‘All right, I’m just concerned about you, dear.’ The phone rang. Mum retreated to the other room. Charlie busied herself with the flakes. I toyed with the last scrap of toast, smearing vestiges of yolk around the plate.

  ‘What are you up to today, Charlie?’

  ‘Don’t know. Might go out.’

  ‘Do you want to get the bikes out? I was thinking of going for a ride. Don’t know where exactly.’ I didn’t know because I had just made this up.

  ‘Yeah. Maybe.’ That was vaguely promising. Normally I got the brush off. I didn’t push it. Charlie finished her flakes while I ate my toast and drank my tea, which was cold.

  Mum reappeared. ‘That was Greg. He’s invited us over for lunch which is nice of him. I hadn’t got much in and it saves us a shop this morning. Graham will be there too, so that’ll be fun.’ She was talking too fast, like she always does when she tries to convince us about Greg. She’s on to a loser on this, because the guy is tedium incarnate. He makes cutting your toenails seem interesting. And his son, Graham, is worse. A spotty games-obsessive with too much hair. Nasty. I wouldn’t have wanted to see them even on a good day. Charlie and I both opened our mouths and Charlie got in first.

 
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