Summerhouse land, p.26
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       Summerhouse Land, p.26

           Roderick Gordon
 

  ‘No. It’s not stopping,’ Tom gasped.

  ‘What do we do now?’ Vek said.

  Although his legs were being held under by the boys and were completely immersed, Sam caught glimpses of the incandescence points on them where the fire was breaking through what was left of his pajama bottoms. The flames looked like the photographs he’d seen once of a man in a diving suit as he worked deep in one of the oceans, a glowing nebula of flame at the tip of his welding torch. And that’s precisely what he could see on his legs; many small orbs of shifting fire, like some type of hellish fungi and really quite beautiful as they fluxed in color from red to orange and back.

  Only he wasn’t in any state of mind to appreciate their aesthetic qualities as he blacked out from the pain.

  When he came to, he found that he was downstairs and laid out on the sofa. He was still damp from his dunking in the bath, but someone had changed his pajamas for a new pair and he had a blanket around him.

  He caught voices outside. Simon’s, then Damaris’s and Tom’s.

  Vek came in from the kitchen and stood looking at him.

  ‘How are you doing?’

  ‘I’m not sure,’ Sam said, as he bent his legs up to run a hand over them. ‘They don’t hurt at all,’ he added, as he finished checking. There weren’t any signs of burns on them, not even the smallest mark on the skin. Sam was amazed at first that this was the case, but then assumed the valley must have gone to work on them. He was also amazed he didn’t feel more tired after his ordeal. He began to pull himself up into a sitting position.

  ‘No, you’d better stay put for a while,’ Vek advised, looking paler than usual.

  Sam nodded, then said, ‘What happened after you got me in the water? I don’t remember anything.’

  ‘It was pretty bad. You lost consciousness, and it took a while for the flames to go out.’ Sam noticed the black scorches on Vek’s top as he spoke. ‘Then we brought you down here and you healed quickly. Very quickly.’ Vek moved his eyes to the bottom of the stairs where a picture on the wall hung lopsidedly. ‘I’m afraid you haven’t got a bed anymore. We had to dump your mattress in the garden because it was still smoldering.’

  ‘You were there when it started … you came in and woke me up, didn’t you?’ Sam said. ‘How could you tell something was wrong?’

  ‘I don’t really know, except there was a spaniel barking outside. It’s odd because I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of them bark before.’ Vek was silent for a moment while they both listened to the rumble of voices from the front garden as Damaris and the others continued to talk.

  ‘Anyway,’ Vek went on, ‘maybe it wasn’t the dog that alerted me, but something definitely felt wrong. And as soon as I left my room I smelled burning … flesh burning.’ He looked at Sam, who had pulled the blanket tight around his shoulders, not because he was particularly cold, but because he had begun to shiver a little from fright.

  ‘I’ll never forget those flames,’ Sam said, his voice trembling.

  Vek was shaking his head. ‘I don’t understand how you could have still been asleep. When I came in, your legs were completely engulfed by fire,’ he said.

  Tom and Damaris returned from outside.

  ‘What did Simon say?’ Sam asked.

  His friends’ faces all showed their concern as they looked at him. They couldn’t deny that he was in trouble now.

  ‘He’s gone to speak to Randall,’ Tom replied. ‘He’s as worried as we are.’

  ‘How long does he think I’ve got?’ Sam said.

  None of them offered a response.

  ‘Tell me.’

  ‘The other man had a few years like this,’ Tom finally answered in a subdued voice, ‘but the fire wasn’t so strong in him when it started.’

  Damaris perched on the edge of the sofa by Sam, then addressed Tom and Vek. ‘We can talk about this tomorrow. I’ll stay with him tonight. You both go and get some sleep.’

  Sam managed to smile at her as she took his hand and held it tight. ‘You don’t need to babysit me,’ he said.

  ‘You go. I’ll watch him,’ Damaris repeated firmly to the two boys, who went back upstairs. ‘This isn’t good,’ she said, when she and Sam were alone.

  Sam sighed. ‘Baby Pain warned me it was going to happen. And he said everyone knew that it would.’

  ‘For such a small person, he has the biggest mouth,’ Damaris muttered, not able to look Sam in the eye. ‘Nobody wanted to say anything to you until we were more certain.’

  ‘No doubt now,’ Sam said. He had to smile, in earnest this time.

  ‘What is it?’ Damaris asked, as she noticed his expression.

  ‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ he said, but it wasn’t nothing. He was smiling because he should have known better. He should have known all along that his miracle cure was too good to last – not for very long, anyway. Fate had played the cruelest of tricks on him, returning him to his default state, returning him to what he’d lived with for all those years before he’d blundered into the valley.

  He was used to countdowns, and the clock was ticking for him again, albeit a new clock.

  Sam stopped smiling. ‘Pain also said that people were drawn to me … like the urchins … because I won’t be around for long. Because in this place, I’m some fascinating freak.’ Sam was looking intently at Damaris now, trying so hard to read her face. Could that be why she wants to be with me?

  ‘Is that true?’ he pressed her.

  ‘That’s not true at all. Most people aren’t like that. I’m not.’

  ‘Okay,’ Sam said.

  Damaris had begun to yawn, but despite Sam’s efforts to persuade her to go back to bed she was insistent that she stay with him. However, she eventually agreed to move to the end of the sofa where she could lean back and relax a little, with Sam’s feet resting on her lap. She was hugging his legs around the calves, but her grip gradually become looser, and Sam watched as her head repeatedly lolled to the side.

  Finally, when she couldn’t fight it any longer, her head dipped against the arm of the sofa and remained there. As hard as he tried, Sam was too keyed up to sleep. After more than an hour of listening to Damaris’s steady breathing, he managed to extricate himself from the sofa without waking her.

  As he put his weight on them his legs were right as rain again, so he tiptoed to the window and peered at the gloom outside. Everything was still and quiet in the main thoroughfare, and it made Sam feel all the more alone and isolated. He suddenly caught his breath, certain that he could hear a dog barking. Pressing his forehead against the glass, he listened out. There was nothing now, but Sam had the clearest flashback to his dream as if he was in his garden again. He thought of his dog, Maxie, and how much he missed him, and missed his parents and home.

  There and then, Sam decided he had to act. He couldn’t just wait until he was consumed by flames like the man Baby Pain had spoken about. And if Sam was going to die, then he wanted it to happen at home, with his mother and father by his side. He had to find a way back again if it was the last thing he did, and that might very well be the case given his outlook.

  Stealing upstairs, he went into his room and for a moment surveyed the scene there; the bed without its mattress, the singed blankets and his belongings strewn all over the floor. Changing out of his pajamas and into his clothes, he returned downstairs, again treading as softly as he could.

  There was only the smallest amount of light creeping into the sky as he let himself out of the house and turned right along the thoroughfare. He immediately spotted one of the spaniels and wondered if it had been responsible for the barking. As Sam walked briskly toward the circular pool with the water sculptures, the dog also began to move, keeping a constant distance ahead of him and occasionally swinging its head round to check he was still there.

  Then, to Sam’s surprise, when the spaniel drew level with the shuttered house, it abruptly left the main thoroughfare and he completely lost sight of it. It made Sam question whet
her he was being observed by the animal, or being guided toward the house by it, as odd as that suggestion seemed.

  And as Sam crept around the front of the building to examine it more closely, he saw that Baby Pain had been right about Curtis’s former home. All the outward signs were that it had been unoccupied for an extremely long time. Creepers covered part of the frontage and the paint on the shutters was peeling badly, although all the ones he tried to pry open were still secured firmly in place.

  Sam had to wade through the weeds in order to explore the side of the house, where he came across a window that had lost its shutters and in which a number of the panes were cracked. He debated whether to break in through it. Nobody was up yet at that time in the morning so he was unlikely to be heard, and it would have been easy enough to use it to get inside.

  In the end Sam decided against it and, pushing through more tangled weeds, moved around to the rear of the house. It was the same story there – most of the shutters were still intact, but then his gaze fell on a pair of large doors at the far corner of the building. On closer inspection, he found that one of the doors had rotted badly at the base, providing a reasonably sized opening there. Sam didn’t hesitate; dropping down onto his stomach he was able to worm through.

  Once inside, he got to his feet again, swiping away what he hoped were cobwebs as they brushed his face. It was so dark that he held still for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust, but this didn’t do anything to help. In any case, even if there had been broad daylight outside, not much of it would have found its way in through the louvers of the shutters or under the rotten door.

  ‘This is hopeless,’ Sam muttered, but if he wanted to find Curtis, then the baby’s suggestion was the only lead he had.

  With his hands extended and wishing he had a torch or some means to light his way, Sam began forward, feeling his way around an obstacle that felt like a stack of crates. There was another beside it, then a further one, so he decided to turn in the opposite direction and head that way instead. Brushing aside more of the soft, dusty objects suspended from the ceiling, he crossed an area of open floor, his feet crunching on what sounded like concrete or stone covered with old twigs, until he could make out a more clearly defined shape in front of him. As Sam investigated it, he found what seemed to be an extremely grimy tarpaulin. Pieces of it dropped away at his touch as if they were rotted through, exposing a smooth, gently curving surface underneath.

  ‘What is this?’ he said, comforted by the sound of his voice in the gloom. Then, just below waist height, his hand encountered something regular. A small square set into the smooth object. He ran a finger around it, trying to work out what it might be.

  The effect was immediate.

  A light leapt into life right in front of him.

  It had a streamlined body and, although it was coated in age-old dust, Sam could see that in places its silver paintwork was highly polished.

  ‘A car?’ he gasped in disbelief, taking a step back.

  There was a clunk as a door opened in the vehicle.

  ‘You’ve got to be joking.’

  The light that had turned on was from the interior of the vehicle. It gave off a warm glow, enabling him to see the room around him for the first time. There were numerous skeins of cobwebs dangling from the ceiling, and the ground was littered with old leaves and twigs that must have blown in under the damaged door. But Sam barely registered any of this as he stared at the vehicle.

  Until he’d torn sections of it away, it had been covered with some sort of fabric. A dust sheet. He now set about removing more of the sheet from the vehicle which took longer than it should because it simply disintegrated as he tugged at it. Once most of it had been swept aside, he paused to examine what he’d found. The car was sleek and quite unlike any model he recognized from back in the world.

  He took a quick stroll around the vehicle, kicking a couple of the thick tires to make sure they weren’t flat, but the open door was far too tempting for him to ignore. Opening it wider, he lowered himself in behind the steering wheel. Although the air smelled stale, the upholstery of the seats was remarkably clean. After Sam had had a good look around the interior of the vehicle, he gripped the steering wheel with both hands, peering at the dashboard. He was disappointed that it was simply a featureless black strip.

  ‘Probably doesn’t work anyway,’ Sam said to himself. If the house really had been abandoned for so long, then it was wonder enough that there was enough charge left to power the illumination inside the car. He reached forward to rub the dashboard and remove some of the light film of dust that covered it. It may have resembled a strip of what looked like inert black glass, but that changed in the blink of an eye.

  The moment he’d made contact with it, a vibration ran through the vehicle and the black strip was suddenly alive with an array of various displays.

  ‘Woh!’ Sam exclaimed, sitting back sharply. Collecting himself after the surprise, he began to try to work out what the different displays were showing. The numbers and levels were clearly defined in white against the black background, but they were all meaningless to him. The only one he could hazard a guess at was the largest of the dials straight in front of him – he assumed it had to be the speedometer because of its prominence, and also the fact that the pointer was at zero.

  He laughed because it was so outlandish. In all the time he’d been in the valley, nobody had ever mentioned there were cars of any description. And neither had he once seen any form of motorized transport anywhere. Perhaps they’d been commonplace when Curtis was still in circulation and pushing on with his crusade for progress. But the last thing Sam would have expected to find in this house was a starkly modern car, and particularly one that still had some life left in it after so many years of disuse.

  He touched several areas of the dashboard to see what happened, but while some of the displays glowed more strongly it didn’t produce any other changes. Sam refused to allow himself be downhearted; at least he’d discovered something that probably went back to Curtis’s time, and he still had the rest of the house to investigate.

  No one was there to see him so he indulged himself. ‘Brmm, brmm,’ he said, chuckling while he tried unsuccessfully to turn the steering wheel which seemed to be locked in place. ‘I wish this thing would still drive.’

  That was when his eyes fell on the line of text below what he’d assumed to be the speedometer.

  Brmm, brmm. I wish this thing would still drive.

  What he’d just said had been transcribed perfectly in the small rectangular window in the dashboard.

  ‘Hah! You’re listening to me,’ he laughed in disbelief.

  As these new words appeared on the display, he noticed another rectangle below it. There was only one word in it:

  Destination?

  ‘Destination?’ Sam repeated out loud, and the word in the lower rectangle vanished, replaced by a blinking cursor.

  ‘You want a destination?’ Sam asked, not sure if he was being very prudent as he had no idea what he was dealing with here. Perhaps he should simply get out of the car and see what else he could find in the building, but his eyes kept coming back to that blinking cursor.

  Sam thought for a second.

  ‘Curtis. Take me to Curtis.’

  The cursor didn’t move.

  Sam enunciated his words carefully in case they weren’t being understood. ‘C U R T I S. Where is Curtis?’

  Nothing changed.

  ‘Hello, car … will you take me to where Curtis lives, to where I can find him.’ Sam began to vary the pitch of his voice, saying Curtis’s name repeatedly to see if that did the trick. ‘Curtis, Curtis, Curtis, Curtis, CURTIS!’

  Still no change. With a despondent sigh, Sam shook his head.

  ‘Oh, I don’t know … just take me home, will you?’ Sam had only said this because he was thinking about his own home again, and how he was never going to get back there.

  The second window immediately flashed up, Ho
me? Confirm.

  ‘Er … yes … home … confirmed … I confirm,’ Sam said quickly. ‘What happens now?’ he mumbled, as two thoughts passed through his mind simultaneously. He was asking himself if the car was perhaps going to give him the location for Home. Maybe it had enough power left to operate some sort of directional system, a map. That would be very helpful.

  And the second thought was if this building hadn’t been Curtis’s home for so many centuries, then perhaps the car had been reprogrammed with his new one. But that was hoping for a lot.

  Acknowledged. Close driver’s door.

  ‘Um …’ Sam said, asking himself again if this was wise, but then he shrugged and pulled the door shut.

  The vibration in the car increased and Sam heard a low humming sound as the car began to glide slowly forward.

  ‘Oh criminy! What did I do?’ Sam said, trying again to move the steering wheel which remained locked solid. And as he looked down at his feet, there weren’t any pedals, not that he’d have known which one the brake was anyway. He’d never driven a car.

  ‘Where are the wipers? Window wipers?’ Sam babbled because the dust and shreds of fabric on the windscreen were impeding his view somewhat. As if by magic, they went into action, clearing the screen in a few sweeps.

  Sam didn’t have time to marvel at this as one of the large doors swung open in front of the vehicle and then with a crack, simply toppled over. Its corroded hinges had evidently broken off. The other one, under which Sam had squeezed, didn’t seem to have moved. The car couldn’t get out with it in the way.

  The car came to a halt again and Sam looked at the dashboard display.

  Exit door malfunction. Obstruction. Proceed?

  ‘Yes, proceed,’ Sam said, still not believing any of this.

  Impact projected. Confirm proceed.

  ‘Yes, confirmed. Proceed, confirm, yes,’ Sam replied rapidly, trying everything he could think of.

  The car began to edge forward again, thumping into the door and knocking it over with a large crash.

  ‘Oops,’ Sam said, regretting his hasty reply. But he quickly forgot about this as the steering wheel twitched under his hands and the vehicle plowed a path straight through the overgrown tangle of brambles and shrubs. Again the vehicle stopped, because there were several trees that must have self-seeded themselves in the way since the car had been driven in, or driven itself in.

 
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