|Note: Please read the Prologue before reading Chapter One.
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THREE THOUSAND MILES AWAY, Charlie Blake jolted awake. He clutched at his chest as he tried to catch his breath. His heart was racing, his body trembling. He looked up at the bearded, heavy-set man standing over him, and it was then he realised he was on the floor.
‘It’s all right,’ said his guardian, Jacob Willoughby, as he helped Charlie onto the bed. ‘I’m going to call the doctor.’
‘No,’ Charlie protested. ‘I’m okay.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’ll get you some water,’ Jacob said, and he left the room.
Running a hand through his unkempt black hair, Charlie pulled it back from his face and looked at the clock hanging on the cream wall above the chest of drawers opposite him. It had just gone three thirty in the morning. Taking hold of the chain around his neck, he looked down at the two silver rings attached to it, clenching his fist around them. A feeling of despair overwhelmed him, and he took a deep breath. He’d had nightmares before, but only once had he woken up feeling this way. That was four years ago – the day before his tenth birthday. The day before his dad died.
Jacob returned to the room. ‘Here you go,’ he said, handing Charlie a glass of water.
‘Thanks.’ Charlie took a sip and rested the glass on his bedside table.
Jacob stood with his arms crossed, his paunch hanging over his belt, his short brown hair damp, as if he had just stepped out of the shower. ‘Feeling better?’
Charlie nodded, forcing a smile. It had only been a week since he moved into the three-bed cottage, yet he was already waking the man up at the most inconvenient time. If he was planning on this adoption succeeding, he was going about it the wrong way. ‘Sorry I woke you.’
‘You don’t need to apologise.’ Jacob’s face assumed an amiable expression. ‘Do you need me to get you anything?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘If you do need anything, I’m right across the hallway.’ Jacob smiled and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Charlie waited until the light under the door vanished before getting up and splashing the glass of water on his face. He opened the window, which looked out over the back garden and the stretch of woods that lay beyond the fence, and cold air poured into the room, carrying with it a rich, wet, earthy scent.
Daylight came sooner than expected. The sun shone with brilliance through the wafting curtains. Charlie was sitting in bed rifling through a black box with metal embellishments, a tenth birthday gift from his mother. Inside the box, he kept letters his mother had written to him before she died.
He shivered, his pyjamas like ice against his skin, but he didn’t mind the cold; it had a way of calming his nerves. Hearing footsteps on the stairs, he looked up at the clock nestled between two pictures – a bucket of daffodils and swans in a lake. It was almost eight – four hours since the nightmare – and he hadn’t slept a wink. Replacing the letters inside the box, he got up and walked over to the walnut chest of drawers, setting the box on top of it, and then headed across the room.
He opened the door and paused, glancing back to survey the small room, as he had done every morning since he arrived at Spring Drive. A tingle of anticipation rippled through him as he thought about how far away he was from Alpha Children’s Home. His gaze shifted to the TV and game console beside the chest of drawers, and he smiled.
As soon as Charlie entered the bright, yellow farmhouse kitchen, the flagstone floor cold under his bare feet, the smell of bacon grease hit him, and his stomach turned. As always, neither the windows nor the door to the back garden were open.
A shrill whistle filled the air, and he glanced to his left at the kettle on the range cooker behind the oak table where he spotted Jacob sitting down reading the West Sussex Gazette.
‘Hi,’ Charlie greeted him.
‘Morning,’ Jacob replied. His gaze shifted to the kettle, and he set the newspaper down on the table, got up, and went over to the cooker. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Good,’ Charlie said, as he approached the chair in front of him. Sitting down, he grabbed a saucer from the stack in the centre of the table and two slices of toast from the rack.
Jacob returned to his seat with a steaming cup of coffee. ‘You look tired. Did you get any sleep?’
Charlie paused in the middle of buttering his toast. ‘Yep.’
Jacob’s beady brown eyes studied him a moment. ‘Marz mentioned that you have trouble sleeping.’
Oh great, Charlie thought. He thinks I’m disturbed.
‘Are these nightmares regular?’ Jacob asked.
Here we go again. ‘No. Just your average nightmare. Who doesn’t have them, right? It’s no big deal.’ Charlie clenched his jaw and looked down at his plate.
‘All that city noise, I bet. Maybe you just needed a change of scenery.’ Jacob took a bite of his bacon sandwich. ‘I thought we had a break-in with all that screaming last night. Gave me a right fright, you did. That must have been a terrifying dream you were having. What was it about?’
Charlie looked at him, apprehensive. ‘I … uh … I can’t remember.’ His weary voice broke at the end.
A speculative look came into Jacob’s eyes, and his lips parted, as if he were about to say something; instead, he took another bite of his sandwich. ‘Are you looking forward to school on Monday?’
‘I guess so.’
‘Well, you have nothing to worry about. The kids here are great. Besides, Oakwood is a lot smaller than your last school, so you’ll make friends in no time.’ He gave Charlie an encouraging smile.
Charlie bit into his cold toast and leaned back against the hard chair. According to Oakwood’s website, the total enrolment was exactly four hundred and seventy-five – about one-third of the total population at his last school – who most likely knew everything about one another. Being the new kid was a certified way of attracting attention, but being an outsider and an orphan, well, he’d be a headliner.
Charlie felt a swirling sensation inside his chest as he pondered that thought. Tasting something sour in his mouth, he set the toast down on the saucer. ‘Is Oakwood really the only secondary school in Capeton?’ he asked.
Jacob nodded. ‘It’s a small town, but that’s why I moved here. It’s quiet. People respect your privacy. You’ll settle in soon enough. Just think of it this way. You’ll have all your friends under one roof. Just promise me you won’t throw any house parties while I’m at work.’
Charlie smiled and took a deep breath, relaxing a little.
‘Speaking of which,’ Jacob went on. ‘I have to pop into work this morning. You don’t mind having the house to yourself for a few hours, do you?’ Charlie shook his head. ‘Good. I have a wake I need to organise.’
‘Yes. It’s a gathering of family and friends, a way of showing respect for the deceased.’
So that’s what you call it, Charlie thought. When he had attended his dad’s wake, he had thought it had been a surprise party for him, believing that his dad had played a terrible trick on him. It had taken him almost a year to realise he wasn’t coming back. ‘Did you have a wake for your wife?’
Jacob’s shoulders stiffened. ‘I did,’ he answered, his voice choked.
‘What was she like?’
Jacob looked at his watch. ‘You know, I should get going. I have so much to do. You have my work number.’ He got up and rushed out of the kitchen far faster than he looked capable of moving. Charlie heard him say goodbye, but the door slammed before he could respond. He hadn’t given much thought to it before, but he realised then that he and Jacob had a shared understanding: neither of them liked to talk about their loved ones, because it was as if they no longer existed. He was surprised that Jacob hadn’t quit his job as a funeral director, considering he had to deal with death all the time.
Charlie paced back and forth across the road from Spring Drive, a twisting dirt lane bordered by a stone wall and trees on either side. Perhaps it was the thick maroon blazer and black coat he had on, or that he wouldn’t keep still, but even in the biting January air, he felt a bead of sweat trickle down the back of his neck.
Hearing a low rumbling noise, he stopped pacing and turned round. When he saw the yellow, single-decker bus approaching, his heart skipped a beat. High at the top of the flat-faced vehicle were the words “School Bus” in bold, black letters.
The bus pulled up in front of him, and the folding door opened. Behind the wheel sat a frighteningly gaunt black man. Charlie took a deep breath and entered.
‘Noo ’ere’s a new face,’ the driver said in a strong northern accent. ‘W’s yer name, son?’
‘Charlie,’ he replied.
‘Great ter ’ave yeh on board, Charlie. The name’s Ernie. Grab yerself a seat.’
Charlie glanced around the half-full bus and then hurried along the aisle, keeping his head down. Finding an empty seat halfway down the bus, he settled into it. Two girls in front of him looked back and giggled. He felt his cheeks heat up when one of the girls chanted, ‘Carla likes the new boy.’
The bus rumbled along a deserted country lane lined on both sides by a low barbed-wire fence protecting large fields. Hearing a noise, Charlie averted his gaze from the window and observed the two tall boys who had just walked past him from the back of the bus. They stopped three seats ahead of him where a smaller lad sat slumped in his seat. The larger of the two boys sat in the seat behind the small lad and startled him with a whack on the back.
‘Wake up, Sunshine,’ the boy standing up said – the leader most likely from the way his friend watched him with admiration. He had broad shoulders and glossy slicked-back black hair, a stark contrast to his pale skin. He grabbed the lad’s bag and opened it.
‘Give it back,’ the lad murmured, his cry reduced to a mere whisper out of fear.
Charlie looked towards Ernie, who, singing along to the radio, seemed to be in a world of his own.
The leader pulled a book out of the bag. ‘You want it?’ he teased. He raised and dropped his eyebrows at his sidekick, a dark-skinned boy with a shaved head, who got up and opened the window. The leader glanced towards the front of the bus at Ernie, who was still oblivious to the scene behind him, then back at the boy. ‘Go get it.’ He tossed the book out the window.
Charlie clenched his fists and sat forward. Knowing how foolish it would have been to march up to the leader and his giant sidekick, however, he sank back in his seat.
‘That’s my homework,’ the lad cried.
‘Someone’s getting detention,’ the leader taunted. The lad made a move, but the sidekick forced him back into his seat.
All the students froze.
Charlie was standing in the aisle, his fists clenched.
The leader dropped the bag and turned to him. ‘You got a problem?’
Charlie didn’t respond. He hadn’t thought that far ahead.
‘Yeh kids behave back the’er,’ Ernie called, gazing through the rear-view mirror. The bus slowed as it neared the next stop.
‘Oi, you deaf? I said have you got a problem?’ the leader repeated, his voice fierce. The proximity between them tightened, but Charlie stood his ground, though he didn’t have much choice for there was nowhere to run.
‘Could you be any more predictable, Josh?’ a brave voice said.
To Charlie’s relief, the bullies turned away from him. His eyes rested on a girl about four inches shorter than him at 5’2’’ wearing baggy trousers and black Converse, and if it were not for her long brunette hair that covered most of her olive-toned face, he might have thought she was a boy. She gave the leader, Josh, a hard look.
‘Funny how bullies only pick on those who won’t fight back,’ the girl went on. ‘Makes you wonder who the real coward is.’ Her mouth twitched as she suppressed a smile. Then her eyes fixed on Charlie.
Feeling sweat gathering beneath his clenched fists, Charlie relaxed his fingers. As he stared into the girl’s big cinnamon-brown eyes, framed by thick lashes, he half smiled, which quickly faded when he heard the leader’s voice in his head.
‘I don’t fight girls,’ the boy named Josh said. ‘If that is what you are.’
‘I’ll pretend I’m a boy if you pretend you are,’ the girl shot back. Some students laughed, but when the bullies glared at them, they fell silent. Charlie sat back down, while Josh’s sidekick retreated to the back of the bus.
Josh glared at the girl, his jaw tightened. ‘This ain’t over.’ He backed off, frowning.
Charlie stared at the girl, who was helping the small boy pack his books back into his bag. When she finished, she walked towards the back, stopped next to Charlie, and leaned over. Gazing into her eyes, he felt his heart leap.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said with a smile. ‘He’s a lot less scary than he looks.’
His eyes followed her as she sat one seat behind him on the opposite side, listening to her pocket-sized music player. When she lifted her head and met his gaze, he looked away quickly, heat rising to his cheeks again.
Twenty minutes later, the bus turned down a narrow, tree-lined road signposted Oakwood Secondary School. Charlie observed the medieval-looking building ahead that looked more like a library than a school, but when the bus veered to the left into the car park, giving him a wider view of the complex, he noticed the modern red brick buildings surrounding the entrance.
As soon as the bus stopped, Charlie made a quick exit, for the bullies kept giving him the evil eye – a sign of unfinished business, no doubt. He moved along the side of the bus, heading around the crowd that had gathered outside the entrance. To avoid scrutiny, he kept his head down as he made his way inside the building. He managed to find the office, a small cream room just right of the entrance, and collected his class schedule and school map.
Arriving two minutes late for his first and least favourite lesson, maths, he found himself the centre of attention, but apart from the prolonged discomfort of having to stand at the front of the class while the overzealous Mr. Springer added his name to the register, he got through it.
His next class, French, he spent with his head ducked behind his book avoiding Mrs. Gregg, who had an annoying trait of picking the least enthusiastic person to answer questions. All he gained from that class was an aching neck.
When the bell rang, he waited for the room to empty before heading to lunch. Chattering teens had already filled most of the tables by the time he entered the canteen. His heart drummed as he searched the large orange room for a place to sit, his tray consisting of a veggie burger, an iced sponge cake, and a cup of orange juice.
Spotting an empty table in the corner lined with windows and a double door that led to the playground, he headed towards it.
As he neared the table, he felt a thud against his back that sent him plummeting forward. His tray slipped out of his hand and flipped over, the entire contents scattering over the floor.
Shocked gasps echoed around the room, and everyone – even the dinner ladies – stopped what they were doing to watch.
Charlie scrambled to his feet and came face-to-face with the bullies from the bus.
Josh sneered. ‘Clumsy, aren’t you?’
Charlie’s pulse quickened and a warm sensation shot through his body. Feeling a tremor beneath his feet, he paused. For a moment, he wondered if he had imagined the ground shaking, but then Josh’s expression changed; confusion replaced the amusement on his face as he glanced down.
Calm down, a voice in Charlie’s head said. It wasn’t the first time he had heard the voice, so it didn’t alarm him. What puzzled him was the fact that it was a woman’s voice. It always made him feel as if he had two minds.
‘What’s going on here?’ a rasping voice barked.
Charlie glanced at a stout woman holding a mop and a bucket, wearing a blue and white striped apron and a white hairnet. She stood with one hand on her hip, a stern look on her face.
‘Who fancies a trip to the principal’s office?’ the woman asked. ‘’Cause if you think you’re going to fight –’
‘No one’s fighting,’ Josh said. ‘New kid here just had a fall.’ He shot Charlie a cold look.
Feeling everyone’s gaze on him, Charlie turned and made haste towards the double doors. People stared as he went by. Whispers followed. Relieved to be away from curious eyes, he stormed across the playground and sat on a bench under a large chestnut tree, resting his head in his hands. He had planned to keep a low profile but had somehow managed to grab the attention of the entire school on his first day.
‘Are you all right?’
The hair on the back of Charlie’s neck bristled. It was the girl from the bus. He turned his head away, not wanting her to see the humiliation on his face.
‘Those guys are pricks,’ the girl said.
Charlie heard the bench squeak but didn’t turn around.
‘Yeah, my parents tell me not to talk to strangers, too,’ the girl went on in a casual tone, ‘which, by the way, makes no sense. I mean, one minute they tell you to make new friends, and then they tell you not to talk to strangers. But before someone becomes your friend, they’re a stranger, so how does that work? It’s an oxymoron, if you ask me.’
Charlie turned round and saw her sitting a few inches away from him.
‘I’m Alex, by the way,’ she said.
Charlie gulped. He wanted to say something but his mind was blank.
‘You’re a silent one,’ Alex acknowledged. ‘I’ll let you off for today, but you’ll have to speak to me at some point.’ She smiled. ‘First days can be stressful, especially if the first people you run into are Josh and his goon.’ She held out two clenched fists. ‘Pick a hand.’
He glanced at her outstretched hands and then looked back at her face, puzzled.
‘Okay, I’ll choose.’ She looked at both fists, her expression pensive, and then lowered her left hand. Opening her right fist, she revealed a circular sweet in a shiny golden wrapper. ‘It’s chocolate with a marshmallow centre – Chocomallow.’ She gestured for him to take it. ‘It’s not poisoned, I promise.’ When he didn’t take it, she rolled her eyes and placed the sweet in his hand. She then opened her other fist and revealed a matching sweet.
Charlie smiled. ‘Thanks.’
Alex gasped. ‘He does speak!’
A weird, fluttering feeling churned in the pit of Charlie’s stomach. ‘I’m Charlie.’
‘I know. We’re in the same French class. Welcome to Oakwood.’ Alex relaxed back on the bench. ‘Was it just me or did you feel a tremor in the canteen?’
‘Yeah, I felt it.’
‘You know, the last time an earthquake hit West Sussex was in 1970.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Well, they have this thing called the internet.’
Charlie chuckled. ‘I think I’ve heard of it.’
Alex’s cheeks flushed, and she looked away. ‘There’s nothing to do here but surf the net. It’s dead boring.’
Charlie spotted the bullies coming out of the canteen. They pointed at him and laughed.
‘Idiots,’ Alex spat. ‘They’ll soon find someone else to pick on. It’s their hobby.’
‘I think they’re afraid of you.’
‘Nah, they just hate that a girl stands up to them and they can’t do anything about it. The chatterbox is Josh Hartley. The other dimwit is Damzel Brittle. You wouldn’t guess they were fourteen from the looks of them, would you?’
Charlie raised his eyebrows.
‘I know,’ Alex said. ‘It’s obvious they’re scientific experiments.’
Charlie laughed. He had assumed they weren’t his age for he hadn’t seen them in any of his classes. And they were giants. With two lessons to go, he hoped he didn’t cross paths with them for the rest of the day – or the year.
‘Josh is the one you have to worry about,’ Alex went on. ‘Damzel just follows him around like a lost dinosaur.’
‘What’s Josh’s problem?’
‘Where do I start?’ Alex’s expression turned serious. ‘To be honest, he wasn’t always this annoying. His dad died last year, and he became … well, you’ve seen what he’s like.’
‘How did he die?’
‘He had a brain tumour. I do feel sorry for him. I don’t know what I’d do if either of my parents died. Still, he doesn’t have to be such an arse.’
Charlie looked across the playground at Josh. Although he felt angry towards the bully for humiliating him, he also felt sorry for the boy who had lost his father.
Alex asked, ‘You all right?’
Charlie looked back at her and nodded.
‘So, where’re you from?’ she enquired.
He hesitated before answering. ‘London.’ It was the truth; he just didn’t like talking about his life, especially his past.
‘I’ve been there a few times, but that was years ago. We have family in Cornwall, so we’re always vacating there. London’s a big place – well, anywhere’s big compared to Capeton.’
‘Capeton seems quite big.’
Alex raised her eyebrows. ‘The entire student body can fit inside my house. There are six thousand people living here. Compared to London that’s – we’re not even a dot on the map.’ She pulled her legs up onto the bench and crossed them. ‘Have you been on the London Eye?’
‘I’ve been on it a few times,’ he replied.
‘Bet it was amazing. I’ve always wanted to go on it, but lucky me, I have not one but two parents who are afraid of heights, so I doubt I’ll be going on it anytime soon.’
‘Can’t you go with someone else?’
Alex shook her head. ‘They won’t let me go on it, period. I’ve been asking since I was, like, ten. You’d think after four years I’d be closer to getting a yes.’
‘They might change their minds.’
Alex furrowed her brow. ‘You haven’t met my parents. They’re convinced that if I went on it, the capsule – only the one I’m in, by the way – would disengage from the wheel, and I’ll plunge to my death.’
Charlie looked at her in shock. ‘Wow.’
‘Yep,’ Alex said. ‘My mum even had illustrations.’
‘And you still want to go on it?’
‘Did I mention it was dead boring here?’
Charlie smiled. ‘Well, if they ever do change their minds and I’m still around, I’ll go with you – I mean, if you want.’
Surprise crossed Alex’s face. ‘You would do that?’
‘Yeah. You did save me from a black eye, so I kind of owe you.’
Alex smiled, but then her expression became curious. ‘Wait, why wouldn’t you be around?’
Charlie swallowed and looked away. ‘I move around a lot.’
‘Lucky you. I’ve been stuck here forever.’
Charlie turned to her. ‘Trust me. You’re the lucky one.’ Before she could ask any more questions, he held his hand out to her. ‘So, is it a deal?’
Alex grinned and placed her hand in his. ‘Deal.’
| ASIN: 0957001908 || |
Talisman Of El
Product Type: Book
Amazon's Price: $ 16.99