|Note: Please read the Prologue and Chapter One before reading Chapter Two.
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The Good, the Bad, and the Weird
CHARLIE RAN HIS FINGERS over a picture of his parents embracing each other, smiling at him. They were wearing the same rings on their fingers as he had on around his neck. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against his bed. ‘Okay, so I almost got into a fight today – but I didn’t. That’s no fighting and no expulsion, so I kinda had a good day. Actually, it would have been worse if it hadn’t been for this girl I met. Her name’s Alex –’
A low hissing noise, like the sound of a water sprinkler, cut him off, and he looked at the door. Closing the photo album, he slid it under the bed and got up. He walked across the room and opened the door. At once, he recognised the sound of voices. He glanced at the clock; 10:30 p.m. Curious, he headed downstairs, the sound growing louder with each step he took.
Standing in the hallway, his eyes darting around as he tried to locate the sound, he spotted Jacob on the living room sofa. His guardian seemed unperturbed by the noise, and for a moment, Charlie wondered if the voices were coming from the TV. But the two noises were distinct.
Heading down the hallway, he felt a strange sensation course through his body that caught him off guard, and he stopped in the kitchen doorway. The feeling was electric.
His gaze fixed on the cupboard under the stairs. There was no question now as to where the noise was coming from. His hands started to shake. The sound behind the door disturbed him, but he couldn’t turn away from it. Holding his breath, he yanked the door open.
Flicking the light switch on, he saw a pile of boxes.
‘What are you doing?’
Charlie glanced over his shoulder at Jacob, who was standing in the living room doorway. ‘Didn’t you hear it?’
Jacob’s eyes shifted left and right then back at Charlie. ‘Hear what?’
‘The voices …’ Charlie trailed off when he noticed a peculiar look in Jacob’s eyes.
‘Are you feeling okay?’
Charlie turned back to the cupboard and closed the door. ‘I thought I heard something,’ he explained, as he headed back towards the stairs. ‘I guess it was nothing. 'Night.’
‘'Night,’ Jacob called to him, a note of worry in his voice.
Charlie entered his room and closed the door behind him, bracing himself against it. He scratched his head as he tried to make sense of what had just happened. He knew he wasn’t crazy, but no matter how hard he racked his brain, there was no explanation for the mysterious noise.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs interrupted his thoughts, and he switched the light off. Hearing a creaking noise behind him, he turned round and saw a shadow step into the shaft of light under the door. He kept quiet, listening to Jacob’s ragged breathing. He didn’t want to talk; talking only got him into trouble.
After a pause that seemed like forever, he heard Jacob’s footsteps retreating. Then the light under the door vanished. Charlie turned round, walked across the room, and climbed into bed. He was exhausted from the lack of sleep he’d had the last few weeks, having to adjust to a new life, and because of the nightmares that haunted him. With each passing minute, his mind flickered like a kaleidoscope. Visions of long ago invaded his dream.
Charlie was back in Palmers Green, a quiet up-and-coming suburb in the restless city of London where he lived with his dad. From his bedroom window, he gazed out at the dazzling summer sun rising above the rooftops of the Victorian terraced houses. He caught sight of his reflection in the window, his grey eyes glistening with excitement. Looking down at his black suit and tie, confusion crossed his face.
A shadow passed over him, and he glanced up at the dark clouds gathering over the horizon. ‘Hoot,’ a familiar voice called, and he ran out of the room.
As he scrambled down the stairs, he stopped halfway and looked up at the two pictures of his mum on the stairway wall. Retreating two steps back, he kissed one of the pictures and then continued on his way. At the bottom of the stairs, he paused, engulfed by a warm, sweet smell. Following the scent, he drifted down the narrow hallway and entered a small kitchen. Seeing the pots and dishes scattered across the granite worktop, he shook his head and smiled.
‘Happy birthday!’ His dad appeared behind him, holding a large chocolate cake. He was wearing jeans and a tight t-shirt, revealing his muscular biceps. With his tousled, dirty-blond hair and scruffy beard, he looked more like a rock star than a dentist. He walked over to the table, set the cake down, then turned round and bent down in front of Charlie.
‘Hoot. Today is a big day.’ His dad’s voice broke. He cleared his throat and started again. ‘Ten years. Time flies. I’m so proud of you. I know your mum would be, too.’ They looked up at the picture on the fridge door of his mum at a beach in a floral dress, her thick black curls falling over her shoulders. ‘Now, I know you have the whole day to stuff your face, but please, go easy on the sweets, okay.’
Charlie gazed into his deep-set blue eyes and hugged him. ‘I love you, Dad.’
‘I love you, too, Hoot.’ His dad stood up and clapped his hands together, a big grin spreading across his face. ‘Guess what? I have a surprise for you.’
At that point, Charlie was aware in some part of his consciousness that he was dreaming, and panic set in. ‘We have to go.’
‘Go? Don’t be silly. It’s your big day. It’s going to be great.’
‘No!’ Tears welled in Charlie’s eyes. He grabbed his dad’s hand and dragged him out of the kitchen. ‘We have to go before it’s too late.’ His dad smiled as he pulled him with effort along the hallway.
As they reached the living room, loud cheers of ‘Surprise!’ erupted through the open doorway.
Charlie stopped, dropped his dad’s hand, and turned to the crowd of people standing in the living room, smiling at him. Most of them were children. The guests and his dad started singing ‘Happy Birthday’.
This isn’t right, he thought. ‘What are they doing here? They’re not supposed to be here. Not yet.’ His eyes shifted to the clock on the lilac wall behind the crowd, and he watched in amazement as the hands spun with hastening speed from ten to three o’clock. ‘No. Not again.’ As he made a move towards his dad, he felt the ground shake and stopped. He noticed everyone was still smiling. Hadn’t they felt the tremor?
He heard a loud bang, as if something had exploded, and the whole house shook. Charlie looked at the clock again and saw the hands spin from three to six o’clock before it tumbled to the floor and smashed. Rushing to the front door, he opened it, and a strong wind seized him, as if to drag him outside. He grabbed onto the doorframe, staring in horror at the houses ripping apart. He slammed the door shut and braced himself against it.
The party guests had vanished.
‘It’s here!’ Charlie ran over and embraced his dad. ‘I won’t let it take you.’ Pressing his face against the fabric of his clothes, he inhaled the wintergreen scent. At that moment, everything seemed to stop. And then the house trembled.
‘We have to go.’ Charlie tried to move, but his legs wouldn’t budge; it was as if his feet had moulded into the floor. He locked eyes with his dad. ‘Don’t leave me.’
‘I’ll never leave you,’ his dad said, as he caressed Charlie’s cheek, wiping away his tears. ‘It’s okay to be afraid. Just don’t give up. Don’t you dare give up. Promise me that.’
Charlie didn’t respond straight away. He didn’t want to say the words because of what it meant: make a promise, keep a promise. The first words his dad had taught him as soon as he could talk. He thought for a second and then shook his head. He could never lie to his dad; he was all he had. Staring into his dad’s tear-filled eyes, he said, ‘I promise.’
He heard a sound like a crushing can and looked up. Huge cracks appeared and widened across the hallway wall, tearing through the floral charcoal wallpaper. He dug his fingers into his dad, grabbing hold of his clothes. Within seconds, the roof and the front walls of the house ripped off. Dust and debris permeated the air as a huge tornado funnel hovered outside the house.
‘Dad,’ Charlie cried.
‘It’s all right, son,’ his dad said. ‘Everything is going to be okay.’
His dad started to drift away.
‘Dad!’ Charlie grabbed his hands, holding onto him so tight his fingers started to go numb.
‘I love you, Hoot!’ his dad yelled. The wind gusts picked up, and he started to slip out of Charlie’s grip. ‘You’re not alone. Don’t give up.’
‘Dad, don’t let go.’ The tighter Charlie held on, the sweatier his hands grew, the looser his grip became. Then his dad slipped away.
‘Dad!’ Charlie watched as he vanished into the vortex of the tornado –
A loud racket shocked Charlie out of his dream, and he jerked upright. He threw the quilt off himself and swung his legs out of bed. Wrapping his arms around his trembling body, he felt his pyjamas damp with sweat. He took his pyjama top off and began wiping his face in it when a cold breeze brushed against his bare torso. It wasn’t until he heard a flapping sound that he looked at the window and saw the curtains fluttering like wings.
A chill that had nothing to do with the cold ran down his spine. He was almost certain he hadn’t opened the window. He got up and was about to close the window when a movement outside caught his eye.
It had always amazed him how well his eyes could adjust to the dark. It was his night vision that had earned him the nickname “Hoot”. ‘My own private owl,’ his dad used to say.
Inching forward, he peered out into the dark, and his heart stopped.
A tall figure was standing on top of the garden shed.
Charlie stumbled backwards, falling onto the floor. Staggering to his feet, he rushed out of the room and dashed across the landing to Jacob’s bedroom. When he opened the door and turned the light on, he froze.
The bed was empty.
‘Earth to Charlie,’ said Alex. Charlie looked at her, her eyebrows raised in anticipation.
‘Sorry, what?’ he asked.
Alex rolled her eyes. ‘You really know how to make a girl feel wanted, don’t you?’
They were standing by the lockers in the hall. It had been a week since Charlie had seen the figure on the garden shed. He hadn’t said a word to Jacob about it, nor had he confronted him about where he had run off to in the middle of the night. He had accepted that Jacob’s job meant he was on call twenty-four hours a day, but what concerned him was that Jacob still hadn’t mentioned anything about that night.
Charlie’s gaze shifted to Carla Shu and Rebecca James, the two girls he had sat behind on the school bus on his first day, who were walking towards him. Carla waved, and he smiled, nodding his head in greeting. The girls stopped a few lockers away from where he and Alex were standing.
‘All I’m saying is that he’s just a little too creepy for my liking,’ Alex said, as she rifled through her locker. ‘Maybe Killjoy’s hiding something.’
‘Who’s Killjoy?’ he asked.
Alex’s nostrils flared, and she breathed a heavy sigh. ‘Seriously, have you been ignoring me all day? I’m talking about Jacob.’
Charlie eyed her with curiosity. ‘Why do you call him Killjoy?’
Alex hesitated a second and then said, ‘You’ll laugh.’
‘Tell me. I promise I won’t laugh.’
She glanced around the hall and then looked back at him. ‘Okay, but you promised.’
Charlie held his hands up, crossing his middle and index fingers.
‘Two years ago, on Halloween,’ Alex went on, ‘some friends and I knocked on his door, and he chased us away with a frying pan.’
‘He chased you with a frying pan.’ Charlie pressed his lips together to keep from laughing.
Alex slapped him across the arm. ‘It’s the truth. See, if I had a mobile phone, I could have had proof. But I can’t have a phone.’
‘My mum’s a technophobe – a total anti-technology freak. I’m not talking about being eco-friendly, either. I wish that were the case. She hates technology because she thinks it’s the devil’s means of controlling us. You ever read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell?’
Charlie shook his head.
‘It’s like her bible,’ Alex said. ‘If it weren’t for my dad, I swear I’d be living in a jungle. I’d be Mrs. Mowgli.’
Charlie started to laugh but stopped when he realised she was serious.
Carla and Rebecca approached them. ‘Hi, Charlie,’ Carla greeted him.
Charlie stood up straight. ‘Hey.’ He avoided Rebecca’s gaze. Carla he didn’t mind, but Rebecca always had this look in her eyes, as if she was angry with him, and he didn’t know why. ‘What’s up?’
Rebecca nudged Carla, who handed him a blue envelope with his name glittered on the front.
Charlie opened the envelope and saw an invitation card to Carla’s fifteenth birthday party.
‘I hope you can make it,’ Carla said, her cheeks flushed. She narrowed her eyes at Alex then turned and walked off.
‘Well, that now leaves me and – nope, just me who’s not invited,’ Alex muttered.
Charlie saw the hurt look on her face. ‘I bet if you apologised for hitting her she’d invite you.’
‘I told you, the locker broke. It wasn’t my fault the door rebounded. Besides, I already apologised.’
‘Did you mean it?’
‘Does it matter?’ Alex slammed her locker door shut, and then she and Charlie headed off. ‘The only reason she didn’t invite me is because she thinks we’re –’ She broke off and glanced sideways at him. ‘I don’t care. I don’t want to go to her stupid party, anyway.’
When they entered the science lab, the room was buzzing with conversation. They walked past Mr. Puttman, who was staring at a blank TV screen, slapping the remote control against his palm, his glasses sitting askew on his long, crooked nose. He tapped the screen and scratched his balding head, grunting in frustration.
As Charlie headed down the aisle behind Alex, he spotted Josh, who looked at him with contempt.
Alex nudged Charlie in the ribs and whispered, ‘He loves you really.’
‘Shut up,’ he hissed, as they sat at a black top, wood framed table two rows behind Josh. Sensing someone’s gaze on him, Charlie glanced at the table across the aisle and locked eyes with Carla, who swiftly looked away and dropped her head, her shoulder-length brown hair falling to conceal her face. His eyes met Rebecca’s for a brief moment, long enough to leave him feeling uncomfortable by her frustrated expression.
‘So, what are you going to do about Killjoy?’ Alex asked.
Charlie looked at her. ‘Nothing. So he hates Halloween. Big deal.’
‘Bet that was what Patricia thought.’
Charlie paused. Patricia was Jacob’s late wife. ‘Did you know her – Patricia, I mean?’
‘Not really. I saw her in town a few times. She seemed nice enough.’
‘Jacob said she died three years ago, but do you know what she died of?’
Alex looked surprised. ‘You’re kidding, right?’
‘He doesn’t like to talk about her.’
A strange look came into Alex’s eyes, and she looked away.
‘What?’ Charlie asked. ‘Alex, what is it?’
She looked back at him. ‘She broke her neck, Charlie.’
He stared at her in shock.
‘She fell down the stairs,’ Alex said. ‘He was there when it happened. They said it was an accident, but …’ Her eyes were intense. ‘Just … be careful.’
‘Why? Wait, you don’t think he –’
‘I didn’t say he did it,’ Alex cut in.
‘You didn’t have to. It’s obvious what you were thinking.’
‘Oh, yeah, because you’re psychic, right? Look, just forget I said anything. I’m just babbling. You know me.’ She half smiled and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.
Charlie looked away. He tried not to show it, but Alex’s revelation had unnerved him.
Ms. Trent, Charlie’s social worker, arrived at Spring Drive at two in the afternoon. She was a stick-thin woman who always wore the strangest selection of hats. Today she wore a peacock feather hat, which Charlie considered an improvement to the plastic fruits she had on the last time they had met.
Ms. Trent had spent the last hour in Jacob’s company, and it didn’t seem as though she was in any hurry to see Charlie. He lay on his bed, listening to the raucous laughter emanating from the living room. It was the first time he had heard her laugh; the woman hardly ever smiled.
When Jacob finally called him down, Charlie found his social worker sitting in the armchair by the original stone wall, the fireplace crackling beside her. She had her shoes off, holding a miniature mirror up to her face. When she noticed him, she blushed and lowered the mirror.
‘Charlie, how lovely to see you,’ she said.
‘Yeah, you, too,’ he said, sitting in the sofa opposite her. The living room was his least favourite area in the house. It was like entering a time machine that transported him from the present to some distant past only his grandparents could have recalled. Amid the antique furnishers, the Skybox was the only object that belonged to the twenty-first century. The moss green walls held only one object: a black-and-white photo of Jacob’s mother, who had an uncanny likeness to Marilyn Monroe. All Charlie knew about her was that she died of cancer when Jacob was thirteen. Jacob had also told him that he had never met his father. It was no wonder he didn’t like to talk about family.
Apart from Ms. Trent, there had been no visitors to the house in the four weeks Charlie had been living there. With the nearest house over three hundred yards away, however, it wasn’t surprising. The more time Charlie spent with Jacob, the more he realised why the adoption agency had paired them together. They were the same: two lonely souls in a big world.
Jacob entered the room carrying a tray with three mugs. Charlie noticed the glow on Ms. Trent’s face as she watched him set the tray down on the table between them.
‘Here you go, Celia,’ said Jacob, handing Ms. Trent a mug.
‘Thank you.’ She took the mug and had a sip. ‘Why, this is the loveliest tea I’ve tasted in years.’
Jacob blushed and planted himself beside Charlie, who covered his smirk with a cough.
When Ms. Trent managed to pull her gaze away from Jacob, she looked at Charlie and said, ‘I hear you’re getting on great.’ It wasn’t a question, so he just nodded. ‘Marvellous. Jacob, would you mind if I had a moment alone with Charlie?’
‘Of course not. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.’ Jacob got up and left the room.
‘You know, you’re a lucky child to have found such a good home,’ Ms. Trent said. ‘You won’t believe how many kids would love to trade places with you.’ She took another sip of her tea. ‘Jacob tells me you’re getting on well at school. I bet you’ve made many friends.’
Charlie took a sip of his tea. Why spoil her excitement? he thought. He sat back in the sofa. When it came to Ms. Trent, there wasn’t much to say. It was a one-woman show. She seldom asked questions; she often made assumptions. Still, he didn’t intend to protest, for she was right. He did feel lucky.
‘I’m glad you and Jacob are getting on well,’ Ms. Trent went on. ‘It seems like fate that you found each other. I know you’ve been waiting a long time to find a home, so I’m glad everything’s working out for you.’ With a fleeting glance at the door, she lowered her voice. ‘You are happy, aren’t you?’
Charlie nodded. ‘I like it here.’
She gave him a tentative smile. ‘Good. If there are any problems … If you’ve had any confrontations at school, it’s best I know now rather than when it’s too late.’
Charlie’s pulse quickened. ‘No, no problems.’
‘Good.’ She breathed a sigh of relief. ‘I don’t want anything messing this up.’
‘By anything, you mean me.’ Charlie lowered his head.
‘That’s not what I meant. We’ve come far, and yes, it has been a rough four years, but things are starting to look up. Look at me.’
Charlie raised his head. Her expression was sympathetic, which made him feel worse. The two previous adoptions had failed because of him – because of his strangeness and his inability to stay out of trouble. He knew it and Ms. Trent knew it.
‘Anyone would be lucky to have you,’ Ms. Trent said. ‘You remember that.’ She smiled. ‘Now, is there anything you would like to ask me?’
‘What happens now? Do I get to stay here?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘There’s still a way to go before Jacob can file for adoption, so we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves just yet. You two seem to have hit it off. I’m not making any promises, but, between you and me, things are looking good.’
Charlie smiled. ‘I don’t have to move?’
‘No, but let’s just take things one step at a time, okay. Today is a good day.’ Ms. Trent started putting her shoes on. ‘If there’s anything you need or just want to talk, you know how to reach me. I’ll be back to visit you in three months. Until then, I hope all continues to go well. Can you tell that wonderful guardian of yours I’m leaving?’
Charlie was about to get up when Jacob entered the room. He was either psychic or an eavesdropper. Either way, he always had great timing.
‘Leaving so soon?’ Jacob asked.
‘I wish I had more time, but I’m afraid I must go,’ Ms. Trent said with an expression of utter disappointment. ‘It was good seeing you again, Charlie. Look after yourself. I’ll see you soon.’ She shook hands with him across the table and then followed Jacob out of the room.
After Ms. Trent left, Jacob called to Charlie, who got up and went into the hallway. ‘I’m just going to pop out,’ said Jacob, grabbing his coat off the hook. ‘I won’t be long.’
As soon as Jacob left, Charlie ran up to his room and pulled his suitcase out from under his bed. After he emptied it, he carried it downstairs, opened the door to the hallway cupboard, and flicked the light switch on. Entering the small storage area, he moved around a stack of boxes on his left and found a tight space in the corner. As he wedged his suitcase in, a few boxes fell on top of him, and he stumbled back, his foot hitting the wall behind him.
Hearing a soft clicking sound as he straightened up, he looked behind him and saw a small, square gap where the wall had sunk in.
It was a door.
He crouched down, braced his hands against the wall, and slid the door open. Inside, he saw a cardboard box with iridescent lights pulsating out of it. He pulled it out and drew a sharp breath, staring in shock at a cluster of sparkling jewels.
One jewel in particular caught his attention: a green diamond with a triangular symbol engraved in it. It shone brighter than the others did, and he felt something warm flow through his veins as he gazed at it.
A loud hissing noise erupted inside the cupboard, and Charlie dropped the box, which landed upright on the floor, the jewels still secured inside it. The green diamond shimmered in and out, and he heard strange yet familiar whisperings coming from it, like the kind he had heard a few weeks ago.
Then the voices stopped. As he reached for the diamond, the sound of a door slamming made him jump. Panicked, he picked the box up, shoved it back inside the wall, and closed the secret door. He started to replace the boxes he had knocked over when he heard the front door open.
‘I forgot something!’ he heard Jacob shout.
Charlie stepped out of the cupboard and saw him standing in the doorway, his expression alarmed. Charlie gulped and closed the cupboard door.
‘Everything all right?’ Jacob asked, as he closed the front door.
‘Yeah. I was just putting my suitcase away.’
‘I hope it wasn’t any trouble.’ Jacob’s eyes stayed on Charlie the whole time.
‘I knocked over a few boxes, but no damage done.’
‘Good. I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.’
Charlie felt his blood rushing through his veins as Jacob’s intense gaze bored into him. ‘I should go do some work.’
‘It’s half term,’ Jacob reminded him.
‘Yeah, but I’m a little behind.’
Jacob smiled. ‘That enthusiasm is going to take you far, kid. Is there anything you want while I’m out.’
‘No, I’m okay.’ Charlie had a feeling Jacob was still watching him, so he acted casual as he headed upstairs. Once in his room, he sat on the bed, shaking. He hadn’t realised he’d been holding his breath until he needed air. He didn’t know what shocked him more: the secret stash of jewels or the whisperings from the diamond. It was only moments ago that he thought of Capeton as home. Now, as he looked around his room, that feeling was starting to change.
| ASIN: 0957001908 || |
Talisman Of El
Product Type: Book
Amazon's Price: $ 16.99