When I couldn’t sleep, I climbed.
Tonight, the July air was so warm that I could do it in just my pyjamas and a pair of lightweight trainers. The harvest moon was so brilliantly bright that I barely needed the head-torch, but even I didn’t dare climb by moonlight alone. Although I thought about it, just for a few seconds.
The spiralling branches of the oriental planes were my glorified climbing frame – my grown up version of the bars at school I once played space explorers with Ebony and Todd. Now it was about getting as close to space as I could, one year from being old enough to apply for the craft pilot school I would never have a hope of getting into.
Getting into the tree was always the toughest part. I jumped for the one branch I could just about reach, grabbed hold and swung my weight back and forth until I had enough momentum to help me pull myself up. From here on, I was a human squirrel. My lithe, acrobatic frame didn’t suggest much strength to anyone who looked at me, but years of climbing all over my family’s farm had made my muscles strong enough to haul my weight up these trees that were twice as tall as the farmhouse. Sometimes I fancied that I might be able to climb them in pitch darkness.
Nobody at college or the climbing club believed I could really do this. It didn’t matter. Ebony believed me. She was the one who first dared me to do it.
‘Every time we go to the climbing wall, you have to go and be a boy,’ she said, after one of my sessions where my showing off got too much even for her.
‘So do you,’ I told her.
‘You think you’re so brilliant,’ she said when we got home, ‘Then climb one of the plane trees without ropes.’
‘You first,’ I said, and we did it together. When my parents had to rescue both of us from two thirds up with a ladder, we had to promise never to do it again. Ebony grinned all the way through my father barely holding his temper.
That night, she decided she wanted to be more than friends with me. Two weeks later, we broke our promise and reached the top, then got all the way down again. Nowadays, whenever she snuck from the guestroom into mine and then found me unable to sleep even after we’d enjoyed each other, she always said ‘Shadow, go climb.’
I reached the halfway point before I looked down and the adrenaline punched my heart into action. My lungs, already heaving great breaths of night air in, emptied out completely, tightening the muscles around them. My legs shook and became little better than hollow sticks. I leaned against the great trunk to steady myself and looked upwards. The moonlight broke through the canopy, pinpricking white dots everywhere.
Something made a brushing sound below me. I looked down again, my heart slowing and the strength in my legs ebbing back in.
The black labs were plodding slowly through the longer grass, their wet eyes reflecting in the moonlight. Those eyes always seemed to beg me not to go any higher, to remind me that if I fell I would almost certainly die, and that was why they always followed me out here when I did this at night. If I fell they couldn’t exactly do much, but they could at least bark their throats out and give me a hope that someone might wake up and come running. The dogs being out here added to the buzz. One fox call, one sight of a badger running across the paddock, and the barking pursuit would wake my parents.
What would they be more mad at? Me climbing or the guestroom door wide open, and the bed empty because Ebony was occupying mine?
I wasn’t going to find out tonight. Asa and Indigo were perfectly silent. Tonight belonged to me. I scrambled to the next branch. From here on up, the thinner branches were so close together that I could scuttle from one to the next like a spider on its web.
A scraping noise came through the night. I froze. A perfect freeze, the same one that always won me games of Grandma’s Footsteps at cub-scouts. Barely a rustle came from the surrounding leaves. The scraping came again. Metal. On rock. Or gravel.
Who the hell was digging out here at night?
Who the hell was out here at all?
One of the dogs made a snuffling sound, then gave a muffled bark.
‘Shut up!’ I whispered, looking down at Asa and Indigo who now had their ears pricked up and bodies taught with alertness.
‘Indigo!’ I said. His name was enough to make him look up at me. ‘Shhh!’
I brushed a branch out of my line of sight and looked back at the farmhouse, holding a deep breath in and praying that I wouldn’t see a light on.
All the windows were black.
The scrape came again. The dogs both started a second time; a prelude to what was sure to be a full-on barking frenzy. I called their names again, louder this time. Holding my breath, I willed the silence to hold and tried to pinpoint where the scraping was coming from.
The tracks by the tree line, about half a mile in the distance. But it couldn’t be. Why would anyone be digging out there? I scrambled to the far side of the tree and brushed some branches back, expecting to see lights and silhouettes with spades in their hands, but there was just darkness.
Nobody was there, I told myself. It was probably noise carrying from further away. It stopped.
An owl hooted somewhere. The stream that ran through the paddock below me trickled. Then something clanged.
The gate. Three fields down. The one that wouldn’t clip in properly and was done up with bailer twice that the cows sometimes chewed through. That was all it was. I should have known as soon as I heard it.
I poked my head through the canopy leaves. The brightness of the milky way was spread wide across the whole sky. It was enough to make me glad of insomnia, the whole sky a delightful light storm through my eyes, as if the universe were inside a bowl and I’d just dunked my whole head in it. I shook my mop-head of treacle coloured hair and imagined it was all the dark matter of space, with planets and moons stuck to the wispy ends that tickled around the bottom of my neck and covered my ears. My arms ached and my limbs felt heavy enough to have filled up with water, but it was worth it for this.
If I couldn’t reach the stars then I owed it to myself to get as close to them as I could.
On a cloudless night like this I could almost always spot The Colony. Its light pattern was always slightly larger than any star cluster, and brighter. As bright as Venus or Jupiter, but slightly larger. On most nights it was an easy beacon for anyone trying to map the sky. In a sky like this one, it was like trying to play ‘Where’s Waldo?’ with stars.
I couldn’t find it tonight, and it was probably just as well. I ought to stop looking at it and dreaming that I could ever reach it. The top of this tree was as high as I’d ever reach.
Time to climb back down and get back to Ebony. She’d be asleep by now, and I’d soon follow. I’d get back into bed, wrap my arms around her and hug her against me, because she always said how she liked my breath on the back of her neck and the rise and fall of my chest against her back. I’d put my nose in her black hair and sniff a deep scent of forest moss and earth, and the strawberry shower gel she always tried to wash it away with. That would send me off.
The light stopped me. The tree line by the track two fields away lit up, the shadows rolling over the ash foliage. Tyres on gravel followed.
I dropped three branches down back into the foliage and shifted a few steps sideways, finding a gap in the leaves to look through. It was a four-track, but not the kind that ever belonged on a farm. The chunks of added body kit brought it almost low enough to scrape on the track.
My eyes readjusted and made out the shape of a second car, already at the far end of the track, concealed perfectly until the approaching headlights slowly illuminated the whole of it. A long saloon car, a BMW shape. Black as the darkness that had hidden it. The driver of the four-track pulled to a stop and switched to dipped headlights. Two people got out. The two in the BMW joined them.
The passenger from the BMW took a quick glance behind him. I pushed a branch away slightly, to see further down the track. Something at the side of it looked the wrong shape. There shouldn’t have been a mound between the two ash trees, yet there it was.
An earth mound. Earth dug from a hole.
My stomach churned. My grip on the branches went weak. I slowly brought the branch back to re-obscure myself. These people couldn’t have dug that hole, I told myself. Not with just a few scrapes. That couldn’t create a mound like that.
But nothing else besides a hole would have.
My heart was already in overdrive, its rhythm throbbing inside my head. I had to move, except I couldn’t.
Not what you think, I told myself. Not what you think. Just…they’re burying something. Someone. Nothing about to happen here, because it’s already happened.
Slowly, I brushed the branch back.
One of the dogs gave a low growl.
‘Asa!’ I whispered, hoping I got the right one.
The four people by the tree line all looked up, then around them.
Everyone walked around to the back of the BMW. The two from the other car were looking down at something in the boot. The BMW’s driver stood behind them, moving his arm behind his back, pulling something out.
The limp he walked with sent a bolt of warning through me. A thought that even people who couldn’t run properly sometimes weren’t to be messed with, because they got that limp as a souvenir of a fight where they’d done worse to their opponent. Not the kind of fight they got into trouble for though. A legal fight. Cage fight. The kind people sometimes practiced for with any street fight they got the excuse for. Just like Brian Carson’s older brother, Matt.
When he turned his face to the light, I knew it was him. Even without being close enough to see the brown of them that always made the iris indistinguishable from his pupils, the gimlet shape of his eyes told me they were his. The bent line of his jaw, from where he’d once cracked it, cast an ugly, jagged shadow on the back of the man he was standing behind.
The blade Matt Carson swiped out from behind him flashed in the headlights. I shut my eyes as it dazzled them, but opened them to see the result of Matt’s lightening movement.
My hand shot to my mouth as blood sprayed from the throat of the man who had been looking in the boot, showering against the open lid. As his partner wheeled around, Matt thrust the knife under the bottom of his ribcage and shoved upwards. Pulling it out, he was behind the falling victim in less than a second, clasping a hand over his mouth. A little too late to stifle the dying roar completely.
The dogs began barking, loud and frenzied.
I lost my footing as I panicked with them, and scrambled. My arms flailed, trying to re-grab the branches. The next time I had a clear thought, I was dangling with nowhere beneath me to swing to.
An engine roared. Someone shouted. The driver’s accomplice pointed at the tree. Then the light flooded in – a main beam, illuminating the whole of the tree in brilliant white.
Terrified, I swung and grabbed the branch in front of me, then the next one, then another, desperate to get out of the light and find a branch my feet could reach before my shoulders could ache too much, or the sweat on my palms could make my hands slip right off. I found it and landed, not sighing with relief but gasping ragged breaths.
I could barely see a thing, my night vision now gone. Now I really was climbing blind, but in light.
Backwards. I had to go backwards. Just like I always…
A bang split the night, then an echoing crack, then another, then another. Thudding sounds and the splintering of wood came all around me. Air rushed past my face so fast that I came off balance and almost fell face first downwards. The branch I stood on creaked and bent, the pull around my shoulders threatening to pull the joints right out of the sockets. Something splintered and went ratting down through the branches.
Scrambling backwards before I realised I’d turned myself around, no longer able to think, just to trust to the instinct of over a hundred climbs.
All the races up and down this tree with Ebony, and now I was racing for my life.
My chest hurt so much from the storm going on inside it that I swore it would just explode before I could reach the bottom. I couldn’t get enough air in to scream for help, let alone groan with the effort all my muscles put into to keeping my balance as I grappled and slipped.
The people in those cars were going to dig a new hole for me.
Another bang, crack, and something slashed across me.
I fell, the spindled branches whipping into my face, then my ribs, then my back as I somersaulted over.
Complete weightlessness as I plunged downwards. The ground and the night sky blurred into one through the eye that could still see.
The sound as I slammed into the ground didn’t come through my ears, it came though my bones. I tried to raise my head, desperate to breathe as though someone had wrapped my head in cling film, my eyes blurred and stinging with what could only be blood. The thud echoed through me over and over until it seemed I was falling asleep, and my thoughts were so scattered I had to be dreaming.
Sleep wasn’t coming to me, but as I saw the widening circle of red soaking through my shirt, I knew unconsciousness was.
* * *
Mum and Dad were going to find Ebony in my bed.
There was no urgency in the first thought as I came around, just a dull pleasantness and resignation to the inevitable.
The dogs barked and barked. One of them whimpered, close to me. I heard the panting in my ear first, then felt the wet nose against my face and slowly rolled over onto my back. Alive, but in heavy, aching pain as thoughts of Ebony returned to me and I smiled, then laughed, and my chest stung with what had to be broken ribs. I raised my arms and waved them above me, then tensed my legs. The base of my spine roared at me. It didn’t matter, it all registered with masses of delay, and I laughed.
Indigo licked my face and I reached an arm up to wrap around his neck. I tried to use him to pull myself up but he backed out of my grip and then came back to me and barked twice. As I finally got to my feet, something stretched and pulled on my chest. Someone might as well have been grabbing a handful of my skin and gouging it with long fingernails. I clutched at the pain and my hand filled with blood-soaked cloth.
Lights came on at the house. The door banged. Ebony came running.
‘Shadow? What the hell have you done?’
I staggered for the back door; straining under the heaviness of what was probably a cracked hip that wouldn’t walk for me like it should. The pain didn’t matter. A smile creased across my face even though I was sucking every breath in through my teeth.
‘Shadow just stop!’ She grabbed my shoulders. ‘Just sit down right here and I’ll go call an ambulance, you understand me?’ She took hold of my claw-tight hand and took it away from my shirt. ‘Oh Jesus Christ.’ She put a shaking hand to my mouth. ‘Are you breathing up blood?’
‘I’m alright. They missed me.’
‘Who missed you?’
‘Get the police. Not an ambulance.’
‘Shadow, what just happened here?’
‘I climbed,’ I said. ‘I saw them, then I saw them kill someone and I fell.’
‘Who killed someone?’
Now she looked as stricken as I probably did. ‘Matt Carson’s out there? In the back lanes?’
‘Now are you going to call the police?’ I said.
An engine roared somewhere behind the trees, in the distance. Rays of light shone between the trees, rolling their shadows across the grass. A figure stepped out from between the trees, gun in hand and pointed right at me.
‘GET DOWN!’ Someone shouted.
I wouldn’t have done it if Ebony hadn’t thrown me to the floor, slamming against my hip and stomach and emptying all the air out of me. A shot burst through the night. Blood burst from out the back of the figure by the trees, spattering onto the trunks. Thrown backwards by the impact, he landed between them.
My father ran down into the paddock, the barrel of a rifle pouring a smoke trail out behind him. ‘What the fuck’s going on out here?’
The dogs started up barking again.
Or maybe they’d never stopped. Everything echoed through me, the paddock almost melting away one moment then coming back into shape the next. I rolled over, heaving deep breaths in, fighting the pain to get every one of them in. He’d got me. The man by the trees had got me. He had to have….
Ebony was all over me, her hands up my shirt, not the way I always liked in bed but cold, hard and fast, feeling every inch of me. Any minute now she was going to poke her fingers right in the exit wound which was sure to have ripped half my back out.
‘It’s alright,’ Ebony said, wiping blood away and putting pressure on the wound. ‘You’re alright. He didn’t get you. Who the fuck is he?’
I had no idea, and I couldn’t have told her anyway.
Had my father killed him? I tried to sit up, but Ebony’s weight was too much. Ebony, who could match me strength for strength when doing push ups or climbing, was going to crush me instead of saving me.
‘….can’t breathe,’ I managed, barely whispering.
Ebony released me and I scrambled to me feet, against all her protests, gripping at the flesh wound.
My father stood over the man he had shot to save my life, pointing the gun down at him the way he did when about to finish a deer off if he hadn’t got the kill with the first shot. He almost always did. Except the man was wriggling around on the ground, trying to raise his hands. My father stood motionless, the gun still pointed at the man’s head.
‘Who are you? Answer me you son of a bitch!’
When the man went motionless, my father relaxed, then bent down and picked up the gun that was lying just out of reach of the man who should have killed me. He looked back at me. ‘You okay?’
I couldn’t speak. My father pointing a gun at a human being had robbed me of the ability to do anything at all apart from stand there and gasp.
‘He fell out the tree,’ Ebony said, taking my weight and guiding me back to sitting on the ground again. ‘He needs an ambulance, right now!’
My father’s eyes darting between the man on the floor and me. ‘You fell out a tree? I just shot someone because you fell out a tree?’
‘Matt Carson…. I saw him. From up there.’ I pointed.
‘Who?’ He stepped away from the man on the floor, who I knew couldn’t be Matt. No baseball cap. Too short, too fat. Too dead. Matt Carson had let his partner do the…
‘You went climbing up that plane tree?’ My father shouted. ‘In the middle of the fucking night? ’
Laughter rose up, my aching bones unable to suppress it. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’
The dogs’ barking was grating on my brain now like an ignored car alarm. ‘Oh Christ will you two shut up? Shut UP!’ The effort of shouting brought lightness rushing to my head and I fell back into the grass.
‘Alright,’ my father said, at my side almost instantly, and uncovering the wound on my chest. I writhed as he touched it, his other hand on my shoulder to steady me. He put his whole hand over it and the stinging intensified. I scrunched my eyes shut.
‘Alright, it’s just a flesh wound,’ he said.
‘How do you know?’
‘The same way you do, you’re not dead.’ He took off his coat and pressed the sleeve of it against my chest. ‘Here, help me keep the pressure on this, put your arm over it. Across yourself, like this.’ He took my arm and placed it for me. ‘Where else hurts? Did you break anything?’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, then before he could check my legs, I shifted up so I was sitting with them crossed over. Just like I used to on the floor at cub scouts, I thought.
Today boys, we’re going to start on the See a Murder from a Treetop badge.
All I started was laughter, then I found it wasn’t laughter but panting, as my lungs became heavier and I suddenly felt cold. Cold like this was winter instead of summer.
‘Stay with me,’ my father said, my arm now around my back. ‘Tell me what you just saw. Who’s Matt Carson? What was he doing out there in our lanes?’
‘You really don’t wanna know.’
‘Oh I really think I do. Try right now. Try why the fuck did I just have to shoot someone?’
‘Is he dead?’
My father looked back, rifle still at the ready in his right hand. ‘Forget about him. Talk to me.’
Somehow, I got myself calm enough to manage a stammered account of as much as I could remember. My father stopped me when I started rambling about why I always climbed the trees and meandered into the story of Ebony’s ‘Go Climb’ phrase. Once I got back on track I managed all of it, but it came out a garbled mess.
I didn’t remember being sick down myself. I only realised I had once I’d reached the end of the story and my father was wiping my mouth. I tried to get up as I coughed at the burning in my throat and my stomach clenched, but my father held me down.
‘When the hospital let you out,’ my father said, his great hands clenching tight on my shoulders, ‘you’re going to watch while I cut those trees down. Every fucking one of them.’
I wasn’t going to make it to the hospital, let alone to watching him do that. I managed to tell him, but not with words. When blood came from my mouth instead, that was good enough.
* * *
I came around long enough for a medic to tell me I wasn’t going to die. A conversation with a police sergeant sometime during the ambulance ride played out as though I were falling asleep to an audiobook.
Yes it was Matt Carson I saw. Yes I was sure. Yes my name was Shadow, and I understood what was going on around me, and any minute now I was going to wake up and spend a good ten minutes with my head under a cold tap, asking myself where such a cuckoo dream had come from.
Coldness kept touching my chest and sharp scratching pricked my arms. Convulsions shook me, then the time I’d tried to imagine what it must feel like to be executed in the electric chair kept turning over in my head, recycling itself every time I twitched on the bed and the ambulance rattled beneath me. Ebony kept saying ‘You’re going to be alright.’ I was about as alright as someone strapped into that execution chair, and she sounded like she knew it.
This was an overdrive version of the time I ate a little too much weed. Perhaps I’d just done that and any minute the paranoia was going to kick in, and this time believing I wasn’t going to come out of the high was going to be twice as bad.
The sergeant told me his name was Collingwood, except that had happened back in the yard, and now a medic was telling him to get the fuck out of her patient’s face and stop asking questions or she was going to personally shove him out the back door. He told her to go ahead, because if Matt Carson was out there and this kid was a witness then right now, the only thing on Matt’s mind would be making sure this ride never got to Sussex County General.
‘My dad,’ I said as a moment of precious clarity came to me, and it was enough to make me pull off my oxygen mask. ‘Did he kill that guy?’
‘They took him off alive,’ Collingwood said, and I saw his face and placed him at about my dad’s age. ‘It’s okay. Self defence. Your dad saved your life. You know who that guy was?’
I shook my head, as the medic put my mask back on.
‘Emil Tamaran,’ Collingwood said. ‘About time somebody took that fucker out. I’d give your dad a medal.’
I dropped out for a while, and dropped back in again to the only voice in the hospital that could put a smile back on my face, and with it the only presence that could have brought me lucidity without either sleep or medication.
‘Hey kid. Flesh wound to the chest and a collapsed lung to make up for the bullet missing you? That’s even better than your last effort; you get two stamps on your near death experience card for that one. Next one’s on the house. Tuck him up in ICU 2, there’s some space between the two bike crash guys.’
I opened my eyes and pulled my mask off again. ‘Hey Kit,’ I said. ‘Want me to stamp your total arsehole card in return?’
‘Shut up,’ he said, putting the mask back on me. ‘You’re wasting precious oxygen. Seeing as you’ve only just got your left lung back, maybe not such a good idea.’
Kit Calloway smelt of mints, coffee and cigarettes, just like he last time he’d examined me on a stretcher rushing down a corridor. ‘Why did you have to bring the police in here with you this time? They always get in my way. And your dad just made a whole load of work for me too; he’s a good shot. What have you done, Sheepdog?’
I hated that nickname.
‘He needs his own room,’ Collingwood said.
‘They’re all taken,’ Kit said. ‘He can have his own room when the guy his old man just shot snuffs it. Based on what my Talent’s telling me, that might not be too long. When you’re guarding that guy in the morgue instead, we’ll tuck Shadow up nice and snug in Two for you. Happy?’
‘When you’re done finding this funny Kit,’ Collingwood said, ‘perhaps you should try protecting your patient from the man who might be on his way here to kill him.’
‘When you’ve done my job long enough Sean,’ Kit said, ‘you realise there’s not much point in finding anything sad. You and your lot might as well go home. Nobody gets into my ICU unless I say so. Relax. Trust me. I’m a Calloway. You know what that means.’
So did I, and sure enough, Kit Calloway’s Talent voice hit me moments later.
So you’re climbing trees when you can’t sleep now? No trees here. Maybe this’ll help. Sleep tight. Matt Carson’s not getting into this closet.
I didn’t have time to count before the stream of cool from Kit Calloway’s mind put me out.
* * *
I’d been here before.
The last time I woke up in hospital, I was in intensive care with a spaghetti nest of wires and tubes surrounding me and the electric conversion of my heartbeat refusing to shut up with its bleeping. The tube down my airway had stopped me from protesting at any of it, and had been fixed in so well no amount of pulling would remove it. This time I’d gotten off with just one IV needle in my arm and a silence I was thankful for. Breathing on my own, able to talk even though there was nobody there to hear me. Aching a little, my limbs were still weak and desperate to stretch even when I stretched them, but I managed to sit up.
This wasn’t the same room I woke up in just over a year ago, but they’d given me my own space yet again. Good insurance – the kind my family couldn’t afford but bought for me anyway.
Last time it wasn’t my fault. This time I was probably going to wish it had been more serious and months had already passed to dull my father’s rage. Even though the wall clock gave no date, I knew I’d only had a night’s worth of sleep from the aches everywhere and the skin still raw where the thin branches had whipped me. A heaviness welled up inside my chest every time I took a breath, but at least I was watching it rise and fall on both sides when I raised my head a little. That was the collapsed lung fixed then, even if the stinging and itching under my ribcage reminded me I had stitches that would tear if I exerted myself.
I’d slept until a time far too late for a farmer’s boy to be waking up at. The daylight behind the curtains told me that much.
Ebony came in with two cans of Coke and something wrapped in paper already going transparent with grease. It smelt great.
‘Hey witness. Get this down you.’
I hated Coke, but I was so thirsty that the urge in my throat left me no choice. The caffeine would help too. She could have brought me coffee, but I wasn’t going to complain. Especially not after I bit the bacon roll. It tasted processed and stale, but right then it might as well have been fillet steak.
Ebony had probably been with me here all night when she’d rather have been back in my bed. Our bed. The one my parents would now know she slept in.
‘Why the hell didn’t I just go for a walk?’ I said. ‘Alright. On a scale of one to every tree on the farm coming down right now, how pissed are mum and dad?’
‘Mum and dad are fine,’ Ebony said. ‘They’re just glad you’re alive. That’s all that matters.’
She sounded like she believed it even less than I did.
‘That guy dad shot. Is he dead?’
‘He’s alive; they saved him. He’s going to wish they didn’t soon enough. He came round two hours ago; they already arrested him for attempted murder. And suspicion of actual murder.’
‘What about dad?’
‘He’ll be alright. They only interviewed him under caution. They got my statement too. When they get yours, he’ll get off.’
‘He actually shot someone,’ I said. ‘I mean….you remember when we were kids and he showed us a shotgun, that time? How he told me off for pointing it at the cat even though it wasn’t loaded? How he told me it wasn’t a toy?’
‘Yeah,’ Ebony said, and we both stayed silent for a moment.
‘How is he about it?’ I said.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘He saved both our lives though. Was it really Matt Carson out there? You’re sure?’
‘You don’t see something like that without being sure. How did you get in here before the police?’
‘Because The Fox let me. The police don’t get to talk to you until he says. He wants to talk to you first. Okay, I asked him a favour; he wants to talk about that. I bet he’s listening to this right now.’
It was a safe bet. Kit Calloway the human fox came in. It had been just over a year since he’d saved my life in this same hospital. He might as well have aged in reverse. Either that or he’d cut his ginger-brown hair slightly shorter. His nose and cheekbones were still pointed as though he could grab a chicken and snap its neck with one deft flick of his. A little more flesh to his face though. He’d raided those hutches and scoffed his fill a little more often in the last twelve months. I liked to think I’d already noticed that, from all the times we’d waved to each other on the street.
‘Well done Shadow. Witness to a murder and a night in hospital with dehydration.’
‘That’s all you passed out from. Physically you’re sound now we’ve fixed the collapsed lung.’ He took his stethoscope from around his neck and listened to me take deep breaths for a minute or two before checking my heart, then shining a light in my eyes and getting me to follow his finger. ‘Physically you’re sound. Just a little beaten up, but that wasn’t going to do for you. Witness to a murder? Most kids don’t pass out from that; it’s far too cool. When was the last time you drank anything? Oh okay, a few seconds ago.’ He looked at the can in my hand and then at Ebony. ‘Caffeine’s not such a good idea but no matter.’ He looked back at me. ‘You still want to be a spacecraft pilot?’
I smiled, and nodded.
‘Pretty tall order for a farm boy from Sussex,’ Kit said. ‘But I always thought the idea would stick with you. Still got your telescope?’
‘Sounds to me like that would be a better way of looking at the stars than climbing those trees. I still don’t know how you can even get halfway up them. Ebony said you’ve been struggling with the grades you want lately. Been there, I didn’t get into medschool without sleepless nights at your age either. Best advice I’ve got, get yourself some private tuition.’
‘Get real, I can’t afford that and neither can my family. Not unless they stop buying the insurance for every time I land up in here.’
‘It’s no problem,’ Kit said. ‘No money. My grandfather never took my money, and I won’t take yours.’
‘You?Well thanks I guess, but I barely know you.’
‘Why do you have to know me? It’s what I can teach you that matters. All your teachers at school, they’re not me. Not by a long way. Know what I mean? Last time we talked you were building a tree house. I’ll even come to your place and we can study in there, if you want. Good place to look at stars.’
‘That tree house wasn’t mine,’ I said. ‘I built it for a friend. He never uses it. I don’t know if I’ve got time for extra classes; I’m already tied up five nights a week.’
‘Just think about it,’ Kit said. ‘You know where you can reach me. And do yourself a favour. If you’re going to exercise as much as you do then drink more. Eat more while you’re at it too. You could put on at least a stone. I doubt Ebony wants to sleep next to an insomniac or a walking skeleton. You ready for the police yet or shall I tell them you’re still sick?’
‘Tell them I’m ready,’ I said. ‘Tell them I’ll give them a memory share, with Dream Morphine and everything if they want it. You can make that happen, right? You know how it works.’
‘They won’t need me,’ Kit said. ‘They’ve got this hotshot detective sergeant called Halstrom. She’s got Talent in buckets. They need Dream Morphine around here, she’ll be the one. Trust her, she’s an old friend of mine. I’ll send her in. It’s her boss you want to look out for. Don’t trust that son of a bitch.’
I stared at Ebony after Kit had closed the door. ‘How did he know we were…oh. Right.’ So she’d told him everything else while she’d poured out her concerns for me. Why would she never leave me alone about my weight? I wasn’t underweight. I might have been close to the borderline, but I was fine. ‘You asked Kit to give me tuition? For free?’
‘And you’re such an idiot that you didn’t say yes right there and then,’ Ebony said. ‘Forget all that crap you do during the week, how badly do you want those grades? Because I’d really like a decent night’s sleep next to you sooner or later. Give up running club or something. You take too much exercise as it is.’ Before I could protest: ‘Shadow, I really don’t want you to hurt yourself. You’ll never become a craft pilot if your health’s no good, and you know it.’
It could have been worse. She could have gone for ‘Do what Kit says or I’m ending us together.’
‘Okay fine, I’ll try,’ I said. ‘But you could have just talked to me without going to a doctor.’
‘I already did that two months ago, remember? You didn’t change a goddamn thing. Let’s not argue. I’ve got to go back to the farm; I said as soon as you woke up I’d call your dad and then I’d go do his work so he can come here. So don’t you start an argument with him either. He just wants to see you’re okay. He probably won’t even mention the tree climbing thing. Or the fucking me for the last two years thing. And if he does then don’t talk too much. Best behaviour. Promise?’
‘Good. Thank you. Your dad already promised me too.’
‘What did he say? About us?’
‘Come on Shadow, he already knew. He told me he’s known all along. Translation: your mum knew, and eventually she told him. You remember that first night together? We didn’t keep as quiet as we thought.’
‘Uuuuurgh.’ I picked up a pillow and buried my face in it. ‘Why am I conscious already? Knock me out again.’
Relax, your parents are probably delighted.
I sat rigid as I heard Kit’s Talent voice. I’d heard it before, but it still caught me so unaware that I probably really did look like a sheepdog to Ebony – one that had heard the distant approach of a rustler and his trailer.
You can still remember how to Talent-talk, can’t you?
Yes, I said, surprised he heard me after I caught a wispy thread of the field inside my head, the way he’d taught me to a year ago, shortly after he’d brought me out of my coma with Talent. Possible for me to talk when shown how, but not to do anything else. The Talent that opened these fields and started these conversations couldn’t be learned, only inherited. Only people like Kit inherited it.
Is privacy a concept you people ever learn? I said.
Never mind that, Kit said. I need to know something. How high up were you in that tree when you fell?
I don’t know, Kit. What do you want, a memory-share of it? I can’t right now. I just want to go home.
You’re not going home until the police get what they want from you. So when you do the memory share, get Halstrom to take it right up to when you fell, so you can see it again. Then I want to know how high up you were.
Just do it.
I tried to protest further, but the field was already gone, and Kit with it, lost somewhere in a maze of corridors where I couldn’t follow.
‘Were you just talking to Kit?’ Ebony said. ‘I mean talking like…you know, that.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Just trying to remember something. That’s all. I was thinking about where I fell from.’
And about the buried thoughts Kit had made surface, about how every time I climbed at night and looked at The Colony and the star constellations, I thought about wishes. Wishing upon a star. Still not too old for it. What I wished for was my wings, and a badge that said ‘Captain Shadow Hatcher,’ as if for once in my life the stupid name that my parents had given me just to see if they could get it past the Name Bureau actually sounded cool to me.
Sometimes, the one thing I secretly wished for even more than that was Talent.