Authors: Charlie Fletcher
Tags: #Children's Books, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy & Magic, #Children's eBooks, #Science Fiction; Fantasy & Scary Stories, #Sword & Sorcery
The British Museum sprawls across 22 acres of London, with nearly 100 separate galleries stretching two and a half miles around it. Only a tiny fraction of the 8 million or so objects it contains are ever on display at one time. It’s not just big: it’s vast, and stuffed with treasures.
The Ancient Egyptian gallery is one of the most popular. Though it is normally full of school-trips and tourists looking at the statues, mummies and animal headed gods, today it was closed. Outside, beyond the high doors the museum was as bustling as noisy as usual, a low rumble of chatter, foot-scuffs, snatches of laughter and teachers shushing. Inside it was calmer. A group of excited museum staff crouched round a black stone coffin that looked like a clumsy bathtub with a strip of picture writing around its rim. At some stage in its long past a piece of the stone had fractured away, leaving a ragged hole that broke the flow of pictures.
The chunk of stone that had been broken off had only just come to light. The staff were there to see if it was, as they suspected, the missing piece. The museum doesn’t just collect and display things. Sometimes it mends them. And on a normal day, that’s a very good thing.
Maybe that’s why the man in charge was smiling encouragingly at the girl who was hesitating as she held the chunk of stone up to the gap.
‘Go on,’ he said. ‘It’s not going to bite you.’
She gently fitted the piece into the gap. Completing the strip of picture writing. She didn’t have time to smile back at him.
It didn’t bite her. It did something much worse.
The heavy stone coffin jolted, and a blinding flash of blue light flowed around the strip of picture writing, and then everything – EVERYTHING – stopped dead.
She froze. He froze. The room froze. The museum froze. No one moved, and from the sound – or lack of it – the whole world outside came to a stop as everything was hit by a sudden and complete silence, abrupt and shocking as a hammer-blow.
On a normal day, mending things is good.
This, as noted, was not a normal day.
And sometimes things that are broken should not be fixed.
Something in the shadows moved a little. And began, quietly at first, to laugh.
It wasn’t a nice laugh. And it got nastier as it got louder . . .
A moment earlier, before the coffin was mended, half a mile across London, before the blue flash, Will Carter was sitting next to his sister Jo, fighting his way through a horde of mutant zombies with his thumb. The two of them were in a waiting room at the Children’s Hospital, the zombies were in a game on his phone; for the first few seconds after the blue flash he thought the game had just crashed and frozen. He was already bored and angry at having to accompany his mum and Jo to the hospital in Central London, and this minor glitch felt like the last straw. He didn’t like London much.
And then there was – of course – the guilt, the reason they were in the hospital again, the reason a little thing like his game glitching up felt like that last straw on an already rotten day.
Jo had a dodgy leg.
She’d got it a year ago, jumping off a wall onto a shed roof after Will (who had just done it himself) dared her. She’d jumped just like he said he’d done, just like she always did, always trying to catch up with her brother, always trying to be a year older than she was. But the bit of roof she landed on had given way, and she fell straight through it.
It was Will’s worst memory, though Jo herself couldn’t recall any of it. Which was good, because it had been bad.
Like her knee now was.
It had been patched and mended as best the surgeons could manage, and she could finally walk without crutches, but she still used a stick and had to wear a special metal brace that velcroed round her leg. She had to keep coming into London, to the Kid’s Hospital to have it adjusted because she was still growing.
And every time she went, their mum brought him along too. She said it was because the appointments happened in school holidays and there was no one at home to keep an eye on him because their dad was a soldier and spent most of the time abroad. Will thought it was more like she felt he had to come and be part of the hospital thing because it was all his fault. Like a punishment. Even though she said it wasn’t.
And the truth is Will never refused or even complained. Not outwardly. He did sort of sulk inside though, even though he knew he had no right to feel bad about a punishment. Because even though no one else knew it, he did deserve it.
Will was a liar and a coward. He knew it, even if nobody else did. In fact he thought he was a sort of double coward. He’d lied about jumping before Jo did. He had sort of jumped onto the roof, but he’d lowered himself halfway like a normally cautious person would. Jo, who was unthinkingly brave and always trusted him, just took a running jump. So he was a coward for not actually jumping like she thought he’d jumped, and he was doubly so because he had not, could not and now would never tell her so.
In the horrible moments and hours after the roof gave way he hadn’t been entirely truthful with himself because he was so shocked. He couldn’t remember what he’d gabbled through the tears and panic as he tried to lift Jo back to her feet before she screamed and fainted, and then there was the horror of running for help and it all just blurred together into a fog in his head. And then afterwards no one seemed to blame him and he didn’t say anything, and then he told himself it wouldn’t help Jo knowing anyway, and it wouldn’t change anything and so he kept quiet, thinking to himself it’d be OK to tell her later, when she was better. That was a lie he’d told himself. And then time moved on and the moment seemed to have passed and he got used to things.
He’d thought he might tell his dad when he came back off his next tour of duty, because his dad was comfortingly tough but a really good listener. But he’d come back so tired and drawn from six months in Afghanistan that Will had decided not to add to his worries, and so had kept the secret festering inside him. Their mum had said the best thing to do for his dad was to fill the house with laughter and fun, except when he needed to sleep, which he did a lot. Will missed having him around like other boys had their dads every night and at weekends. Jo had their mum, as did he, but it wasn’t quite the same. So he buried it. His dad was a hero, even though he was a tired one, and having a coward for a son wouldn’t have helped him much. And in truth it really wouldn’t have helped Jo get better either if she’d known she’d been tricked anyway. So he was sort of keeping quiet for her. Maybe.
They’d been sitting in the waiting room for what seemed like forever. Jo had her head down over a book, which was how she avoided having to catch anyone else’s eye, in case they started asking about her leg and being nice about it, which she hated. The other kids and their parents had been called in to see the doctors one by one, leaving the three of them alone in a third-floor room with seven plastic chairs and one sick looking spider plant that was dying quietly in the corner. And then their mum had told them to stay there and had gone to feed the parking meter outside, and then to maybe find a nurse to see why things were taking so long.
Jo’d grunted and carried on reading. Will was overrun by a surprise horde of zombies, and restarted the game. He’d beaten that horde and gone onto the next level with a bigger gun just before the game blipped and jammed up on his screen. He swore under his breath and was about to try and restart when she grabbed him.
‘Wha—?’ he began, looking up from the screen.
She didn’t say anything. She was staring at the door.
‘Everything stopped,’ she whispered.
Her voice was dry and scratchy. Like it was a thing she didn’t use much. Like her throat was rusty.
He followed her eyes and saw the flying doctor. Only he wasn’t flying, he just looked like he was. Actually he was running. Or would have been, if he was moving at all. But he wasn’t. He was frozen in mid-air, like a statue of a running doctor, his white coat flared out behind him, his tie streaming back over his shoulder, longish hair caught mid-bounce and sticking up like a cartoon of a mad scientist. He was leaning forward, with only the toe of his back foot touching the floor in a way that should – if the world was working right – have made him tip over and fall on his face.
Only the world wasn’t working right. The doctor was suspended in mid-air, unmoving, his face caught in a grimace.
‘That’s not, er . . .’ said Jo.
Will nodded. It wasn’t.
‘Where’s Mum?’ she said, reaching for her stick.
Will’s mouth was suddenly dry and tasted metallic.
‘Hang on,’ he said.
It felt strange walking across the floor towards the flying doctor. At each step he expected the doctor’s face to turn and see him and maybe laugh at the joke being played on them. But the doctor didn’t move, and when Will got to the door and looked carefully across the corridor . . . it was worse.
Two nurses in the ward opposite were frozen like waxworks. They had been changing the sheets on a bed – one sheet was stuck mid-flip, as they snapped it out between them, billowed up like a parachute. They were smiling across it at one another. But nothing was moving at all.
He looked down the corridor. There were five people on the shiny linoleum. None of them were moving either. He wondered for an instant if this was one of those Internet pranks, where lots of people got together and did things to see what the effect on onlookers would be, filming it and posting the results on YouTube. But then he saw one of the figures was a little girl holding her father’s hand and skipping in the air. Ahead of them a hospital volunteer was waiting beside a trolley with sweets and comics and magazines on it. Neither of her feet was on the ground.
It was real.
‘OK . . .’ said Will, swallowing as he pulled his head back inside the waiting room and turned to look at his sister. ‘Everything has stopped.’
She was already right there at his shoulder, her eyes wide.
‘That’s not . . . possible is it?’ she said.
‘No,’ he said.
‘So I’m dreaming,’ she said, a flicker of relief kindling in her voice.
‘No,’ he said slowly. ‘
dreaming. And you’re in my dream saying you’re dreaming.’
‘Will,’ she said, and giggled. ‘Seriously, you’re in
dream, saying I’m in
dream . . .’
She suddenly pinched her arm and winced.
‘What?’ he said.
‘I didn’t wake up,’ she said. ‘You pinch yourself. See if you wake up!’
He pinched himself. All that happened was his arm hurt.
‘I didn’t wake up,’ he said, looking at her.
‘Maybe that’s not how it works,’ she said, and stepped past him, her stick clicking as she gingerly crossed the corridor into the ward with the nurses changing the sheet.
‘Jo . . .’ he said.
She giggled again, and beckoned him over her shoulder.
‘What?’ he said.
A boy was lying back on one of the beds, his mouth wide open in a huge grin, captured in the moment of upending a whole tube of Smarties into his mouth. The avalanche of sweets was frozen in a multi-coloured arc that just hung in the air between the tube and his waiting face.
‘Wow,’ said Jo, and giggled again. She crossed to the bed and carefully swiped her hand through the flow of Smarties, grabbing a handful, leaving a gap in the flow that was as clean edged as if she’d cut through it with a knife.
‘Jo . . .’ said Will again.
She cupped the Smarties into her own mouth and crunched down. As she turned to look at him, her eyes were bright with glee.
‘Jusht Shmarties,’ she said through the mouthful of chocolate and crushed candyshell. ‘Come on. Admit it. It’s pretty cool, whatever it is’.
She carefully picked a red Smartie out of the air and tossed it to him. He caught it on reflex and looked down at it. He hesitated.
‘Chicken,’ she said.
He popped it into his mouth and bit down. Chocolate. Sugar. The usual. He grinned at her. He felt a bit light-headed.
She reached for the frozen boy’s hand and pushed it. It didn’t move. She pulled his wrist. It remained still.
‘Hmm,’ she said, and scooped more Smarties out of the air. ‘Weird. You can move
, but he’s stuck solid.’
She walked across to the closest nurse and stuck her stick out towards her.
‘Don’t,’ said Will.
She ignored him and pushed the nurse with the rubber tip. The nurse didn’t move a bit.
‘Rock solid,’ she said, turning to him with a smile. ‘Just like a statue.’
He noticed her eyes really were a bit too bright. Like she was determined this should be fun because if it wasn’t it would be the opposite. He swallowed the last of the Smarties and looked back into the corridor full of unmoving people.
This was all so far beyond weird that he thought he might as well go with it until he woke up. He’d go with Jo’s lead for a change. That way he wouldn’t have to do too much thinking. It might be as fun as her eyes were trying to persuade him it was.
‘There’s a whole trolley full of sweets out there . . .’ he said.
‘Cool,’ she said.
‘Though that would be stealing,’ he said. He should definitely just go with it; that’s what you should do in a dream like this, even a dream that didn’t quite feel like any dream he’s ever had before.
‘Not if it’s all imagination,’ she laughed, walking past the Smarties boy towards the window. ‘Do you notice how quiet it is? Oh wow! No traffic . . . nothing’s moving on the street.’
She turned and grinned at him. He really didn’t like the smile. Too bright.
‘Will! This could be the coolest thing ever, I mean this is a very, very, I mean, supercool dream! Forget the little sweetie trolley. It looks like we’ve got a whole city to play with before I wake up! No adults, all the shops open. We can do—’
‘Doesn’t feel like a dream,’ he said, not convinced. ‘Not like any dream I’ve ever had.’
He looked over her shoulder. The road was unnaturally still – cars and buses unmoving, pedestrians like statues, a motorbike frozen on the corner at 45 degrees to the horizontal as the dispatch rider leaned it into the turn.
‘Maybe you have to pinch me,’ she said. ‘We should pinch each other. Pinch me first.’
‘OK,’ he said, and reached for her arm. Of course. That was it. You only woke up in a dream if someone else pinched you. That was it. They’d just done it wrong was all. He felt a flood of relief. And then he caught a movement on the rooftops on the other side of the street and froze.
She looked at him in shock.
‘Will!’ she said and caught her breath.
He looked at her. She exhaled and chopped out a half-laugh.
‘Don’t do that! I thought you’d stopped too!’
He gripped her arm.
‘Don’t move,’ he breathed.
When he was serious she always knew it. She went still.
‘What is it?’ she whispered.
‘A dragon,’ he said.
‘Dragons don’t exist,’ she whispered. And even in those three short words he could hear that it already sounded more like a wish than a fact.
He pointed out of the window with a small movement of his chin.
‘On the roof opposite,’ he said. ‘By the satellite dish.’
Jo thought she really must be dreaming, because that big thing with the silvery wings and the sharp fangs and the wet-red mouth definitely looked like a metal dragon. It was even a bit familiar: she recognized it as one of the ones that you saw on the side of the road all round the City of London.
A statue of a dragon.
Except it was moving.
And statues shouldn’t move.