Authors: Kim Curran
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic
Take a second and think about all the decisions you’ve made in your life. The small ones, like which socks to wear in the morning. Do you go for the blue ones with the hole in the toe? Or the pair your gran bought you with the cartoon character on the heel that you secretly really like but know will get your arse kicked if anyone at school sees them? Then there are the big, life-changing decisions, like should you go to university or do you ask that girl out to the cinema even though you’re almost certain she’ll laugh in your face. Remember that time you chose to walk instead of taking the bus and you ended up getting drenched in a hailstorm and your mum went mental because you’d ruined your new shoes? Or when you put a whoopee cushion on Sharon Connor’s chair and everyone laughed so much that she ran out of class crying and you wanted to cry too?
Think about all those fixed pinpoints in the map of your life. The choices that have got you to where you are now. Well, what if you could change them? What if you could undo every decision you’ve ever made. Unmake every mistake. Would you?
Let me stop you right there. You’re probably thinking it would be really cool. You’re imagining getting on that bus instead of walking in the rain, right? Thinking about all those lost opportunities taken, all those missed moments seized. Sounds great, yeah? Wrong. It’s a nightmare.
And if I’d known that going out that night would have ended up with me being kicked out of home, arrested by a secret government division and hunted by a brain-eating nutjob, I’d have stayed at home.
But then, I’d never have met her. Aubrey Jones. The girl who was going to change everything. The girl who was going to get me killed.
The withered hand raked across my face, leaving four bloody gashes. Everything went red. I was losing blood, fast, and I’d used up my last med pack an hour ago. My heart slowed to a deafening thud, drowning out the groans of the creature. I kicked out as it came in for a second attack and raised my shotgun.
Click. Empty. Damn.
I ran. Or, rather, I limped. Bent double, holding my stomach, dragging my foot behind me. If I could just reach the door ahead I might be safe. Glancing back I saw the foul thing dragging itself across the floor, a single desire animating its decaying limbs. Flesh.
The door was only steps away. I wrenched it open and dived through. I wasn’t alone. The room was filled with the living dead. As one they turned and started shuffling towards me, their arms raised. I tried to open the door again but in my panic I kept missing the handle. I could almost feel their fetid breath on my neck when finally it creaked open.
I was sure I saw the zombie’s rotting lips curl in a smile as it lunged. I was drowning in blackness, as gnarled fingers tore at my skin. Two blood-dripping words floated out of the gloom.
“That’ll be because you, Scott, are a loser,” my sister said from the doorway.
“Get out of my room, Katie!” I shouted, throwing the game controller at her. She dodged it with an effortless sidestep and stuck her tongue out at me.
I sighed. She was right. It was Friday night, the last day of term, of the last year of secondary school, and I, Scott Tyler, was sat at home being eaten by a dead guy, while the rest of my class were out there celebrating.
Try Again? flashed at me from the screen. Yeah right, like how about I give the past five years another try?
Five years of mediocrity and mundanity and it wasn’t like the future was looking any brighter. In a matter of weeks I would be back at the same school for my A-Levels. Back with the same boys, with the same teachers. The only difference was I would be allowed to wear my own clothes. That’s if Mum didn’t throw them all out again like she’d done a few years ago because she thought they made me look like a tramp.
As if on cue, Mum started screeching from downstairs. “Scott! Katie! Dinner! Now!”
Perfect. As if my night couldn’t get any worse, I would now have to be subjected to my weekly slice of hell, otherwise known as The Tyler Friday Family Dinner. Why Mum insisted on us all eating together, I had no idea. I guess it was her attempt to pretend we were a normal, functioning family. But there’s a reason we never spent any time together. We pretty much hated each other.
I silenced the game with a jab of the remote and somehow found the energy to drag myself out of my room.
Katie was sat in the hallway, her legs dangling between the banisters, her face pressed up against the wood. She flinched at the sound of something being slammed in the kitchen downstairs.
“They at it again?”
I crouched down next to her and leant my back against the wooden rails. “What is it this time?”
“Dad’s Christmas party. Again.”
“Where he was flirting with the pre-pubescent receptionist?”
“And she was so slobbering drunk she was dancing on the tables by nine. That’s the one.”
We sat in silence for a bit, listening to Mum and Dad screaming about how they ruined each other’s lives.
So far, so Tyler family.
I saw Katie biting her bottom lip and I really didn’t know what I’d do if she actually started crying. I hadn’t seen Katie cry since she was seven and I made her walk the plank out of our tree house, which was supposed to be a pirate ship, and she broke her leg. She told Mum she’d slipped.
Katie wasn’t supposed to be dealing with stuff like this at her age. Hell, I wasn’t supposed to be dealing with this stuff like this and I was five years older. I couldn’t stand seeing her like this. Not down to some protective brotherly affection type thing. We don’t have that kind of relationship. No, but because it scared me.
Katie’s supposed to be the tough one. She might be younger, but she’s better at pretty much everything, including football, kick boxing, fencing and playing computer games. Dad once said she was more of a man than I’d ever be. Thanks, Dad. As for Mr Tyler himself, he’s what psychologists call a “classic male”. Disinterested. Disconnected. And dissatisfied. He works for some crappy solicitors’ firm, and blames Mum getting knocked up with me for why he never finished university and made it as a real lawyer. Mum was a housewife until two years ago when she took an assertiveness course, started wearing jeans a size too small and heels three inches too high, and began her own online pottery business, which she runs out of the shed in the back garden. So if she wasn’t collecting a triumphant Katie from a fencing competition or whatever, she spent most of her time out in the shed. Pottering. Literally. I guess it was so she could avoid Dad who’d come home from work, plonk in front of the TV, before dragging himself upstairs to snore for eight hours straight. He and Mum didn’t even share the same bed any more. I wished they’d just get a divorce, like most of my friends’ parents. But oh, no. They had to stick together, for the sake of us kids.
“Hey,” I said, nudging her. “At least they wanted you. You weren’t ‘The Mistake.’” I made bunny ears over the phrase to try and show that it was supposed to be a joke.
“Hey, at least you weren’t the Band-Aid Baby. The one who was supposed to fix everything,” Katie said, and her chin went all wrinkly like a walnut.
“Come on.” I stood up and offered her my hand. “Let’s get this over with.”
“It’s pasta,” she said, refusing my help and pulling herself to her feet using the banisters. We both rolled our eyes.
When we arrived in the kitchen Mum and Dad had descended into a frosty silence. I took my seat next to Katie and pulled a silly face, the one that used to make her really laugh when she was little; my tongue pushed into my upper lip and my eyes rolling back.
“Oh, Scott,” she sighed. “Why do you have to be such a twat?”
Swearing was also something Katie did better than me.
Moment of sibling solidarity well and truly over, I punched Katie and she kicked me in the shin, before Mum slopped ladles of soggy conchiglie onto our plates. I held up a wobbling shell and glanced at it. Seeing the expression on Mum’s face, I ate it without comment.
Katie pushed her food around her plate, as if looking for some decent cooking under it. I, on the other hand, shovelled mouthful after mouthful into my cheeks. The sooner I finished the ritual torture, the sooner I could be back in the solace of my bedroom.
My mobile buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out, careful not to let Mum see, and read the message.
WT U DNG
It was from Hugo. Hugo who had an IQ of 154, who could recite pi to eighty-eight decimal places, but who’d singularly failed to get his head around predictive text so used an impenetrable textspeak of his own devising. He was the closest thing I had to a best friend. Although I’m not sure either of us really liked each other that much. I punched out a reply.
NOTHING. AS ALWAYS.
A few mouthfuls later, my phone buzzed again.
SCRWS R DWN RC. FNCY IT
While I was trying to unravel Hugo’s message, I caught my name being mentioned.
“Don’t you think, Scott?” Mum was asking me something and I’d totally missed it. I snapped my attention away from the phone under the table and back to my dysfunctional family. She nodded encouragingly, so I picked up my cue.
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
Dad laughed. “What would he know about business? And when is he going to get a haircut?”
“He’s got an A in GCSE business studies. Which is more than you’ve got,” Mum snapped.
“Well, he’d better have after the amount we’re paying for that so-called education of his.”
And they were off again. About lost opportunities and how they wished they’d never met.
I scooped up the last of my pasta and piled it into my mouth, then fired off another text.
SCREW WHAT NOW???
Just as I was cleaning my plate, my phone started playing The Eye of The Tiger. I really had to get a new ringtone.
“Scott! How many times? Not at the table!” Mum said, interrupting her character assassination of Dad.
“I’ve finished!” I said through a mouthful of meatballs. I shoved my chair away from the table and looked at my phone. Hugo’s squashed face stared up at me from the screen. I slid across the answer button with a greasy thumb.
“Seb’s crew!” Hugo’s impossibly posh voice said from the other end of the line. “Seb’s crew are down the Rec. Would you care to accompany me and see what might be occurring on this fine night?”
“I don’t know… I mean, Seb?”
“There may be girls there.”
“I’ll see you in five.”
And that was my first bad decision of the night.
“Are you sure we’re allowed?”
“Allowed?” Hugo said. “The Rectory Grounds are public property, Scott. Of course we’re allowed.”
“But what about Seb…”
“You’re not still angry about when he flushed your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle down the loo, are you? That was four years ago, Scott.”
“It was five years ago. And I really liked that turtle.”
“You really need to learn to let go,” he said, patting me on the back. “Always was your problem. I bet Seb doesn’t remember.”
I wasn’t so confident. Up until six weeks ago we would never have dreamt of coming to the Rec on a Friday night. This was the domain of Sebastian Cartwright – St Francis’s king of cool – and the rest of his crew. Guys to whom people like Hugo and I were at best invisible and at worst fair game. Then Hugo helped Seb cheat on his History GCSE coursework and a magic door had opened up, letting Hugo, and by proxy myself, into their realm. It was understood that as long as we didn’t get too close, we would be permitted to remain within their orbit.
“Actually, the only thing I’m not sure is allowed is that T-shirt,” said Hugo. “What were you thinking, Scott?”
“It’s vintage,” I said, in indignant defence.
The chatter of laughter floated on the light breeze and managed to overcome my faint terror. Perhaps Seb and the rest of the crew weren’t that bad. Besides, school was over now. And with it all those petty definitions of who was in and who was out. Maybe sixth form wouldn’t be so bad after all. Maybe our newfound access to the inner echelons of cool would be our passport to a new life, without wedgies and debagging.
Who was I kidding?
The group stopped talking as we approached. I froze, my legs twitching, ready to run if needed. Seb gestured to Hugo with a jerk of his chin and that was it. We’d passed.
Hugo nudged me in the side. “See. We’re cool.”
“Hugo, we will never be cool,” I whispered back as we took our seats on a mossy log.
A beer can was pressed into my hand and instinctively I went to pass it on. But there was no one next to me. I prised the ring pull open and took a glug. It was warm and tasted faintly of old socks. But pretending to like beer was all part of being sixteen, wasn’t it? I took a second, smaller sip, and peered around at the group.
Besides Seb there were six other boys, including Seb’s younger and utterly insane brother, Lucas. Lucas had been in my sister’s year at primary school, before he’d been suspended for setting fire to the caretaker’s cupboard. He had a crazy, unhinged look in his eyes, and was currently hanging upside down from a tree branch, singing the jingle from an advert for orange juice. Everyone ignored him.