Authors: Kim Curran
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic
Shift! A desperate, instinct driven part of my brain cried out. But nothing happened. My head was spinning and I barely had a grip on this reality, let alone a good enough picture of another one I could Shift to. I was stuck.
Blindly, I felt along the wall for the row of buzzers and started pressing random buttons, hoping someone, anyone, would open the door and free me from this blubber creature. He caught my hand in his sausage-like fingers and licked from the base of my palm to the tip of my fingers. The stench of his breath combined with the pressure on my stomach was enough. I heaved, and a projectile of last night’s drinks hit him straight in the face.
He staggered away, pawing at his eyes, trying to rub the contents of my stomach away. I didn’t wait to apologise. I ran. Even halfway down the road I still heard him screaming, like a toddler who’d just had his toy taken away from him.
I only stopped after making it a few roads away. If I’d been thinking logically, I’d have realised there wasn’t much chance of a guy as fat as him catching up with me. But after what I’d been through in the past twelve hours, I’d sort of given up on logic.
I slowed to a jog and finally, breathless and shaking, started walking. This day was getting weirder by the second. It was only as I started walking normally that I realised I was walking with a limp. I stopped and pulled up the jean on my left leg and winced at an angry red scar that ran from my ankle to my knee. It was pocked on either side with the marks of stitches. It wasn’t a scar I remembered. Clearly, whatever reality I’d found myself in now still wasn’t perfect – fat, murderous men included. But I was safe now. And it didn’t matter what had happened to my leg because my sister was alive. The thought of seeing her face wiped the image of the fat man from my head. I had to get home to see her.
I hesitated for a moment before our blue front door. Inside I heard the clanking and muffled shouts of breakfast in the Tyler household. I dug my key out of my pocket, opened the door and raced down the hallway and into the kitchen. There they were. My mother, father and little baby sister. In two leaping steps I scooped her up into a hug.
“Geroofme!” Katie said, her face pressed up against my chest. I let her go. “Oh. My. God, Scott. You are such a freak. I should call Childline.” She rubbed at her shoulder and scowled at me. No one could scowl like Katie. I ruffled her mousey hair, just for good measure. She mimed stabbing me in the thigh with a fork. Everything was back to normal then.
Mum watched me a little oddly, while Dad peered over his newspaper. “So,” Mum said. “What exactly did you get up to last night?”
“Huh?” I said, a big grin on my face, although I was starting to lose hold on the precise reason I was so happy to see everyone. Mum raised a suspicious eyebrow. “I was at Hugo’s,” I said. “We hung out. Played games, you know?” I took a seat at the kitchen table and started pouring myself a bowl of cereal.
“Sure… games,” Dad said.
I looked from Mum to Dad, trying to work out what they were on about. Mum reached into her dressing gown pocket and pulled out a black rectangle of cardboard. She handed it to me. Punched out of the black were four letters. ARES.
A tingling was working its way up the back of my thighs and heading for my neck. I had completely forgotten that ARES had paid my parents a visit.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Them.”
“Yes, them. They said they wanted to talk to you about a special government programme. What exactly have you been up to, Scott?”
“Nothing. Really. It’s something to do with college. A recruitment thing,” I said, turning the card over and over. I forced my mouth into a smile. “Seriously. Nothing to worry about, Mum.”
“Hmm, OK,” Mum said, fixing herself another cup of coffee from the fancy machine she’d bought when she was thinking about opening an art-gallery-cum-café thing last year. I didn’t know if she believed me. “They said they’d be back.”
“So could you tell them to come at a more reasonable hour next time?” Dad said, shaking his paper out and yawning. “They made me miss The Cube.”
I mumbled something about being sure to tell them, and scooped a spoonful of muesli into my mouth. I was ravenous and realised that in this new version of events Mum had served up a measly salad last night, instead of the meatballs I’d eaten in the other reality. I was still hung over but, I realised, not bad as before. In the club with Aubrey, I’d stuck to beer. The subtle differences between this reality and the other jostled against each other, falling quickly into place.
I put down my spoon and pushed the empty bowl away. “I’m going to have a shower.”
“Good,” Katie shouted as I left the kitchen. “Because you stink.”
I bounded up the stairs, closed the door of my bedroom behind me, and threw myself onto my bed. My quicksand brain registered slight differences in the room. A movie poster I didn’t remember pinning up, although it was for a film I had seen about thirty times. A pile of comic books in a different position than I’d had them before. And a brown kick-boxing belt slung over the back of my chair. I ran it through my hand, remembering now that I hadn’t been to training in weeks. Not since I’d come off my bicycle and mangled up my leg. I rubbed at the scar under my jeans. It had been a nasty accident. I’d been on my way to practice when I skidded on a puddle and went sliding towards a moving truck. They’d said I was lucky I’d only hurt my leg. Only I knew just how lucky. The ghost memory of the moped crash made me shiver.
I sat up and moved a model robot to where I thought it should have been. But then that felt weird too, so I moved it back. I didn’t know if the changes were because someone had been in my room, or if I’d been the one to arrange it like this. A paranoia itched at my temples. How could you be certain of anything in a world you could change with a thought? And what scared me most of all was that I had no control over any of it. I hadn’t even meant to Shift last night, and it had almost destroyed my life.
I needed help. Training. And I only knew of one place for that. I stroked the card I still held in my hand, feeling the embossed number printed under the name.
“Y ou what?” Aubrey said, glaring at me.
It was Sunday morning and we were sat in a greasy spoon. Aubrey was tucking into a full English breakfast and I’d ordered toast and a cup of tea.
I didn’t meet her eyes. “I rang ARES. I’m going in tomorrow.”
Aubrey threw down her knife and fork. “What?”
“I said I–”
“I heard you. Who did you speak to?”
“I was put through to a guy called Morgan–”
Aubrey groaned and threw her head back. “Morgan is such a dick. I bet he gave you his power and responsibility line.”
“Yeah, and he said he was glad I’d called as it would save us all the embarrassment of having to come and arrest me, and that my mother seemed like a very nice woman.”
“But you could have said it was a mix-up. All they had was that Lucas kid giving them your name. They had no real way of connecting you with the Shift. You should have just played dumb, Scott. You of all people would have been good at that.”
“You mean they didn’t know that I’d Shifted?”
“No! The sensors at ARES only register when and where a Shift has been made. They can’t actually sense who made it or what it was.”
I hadn’t known that. I’d just blurted everything out about the Pylon and my sister and begged Morgan for his help. I’d stuck to the story about how some mysterious guy had told me I was a Shifter and kept Aubrey out of it. Morgan had tutted and sighed and patronised the hell out of me going on about how lucky I was that it was him handling my case.
“Oh, well, they know now. But Morgan said that he’d pull his connections and try and get me on the training programme. That has to be good, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know which one of you is worse! Him with all his self-important bull or you for buying it! It’s standard procedure to get all Shifters on the Programme, Scott. He wouldn’t need to pull anything. Not that he could if he tried.”
I took a bite out of my toast, only now realising just how naive I’d been.
“I can’t believe you. I had it all planned,” Aubrey said, waving her fork around. “Well, don’t expect me to vouch for you.” She stabbed her fork into an unfortunate sausage. I knew how it felt.
“I’m sorry Aubrey. But I need help. I need to understand what’s happening to me.”
“I’ll teach you!”
I met her eyes. “And who taught you?”
She shook her head as if she didn’t understand what I was saying.
I tried again. “Who taught you to control Shifting?”
She twisted her mouth over to the left, chewing the inside of her cheek. “OK, yes, ARES taught me. But…”
I reached out my hand to cover hers. “I’m sorry. But I just can’t do it alone. You have no idea what I went through after meeting you. What I did. What I did to my family.” I hit the table with the clenched fist of my spare hand and the ketchup bottle fell over. “I can’t let something like that happen again.”
“But it’s not too late. I’ve been thinking about this. If I can get my hands on a pair of the cuffs from the Regulators, they will stop you Shifting. OK, you’ll look a bit weird wearing them for the next few years. But it means you can just go on living your normal life.”
“But I don’t want to be normal. I want to be like you.”
She pulled her hand away from under mine and folded her arms across her chest. “All right then. See if I care. Oh, and just you wait till you start training.” She stood up and grabbed her coat from the back of the chair. She leaned over to stare at me, her face only an inch from mine and I smelt vanilla. “It will break you.” She straightened up and walked away.
“So, do you want to do lunch on Monday then?’ I asked, ever the optimist.
She opened and closed her hand in a jerky wave. The café door jingled as she left. I picked up her abandoned fork and stabbed a sausage off her plate. Well, if she wasn’t going to eat it, I thought. It tasted of sawdust.
Explaining it all to my parents wasn’t much easier.
“It’s a fast-track programme for IT skills?” Mum said as I sat them down to explain why I wasn’t going back to school in September.
“That’s the idea. They train you up and there’s a guaranteed job at the end of it. If you make the grade that is.” I remembered Morgan’s whiney voice being quite clear about that on the phone.
“And it won’t cost us anything?” Dad asked for the third time.
“Nope,” I said. “Not a penny.”
“I don’t know Scott, what about your A-Levels? And university? I always wanted to see you in one of those black hats.”
“Do you have any idea how much university costs these days?” Dad said, turning to Mum. “This ARES place makes sense. Good training. A good job at the end of it. We have to face it, Gloria, he’s not the sharpest kid. We should take this opportunity while we have it.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad,” I said.
“Oh, you know what I mean, Scott,” he snapped.
“You’re very good with science and computers and stuff but you’re not really cut out for the real world are you?”
“Takes after you in that regard,” Mum mumbled into her tea.
“So can I go?” I asked quickly before they started rowing again.
“I’m not sure. I’m not very keen on these academy schools. What’s to say they won’t shut down in a year’s time and then where will you be?”
“It’s been around since 1840!” I said, remembering the spiel Morgan had given me and getting a little frustrated. “I think it’s going to be around for at least another year.”
“But East London is such a long way to go,” Mum said. “And I don’t want you cycling again, not after the accident.”
“Then let him get the moped, for god’s sake!” Dad said.
That was the last thing I wanted. “It’s OK,” I said quickly. “I’ll get the Tube. Look, how about I give it a go for summer and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to school and do my A-Levels like planned?”
“Hmm, I suppose. But I’m not too keen on you only doing IT. What about your creative side, Scott? Everyone needs a balance in their lives. Maybe you can take night classes in art? Or macramé?”
“Oh, you and your creative nonsense!”
I snuck away and they didn’t even notice.
Mum had been right about one thing, though. East London was a long way to go. It took me an hour and a half – one train and two tubes – to finally arrive at Old Street. The station was bustling with people who all seemed to be sporting angular haircuts, thick-rimmed glasses and their grannies’ cardigans. As I emerged onto street level, it only got worse. It was like the whole of East London was populated by art students. These people were, literally, too cool for school. I felt overdressed in my grey M&S suit and shining loafers and loosened my tie a notch.
I’d gone over the route from the station to ARES HQ in my head again and again. Now that I was standing in front of the massive roundabout crawling with traffic, I didn’t know which way to turn. I spotted the old fire station to my right and headed that way.
ARES HQ, it turned out, was a converted hospital. Or at least, that’s what I assumed ‘St Anthony’s Medical Facility and Research Centre’ had once been. It was an old Art Deco building, with smooth white walls and geometric carvings. Stone angels with two heads towered over the entrance. Although they had been made slightly less impressive by the speech bubbles somebody had drawn coming out of their mouths. One bubble read: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” And the other read, “I’m a big fairy.” The vandal must have gone to a lot of effort, scaling the sheer wall just to leave his mark. A red-faced man in blue overalls scrubbed at the wall from the top of a ladder.
I walked up the few steps that led to the glass double doors. My heart was thudding in my chest. The way Aubrey had been going on, I was willingly handing myself over to the Gestapo here. But then, she was in there somewhere, and that knowledge gave me some hope. I pushed the door and walked in.
Inside, everything was carved in brilliant white marble. A staircase curved up and around the entrance hall. Straining my neck to look up, I saw more double-headed angels, each with their arms crossed in front of their chests. A kid wearing a blue military jacket ran past on the level above. The sound of his squeaking trainers echoed around the stairs.