“It’s Dhagdar! He wants to kill you! He’s trying to end the world!”
Dylan couldn’t stop thinking about the sports car. As he walked from the dealership, the shiny redness of it sat behind his eyes, like the colour that remains in your retina after you stare at a light. He could still feel the leather steering wheel in his hands and smell that intoxicating new car smell, and his loins buzzed with the memory of the vehicle’s quiet power as it propelled him down the road. It beat Kane’s fat, ugly, orange man-truck and his father’s boring white, old-spinster Honda Civic hands down. They weren’t even in the same competition.
Exhilaration surged inside him, lifting his heels from the pavement. Kane was right: Wilfred was dead. The lanky old professor had confirmed it, and what happened at the burger store was an episode of panic brought on by trauma. Now it was only a matter of time before Wilfred’s death certificate was signed, and then they could cash in on the will. Then, the car. He walked for a few paces on tiptoes, singing, “Thunder – ahhhhh. Thunder – ahhhhh,” imagining Bert’s reaction when he saw it. His grandfather, a car lover all his life, had taught him to drive, and Dylan couldn’t wait to take him for a spin. Once the car was his, he’d make the long drive to Briarwood and turn up in his grandparents’ driveway unannounced, blowing the horn and waiting for Bert and Elizabeth to come outside to see who was sitting in their driveway in a bright red new shiny sports car. Maybe a shock like that was all it would take to bust Bert out of the fog of confusion he was floundering around in.
As he nodded in agreement with himself, a long-haired middle-aged man in a blue floral shirt and pink trousers came striding towards him, staring and smiling. He was wearing open-toed sandals with white socks. Aa small green bag, hanging from one shoulder, banged against his hip as he walked. Behind him was a short middle-aged woman with frizzy red hair and too much mascara, wearing yellow slippers and a caftan printed with large purple hibiscus flowers. She was holding two recycled hessian shopping bags and staring and smiling at him like the man.
“Excuse me,” he said, barring Dylan’s way. “Sorry to trouble you. How are you? If it’s not too much bother, would you happen to know where I can find the nearest police station?” He shook his phone at him. “I can’t seem to get a signal.”
Dylan looked at him. Looked at the woman. They stared back. Police station? What would these hippie characters want the police for? They looked out of place – like colourful cartoon people a child might scrawl in crayon over a photo of a dreary village scene. A fear shot through his mind that this was a trap, that the NSO had uncovered his involvement in Wilfred’s affairs, or Simon had ratted on him, and they were here to kidnap him, bundle him into the back of a black van and make him disappear.
“It’s that way,” he said, pointing over his shoulder, then stepped around the man and hurried away.
As the seconds ticked by, he wondered what they were doing behind his back. (Creeping up on him? Calling for back-up? Waving a black van towards him?) The couple reminded him of the people he’d saved from the Messenger, and this alarmed him even more. The NSO were sure to have seen his interview on the news by now; this would connect him to the attack, and to Wilfred. They might even assume he was a sorcerer himself. That being so, once he was in custody, locked and bound in a concrete room in some isolated bunker, why would they believe him when he said he had no idea what Wilfred was up to when he stole a corpse, drew all over it in black marker pen, cast a spell from the book of the dead and released a demon on the world? In fact, what was to stop them shooting him in the head right here and now, before he had time to conjure another Messenger to send after them?
Safe around the corner, he froze. Bubbles of panic rose in his chest. He realised he was thinking about Wilfred again – more than that, he was recalling their spell-making, letting him in. “Red sports car … Thunder – ahhhhh. Thunder – ahhhhh,” he sang, pressing on. But it was too late. The panic swelled into nausea and an awful pressure grew behind his forehead. Day became night, his legs gave way and he felt himself fall. Though his eyes were open, everything was black. He had no feeling in his body, no sensations at all, apart from the horrendous smell of something rotten.
Dimly, he heard voices:
“Are you okay?”
“Are you hurt”
“Larry, do something!”
He raised his head and light flooded back into his eyes, hurting him. Pulling up his knees, he pressed his hands against his face.
“Let’s get him to a hospital,” he heard the colourful man say.
When someone touched his shoulder, he dropped his hands and opened his eyes in a squint.
Around him were the tree-lined street, the row of shops, the blue sky, a small crowd of onlookers – everything still so bright.
Then it all went black again.
“Uht-ah-ell,” he murmured. His mouth felt strangely wet and slimy, his lips loose. The stink was back: like the smell in the dungeons below the Dark farm magnified a thousand times.
He felt a hand patting his back, and with that, the light returned.
Dylan looked up in horror. There was no doubt now what was happening. Leaping to his feet, he grabbed the strap of the man’s bag, screaming, “The Crypt! It was the Crypt of Gemnemnon! It’s Dhagdar! He wants to kill you! He’s trying to end the world!”
The man pulled away, slipping the bag off his shoulder and shoving it into Dylan’s chest. “Take it!” he screeched. “There’s nothing in it! Muesli bars and water! Don’t hurt me! I’ve got kids!”
Caftan flapping, his wife ran up and kicked Dylan in the groin.
“Yiaargghhhh!” he screamed, and swung the man’s bag at her. “Get away!” he cried. “He’s coming! Get out of here! You’re all as good as dead!”
When the woman moved in for another kick, he stumbled backwards onto the road. A slow-moving car swerved to miss him, its horn blaring, and almost collided with a motorcycle coming from the opposite direction. Confused, the world bending and dimming in waves, Dylan staggered to the other side of the road, tripped over the kerb and fell. He threw out an arm to cushion the fall and everything went black. The last thing he felt was his head hitting the ground.
“Your brother is physically fine,” said the doctor.
“What do you mean ‘physically fine’?” asked Kane, walking fast to keep up.
The doctor stopped so suddenly Kane almost ran into him. They were standing in the middle of the corridor and people swept around them like leaves floating around submerged rocks.
Kane waited for an answer, while the doctor, a youngish man with colourless hair and frameless glasses, frowned at something going on behind him. He didn’t have the best people skills and seemed always in a rush to be somewhere else.
“He was hysterical,” he said at last, looking at him. “Like a madman. We had to sedate him.”
Kane placed his hands on his hips. “That’s … really weird. Dylan isn’t the hysterical type.”
The doctor crossed his arms and moved his weight from one hip to the other. Clearly, he wasn’t used to having his opinion questioned. “Has he been taking drugs?”
“No.” Kane glanced down at his feet. He re-thought his answer. “I don’t know. Our parents … were murdered. He’s been through hell. I don’t know what he’s been up to. But drugs … I’d say no.”
The doctor nodded, as if his diagnosis was now confirmed. “When erratic behaviour is out of character, drugs are usually the reason. Particularly for someone your brother’s age.”
“What about magic?”
The doctor straightened his back. “How do you mean?”
Kane laughed. “Sorry, doc, I was … making a joke.”
The doctor began walking again. “We’ll know more after the tests.”
Leading Kane to a room, he motioned him in.
Dylan was sleeping in the bed closest to the door, his head turned away from them. Someone had brushed his hair behind his ear. He looked like a young boy, his skin so clear it was almost translucent. There was a curtain drawn across the centre of the room and someone on the other side of the curtain was reading aloud from a book.
They stood at the bottom of the bed.
“He’s not mad,” said Kane. “Stupid, but not mad.”
“He was threatening to kill people.”
“That’s the way Dylan makes friends.”
The doctor glanced at him. Having no sense of humour, he left.
Kane stepped closer and stared down at his brother. He was scared and frustrated and angry – in fact he couldn’t think of a bad emotion he wasn’t feeling.
“What’s happening, Dylan? Why did you go crazy like that?” He ran his hands over his hair. “What will it take to get things back to normal?”
He sucked in air through his nose and exhaled it slowly through his mouth, trying to steady his nerves. It didn’t work. Dragging over a chair, he sat down and held his brother’s hand. “We’ll be right,” he said, though now he was talking to himself.
It was just after six and Kane was sitting in the hospital waiting room, his head resting in his hands. He was focusing on the sounds around him, trying to empty his mind of all negative thoughts and emotions. The murmur of voices, the ringing phones, the tap of footsteps, the sounds of trolleys and machines: they were strangely calming – but his brain wouldn’t stop worrying about Dylan. What if the doctor was right and he’d taken up drugs? Even worse, what if Waite’s body swap had caused long-term mental health problems? Would there ever be an end to this?
“Here,” said a voice.
He glanced up. Arika was holding out a chocolate protein bar.
“Dinner,” she said.
He held out his hand. As she took a seat next to him, he read the writing on the side of the packet. Sugar, carbs, kilojoules; not a lot of protein. He didn’t eat chocolate, but not wanting to appear rude, tore open the packet.
Arika’s perfume brought a sense of normalcy to the room. And comfort. After he’d rung to tell her about Dylan, she’d driven all the way out here without a second thought. It made Kane realise he’d been wrong about her: she wasn’t one-eyed and selfish. If she cared about someone, she’d be there to support them, no matter what. He now saw his encounter with the dead boxer through a different lens. Yes, Arika stood there arguing with Waite while the zombie was strangling him, but very quickly she’d smashed the charm and given up any hope Waite would reveal what happened to her father. That was the opposite of selfish in his mind.
“Kane, do you know an Oliver?”
He looked at her.
“Dylan,” she continued: “he was mumbling it in his sleep. When you were talking to the nurse.”
He tapped the chocolate bar against his lips. “Oliver was our brother. He died,” he clarified, “when we were kids.”
“I’m sorry.” Arika smoothed a crease out of her pants. “I … thought it might have had something to do with –”
“Funny he’d be thinking about Oliver.” Kane placed the chocolate bar on the seat next to him. “He hasn’t mentioned him since he came back from Gramps’ place.” Biting his thumb, he stared straight ahead. This didn’t make any sense. Or perhaps it did. Oliver’s death had defined their family relationships for almost seven years, so it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that thoughts of their brother would surface at this stressful time. “Oliver fell out of the treehouse,” he explained, “when Dylan was looking after him. Well, technically I was looking after them both. I was babysitting.”
A nurse came towards them as if she had something to say, then pointed a finger in the air and veered away.
“He hasn’t been the same since,” he said to her back. “He got so angry and depressed, for such a long time.” He glanced at Arika. “They were being stupid up there. Shoving each other. Play-fighting. Hanging off the tree like idiots. Dylan blamed me – for not being there.” Arika seemed about to say something, so he said quickly, “It was my fault. I was the oldest. They were in my care and I left them alone while I was – well, that doesn’t matter anymore.”
“I know,” he interrupted. “It was no one’s fault. Of course it wasn’t: it was an accident. But that’s … ah, it’s pointless dredging this up.” He placed his hands between his knees.
Arika was staring straight ahead. Whatever she’d been about to say before, she seemed to have decided to keep it to herself.
“After it happened, I went kinda crazy for a while. Funny thing was, my mind kept imagining I wasn’t there – that someone else was the guilty party. Even now, I can hardly even recall being there, but I know I was. Such a strange feeling …” Shrugging, he said, “I’m sure that’s why Dylan is the way he is: a bit of a weirdo. He probably thinks the same as me.”
Shaking off the self-indulgence, he looked around for the nurse, but she was nowhere in sight.
“I had a younger sister once,” Arika said suddenly.
The way she said it raised Kane’s eyebrows. “What happened to her?”
“She died. In a car accident. They both died: my mother and my sister. I was seven; my father was still in the navy. He wasn’t always around, so I went to live with my aunt in London.”
“I’m so sorry. Here’s me going on about my own tragedies …”
“It was a long time ago. I kinda remember them, but not really.”
“How old was she?”
“My sister? Four.”
“Oh, no. That’s tough.”
“How old was Oliver?”
She nodded in sympathy.
“How long did you live with your aunt for?”
“Until I was seventeen. Even after my dad left the navy, his work took him all over the country – all over the world – so he thought it best I stayed at Aunt Beatrice’s flat until I was old enough to look after myself.” She smiled. “Or, as things turned out, until I was so loud and unruly I drove my poor suffering aunt up the wall. That’s when I moved back to his place. To give poor Aunt Bea a rest.”
“You? – loud and unruly?”
“More rude and pushy, is it now?” She bumped his shoulder. “Look at us: two young guns weighed down by family tragedy. We should be out enjoying ourselves, partying and drinking ourselves stupid, not reminiscing on lives lost like the grannies in Aunt Bea’s bridge club.”
“I doubt that’s either of our styles – the drinking, I mean, not the bridge.”
“I don’t really see you as a bridge buff either.”
“Ahh, you’d be surprised: I’m a whizz at solitaire – and Texas hold ‘em. I could probably teach your Aunt Bea a thing or two.”
“I think you two would get on like a house on fire – no pun intended.” She stood up and looked down at him. “It’s getting late. I should be getting home.”
Kane stood too. Arika didn’t move; he was standing so close he could feel the warmth coming off her body. She appeared slightly flustered and he wondered for a moment if he should lean in for a hug – it seemed the natural thing to do after sharing their stories of loss. And wasn’t hugging the thing you did when someone close to you was sick in hospital? But he thought about it for a second too long and Arika took the opportunity to move away. She rummaged in her bag for her car keys.
“You don’t really have to go, do you?”
“I have to get home some time.”
“I want you to stay,” he blurted out, so loudly a man sitting opposite them jerked up his head in surprise.
A look of embarrassment flitted across Arika’s face. She smiled at the floor and said, “Well … I do hate driving at night. Especially all that way.”
“You could stay here,” he said, lowering his voice, ignoring the man who was now staring at them like they were performing an impromptu play. “At, um, our place. There’s plenty of room. A guest room, we have. Like a hotel. A sleepover.”
Arika seemed amused by his little-boy way of suggesting it. “I don’t have a change of clothes.”
“I’m sure we’ve got something that’ll fit.”
Before she could answer, the nurse who’d walked past a few minutes ago returned. “Mr Gates,” she said, “your brother is awake.”
“Oh, great. Is he … okay?”
“As much as can be expected. A little dazed, but he recognises who he is and why he’s here.”
“Thank Christ. I suppose you still don’t know what happened to him?”
The nurse shook her head.
“And you don’t know if he’s back to normal?”
“You’re probably the best person to answer that. Let’s go see him.”
“He’ll get through this, Kane,” said Arika, placing her keys back in her bag.
“He has to. The rest of my family is dead. He’s all I’ve got left.”