“I am not leaving this house!”

Dylan leapt out of a nightmare. The room was dark, the wall and door in front of him gone, their place taken by the monster that had stalked him in his dream: through the graveyard, up an unlit alley, now into his bedroom. The monster was a hideous mass of brown pustules that ballooned and burst like volcanic mud, each pop releasing what looked like beetles, which spiralled away then flew back, to be absorbed back into the bubbling flesh. The thing was dragging itself across the carpet, sluggish and deliberate, as if it knew Dylan was trapped in his bed, trapped by its foul corpulence and by his fear. The most awful thing about the monstrosity was its cave of a mouth, which hung down to its belly, ready to engulf him.

Dylan was paralysed with terror. His lungs contracted, his throat tightened, he couldn’t breathe. As he struggled to draw in air, the thing paused at the bottom of his bed. The bugs now flew out en masse, swarmed towards him, covered his face, crawled into his mouth and ears and nose. He could feel them inching down his throat and windpipe but had no ability to cough or run or swat them away. Now they were in his stomach; now in his lungs. He fought to breathe, to move his arms, his legs – to move anything. The beetles crept into his bowels, into his bladder, tickling and itching and hurting him, and still they came, flying out from the monster and crawling into his mouth and ears and nose.

At last Dylan found his muscles and drew a ragged, relieved breath. The monstrosity took this as its sign to begin oozing over the bed, oozing over his legs, where it sat regarding him with a combination of curiosity, hate and triumph.

“His flesh is your flesh is His flesh is your flesh,” he heard from its open mouth. “And to Kragn shall you return.”

Dylan jerked awake. It was dark and he was enveloped in warmth and softness. He raised his head from the pillow. The monster was gone, the wall and door back in their place. Staring wide-eyed into the darkness, he soon began to discern the familiar shapes of his room: the shelves, the toys, the Manga posters on the wall, the chest of drawers. I’m safe; it wasn’t real, he thought with a burst of relief.

He pushed himself onto his elbows. Where did that damn nightmare come from? It was so vivid and real; he could still feel the bugs inside him, the weight of the thing on his legs, the terror at being unable to move or breathe. He’d never had a nightmare like that before – but then again, he’d never lost both his parents before either. He only wished that were part of the nightmare too.

An insane thought came to him: Maybe it was. Despite the craziness of the idea, he got up and went to check his parents’ room.

He hesitated a second before turning on the light, savouring the delusion, the anticipation of finding his parents fast asleep in bed. He smiled at the thought of the barrage of questions he’d get when they awoke with a start. They’d sit up and shade their eyes and screw up their faces at their oddball son as he stared back at them in the middle of the night.

When the light went on, Dylan saw the bed was made up and empty, exactly as his mother had left it. Her red scarf was draped across the comforter, stretched out like a long streak of blood. She’d forgotten it in the push by his father to get to the restaurant in time for their booking.

He went over and picked it up, brought it to his nose, breathed in the scent of his mother’s favourite perfume. The scent was fading, just like her memory. It was her absence Dylan felt now, not her presence. It was like chunks of reality had been gouged out of the air in the places Lauren was supposed to be.

Leaning back against the wall, he slid down to the carpet. A sense of doom gripped him around the throat, making it hard to swallow. What was he supposed to do? He was seventeen years old, broke and unemployed. His mother had been his protector, his sole supporter. His father’s business paid the mortgage, put food on the table, provided a safety net while he spent his time figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. With his only living grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s; with his grandmother heading in the same direction; with Kane having his own life, a life as alien to Dylan as that of the llama-loving Waldrons across the road – with everyone deserting him, what was he supposed to do?

Terrified all over again, he stared wide-eyed at the window. It was still dark, but he had no hope of getting back to sleep, not with that monster lurking behind his eyelids, waiting to ram those damn bugs down his throat again. Pulling his knees up to his chest, looping the red scarf over his neck, he pressed the material hard against his nose and waited for morning.

Dylan opened his eyes. He knew straight away where he was: in his parents’ room. He was dressed in his pyjamas, lying on his side on top of the blankets, his mother’s scarf still looped around his neck. He’d crawled onto the bed when the floor became too hard on his buttocks. The clock told him it was just after nine. The room was light and he could hear the TV at low volume downstairs.

Sitting up, he ran his tongue over his teeth. Cottage cheese came to mind. That’s disgusting, he thought, screwing up his nose.

Pushing himself off the bed, he went to the bathroom. Shit, I look like … shit, he thought as he caught sight of his pasty face in the mirror. The black rings under his eyes were scary, not to mention the white crusty bits clinging to the sides of his mouth.

“Grrrross,” he said, looking away.

He splashed cold water on his face, then scrubbed his cheeks hard with a towel. Throwing the towel over the shower curtain rail, he took out his toothbrush, squeezed on blue toothpaste and turned to face the door. As he brushed, he tried to imagine his mother appearing in the doorway. She’d appeared there countless times – almost every morning since he’d been back, as if she needed to reassure him (and herself) that they were now a family and cared for each other. She refused to appear. All he felt was a vacuum in the doorway and a corresponding vacuum in his chest. Her absence.

As Dylan spat out froth, he realised that what he’d thought was the TV was actually voices. Leaving the bathroom, he went to the top of the stairs and bent over the balustrade. Kane was talking in a quiet murmur. Then came another voice, an older man’s voice. Unable to make out what they were saying, Dylan went back to the bathroom, cleaned his toothbrush under running water, pushed his hair from his eyes and started down the stairs.

Kane was standing in the kitchen, on the other side of the table. He was leaning over an open lever arch file, his forehead creased with concentration. A red-haired man in a blue pin-striped suit was sitting opposite, his back to Dylan. A dark blue briefcase was open on the floor next to his chair.

Kane straightened and shook his body like a wet dog. “Oh, hey, Dylan. Sorry, kid, didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Who’s this?”

The man turned his head. He was mid-thirtyish, with a ruddy complexion and copper-coloured beard, wearing blue-framed glasses that matched the colour of his eyes. He leaned over his chair holding out a freckled hand. “Joel Standish,” he said. “You must be the brother.”

Dylan stared at his smiling mouth. His top teeth were white and perfect, the bottom ones yellow and crooked. He dressed and held himself like an actor or model, but Dylan guessed he was here about the will. It was just like Kane to leave him out of the conversation.

“Why didn’t you wake me?”

The man closed his mouth, lowered his hand and sank back into the chair. He was obviously used to family conflicts and seemed practised at making himself invisible.

Kane moved around the table. “Dylan,” he said, “why don’t you sit down? You want coffee? I just made some.”

Dylan glanced at the documents on the table. He recognised some bank statements, what looked like a legal contract and an accounts book he remembered from his father’s office.

“What’s all this?” he asked, his scalp prickling. He was thinking: What does this Joel person want with bank statements? Shouldn’t he be handing over a cheque? And why is Kane acting so strangely?

“Well, um …” Kane, unable or unwilling to answer, joined him in staring at their guest, who was leaning over the table, pulling the papers towards him. “Listen, Joel,” he said once everything was sitting in a neat little pile: “I’ve got the picture. I’ll call you in a few days, if that’s okay. See if we can’t work something out.”

“No problemo.” Joel smiled over his shoulder at them. “I’ll get out of your hair, then.”

Dropping the collection of papers into his briefcase, he closed it, shut the clasps, said, “Oops, sorry,” opened it and took out the accounts book. He tossed it on the table. “That one’s yours.” Closing the briefcase again, he pushed his chair back and stood up. He was much taller than he looked sitting down. “I know this is rough,” he said to Kane in a voice that suggested he didn’t, “but we’ll need to know one way or another by the end of the month.”

“Sure,” chirped Kane. “Plenty of time,” he added, smiling at Dylan.

The man nodded and walked around them and out of the room. Kane followed.

Dylan pulled the lever arch file towards him. More bank statements. A tabbed section with mortgage papers.

He heard the front door close. Kane reappeared and stood watching him.

Dylan raised his head. “What’s going on? Who was that guy?”

Kane shrugged. “Some trouble with the mortgage payments. He’s from the bank. Don’t worry, I’ll sort it out.”

“Sort what out?”

“Nothing for you to worry about.”

“What did he mean by the end of the month?”

Kane stared at him. “That’s when the payment’s due.”

“How much?”

He pulled out a chair. “Too much,” he muttered, dropping into it.

His words sounded final and absolute, not like a problem they needed to work through. “What do you mean, ‘Too much’? How much is too much?”

“We’ll be fine,” answered Kane, picking at the corner of the file with his fingernail. “Let me worry about this.”

“How much is too much?”

He shoved the file away. “Dad had a few accounts outstanding – guys who owed him money. I need to go chase them up. Nothing you need to worry about.”

His brother was no actor. He lied the same way little boys lie: with his mouth, not with his eyes.

“We’re up-to-date on the mortgage payments, aren’t we?”

“Sure. It’s just …” He got up and went to the fridge.

“Just what?”

Taking out two cans of Coke, he offered one to Dylan. Dylan took it and placed it on the table.

“The work wasn’t coming in as fast as Dad would have liked. He was only just keeping up with the repayments.”

“Which means? Come on, Kane, stop bullshitting and tell me.”

Kane opened his can and swallowed Coke, swallowed more, rubbed his mouth on his sleeve, then said quickly, “Which means the main breadwinner is no longer bringing in the dough and we don’t have enough to make the payments.”

Dylan felt the room spin. “We won’t lose the house, will we?” he croaked. His legs going wobbly, he slid into a chair. Lose the house? It didn’t make any sense. He’d never thought about a mortgage, hadn’t even known his father had one.

A sudden suspicion entered his mind. This was highly convenient for Kane. He’d always talked about leaving sleepy, soul-destroying Quorn and now he had the perfect excuse. He could get a transfer to another station and then there’d be nothing left to anchor him here.

He twisted his fingers together. Yesterday January had been the enemy; today it was the bank. He had to fight to save the house or lose everything. He had no other options. “I’ll get a job,” he said firmly. “That’s all there is to it.”

“Dylan –”

“We can’t lose the house,” he cried, his panic rising. “We’ll have nowhere to go. Where would we stay?”

“Dylan –”

“I know I haven’t tried very hard before, but now it’s life or death.”

“Dylan –”

“I’ll start looking right now.”

“Dylan!”

“What!”

Kane’s face was grey. Dylan had never seen him afraid before. It was like seeing him naked. Strong, carefree, who-gives-a-stuff Kane: as scared as a lost child. Dylan turned away. He tried to push aside reality and convince himself the solution was simply a case of getting a job waiting tables or cleaning toilets – but in his mind’s eye, the walls of the kitchen melted away and all he could see was darkness: the nothingness that would be left once the house was gone.

“Dad re-mortgaged the house to start off his business,” Kane explained in a flat voice. He took another drink, then stood nervously cracking the can. “Joel said he was only just managing the repayments, after Mum stopped working. So the mortgage is still there. It’s big. I – don’t get paid that much. I won’t be able to make that much money every month.”

“Don’t say that,” Dylan grunted, pushing his chair out and getting to his feet. “There’s got to be a way. If I get a job –”

“Let’s take it one step at a time. I’ll make this month’s payment and then …”

“And then what?”

“Then we’ll work something out.”

“You already said we can’t afford next month’s payment.”

Kane’s face bunched up as he thought hard.

“We could borrow the money,” offered Dylan.

“From who?”

“Grandma.”

“Grandma is on a pension. And she has Gramps to look after.”

“We could borrow it from the bank.”

Kane laughed at him. “Borrow money from the bank to pay back the money we owe them?”

“Don’t laugh at me! At least I’m trying to think of a solution!”

“There is no solution.”

“Don’t say that.”

“We’ll have to sell the house.”

“Think of something!”

“What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”

Dylan paced to the window and back. “I am not leaving this house!”

“Calm down, Dylan. There’s worse things than losing a house.”

He was so angry he couldn’t even look at his brother. Kane seemed to have given up already. How long had he known about this? How long had he kept it from him? Had he already started packing his bags?

“Look on the bright side,” Kane offered. “If we do have to go, it’ll be a new start.” He swung his arms around. “Maybe I don’t wanna stay in this place anyhow, now Mum and Dad are gone. Too many bad memories.”

So there it was: the truth, at last. Dylan stormed past him and out of the kitchen. As he ran up the stairs, he heard Kane calling, “Whaddaya think? Dylan? … Dylan!”

At the bedroom window, he pressed his hands against the cold glass and glowered at the garden below. Down back was the old treehouse, falling apart with neglect. After the accident his mother wanted it torn down, but his father couldn’t bring himself to do it. To him, the treehouse was a shrine, not a crime scene. So there it had remained over the years, battered by the sun, wind, rain and hail, the odd plank every so often coming loose and falling to the grass below: a dying monument to a dead child.

Over the fence, Mrs Kimmerle was hanging out washing, her face blank with boredom. She wasn’t living there when Oliver died, so she didn’t have a clue about the significance of the wooden box that was casting its shadow over her garden. Her curse was the opposite of Dylan’s: a lack of drama. She was a victim of routine, of daily chores that rubbed away the minutes of her life like a polishing cloth rubs away molecules of silver from an old teapot. With slumped shoulders and heavy steps, she went inside to join her boring, flat-faced husband.

Dylan rested his forehead against the glass. He’d known this view for most of his life. His father had been fastidious at weeding, pruning, sweeping and mowing; the garden looked like it belonged in a private estate. So much effort week in and week out. And yet, how long would it be before nature took over and turned Mike’s perfect yard into a jungle?

He should have been working to pay off the mortgage, not wasting time out there, sneered a voice in his head.

He shot a glance over his shoulder. The voice had sounded so real it might have come from his brother. But Dylan knew Kane better than that. He’d never say anything nasty about his father. He also knew how hard his brother was trying to stay positive, how much he was making an effort to keep things together. Or at least he did until today.

The thought made anger flare in his chest. What gave Kane the right to pretend everything would be alright when more and more was being stripped away from them? And why couldn’t he stop it from happening? It was becoming clearer that Kane was part of the problem, not the solution.

He looked beyond the yard, beyond the Kimmerles’ house, in the direction of Jacob’s End. Somewhere between here and there lived Wilfred Waite. The memory of the old man placed a cap on his anger. Crazy old fool. Probably demented. What had he said? – that Dylan was some kind of chosen one. What exactly did that mean?

He scowled in turn at the walls, the ceiling, the bed, the floor. If Waite had a weird interest in him, maybe he could use it to his advantage. He owned a business. Which probably meant he had money: lots of it. If he could get in Waite’s good books, they might be able to save the house.

He wracked his brain, trying to remember Waite’s address. He lived somewhere along Deep Ocean Road – but that was a long road, stretching all the way from Quorn to Jacob’s End. Then Dylan remembered that, despite not knowing where the old man lived, he knew precisely where he worked.

Pushing himself away from the window, he hurried across the carpet. At the top of the stairs, he stopped and listened for his brother. The TV was on, so he guessed he was in the living room. Good: it would be easy to slip past him without being intercepted and badgered or grilled.

Dylan gave himself an evil smile. He had a plan – a plan to save the house – and he was about to set the wheels in motion. Another step on the journey to the other side of sorrow.

Read Chapter 9: Down on the farm

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