“I’ll leave her,” Nick said.
The night seemed very still suddenly. Nick stayed crouched and watchful, waiting for Alan to make any movement, willing him to give in. Alan shut his eyes and swallowed, looking so disappointed in Nick and so scared. For their mother.
“I swear I will,” Nick said, voice low, threatening and promising, meaning every word. “If you go, I’ll leave her. I’ll come find you. What do you think would happen to her if we both left?”
Nick didn’t lie. He’d seen Alan lie to people his whole life and every time he opened a book he saw words twist across pages, their meaning slipping away from him. Words were treacherous enough without him telling lies.
When he said something, he knew Alan would believe it.
Alan opened his eyes and looked at Nick. His eyes were bleak.
“All right, Nick,” he whispered. “I won’t go.”
Nick spoke with difficulty. “All right.”
He grabbed the bag Alan had been carrying, climbed to his feet, and went to the door without casting another look at his brother still sitting in the grass. He was tired, and he didn’t want to think anymore about Alan trying to leave.
When he dropped the bag into Alan’s room, he saw his brother had left a note on his pillow.
Nick sat on Alan’s bed and tried to read it. He needed to concentrate to read, and his mind was all over the place, thoughts wild and tangled, and the words went wild and tangled too. They looked like nothing but inky thorns spreading across the blank white page.
He caught one sentence, which was I’m going to a place where I know I will be welcome.
It made him remember the picture of that girl and look across the room. There was only one gap to be seen in the crowded bookshelves. Alan had planned to leave him, but he’d meant to take the book and the hidden picture wherever he went.
Nick stared at the letter and felt that sharp urge to hurt something again. He palmed a knife and cut it up, once, twice, three times until the words were gone and the letter was nothing but tattered white fragments.
A slight noise made Nick lift his head. He saw Alan hesitating in the doorway. He couldn’t read his face any more than he could those words. He wondered how long Alan had been standing there, watching Nick slice up his good-bye letter.
They looked at each other without speaking, and in the silence Nick wondered if Alan had told him another lie: if he’d wanted to go to that girl. If he did want to leave, after all.
Alan cleared his throat. “You were right. I was being stupid.”
“No kidding,” Nick said roughly.
“I panicked when that message came,” Alan explained, leaning heavily against the door frame. “I couldn’t help it. I don’t want to be a danger to you, and I don’t know what to do. But if they tried this, they’ll try something else. Running away won’t solve anything. I have to think of a plan. I have to do something to settle this once and for all.”
Alan’s voice gathered determination as he spoke. If he thought he was going to change Black Arthur’s mind then he was dreaming, but it was familiar and soothing for Nick to see his brother ready to plan their way out of every situation.
Alan picked C%">is up the bag Nick had carried upstairs, and Nick crossed the room to take it from him.
“Give me that. I’ll put your stuff away.”
“Thank you,” Alan said, smiling at him. He reached out and took the book with the hidden picture from a side pocket, smoothing his fingers — born musician’s hands, Dad had always said, long fingers that touched everything lightly — with absent affection over the cover. “I’ll take this. I’m reading it.”
He limped over to his bed, still holding the book. Nick was quiet, methodically putting away all the clothes and weapons Alan had packed, erasing any trace of the fact that Alan had meant to leave.
“I’m sorry about this,” Alan said softly, surprising him. “I won’t let you down again.”
Nick didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what Alan was talking about; it was ridiculous. Alan didn’t let him down. He’d never once done that.
“Stop being stupid.”
Nick glanced over at his brother. Alan was looking serious and a little sad, standing beside the bed with the pieces of his letter scattered around his feet and his fingers tracing restless patterns over the cover of that book.
“Yeah,” Alan said, and smiled at him with an obvious effort. “I’ll try.”
The Goblin Market
STOP SULKING,” ALAN SAID AS HE PARKED THE CAR.
Nick was not sulking. He simply did not know why Alan exercised his considerable intelligence to achieve such stupid goals. He’d fabricated enormous lies, he’d pleaded and he’d twinkled energetically at old ladies, all in order to get Nick into school. Where Nick had no desire to be, because school was a waste of time. It meant dozens of teachers hassling him about being dyslexic, and it meant Alan working full-time when Alan wanted to go to college. If Alan would just let Nick work full time in the garage, then Alan could go to college and Nick would never be saddled with any more reading, and everyone would be happy.
Only Alan was a stubborn idiot who refused to see reason, and he had actually forced Nick into a school uniform.
Nick said nothing. He was trying to rumple his uniform by sitting still and directing the sheer force of his hatred at it.
“You are sulking,” Alan said into the vacuum of Nick’s stony silence. “You shouldn’t be. You need to complete your education and besides, a man in uniform always looks dashing.”
Nick gave him the kind of look he felt a word like “dashing” deserved.
Alan frowned and said, “I do wish you’d eaten breakfast.”
Nick’s view of his new school, a brown institutional building as square and basically uninspiring as a brick, was suddenly obscured by a girl. She was platinum blond and slim in a schoolgirl skirt.
He supposed there was something to be said for the uniform after all.
“Just to please you, I will,” Nick said, and nodded in the girl’s direction. “Don’t you think she looks like breakfast?”
While Alan checked a smile and began a lecture on speaking of women with respect, Nick snagged his bag and got out of the car. Alan leaned over the passenger seat.
“Remember,” he called. “Just be yourself, and everyone will love you!”
Nick rolled his eyes and made a rude gesture, and Alan drove the car away laughing.
Slouching toward his scholastic fate, Nick caught the blonde’s eyes while they were sliding over him, and held them. Then he winked.
There were enough pretty girls to keep Nick entertained for most of the day. The last class was computers, and while the teacher was droning on, Nick typed “Tony’s Photos” into the search engine.
Luck was with him. He only had to scroll down past half a dozen Tonys who wanted to share their holiday photos with the world before he found a shop in England. Miraculously, it was not a chain. The small website, boasting a chubby and somewhat manic-looking baby, informed him that it was located in Durham.
They had never even lived in Durham — but last year they had lived in Sunderland, thirteen miles away. On the day after Christmas, Alan had disappeared for four days, talking about a Sumerian stone tablet that he’d been called in to examine. Mum had not come out of her room for the entire time Alan was away, and she would not have eaten if Nick had not gone upstairs and forced food down her throat. She’d screamed the entire time Nick was touching her.
Whenever Nick had made a noise in the house, he’d known his mother was listening for it, frozen and panting as if she were a hunted animal. Alan was the one always talking, turning on the TV and the radio, bringing home the weird people who were their only guests. Nick had stopped turning on lights and appliances because it wasn’t worth the bother of sending Mum into hysterics. The house started to seem shut off from the rest of the world, darkness and silence pressing all around until Nick felt as if he could not get out. He wanted to leave, he needed to buy groceries, but he sat on the stairs and waited in the dark.
Winter light had come in with Alan as he opened the door. Nick had looked up from his place on the stairs and said, “You can’t do this again.”
Alan went pale and answered, “I won’t.”
During the four days of darkness, it had never occurred to Nick that Alan could possibly have been lying, or could possibly have abandoned them for his own reasons.
It was occurring to him now.
Nick took down the address and phone number of Tony’s Photos in Durham, and then closed the window.
The next day at school Nick went and found his new crowd. There was a large bike shed around back of the school, which looked like a concrete block Kconick with a sheet of tinfoil on top. He’d seen it yesterday and known at once that this was the place.
Sure enough, there were three boys there already, two of them smoking. One dropped his cigarette on the gravel as soon as he saw Nick. He’d be no trouble. Nick raised his eyebrows, saw the boy’s eyes drop in embarrassment, and turned to the boy who’d kept smoking.
“Nick Ryves,” he said. “Mind if I join you?”
He threw out the words like a challenge. He’d found that was the best way to start things, since it always ended up that way in the end.
The boy eyed him with what Nick thought was an unusual amount of hostility to start off with. Usually it took Nick a couple of weeks to antagonize people to that degree.
“Carr,” he said at last. “Joe Carr.”
He was the usual type: He’d be snarling and trying to trip Nick up all the time, like a terrier with a Rottweiler in his yard. Still, much like a terrier, he’d stick around and never cause Nick any real trouble.
Alan had made him promise not to take up smoking. Nick always regretted that on the first day at new schools, when he wished he could smoke instead of talking. He hated talking to strangers. Sooner or later, he always said something that pulled someone up short, and then he had to glare them all into submission.
New schools were always a pain. He could hear Dad in his head all the time on the first days, telling him to blend in, telling him to try and be just like everyone else. All their lives depended on it.
“Nice place you have here,” Nick said after a beat. “Love the scenery. Especially that Cathy girl.”
“Cassie is my girlfriend,” Joe snapped at him.
“Whoops,” Nick said. “Oh well.”
The other two boys snickered, and Nick grinned at them. He’d picked the right group again. When he was little, he’d gravitated toward what was familiar and tried to make friends with people who were like Alan, only without guns hidden under their button-up shirts. People who talked too much and did their homework and who, on reflection, he’d kind of scared.
This was much easier. Dad would’ve approved.
He sat at the back of their next class with Lewis, the boy who hadn’t been smoking. He was still thinking of the picture girl from Durham and he forgot to talk at all, which was a mistake. Long silences made people uneasy.
“You all right?” Lewis asked, shifting as far away from Nick as he could.
“Fine,” Nick snapped, and then thought of Dad. “Just girl problems, you know,” he added as casually as he could.
The other boy sighed, sounding reassured. “Girls always turn out to be problems.”
“Yeah,” Nick answered absentmindedly.
He was still thinking of that hidden picture, that possible hidden trip. He had no problem with Alan’s crushes on girls like Mae, girls who weren’t interested and who were going to be left behind. A girl who could make Ala Kcouushn lie to Nick, though, that was something he wasn’t going to tolerate. He had to know what was going on.
He grinned at Lewis. “She won’t be a problem much longer.”