I didn’t run all the way, I got bored after a bit and slowed to a jog. But it was amazing what it felt like to have energy. To be so full of life you actually wanted to waste some of it.
I’d never been very energetic, even when I was a kid. I was more of your quiet, contemplative toddler. My whole childhood was quite hard-going, right from the off. It’s not normal for the baby to suffer from postnatal depression, but I guess I was always special.
As I grew older, I was pretty normal, I think. Had a few friends at school but would rather lobotomise myself with a pencil through the nose than bring anyone home. When you have an awful home life with parents who never should have been allowed to raise children (or farm animal or a flag), isolation is preferable to exposure.
You learn to live with it and it’s fine. You don’t have anything to compare it to, other than the joy and happiness around you every day. Holidays and presents and needing a briefcase to carry your Valentine’s home. Or maybe everyone was as miserable as me and I’m just confusing life with a Charlie Brown cartoon. No, I’m not Charlie Brown in this scenario. I’m more the football Lucy keeps pulling away.
My favourite fantasy growing up was to be stranded on a desert island, on my own. I probably wouldn’t survive very long, but oh, the peace and quiet would have been lovely.
I’m making it sound like I had the worst childhood ever, which obviously isn’t true — I had a Playstation I had a laptop, I had a TV in my room — I’m just saying the Menendez brothers weren’t entirely wrong. Pro-choice should work both ways.
When you run, I discovered, you had time to think. It was nice to let my mind wander as I zoomed through the pedestrians cluttering the pavement. Once or twice, I thought I saw a big burly bloke watching me, military bearing, beady eyes following my passage down the road.
It wouldn’t have surprised me if I was being kept under observation. I had seen things I probably shouldn’t have but to be honest, who was I going to tell? Who was going to believe me when I told them about a large office building full of airships being prepped for a journey to another world? I mean, who apart from some sad lonely gits on the internet who just want someone to talk to?
Back in the day, when you uncovered some world-changing conspiracy, you went to the papers and they blew the lid off the whole thing. Leaders resigned and governments fell because the headlines couldn’t be denied.
Not like that anymore, is it. Remember the time they discovered those Panamanian papers and it turned out all those politicians and businessmen and celebrities had been squirrelling away their wealth without paying taxes? Remember how they were punished and the money was reclaimed for the greater good? No, me neither.
There was a guy in a shop doorway, his hair shaved, his chin scraped red and only recently stopped bleeding. Caused by me? Looking for payback?
There was another big fella, army jacket with a camo design, watching me run by through the glass window of the chip shop he was standing in. No chips in his hands Suspicious.
I may have been imagining it. No one tried to stop me or follow me. Seemed unlikely they had staked out my exact route, but then again they did have a bunch of psychics to help them.
Not that I was convinced that stuff was legit. Lillian was meant to be one of the most powerful psychics there were, omega level, X-Men franchise spin-off that didn’t suck (always a first time). But she hadn’t found a way to stop me.
Some people think they know what’s coming, and then they go out of their way to make sure it comes true. Lillian was convinced today was the day she would die, and then she pulled out a grenade. Well, no shit you’re going to die, Nostradumbass.
She probably felt the stakes were high enough to warrant that sort of extreme unilateral action, but she had failed to take into account my ability to not give a fuck.
People hate it when you don’t let them make their shitty choices on everyone else’s behalf. Everyone wants to have a go at steering the bus, everyone but me. However, not wanting to be in control myself doesn’t mean I’m happy to let anyone take over. That would just be stupid. It was the only reason I didn’t just walk away and leave them to it, the knowledge that incompetent people were waiting in the wings to leap out and fuck things up.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting professional-level competence, I realised how the world worked, but that didn’t mean letting high-functioning psychopaths and religious wingnuts run the show was a good idea.
Lillian had her reasons, she had her firm belief in herself and the voices she heard in her head, and she did what she thought was right. Her motivations were perfectly reasonable and easy to understand — I didn’t hold it against her at all. Next time I saw her, I planned to drop-kick her off the nearest bridge, that’s what the voices in my head told me to do. I was sure she’d be equally understanding.
I made it back to Cheng’s place without being intercepted but I still had the feeling of being watched. Even more so once I got to Cheng’s gate. There were vans parked along his road, three black ones that seemed very suspicious and one ice cream van which I didn’t trust at all. I bought a 99 flake from it but I didn’t like the look of the guy one bit. He gave me free chocolate sauce which was a clear giveaway he wasn’t a real ice cream van man. He also had a neck tattoo, but these days that means nothing. Tattoos and piercings and stretched-out earlobes used to be the province of carnival sideshows, now they’re what dull people rely on to get Instagram views.
I buzzed the gate and Mandy’s dulcet tones came through the intercom.
“What the fuck do you want?”
“Open the fucking gate, you ungrateful slut,” I said. Our secret password exchange that we hadn’t even prearranged.
The gate creaked open and I walked in, checking over my shoulder for any sneaky shit. I crunched up the drive to the house and was met by Mandy holding her kid. The poor little monster had been dressed like a chav footballer (so like a footballer) with a baseball cap that had ‘Juicy’ bedazzled across it to make sure any passing paedos were aware of what was available.
“You’re not dead, then?” she said with a mixture of surprise and disappointment.
“No,” I said. “You’re still not—”
“Don’t,” she cut in. As much as I ragged on her, she was pretty sharp. She knew when there was an STD insult coming her way. “I thought you were heading back to find Jenny.”
“I found her,” I said. I was still at the door, waiting for her to let me in. “Is Cheng here?”
“Yes.” She reluctantly moved to let me past. “You’re not going to cause trouble, are you?”
She meant to say, “Please don’t take the only thing I value in my pathetic failure of a life away from me,” but passive-aggressive people find it hard to say what they really mean. Especially to people who have explicitly told them they are a pathetic failure. In writing. Notarised.
“I am not going to cause trouble,” I said, “but trouble may happen in my vicinity, by coincidence.”
Charlie, son of the demon, laughed and pointed at me. At least he was pleased to see me.
“Yes, sweetheart,” Mandy said in the sing-song voice people use to talk to children for some unknown reason, “he is a stupid isn’t he? Yeees, a big stinky stupid.”
I didn’t say anything but I made a note to have a word with the kid at some point, give him a few tips on how to deal with a mental mother. We survivors have to stick together and help out the next generation.
Cheng was in his basement study. Mandy held the door open and shouted down to let him know I was here.
“Oi! Your boyfriend’s here,” she screamed, and then nodded for me to go down.
I walked down the stairs with one eye on Mandy, in case she decided to give me a push. Some girlfriends are so crazy, they don’t even have to be your girlfriend to ruin your life.
Cheng was sitting at his wooden workbench with a tray of test tubes, each holding a different coloured liquid. He wasn’t wearing a top and probably no pants, but I didn’t check.
“Oh, Colin, you’re still alive.” Cheng sounded just as surprised as Mandy, although not quite so disappointed.
“Yes, just about. Here, what can you tell me about this.” I held out the crystal ball I’d taken from Lillian.
He took it from me and gave it a good look. “It’s made of glass.”
“And? Can you use it to contact other worlds?”
“No,” said Cheng. “It’s just glass.”
“Doesn’t it have any other properties?”
“You could use it as a paperweight,” he said. He wasn’t even being sarcastic, which made it more cutting than if he had been.
“I saw a girl use it to contact Jenny,” I said. “She’s a psychic.”
Cheng shook his head. “I’m not sure what you saw, but I don’t think it had anything to do with psychic powers. That sort of thing is very weak in this world. Negligible, as far as I can tell.”
I wasn’t sure if I should trust him. I didn’t think he was lying, but his confidence in his view of the world was no different to anyone else’s. You can’t be sure of what you don’t know, and anyone who is will be eventually be proven wrong. That’s one of the things about leading a life of relentless misfortune, you learn to assume the worst and hope for something not quite so bad. Assuming the best is going to happen is just a recipe for disaster (coincidentally, very similar to the recipe for deep-fried Mars bars).
“I saw Jenny’s face in there” I said. “I spoke to her.”
“Maybe there’s a switch underneath, a video playback device.” It was hard to take this kind of scepticism from a fucking demon. Couple of months ago he had no idea what a battery was, now he was pooh-poohing the idea of the supernatural.
I took the crystal ball back and checked it over. I had hoped it would turn out to be some kind of interdimensional communication device, and it was actually about as useful as an old Nokia. I exhaled on it and gave it a rub. If no Jenny, maybe a genie?
“Can’t you open a gateway and send me back?” I asked him as I looked at the ball from different angles.
“Yes,” he said.
“You can?” I was surprised by his answer.
“Yes. In about two hundred years when the stars align.”
“Can’t we speed it up a bit?”
“Perhaps. You have the power to change things, once you learn how to use them properly.”
“And how long will that take, approximately.”
“Approximately… about three hundred years.”
Very helpful. I concentrated on the ball. If Lillian could activate it, why not me? I had skills, probably.
The ball began to glow, deep inside, maybe. Softly but it was definitely doing something. It was getting all misty inside.
“Look, it’s working.” I held it up to show Cheng.
He frowned. “It’s just condensation. There’s probably a leak.”
“Crystal balls don’t leak.” I shook it and put it closer to my eye. “Hello? Anyone there? Can you hear me?”
A large brown eye appeared in the ball, distorted and freaky. I jerked my head back, almost dropping the ball. It wasn’t Jenny’s eye, I was sure of that.
“Look, look,” I said to Cheng. “What is it?”
“Not what,” said Cheng. “Who.” He didn’t seem at all put out by the appearance of an eyeball in what he’d claimed was just an ordinary lump of round glass.
“Who is it?”
Cheng shrugged. “Why don’t you ask?”
He made a good point. I held the ball firmly and stared back into the abyss. The eye didn’t blink.
“Who are you?” I said, doing my best to sound confident and dangerous (five out of ten, if I was being generous). “Don’t try anything. I’m not someone you should fuck with.”
“So,” said an unimpressed voice, “it’s like that.”
The eye pulled back to reveal a small, round face.
“Have you finished your business with your friends?” she said. “About time you came home, don’t you think?”
“How?” I said. “I’m stuck here. Do you know the way back?”
She sighed and shook her head. “Fine. I suppose I’ll have to come and get you.” She let out an exasperated breath. “Stand back and douse any open flames.”
Stand back from where? What was she going to do? Come here? Come to this world? It didn’t seem feasible. But if it was, one thing was for sure — the people over here trying to pull their shenanigans were well and truly fucked. I couldn’t wait.
This is the halfway point of this book. Will be taking a couple of weeks off.
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