Tuck Squared - part 3

"I spilt my brother's blood in anger."
Tuck
SQUARED
Chapter 3

by Rachel Greenham


 
Chapter 3

***

Charlene’s bed, Valerie thought fuzzily as she woke. Mmm, where’s Charlene? Then the last half-year caught up with her, followed rapidly by the night before. She made a dash for the bathroom.

She was a long time sitting there, realizing just how dehydrated she was. Her head hurt. The more she thought about it the more conscious of it she became. It felt like someone had been taking practice swings at her skull with a baseball bat. She flushed and made straight for the shower. It wasn’t the bliss she had been hoping for, the noise of the water being too intrusive, her skin feeling too tender, so she made it a quick one and got out, wrapped herself in a towel and went back into the bedroom to open the thick curtains.

Sunlight — far far too much sunlight — blasted her retinas. She scrunched her eyes tightly shut, and that hurt too, and propelled herself away from the window, wailing. She made it to the bed and groped for her backpack. “Ware, ware, the evil Daystar,” she whimpered as she searched, “it burns us! It burns us!” Blindly she rummaged around until she found her Ray-Bans and put them on, then slumped face-down on the bed in relief. “Oh God,” she muttered and just lay still for a moment while the world spun down. “I am never doing that again,” she vowed into the quilt, hoping she wasn’t going to throw up. No-one told me wine could do that, she mourned. How much did we have anyway? She reckoned, being an amount counted in bottles rather than glasses, it was probably far too much. Man, but Jane can put it away! Whodathunkit?

Oddly, she hadn’t felt that drunk when she went to bed, probably because of the directions their conversation had taken. She replayed some of it back, lying there. Wow.

After a while she decided her stomach was secure, and went in search of some underwear. Her own clothes were still in a dirty pile; she had meant to ask Jane about washing them last night but had forgotten. Maybe she could hand-wash them this morning. In the meantime… She looked in the underwear drawer and sighed, as she had the previous evening. Oh we do both kinds, frilly and lacy. And all in a wide selection of whites and pastels too. Great. She looked over at her own black women’s sports briefs and almost considered it. Not until they’re washed, she affirmed. Jane would have a fit if she saw those anyway… Not that she was planning to show off her choice of panties. She decided lacy was less offensive than frilly and grabbed a pair.

As she stood to fasten the bra she’d found, she wandered to the window again and peered out. Some, at least, of the excess light was explained. It had snowed in the night, and a thick white carpet covered the grounds as far as the bordering line of trees, their own branches hanging low under the weight of snow. Now the sun was shining and everything was sharp and crystalline and way too bright. Overactive albedo, she decided with a grin and turned away. It was hurting her eyes even through the sunglasses. She headed for the dark comfort of the wardrobes.

***

Coming out of the bedroom Valerie looked across the hall at the two doors opposite, one of them led into her old room. She stepped across the hall and tried the door. It was unlocked.

The room was cold and empty. The bedding had been removed, and the various other laces and fripperies stripped away, leaving just the bare furniture, standing naked against the pink wallpaper. Her breath clouded in front of her face, and goosebumps raised up suddenly on her bare forearms.

She fled the room, took shelter back in Charlene’s room, slamming the door and breathing hard. Shit, she thought. What am I on?

It was just cold, she told herself. The heating’s off in that room, that’s all.

“Shit,” she said aloud, and threw open the door and strode back across the hall and back into her old room.

“No,” she told the room. “Just no. Don’t start.” She wasn’t sure who she was talking to, but she felt better for saying it, as she walked across to the window to look out at a scene that would have been familiar had it not been for the snow everywhere. She turned her back to it and looked again at the room. It was, she decided, just a room after all.

She could never afterwards entirely explain why she did what she did next, except that she had some hunch, some feeling that there was something to be found. First she went to the wardrobe nearest the window and looked inside. It was empty. Carefully, quietly, she wiggled the wardrobe out away from the wall slightly. It was a lot lighter when empty, she noted without surprise. There was the forgotten RJ11 port, but nothing else, nothing taped to the back. She checked the other wardrobes in like manner, also finding nothing. The bedside chest of drawers was next. She checked the undersides of the empty drawers, and inside the cabinet itself. Nothing. Why am I even doing this? She wondered, looking finally at the bed itself. Sighing, she got down to the floor by the bed and reached under to feel around the underside fabric.

Her heart nearly stopped when her fingers found a gash in the material. Not in exactly the same place, she told herself. Gene just had the same idea. Don’t panic girl, just ’cause you found what you were looking for.

Gingerly she reached in through the gash and groped around until the backs of her fingers brushed against something substantial. She actually giggled with pent-up nervousness. She twisted so she could get a grip on it and carefully pulled it out.

‘It’ turned out to be a large, thick artist’s sketchbook, its cover spotted with abstract doodles and an ornate-industrial, Giger-esque ‘EFW’ splashed across under the brand logo. “Oh my God,” she gasped in excitement, a moment before clutching it to her chest and breakdancing to her feet. Part of her knew she’d crumpled the dress she was wearing but she didn’t care. Even her hangover retreated to a mere thumping in the back of her head. Without having thought about it, she found herself kneeling on the bed, the sketchbook in front of her, still closed. Do I look at it? She wondered. Do I give it to Jane? Do I just hide it away again? After all, she reasoned, it was clearly meant to be private.

On the other hand… She fingered the sketchbook’s cover. On the other hand, there was no other remaining record.

And she was really curious now.

She turned over the front cover.

Well hey, Gene, you could really draw.

***

The smell was maddening. Jane made her way carefully down the stairs towards the kitchen. That girl can’t possibly be cooking a breakfast, she thought to herself. The evidence of her nose, and now as she approached her ears too, contradicted her.

The house seemed somehow lighter today, she thought. It had somehow lost some of its chill as well, despite the sudden cold snap outside. “What a difference a day makes,” she sang softly to herself. And company too, she added privately. I hadn’t realized how lonely I had become. Perhaps the house misses the young people too.

She had lain in bed much longer than was her usual habit, partly regretting the quantity of wine consumed, but mostly thinking about the offer she had made to her strange guest the previous night. Logic centers were firing off warning flares, but in the sober morning — with a clear, if pounding, head — it still felt unaccountably right. The offer stands, she had decided. The smell of a cooking breakfast did nothing to dissuade her.

Jane stopped on the threshold of the kitchen. There was Valerie, already nicely dressed and presentable, and aproned, chopping mushrooms while the sausages sizzled. Bacon was ready to go on, she noticed, and the oven was keeping warm some things that had already been done.

Valerie turned at that point, and Jane noticed she appeared to be wearing dark sunglasses. Not especially feminine ones, she noted, thinking she might have seen them on a movie poster, but all things considered, she decided to let it pass.

“Oh, good morning,” Valerie greeted her, when she turned. She sounded a little delicate, she thought. “I hope you don’t mind, only I heard this was good for a hangover.” She smiled, “something about replacing proteins and lipids or something. Sounds like a good excuse to me anyway,” she explained with a grin. Jane nodded assent. She was feeling decidedly delicate herself, and the food did smell gorgeous. “I’ve put in a load of washing too,” Valerie continued. “My stuff needed doing, and I just put it in with what was in the basket.” Jane just nodded again. “Jane,” she added diffidently, “I went into my old — into Eugenia’s room this morning, I hope you don’t mind. I — uh, I found something.”

“That room was searched by the police. There shouldn’t be anything left in there,” Jane said. In reply, Valerie just pointed at the kitchen table. Jane dashed in and picked up the sketchbook. “Where was it?”

Valerie grinned. “When I was here I had reason to hide my stuff away. Same place,” she explained, without actually giving it away, Jane noted, deciding not to pursue it just yet. “Jane, there’s really private stuff in there. Seriously private. Stuff Eugenia did not want you to see while she was here.” Jane nodded, unconsciously hugging the sketchbook to her breast. “I just figured — you know.”

“Yes, Valerie, I understand. You’ve looked through it then?” Valerie nodded. Jane let out a deep sigh. “Oh, Valerie this is — all her paintings were taken away. I knew she kept this, it was a trial sometimes getting her out from behind it; but we couldn’t find it, afterwards.”

“That’s probably just as well. Keep it safe. I got a feeling Gene’s folks wouldn’t appreciate it anyway,” Valerie understated.

Jane nodded again. “This is Eugenia. Not the son they want to remember.” This is for me. She held it away to look at the cover. “Thank you, Valerie.” She paused, unaccustomed to asking for advice. “Do you think I should look at it?”

Valerie thought about it, then nodded. “Yeah. I think it’ll help. Just don’t freak. I warned, you, okay?”

Jane turned her stern look on Valerie. “I do not ‘freak,’” she stated, dripping sarcasm over the last word. “Breakfast is nearly ready, is it not?”

“Yeah, uh, yes.”

Jane put the sketchbook back on the kitchen table, with some difficulty. “I’ll go and set the table,” she said, and escaped back into the dining room to regain her composure.

***

“Stupid, stupid people,” Jane muttered, looking again at the cover of the sketchbook. They had finished most of the breakfast and Jane, unable to restrain herself any longer, had gone back to the kitchen to fetch the book.

“Who?” Valerie had moved around to sit next to her.

“Eugene’s parents. How was the boy to learn to listen to people? They had clearly never listened to a word he said in his entire life. He was to go into stockbroking like them, and that was the end of it. Not a word of encouragement for the one thing he could do well that gave him pleasure. And he could do it well. There was such talent there, just waiting for a chance.” Jane sighed and turned over the front cover. The first sketches seemed to be of the train journey — faces on the train, views of the New England countryside; Valerie had irrationally half-expected to see herself sketched there. In-between everything, fantasy pictures abounded. Guns, half-naked female figures, anime-style, swords, explosions, castles and fortresses. “I don’t know what they thought they were doing sending him to me. Discipline, I suppose. They wanted to get him back better-behaved, more compliant than before.”

“Completely missing the point,” Valerie observed. Jane nodded.

“Discipline is the start of what I do, not the end. You cannot have true self-control without self-knowledge; only repression and frustration. If discipline was all they wanted they should have sent him to that boot camp. Oh my!” Jane had turned a page and was looking at the first of the caricatures of herself. She broke into an unexpected grin. “Is that what the new students thought of me?”

“Pretty much,” Valerie admitted. Those sketches were — unkind would be a diplomatic word. Valerie especially liked the one with Jane, in dominatrix gear, dead at the feet of a petticoated boy with spiky hair and an implausibly large gun. She decided she liked Gene’s sense of humor. There were nice sketches of Charlene amongst them, though neutral, as if Gene hadn’t figured out what to think of her yet.

Jane shrugged, still grinning. “It was working then,” she quipped, self-satisfied. “No, the major part of it was always to take them out of themselves for a short while, to show them, in the most dramatic way possible without harming them, that there are other ways they could be; different ways to relate to people.” She continued to turn pages slowly as she talked. “In a way, to give them the freedom to explore aspects of their character that had hitherto been neglected. Ahh, I remember that.” Her own smile reflected that on the page. “That was a good day. These are lovely of Charlene, don’t you think?”

They were. Valerie had guessed, on first viewing, that by this time Jane had discovered Eugenia’s hidden talent and was employing her own special abilities in bringing it forth, presumably with access to some skilled tutelage. There was a visible leap forward in skill and, frankly, ambition, with more complex poses being assayed on every page. One in particular, of Charlene reading by the poolside, was so familiar to Valerie she had gasped aloud on seeing it first.

It was from about that point as well that the cartoon strip first appeared, depicting little scenes as seen by Eugenia — often starting ordinarily enough, a trip to Miss Fransom’s, a visit from Edith White, and descending, or ascending, into fantasy. Eugenia’s imagination was certainly present and correct.

Valerie stopped Jane’s hand to look again at a self-portrait of Eugenia. The face had that intense, searching look commonplace in self-portraits, coming as it does from the artist really looking at themselves. “She really was exceptionally beautiful,” Jane murmured.

Jane looked on in silence for a while, turning pages every few seconds. Valerie stayed close by Jane’s side as the older woman became increasingly distressed as Julio — then Julia — started appearing in the sketches. There was hardly any outward sign, of course, but if one knew Jane, one could tell. “You don’t have to do this now,” Valerie offered.

“Yes I do,” Jane replied, keeping her voice even. She gave Valerie a brittle smile. “It’s helping, Valerie.” Valerie took one of Jane’s hands, encountering no resistance as she did so. With her spare hand Jane continued to turn pages. “Oh I see!” Jane exclaimed suddenly. “Oh well that does explain a few things.”

Pictures of Julia were everywhere, from tiny doodles, cartoons of her early days, larger sketches and, suddenly, a detailed full-page portrait drawing. The cartoons depicted, unequivocally, a budding romance between Julia and Eugenia. It was not always obvious where Eugenia’s witty observations gave over to wishful fantasies — the least that could be said was that Eugenia was deeply taken with Julia, and if even a fraction of the scenes depicted occurred in fact, it was clearly reciprocated. Julia’s image seemed taller, more self-assured, than Valerie’s memory of Teresa. Being adored would do that, she reckoned, and it’s clear she was.

As for Eugenia — Jane paused again over a picture of the two of them in the stables. Julia was dressed for riding, but Eugenia was naked.

The naked body was female. Confused little bunny, Valerie had thought when she’d first seen that. Now she watched Jane’s reaction carefully.

“Hmm,” was all Jane said. But she’d taken a while to say it.

“You’re not shocked then?” Valerie was surprised.

“I do not shock that easily, Valerie,” Jane replied. “Eugenia would not have been the first of my charges to develop a schoolgirl infatuation for a fellow student.”

“It’s a bit more than an infatuation, don’t you think?”

“Oh I assure you, they can be quite intense.” Jane turned the page and came across the birthday card from Julia that Valerie had seen earlier. It had been slipped between a pair of pages depicting a version of Jane’s mansion morphed into a fanciful Arabian palace, with Julia at a high balcony window. The card had been hand-made, in part from a photograph of Eugenia sitting in the garden with her sketchbook, snapped unawares, apparently, as she gazed dreamily off into space. Inside, Julia’s scratchy handwriting spelled out: “I dream of Genie,” and a crude drawing of a genie-lamp, and below that “My 3 wishes are…”

Jane closed the card and wordlessly placed it back where she found it. “I think I see your point,” she said at length.

“You okay with this?”

Jane smiled, wryly. “If I’d known at the time, I would have had to take some action; what action I don’t know, but being in loco parentis this would not be something I could lightly ignore, regardless,” she stressed, “of their respective sexes. Now?” She shrugged, “what difference does it make now? We two are the only ones that know about this.”

“Possibly Charlie,” Valerie added.

“If so, he held his tongue. His family’s lawyers would have loved to have dug up this little gem.” She sighed. “If he knew, and kept quiet, it was for their sakes,” she nodded at the sketchbook, “not mine. As for what exactly those two got up to, whether in fact Julia even knew about Eugene,” she shrugged again, “it would be puerile to speculate.”

“Guess so,” Valerie agreed. “We’d never be able to separate it all from Eugenia’s fantasies anyway,” she added, grinning.

“Precisely. And why should we try? I would far rather know her heart than waste time being forensic about mere facts.” She lingered over the drawings on the following pages. “It’s really quite beautiful,” she mused.

“They really did love each other,” Valerie offered.

“Maybe.”

Valerie saw that Jane had reached the last page, with its hastily drawn sketches of all three of them in their midsummer ballgowns, and Jane too. Gently she put her hand over Jane’s, before she could turn the page. “That’s all there is,” she said. Jane’s shoulders sagged.

“I know,” she replied. “I remember her drawing this. I was rushing her to finish and put it away so we could go.”

Jane sat in silence for a long time. After a while her hand found Valerie’s again, and held on tight.

***

After clearing away the breakfast things, they had decided on a walk out in the grounds of the house, ‘to get some air,’ Jane had said. It was crisp and cold, but still. For a while the only sound was the crunching of their boots through the snow as they walked, arm in arm. Valerie still had those sunglasses on, but otherwise, Jane thought, was very fetching all in black. Hats suited her, clearly. Sunglasses, she conceded privately, were probably not a bad idea either, given the combination of a hangover, snow on the ground, and sunshine. Never mind, she told herself, too late to go back for them now.

“I’ve been thinking about what we discussed last night,” Jane began. She saw Valerie’s brow dip, probably wondering which thing, she thought, finding an old habitual smile of satisfaction at the young person’s discomfiture. “I haven’t changed my mind,” she continued. “I am prepared,” she was conscious of it sounding like one of her speeches to students, “to offer you a home, such family as I am, the remainder of your upbringing and education. A base, from which you may launch your life, for which purpose, although I say it myself, I am extremely well-suited. In fact,” she added, “I am more than ‘prepared,’ I believe I should like it very much.”

“Jane…”

“You can’t now say I’m too drunk to think straight, can you,” Jane teased, nudging her as they walked.

“No,” Valerie smiled, “I know you mean it. I know you’re being serious. It’s just…” She sighed. “You are going to start the Academy again. I know you don’t think so yet, but I’m sure you are.”

“I concede it’s possible. I must admit I hadn’t seriously considered it until yesterday.”

“It’s inevitable. It’s your calling,” she added, with a grin.

“I take it you have a problem with that then?”

Valerie sighed, “I find some of your methods — questionable, okay? What you do to those kids when they first arrive… well, let’s look at it: You drug them, you confiscate their belongings, you indimidate them, you strip them and humiliate them, you blackmail them and scare them, you start erasing their physical identity, changing their appearance, you cut off their contact with the outside world, and you lock them in at night, and that’s day one!”

“And yet it works.”

“And yet, yes, I’ve seen it work, but my God, Jane, that’s a serious mindfuck, excuse the language, and that’s before I even get started on the gender stuff. Look at that nude drawing Eugenia did of herself. What exactly do you think was going through Gene’s head when he drew that?” Jane looked down at that, thoughtful. “You only need to do that to the wrong kid once and you could end up with another corpse on your hands!”

“Valerie…” Jane squeezed the girl’s arm to soften the interruption. “I do know.” Valerie looked aside at her, but held her peace, to hear her out. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time. I’ve made mistakes, and learned from them. I understand the line I walk with these children. It is dangerous, yes,” she admitted. “Sometimes I scare myself thinking about it. Sometimes I question my own motives, because, after all, I enjoy the work, Valerie, and I wonder if that is — proper. But if I thought I was doing harm…” She shook her head. “I couldn’t bear that. I couldn’t bear it.” They walked on in silence for a while. “I do understand how dangerous it is, Valerie. I do. All I can do is reassure you that I know my job. There is no aspect of the program I follow that has not been carefully thought through — sometimes agonized over — and justified for its specific purpose. It is not nearly so arbitrary as I take pains to make it appear,” she added with a wry grin. “Which is not to say there aren’t times when some considerable amount of improvisation is required.”

Valerie shook her head. “I still don’t like it,” she muttered. “I don’t know that I could be a party to it.”

Jane nodded, carefully. “Very well. I wouldn’t ask you to be.”

“But I’m going to be there, aren’t I?”

“I would ask only that you maintain a feminine demeanor and not actually undermine me. Can you do that?”

Valerie shrugged. “It’s close enough to what we agreed for the second half of the summer. As long as I don’t have to sleep in the basement,” she added mischievously.

“Why on Earth would I ask you to sleep in the basement?”

“Never mind,” Valerie grinned at some private joke.

“Besides,” Jane added, “by the time any of this might come to pass, you may very well be in college.”

“With any luck I’ll be home,” Valerie pointed out. Jane nodded. It occurred to Valerie suddenly that without Jane, college was something that simply wouldn’t be there in her future any more. She wondered briefly if Jane had reminded her deliberately. “What you’re offering is wonderful, much more than I ever had the right to expect. I’d be an idiot to turn it down.”

“It’s no more than you deserve, Valerie. Don’t you have any idea,” she added to Valerie’s blank expression, “what you’ve done for me? Already? For the first time in half a year I feel I could have something to look forward to. I’m sure,” she finished, “that if you have any worries we can work to lay them to rest.”

“It’s not just that, Jane. It’s…” she glanced at her watch, “forty-eight hours ago I had my own life. I lived with my Mom and Dad, I had a girlfriend, I had my friends. Suddenly I’m pulled out of that and I’m just — it’s like I’m just a shadow of how someone’s life might have gone. It’s too soon, Jane,” she tried to explain, “It’s too soon to just give up and write all that off as if it never happened.”

Jane nodded. “I understand,” she said. “And the last thing you need is a lonely old spinster coming at you seeing one last chance at motherhood, eh?”

“That’s not what I meant!” Valerie protested, before she caught Jane’s grin that told her she was being teased again.

“The offer remains open, Valerie. Should you find your way home, I’ll be happy for you. Otherwise, remember my offer, and think about it.”

“I will, Jane.”

“You know the telephone number here, don’t you?”

“Um, unless you changed it,” she reeled it off. Jane nodded.

“That’s the one, but I will be moving away — when I decide where, so if I have done so before you make your own decision, call Art. I’ll give you his number and tell him you may call.”

Valerie nodded.

“So are you going back, to help your counterpart see sense?”

Valerie sighed, and kicked at the snow. “Guess so.”

“I think you should. You’ve been such a help to me, I can’t help but believe that you’re here to help.”

Valerie laughed dryly. “Yeah, maybe I got my superhero power after all. I can make people cry. Yay.” Jane shoved her away playfully in response, unlinking their arms in the process. “I was kind of hoping it would be something more,” Valerie continued when she had recovered her balance. “You know, like laser-beam eyes, or flying.” She made a little experimental hop as if to see if she would come back to Earth. She did. “Sucks to be a pedestrian.”

Jane was laughing. “What would you have done if you had flown?” she asked.

“Probably slammed straight into that tree,” she pointed at the large oak towards which they were moving, “and given myself serious head injuries, of course,” Valerie grinned. “On the other hand, if I survived the first three minutes and got the hang of it, it would sure save on gas for getting around.”

“That reminds me,” Jane interjected, “I meant to ask you, do you have enough money?”

“Um…”

“That would be a ‘no’ wouldn’t it?” Jane confirmed, and carried on to cover Valerie’s obvious embarrassment. “All you have is what you were carrying at the time, minus what you spent to get here. Am I correct?” Valerie nodded. “I’ll give you some money to be getting on with,” Jane announced. “Don’t argue with me,” she warned, before Valerie could start, “my mind is made up.”

“I didn’t come here to take money off you,” Valerie protested anyway.

“I know. Believe me, if I thought you had you’d have been out of here so fast your head would spin.” Jane softened her tone. “This is not payment,” she continued. “This is not paying you off. On the contrary, I want you to return. This is just to help you get by until you do. This is just to give you time to think about things properly. Understand me?”

Valerie nodded. “I suppose.”

“And I warn you, if you do come back and I formally adopt you, you’ll not get money out of me this easily again. I take my duties very seriously and I would be very conscientious in not allowing you be spoiled by my wealth, so you may as well make the most of it now.”

Valerie grinned. “Well, if you put it like that,” she said, jokingly.

“I do.”

***

The ride into town had been a trial. Snow was not a road bike’s natural terrain at the best of times, and Valerie was not an experienced rider, this being her first winter on two wheels, and her first time in snow. She took it very carefully, wobbling along behind Jane’s BMW down the long lane. Eventually they got there and the roads cleared up.

At the bank, Jane withdrew a large sum of money — much, much more than Valerie had expected — and passed it to her. “Wait, Jane, that’s too much!” she protested.

“I told you not to argue. This is for you to use as you will, but I trust you will do so wisely. Take it graciously, girl, you know how.”

Valerie gave up. She nodded, accepting the money. “Thank you Jane. I won’t forget this.”

“Nor are you to think yourself beholden to me because of it,” Jane reminded her. “This is time, that’s all. Time for you to think.”

They went outside, back into the crisp cold, to where her bike waited at the curbside. Valerie guessed this was it, as she bent to unlock the chain. The forecast said the rest of the snow would hold off until tomorrow night, so she had to get moving to get back in time.

Valerie stepped forwards impulsively and hugged the older woman. Jane stood nonplussed for a second, then returned the hug. “I’ll be in touch,” Valerie said into her ear. “Whatever I decide, I’ll be in touch. If you don’t hear from me, it means I’ve found a way home, okay? If I’m here I’ll be in touch whatever I decide.” They separated. Jane ruffled Valerie’s hair, playfully. It wasn’t to be resisted.

“Now, you go and straighten out that other foolish child, will you?” she said. Valerie nodded, smiled and swung her leg over the bike’s seat and started the engine.

***

It was a hard ride. Mile after mile after mile into the afternoon sun, shining off the snow-covered fields into her eyes. The sunglasses she still had on under her helmet could only help so much. Sometimes the highway was closed down to a lane with piles of slush on either side. She was cold. Her hands, even inside her winter gloves, seemed to freeze into claws as the miles went by. Her back-side hurt tremendously.

It was almost a relief when the sun set and was out of her eyes, but as it got darker she found herself getting more and more nervous about the unseen snow and ice on the road, so she started looking for a motel. Early to bed, early to rise, she reasoned, then she could get a lot of miles done before the sun overtook her again. She understood now why most people put their bikes away for the winter months; she had thought it merely a sign of weakness before.

As she pushed open the motel bedroom door, she vowed the next morning she would do a thorough check of the bike before starting off. She had just figured her breakdown-assistance membership wasn’t going to be valid, which would mean paying way over the odds in cash if something happened. She had the cash, of course, but it would be a shame to waste it on being stupid.

Her hands hurt badly with cold. She had tried to stave off the cold during the ride by warming her hands alternately on the engine, but it was uncomfortable reaching down to that, and she had had to accelerate each time before taking her right hand off the throttle and declutching, so she had speed to lose while she got heat to the hand. Even so, she had some difficulty getting the gloves off, and when she did they were pink and clammy. Frostbite, she realized, was a risk. She blew on her fingers and stuffed them into her armpits and wondered if she could find somewhere in the morning to buy heated gloves, or something; a decent bike shop, if she was lucky, where she could ask. Getting off the rest of her clothes and turning on the shower hurt her hands more, but eventually she was able to get in under the hot stream and work her hands back into life.

Eventually she forced herself to leave the shower and head for bed, finding herself shivering violently to get the bedding up to temperature. She lay there waiting for her mammal-body to do its work, and looked at the ceiling.

It was cracked, the paintwork yellowed with age. If it hadn’t been for Jane’s offer, she had been reckoning on seeing a lot more ceilings like this. That was assuming she did well enough on her own to keep any roof over her head. I want to go home, she thought to herself. I miss Debbie. I miss Mike. I miss Mom and Dad. I even miss Brian, she realized. Then had another thought. She should have thought of it earlier, she berated herself. They’re missing me! They’ll be wondering where the hell I’ve gone! They’ll be thinking I’ve run off somewhere again. Oh God… Even if she did get back, there’d be hell to pay. She lay awake, imagining Mike and Debbie, the Rat Boyz, the Pack, driving around looking for her, thinking she was holed up somewhere having some emotional crisis, and getting themselves into a complete panic. She imagined her parents; Mom, frantic, lashing out at the presumed incompetence of the police. Dad pretending self-control for Mom’s sake. The police… The police would be on the case by now. But they wouldn’t find her either. She imagined Mom and Dad looking on in dread as the divers trawled the river bed — in this freezing weather — but they wouldn’t find anything.

Sooner or later she’d be a face on the side of a milk carton. People disappear all the time, she realized. They just disappear without warning and no-one ever hears from them again. Or sometimes they reappear, but they’re different, somehow. Or sometimes you hear how someone changed overnight. Does this happen all the time? She thought suddenly. Does what happened to me happen all the time? As she lay still she thought she felt herself twisting or falling or floating. Just her inner ear playing tricks, she realized, shaking her head to reset it. It seemed appropriate though. How can I depend on anything? She wondered.

I want to go home.

***

What day is it? She counted it up. Tuesday? She’d been missing around 72 hours, back home. The miles swept by underneath her. She flexed her hands inside the thermal ‘lobster’ gloves she’d been recommended. Her fingers felt nice and toasty, and no need for electrics. She was impressed.

She’d been right to check the bike in the morning. It had been dangerously low on oil, and all the road gunk was threatening to clog the radiator completely. It needed a serious wash to get all the road salt out. Generally it seemed to be a happy machine though; happier for receiving a little TLC. Times like this she wished she’d bought a bike with a fairing. It would have protected her from the road gunge and the cold cold wind. But she hadn’t expected to go touring the country. A nice little Japanese commuter bike, for darting in and out of traffic in town and the occasional hoon round the countryside.

‘Girly’, Mike had described it, so she’d stuck him on the jump seat and ridden until he screamed for mercy. The acceleration made even Stupid look, well, stupid, and it had Dark Star brakes to match. In the end Mike kind of enjoyed it, once he’d decided to stop screaming and try to relax. She was still working on him to get one too. Oh the havoc they could cause… She’d insisted on Mike and Debbie each having their own set of bike gear, so she could take them on the back if the need arose. She wouldn’t countenance taking them anywhere without at least a helmet. Someone on that newsgroup had sent her some pictures and she hadn’t needed more convincing. “What do doctors call bikers who don’t wear crash helmets?” the joke had gone. “Organ donors.”

It had been hard enough to persuade Dad not to force her to keep a spare set of bike gear on the bike at all times. After all the arguments about how it would cripple the bike, and how ill-fitting gear is less effective anyway, the clincher was when she’d shown him those same pictures and said “Look, Dad, I’m not going to let this happen to my friends, okay? Trust me on this.”

The state border was coming up ahead, so she slowed. Nearly there then, she grinned at herself. Only a few hundred more miles… Through the barriers and away. Some idiot in a Cobra thought he could take her. She laughed as she saw him diminish in her rear-view mirrors. Power to weight ratio strikes again! Home-straight now. On the way back from the winter hikes in upstate New York, it always felt like we were really on our way home when we passed here, she remembered from her childhood. I love my bike, she thought to herself. I’m so glad it came with me. Just hope the cops don’t check the license plate…

A few minutes later the Cobra belted past her at some ungodly speed. She’d settled down at what she considered her safe limit in this weather, which was still fast enough to get her into trouble, she knew, but that was nothing unusual. She just needed a nice, fuel-efficient, mile-eating kind of speed that wasn’t too stressful. Guess he had something to prove, she mused as the Cobra disappeared in a spray of snow and ice into the distance. She let her awareness spread out again, after the disruption of the border. She could sense herself as a mote inching through the landscape. The road goes ever on and on, back to the place where it began, she almost-murmured. When is someone gonna make a decent film of that anyway? Then it was a game to remember as many road songs as she could.

***

Home. Only not. She parked her bike across the street and watched the house for a while. It didn’t look like anyone was in. Maybe they were having a family dinner somewhere. Maybe they were just all out on separate stuff. She pondered taking the front door, but decided against it. The alarm code might have changed, she thought, and I’d set it off. Same with Tuck’s room. He might have changed the code.

So it would have to be the other way in. Through the bedroom window. She grimaced as she painfully separated herself from the seat of the bike and went across, trying to unkink her hips so she didn’t walk like John Wayne.

Once inside she opened the bedroom door from the inside and locked it open so she could go to the bathroom. She stepped out into the hallway and got an immediate shock at a movement coming out of Brian’s room. She froze. It was a cat, curling round the doorway to investigate, she realized. They have a cat here, she remarked to herself, bending down to stroke it. Not much more than a kitten, she realized. Apparently she passed muster, as it started purring, yawned, then wandered off back to Brian’s room.

So she wasn’t entirely surprised when she sneezed and only just avoided stepping into the litter box in the bathroom.

She decided to take a chance and have a quick shower. Two days in the saddle can make one take such chances, she excused herself. She was very quick, though. Less than ten minutes later she was crashing out in bed, the door locked against all but one. Five minutes later than that she was asleep.

***

“You are real,” the voice said. Valerie found that strangely comforting, given the other dreams she’d been having.

No, she realized. The voice was really there. She opened an eye, cautiously. “Nuh…?” she managed. Tuck was kneeling by the bed. She made an effort and woke another couple of notches. “Yeah, sorry I ran out on you at the mall. Something I had to do.” She sat up slowly, still dazed from sleep, and became aware that something was not right. Tuck was looking at her. “What?” she demanded, Oh, tits, she realized belatedly, snatching up the covers around her. “I hope you don’t mind,” she continued. “I didn’t have anyplace else to go.”

“I kept dreaming about you,” Tuck replied. He sounded a bit dreamy, she thought. Out of it. “I thought… Mike said…” He stopped. Valerie watched him as he tried to collect himself. “Mike said you were a vision.”

“Jeez, Tuck,” she observed suddenly, “you look like shit. What’ve you been doing?” He looked like he hadn’t eaten or slept for days, and not in a nice too-busy-hacking way either. She watched the play of expressions across his face. He had tears in his eyes.

“Mike’s gone,” he whispered, then, and fell silent long enough for Valerie to feel a chill run right through her.

“Gone?” she asked, feeling stupid. “How do you mean gone? What kind of gone?”

Tuck shrugged, his head hanging. “Gone. Disappeared. No-one can find him.” Tuck gasped in a breath. “I can’t find him. I did this! I drove him away!” He was starting to have a panic attack, Valerie could see, so she grasped one of his hands and squeezed, hard, to get his attention.

“Tell. Me. What. Happened.” She enunciated the words carefully, to get through. For a moment her thoughts of the previous night came back. This happens all the time. Had Mike jumped out? But then she thought, no, this is happening just like it did before, that time.

“I…” Tuck struggled. “I cut him,” he whispered finally. “I cut him. I got angry and I swung at him and I was holding a knife and I cut him.” It all came out in a rush. He looked back up at Valerie, desperately. “I spilt my brother’s blood in anger,” he added, as if she needed it explained to her. Oh God, she was thinking. This is way worse than what happened to me. “And then he left,” Tuck was continuing. “He didn’t say a word, he just left. And no-one’s seen him since.”

“Oh Tuck,” she breathed. Oh Jane, is this what you meant? You think I was brought here to fix this? She sighed. I have no idea what to do. “When did this happen?” She asked.

“Sunday. Sunday evening.”

“Oh God,” Valerie realized, “I felt that.” She ignored Tuck’s questioning look. She was thinking. “Okay,” she said, the shape of what she would do forming. “Okay. What time is it?”

“Um, after eleven.”

“Dad still up?” Tuck nodded. “Okay, we need to be sneaky then. You need to go and get some things together. Ready?” Tuck nodded again. “Okay. Um. Some camp mats, stuff to make a fire, including some dry wood, a first-aid kit, a quart of cold water and a big bowl. And the knife you cut Mike with.”

“What…?” Tuck looked nonplussed.

“Never mind, just do it. And Tuck,” she added, hazarding a guess. “Your blades.” She nodded towards the bedside drawer. “Get them too.” She saw it hit home on his face. Good guess then, she decided. Now, she beamed, you will not freak, you will not freeze. You’ll hold it together and get the stuff. She held his gaze for several seconds, until he nodded. “Oh, and I need some clothes. Mine are rank.”

Tuck pointed at the wardrobe. “Val-stuff’s at the bottom,” he muttered, and fled out of the room.

Valerie sighed. She hoped to hell she knew what she was doing.

***

Valerie had quickly chosen a pair of black jeans, a T-shirt, a dark grey sweater and her own bike boots and jacket. She was just pulling her hair out from under the sweater to tie it into a ponytail when Tuck came back into the room. He started stuffing the things he’d brought into his backpack, except the large water-bottle. He was done, and seemed to be hesitating, then went to his bedside drawer-unit and retrieved the small box Valerie had known was there, and put that in too. Valerie was feeling a little weak in her legs; she hadn’t had enough sleep, she knew. More than Tuck, she thought. He seemed to be running mostly on nerves. He disappeared out of the room again and returned a couple of minutes later with his own winter boots and ski jacket.

***

Tuck didn’t speak until they were well out of range of the house, walking quickly against the growing cold. There were already some bitter specks of snow in the air, whipping around indecisively. “Where are we looking for him, then?” Tuck asked, suddenly. “Do you know where he is?”

“We’re not going to look for him,” Valerie replied. “He’s going to find you. You’re going to call to him.” At Tuck’s unspoken question, she continued, “You’ll see. I’ve done this before,” she added grimly.

They walked on in silence. After a while, Tuck realized where they were going.

“We’re going to his house?” he asked her.

“The treehouse.”

***

The steps up were icy and treacherous. Tuck went up first. He slipped once, but caught himself. The Johanssen’s bedroom was round the front of the house, so they shouldn’t hear anything, they hoped.

“Okay,” Valerie said, once they were in. It was cold. Frost covered the walls. “Put the mats down and let’s start this fire.” She looked up, to check the ceiling-hole was intact and clear.

“You’re going to start a fire in here?” Tuck gasped, astonished. Valerie nodded.

“What’s up? You like hypothermia, or don’t you know how to handle a small fire?”

Tuck shook his head in wonder and spread out the first of the mats. In a few minutes the mats were laid out and Valerie had the fire lit. Small as it was, it made the old treehouse feel immediately brighter and warmer. Valerie sat on the mat on Tuck’s right side, set the bowl between them and filled it with the cold water they had brought.

“Now,” she started. “You want Mike to come back?” Tuck nodded mutely. “What would you give?”

“Anything, right now,” Tuck said. “Anything.”

“Anything?” Tuck nodded. “Your right hand, for example?” Tuck nodded again, automatically. It was the standard thing one said, ‘I’d give my right hand to…’ Tuck looked up at Valerie suddenly. She was watching him, then looked meaningfully aside at the fire, and back.

“You’re kidding,” Tuck got out eventually. Valerie shook her head.

“If you want him back, call him. Hasn’t he always come when you were in pain?” Tuck just looked at her, aghast. “You won’t lose it, Tuck,” she continued, trying to keep the testiness out of her voice. “There will be pain. There has to be. But it’s not the Gom Jabbar, you don’t have to hold it in there more than a moment or two.”

“You really mean it, don’t you.” Tuck said carefully. Valerie nodded, and raised her hand to show Tuck.

“See? No sign of it now, so don’t worry. It’ll heal. It’s not as bad as that taser,” she added. “The difference is what’s in your head.”

Tuck looked back at the fire, pensively. Valerie waited. Then in one decisive move he thrust his hand into the heart of the fire. One-one-thousand, Valerie counted silently, two-one-thousand, thr…

“Enough!” she yelled, just as Tuck yanked his hand away, crying out.

“Shitshitshit!” he cried, cradling his hand. Valerie quickly grabbed his wrist and dunked his hand in the bowl of water. “Ah! Ah!” Tuck was gasping. His tears glistened on his cheeks.

“Hold still,” she commanded, as he tried to jerk his hand away again. He complied, as she opened the first aid kit.

“How does it feel?” she asked after he had held his hand immersed for several minutes.

“Um, aching more from the cold now I think,” he offered.

“Okay, you don’t want frostbite. Let’s take a look.”

She was still applying the dressing when they both started at a sound from outside. From the end of the street, she could clearly hear the antisocial roar of Stupid’s engine. (The old engine, she noticed, irrelevantly.)

“It worked,” Tuck murmured, incredulously. “My God it worked.”

“Yeah,” Valerie’s voice came tightly. “Now comes the hard part.

Notes:

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To Be Continued...



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