TG Universes & Series:
"You're not alone."
Nathan's Story 1
“Stop giggling!” Jack complained. “She’ll hear.”
Danny said, “But that’s silly!”
“It’s true! My Granny told me, they really used to do this. The fairy folk’re always on the lookout for little boys, she said. They come an’ take you away when the grown-ups in’t watching an’ put their own sick kids in their place, and no-one would know any different ’cept you got sick and din’t get any better.”
“So they’d really dress ’em up in girls’ clothing?”
“That’s what my Granny said. An’ they give you a girl’s name, to fool the little people in case they was watching. So if you was a boy you’d have to wear skirts an’ stuff ’til you was like a teenager, when they reckoned you was too old to be taken.”
Danny giggled again.
“Shh!” Jack urged. “They’ll hear you.”
“It’s funny! I bet the other boys laughed at them.”
“Oh, yeah. Right up ’til they got taken and no-one ever saw ’em again, I bet. Anyway, boys used to wear dresses all the time. It was normal.”
“You’re having me on!”
“It’s true I swear! Granny said so. And anyway I seen pictures. You know, old family photos an’ stuff, like of me great-grandad when he was little. You go to any library and you can see for yourself. They even got a picture of Churchill in a dress.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“It’s true! Anyway, I bet that was why. It wasn’t ’cause they was mean. It was to keep ’em safe.”
“Why don’t they take girls then?”
“I don’t know. They just don’t. But anyway, I reckon they can’t tell very easy for some reason, an’ that’s how it fools ’em. Only no-one does it now ’cause no-one believes in that stuff any more.” He gave the younger boy a dead-serious look, and saw he was starting to actually worry. He lowered his voice, so Danny had to strain to hear him. “But they’re still out there, in’t they? They’re still takin’ kids more’n ever now, ’cause it’s easy for ’em ’cause they can see you’re a boy right off.” Danny looked really worried now. “So what you got to do–”
Light flooded in from the opening doorway. “Kathryn? Are you in here?”
Jack rolled his eyes at Danny, with an ‘I told you to be quiet’ kind of look. “Yes, Missus Brooks.”
“Telling fairy stories again? Come on, love, it’s late. Go to your own room. You’ve had a busy day.”
Jack sighed and bounced off Danny’s bed.
“Ni-night, Kath,” Danny called after him.
“’Bye, Danny,” Jack wished, at the door, and slipped past Mrs. Brooks.
“You can give Daniel more nightmares tomorrow night,” Mrs. Brooks promised, and ruffled his hair. “Run along now. Have you washed and brushed your teeth and hair?”
“Yes, Missus Brooks,” Jack said again, allowing just a touch of exasperation into his voice, and did a quick twirl, enough to lift his long brushed-out hair away from his neck. “Danny doesn’t have nightmares if I stay with him,” he added quietly.
Mrs. Brooks nodded. “I know, dear, but he hardly gets any sleep either, and neither do you, what with you telling stories all night. Go to bed.”
Jack didn’t think that was fair, given the times he’d sat up and watched Danny sleeping peacefully at last. But it was going to be a busy night, once everyone else was asleep, so he turned and thumped down the landing to his room.
* lacuna sighs
<@lacuna> lindsey's hovering.
<@jester> Still thinks you going to start ww3?
<@lacuna> WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME ?
<@lacuna> can't realy blame her i guess
<@lacuna> this SUCKS! I don't want to go!
* L0RDD00M ([email protected]) has joined the channel
<@lacuna> oh 'kinell
<@jester> You've been banned, "Nigel"
<@lacuna> that his name?
<@jester> furthermore, host-spoofing just makes me angry.
<@jester> don't make me angry.
<@jester> you won't like me when I'm angry.
<@lacuna> fx: tap-tap
< L0RDD00M> i dont now what your talking about
<@lacuna> yeah, you go to pieces so fast people get hit by the shrapnel.
<@lacuna> Nigel, huh?
<@lacuna> God, that's *such* a hairdresser's name.
<@jester> Poughkeepsie NY.
<@jester> Isn't it past your bedtime, little boy?
<@lacuna> never heard of it
< L0RDD00M> wtf kind of name is lacuna anyway?
< L0RDD00M> its a bitchs name
* lacuna has kicked L0RDD00M from the channel (" ")
<@lacuna> look it up
* lacuna wants server ops back
<@lacuna> i feel so emasculated
<@jester> haha. (private joke)
<@lacuna> how did he get on here anyway?
* L0RDD00M ([email protected]) has joined the channel
< L0RDD00M> HAHA
*lacuna tired of this
< L0RDD00M> DONT THE BITCH LIKE IT?
<@jester> easy. He's not worth it.
<@jester> don't feed the trolls
<@lacuna> fuckit i wanna play
<@lacuna> not feeding him
<@lacuna> teaching him
<@jester> just put him on /ignore
* lacuna sighs
<@lacuna> hey nigel
<@lacuna> did daddy buy you a nice 'puter for your birthyday?
<@lacuna> be a shame if it got... broken
<@jester> thats a me-ism
* lacuna grins
<@lacuna> is catching
< L0RDD00M> WTF
< L0RDD00M> WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
* lacuna stretches out a finger lazily
* L0RDD00M has quit (No route to host)
<@lacuna> we *said*, don't irc as root, wankstain
<@lacuna> that'll keep him busy. hope he backed up his homework
* jester looks at lacuna
* jester signs
* jester signs too
<@jester> you didn't need to do that.
* lacuna grins
<@lacuna> yes I did.
<@lacuna> anyway, not like you didn't warn him. Lots of times.
<@jester> and you wonder why you got busted.
<@lacuna> yeah well, what are they going to do? Send me to a special school for bad kids?
<@lacuna> oh, wait, i forgot, they're already doing that.
<@jester> you're leaving tomorrow, right?
* lacuna nods morosely
<@lacuna> no net access
<@lacuna> like at ALL
<@lacuna> ever, probably.
<@lacuna> can't i just die now?
<@lacuna> why don't they just call it a prison
<@jester> didn't they say what kind of place it is?
* lacuna shakes his head
<@lacuna> obne of those personal improvement bullshit deals. can't believe they fell for it
<@jester> maybe it's a kind of outward-bound center
<@lacuna> oh god
<@jester> you'll be running round the welsh mountains doing 'team' activities and stuff.
<@lacuna> can't imagine anything worse
<@lacuna> who was that on the phone anyway?
<@lacuna> Oh, *him*
* jester laughs
* jester bounces
* lacuna is jealous now
<@jester> who of?
<@jester> I think I've just been flattered.
* jester tries to wipe it off
<@lacuna> flattery -- splattery -- tony slattery! You gotta have a system
<@lacuna> <sigh> we'll never be as good as rory
* jester looks confused
<@jester> i gotta get ready. He's going to be here rsn
<@jester> in your dreams
<@lacuna> uh-huh :->
<@jester> don't you start
<@lacuna> you can't take away a man's dreams!
<@jester> watch me.
* jester gets ready
* lacuna turns on teh secret camera in jester's room
<@lacuna> you said...
<@jester> your pick-up technique sucks, you know
* lacuna sighs
<@lacuna> i know
<@lacuna> everyone at school thinks i'm gay anyway so what's the point?
<@jester> think of it this way: at least you're out of *that* place for a while
* jester has quit (Quit: "he's heeere!!!")
<@lacuna> simoom: beep
<@lacuna> you still awake?
<@lacuna> .me better go
<@lacuna> I may be some time.
* lacuna has quit (Quit: " ")
Nathan looked up as the train slowed in the approach to the station, trying to see a passing platform sign. He was already half an hour late. It wasn’t his fault. It was just what you expected if you tried to get anywhere by train. He hoped that Mrs. Thompson understood this. He was supposed to be meeting her at the station, and that was as much as he knew.
The sign said ‘Cheltenham Spa’ as it flashed past and he relaxed. He’d dozed off looking out of the window earlier and wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t missed his stop. That would be his fault.
He collected his things and got up, then sat down again as a number of other people had the same idea and a queue formed in the aisle. He waited it out, then got up again and just caught up with the man in front as he stepped down onto the platform.
The man turned and was about to slam the door shut, and had to stop himself. “Sorry love, didn’t see you,” he said, actually standing and holding the door. Nathan scowled at him.
“Watch who you’re calling love, mate,” he growled, and took the door off the man to slam it himself. He did so with rather more vigour than was strictly necessary.
“Oh, hehe. My mistake.” Nathan pointedly ignored him until he walked off. The train engine noise rumbled up to a crescendo again and the train started to move, accelerating quickly. His hair blew across his face. He didn’t remember taking his ponytail out, but he must have done, so he fished in his jacket pockets for the band until he found it already around his wrist. He pulled it off over his hand and tied his hair back again, jammed his woollen hat back on, took a deep breath, and started down the platform towards the exit. With the train out of the way he was in sunshine, but it was still chilly. He zipped up his hooded jacket.
As he approached the sheltered part of the platform he looked for someone who might look like they were waiting for him. The likeliest candidate looked so like a costume portrayal of a Victorian governess that his eyes passed over her a couple of times before he noticed her young companion. The one in the pretty dress and cardigan and a wide-brimmed hat with a ribbon. She nodded in his direction and said something he was too far off to hear, and the older woman turned her attention on him as well. They looked, he thought, like they were on their way to Sunday school, which probably wasn’t a good sign.
The older woman spoke as he approached. “Excuse me, are you Jonathan Shaw?”
She had an American accent. That surprised him. Up close she looked middle-aged but carrying it well, if severely, with her autumnal hair tightly tamed into a bun. She stood perfectly erect, her features striking and timelessly elegant. He wondered if, by the styling of her hair and clothes she affected to look older than she was, or at least older than she had to look, which was unusual in itself.
The younger woman, in contrast, was younger-looking than he’d guessed at a greater distance; not much older than himself. Something about her posture, her stillness, the composed manner with which she carried herself, had fooled him into thinking she was more mature than that. She had the kind of perfect skin he’d always associated with a good upbringing. He thought she might be pretty if she smiled, but she just watched him impassively; maybe with some curiosity, if he flattered himself. Her eyes distracted him. Even in the shade of her hat-brim they were an intense, startling deep blue.
“Jonathan Henry Shaw?” the older woman pressed, her sharp voice dragging his attention away from the girl’s eyes.
“Uh, yeah,” he said. People at school made fun of his middle name; he didn’t like hearing it. Harry would do in a crisis. He remembered something else and dug into a side-pocket on the holdall for his passport. He dropped the holdall. “Lindsey said to show you this.” He offered the passport forward. The girl took it and opened up the back to look at his picture.
“Remove your glasses please,” she said, her accent unplaceable. He’d forgotten he’d put them on. He took them off.
“Yeah, sorry,” he said. “I’m only supposed to use them for reading anyway.” He smiled at her, hoping for some kind of reaction.
“And your hat,” she said, unmoved. He pulled his hat off too, and saw a glance pass between the two women, then the younger one nodded minutely.
“Excellent. I am Jane Thompson,” the older woman said. He’d figured that much out himself by now. “And this is Valerie, my daughter. You are to be staying with us this summer.”
“Yeah, I know. Er, hi Miss Thompson,” he tried, and remembered to stick out his hand to be shaken, and was astonished when the girl laid hers in his gently and actually curtseyed. It was just a little curtsey, he supposed, over in an instant, but he couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone actually do that in person before. She was so neat, so precise. “Yeah,” he said, a little distracted again. “Call me Nathan.”
She almost seemed amused by his discomfiture. “Hello Nathan,” she said, sounding a little warmer than before. He was right though; her face lit up when she smiled. He’d always thought that was a cliché, but it actually happened. ~Pupils must’ve dilated,~ he realised, embarrassed at himself, which only made things worse as he felt the capillaries in his cheeks do likewise.
“Look, um…” he looked away, back at the older woman, Mrs Thompson, desperate to find a distraction. “We’re not going to church are we?”
Miss Thompson seemed amused by that. She tried to cover it, looking down so her hat-brim hid her face. He felt a little angry about that, like she was making fun of him, and felt the heat in his face even more.
“I hadn’t planned to,” Mrs. Thompson replied evenly. “But if you feel it’s necessary–”
“God no,” he said quickly. “I just thought, you know…” She was looking at him again with barely concealed impatience. “I thought… I mean, this isn’t a religious school is it?” He couldn’t believe Lindsey would do that.
“It is not. Do you have any religious observances of which I should be aware?” He shook his head. “Very well. Is that all your luggage?”
“Er, yeah, this is it.” He just had his holdall, which he had dumped at his feet. “The letter said not to pack much.”
“Indeed. Very well, come along then.” Mrs. Thompson turned, almost her first body movement since he had first laid eyes on her. She moved regally, with precision. ~Is she wearing a corset?~ he wondered. It would fit with the rest of the costume.
He picked up his holdall and followed them both to the exit, enjoying the sight of the fall of Miss Thompson’s black hair swaying across her back with the long ribbon trailing off the back of her hat.
He almost expected to see a coach and horses waiting in the car park, complete with footmen in livery, or at least a Bentley and attendant chauffer, but in transport at least they seemed modern enough: A large new-looking Mercedes. Miss Thompson directed him silently to the front passenger seat, which surprised him. He always hated sitting in the back.
He’d never been in a Mercedes before. It was so big, and extremely comfortable, and he could hardly hear the engine at all, let alone anything going on outside. It was luxurious beyond his experience.
Neither of them spoke while Mrs. Thompson drove, except one short exchange after Mrs. Thompson just stopped herself from pulling out in front of someone on a roundabout, alerted from doing so at least as much by Nathan’s own hiss of anticipated disaster as from her own observation, he thought.
“You should have let me drive,” Miss Thompson said, a little acidly, from behind him.
“No, thank you Valerie,” Mrs. Thompson replied, her composure regained after a moment’s low muttering. “I need to get used to them. I can’t have you driving me everywhere forever.”
The car headed out of Cheltenham, away through the traffic and up a long hill into the countryside, soon turning off onto a B-road. It was twisty and before long he’d managed to lose all sense of direction. He gave up trying after a while and closed his eyes, feeling the sun through the trees on either side of the road flicker against his eyelids. He took a breath, trying to remember to relax. His shoulders and stomach kept trying to bunch up.
He was alerted to a change by the car slowing almost to a stop then turning sharply right. He opened his eyes, blinked and peered at the clock, nestled in the wood veneer dashboard. Only about half an hour since leaving Cheltenham. The car swept through an arched gateway into open parkland. On one side of the gateway a small house had been built as an extrusion from the fabric of the high perimeter wall. It looked empty; or unoccupied at least, as he caught a glimpse of some piled up junk in one of the windows. He sat back down in his seat and saw what they were driving towards.
“Bloody hell,” he breathed, winning a stern look from Mrs. Thompson.
It took another two or three minutes before the car reached the house at the end of the drive. It sat at the top of a low rise: a large Georgian manor house, or mansion, he wasn’t sure what the difference was. It was big anyway, and classically proportioned, and might have looked severe were it not for the bright display of climbing flowers that surrounded the tall paneled windows. Next to it stood a ten-foot high wall, also covered in climbing flowers. He wondered if it might be a walled garden. There was white blossom blowing out over the driveway from the other side of the wall.
He’d had no idea he was being sent somewhere so posh. He wondered who was paying for it. No way could Lindsey and David afford a boarding school like this, he thought. The Mercedes stopped. Mrs. and Miss Thompson got out, so he did likewise, slowly, looking around himself as he did so. There were no other cars in the driveway, and no incarcerated inmates banging warningly on the upstairs windows that he could see.
Miss Thompson hadn’t put her hat back on when she got out, so he saw for the first time how her dark hair was braided back with a simple hair roll and held by a black and silver filigree butterfly clasp at the nape of her neck. It looked very pretty, he thought; very feminine and effortlessly elegant. She spoke quietly to her mother for a moment then looked up at him. “If you’ll follow me I’ll show you up to your room,” she said, not unkindly.
“Okay.” He followed her into the house, through the large, heavy doors and the entrance hall and up the wide curved staircase. “God, look at this place.” His voice echoed.
“Jane will want to talk to you shortly about your stay here,” Miss Thompson said, making him pay attention to her rather than to the impressive neoclassical interior of the house. At the top of the stairs she doubled back and led him along a slightly dingy landing to a door. He still couldn’t quite place where she came from. If she was Mrs. Thompson’s daughter then she didn’t share her accent. Presumably she was American too, but maybe she’d been sent to an English school. Maybe her father was English, he wondered. “This is your room.” She opened the door.
Nathan walked in. There was a delicate floral fragrance. It was a large room, but the thing he noticed first was that it was pink, and everything in it was pink; the pale near-white pink of the wallpaper, the deep pink folds of the curtains, even the pink flowers in a vase on the windowsill, above the cosy window-seat with its pink cushions, drenched in the sunlight that splashed across the floor and part of the large, wooden-framed double bed. There were two large free-standing wardrobes and a free-standing full-length mirror with an ornate frame. There were more pink flowers on the bedside tables, the chest of drawers and the dressing table. The bed had a pink coverlet and turned-down white sheets with pink embroidered flowers. There was a teddy bear on the bed, leaning insouciantly against the pillows and wearing a pink bow.
It was obviously a girl’s room. There had to be some mistake. “Are you sure?” he asked aloud.
“Yes,” Miss Thompson replied, a little curtly, “she was very particular. Leave your things here, she’s waiting for you now.” She said that, he thought, as if keeping Mrs. Thompson waiting was a bad thing, and from what he’d already observed of her manner, it might very well be.
He looked around the room again, spotting the picture of a ballerina wearing a long pink tutu hanging on the wall opposite the bed. There was a second door out of the room. Maybe an en suite bathroom, he wondered.
He sighed. There didn’t look to be much point in arguing with Miss Thompson. She seemed to be watching him, studying him as if expecting him to do something. He’d mention the obvious mistake about the room to her mother. In the meantime he dropped his holdall and left his jacket on the bed. “Okay,” he said, turning back to her. “Where do I go?”
“Follow me.” She stood aside at the doorway to let him back out. He shrugged and went with her as she led the way back down to an ornate arched doorway at the bottom of the stairs and knocked twice, crisply, on the door.
“Come in,” Mrs. Thompson’s voice called from inside, and Miss Thompson pushed the door open, standing aside for him to enter. He went in and the door closed behind him. “Please, sit,” Mrs. Thompson said, not looking up. She was writing something in a file on the antique desk by the window. He walked gingerly through the parlour, not wanting to touch all the antique furniture. It looked like a set for a costume drama, Pride and Prejudice or something. The only anachronistic thing he could see, besides himself, was what had to be a brand new Powerbook G3, black and curvacious, sitting closed on the desk. There was a hard wooden chair opposite the desk. He took it.
“Um,” he began. “I think Miss Thompson might have taken me to the…” she was looking at him over her glasses. “The wrong, um…” She had the blank, hard look of someone who, having found an insect on her desk, was debating whether to squash it or spray it. “Room?” he finished, his voice reduced to a whisper.
Mrs. Thompson looked at him a few moments longer, then turned her attention back to whatever she was writing. ~Oh God, I’ve pissed her off already,~ he thought, and shut up. The seat was hard under his inadequately padded back-side. He tried for a moment to get comfortable, but she glanced up again warningly and he stopped moving. It felt like it would have been a futile effort anyway. Mrs. Thompson carried on writing, so he looked out of the window, seeing only the driveway and some tall poplar trees and, beyond, the open parkland of the estate. The nearer side window showed more parkland and, further off, some reddish-brown animals grazing. He thought they might be deer; they didn’t seem to move like cows, but they were a long way off.
“Well, Master Shaw,” Mrs. Thompson’s hard voice snapped his attention back to her. “I’ve been looking through the material your mother sent me–”
“She’s not my mother,” he retorted.
“Don’t interrupt me,” she replied. Her voice was scarily calm, with a slight stress on the ‘me,’ and accompanied by that look from her again. She obviously didn’t give a damn for the distinction. He looked down. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you,” she said. “Mrs. Shaw is keen to remind me of your academic prowess and the high expectations everyone seems to have of you in your educational endeavours. Indeed, that until recently you were expected to take your GCSE exams this year; a year early.” ~Oh, that’s what this is all about,~ Nathan thought. “But that in the last three months your schoolwork has suffered badly from a lack of application and failure of concentration.”
Nathan sighed. “It’s boring.” Her attitude was pissing him off already. He’d rather just get on with whatever they got on with at this school. If they thought he was going to be impressed by being hectored at they were going to be disappointed.
“You could fail, Jonathan–”
“No-one fails GCSEs. That’s the whole point. Don’t you know anything?” He heard the sourness in his own voice.
“So you think it is sufficient merely to coast through into habitual mediocrity? Is this the manner by which you intend to live your life? That will not do.” She dropped the papers and sighed. “Would that this was the worst of your problems. Look at me,” she said again. He forced himself to make eye contact. “The matter of your formal education is only of incidental interest to me. I merely bring it up so that you understand one thing, Jonathan Shaw: I am well apprised of your intelligence. In fact, I’ll make a deal with you before we go any further. I shan’t insult your intelligence if you do me the courtesy of not insulting mine. Is that understood?”
He shrugged. “’Kay.” Whatever.
“The correct response is ‘Yes, Mrs. Thompson.’”
He couldn’t help laughing. “What is this? Short Sharp Shock?”
“The correct response is ‘Yes, Mrs. Thompson,’” she said again, fixing him with that look.
~Jesus, she’s serious?~ he wondered. He wanted to say ‘you’re already insulting my intelligence,’ but thought better of it. She couldn’t really be running this place like a Victorian boarding school, he thought, starting to worry. It had to be an act. Places like that didn’t exist any more, did they?
He broke eye contact first. “Yes, Mrs. Thompson,” he said. Best to go along, figure out what this place was like. He hadn’t seen any other pupils yet, which he thought was odd. Maybe they were all in class, but he hadn’t heard any of the usual classroom sounds anywhere. Maybe they were out the back playing rugby or something equally unnecessarily violent. He shivered at the thought and hoped Lindsey had remembered to write that he was exempt from school sports. And that Mrs. Thompson would take any notice of that anyway. She didn’t look like the sort of person who believed in words like ‘exemption.’
“What this is, is your last and only chance to avoid a young offenders institution,” she laid it out. “Such places are not, I understand, rewarding of intellectual curiosity–”
“Hah!” He couldn’t help it. That was such an obvious understatement he thought it deserved it, even if it did win him that look again.
“Whereas what awaits you here may well be, if you’re up to it, and if you’re willing to apply yourself with a constructive attitude.” That sounded more interesting. “I don’t doubt your intelligence,” she reiterated. “In fact, I would go so far as to say that high intelligence is a prerequisite for someone who hopes to benefit from what I have to offer. Stupid people do not have the,” she paused, “flexibility to adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves. This is a very specialised course, Jonathan.”
“How much are they paying you then?”
“That is none of your concern. Suffice to say Mrs. Shaw has explained to me that should you come to the attention of the authorities again, she fears that at the very least social services may feel compelled to take you back into care.” That gave Nathan a sick feeling all by itself. “She is at pains to point out how she doesn’t want this to happen, but frankly to prevent it now will require unusual remedies; which is where I come in. Now, you are, as I believe the saying goes, a ‘systems cracker,’ am I correct?”
He knew better than to admit anything, even by a change of expression. He just watched her warily. She knew about the raid. He knew that, because Lindsey would have told her. But they hadn’t found anything, which was why he wasn’t already in a prison somewhere. So they had no proof, but he was not going to give away anything. Let her say what she would.
“Lacuna,” Mrs. Thompson said quietly. “Also known as Context Switch, Threadsafe, TLM, or Thread Local Memory, Crimbols, Albedo Zero.” That was all of them. He forced his face to immobility, but the list itself scared him. No-one should have been able to put all of them together. “You’ve made it your business over the years to break into more and more sensitive and vital computer systems, belonging to commercial, public and military institutions, in order to steal sensitive data and cause many hundreds of thousands of pounds in wanton damage.”
~Too much.~ “That’s bullshit,” he blurted.
“Such obscenities will not be tolerated here, Jonathan.”
“Yes Mrs. Thompson,” he sing-songed, irritated now.
“With less attitude,” she directed, and looked at him again.
He sighed. “Yes Mrs. Thompson,” he tried, blankly.
“Better. Now, do you mean to say you deny you did those things?”
“I didn’t steal anything. Anyone says I did doesn’t understand what they’re talking about.”
“Oh really.” Her voice was perilous.
“Stealing is depriving the owner of possession. I never did that!” ~Shut up, shut up,~ he told himself. ~She’s goading you. Shut up before you say something stupid.~
“And the damage you caused?”
“I didn’t do no damage! I’m not a script kiddie!”
“Really? So you do deny it?” Her look and voice told him that was probably not a good idea. She obviously did know enough of it was true. But what she was accusing him of was an insult; the crude way in which people who don’t know a thing about computers try to map the concepts onto their narrow physical-world view.
“I did not damage anything,” he said firmly. “That’s not my style.”
“I have here a document that indicates you caused eight hundred and sixty five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to one company’s computer systems alone. You deny that?
She sat back slowly. “The company in question chose not to press charges, no doubt to avoid adverse publicity. However there’s no question–”
“Look,” he said, in too far to back out. He had to try to explain now. “Look, they talk about damage because they want to claim on the insurance, don’t they? That figure… That figure includes the cost of completely replacing every system I touched with the newest model. They say ‘damage,’ like I did — like I could do — anything to physically damage anything! The most they’d have to do is reinstall and restore from backup, and not even that if they had any clue. I clean up after myself. It’s just an insurance scam. Jesus.”
“So you’re telling me that it’s their fault for being your victims?”
“There are no victims!” he protested. “I was just looking! To see if I could!”
“I’m really not very interested in listening to your self-justifying rationales, Jonathan. The fact is, you take inordinate pride in your assumed mastery over computers and networks– What did you say?”
He had been muttering under his breath. He looked at her sullenly. “Nothing.”
“No, out with it.”
“It was a self-justifying rationale,” he spat. “You wouldn’t be interested.”
She actually tapped the nail of her left little finger twice on the desk. Nathan was perversely delighted. He’d got to her. That was probably stupid, but just at that moment it felt good.
“Do you think I’m not giving you a fair hearing? I’m not sure where you got the impression that this was a hearing of any kind. It might interest you to know that you are far from the first ‘hacker’ I’ve had to deal with, and before you correct me I am aware of the derivation of that word. No doubt you want to regale me further on how information wants to be free, or how your… targets,” she made a show of selecting the word, “should even be grateful to you for exposing flaws in their security, or even what you like to think of as incompetence in their staff, before someone less scrupulous than yourself did so? Believe me when I say I really have heard them all before. You seem to be under the misapprehension that you are here for me to judge or interrogate you. You are not.” She regarded him coolly for another few seconds. “In fact you’re here to receive a unique opportunity for personal growth, but I don’t expect you to understand that yet, or even for some time to come.”
“Great. It is a fucking outward bound course.”
“You will not use such language,” Jane enunciated. What seemed odd to him was that the way she said it sounded like a simple statement of fact, rather than an order. A small smile seemed to play around her mouth for a moment. “I don’t believe you understand the seriousness of your situation, Jonathan. Yes, I’m aware of the police raid on your house earlier this year–”
“They weren’t the police,” he blurted.
The police don’t pin you to the floor with a rifle to your head and then take the house apart looking for evidence and put it back together exactly as it was before, which was scary in itself. He had never been so scared, his eyes inches from the carpet, close enough to see all the little bits of crumbs and hair that the hoover hadn’t picked up.
The police also don’t bundle you into the back of an unmarked van and question you, loudly, for another two solid hours. He kept expecting the engine to start and the van to drive off taking him God-knows-where, but he’d kept quiet. He didn’t mention the warning he’d got from Ground Effect. The least he could do after having the stupid lack of sense to have his contact details on file.
That was what was so unfair. He hadn’t even been caught out of his own incompetence, but because he was in someone else’s address book.
Ground Effect had paid for it though. He was already locked up, and he was serving a longer sentence than he had to because he wouldn’t drop Nathan any further in it by admitting or testifying that anyone else was involved in what they’d done, so Nathan could only think so much ill of him.
And he had got the warning in time, and he’d carefully taken everything he had that might incriminate him, including hard disks and a number of books that had been hard to get and possession of which alone would be enough to land him jail time. He had buried it all under the lawn, quietly in the middle of the night, and carefully, carefully, repaired the turf where he had done it. He was still sure the men in black suits searching the garden would find the stash, but if they didn’t, he’d sworn as soon as this was over he’d thermite the lot and throw the slag into the river. He did, too.
But that was later. They didn’t find anything, so they just made him sign the Official Secrets Act and, amazingly, let him go. He’d stood in a daze in the front garden for minutes after they’d left, shaking, and swore he’d never so much as sniff another packet. Then he threw up.
No, they weren’t the police, but he supposed they were legal enough to care that they didn’t have admissible evidence, when they knew, and he knew they knew, that he had done what they’d said he’d done. But they didn’t have anything, and he kept quiet and just did his private distance trick, so it all seemed to be happening to someone else a long way away, and they had to let him go.
Lindsey had believed him about not wanting to ever hack a computer again. He’d believed it himself for a while. Nearly two months.
“It is not with that raid that I am concerned,” Mrs. Thompson said calmly, “except that even that appears not to have proven a sufficient deterrent. Indeed, it’s become clear that deterrence alone will never be enough to restrain your behaviour. It’s a shame. You’re an inquisitive, talented boy, Jonathan, and you have a lot of potential, or so I am told. No-one wants to see that left to rot in incarceration, but if you cannot be turned from your present course this is surely the future that awaits you. You understand this, do you not? We shall have to resort to more radical measures.”
“Uh, I have given up,” he said. “I promised.”
“Yes, I know you promised. Therefore I know the worth of your promises. Do you think your resumption of hacking activities wasn’t noted, Jonathan? Were you foolish enough to think no-one was paying attention, or had you merely become so confident, so flush with the success of your narrow escape, that you thought yourself invincible?”
He blinked. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t done anything since then.”
She didn’t answer him straight away, but leafed through the file on her desk until she came to another set of stapled-together pages. “In the spirit of not insulting each other’s intelligence, I won’t pretend to understand this in detail,” she said, handing it across, “but I am given to understand it represents, to those who do, damning and admissible evidence of your ongoing activities. I’m showing it to you so you may appreciate the gravity of your situation.”
He took the papers, cursing that his hand made them shake as he did so. He made a production of getting his glasses out again and putting them on, but eventually couldn’t put it off any longer. He looked. Annotated system logs, router logs, traceroute logs converted into a graphic superimposed on a world map of the systems he’d gone through, and presumably had been traced back through… There was more. In fact, it was frighteningly comprehensive. He recognised the target system by its IP address. He’d thought he’d got out of that scot-free; he’d cleaned the logs of his presence as he’d backed out, not leaving a signature or even a back-door as he hadn’t intended to return. He got that sick-stomach feeling all over again. It was a honeypot, and it had caught him. Like a fucking script kiddie.
Which would be embarrassing enough, had it not been for who that target machine belonged to. Suffice to say they weren’t known for their indulgent attitude to inquisitive outsiders, or their sense of humour.
His eyes stung and blurred. “This…” he began. “This… this could be faked.”
“But it wasn’t, was it?” Mrs. Thompson pressed. “Are you so confident you can prove otherwise?”
He almost had to rip the glasses from his face. He rubbed tears out of his eyes and tossed the pages back onto the desk. He tried to think. He had to think. He sought distance but it wouldn’t come. He just got a headache. What kind of trap had he walked into? Who was this woman, that she had this kind of information? That she had contacts like these? Or did she work for them? What kind of operation was this? The big country house and the way it was decorated and furnished spoke of money. A lot of money. And the papers he’d just looked at talked of deep connections, not just of money, but of power, and government. And not his government either. She had an American accent.
“What is this place?” he asked; for the first time genuinely curious. A momentary fantasy flashed through his mind of being forcefully inducted into a secret spy/hacker network. He dismissed it almost immediately. It was likely to be something far less pleasant. “What do you want?” These people — whoever Mrs. Thompson worked for — had him. They had him, and… “What’s going to happen to me?” And they could do whatever they liked with him, and he couldn’t complain, or he’d end up in prison, because of the systems he’d hit. Not some young offenders institution, not in a care home, not that that would be a lot of fun either; prison, and he’d be old before he got out. There wouldn’t even be a jury, because no jury could be allowed to see the sensitive information that would come out in any real trial. That had been explained to him clearly enough in the back of that van.
Mrs. Thompson smiled. It was unpleasantly reptilian. “What’s going to happen to you?” she replied rhetorically. “Why, nothing less than the reformation of your character. Yes,” she mused. “Tell me, have you ever heard of a technique known as ‘petticoat discipline?’”
He shook his head and looked at her. “No.” It didn’t sound good.
“Hmm, yes.” She seemed to be perusing him closely for a long while. He swallowed. “Yes,” Mrs. Thompson said again. “That could work very well for you.” She leaned forward and tapped a button on the intercom on her desk. “Marie, would you come to the parlour immediately please?”
After a pause there was an answering “Yes, ma’am.” Jane flicked the intercom off and leaned back, that satisfied smile still playing over her mouth. It repelled him, that she knew the power she had, and she enjoyed it, and she didn’t even trouble herself to pretend otherwise.
“What will happen to you, Jonathan,” Jane was saying to him, “is that you will obey me in every particular until I decide you are fit to return to civilised society. You will do so without hesitation or complaint, no matter how distasteful or disagreeable you may find my instructions. You know the alternative should I encounter the slightest resistance. Do you agree to these terms?”
Oh, that sounded bad. He had no choice, he supposed, so he nodded.
“Y-Yes, Mrs. Thompson.”
“Good. Now, if you would be so good as to wait outside, Marie will call you to lunch soon.”
Dismissed, he got weakly to his feet and left.
~Distance, distance.~ Miss Thompson was in the entrance hall, seated on what looked like an old school bench next to the parlour door, reading a book. She looked up at him, but he couldn’t say anything, merely numbly made his way to the other end of the bench and sat slowly. ~Oh God, what have I got myself into?~
He sought distance, until his head hurt and his eyes filled with tears again. ~It’s not happening to me,~ he begged silently. ~Not to me. Let it happen to someone else.~ He was distracted by Eleanor joining him silently. She smiled shyly at Miss Thompson, who regarded her dispassionately for a few moments before turning her attention back to her book.
Another woman crossed the hall to where he was sitting. She looked a little younger than Mrs. Thompson and was dressed in what looked not exactly like, but was somehow reminiscent of, the attire of a Victorian housekeeper. She perhaps looked a little kinder than Mrs. Thompson, though he hardly dared hope from appearances. She knocked once on the parlour door and entered.
“I’m scared,” he said quietly.
“I know,” Eleanor replied. He felt more comfortable with her.
Maybe it was because she seemed a little scared as well.
“What is this place?” He didn’t want Miss Thompson to hear him.
“Shh.” She was close. She whispered, “It’s okay, Nathan. You’re not alone–”
The parlour door opened, admitting the second older woman he’d just seen entering. ‘Marie,’ he remembered, from Mrs. Thompson speaking into the intercom. “Jane will see you now, Valerie,” the woman told Miss Thompson, who silently closed her book and went in, closing the door. “So,” the woman said to him. “You must be Nathan.”
“Y-Yes,” he managed to say, and stood up. It seemed the right thing to do.
“Oh my dear, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Did she scare you that much?”
~She? Oh.~ “Mrs. Thompson?” He trailed off, wanting to cry again, and trying hard to stop it happening.
The woman — Marie, he remembered again — smiled warmly and took his hand. “There now, it isn’t as bad as all that. Come along.” She released his hand and started to move off, stopping almost immediately to look back at him, hesitating by the bench. “Come along,” she said again.
He followed. “Where are you taking me?”
She looked at him, seeming amused. “Oh, she did scare you, didn’t she.” She smiled. “We’re just going into the dining room for lunch. Jane and Miss Valerie will be joining you in a few moments.” She led him through a doorway into what was obviously the dining room, with three place settings already laid on the large table. Glass-panelled doors opened onto a terrace, the stone like warm honey in the sunlight. “Now,” Marie started, and guided him to the table, “Jane has some very particular rules. One of them is that her students must wait for her at mealtimes before being seated. What you must do is to stand behind your chair, just there,” she guided him to a spot behind one of the high-backed dining chairs, “until she arrives. She will sit, then she will invite you to be seated. Do you understand?”
He nodded. “Er. Okay.” It seemed like a strange rule, but harmless enough, he supposed. Marie nodded back, satisfied, and departed through a different door, on the far side of the room.
He dreaded lunch; he knew he was going to have to try to eat and keep the food down and his stomach was already cramping with the tension. Eleanor stayed with him, though, which made him feel a little better.
Mrs. Thompson swept into the room through a different door. Nathan guessed that it led directly from the parlour. She was closely followed by her daughter, who didn’t come to the table, but went straight through the same door by which Marie had left. Mrs. Thompson took her seat and settled herself. “You may be seated,” she said crisply. He sat quickly, but she was already looking at him disapprovingly. “Really you have no grace at all, have you,” she said, and busied herself with her napkin, sighing irritably. “Sit up straight, do.”
“’M sorry,” he said, and tried to sit straighter.
“And don’t mumble. I cannot abide people mumbling. If you have something worth saying, say it clearly and distinctly, otherwise do not trouble to open your mouth.”
~Even to eat?~ he wondered hopefully, doubting that would be a wise remark to make. Instead he looked down at his place setting. Silver cutlery on a crisp white linen tablecloth with lace detailing. No less than three cut-crystal glasses for each place setting. Everything was so posh, he felt intimidated. A sound alerted him to Miss Thompson returning with plates. She went first to Jane, who thanked her, then came around and put a plate down in front of Nathan. It looked like a starter from a really posh restaurant; marinated salmon with a glaze and some dressing he couldn’t identify immediately, and a salad garnish. That was all right. He could at least eat the salad and maybe some of the salmon.
“You may begin,” Mrs. Thompson said. Miss Thompson took up a position in attendance a little to the side, just out of his direct line of sight, which he found a little disconcerting as well. He picked up the outermost knife and fork pair, remembering his mother saying something once about ‘if you ever get invited to a posh dinner, use the knives and forks from the outside in, you can’t go too wrong then.’ Eleanor seemed amused by this, but Mrs. Thompson didn’t make any comment. The cutlery was heavy and solid; real silver all the way through, obviously. He picked off a few pieces of salad and tried to eat them, and not to think of the way the leaves felt in his mouth. His knife clattered down as he held the back of his hand to his mouth.
“Are you quite all right?” Mrs. Thompson asked. He nodded, and with an effort of will made himself swallow. There was some kind of herby, vinegary stuff on the salad he hadn’t been expecting.
“Can I have some water?” he asked. There was a pitcher of it on the table he’d had his eye on before even sitting down, frosted on the outside of the crystal glass.
“The correct way to ask is to say ‘please may I have some water?’” Mrs. Thompson corrected him. “And yes, you may.”
“Th-Thank you,” he stammered, and picked up the largest of the glasses in front of him meaning to turn it back the right way up. The edge of it clipped the upturned base of one of the smaller ones and chimed clearly. The glass was deftly taken out of his hand and placed on the tablecloth the right way up. Miss Thompson then retrieved the pitcher of water and poured his glass, then retreated silently.
“You must learn to take more care, and not to lunge after anything you want with the delicacy of a caveman,” Mrs. Thompson commented. There didn’t seem to be an appropriate answer to that, so he got on with drinking his water with exaggerated care, trying not to make a noise.
He tried a piece of salmon next. It was good, but he didn’t want to eat too much. Maybe, he thought, if he ate really slowly they’d move on to the next course before he’d finished. Perhaps that was the way to do it. Or would she insist he finish everything for each course? He didn’t know what he’d do if that was the case.
“Mm,” Mrs. Thompson was saying. “I must say, Marie has excelled herself. This is delicious, is it not, Nathan?”
He nodded mutely and tried another piece. It was, he could agree, very very good. It was a shame he couldn’t finish it. He didn’t dare, the way his stomach was playing up. Mrs. Thompson went on about other matters; the weather, some recent item of news. Miss Thompson did indeed return and take his plate before he had half finished it, and he thought he saw her looking at it meaningly for a moment, then she was gone, to return shortly afterwards with a plate for her mother.
“Thank you, Valerie,” Mrs. Thompson said again. Nathan looked across at her plate, trying not to be obvious about it. Sliced potato in what appeared to be a creamy cheese sauce and some meat that was pink. A small side dish Miss Thompson had also brought contained brocolli, carrots, cauliflower. Miss Thompson returned with the same dishes for him. There was so much food. He took some more water to cover his rising panic.
“The dauphinoise is excellent. Valerie, would you be so good as to convey my appreciation to Marie, and congratulate her also on the duck.”
“Yes, Jane, I’ll tell her immediately,” Miss Thompson said, curtseyed and left.
“Do you see how Miss Valerie carries herself, Jonathan?” Mrs. Thompson addressed him. “Such unassuming grace, such neatness. Do you not find her a pleasure to watch?”
He nodded. He thought she was a pleasure to watch, but not for any reasons he’d want to admit to Mrs. Thompson. And besides, he was wondering what sort of woman this was that made her own daughter serve her at dinner rather than joining them, and what that meant for his own chances for reasonable treatment.
“She wasn’t always so, mark you,” Mrs. Thompson was continuing. “Indeed, when I first met her I daresay her manners were almost as uncouth as your own. So maybe there is hope for you as well. We shall see.”
Nathan was thinking again how Miss Thompson really did not look anything like her mother. ~She’s not her real daughter,~ he realised with a start, tracking Jane’s words carefully. ~And she treats her like that. Like a servant.~ He remembered meeting her waiting outside the parlour, waiting to be allowed in to talk to her about something, like a pupil seeing her headmistress. ~Is Mrs. Thompson her stepmother? Or is she adopted?~
Lindsey and David had never shown any sign that they thought of him as anything other than their own child. They really were okay, he thought, when he thought about how they could have been. He almost wished he’d been adopted by them soon enough that he really could think of them as his parents… but that would have meant he wouldn’t have known his own real Mum and Dad, and it was hard enough anyway, holding on to their memory.
The moment of reflection gave him distance, and he let the meal pass, watching Eleanor eating slowly while Mrs Thompson continued. “I do believe refined manners are the cornerstone of a civilised society. It is simple courtesy, and consideration for your fellow man, and when people forget basic good manners what is left of society is held up only by fear and force and must surely fall to animal savagery. What do you think?”
He swallowed quickly to speak, but Eleanor answered first. “I think animals have manners too,” she said. “Many animals have rituals, don’t they? Like for courtship or to resolve territorial disputes. They don’t like to fight, so they have these rituals to try to work it out without anyone getting hurt. That’s a kind of manners isn’t it? I mean, you just have to look at a pride of lions and how they behave.”
Mrs. Thompson raised an eyebrow. “Indeed, you may have a point, but I find your logic flawed. Don’t forget that when a young mature lion takes over a pride from an old competitor, he does so because he is larger and stronger and more dangerous, not because he exceeds the older rival in wisdom or intelligence, and even if he and the old lion agree not to fight each other, which you may take for manners but which I maintain is still merely the threat of force, the young lion’s first act will be to kill all the cubs sired by the old one. No, I shan’t be taking any lessons in civilised behaviour from lions,” she smiled. Eleanor ducked her head, embarrassed. “But you do have a point,” Mrs. Thompson conceded, “you merely chose a poor example. You might find a study of the great apes to be of more relevance, or of certain bird species. For my part, I’ll amend my statement and say merely that a failure of manners presages a descent into savagery. How is that?”
Eleanor smiled weakly and had some more duck. She seemed to be enjoying it anyway, even if she, too, ate sparingly and slowly.
“Which is why I propose to begin your re-education with a thorough training in refined manners. For far too long you have behaved as if you believe you can simply take what you want, and amuse yourself as you may with no thought or consideration for how your actions affect others. Such intolerable behaviour would not even be indulged in a small child. It is of course the first thing we teach our children, is it not? Not to take what doesn’t belong to you; not because you might be caught, but because it is wrong to do so. After all, I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if someone hacked into your computers and looked at your private files.”
“They wouldn’t be able to,” Nathan said. “I’m not stupid. I don’t leave my system open to attack.”
“Oh, but Jonathan, that is no more than the reasoning of might. I don’t dispute that in your domain — the domain of computers and the internet — you have skills and strength I can barely comprehend, and that you are well able to defend yourself from others who would wish to take from you. I can even see how you might find that a captivating, seductive arena into which you may withdraw from a threatening world in which you are but a small and weak child, am I correct?” Nathan blushed, angry at that description, and didn’t answer. She shook her head sadly. “It’s not a question of whether you can defend yourself. In time you will learn there will always be someone better, quicker and cleverer than you. I think you know this already, or you would not have found yourself here. It’s a question of whether you think it right or fair that others should attack you? And if not, how can you fail to apply that standard to yourself? No. Good manners and the consideration for others they demonstrate remind us in their constant practice that there are other reasons to value people in our society than merely the power they have.”
She fell silent, to eat. He stared at his dinner for a few moments.
“I think,” he dared, “I think it’s easy to say that when you have the power.”
Mrs. Thompson looked at him curiously, waiting while she finished her mouthful. “On the contrary, Jonathan. Very much on the contrary. The need for manners increases with power. Have you never heard the saying ‘the manners of a king?’” Embarrassed again, he looked down, feeling the heat in his face. He could tell Mrs. Thompson was watching him, even as she continued to eat. “I believe I shall enjoy having you here, Jonathan,” she said eventually. “You have a lively mind. You are simmering with confusion and resentment and wild, adolescent impulses and ill-directed talents, but you do have a mind worthy of our effort to reclaim it, I believe. It needs only discipline and training to bring it out. Do eat, before your lunch gets cold.”
They ate in silence; or at least Mrs. Thompson ate, and Nathan picked at his food until Miss Thompson reappeared and took his plate away, to his great relief, even if, as he knew she would, she returned moments later with dessert. It was a lemon tart with double cream, and it really did look delicious. He thought he was going to faint just from the thought of the sugar. He really did feel full.
“It is my custom to have sherry with lunch,” Mrs. Thompson said. Her daughter was returning again with a silver tray bearing two small glasses, one red, one blue. She placed the red glass at Mrs. Thompson’s right hand. “Thank you, Valerie,” she said, and raised it for inspection. Miss Thompson came around and placed the matching-opposite blue glass in front of Nathan. It already had sherry in it. He could smell the fortified wine, cloying. He thought he had a memory somewhere, of his grandparents — his real grandparents, on Dad’s side — who would always have sherry for Sunday lunch. He’d been too young for it himself back then, but he was reminded of it now. The smell, the delicate long-stemmed glass, which itself was so thin, so fragile that it seemed as if a careless gesture could shatter it. He looked up at a movement in his peripheral vision, seeing Mrs. Thompson holding the glass up, briefly sniffing it, then making a gesture towards him. “I welcome you to my house,” she said, and drank. He smiled wanly and took a sip. “May you find it educational and ultimately rewarding,” Mrs. Thompson continued, and drank again. He drank again as well. Something about the way he did so seemed to have dissatisfied her though, going by her expression. “Well,” she merely added. “We have a long way to go.” He wondered what he’d done wrong.
“Thank you,” he said, having an instinct that might be what she wanted.
“Late gratitude is better than none I suppose,” Mrs. Thompson was saying, “although you should direct your thanks towards Miss Valerie. She has been prompt and attentive all through lunch and you haven’t thanked her once.”
~Oh God.~ He looked up at Miss Thompson, and caught the end of a defiant look towards her mother, her blue eyes seeming to flash even more intensely for that moment. “I-I’m sorry,” he stammered. “Thank you M-Miss Thompson.”
“Miss Valerie will suffice, Nathan,” Mrs. Thompson instructed him.
“Miss V-Valerie,” he managed. He felt dizzy with the shame of it, the embarrassment, and what he felt must be his face glowing crimson from the drink. “I thought, I thought…” He ran out of words, not being able to figure out what he thought.
Miss Thompson turned a more benevolent look towards him. “That’s all right, Nathan.”
Still feeling Mrs. Thompson’s eyes on him, he mimed eating some of the dessert, and hoped she didn’t notice him put the spoon back down still laden. He couldn’t eat it. Dessert passed excruciatingly slowly, punctuated by sips of the warm, smooth, sweet sherry.
He was tired. More tired than he’d realised, until he caught himself yawning at the table. He looked up at Jane regarding him sternly. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Indeed.” Mrs. Thompson’s voice was tight, disapproving. His cheeks burned.
He yawned. He couldn’t help it. Everything seemed to be catching up with him at once. He phased out for what seemed just a moment. When he came back the dessert dishes were gone and there was a vague sense of loss and loneliness that he couldn’t quite place. Mrs. Thompson was still talking about something, but he couldn’t track onto it. He stared at the sherry glass in stupefaction.
“’M sorry,” he said. He wasn’t sure if it was in response to something Mrs. Thompson had said. He couldn’t figure out what was missing.
“Jonathan,” she said, “you seem tired from your journey.” He nodded, feeling another yawn coming on. “Why don’t you go up to your room for a short nap, and we’ll continue later.”
~Meant to talk to her about the girl’s room,~ he thought fuzzily. “Mmm,” came out. He made a greater effort. “Than’ you Mizz’s Thoms’n;” he could hear his own voice slurring. So embarrassing. “I thin’…” He needed to lie down, that much was certain. He took a breath and stood, trying to individually control each muscle in his body as he did so. He saw the door he’d come in through, ~stairs that way,~ he reminded himself, and headed in that direction. He thought he was doing reasonably well until he pitched to the side and just caught himself on the door-frame. Then Miss Valerie was by his side, supporting him discreetly as she walked him out into the hallway and up the stairs. He could still co-operate. He didn’t want her to have to try to carry him after all. This was embarrassing enough. He wasn’t sure how much of that sherry he’d had. The glass had been nearly-empty when he left it, but he’d gone distant again for a moment back there, or at least he thought he had, and he hadn’t meant to. He wasn’t sure if he’d had a refill in that time.
He thought of Mum and Dad drinking sherry at lunchtime with Dad’s parents, then driving home. They must’ve been made of stern stuff, he thought. He remembered being small, lying in the back seat with Sara looking up through the car window at the phone lines sweeping up and down, up and down. They’d take it in turns to count. ~No,~ he decided suddenly. ~No. Sherry isn’t this strong.~ “Bin drugged,” he heard himself say. It seemed to take an age. “Where you takin’ me?”
“Bed, that’s all,” Miss Valerie replied. She sounded a little irritated. He guessed she had cause. “Come on, nearly there.”
“Scared,” he mumbled. “Don’ drug me.”
“It was just a glass of sherry.” His legs were going, and Miss Valerie was having to work harder to get him along. “You’re too skinny, you know? You can’t take your drink, is all.”
Nathan shook his head, and immediately regretted it as the landing pitched around him and wouldn’t stop. Miss Valerie was moving him along firmly, into the room he’d seen earlier. “Pink,” he muttered, seeing it. There was something vaguely obscene about it, but he couldn’t quite remember what, or why. “Fuck’n’ put me in a girl’s room,” he growled.
“Shush. Sit down.” She pushed him back onto the bed.
His head wouldn’t stop. He felt like he was being spun and twisted and stretched all at once. “Feel sick,” he said. He tried to get up.
“Oh no you don’t,” she admonished, and pushed him back down easily.
“Not drunk,” he insisted. “Drugged. Oh shit. Oh shit.”
“What was it? What’re you gon’ do to me?” The fear returned. Of course he was being drugged. Of course he was. And then they could do… They could do… Anything.
“Nothing. I’m going to help you get into bed and you’re going to sleep it off. That’s all.”
“Don’ lie to me!” he cried out, more forcefully. ~Oh God. This is it then.~ “What was it? What’s going to happen to me?” ~Oh God. They’re going to operate on me, or ship me out, or… or…~ He felt tears sting his eyes again, and a moment of lucidity from his panic. ~Adrenaline.~
Miss Thompson’s hand was firm on his shoulder. She seemed to loom over him. He felt naked in front of those piercing blue eyes. But she didn’t look angry. Not really. She looked… He couldn’t figure it out.
“It’s just a light sedative,” she said, calmly and slowly. “That’s all it is, I swear it, just to help you take a nap. It hit you harder than it should have ’cause you’re underweight and you didn’t eat much, okay? You hearing me?” He nodded. She sounded really concerned. “You’ll wake up in a couple of hours and you’ll be right here.”
“Don’, don’ leave me?” he begged. He felt pathetic for doing so, but he felt pathetic anyway. He was really scared, and she seemed to be actually concerned. And she was adopted too, but Mrs. Thompson treated her like a servant. Maybe. Maybe. “Please?”
She sighed and looked at her watch. “All right.”
She gave him a look. “Yeah, I promise. I’ll watch you. Arms up.” She was doing something bending over him, lifting his sweater. He’d got his arms up almost as an automatic response to her direction, but now he got scared.
“What’re you doing?”
“Getting some of these clothes off you. You’ll be more comfortable.”
His head was lost in the upturned sweater. “No!” he cried, feeling another wave of panic. “NO!” His head emerged from the neck of the sweater, his hair crackling down around him. He’d lost his ponytail band. He didn’t want her seeing him. Seeing his skinny body as his T-shirt rode up. “STOP!” He grabbed after the sweater and hugged it close. He didn’t want to let it go.
“Hey!” Miss Valerie’s voice was sharp, annoyed again, almost like Mrs. Thompson’s. “What do you think I’m going to do?” He looked at her. He didn’t want to think about what they were going to do. That was the problem. “You know what it’s like when you sleep with all your clothes on,” she continued. “You’ll be rank.”
He looked at her. He wanted to believe her. It seemed logical. He did need to sleep. He wanted to sleep, and she promised, didn’t she? She promised.
And saying anything just seemed too complicated now, like that part of his brain had shut down already.
“So are you going to help me take your pants off now, or am I going to have to do it myself when you’re asleep?” Miss Valerie asked. ~No!~ he rebelled, knowing for sure he really didn’t want her to take his underpants off. “Trousers!” Miss Valerie corrected herself. “Just your jeans, okay?” He stared at her stupidly. ~Pants? She is American!~ He congratulated himself that he could make an observation like that at a time like that. She looked slightly annoyed, as if she was aware of the mistake.
Okay then, he could cope with that. He could cope with taking his own jeans off, thank you. He tried anyway, fumbling at the fly and the zip until it went down and he could tug his jeans down over his hips. He wanted to lie down now. He really wanted to lie down. The dizziness was making him feel nauseous
“Shoes first,” Miss Valerie said and sat him up straight again so she could undo his shoelaces and pull his shoes and socks off, and then helped him to get the jeans down and off over his bare feet. “Man, I see what you mean,” she said, seeing his brightly patterned boxers. “Those boxers are bad for the eyes.”
He didn’t care. He pitched over, letting her navigate him in between the sheets, and oblivion.
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