Between school and home lies a path through the woods. It’s Friday afternoon and the sun falls from a cloudless blue sky. It’s baking hot. No hint of wind. We’re alone on the narrow path. But in my gut, I get that nervy feeling. A darkening. Something, hidden in the trees, is following me.
“I had that dream again last night,” I tell Bea to distract myself.
“No kidding? The same one?”
“Yeah. Kinda. I woke and found myself in an empty house. I stepped out onto the street and the whole place was deserted. Everyone had vanished. . . .” I don’t have the courage to tell her the rest--a new part of the dream. The tall, spider-like creature I saw moving among the bombed-out buildings of a desolate city.
We hit a thorny stretch of the path, crossing a park in the heart of London, cut off from the clamour. I feel dizzy in the heat. Bea leaps up, fluid and light, snaps off a dead tree branch, lands and dances forward, swinging the stick like a sword.
“I can interpret the dream, if you like,” she says.
“No you can’t.”
“Fine. Go for it.”
“It’s panic,” Bea says.
“Blind panic you’ll never find The One. Always be alone. Always searching.” She laughs and stabs the air. “Got Anaïs Moon written all over it.”
Anaïs Isabel Moon. Me. But to everyone other than Bea (for reasons of her maverick lawlessness), I’m just Ana. Three letters. Two syllables. A palindrome. I was born abroad, in Paris. The Old Man and Frankie were studying at the Sorbonne. Frankie, Business. The Old Man, Arts. They were both in a phase--experimenting.
We pass under the eaves of a hunkered oak, its branches like arms, wide and bent, and here the path is walled in by nettles and thorns. Something moves, at the edge of my vision, in the shadowy green. A figure? The sprawl of wings?
I spin around. See nothing.
It’s back again--that raw, uncomfortable feeling, a sense of being watched. It quickens in my step, plays a drumbeat of dread in my heart.
“Hey, what’s the rush?” Bea says, matching my pace.
I shake off the weirdness and look at her, at all the nuances that make her Bea. The tiny dot on her nose where the ring gets replaced. Dyed-black hair, just so, in a deep V over her left eye. A pity, if you ask me, because her eyes are startling.
“God, this heat wave,” she says, tugging a button loose. “It’s September.”
“Bea . . . do you think we’ll always be friends?”
She stops, looks at me. “Are you literally crazy? What brought that on?”
“Nothing. It’s just--”
“Put it this way, Moon. You’ll be the one walking me down the aisle for weddings number one, two and three.”
She walks on. “The fourth, fifth and sixth will be in Vegas, baby. And if I’m in the mood, the seventh might even be you.”
“Right. Good to know.”
“Point is, of course we’ll always be friends, you idiot. In what world could you desert someone as charismatic and amazing as me?”
She looks at the path ahead. “But you want the truth?”
She turns to me. Smiles. “Truth is, I’d go to the ends of the earth for you, Moon. Wanna know why?”
“Because you’d do it for me too, you idiot. If I was mad and lost, you’d pull me back from the brink, you would. That’s who you are.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“Make what sound easy?”
“Knowing who you are. I never know who I’m supposed to be.”
“All that back-and-forth between Frankie and your Old Man getting to you?”
She’s got one of those minds, Bea--quick-fire, straight to the point.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m lost in the middle, you know?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“And Zig makes the whole thing harder. I mean, I thought it’d get easier. That at some point, it would just . . . make sense. I’d forget everything before.”
“But you don’t,” Bea says. “You never forget. It changes you.”
“I’m one person with her,” I say. “Someone else with him.”
Bea looks away. Shadows filigree her skin. Eventually, she nods, and I can’t tell if she’s agreeing with me or just acknowledging my point of view, until she says, “Hey, at least you get the option.” And the air punches out of me.
“I’m sorry, Bea . . . I didn’t--”
“Forget it, Moon. Bygones.”
My family moved from Paris back to Bristol when I was two, but I have no memory of this. The idea was to give me English schooling, which Frankie considered a vital academic stepping-stone to an autonomous life. The Old Man thought it was a load of crap. Then, when Bristol’s work opportunities dried up, we moved to London. The marriage dissolved a year later. But it was rotten and badly formed from the start (obviously). The Old Man living in the closet, that didn’t help. Plus, Frankie’s affairs. I was ten. My world had been perfect: the River Severn, the smallness of Bristol, trips to Wales and Cornwall. When I was thrown into the Big Smoke, I sank. Until Bea arrived.
She moved down to London from Northumberland and was full of edges and stubbornness and we looked at each other on her first day in class and we clicked.
Then her father died. As quick as a sentence, he was gone. Afterwards came the disbelief. Then the struggle to make sense of it. And, while Bea and Mrs. G argue about most things, they agreed when it came to the sudden loss of Avi Gold. He had deserted them. Their way of making sense of it--blaming him. I didn’t judge.
Bea and I bonded over hurt and books and film, anything to sweep away reality. We conspired against all things messed-up, corrupt and wrong in the world.
We were outsiders, on the outside of every side.
We were best friends.
“Look,” Bea says now. “Maybe you’re not meant to be anyone. Maybe you’re just, you know, meant to be. Live in the now and all that.”
“Maybe,” I say. “But sometimes I wish I could just flick a switch and make everything go back to the way it was before. Back to normal.”
Bea pulls a face and drags her hair across her forehead, then she bends the stick between her thumbs until it snaps.
“I read the craziest thing online the other day,” she says, flinging the remnants into the scrub. “Imagine this. You’re standing in a room with a baby.” She glances at me from under that dark shank of hair. “Same age as your brother.”
“And this baby, you know for a fact, is Adolf Hitler.”
“At least, he’ll grow into Adolf Hitler. Now, what if I told you there was no comeback if you killed the baby? No repercussions. You wouldn’t be tried and you wouldn’t go to jail. So, the question is this: Would you do it? Would you kill Hitler?”
“Are you taking the piss? Would I kill Hitler?”
“That’s hypothetical. It can’t happen. It’s a paradox.”
“Clearly it’s hypothetical. But humour me. The baby, we can take as a given, is Hitler. He will go on to murder millions of people. My people.”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Would you do it, Moon? That’s the issue. We’re not debating plausibility.”
I imagine myself in the room. I see the baby in his cot, laughing, kicking his pudgy legs. I think about Zig. And I can’t. I can’t. But then I give the baby a perfect little Hitler moustache and my resolve hardens. Darkness stirs in me.
“Yeah. I would. I’d kill him.”
Bea smiles and nods. She says nothing.
“Is that the right answer?”
“There are no right or wrong answers,” she says, kicking at the nettles.
We walk in silence, considering this. Then we stop dead. The sky is clear. The heat, thick on my skin. Someone is on the path ahead. And, in my bones, I know . . .
This. Will. Hurt.
Erika Jürgen. A year above us, two years older. Flame-red hair and a wicked temper. She blocks the path in front of three shoulder-to-shoulder girls who look skittish. Louella Caden, Zoe Pierce, Evin O’Keefe. Two have their phones out already filming. Meaning it’s no accident they’re here. They planned this. A bird, I don’t know what kind, cries and a shadow flits over the path. I feel Bea bristle next to me and the urge to turn and run is fierce--it’s primal. But we don’t.
“Well, well, well,” Erika says, grinning, sauntering towards us. “Look what the universe has gone and coughed up.”
It’s been building, this fight. Last week, they cornered Bea in the changing room. Someone spat a derogatory comment at her, which wasn’t smart. Bea doesn’t back down. It escalated quickly, ended only with a teacher intervening.
“Hurrying home to Mummy and Daddy?” Erika says, in a singsong voice.
The other girls snicker in solidarity.
We say nothing.
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot.” She’s warming up, enjoying this. “Gold doesn’t have a daddy, does she? My bad.” Hysterical laughter. Slaps on the back.
“Shut up, Erika!” I can’t stop myself. The words blaze out.
I sound panicky.
“Oh, don’t get me started on you, freakshow.” She pouts and runs a hand suggestively over Zoe Pierce’s cheek. “Daddy still a fruit?”
Her minions double over, like it’s the funniest joke ever told.
Bea lets go a sigh. “Jürgen,” she says, her voice gone quiet. “D’you have any idea what they’ll say about you when--if--you graduate from school?”
The laughter dies. Erika’s face blooms red. “You better watch it, Gold. Whatever you’re gonna say, be very, very careful.”
Bea smiles. “You understand the question though, right?”
Erika looks momentarily off balance, a boxer recouping from an unanticipated, lightning-fast jab.
“It’s binary,” Bea says. “Yes or no. Either you understand, or you don’t.” She looks unafraid and I can’t tell if she’s acting relaxed, or if it’s real.
Erika takes a step towards us. I feel a spurt of anxiety.
The trees seem to crowd the path.
“They’ll say,” Bea continues, blithely unaware of my fear, “absolutely nothing. You’ll disappear, like a fart into the ether. You’ll be forgotten.”
Dr. Alice Augur leans back into her leather chair, which is ergonomic and stylish. She’s slim, in her late thirties. She’s wearing designer glasses and a sharp black knife of a dress. Ruby garnets at her throat, like drops of blood. “Why not turn back?” she says in a calm, smooth voice.
I shake my head. “Delaying the inevitable. They’d have been on to us the next day. There are rules. Someone calls you out, you face them.”
“I see. And this feeling of someone following you, I assume it was them?”
“Erika and the others? No. It wasn’t them.”
Dr. Augur steeples her fingers. “Someone else?”
“I can’t say.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Take your pick.”
“I’m on your side, Ana. I’m here to help.”
Dr. Augur lifts a pen and wobbles it between her fingers. “Ana, you can trust me. Tell me what you saw. In the trees, following . . . if it wasn’t the other girls . . . then, in your opinion, what was it?”
“In my opinion?”
I shift in my seat. A rhombus of sunlight falls across Dr. Augur’s desk. I shift in my seat and stare at a pair of framed photographs. A man--intellectual-looking, darkly handsome. Two laughing kids at Euro Disney. The perfect family.
Dr. Augur rolls her pen. “This is a safe place, Ana. Nothing can hurt you here.”
“Not true. You’re trying to get inside my head. That hurts.”
Dr. Augur gazes at me, the epitome of cool. Uncrackable.
“All right,” I tell her. “But remember, you asked for this.”
She opens her palms to me, an invitation to proceed.
“There are things,” I tell her. “I don’t know what they are. I don’t know where they’re from. But they’re coming for me. I feel it. And they’re getting closer.”
“Things?” She glances around the room.
“That . . . aren’t from here?”
“OK. Go on.”
“They’re watching me. I see them all the time.”
Dr. Augur frowns. “You believe people are following you?”
“Not people. I told you, things. They were there, before the fight. In the trees.”
“I see,” she says, as much to herself as to me. I imagine the cogs in her brain twitching and turning. “And . . . are they menacing?”
“Some are. I feel the danger pouring off them. Others seem more . . . I don’t know, benevolent. As if they want to warn me.”
“Warn you about what?”
I shrug and squint out the window at a bright-blue, sun-baked London--city of a thousand cranes--a half-made place, eternally under construction.
“I saw one on the way here,” I tell her.
“It was on the other side of the road. I couldn’t make out its face, it was blurred and sort of indistinct. Its body was more a shadow than physical.” I’m aware, as I say this, how ridiculous it must sound to her. But I know what I saw. “It was just standing there, facing me. Even though I couldn’t see its eyes, I knew it was looking at me. Then a bus shot past and it was gone. It vanished.”
Dr. Augur adjusts her glasses. “I see.”
“You always say that. But you don’t see. You don’t believe me.”
She looks at me squarely. “I believe you’re very clever, Ana. Few of my young patients would use a word as particular as ‘benevolent.’ I also believe in the mind’s extraordinary power. That, if you want something to be real, then--”
“Look, why do we even have to do this?”
“We don’t,” she says, raising her shaped eyebrows, scribbling something down on the notepad on her desk. “You’re welcome to leave now and we’ll tell your parents to fetch you and inform the school you’re not inclined to return.”
“That’s a joke. . . . What are you writing?”
“My notes, Ana.”
“You’re telling them I’m not normal, right?”
Dr. Augur looks up from the tight scrawl on her notepad (spidery handwriting that’s impossible to read upside down). “Define normal,” she says.
“You only say that because you’re a shrink.”
An uncomfortable quietness settles on the room. Dr. Augur spins her pen on the desk, between thumb and forefinger. It bobbles like the dial of a compass.
“I’m lost,” I say finally. “That’s what you’re writing down.”
“Is that what you think?”
I clench my hands between my knees. Say nothing.
“All right,” she says, putting the pen aside. “Let’s come back to the figures later. First, I want you to tell me what happened with Erika and Bea. And don’t leave anything out. Be specific. It’s important we acknowledge everything. OK?”