‘They say it makes your eyes bleed. Almost pop out of your head and then bleed.’
‘People. I just heard it.’
‘You made it up.’
‘No, I didn’t,’ Will says. ‘Why would I make that up? I heard it somewhere. You go mad first and then your eyes bleed. I think maybe your whole skin bleeds.’
‘That is such a heap of shit.’
‘Shut up and go to sleep.’ I roll over. The rough blanket scratches me on the outside and my irritation at Will’s over-active imagination scratches me from the inside. I let out a hot breath against the wool. My irritation is irritating me. It comes fast these days, fl ares from the ball of a black sun that’s been growing quietly in the pit of my stomach. The two boys fall satisfyingly silent. I’m the eldest. I’m the top dog, the boss, the daddy. Of Dorm 4, at least. My word goes.
I yank the starched sheet up until it covers the edge of the old blanket. The dorm isn’t cold so much as cool – the kind of chill ingrained in the bricks and mortar of centuries-old buildings, a ghostly, melancholy chill of things that once were, now part-lost. We suit the house, I think, and that makes the ball contract in my gut. I shiver and pull my legs up under my chin. My bladder twinges. Great.
‘I can’t sleep,’ Will says plaintively. ‘Not with that going on.’ He yawns then and I can see him in the gloom, sitting up cross-legged on his bed, fi dling with the metal bars at the foot of it. He’s the youngest in our room, and is small for his age. He acts younger, too.
The constant whispering comes from the bed opposite Will’s on the other side of the room. The cuckoo in our nest, Ashley, is on his knees beside it, praying. He does this every night at lights-out. Religiously.
‘I don’t think God is listening,’ I mutter. ‘You know, given the situation.’
‘God’s always listening.’ The prim voice fl oats in the frigid air – a stretched reed with a breeze cutting across it. ‘He’s everywhere.’
My bladder twitches again and I give in and push back the covers. The fl oorboards are cold – fuck knows how
Ashley’s knees must feel – but I ignore my slippers. I’m not a granddad.
‘Then your praying makes no sense,’ Louis says, matter-of-fact. His bed is closest to the door and he’s staring up at the ceiling, his hair here and there and everywhere. He still gesticulates as he speaks, even though he’s lying down.
‘Because if your God is everywhere then he’s also inside you and therefore you could speak to him from the quiet privacy of your own mind and talk all night if you wanted without making a sound and he would still hear you. Of course, there is absolutely no scientific proof that any form of deity exists, or that we are more than a collection of cells and water, so your God is just a figment of someone’s imagination that you’ve bought into. Basically, you’re wasting your time.’
The whispering gets louder.
‘Maybe he’s having a wank under the bed and trying to cover the noise,’ I say as I reach the door. ‘Fwap fwap fwap.’
I grin as I make the hand gesture.
Louis snorts a laugh.
My irritation lifts. I like Will and Louis. I wish I didn’t, but I can’t help it. I glance back as I close the door. They look small in the large room. There are too many beds for just the four of us – six against each wall. It’s like everyone else has gone home and somehow we were forgotten. The door clicks shut and I creep along the corridor. It’s a long way to the bathroom and even though I have bigger things to frighten me than the shadows and emptiness of the tired manor house, I still move quickly. The last rounds haven’t been done yet.
I hurry down the wide wooden stairs, clinging to the bannister in the dark as if it were the railing on a ship wearily cutting through the night ocean. The whole house is silent apart from the gentle creaks and moans of the old building itself. I think of the others sleeping in the dorms spread throughout the draughty wings, and the nurses and teachers in their quarters, and then my mind can’t help but imagine the top floor. The one where only the lift goes. Where the kids who get sick disappear to in the night, efficiently re-moved while the house sleeps. Swallowed by the lift and taken to the sanatorium. We don’t talk about the sanatorium. Not any more. No one ever leaves the house, and no one ever comes back from the sanatorium. We all know that.
Just like we know we’ll each make a trip there. One day I’ll be the kid who vanishes in the night.
I pee without closing the door or turning on the light, enjoying the relief even though the liquid stream on ceramic is loud. I don’t flush – Mum’s rule of no flushing at night still sticks – and then I yawn into the mirror without washing my hands. That rule has changed. Germs are not our biggest problem here. Not that, to be honest, I ever remembered much before anyway.
They say it makes your eyes bleed.I lean in closer and stare at my eyes. They’re normally bright blue but look drowned grey in the grimy night. I pull down one lower lid and can make out the streaks of tiny veins running away to my insides. No blood there, though.
It probably isn’t even true. Just Will’s stupid imagination making shit up. I’m fi ne. We’re all fi ne. For now.
‘You should be in bed.’
The voice is soft but it makes me jump. Matron stands in the corridor by the window, the moonlight through the glass making her white uniform shine bright. Her bland face is barely visible.
‘Aren’t you tired?’
‘I needed to pee.’
‘Wash your hands and go back to bed.’
I blast cold water onto my palms and then scurry past her, taking the stairs two at a time. It’s the most she’s said to me since I arrived here. I don’t want her to speak to me. I don’t want her to notice me at all, as if somehow that will make a difference.
‘Matron’s coming,’ I whisper, back in my own room.
‘They’re asleep,’ Louis says. The words blur together. I’m not surprised. It’s about the right time.
‘I don’t understand why they give us vitamins before bed,’
Louis slurs. ‘I don’t understand why they give us vitamins at all.’
I half-smile at this from under my rough blankets and too-crisp sheets. Louis – with his six A levels by the age of thirteen, and who’d been racing through university stupidly early before this stopped him – might be some sort of genius, but just like the others, he’s missed the obvious. I don’t point it out. They’re not vitamins; they’re sleeping pills. Matron and the nurses like the house silent at night.I wait, tense, for another ten minutes or so before I hear the door handle turn and the soft shuffle of soles as she checks each bed. The last round before morning. Only after she’s gone do I open my eyes and breathe easily.
It was a Friday when they came. It was hot, hotter than normal, and he’d taken his time on the way back from school. He’d bought a Coke from the shop on the corner but the fridge wasn’t working so it was warm and sticky.
He drank it anyway, belching loudly after draining it and kicking the can across the street. His mind was drifting through the landscape of the day. Mr Settle droning on about the continuing global climate instability as they all baked and dozed, bored in the classroom. The History essay he owed. The fi ght with Billy. That was going to come back on him at some point. He didn’t even know why he’d started it other than Julie McKendrick had been watching, and it felt like Julie had been watching him for a few days now, even though he couldn’t quite believe it. Tomorrow night was the party. Tomorrow night, everything could change.
Julie McKendrick was always there in some part of his brain. It was too hot to work. Too hot for school. But it wasn’t too hot to think about Julie McKendrick and the fact that she might actually like him. He was so lost in his own world he didn’t notice how quiet the street was, how all the little kids were inside, not sitting out on the pavements or racing around on their bikes as usual. Billy and the essay had faded and he was mainly wondering if what he felt for Julie really was love or just that she was the fittest girl in the school and he might actually get to kiss her. Maybe even put his hands inside her bra. Just thinking about it made his mouth dry and his heart race. He wondered how it would feel. He wondered if he’d actually find out the next day at the party. Even when he saw the van outside his house, where his dad’s car would be parked later when he got home from work, he still didn’t put two and two together. Not until he heard his mum crying. By then it was too late. And it was too hot to run.