PART ONE - LOCH
Chapter 1 DAMN THE SANDMAN
My hands are red with blood. I'm running through a forest. Naked, but I don't care. I'm an animal, not a human. Animals don't need clothes.
Blood on my tongue too. Must have fed recently. Can't remember if it was a wild creature or a person. Not bothered much either way. Still hungry-that's all that matters. Need to find something new to chew. And soon.
I leap a fallen log. As I land, my bare feet hit twigs. They snap and I sink into a pool of mud. I collapse, howling. The twigs bite into me. I catch a glimpse of fiery red eyes peering up out of the mud. They aren't twigs-they're teeth! I lash out with my feet, screaming wordlessly...
...and mud and bits of bark fly everywhere. I stare at the mess suspiciously, my heart rate returning to normal. I was wrong. I haven't fallen victim to a monstrous baby with mouths in the palms of its hands and balls of fire where its eyes should be. It's just a muddy hole, covered with the remains of branches and leaves.
Scowling, I rise and wipe my feet clean on clumps of nearby grass. As I'm using my nails to pick off some splinters, a voice calls, "Grubbs..."
The name doesn't register immediately. Then I remember-that's my name. Or it used to be, once upon a time. I glance up warily, sniffing the air, but all I can smell is blood.
"Grubitsch..." the voice murmurs and I growl angrily. I hate my real name. Grubbs isn't great, but it's better than Grubitsch. Nobody ever called me that except Mum and my sister Gret.
"You can't find me," the voice teases.
I roar into the darkness of the forest, then lurch at the bushes where I think the voice is coming from. I tear through them but there's nothing on the other side.
"Wrong," the voice laughs, coming from a spot behind me.
I whirl and squint, but I can't see anyone.
"Over here," the voice whispers. This time it's coming from my right.
Still squinting, I edge closer, towards the source of the voice. This feels wrong, like it's a trap. But I can't back away from it. I'm drawn on by curiosity, but also something else. It's a girl's voice and I think I know whose it is.
Movement to my left, just as I'm about to round a tree. Eight long, pale arms wave in the light of the moon. Dozens of tiny snakes hiss and slither. I cry out with fear and slam into the tree, shielding my eyes from the horror. Seconds pass but nothing attacks. Lowering my arms, I realise the arms were just branches of a couple of neighbouring trees. The snakes were vines, blowing in the wind.
I feel sick but I force a weak chuckle, then slide around the tree in search of the person who called to me.
I'm at the edge of a pond. I frown at it. I know this forest and there should be no pond here. But there it lies regardless, the full moon reflected in its still surface. I'm thirsty. The blood has dried on my tongue, leaving a nasty copper-like taste. I crouch to drink from the pond, going down on all fours and lowering my head to the water like a wolf.
I see my face in the mirror-like water before I drink. Blood everywhere, caked into my flesh and hair. My eyes widen and fill with fear. Not because of the blood, but because I can see the shadow of somebody behind me.
I start to turn, but it's too late. The girl pushes my head down hard and I go under. Water fills my mouth and I gag. I try to fight but the girl is strong. She holds me down and my lungs fill. The coppery taste is still there and I realise, as I blink with horrified fascination, that the pond is actually a pool of blood.
As my body goes limp, the girl pulls me up by my hair and laughs shrilly as I draw a hasty, terrified breath. "You always were a useless coward, Grubitsch," she sneers.
"Gret?" I moan, staring up at the mocking smile of my sister. "I thought you were dead."
"No," she croaks, eyes narrowing and snout lengthening. "You are."
I weep as her face transforms into that of a mutant wolf. I want to run or hit her, but I can only sit and stare. Then, as the transformation ends, she opens her mouth wide and howls. Her head shoots forward. Her fangs fasten around my throat. She bites.
I wake choking. I want to scream but in my imagination Gret's teeth are locked around my throat. I lash out at my dead sister, still half in the dream world. When my arm fails to connect, I rub at my eyes and my bedroom swims back into sight around me.
Groaning softly, I sit up and dangle my legs over the edge of the bed. Covering my face with my hands, I recall the worst parts of the dream, then shiver and get up to go to the toilet. No point trying to sleep again tonight. I know from past experience that the nightmares will be even worse if I do.
I pause in the doorway of the bathroom, suddenly certain that demons are lurking in the shadows. If I turn on the light, they'll attack. I know it's ridiculous, a ripple from the nightmare, but despite that my finger trembles in the air by the switch, refusing to press.
"The hell with it," I finally sigh, stepping forward. Letting my fear have its way on this night, as on so many others, I go about my business in the dark.
Chapter 2 MISERY
"Of course I have nightmares-who doesn't?"
A pause. "No."
"But a lot?"
I shrug and look away. I'm in Mr. Mauch's office. Misery Mauch-the school counsellor. He holds court a few times a week. Chats with students who are struggling with homework, peer pressure, pushy parents. Normal kids with normal problems. And then there's me.
Misery loves sitting down for a warts'n'all session with me.
Why wouldn't he? Everyone here knows the Grubbs Grady story-parents and sister slaughtered in front of him... long months locked up in a nuthouse ("incarcerated in a facility for the temporarily disturbed," Misery puts it)... came to Carcery Vale to live in a spooky old house with his uncle Dervish... that uncle lost his marbles soon after... Grubbs played nurse for a year until he recovered... went to a movie set with Dervish and his friend Bill-E Spleen months later... witnessed the tragic deaths of hundreds of people when a disastrous fire burnt the set to the ground.
With a history like that, I'm a dinosaur-sized bone for every psychiatric dog within a hundred kilometre radius!
"Would you like to tell me about your dreams, Grubitsch?" Misery asks.
"Are you sure?"
I feel like laughing but don't. Misery's harmless. It can't be much fun, trekking around his small cache of schools, dealing with the same boring teenage problems day after day, year after year. If I was in his shoes, I'd be itching to get my hands on a juicily messed-up student like me too.
"Grubitsch?" Misery prods after a few seconds of silence.
"Telling me about your dreams might help. A problem shared is a problem halved."
I almost respond with, "What's a cliché shared?" but again I hold my tongue. I'd ruin Misery's day if I cut him down like that. Might reduce him to tears.
"They're not much of a problem, sir," I say instead, trying to wind the session down. I'm missing physics and I quite like that subject.
"Please, Grubitsch, call me William."
"Sorry, sir-I mean, William."
Misery smiles big, as if he's made a breakthrough. "The nightmares must be a problem if they're not going away," he presses gently. "If you told me, perhaps we could find a way to stop them."
"I don't think so," I respond, a bit sharper than I meant. He's talking about stuff which is way over his head. I don't mind a school counsellor showing interest in me but I dislike the way he's acting like a second-rate mind-sleuth, clumsily trying to draw out my secrets.
"I didn't mean to offend you, Grubitsch," Misery says quickly, realising he's overstepped the mark.
"To be honest, sir," I say stiffly, "I don't think you're qualified to discuss matters like this."
"No, no, of course not," Misery agrees, his features sorrowing up. "I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not. I apologise if I gave that impression. I only thought, if you were in the mood to talk, it might help. It might be a beginning. Of course it's not my... I'm under no illusion... as you say, I'm not qualified to..." He mutters to a halt.
"Don't have a breakdown," I laugh, feeling guilty. "It's no biggie. I just don't want to talk about my dreams to anyone. Not right now."
Misery gulps, nods briskly, then says I can go. Tells me he'll be back next week but won't ask to see me. He'll give me some breathing space. Maybe in a month or two he'll call me in again, to "shoot the breeze".
I hesitate at the door, not wanting to leave him on such a down note-his head's bowed over his notes and he looks like he's fighting back sniffles.
"Mr. Mau-William." He looks up curiously. "Next time, if you want, you can call me Grubbs."
"Grubbs?" he repeats uncertainly.
"It's what my friends call me."
"Oh," he says and his face lights up like he's won the jackpot.
I slip out, masking a smile. School counsellors-child's play!
Lunch. Loch wants to know what I was talking with Misery about.
"The size of your brain," I tell him. "We wondered how small it was."
"Don't worry about the size of my brain," Loch snorts. "My brain's fine. A lot healthier than your pea of a think-tank."
"How big is a brain?" Charlie asks. Everyone stares at him. "I mean, does it fill the whole of the head?" He starts poking his skull, searching for soft spots.
"In your case, I doubt it," Loch says. "You've probably got enough empty space in there to hold a football."
Laughter all round. Even Charlie laughs. He's used to being the butt of our jokes. He doesn't mind. They're always light-hearted. Everyone likes Charlie Rail. He's too nice to get vicious on.
Six of us, sheltering from rain in a doorway overlooking the football quad. The usual pack of barbarians are kicking the life out of a tired old ball-and each other-on the quad, oblivious to the rain.
My group-me, Loch, Charlie, Frank, Leon and Mary. Loch and I stand a head or more above any of the others. We're the biggest pair of lunks in our school, which is what drew us to each other in the first place. Loch's a wrestler. He wanted me to be his partner, so he became my friend. I held out for a long time-real wrestling's nothing like the stuff on TV, very calculated and unspectacular-but he eventually persuaded me to give it a go. I'm not much good, and don't get a real kick out of it, but to keep Loch happy I travel to a few meets every month and get down'n'sweaty on the mats.
"I think Misery's sexy in an older-man kind of way," Mary says to a chorus of astonished jeers and catcalls.
"You've got the hots for Mauch?" Leon gasps, faking a heart attack.
"No," Mary says coolly. "I just think he's sexy. I bet women are all over him outside school hours."
The laughter dies away and the five testosteronetastic guys in the group look at each other uncertainly. It's not something we'd admit to, but girls our age know a hell of a lot more about the adult world than we do. Adults operate differently. It's easy to tell the winners and losers in school, the cools and geeks. But the world beyond is puzzlesome. Professional sportsmen are obviously cool, as are actors, pop stars, etc. But what about normal guys? What makes an ordinary man attractive to a woman? I don't know. But if Misery Mauch has it, we could all be in trouble later on. By their frowns, I know the others are thinking exactly the same.
While we're trying to come to terms with a world where Misery Mauch is a sex god, Reni and Shannon stroll up, arms linked, laughing at some private joke.
"I was just telling the boys," Mary says, "how sexy Mr. Mauch is."
"William?" Reni says, nodding thoughtfully. "He's a dish."
"William?" Loch barks at his sister.
"That's what he told me to call him."
"I didn't know you'd been going for counselling," Loch growls.
"There's a lot you don't know about me," Reni says sultrily, then raises an eyebrow at Shannon. "William Mauch-dull or dishy?"
"Deep-pan dishy," Shannon says seriously-then laughs. "I'm sorry! Your faces!"
"Swine," Leon snarls as the other girls squeal along with Shannon. "That wasn't funny."
"It was hilarious," Reni counters, crying with laughter. "You lot are so easy to wind up. Imagine Misery Mauch as eye-candy!" She laughs even harder.
"Here," I say, pulling out a handkerchief and handing it to Reni.
Reni smiles sweetly and dabs at her cheeks with the hankie. Four sets of lips immediately purse-wolf whistles galore.
"Grubbs and Reni sitting in a tree..." sings Frank.
"Get stuffed," I grunt and coolly retrieve my handkerchief from Reni-cue more whistles.
Lunch flies by as it usually does. So much to talk about-friends, teachers, homework, TV, movies, computer games, music, wrestling, the size of brains. Robbie McCarthy joins us midway through. He's not a regular member of the gang but he's been cuddling up to Mary recently so he's had to spend time with the rest of us.
I joke around with Reni a lot. The handkerchief was especially for her. One of Dervish's. I use tissues, like everybody else who isn't living in the Middle Ages. I've been carrying it around for a week, waiting for a chance to present it to her. Corny, and done as a joke-but half serious too. A chance to share a smile and a sweet look.