The Stranger's Guide to Talliston
On the night of the attack, his father’s last words to him were “Go, son, run! Go to the hideout and never look back. We’ll get there when we can.” Joe had done as he said, and he hadn’t seen them since. That was a very long time ago, but as he had no electricity to power anything, he didn’t know the date, and sometimes not even the day of the week. The boy could not be certain how long he had been living rough in the bus. All summer at least. Not that time actually mattered in his life. Now there was just the light and the dark. He got up when he woke and went to bed when it got too dark to see or do anything. Joe spent every night fearing his parents would ever come back for him.
And every day Joe spent following The Rules.
To keep him safe, his father had made his son memorise a whole heap of dos and don’ts. This wasn’t the usual things like ‘Always Eat At The Table’ and ‘Don’t Jump On The Sofas’. This was strange stuff like, ‘Formulate Contingency Escape Routes’ and ‘If It Howls, Feed It’. Over time, Joe had simplified that list and now it looked like this:
RULE #1: NOWHERE IS SAFE.
RULE #2: ALWAYS HAVE A WAY OUT.
RULE #3: BE INVISIBLE.
RULE #4: DON’T MAKE FRIENDS.
RULE #5: DO NOT TALK TO DEAD PEOPLE.
Then there was the most important rule of all. The One Rule To Ring Them All. The rule Joe must never break.
A GOOD BOY TAKES HIS MEDICINE.
Joe had been born sick. He had a rare disease that had a very long name and meant that if the boy placed too much strain on his body, his heart would break and he would die. To treat this condition, Joe had a bottle of medication that he had to take every thirteen hours. No matter if it was midnight or breakfast or when Joe was in the bath or taking a dump. Joe wore a clockwork timer around his neck and when the countdown reached zero, wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he had to take his medication. It was another rule on top of all the other rules. The rules that governed every day of his stupid existence. Joe lived his life by these two truths: The Rules kept him safe and The Medicine kept him alive.
Which had been all well and good until today. Because this afternoon he had drained the last mouthful of the thick, white, foul-tasting liquid. Now the ribbed brown bottle was empty and he had to get some more. Automatically Joe had twisted the timer back to thirteen and it began its countdown, quietly ticking away his final hours.
It was a curiously warm evening, stuck somewhere between summer and autumn, and the boy prepared to head out to the nearby town. He’d finished all the bottled water and his store of crisps and baked beans were also dangerously low. Being a teenager and with all the normal children back at school, Joe tried not to be spotted outside during the day. He couldn’t use his bike and he couldn’t go scavenging. So he was waiting for that perfect time between after school and before dark, when seeing a boy on his bike with a bag of shopping would seem like the most natural thing in the world. Though there had been emergency cash at the bus, he used it sparingly, preferring instead to scavenge what he could. He had no prescription and nothing save the label on the bottle to identify The Medicine. Still, he had to try even if it meant throwing a brick through a chemist’s window and braving the consequences. He knew he had to go before he got too weak or too desperate.
So now Joe sat beside his mountain bike and waited for dusk. While he waited, he played with his Wolverine action figure. The X-Men superhero was who Joe wanted to be. With his super-strength and super-healing, Wolverine never quit. His skeleton of pure adamantium never tired or wore down. His ability to regenerate pretty much any part of him within seconds was also enviable. Joe sighed. In the deepening twilight, the school bus shone bottle green, edged with its curved crown of rust. The front ended in a large snout, while the rear was one big doorway, shielded by a sagging tent porch. Inside all the seating had been unbolted and pushed against the walls making space for a table and for sleeping. There was a plaque by the front door that announced the bus had been manufactured by GMC Truck & Coach Division in Michigan, USA.
“This bus is American,” his father had told him. “It’s 1940s, judging by the shape of it. I guess it came over in the war, got parked in this wood and now it’s never gonna leave.”
I know how it feels, thought Joe. It’s abandoned and alone, just like me. It hadn’t always been like this. When Joe was very young and they lived in Cornwall, his parents took him everywhere. But that world felt a million miles away, and the boy rarely allowed himself to think of that golden age before the wood and the bus. Yes, he was lonely and scared. He went hungry most days. But the worst feeling wasn’t being lonely or scared or hungry. It was the knowledge that this was all his fault. He was to blame for being cast aside like a broken toy.
The thought of leaving the wooded roundabout filled him with dread while in his mind, his parents’ voices rang like great bells of doom.
“We can’t protect you, son, if you don’t follow The Rules,” his father said.
While his mother added: “The doctors can’t cure you, if you don’t take The Medicine.”
Thinking this, Joe’s forehead beaded with sweat. His hands shook. In the quiet of the clearing, his fragile heart hammered. Anxiously the boy’s had fumbled for the timer. As he held it in his slick palm he saw the marker was already well past seven. He had to go.
His mother said that the longest a murdered person had lain unidentified was on a roundabout and that this made the hideout a safe place. Even when winter came – and Joe was not looking forward to that at all – the bus would be all but invisible from the road. For now the wood was filled with crisp copper leaves, only just hinting at the scarlet and faded gold they would become. Joe concentrated on the leaves and calmed his rising panic.
With barely a sound of beating wings, the dark form of the crow appeared on the table beside where the boy was sitting. The ink-black bird was his only friend, the solitary companion the boy allowed himself. It was easily the biggest bird he had ever seen and he’d named him Griswald after a cartoon character he loved. The crow was a frequent visitor to the secret camp as far back as Joe could remember.
“Cr-r-ruck,” croaked Griswald, as he landed upon the side of the table.
“Yes, of course I’m still here,” said Joe. “No one’s come back today.”
The crow clucked as if scolding him, tapping the table with his formidable beak. “I’m not like you. I can’t just up and fly away. If I do, how will they ever find me?” This was how their conversations went, with Joe imagining the crow’s cawing and chattering as questions and reprimands. “Do you think they’re coming back? Maybe they got caught and– Well, best not to think about that.”
The crow stood so close Joe could easily reach out and touch him, though the boy decided against it. That long scimitar beak looked far too dangerous to dare. The bird let out a longer cry. It sounded as if he was hungry. Joe showed Griswald his empty hands.
“No food,” he said, and shrugged. “Maybe later.”
The bird responded by hopping backwards, then bobbing and staring at Joe as if trying to tell him something. In the creature’s black eyes all of Joe’s world – the bus, the wood and himself – was reflected, like a life drowned in a bottomless lake. It was all the boy could do not to shout, “I know! It’s all my fault! I’m responsible for this mess. A good boy should always take his medicine.” The two regarded each other for a moment more, then with a flow of dark wings, the bird was gone. As he vanished, Griswald filled the wood with another echoing croak and this one definitely sounded nothing like a caw for food.
This one sounded like a warning.
Off through the trees, branches snapped. Something was approaching. Mum! Dad! It was them. They were back!
With a sudden burst of blue and red, a dozen sirens filled the wood from end to end with sound and light. Joe leapt to his feet in terror. Instantly the trees were alive with shadows as searchlights seared away the gathering darkness and filled it with blazing brightness. Struck cold with fear, Joe froze like a rabbit in headlights. He stifled a cry for help knowing a trap had been sprung. It wasn’t his parents. No one was coming for him. He had to do this on his own.
Just like he had on that last night with his mother and father. With luck, he was all set to leave. Grabbing up his messenger bag, Joe swung the pack over his shoulder and straddled his bike, then was off. Pedalling as fast as he could, he headed away from the sirens and the searchlights, muttering, “Rule #2. Rule #2. Always Have A Way Out,” under his breath. Large shapes moved between the trees, a ring of people closing in on all sides except one. The grassy escarpment that led to the overpass. Thankfully he’d spent many hours planning contingency escape routes and he was sure in his path. Taking a self-cleared dirt track, Joe dropped gears and pumped furiously as the route started to rise steeply. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain in his chest. It was his heart. Without his medication, over exerting himself could be fatal. The boy dismounted and pushed the heavy bike up the slope. Snatching glances behind him, he grabbed only glimpses of his pursuers. Each wore black coats, had hooded heads, and their dark eyes followed him like wolves. Joe didn’t know how they had found the hideout, knew only that he had to escape. If only he had more medicine.
At the top of the escarpment, Joe climbed back on his bike and headed down the hill. Pedalling faster and faster as he descended, he ducked torch beams and then he was freewheeling off the pavement, past the white sign that read ‘Priory Wood Roundabout’ and across four lanes of traffic. Cars swerved and lorry horns blared. The boy winced at the thought of being pulverised under their enormous tyres, but gravity was in control now. Somehow he wasn’t crushed or hit. Instead he careered the wrong way down a littered filter lane, up another bank and into a cluster of trees.
With the bus and the roundabout hideout discovered, Joe had no idea of where he should go. Initially his only thought was of escape. Now he stopped, dismounted and dragged the mountain bike into the V-shaped channel of a disused railway line maps named ‘The Flitch Way’. The tracks were gone, leaving behind a weed choked hollow that ran all the way from the motorway alongside the villages. Joe knew this was risky – for a kid on a bicycle this would be a fairly obvious route – but the base of the cutting was relatively flat and obstacle free. Most importantly it kept him off the roads. In his mind, he heard his mother yelling: “Stop snivelling! You did this.
You brought this on yourself. On all of us.” He knew she was right. He’d brought all this on them all.
Joe shivered as the evening turned ever colder. Where should he go?
Lifting his sweaty palms off the handlebars, he focused on what he’d been taught on making critical decisions under pressure. In a critical situation, someone has to decide what to do. Even if you’re scared or hurt or people are dead and dying, someone still has to decide what to do. He needed The Medicine. He needed food and shelter; a place to hide. All those things were found in the town. He had to head for Great Dunmow.
The boy felt sick to his stomach just thinking about it, but it seemed to tick all the boxes. Before the bus and the attack, it was where Joe and his parents had lodged. Some isolated farmhouse on the edge of the market town. It was the last place he’d seen his parents. He didn’t want to go there. Not after what happened. But he could think of nowhere else to go. Passing under old Victorian railway bridges, he made his way slowly east. Joe would have killed to have Wolverine’s ability to pinpoint an enemy and sense incoming danger right now. A couple of times he heard the gunning of car engines in the night and once he hid in a thicket as torchlights darted overhead in the trees, but otherwise he heard and saw nothing.
Well after dark, Joe emerged from the old railway line, wheeled his muddy bike over a wooden plank bridge and back onto the road that led into the town. The night was clear and though there were stars, there was no moon. Now was the hard part. He knew how to blend in, but the problem was that in these empty streets, at this hour – he guessed it must be approaching ten o’clock, maybe even as late as eleven – not raising suspicions would be tricky. A young boy on a bicycle would be something noteworthy. Especially to those in an official capacity.
Level head, he thought. Eyes straight. Remember The Rules.
Nowhere Is Safe. Always Have A Way Out. Do Not Talk To Dead People.
‘Dead People’ was the name the boy called everyone else. He imagined all the people on the planet were now flesh-eating zombies and it turned the task of avoidance and evasion into a game. That way if he ended up meeting people he was trying to avoid or was trapped in an awkward situation, it gave him a way to respond. Even when he had taken The Medicine, he rarely ran. A fast person is far more noticeable than a slow person. He had to avoid bumping into people who would ask if he were lost or where he was going. To avoid these questions, he’d been taught to slow down, look thoughtful and move with purpose.
Entering the edge of the town, Joe kept this head down and cycled on. He passed a guesthouse opposite and saw he was heading towards a thatched pub. Outside smokers crowded the area beside the car park.
Look straight ahead, he told himself. Steady, natural pace.
Before him a sleek black sedan was parked half in the car park, half across the pavement. Its bonnet was stuck right across Joe’s path. A bald man was standing beside the vehicle talking with the regulars. In his hand he held a large torch and seeing this Joe’s throat tightened. Without thinking he started cycling a little faster and at that exact moment the figure looked up and right at him. The boy’s heart leapt and he swerved involuntarily out into the road. It was all the indication the man needed. Immediately he leapt into the car and the engine sprang to life. Joe knew he couldn’t outrun a vehicle. He needed to be invisible. Now. Instantly he was furiously pedalling, making the wheels spin as fast as he could. He didn’t look back.
Immediately opposite the pub was a way off the main road, and he sped down it, desperately searching for a place to hide.
He wasn’t far down the lane when Joe realised he’d made a big mistake. The narrow road led into a wide circle of semi-detached houses set around a green. It was a dead end. There was no way out. At his back he heard his pursuer’s engines and knew he only had seconds before he was caught. Swerving right, he mounted the kerb and tried to keep himself as close to the garden walls and hedges as he could. The car entered the cul de sac and miraculously turned left. Its headlights swept the entire green and Joe could see if he had chosen that way he would have been spotted. While this was some little comfort, he also realised that he was far from safe. Once the car had made a full circuit of the road, Joe would be seen for sure. It was then that he caught sight of the giant black bird.
Griswald was sitting on the pavement about ten feet away. In the light from the streetlamps, Joe saw the bird was standing on a lump of something dead. What was he doing here? Skidding to a halt, Joe found he was outside one of the many properties on the green, but where the others were in good repair with neat gardens, this one was wild and neglected. The front garden was surrounded by a hedge that was so overgrown it resembled an immense thorny thicket. It was so tall that nothing could be seen of the house except the very top of the chimney. Almost invisible in the dense foliage was a low iron gate, but even that was overgrown and twisted with brambles. Hanging upon the gate was a big, rusted sign that read:
DANGEROUS BUILDING. KEEP OUT.
“Great place to hide, Griswald,” the boy said, but there was no time for sarcasm. The car was almost upon him. Pushing his bike into the hedge, Joe pressed on the gate, but found it impossible to move. Thorns cut into his hands making him flinch away. The car turned the last curve, its stark headlights already sweeping across the next door neighbour’s fence. Desperately, the boy threw his whole body against the iron gate, and this time the branches and brambles gave way. He half-fell through the dark opening, crashing to the ground. It was not a moment too soon.
Headlights shone through the leaves, illuminating where he had just been standing, but finding only empty pavement. Griswald took flight, a swift silhouette against the brightness, then was gone. Closely followed by the lights and the growl of engines.
Danger passed and Joe allowed himself a deep sigh. He still needed The Medicine, supplies and a new place to hide, but at least for now he’d escaped.
“Don’t move a muscle,” said a rough growling voice in his ear.