Authors: Rhys Thomas
Craig had tried to kill himself before, and when he took an overdose at the back of Mrs Kenna's classroom Richie thought he had finally succeeded. But then the new kid at school, Freddy steps in and saves Craig's life. But all too soon, Richie finds himself committed to a sinister pact. It's true that Freddy saved a life â but could he take one, too?
For Mum and Dad
The vast bulk of humanity is irredeemably mediocre.
â Ronald Hayman describing Friedrich Nietzsche's beliefs
Do not go gentle into that good night . . .
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
â Dylan Thomas
CALL ME ISHMAEL.
Apparently, you have to have a good line to start a book so I stole that one from
, which is a book about a whale that I've never read. You know when I said call me Ishmael? Well, call me Richard Joseph Henry Harper because that's my name. Yes, it's a stupid name, I know. This book is about me and my friends and it gets a bit messy later on, I have to warn you. Only in terms of raw human emotion though. But I digress. It all started with Freddy.
I remember it well, the first time that we met. Mrs Kenna was telling us about the champion British miler, Roger Bannister. Mrs Kenna was an elderly lady with whom I had a mild fascination (if that's not too oxymoronic). Her husband and son had both died of a rare brain cancer so her whole existence was coated in tragedy. And I love people with a tragedy, genuinely
them. There's something about those emotions at the end of the spectrum that really gets me. And this woman had them in spades, poor thing. She always spoke with eloquence, as though a blanket of words had been pulled over her grief, smoothing the bumps, ironing out all that furious emotion, and for that I admired her because I have my very own furious emotion. Boiling inside me like acid. But only sometimes. And not really.
Anyhoo, I was listening to the lesson. Apparently Roger
Bannister, who was the first man to run a mile in under four minutes â big wow â was also a brilliant doctor. I'm sorry, I didn't mean âbig wow' just then, I was just showing off. I always do that â say something that I don't mean just to show off. I know it's a bad thing though. Being the first man to do
is good, but running a mile in under four minutes for the first time must have been a pretty big thing. You know, back in the fifties.
I'm going to say something a bit weird now, but don't worry because it's important that I tell you this early on. Sometimes a mental image, like a photograph, will explode in my brain and it's the most horrendous thing you can imagine. For no reason, it just shoots into my head and there it is, unblinking, deadly: c, the Worst Case Scenario (âc' stands for âconstant' by the way because a Worst Case Scenario is always constant). Let me give you an example of what I mean.
My Worst Case Scenario for Mrs Kenna is she's sitting at the side of her dead husband and son's graves and somebody comes over and rapes her, then kills her right there on her husband's tombstone. So not only does she die but the guy who kills her robs her of her dignity too. She's naked and bloody on the grave. I know it's awful, that's why it's a Worst Case Scenario. That image always came to me in history class and I hated it because it's not healthy.
It's sort of like a gift I have, imagining these sorts of things, though it is equally a curse (God, that's cheesy â in truth it's just a curse). No matter how well something is going I can always imagine something terrible out of nowhere, all black and arachnoid, first of all blurring the edges like a creeping cataract and then consuming the whole thing like carbon monoxide petrified and leaden with mass. WâCâS.
It doesn't matter if it's the first or the hundredth time you've thought about it, it never becomes more or less shocking
because it is not mutable â that's why it's a Worst Case Scenario. It's the worst possible thing that can possibly happen. I told you it was a bit weird but, as you'll see later on, it's important that you know I have these Worst Case Scenarios.
Then, all of a sudden, Craig Bartlett-Taylor started saying something from the back of the class. Lots of kids in my school have double-barrelled surnames because I go to a
âMiss,' is what he said.
We all turned round to look at him â he always sat at the back of every class because he was a bit of a freak. Today, Craig Bartlett-Taylor looked pale as hell. He looked like he was wearing make-up or something, but that's fine because loads of my friends wear some sort of make-up for the image, but Craig looked like he didn't know he was wearing make-up. He looked like a porcelain doll.
âI've just taken a whole bottle of pills, Miss.'
It was really weird when he said that. He said it so crisp and clear, like a snowflake. You know? Mrs Kenna was floundering, I could tell. Just more tragedy for her. Honestly, the tragedy was bursting at the seams, seeping through the pores for Mrs Kenna. She clearly didn't know what to do, even though she said, as she ran over to Craig, âShow me the bottle.'
She looked funny running. Old people do. Their legs need WD-40.
Suddenly, Bartlett-Taylor fell off his chair on to the floor. The other kids gasped with the drama of it all. My heart was going mad. I sat up a little in my seat to see if he was frothing at the mouth â that's always a bad sign. But his mouth looked pretty dry. There didn't seem to be a pill bottle anywhere and we all said later that he must have taken the pills at the end of lunch or something.
Craig didn't even start having a fit or anything like that.
He just lay there, his eyes half open like he was just drifting off to sleep.
A sleep from which he will never awake
, a stupid Count Dracula voice said inside my head. I was worried for Craig but trying not to show it. I'd grown up with him and seeing him like that made my skin crawl a little. I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what. So I just sat there like a moron.
And that was the first time I saw Freddy. Frederick Spaulding-Carter. He was out of his chair straight away and running over to Craig like the wind. His chair upped itself on to two legs and then fell to the floor in a swirl of drama.
People always say that when dramatic things happen time slows down and everything goes in slow motion. I'd never really known anything truly dramatic so I wasn't sure if it was true. But I swear to God when Freddy ran to save Craig the world didn't slow down at all. It happened at the exact same speed that I'd lived the whole of my life.
He reached Bartlett-Taylor and slipped his arm under his body, lifting him on to his side. Then he grabbed his other arm and pulled it across his chest. I can't remember it exactly but he was doing what's called the Recovery Position. You do it if someone's out cold. I don't know what it does, maybe it straightens your windpipe into your lungs so you can access air more easily. I'm not sure.
âCall an ambulance,' he said. It came out as both quiet and loud. His black hair had flopped in front of his eyes. I had never seen this boy before so why the hell was he sat at the back of my classroom?
Mrs Kenna shouted to me to go and get the headmaster and tell him what had happened. Me. Why did it have to be me? I was good in class and I did my homework most of the time so why should I miss out? By the time I finished having this thought I was halfway down the corridor because in
truth I was a little bit terrified that Craig was in real trouble. I'm not disaffected or anything like that. I'm a normal kid, and I have a good soul.
As I ran I Worst Case Scenarioed the fate of Bartlett-Taylor. It was pretty bad. At his funeral, his dad, who was about seventy because they had Craig when they were too old, was crying. It was terrible because parents who have kids who die never, ever recover. It's impossible to recover from it because it's Not Natural. We as human beings are a Natural phenomenon and when things that are Not Natural happen, like a kid dying before their parents, you can't get over it properly because it's against the normal grain of the universe, right? So anyway, his old dad was crying as he lowered his boy's coffin into the ground. It was raining and the mud at the graveside was slippery. The old man, who had a frail skeleton, couldn't keep his footing because he was just an old man, and he fell over. The coffin slumped to one side and made a horrible thud as it smacked against the walls of the grave before dropping into the pit and cracking. The coffin came to a stop and everyone knew that the boy's corpse was inside the casket, lying deathly still, nothing more than a slab of meat. Bartlett-Taylor had lost his dignity and it was all because his old man was too old and weak.
Suddenly I remembered something. A memory from when I was little. Craig and I had been playing bows and arrows. We were in the same team. It was one of those long summer days that you only really have when you're a kid. We were hiding behind this weird grass hummock in the woods. We were on our backs, our heads lying against the grass, watching the branches of the trees swaying overhead. It was so still. We had never been the greatest of friends and in truth I had teased him a little bit along with the other kids, but I had still known him since I was three and that counts for a lot. I'd forgotten all about that day in the woods, but now
there it was, in my head, making my heart beat with fear.
I smacked on the headmaster's door but he was on the phone when I burst in. He looked at me like I had just committed some terrible crime. His face was turning red and I thought that when he was through with his phone call he was actually going to murder me. He didn't like me much. I think it's because I sometimes used to get in trouble but still did well in examinations because I'm naturally intelligent. If I applied myself I reckon it's possible I could do well in life and I think, later on, I
apply myself and do good things for other people.
âSir,' I shouted. Too loud.
His eyes bulged like the guy at the end of
when he goes out into the Martian atmosphere and the pressure basically crushes his skull.
âSir, Mrs Kenna sent me. There's been the most terrible incident.' It was a ridiculous thing to say but sometimes I can't help saying ridiculous things to people I consider ridiculous. âCraig Bartlett-Taylor's taken an overdose and he's collapsed off his chair.' The words spewed out fast and clear. I knew that I had to get the message out quick â the clock was ticking.