(‘Marcus’ is now available in paperback, you can pick up a copy from Fun Junction in either Crieff or Perth)
James woke up, his throat dry, vague memories of nightmares drifting away. He grabbed a drink of water, perched on the end of his bed, and glanced at his alarm clock. A sickly green digital display blinked 3am.
What had broken his sleep? The whistling had permeated his dreams, the sound was still ringing in his ears. The cold water roused him further. The last traces of sleep vanished. The whistling was coming from the street outside.
It only lasted a few seconds more. By the time James was at his window the whistler was gone. From that point on he didn’t sleep a wink.
His eyes were red with tiredness when he arrived at school. Tash was the fist to notice:
“You look horrible! What happened to you?”
James filled her in on everything that had happened the night before. She tried to comfort him by explaining it all away. After all, it had all been muddled by his nightmares. There was no way to be sure about what he’d heard. Even as she comforted her friend, Tash’s throat grew dry and her heart raced.
Once they had shared the story with Taz and Nicky they were left with the difficult task of deciding what to do next.
Taz wanted to go on acting like nothing had happened. Nicky insisted that there must be a simple explanation and that the simplest way to get it was by talking to Marcus. James and Tash looked at them both, an expression of absolute disbelief plastered over their faces. James spoke first:
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing here. Ignore it or talk to Marcus? Those can’t be our only options.”
The others nodded in agreement. They needed more details about ‘their’ Marcus. Operation ‘ask Marcus weird questions and hope he doesn’t notice’ was scheduled for lunchtime. It happened sooner than that.
As they all lined up, ready to file into the school James found himself standing in front of Marcus. He felt guilty for snooping yet worried for his safety as well. When he turned back to take a look Marcus was smiling quietly, looking up at the pink sky and enjoying the tiny bit of autumn sun. (What was the phrase ‘pink sky in the morning…’?)
He didn’t look like a vampire, or a ghost for that matter. He wasn’t see-through and he wasn’t being fried by sunlight. Two of James’ suspicions almost completely evaporated. Perhaps the others were right. Maybe Marcus really was just an honest kid who simply resembled the boy in the photograph by some freak chance.
Marcus was at the front of the queue grinning at a story one of the girls was telling him. She went back to talking to her friend. With the grin still fixed on his face Marcus turned to face James and whistled a short, simple, easy-going tune. For James there was nothing easy-going about it.
When the bell went for playtime James gripped his chair. Tash and Taz, edging for the door, spotted his discomfort and forced their way back through the crowd. He could barely admit to himself how he was feeling. He faked a sore stomach and asked Mrs McClain if he could stay in.
He waited for the inevitable ‘no’ (teachers seemed to love saying ‘no’). She picked up a book from her desk and made her way to the door:
“I’m heading to the staff room just now. If you’re sure you’re not well you can come downstairs. Bring your homework jotter so you’ll have something to do. We can phone your parents if you still feel ill after break.”
Tash and Taz were led out of the room and sent off to the playground. Tash looked back at James in horror, mouthing “Are you nuts?!”
The murmur of the staff room turned into a swell of sound as Mrs McClain opened the door and led James in. It was quite possible that the teachers were louder than the pupils out in the playground.
James made himself comfortable at a table in the corner. He could barely make out any words but the smoosh of noises from teacher-chatter helped put his mind at ease. Then one word stood out:
“…Marcus has been very strange today. He’s normally so friendly and pleasant as well. I might have to get him to sit outside the classroom to work if he keeps disrupting the class like this. You wouldn’t believe what he said…”
James didn’t get to find out. One of the other teachers had put the kettle on, it drowned out everything else.
Did Marcus know about their research trip to the library the night before? Had he been watching them? Was he the one who whistled outside at 3am?
James concentrated on his maths homework, the clean simple numbers helped take his mind off everything. Before he knew it the bell was ringing and he was following Mrs McClain back up to the classroom.
Taz and Tash were two of the first ones in. They sat down at the table beside him and he told them what he’d overheard. Taz nodded with his eyes wide open:
“That’s about right. He was in a really weird mood today when we played football. Didn’t play fair, said some pretty nasty things. Then tackled Robbie really hard. He got sent to see Miss Bruce after that.”
None of them could remember a time when Marcus had been sent to the headmistress before. Taz and Tash seemed to be coming over to James’s side, though James had gone even deeper in his doubts about Marcus. Had he got sent to Miss Bruce’s office on purpose? Had he seen the picture on the wall?
The day dragged on. All three of them tried with all their might to get lost in school work. Thinking too much about Marcus left them all with headaches but nothing could take their minds off him for more than a few seconds.
When the bell went to go home they were the last in the class to leave. Taz didn’t even try to take the stairs two at a time as they made their way out to the front of the school. Tash was quiet. James couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her quiet.
When they reached the front gate Nicky was waiting for them:
“What took you guys so long? I don’t think I’ve ever been the one waiting for you.”
They were about to explain their feelings about Marcus when he came strolling out of the front door. He didn’t head for the gate straight away. Instead he looked around, acting as though he had forgotten something. He turned to take the little lane to the right of the school that led up to the seniors playground but swung past them on his way:
“Hi Nicky, thanks for the wee chat. Hope it cleared some stuff up. Forgot my jacket. See you guys tomorrow.”
His smile looked practised but Nicky didn’t seem to notice. She waved and smiled.
Once Marcus was out of sight the others didn’t waste a second in turning to confront Nicky. What did she say? How much did she tell him? How much did he know?
Nicky had missed James’ story about the 3am whistle. She also hadn’t heard any of the stuff about the disappearing children. All the same she had still told Marcus about the photograph. He knew they were on to him, and that they were researching him.
Nicky frowned at them all:
“You’re getting it all mixed up. Marcus explained it all. The picture was his Grampa. He saw it himself in Mrs Bruce’s office at lunch time. They have the same name, that’s all.”
They couldn’t convince Nicky to see things any other way. She liked Marcus and had made up her mind that the others were getting caught up in spooky stories.
They skipped the library, choosing the comfort of home and their tea over more research. Nicky tried to comfort James before he left them to head into his house:
“Maybe you’re still in Halloween mode. It was weeks ago now. Just relax and let it go. It’s just a weird old photo.”
James gave her an awkward smile and went in.
James woke up in the middle of the night to more whistling. He pinched himself, splashed his face with water. This was no dream. The floorboards creaked as James made his way to the window. He felt the cold from the rattling window before he moved the curtain back. Down in the street, exactly where the whistling was coming from. Jack saw nothing.
The whistling stopped, replaced by a crunch, like footsteps through thick frost. The time flashed on his alarm clock: 03:00 am.
James returned to bed exhausted. He was drifting off when he heard the police sirens screaming past. The clock read 03:10 am.
Tash was white as a sheet the next morning at school and Nicky wasn’t there at all.