Tash didn’t make a sound, she didn’t struggle against the cold, iron, grip on her wrists. Inside she was screaming and writhing but she needed Marcus to think she was coming along willingly. Tash desperately hunted for any chance to get away. The slightest release of his hold would do. His grip didn’t relax a bit.
They passed the gates of the golf-course. Grip still tight. They followed the long steep hill all the way back to the square. Grip still tight. They followed the hill down to the school (even passing the police station on the way). Grip still tight.
Tash wondered for a second whether she should yell out at the police station but she would rather be free and silent than loud and risk being dragged away with no hope of escape.
This strategy didn’t pay off. She knew that much as Marcus hauled her through the front door of the school.
The school door was open! That was different. They had passed police cars outside. Could the police be somewhere in the building?
Marcus somehow snuffed out electric lights everywhere they went. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation as he progressed through the front of the building, past the stairs, and into the boiler room.
Marcus was holding Tash’s wrist so tight that her hand was purple. She couldn’t feel her fingers any more. With his free hand Marcus closed the door as quietly as possible and locked it from the inside. The key safely tucked into his pocket.
Next came the descent into the rooms below. Tash was allowed to have use of her hand again but it was so numb that it served little purpose except as a lump of flesh and bone she used to steady herself as she climbed down the ladder.
There was only one positive that Tash could think of; there had been no sign of Mr Thomas. This didn’t seem to slow Marcus down at all:
“Walk faster, you’re going to want to be sitting down when it happens.”
This left Tash cold. What was ‘it’? Why would she need to sit down?
Strands of electric cables lay twisted on the floor in front of them. Tash hadn’t seen her sister tied up but she knew enough to realise they had just passed the spot where she had been earlier:
“Where are you taking me? Where are the others?”
Marcus didn’t even slow down his walking as he hurried her along further:
“They’ll be below by now.”
He heaved a grease-stained oak bookcase to one side with no effort whatsoever and led Tash into a small room behind.
Cut into the floor was a spiral staircase. Tash leaned against the tubular walls as they descended. The rough stone offering the comfort of something solid. Something real.
A surprising number of steps led them into the middle of a tiny room. Tash could just make out the shapes of three children huddled in a corner gathered around a small battery-powered torch.
Marcus stopped on the bottom step:
“Where is he? Did he go upstairs?”
James turned and looked up at them, straining his eyes against the light flowing down from the open stairwell:
“He left ages ago. What are you going to do to us?”
Marcus sat down on the step:
“Nothing. At least that’s what I hope. With any luck he’s been taken by the police and you’ll just need to wait here until 3am. After that I’ll be gone and you can head upstairs for help.”
He took the key and placed it on the floor in front of him. The others didn’t even try to grab it. They knew there was no point. Nicky croaked in the corner:
“Marcus? What do you mean you won’t be here?”
“Every quarter century, for whatever reason, I get to be a kid. A solid, real-looking child. I make friends. I go to school. Then he comes along and takes them, uses them to stay alive for another twenty-five years. After it’s done I disappear. I lose my solid form. I sort of float in and out of existence for the next twenty-five years.”
Marcus was quiet for a long time. He looked up at the four friends with tears in his eyes:
“If he doesn’t come back tonight then this might be the end. I might never have to do that to anyone again. I might get some rest.”
Nicky jumped in:
“…but doesn’t that mean you’ll…”
She didn’t want to say ‘die’ but everyone knew what she meant. Marcus laughed:
“I’ve been dead for two-thousand years. Maybe now I can start acting like it.”
Among them only Tash had a watch. She took it off and sat it on the floor between them all. Taz pointed the torch at it. It was two minutes till three. In silence they watched for the seconds to tick down.
Taz coughed, making the others jump:
“Marcus, I enjoyed playing tig with you. You’re really fast. It was fun. (You know before you captured us and planned to sacrifice us to keep a janitor’s assistant alive and everything).”
The seconds ticked away to their freedom and Marcus’ destruction. Five…four…three…two…one…
Nothing happened. Marcus was still there and so were they. They grinned among themselves. Then Tash frowned:
“It’s actually set a bit fast. It’s only a few minutes…”
Blue light flashed out of Marcus and a damp cold feeling clawed at the four friends. They had never felt more tired. As they collapsed to the floor Marcus stood up in his luminous glory and screamed:
“No!!!!! This wasn’t supposed to happen. He isn’t here this time. I thought I’d fixed it. I’m so sorry. So, so sorry.”
A few hundred meters away. In a cell in the police station a tiny stream of blue light crept in through the window and disappeared into Mr Thomas. He caught his breath:
“Not as much as usual Marcus. Quite disappointing really, but it’ll have to do.”
He looked in the mirror. A face of brown leather, surrounded by snow white hair, scowled back at him. He was old but he was alive. For now.
James woke up in his bed at home with no memory of getting there. His dad slumped forward, perched on the end of the bed. He jerked awake at the sound of James:
“Finally! We’ve been so worried. The four of you were so ill when they found you. Are you OK? Can you remember anything?”
James’ throat was painfully dry. His dad had to help him take a sip of water before he could speak:
“What about the others? Taz? Nicky? Tasha? Are they OK? Is Marcus?”
His dad sighed and shook his head:
“I’m really sorry to say this but they still haven’t found him. We don’t know what Mr Thomas did with him but it’s not looking promising.”
“The others are the same as you. Been ill and sleeping for weeks. You managed to sleep your way to the Christmas holidays!”
James got up and put his slippers on. His dad helped him down to the living room. Long phone calls told him that his friends were awake too. Everything was going to be OK.
1st November 2017
James hurried towards the school. He was supposed to be picking up the kids right now but he was still five minutes away. Time had never been on his side. For as long as he could remember it felt like someone had set up his internal clock a bit wrong. Like some of his time was missing.
Tash streaked past him on her way to pick up her two. There was nothing quite like seeing a school friend with kids to make you feel old. They exchanged an eye-roll of mutual understanding and she vanished into the crowd of parents.
James was almost at the gate, running past the bushes when he saw something that made his stomach lurch. It couldn’t be…
A pale, green, face gazed out from the bushes to his left. Black eyes reflected the street lights that lit the way into the new school. Then they were gone.
He’d allowed himself to consider it some childish story; something they had made up to explain what had happened to them. Sometimes he’d get flashbacks like this and remember the truth.
He hunted through the thinning crowd for Tash but she had already gone. His boys raced towards him. Theo (his eldest) was jumping around as usual:
“What kept you so long?”
James tried not to think about the face in the bushes. He tried to hide his discomfort by acting as normally as possible. He apologised for being late and asked how their day was. Harry (his youngest) jumped in:
“Theo has a new boy in his class. He’s really fast, hardly anyone can catch him when we play tig.”
James was relieved to be talking about something normal:
“So what’s the new boy’s name.”
Theo and Harry replied in unison:
“He’s called Marcus.”
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Thanks for reading, all the best, John
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