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       The Roar, p.8

           Emma Clayton

  ‘Oh, OK,’ Mika said. ‘I do, thanks.’

  He stepped into the shower, closed the door and turned on the water, leaning against the thin wall. He kept his head up while he washed, because when he bent forward the weight of the detention collar gave him a pain in the back of his neck.

  He felt guilty. His parents being nice to him after what he’d done was more difficult to handle than the yelling. He felt he deserved to be yelled at, but he still didn’t want to drink the Fit Mix.

  He turned the water pressure up so it was blasting his skin and scrubbed himself hard. He wanted to wash them away – Telly Heads, Mr Grey and fellow classmates all down the plughole never to be seen again. As he rinsed his hair he heard a strange voice in the apartment. He opened his eyes and listened, wondering who it could be. He heard the beep of the front door as it slid shut and locked. The person had come in.

  ‘Mika!’ His father knocked on the shower door. ‘There’s a friend of yours out here! You’d better hurry up because he’s on his way to school!’

  Mika turned off the water.

  A friend? He didn’t have any friends.

  He rubbed himself down as quickly as he could and emerged from the shower half dry with his towel wrapped around him, anxious to see who the ‘friend’ was.

  It was Kobi Nenko, the new boy, and he was soaking wet, wetter than Mika who’d just had a shower, his tangle of black hair dripping on the carpet and his feet squelching in his holey sneakers. He was wearing a long black coat with a spaghetti tangle of wires hanging out of the pockets.

  ‘Hi,’ Kobi said, through his hair.

  There was a moment of awkward silence.

  ‘Do you boys want a drink?’ Asha asked brightly, sensing the tension. She wasn’t quite sure what she thought of Kobi with his strange clothes and wires and hair, but she wanted Mika to have friends.

  He’s got nice hands, she thought, looking at them, long fingers, artistic, nimble, but dirty. His fingernails were filthy.

  ‘No, thank you,’ Kobi replied, politely. ‘I can’t stay.’

  ‘Mrs Fowler asked me to bring you this,’ he said to Mika, holding out a blue bag with the letters YDF written on the side. ‘It’s your goodie bag from yesterday. She said there are things in there you need, including Fit Mix, one sachet for every day you’re off school . . . sorry.’

  ‘Oh great,’ Mika said sullenly, taking the bag.

  ‘Mika,’ David snapped. ‘That’s not very grateful of you. Your friend has come out of his way to bring you that bag.’

  ‘I didn’t want to bring it,’ Kobi muttered through his hair. ‘I know you don’t want it.’

  ‘It’s all right,’ Mika said. ‘Thanks.’

  ‘I’ve got to go,’ Kobi said. ‘I’ll be late.’

  He left quickly, propelled out of the apartment by the awkward atmosphere.

  ‘He’s an . . . interesting boy,’ Asha said, her eyes fixed curiously on the closed door. ‘You haven’t mentioned him before.’

  ‘He’s new,’ Mika said, looking at the bag and wishing he’d been friendlier. ‘He comes from The Shadows. I haven’t spoken to him much.’

  * * *

  After his parents left for work, Mika sat on the floor with the containers of sorting beads lined up on the sofa cushions. Everything about the task was designed to be odious and frustrating – the beads were so small, the level in the big container never seemed to go down. They were a nightmare to pick up because their surfaces were smooth, so if Mika held them too tight with the tweezers they popped out of its grip and he lost half of them before he got them to the right colour pot. Some went down the side of the sofa and some landed on the carpet so he had to hunt for them on his hands and knees, rubbing the carpet to make them bounce out of their hiding places in the tuft. He’d been told if he lost even one, he would have to do the task all over again. Sometimes he dropped them in the wrong pot by mistake so he had to hunt for one red bead amongst a few hundred yellow beads or one white bead in a few hundred blues. But despite Mr Grey’s intention to torture Mika with the beads, he found the repetitive nature of the task soothing – he liked the quiet ‘tap’ as he dropped a bead into its right pot and he enjoyed the tidiness he was creating as he worked, because he had no chance of achieving the same result with the thoughts in his head – his thoughts were like the tangled mess of wires hanging out of Kobi Nenko’s pockets.

  Mika couldn’t wait for Helen to arrive. He glanced at the clock every minute, and when he heard the door buzz he jumped up, nearly knocking over the container of unsorted beads and only just managing to rescue it before it landed on the carpet.

  He opened the door, and felt happier the moment he saw her – she was wearing a plastic rain bonnet that came down to her eyebrows, an antique pair of yellow rubber boots and a green coat that looked like an old-fashioned camping tent. She could have gone away for the weekend and accommodated several friends.

  She rooted around in her handbag and produced a packet of biscuits. Mika was relieved to see it was a fresh packet.

  ‘I brought the biscuits,’ she rasped, tottering past him. ‘Squashed fly biscuits, my mother used to call them. That lift smells like an old man’s toilet. Put the kettle on.’ She stopped suddenly and turned. ‘Oh my goblin lord! What is that contraption on your neck?’

  ‘A detention collar,’ Mika said, grinning. ‘The headmaster fitted it yesterday. If I step out of the apartment it gives me an electric shock strong enough to make me wee myself.’

  ‘I’d like to give him an electric shock!’ Helen said, her eyes flashing angrily under her rain bonnet. ‘See how he likes it!’

  She cursed the weather as she slowly peeled off her layers of tent, boots and rain bonnet. Mika removed the containers of sorting beads from the sofa so she could sit down, and put the kettle on.

  ‘What have you been up to then?’ she asked, settling on the sofa and wiggling her toes in her woolly socks. ‘It sounds like you’ve been busy.’

  ‘I think I’m mad,’ Mika blurted out anxiously, beginning to pace back and forth. ‘You’ve got to help me. Everyone thinks I’m mad, even my parents, and I don’t know what to do about it.’

  ‘Stop pacing,’ Helen said, waving her hand. ‘You’re making me feel giddy. Sit down for a minute.’

  Mika sat down reluctantly with his knees jiggling.

  ‘For a start,’ she said, authoritatively, ‘if you think you’re mad, you’re not. It’s a fact that mad people don’t know they’re mad. I worked with a boy once who thought he was an orange and there was no convincing him otherwise.’

  Mika tried to laugh, but it caught in his throat and threatened to transform into tears as a mix of suppressed emotions welled up inside him.

  ‘But I don’t understand what’s happening in my head,’ he said despairingly. ‘This woman came to school and I thought she was a Telly Head! I thought she was trying to poison me with a vita-min drink, and look at the trouble I’m in because of it! Even though I knew I was behaving crazy, I couldn’t stop myself! My parents have got to pay a hundred-credit fine because of me and today they’re not even angry; it’s as if they pity me because I’m mad, and at school they’re calling me a paranoid freak! Last night in my dream I had trees growing out of my fingers!’

  ‘Slow down and tell me properly,’ Helen suggested. ‘Make the tea and start at the beginning.’

  Mika got up and made tea and she questioned him about everything in detail, about the strange party, the cakes with the YDF logo written on them, the Fit Mix, the Fit For Life nurse, the dream dog, the tree fingers, everything, and he began to feel better. Helen had this magical ability to make even the most terrible incidents seem funny. When he told her about throwing the cup of Fit Mix in Mr Grey’s face, she laughed until she wheezed so much she could hardly breathe and had a coughing fit, and Mika was worried for a moment because she looked as if she was going to fall off the sofa. But afterwards she became quiet and serious and looked thoughtfully at the heavy metal collar
around Mika’s neck.

  ‘What?’ Mika said.

  ‘Shhh, I’m thinking,’ she replied.

  He stared at her, waiting for her to say something, but instead she sighed and Mika could sense she was troubled.

  ‘You agree with me, don’t you?’ he said, feeling confused. ‘I know you do. It’s more than just seeing a demon from my nightmares. I feel suspicious, lied to, not just in school, but everywhere, and it’s not only Ellie, I’m being lied to about other things too, I can feel it. I know something. In the back of my mind I know something important, but I feel like I’m looking at one of those puzzle pictures – the ones you have to stare at and the picture appears, but I stare and stare and I can’t see the picture. I’m sure someone’s trying to tell me something.’

  Helen gazed into her teacup, her eyes misty, as if she could see distant galaxies in the bottom of it.

  ‘I think we should look in your goodie bag,’ she said. ‘Let’s see what these people gave you.’

  ‘Nothing I want,’ Mika grumbled impatiently. He grabbed the blue bag, turned it upside down and shook it. A pile of stuff fell on to the floor. Seven sachets of Fit Mix, a mug with ‘Drink Your Fit Mix’ written on the side, a white baseball cap with ‘Fit Camp is Fun’ written across the front, a T-shirt, shorts, a few packets of sweets, a balloon and a memory card titled ‘Introduction to Fit For Life!’

  ‘Looks like they’ve put a lot of effort into this,’ Helen said, picking up the baseball cap and putting it on her head. ‘What do you think?’ Her long, grey hair hung out of the sides like droopy spaniel ears.

  ‘I prefer your rain bonnet,’ Mika said, grinning. He left her inspecting the mug and took a sachet of Fit Mix to the kitchen area. He ripped it open and shook the powder into the sink, hoping some miracle would occur, that suddenly he would know the answers to all his questions. But all that happened was the white powder turned pink and slimy and smelled of strawberry as it made contact with droplets of water in the bottom of the sink. He turned on the tap and washed it away with disgust.

  No clues there, he thought, throwing the empty sachet down the waste chute.

  ‘Let’s watch this,’ Helen said, holding up the memory card.

  The television screen covered the wall opposite the sofa. Mika slid the card into the slot underneath it and sat down next to Helen. The screen lit up and filled with the image of a large group of children drinking Fit Mix as if it was so delicious they were about to faint with joy.

  ‘This is cheesier than a toothpaste advert,’ Helen said, as a skinny girl with goofy ears drank a cup of Fit Mix. A few seconds later she was skipping through a field full of flowers with the wind blowing in her hair, having grown at least thirty centimetres and become twice as pretty.

  ‘It is stupid,’ Mika agreed, watching a boy with bulging muscles stride up a mountain.

  ‘But you won’t just grow big and strong,’ a resonant voice boomed from the screen. ‘Fit For Life will make you more intelligent. We’ve developed a brand new game called ‘Pod Fighter’ designed to develop your fine motor and lateral thinking skills. Fit For Life is fun, Fit For Life is cool and Fit For Life will make all your dreams come true.’

  ‘Well, it certainly made your dreams come true, Mika,’ Helen muttered, thinking of the Telly Head nurse.

  The screen became dark and was silent for a few seconds, then it filled with stars so Mika and Helen felt as if they were floating in space.

  ‘This must be the advert for the game,’ Mika said.

  ‘Coming soon to an arcade near you,’ boomed the deep voice. ‘The ultimate game experience. A new game that feels so real, you’ll forget it is a game. You will be in control. You will use your skills to protect your world against the Red Star Fleet!’

  ‘Play POD FIGHTER if you dare.’

  The word ‘PLAY’ appeared against a backdrop of fluffy, white clouds. It flashed on and off for a few seconds and then it was replaced by the words ‘POD FIGHTER’, which hurtled through space so fast, all the stars became trails of blurred light.

  Then a fleet of real Pod Fighters appeared, crouching like a row of sleek, black panthers on the deck of a battleship. They glinted in the sunshine, their elegant curves menacing and powerful.

  A group of children ran towards them and the curved glass windshields slid back. Two children climbed into each fighter, one in the front, one in the back, wriggling down into the low black seats that wrapped around their bodies. They looked happy and purposeful, ramming their black headsets on and adjusting the straps on their harnesses with focused ease. The windshields slid over their heads to cover them, and moments later, the collective roar of engines filled the apartment. The Pod Fighters rose from the deck vertically, in perfect synchronization, to hover over the ship. Then, one by one, from left to right, they tilted their noses towards the sky and shot up so fast they seemed to vanish.

  Mika suddenly felt strange – dizzy as if he’d just stood up too quickly. He closed his eyes and found himself climbing into the pilot seat in one of the Pod Fighters. He could feel the sensation of the seat beneath him, curving around the sides of his body – he knew its smell, the feel of the headset over his face – even the brightly lit control panels were familiar.

  ‘You OK?’ He opened his eyes to find Helen looking at him curiously. The advert had finished.

  ‘Yeah, fine,’ he said. ‘So what do you think?’

  She was quiet for a moment and she looked as if she was trying to decide whether or not to say something.

  ‘What?’ Mika asked, hoping to nudge a reply out of her.

  ‘You mustn’t tell anyone how you feel,’ she replied darkly, ‘not even your parents. They mustn’t know. You’ve got to say you’re sorry and that you made a mistake.’

  ‘Why?’ Mika asked, feeling angered and scared by her sudden change of mood. ‘You do agree with me, I know you do, you know there’s something weird going on, you just won’t admit it! What am I supposed to do about the Fit Mix? I’ve got to go back to school next week and apologize to Mr Grey and drink it and I don’t want to!’

  ‘You must,’ she said, severely. ‘You don’t have a choice, Mika. Just imagine what will happen if you don’t. Think about what it will do to you and your parents.’

  She looked at him with raised eyebrows and two images flashed into his mind, the first was of his family moving to The Shadows because they were too poor to stay in Barford North, the second was of Detroit Pippin in a prison cell. He shuddered.

  ‘Besides,’ Helen continued, looking away from him and gazing out of the window as a bank of iron-grey rain clouds rolled over the apartment block. ‘I get the feeling that if you play this game you’ll be glad you did.’


  ‘Perhaps you’ll find the answers to some of your questions.’

  She still wouldn’t look at him, and he studied her eyes as she gazed at the clouds. They seemed to be straining, as if they were holding in a secret that wanted to pop out, and she had to look away from him to stop it happening. He realized something. How could he have been so stupid? Helen was the only person who believed him when he said Ellie was alive, so she must have an idea where Ellie could be!

  ‘What do you know, Helen?’ he asked. ‘Look at me.’

  ‘Goodness,’ she said, as if he’d snapped her out of a daydream. She glanced at her wrist, even though she wasn’t wearing a watch. ‘I ought to get off. I need to pick up some pasta on the way home, or was it nail polish? I can’t remember. Still, if I get both I can’t go wrong then, can I?’

  She began to stand up, very creakily, as if her joints had gone rusty while she was sitting down. Mika jumped up and blocked the path to the door.

  ‘You can’t go yet,’ he said, as she squashed her rain bonnet on to her head. ‘You’ve got to tell me what you know.’

  ‘Let me concentrate for a moment or I’ll put my wellies on the wrong feet,’ she grumbled, buying some time. Mika was watching her with a feverishness she’d seen befor
e, in the eyes of lovers and drug addicts, and for a moment she felt terribly guilty and wished she’d lied to him and told him that he was mad, or that he’d gone to another counsellor, one who didn’t know what she did, one who’d have convinced him that Ellie was dead. She felt as if she was pointing him towards the cave of a bone-crunching giant.

  But, she thought, he was already heading in that direction anyway. At least now he’ll trust his instincts and he’ll get something out of it. Perhaps he will find her, he’s bright and determined enough.

  ‘You should trust your instincts,’ she said. ‘You’re a very special boy. Trust your instincts, play the game, and be careful.’

  ‘What do you know? Please!’ he pleaded, as she shuffled towards the door. ‘You can’t go without telling me!’

  She pressed the icon by the door and it slid open.

  ‘That’s it! I’m coming with you!’ Mika said, looking around for his sneakers. ‘You’re going to tell me even if I have to follow you all around the supermarket.’

  ‘You can’t,’ Helen said, pointing at the detention collar around his neck. ‘You’ll get an electric shock and you’ll pee your pants.’

  ‘Frag!’ Mika said, putting his hand to the collar. ‘Wait!’

  ‘Take care,’ she said, shuffling out of the door.

  The door began to slide shut, and Mika’s heart sank.

  ‘Please!’ he cried. ‘You’ve got to help me! You promised you would, remember? When we first met, you promised!’

  She paused and turned and her eyes softened as she remembered that she had promised to help him. But she didn’t know Mika then, she had met a troubled boy with black eyes, a boy grieving for his twin. But he knew things that were impossible, he had all the pieces of a very dangerous puzzle in his head, and when he figured it out he would be vulnerable. He was angry and passionate. They would kill him.

  ‘Stop the door,’ she said.

  Mika thumped the lock icon with his fist and it juddered to a halt and began to open again.

  ‘If I’m going to help you,’ Helen said, wagging her finger, ‘you’ve got to promise me you won’t go charging around yelling at people.’

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