Even on that first day back at school, I thought Dr Walker sounded a little too interested when he asked me, ‘No coughs? Summer colds? Rashes? Dizziness?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘You’re a handsome boy, aren’t you, Daniel? Not much point in being handsome when there are no girls around!’
‘I don’t think you should say things like that to us, Dr Walker.’
In fact, there was one girl around. She lived in the house opposite the school, which meant that she must have belonged to Dr Walker, because it was his house. He’d moved in when, suddenly and for no apparent reason, the old doctor and his wife had moved out.
The girl was often in the front garden, hobbling about. There seemed to be something wrong with her right leg. The hipbone jutted outwards and upwards, much too big for her body. We all supposed she was ill, because of her leg and her sallow skin, and because she never went anywhere. We saw her during school hours, clutching Barbie’s smallest sister and gathering acorns.
‘She’s a freak,’ my friend Michael said, as we watched her from the library window.
‘Be nice,’ said Andrew. ‘She’s obviously sick as hell.’
‘I wonder what’s wrong with her,’ I said.
‘Ask Dr Walker,’ said Michael.
‘You can’t ask people that!’ said Andrew, and he was right. It wouldn’t be polite to ask Walker about an obviously sick girl who lived with him, and never left the premises, and spent all her time alone.
‘I’m going to talk to her,’ I said.
‘You know you’ll be seen, Dan,’ said Andrew.
He was right, but I went anyway, via a sneaky side door. I hurried along the driveway to the gate without getting caught, crossed the road and approached the garden wall.
‘Hello,’ I said.
The girl looked round, and she was grotesque. Her skin was sallower than I’d realised, the same shade of yellow as her hair. Her lips were cracked, and her nose crooked. She had one brown eye, and one green. I stared as she lurched towards me, the brown eye rising and falling each time she took a step on her outsized hip. I almost wanted to run… but then she smiled. It was a hideous smile, but a smile nonetheless.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘I… thought you looked lonely.’
‘I am, rather.’
‘Shelley.’ She help up her doll. ‘This is Shelly too. I was modelled on her.’
‘What do you mean?’ I wondered if perhaps her illness affected her sanity.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I look nothing like her.’
‘Well, you don’t want to look like her. Real girls don’t look like that.’
‘How do you know? You don’t have girls over there.’
‘That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen girls,’ I said. ‘There’s lots of other schools round here. You might be going to go to one. I expect someone’s sorting that out for you.’
She said nothing.
‘There are boys your age here,’ I went on, ‘if you want someone to play with. Maybe Dr Walker, or whoever looks after you, would let you meet some of them.’
‘I don’t think…’
Shelley stopped as the front door was opened by a woman who had to be her mother, or else someone suffering from the same disease, whatever that was. She looked yellow and lopsided, and hadn’t even a smile to make up for it.
‘Come inside now, Shelley,’ she said.
Shelley looked at me a moment, then turned and lurched towards the house.
‘Good morning,’ I said. No amount of horror or pity could make me forget my manners.
‘It’s kind of you,’ the woman said, ‘but you ought to stay in school. What we have… might be contagious.’ Then she looked suddenly terrified, bundled Shelley inside and slammed the door shut.
I was met by an irate headmaster when I went back to school, as I’d expected. However, I had not expected to be greeted by a curious truant officer and a gleeful Dr Walker.
‘Now, Mr Burton,’ Walker said, staring at me and grinning. ‘Don’t be too hard on the boy. He was just trying to be nice.’
‘Did that girl tell you what was wrong with her?’ asked Mrs Childs, the truant officer. ‘I can see that she might need to be out of school, but really, Dr Walker, I have to be sure she’s getting an education.’
‘Shut up!’ said Walker. ‘Why are you even here? No one plays truant from boarding school!’
‘Dr Walker, really!’ said Mr Burton. ‘Now, Daniel, as this is your first offence I -’
‘Come to lunch!’ said Walker. ‘You and some of your friends, Daniel, this Sunday. For the girl. Don’t worry about who to bring. I’ll take care of that.’
I wondered whether Dr Walker knew who my friends were, and as it turned out, he didn’t. Joining us at lunch were three boys I barely knew, and Andrew. I sat next to him, with Shelley and her doll on my other side. Opposite us were the woman I had met before, and a man who looked as diseased as she did. Both had black hair, hollow cheeks and sad eyes. I worried over what the woman had said, about their condition possibly being contagious, but I was too polite to mention it.
‘Introductions!’ said Walker, as he went around the table spooning out mashed potato. ‘These are Percy and Mary, dear friends of mine, and their daughter Shelley.’
‘I’m not their real daughter,’ said Shelley.
‘Don’t start that!’ said Walker. ‘Bits of you might be. Now, what are these boys’ names? Daniel, Charlie, Andrew, Brad and Stephen. I forget which is which.’
‘Handsome boys,’ said Mary. ‘And healthy too, I suppose.’
‘Not a blot on their medical certificates,’ said Walker. ‘Handsome boys are healthy boys. Still, are you sure none of you has any slight defect that might explain…? Who wants more mash?’
‘Have you put something in it that you oughtn’t?’ asked Mary.
Walker glared at her.
Mary stood up and left the table, shooting Walker a look of pure hatred, made terrifying by her extraordinary face. Then Percy stood up and went after her, his expression blank, but that awful sadness still in his eyes.
‘They’ll come around to you,’ said Walker, ‘once you’ve all blended. I mean… bonded. Tee hee. More sausages, anyone? Peas? Anything? Ignore them,’ as suddenly there came sounds of yelling and thumping from somewhere above our heads. ‘They’re always arguing. Shelley, put that doll down while you’re eating.’
‘So, Shelley,’ I said, as she sat the doll down next to her plate and stared at it with doleful eyes. ‘Were you really named after the Shelly doll?’
Shelley shook her head, but said nothing.
‘That doll isn’t called Shelly,’ said Brad, who happened to be American.
Walker glared at him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘My kid sister has one. Its name is Kelly.’
‘Not in the UK release, you ignorant little twerp!’
‘Dude,’ said Brad. ‘You can’t talk to us like that.’
‘I thought she was called Chelsea,’ said Stephen, who also had a little sister.
Shelley burst into tears. Then she grabbed her doll and stumbled from the room, trying to hurry, hampered by her awkward gait.
‘The Shelly doll was replaced a few years ago,’ said Walker. ‘It seems to upset her.’
‘Weirdo,’ said Brad, and Walker stared at him with one eye twitching.
Monday began with a cross country run. There didn’t seem to be any reason for it, but nobody was suspicious. As Michael said, ‘Teachers are sadists!’ They weren’t allowed to send us out into the world, so they made us run around the school grounds all morning. By the time we’d reconvened for weak orange squash, Brad had vanished.
The teachers asked all of us what we knew, clearly thinking that Brad’s friends had helped him escape. Then, when he didn’t turn up by nightfall, the police were called. Everyone in the school was questioned under Mr Burton’s supervision. I said I didn’t know anything, which was true, but I suspected. Brad had annoyed Walker, and Walker was obviously insane.
‘You know what I heard?’ Michael said to Andrew and me that night, in our dormitory. ‘The run was Dr Walker’s idea. He said it would be good for our fitness.’
That was it, then. Walker was guilty, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t tell anyone my suspicions without proof, especially since I’d begun to harbour the most impossible ideas. The perplexing conversation at lunch, and the look of that poor family, had made me think of privately funded and highly questionable science experiments.
Then, in a matter of days, other boys began to disappear. Stephen went first, then Charlie, and finally Andrew.
‘That’s it, then,’ I said, one night after lights-out. ‘I’m next.’
‘If it’s everyone from that lunch,’ said Michael, ‘why don’t they just arrest Walker?’
‘They can’t arrest anyone without evidence.’
‘Well, you’d just better be careful.’
‘Andrew was being careful.’
‘Do you think he’s alive?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘But if he is, I’m going to find him.’
‘That’s not being careful, Dan.’
Well, I didn’t want to be careful. I wanted my friend back, and I didn’t see how I could avoid capture… or death… or whatever… if none of the others had. But my plans were foiled. Someone was being careful on my behalf.
Several times I found myself almost alone… perhaps because my socks were missing in the changing rooms, meaning I’d be left behind, or I had to go searching for my lost toothbrush… and every time, I expected to be whisked away at any moment. But every time, the scheme was thwarted. Sometimes Mr Burton appeared, having received an anonymous tip-off about stink bombs or firecrackers. At other times it was a member of the domestic staff, armed with a cleaning trolley, hunting for a reported spill.
Then, at last, I was summoned to the sick room to see Dr Walker. I was in two minds as to whether I should go. I was sure I was going to be kidnapped, or even killed, but I also had an idea that I could avoid it. The fact that the other boys had gone missing from under the noses of an entire school of staff meant nothing to me. I could scream, I thought, and someone would burst through the door and catch Walker red-handed. It seemed like a flawless plan, so I went.
I was about to knock on the door when tiny fingers grabbed my elbow, digging in through my school blazer, and someone hissed, ‘You mustn’t!’
I stared. Then I started to shout, ‘Shel- !’
‘Will you keep your voice down? Come on, quick! You have to trust me.’
I didn’t know whether I trusted her or not, but I definitely didn’t trust Walker. I let Shelley pull me to the nearest staircase, then followed her down it and out into the autumn rain. She took me to the golf course down the road and we struggled through the mud, staying close to the trees and hedges like cornered rats, until finally we were crouching next to a wheelie bin behind the bar.
‘Have you been protecting me?’ I asked.
‘Why didn’t you save the others?’
‘I couldn’t save all of you!’ she said, her mismatched eyes filling with tears. ‘I’m sorry, Daniel, but I couldn’t!’
‘I suppose you couldn’t,’ I said, stepping on my anger. After all, she was only a little girl. ‘But why me?’
‘Because you’re going to save me.’
‘I make predictions,’ she said, ‘on the acorns in the garden. That day you came to talk to me, I’d just made one about the next person I saw… about how he’d react to me. I make up rhymes.’
‘Yes,’ said Shelley, ‘and they nearly always come true. That day I knew I was going to meet someone, and I made up a rhyme to find out what he’d do. Like this. Kill me, save me,’ she chanted, ‘cut me up, enslave me. Ignore me, adore me, buy a present for me.’
‘I’ve never had one.’
‘Oh, how awful! But… that’s not a real prediction. It’s just messing about with acorns.’
‘You mean you’re not going to save me?’ She started to cry.
‘Yes, of course I’m going to save you,’ I said, taking her hand and trying not to mind the papery texture of her cold, dry skin. ‘I’ll save everyone I can. It’s Walker, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. Come on.’
As we walked, she tried to explain. ‘He created me for Percy and Mary. They’ve had problems, and he thought a child might save their marriage.’
‘I hear that’s a common mistake.’
‘He wanted me to be beautiful… like the doll… but as you can see, it hasn’t worked. Making adults is hard enough, but with children… they die of sickness, or accidents, so their bodies get damaged. And most of them are different sizes. You’ve probably noticed that I’m not perfectly proportioned.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘who is?’
‘You are, and lots of the other boys. Dr Walker decided that to get what he wanted, he’d have to take his pick from live children. This time he’s making them a boy. He hasn’t actually said I’m being replaced, but if he gets a good looking child, why would he want me anymore?’
She stopped walking then, and I saw that we had arrived at Walker’s house. Shelley took me inside and asked me to move an enormous oak bookcase in the hallway. After I had been straining at it for several minutes, Percy appeared and moved it for me, as easily as if it had been made of cardboard.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
Percy nodded, his expression forlorn and his shoulders drooping.
There was a door behind the bookcase. Shelley pulled it open, and the most appalling smell filled the hallway. It choked me, but even so I was silly enough to follow her down the stairs, where I felt myself engulfed in the foul odour. Then I saw the jars: hands, feet, eyeballs, Brad’s whiter-than-white teeth, all floating in a jelly-like substance.
‘Oh my God!’ I said. Then I ran up the stairs, collapsed into Percy’s arms and was sick all over him.
‘Sorry, Percy,’ I said. ‘We have to call the police. You could have done that before, Shelley,’ as she appeared at the top of the stairs.
‘I couldn’t,’ said Shelley. ‘Anything could happen to us. You have to call them, and you have to show them.’
‘Yes, right,’ I said, but before I could do anything the front door burst open, and there was Walker. He must have seen us from the school, I realised, and I felt furious with myself for not considering this.
‘I thought I told you to come to the sick room!’ he said. ‘Oh well, you’re here now. Hold him, Percy, while I fetch a sedative. Why are you covered in sick?’
Percy blinked stupidly. Then he said, ‘Perhaps, Doctor, it is not I who am covered in sick.’
So saying he grabbed Walker, lifted him clean off the ground and threw him down the stairs, into his revolting basement laboratory. Then, before the doctor could regain his feet, Percy had pushed the door closed and barricaded it with the bookcase.
‘Wow!’ I said. ‘Well done, Percy!’
Percy nodded, then gazed upwards with doleful eyes, as we heard footfall overhead. It was Mary’s, I supposed, as I called the police. I didn’t give my name, and when I’d said my piece, I went back to school to avoid getting involved. There was no need to think of an excuse. Everyone knew I’d been called to the sick room.
The next morning dawned bright, cold and clear. I found Shelley in her front garden with some acorns, riper than the ones she’d had at our first meeting.
‘It was all a bit late, wasn’t it?’ I said. ‘You could have called the police anonymously. Those boys wouldn’t have died. Andrew…’
‘I’m sorry about your friend,’ said Shelley. ‘We don’t know how things work. We only know what he told us. Mary means to learn, though. She’s leaving.’
‘Because she doesn’t love us.’
‘We’ll just see about that,’ I said, and I charged past Shelley, into the house.
I met Mary lumbering downstairs with a suitcase. I sat on the bottom step, and she sat down beside me.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘I was created for Percy,’ she said. ‘I was never allowed to be my own woman.’
‘But that was all Walker,’ I said. ‘Now that he’s gone, you can see how it goes without him, and if you don’t like it you can still leave. But I’m sure Percy wants you for a friend, at least. And so does Shelley.’
‘But Daniel, it’s been so many years…’
‘Mary,’ a voice said behind us. Percy was at the top of the stairs. ‘We could discuss it.’
‘Yes,’ said Mary. ‘We will.’
She stood up, and went upstairs to join him.
I went back outside, and gathered a handful of acorns from under the oak tree. I counted them out carefully, then gave them to Shelley and said, ‘Do that rhyme again. The one you made up for me.’
For a moment, she stared at me. Then she laid out the acorns, and began.
‘Kill me, save me, cut me up, enslave me…’
She went through it several times.
‘Ignore me, adore me…’
‘Shelley.’ Mary appeared in the doorway. ‘I’ve decided to stay.’
Fate, it seemed, would not be cheated. Perfect as it was, I hadn’t planned for that.
‘Go on, Shelley,’ I said. ‘There’s one more.’
She touched the last acorn with a sunshine-yellow forefinger. ‘Buy a present for me.’
Percy joined us outside, a gargoyle’s smile upon his face.