Chapter One

Coakley

Coakley was a typical former colliery town in the county of Nottinghamshire that began to flourish at the beginning of the 19th century when miners came from far and wide to find work. As the population grew, so did the town. Whole streets of identical miner's homes were built, a local school was established when the need for one grew and on the hill overlooking the little town, at the end of Manor Road, stood Clayton Manor.

Old Mr. Clayton had inherited the Clayton Colliery from his father, just like he in turn had inherited from his father and he was the kind of man whose appearance and character demanded respect from his employees and their families. He had been hard but fair, the kind of man who listened to his employees and cared for them and leaning on those principles, he created a prosperous company. Mr. Clayton had only one child, a son called James to whom he left the flourishing business upon his death. James, however, was nothing like his hardworking father. Ever the idler and playboy, James had married a beautiful girl named Margaret Walcott whom he subsequently left at home to spend time gambling, drinking and otherwise squandering away his father's fortune. He neglected his father's company to that degree that Clayton Colliery had to shut down and young Clayton was forced to sell most of his assets to pay for his debts. With the mine closed, the glory days of Coakley and subsequently those of the Clayton family came to an end. With the money and his father's business gone, James became a hermit and spent his days in the company of a whiskey bottle until one day his wife found him dead on the floor of his office with a gun in one hand and a bottle of his finest whiskey in the other. Thus Mrs. Clayton was left with the Clayton house, a cellar full of the whisky that killed her husband and no money.

Twenty years passed and the village recovered from the economic depression. As the nearby cities began to flourish, real estate in Coakley recovered and young families began to move in. Only the once stately mansion fell into further disrepair. Broken windows, shattered by village kids throwing rocks, could no longer be replaced so they were just boarded up and the once white walls became covered with ivy. Several tiles were missing from the roof and the once meticulously kept lawn and grand garden had transformed into a collection of thriving weeds. Anyone who looked at it would probably think the house was uninhabited but 'Mad Maggie' Clayton, James's widow, still lived there. Living off social benefits, Maggie had become a grungy recluse who had fallen victim to the same vice that killed her husband. She now spent her days wallowing in alcoholic fumes.

The people of Coakley loved to gossip about Mrs. Clayton's situation and lamented the awful appearance of the manor. The only thing they loved to gossip more about was the boy now living in Clayton Manor. It was about three years ago when Mrs. Stryker, who lived nearest to the Clayton widow, had observed one morning a young boy entering the house dragging a suitcase behind him. No one knew where he'd come from or why he came to Coakley but there were plenty of speculations. Some believed that the boy was an underage criminal, others that he was an orphaned relative of Mad Maggie. Fact was, they had never seen him before but they saw plenty of him afterwards and although she had never spoken to the boy, Mrs. Stryker knew enough to know he was as bad as Mad Maggie herself if not worse.

With his torn, worn-down clothes and his unruly black hair, he had, in Mrs. Stryker's opinion, tarnished the neighbourhood singlehandedly when he came here 3 years ago. Sensible as she was, Mrs. Stryker had immediately forbidden her son, who was only a couple of years older than the boy, to associate himself with such a vagabond and being considerate, advised her friends to do the same. She knew she had acted correctly when a couple of months later, word got out that the vagrant had brutally attacked Burt Edwards, a boy from down the street. The vile miscreant was a menace to the community and strange occurrences always seemed to follow him. She was sure he was the one who had stolen her pie just a month ago. She had put it on the kitchen counter to cool down and as she did, she noticed the boy loitering around the street like he always seemed to do. She paid no real attention to this and briefly stepped out of the kitchen to take a call which turned out to be a wrong number and when she came back to check on her pie not three minutes later, it had vanished and so had the boy. She couldn't figure out how he'd managed it, she hadn't been gone long enough for the boy to be able to walk up to the house, take the pie and disappear but really, who else could have stolen it?

On the hot summer afternoon when this story begins, Mrs. Stryker was doing the dishes, looking up from time to time to overlook the deserted street through the window. It was day three of the heat wave and most people stayed in to enjoy the cool air and avoid the heat outside. There was only one person strolling outside, Mrs. Stryker observed and it was Richard O'Connell. Speak of the devil…

Richard, or Rick as he liked to be called, was aimlessly wandering the streets, alone as usual. Despite living in Coakley for the last three years, Rick had not made any friends. After learning that he was related to 'Mad Maggie' as everyone called his guardian, the children of the town had shunned him, thinking he was a freak. At first, it had made him upset but then he had found a way to get back at them. It wasn't hard to do because Rick was no ordinary boy of eleven, he could do things - strange things like blowing up cellar doors or making things fly just by thinking it. He could do these things ever since he could remember and on the night his parents were murdered, it had even helped save his life. After that night, fear and anger had driven Rick to train himself so that he could control these powers. He never showed them to anyone, always remembering his mother's warning not to let anyone see what he could do or they might try to do him harm or lock him up. It was the one rule of his mother that he had never broken. However, that didn't mean that he couldn't bend it a little.

Rick found great pleasure in scaring the uptight and judgemental people of this town. Whenever kids were trespassing in the overgrown garden of Clayton Manor, Rick would make branches grab at the kids' shirts and hair. It didn't take long before the whole town was convinced that it was the spirit of old Mr. Clayton who was chasing the kids out of the garden and they started to avoid it. As long as no-one saw him there, no-one needed to know he was the one behind it and he could use the garden for what he liked to call 'magic practise'. He would try to levitate branches there, blow up dead trees and send rocks flying at trees like odd-shaped bullets. Rick felt it was important to keep in shape. His magic was what got him the upper hand over his adversaries and what kept people from being able to beat him up. It was also often the thing that kept him fed. Because Mad Maggie hardly had any money and as most of what little she did have was spent on whiskey, there was seldom any real food in the house. When he got really hungry, Rick would roam the streets of Coakley in search of food. Leftovers from lunch or dinner and pies that were left out on the counter to cool down, prepared sandwiches that were forgotten, ... it was all an easy prey for Rick.

Currently, he turned left onto a street that led to a back alley. There were a lot less prying eyes there, and therefore, more chances of success. A quick look around assured him that no one was watching as he looked over the low walls into the backyards of the first houses, trying to find out if there was any food up for grabs. He struck out a few times until a couple of houses down the alley, he found his prey: a jar of cookies standing behind the kitchen window on the counter. Rick focussed his gaze on the window, willing it to open and instantly the latch clicked and the window opened. Keeping his eyes focussed on his prize, the jar slowly floated towards him.

"What do you think you're doing, freak?" The sound of a nearby voice made Rick jump, causing his concentration to lapse and the jar of cookies to fall to the ground and land softly into the grass.

Rick turned around and came face to face with Stephen Stryker, a local boy a couple of years older than him and known as the town's bully. Stephen was a head taller than him, had quite broad shoulders, frighteningly muscular arms and never went anywhere without his two best friends and partners in crime, Phil Taylor and Trevor Brown. Rick wasn't intimidated by him, he'd seen Stryker and his friends running away screaming when the branches of the Clayton garden had come at him but still, he always tried to stay clear from them, not looking for that kind of trouble.

"Nothing." Rick replied hastily, worried about how much Stryker had seen.

"Don't lie, you little motherless freak. Why were you spying on my house?" Stryker asked and he shoved Rick against the wall.

"Like I have nothing better to do than stare at something that ugly." Rick countered. Stryker snove.

"You're one to talk. Look at you, you look like a drowned rat. I guess you feel right at home in that sewer your live in. I'm surprised it's still standing with all the vermin that has infested it, present company included." Stryker sneered and Taylor and Brown laughed at the joke. Rick felt his temper rise. He would have liked nothing better than to teach the bully a lesson but he was acutely aware of the fact that his three opponents were all bigger and burlier than him.

"At least the vermin is nicer to look at than your mother, Stryker." Rick retaliated and Stryker abruptly stopped laughing. Rick smirked. One point for him.

"At least my mother is still alive." Stryker smiled evilly. "Where's your mother, eh?"

"Watch it, Stryker." Rick warned his opponent. He tried to stay calm but his blood was boiling with rage. Stryker had a way of getting under his skin.

"What are you going to do? In case you didn't notice, there's three of us and only one of you but I guess simple math like that is too difficult for you. Ugly and moronic, I bet your mother took one look at you and decided to kill herself." Stryker had no sooner finished his insult or Rick threw all caution to the wind and slammed his fist into Stryker mouth. The boy fell to the ground before his friends had time to register what had happened and Rick took advantage of that to pounce on Stryker and try to hit every bit of the boy he could get his hands on. It took only a few seconds for Taylor and Brown to recover from their surprise and to pull Rick off their friend. They restrained him but Rick was not ready to go down without a fight. His elbow landed with a satisfactory 'oomph' in Taylor's stomach and his fist landed on Brown's jaw before Taylor managed to grab Rick's arms and pin them to his body. Brown got back at Rick with a blow to the stomach and was getting ready for another one when Stryker stopped him.

"No, he's mine!" Stryker yelled. "Hold him." Taylor and Brown made sure Rick was securely restrained before Stryker approached, still nursing the painful jaw where Rick had struck him.

"I'll teach you to slug me." He raised his fist to punch Rick but at that moment, Taylor and Brown cried out in pain and let go of Rick. "What's going on?" Stryker demanded.

"He burned me!" Taylor cried out, blowing on his hands that were red and blistered.

"Me too." Brown cried. Stryker looked at Rick.

"How did you do that?" He asked and Rick was pleased to hear a note of apprehension and fear in his voice.

"You didn't know?" Rick replied with a laugh, a plan forming in his mind. "The old lady is a witch and she taught me some tricks."

"You're crazy and a freak." Stryker replied but he did not dare approach Rick again. "Get lost." He said and with a smirk, Rick turned around and ran away unharmed.

Only when he had gotten to a safe distance, Rick slowed down to a walk and replayed the events in his head. What exactly had happened? He had never burned anyone before. He made a mental note to try and see if he could burn other things later, maybe even start a fire. He only hoped no one besides Stryker and his friends witnessed his spout of 'magic'. No one in the town - not even mad Maggie - knew about Rick's abilities. If they did, they would lock him up in an asylum for sure.

A couple of minutes later Rick reached Clayton Manor - he couldn't call it home - and walked around the back. Using the front door would alert Mad Maggie and the less he saw her, the better. It made his life much easier. Mad Maggie did not know about his project or his powers. If she had, she would probably have gotten rid of him long ago, just like his grandmother had. Rick walked straight over to the overgrown hydrangea bush covering up the hole in the wall leading into the basement. This was his customary route in and out of the house because he did not want to alert Mad Maggie and make her to get into another tirade. Luckily, Rick was quite scrawny and he just managed to fit through the hole, though he would soon be forced to find another escape route to get out of the house without Maggie noticing it. Careful not to make a sound, he snuck up the stairs to his room. Like the rest of the house, his room had seen better days. Damp stains darkened the colour of the wallpaper, which had loosened in some places, revealing a grimy plaster wall. The wooden panels on the floor creaked and it wasn't uncommon to see mice scurrying over it in search of food. Along the ceiling ran a crack that ended in a hole, creating a passage of air to the attic. There was only one window in the room, opposite the door and overlooking Manor Road. The glass was dirty an stained and the window-frame was cracked and scaling off. The furniture had been old twenty years ago and consisted of a large oak wardrobe, a bed with a lumpy mattress and an old, shaky desk without a chair. There was no heating system in the room and although a chandelier hung from the ceiling, there was no light as all the light bulbs had burst. It looked terribly inhospitable but it was one of the better bedrooms in the house, the only better one being Mad Maggie's room.

It hadn't always been like this for Rick. Once, he had a loving home and a family that cared for him. All of that had changed when his parents were murdered.

About three years ago, a man had forced his way into their home and killed Mr. and Mrs. O'Connell. He had tried to kill Rick as well but the seven year old boy had managed to escape. With their parents dead, Rick and his siblings were put under the care of their grandmother, Mary O'Connell. Mary had always been a very strict woman and Rick was trouble in her eyes. For as long as he could remember, she had disliked him and that did not change the day she took him in. After he had played a harmless joke on his little brother, Mary had locked Rick up in the basement for punishment. The dark basement had scared the eight year old and in his panic, he had somehow blown up the cellar door. After that, Mary had sent him to Coakley to live with her sister, where he could no longer harm his siblings and where Rick felt more alone than ever. He did not mind living with Mad Maggie, half the time she did not even realize he was there, but he did miss some friendly company. It was ironic, since he had always argued with his siblings and used to wish he was an only child but now that he was, he would have loved it if they were here with him. Rick turned around in his bed, trying to ignore his growling stomach and scolding himself for thinking of his family. They were gone and he was stuck there and would be for at least another few years and the sooner he accepted that, the better. It wasn't good to dwell on the past.

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