My birthday came and went without me noticing. It was only when I heard fireworks in the middle of the night that I realised it was Bonfire Night and that I was now twenty-two years old. Even if I hadn't seen him for months, Watari always called me on my birthday. I couldn't help but wonder why he had missed it.
Not that it mattered anyway.
I raised my eyes from my laptop to check on the boy. Ever since I had arrived back in England he had been following me. When I had checked into this old hotel two days ago, he was sitting there at the desk when I opened the door to my room. Waiting for me.
Right now he was sat on the bed with the covers pulled up to his chin, fully absorbed in the book he was reading. He looked younger than he had a few minutes earlier, now about six or seven years old. His hair was shorter and the dark rings around his eyes were only just beginning to show. There were purple bruises on his skinny arms, but I couldn't remember where they came from.
I unwrapped a strawberry fruit chew. Then a lime, and a lemon. I straightened out the papers and laid them out in a row; red, green, yellow. I overlapped them so that the colours mixed and turned into a muddy brown. Then I put all three of the sweets into my mouth at once and held the packet out to the boy.
"You can have one," I told him. He looked at me but didn't say anything. That was the one thing I had learned about him. He never spoke. He would try, talking and eventually screaming silently, furious that he couldn't make a sound. Then he would start crying. There was nothing I could do when he got like that but to leave him until he calmed down.
I pulled back my hand and looked at the clock. It was fifteen minutes to midnight. Closing my laptop, I got up and headed for the door. I had been inside all day and my legs were going numb, and I needed to get out for a while. Before I left the room, I looked back at the bed. The boy was gone.
I had been walking a lot recently. I didn't have a car, and didn't trust taxis, so it was the only way to get around. I would walk until my feet were blistered and my skin was scorched form the sun or bitten by the cold. I had given in and started wearing trainers to walk in after the first five miles. I had bought them brand new and pure white, but now they were stained brown with dust and blood. The were falling apart, but it didn't make sense to buy new ones until they were truly unwearable.
I had reached the wrong side of Birmingham by two in the morning. I hadn't intended to end up there, it just happened. I never had any set destination when I set off. I just wanted to move, to get away from the voices in my head and that little boy who looked at me with the saddest eyes I'd ever seen. It never worked, though. They always followed me.
I crawled up on a bench at the side of the road and looked straight ahead, examining the world around me. It always looked the same- cold and grey and filled with people who didn't know anything and didn't seem to care.
I looked to one side. The boy looked back at me.
"Stop following me," I said, turning my head forward again.
"I'm not following you."
It was the first time I had heard him speak.
"You can talk," I stated.
"You wanted me to talk, so I did," he said bluntly. Though he appeared to be in his mid-teens, he was still tiny and his voice had not yet broken. I guessed he was about fourteen or so. I knew he was older than thirteen because I could faintly see the scar on his forehead that he had gotten from when he had been jumped at St Benedict's.
"Open your mouth," I said, and he did as he was told. I saw the gap between his lower back teeth. "You're fifteen."
"Yes," he confirmed, blinking at me innocently. I raised my eyes to look at the light-stained sky.
"What do you want with me?" I asked. He put his thumb in his mouth in a hauntingly familiar way and shifted into a crouching position. It was that position that told me he was thinking.
"Nothing," he decided on.
"Then go away," I told him pointedly.
He looked at the ground. "I can't," he said. "I tried, but I failed, and now I'm stuck here."
"It's illogical," I said. "You are a figment of my imagination. I should be able to send you away whenever I want, but I can't. Why is that?"
"How am I to know?" the boy said almost irritably. I nearly smiled. He still knew how to feel irritated. He shifted around to face me fully. "Every time I try to fade out, you bring me back. I have come to the conclusion that it is definitely you doing it, and not some supernatural entity. I only exist when you're around. When you sleep, I disappear."
I closed my eyes and smiled. "You really are me, aren't you..."
"You knew that from the beginning," the boy said.
"You're right. I did," I replied. "But if that's the case, then I don't see why you would refuse the sweets I offered you. They tasted very nice."
He could not scowl, but he wrinkled his crooked nose slightly in disdain and gave me a scathing look. "That was nine years ago," he told me. "You are a very unfortunate person if you insist on judging people by their past actions."
Nine years. Had it really been that long? I had offered the packet to him not two hours ago. I was sure it was two hours ago. But maybe it was two days. If that was the case, then the staff at the hotel I was staying at might have reported me missing. Or maybe I had checked out of the hotel. No, that wasn't right- I had left my laptop in the room when I left a week ago. I couldn't make sense of all the unconnected dates and numbers no matter how hard I tried. For all I knew, it could have been nine years.
I felt in my pocket and found the half-eaten packet of sweets. I couldn't believe I'd left them there for nine years. I took them out and held them out to him.
"You can have one now," I said. "Here."
He took one and ate it. I stared at him for a while, then looked down at the packet. He had definitely taken one. Before I gave it to him, the sweet at the top had been orange. Now it was red.
He smiled when he saw me staring. "You thought I couldn't eat?" he asked. "I'm not a ghost, you know." He held up his hand. "Touch me."
I eyed his hand warily.
"It won't create a matter-meets-anti-matter clash of reality and imagination that messes up the space-time continuum and causes a black hole," he provided helpfully. "Go on. Touch me."
Slowly I raised my hand moved it towards the boy's. My fingertips hovered in front of his for a moment; then I remembered that I wasn't the sort to hesitate needlessly and pressed the palm of my hand against his.
I could feel his skin against mine, freezing cold from the winter breeze. I must have been imagining it, like everything else about him. I grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly. The boy pulled it away.
"That hurt," he said. I ignored him and leaned in close. I grabbed his hair and yanked it. It felt the same as mine: coarse, thick and impossible to tame. He raised his hands and tried to force me away, but I was stronger than him. My free hand latched around both of his skinny wrists easily. He struggled and kicked, but I didn't let go.
"That's impossible," I whispered. "You're just my imagination."
"That doesn't mean I'm not real," the boy hissed, staring up at me stonily. I stared at him, my breathing turning faster and more erratic.
"Yes, it does," I said. And I raised my fist and hit him. He was thrown back violently into the back of the bench, blood exploding from his nose and mouth. I got to my feet and dragged him into the street. His legs gave way beneath him as I did so, but I didn't let him go. I wrenched him up and forced him to stand. Then I hit him again. And again and again. His blood spattered over my clothes, and the fact that I could feel the wet warmth of it sticking my shirt to my body made me even crazier. I didn't understand. I didn't understand anything.
I kept hitting and kicking the boy, waiting for him to stop fighting and give in. But every time I knocked him down, he got back up again, shaking from head to foot.
"Leave me alone!" I was shouting by now. "Just leave me alone."
I carried on hitting and kicking and yelling until I was too physically exhausted to raise my fists or move my feet. I stood over the boy's tiny broken body, panting and staring in horror at what I had done. I looked down at my hands. They were soaked with blood. My own blood.
I squatted down beside the boy. He wasn't breathing. I had finally killed him. I that moment I didn't care that I was a murderer, because now he wouldn't be able to follow me any more. I turned his body over so that I could see his face. He flopped like a rag doll. The blood that filled his mouth spilled out over his face and into his hair.
I felt his neck for a pulse. I couldn't find one.
But he still opened his eyes.
And he still got up off the pavement.
And stood over my crouching form like God before a sinner.
"Help me," he whispered.
I was suddenly aware of a hand waving in front if my face. My mind sprung to attention and my eyes darted back and forth wildly. I was back on the bench across the road from a flickering neon sign advertising sex.
"You all right?" the man who stood in front of me asked. The young woman who hung onto his arm scooted behind him.
I looked down at my clothes. My shirt was white and the blood splatter was gone. My hands were unstained and gripped the packet of sweets I held so tightly that my knuckles were turning white.
I glanced around, looking for the boy. He wasn't there. The street was empty apart from me and the young couple at my side.
"Did you see a child pass by here?" I had to try. The man and woman looked at each other warily.
"No, we didn't," the man said carefully. "Here, do you want me to call someone for you?"
"No," I said, getting up. I took a deep breath. "I'm fine." I had no intention of starting up a conversation that would inevitably lead to lots of troublesome questions, so I set off walking back to my hotel.
On the way back I thought about the boy and what I had done to him. It was a good thing that he was only a trick of the mind. Had he been real, I would be a murderer. I had passed the stage where losing it meant pain for only myself. If I let go now, people would die. Knowing that I was capable of killing didn't affect me as heavily as it should have done. But nothing did nowadays. I could hear that the world was going to end in twenty-four hours and remain indifferent.
I decided that I definitely needed to do something about that boy. I didn't understand why he had chosen now to interrupt my life. Everything was normal. My work, my schedule, my lifestyle- nothing had changed. Nothing terrible had happened that would cause my mind to deteriorate so much that I would start seeing things.
Perhaps I was simply ill.
When I arrived back at the hotel, I realised that I had been right. It had not been nine years since I had left, but a few hours. I walked into my room, collected my things- and walked straight out again when I saw the boy sitting on the windowsill, staring out of the window. I'd had enough for one night. I just wanted to get out of there.
I gave up on walking and took a taxi to the nearest airport. Six hours later I was in France.
Christmas passed without celebration, as usual. I was too caught up in my three main cases to care much. The triple homicide of a young family was far more important than trivial holiday festivities.
I knew I needed something to illuminate the darkness that had fallen on me. I just didn't know what. I wasn't programmed to deal with emotional problems. I could solve puzzles, I could speak nearly forty different languages, I could keep up with over one hundred aliases at once. But I'd be damned if I could understand people.
My phone started ringing. 2001 had only just rolled in, and already I was buried in cases. Looking at the screen, it wasn't a number I recognised. Curious, I pressed the little green button and dangled the phone next to my ear.
"Hello?" I said.
The replying voice was deeper and scratchier than I remembered.
"Hello, Little Brother."
I threw the phone across the room.
Ugh. I hate this chapter. Hate. I just think I could have done so much better. L is getting really tricky for me to work with; because I've pushed him so far into oblivion, his narration feels blank to me. I know he's emotionless, but I still want to keep things interesting. Somebody help me!
I'm hoping B can drag L out of the mud. Though I disliked this chapter, I'm really looking forward to B and L meeting again after all these years.
I must apologise profusely for the huge gap between updates- sorry, sorry sorry! I just got so caught up in another story of mine. I knew I should have been focusing on this, but I couldn't stop writing! Plus I had exams flying all over the place in January and February.
I'm not looking forward all that much to next chapter, but hopefully I can make it better than this one. The chapter after next- that's the one I'm waiting for!