It was street that should have been normal, quiet and peaceful. It was in a respectful neighbourhood, in a nice part of the city. Real estate agents had always sworn by it as the most comfortable place to settle down and raise a family. And yet, as quiet as the street should have been, it wasn't.
It was all down to one house; one house that looked no different from all the rest. It was as neat and as average and as brown as the surrounding buildings, with a fairly well-kept garden. But for the past four years the house had been disrupting the peace of its street in various ways that ranged from the vaguely annoying to the downright sinister, ever since 'that lot', (as they were referred to by the rest of the street), had moved in.
Every Friday night the houses on either side of this particular establishment, number forty and number forty-four, were subjected to the noisy blare of a television accentuated by the occasional girly scream, a wild laugh or a burp that would be instantly reprimanded by fellow unseen voices. After this would be a great deal of chatter and laughter that went on long into the night.
Every day would begin with the sounds of running, arguing, and the constant patter of running water on the top floor of the house, while steam poured out of one tiny little window. Doors would be slammed, thumps would be heard, and also frequently the ear-piercing sound of a boy singing cheerfully off-key, (always accompanied by the drumming of several people bashing on a door impatiently and yelling, 'NEIL!').
The noises would gradually make their way downstairs and quieten for an hour at the most before the perpetrators themselves would spill out onto the street, shouting about who was taking whose car and joking around.
'Children of the state,' Mrs Needling of number forty-four would say to her portly husband every day as she peered through their lacy curtains, watching the rowdy group wrestling and pushing each other. 'Dropped in that foster home with that woman; it's a wonder how she feeds them all. Living off funding, no doubt; our taxes too… such a wild bunch. Poor things,' she added hastily.
'Maybe she's their mother,' Mr Needling would grunt, cutting up his eggs and bacon with gusto.
'Pfft,' his wife snorted. 'Do they look anything alike to you? No, no; children of the state.'
The rest of the day would pass in peace until the group arrived home in the late afternoon, sometimes evening; groaning and stretching and talking in loud voices of a shower – followed by an immediate stampede to the top floor. On weekdays the night would usually wind down slowly; as the arguments and bursts of laughter and heavy footsteps died away and the lights in the house were gradually switched off, until there remained a single silhouette sitting in the last window in the top floor row; slouched over something, perhaps scribbling? Now and then he would stop and sit up, the crooked nose of his profile contrasting against the yellow light as he stared to the window on his right, as if looking through the wall into the room beside his for some kind of inspiration, or as if afraid of being caught doing something he shouldn't.
On some nights the neighbours would be woken by doors slamming and panicked voices shouting down the hall. Again the teenagers would run out into the front yard, but this time their voices would be taut, stressed, they would be frantically trying to pull on coats over hurriedly thrown on clothes as they climbed into their truck and sped away, tires screeching, one word constantly hissed into the night, 'Cronus.'
'Did you hear those kids again last night, Velma?' Mrs Hathaway tutted the next morning as they gossiped in the doorway of number forty. 'Crashing and yelling and carrying on…'
'Oh, I heard them alright,' sniffed Mrs Needling. 'Gave me and Albert quite a turn.'
'I don't know what I'll do if Alice turns out that—'
'Mom! Mom, you have to see this!' A little girl with two dark plaits came hurtling down the hallway behind Mrs Hathaway and latched herself to her mother. 'C'mon, mom!'
'Alice! Say "good morning"!'
'Oh, morning, Mrs Needling. Mom, please—'
'Go back inside, Alice,' said Mrs Hathaway impatiently, brushing her off.
'But, mom, on the news! There were these lights last night, and all these buildings have been—'
'Not now, Alice!'
Young Alice Hathaway had much more interest in their neighbours than her mother or Mrs Needling. The house that had stood empty since she'd been four was suddenly filled with intriguing new life. From her bedroom window she could clearly hear the frequent arguments; ('GIVE IT BACK, ATLANTA!'
'C'mon, Arch, let me see what you wrote!'
'OKAY, GUYS, SO NOT FUNNY! WHO TOOK MY MIRROR?!'
'Hey, Herry, why don't you leave some for the rest of us?'
'This is my ice cream bucket! You guys have one at the back of the freezer!'
'"…Eyes are sparking, lively darting,
The curve of her lips is a warning to all,
Caught and captured, cannot match her,
Still can't escape it; her siren call…" It's about a girl! Arch-man's in LOVE!'
'No, it's not! I'm… I'm not!'
'Oh, it's a about a boy then?!'
'No, it's a girl – I – um – I mean…'
'GUYS?! HELOOOO?! MIRROR! GONE!'), the girly giggles from the third floor right opposite her window; ('I saw him at lunch! He was so looking at you! He was! Ugh, if he stopped worrying about Cronus long enough…'), and the small explosions from some unseen basement. And those were just the sounds. On weekends with nothing to do sometimes Alice would stare out her window, watching number forty-two silently. Her curious eyes would catch the flash of a mirror in the sunlight in the day; some nights the windows would glow blue or green.
She longed to join in the arguments, to giggle with the girls, to find out why the windows shone, to be a part of what seemed to be a happy, rambunctious family of misfits, but her mom warned her away from the house and its occupants.
'They're big children, Alice,' she would say. 'They don't want to play with you.'
Nonetheless, the girl was entranced by them.
The first time she ran into one of the teenagers was when she was seven, and she was playing in her front garden with a doll, who was going on an adventure through a wild jungle, (her mom's rose bushes), to the Barren Lands, (the street footpath). Looking up at the sounds of footsteps she saw a girl with strawberry blonde hair so long Alice thought she must be a princess in denim jeans. The girl saw her awestruck staring and smiled softly down at her, hitching up a black rubbish bag on her hip.
'Hey,' she said. 'I like your doll.'
Alice glowed with pride.
'I got her for Christmas! She's a princess explorer!' she said, holding up the doll.
The girl laughed with a sound like a bell as she dropped her bag in the rubbish bin sitting on the nature strip.
'What's her name?'
Alice's face fell.
'She hasn't got one yet,' she admitted, fiddling with the doll's hair. 'I can't pick one for a princess explorer…'
Alice's door opened behind them, and Mrs Hathaway trotted out, looking harried.
'Alice, dear, come inside now, please,' she said tensely, purposefully not looking at the girl.
'But my doll is exploring; we were talking to…'
'Alice! Inside, please!'
Scowling heavily, she dragged herself to her feet and stomped inside with as much dignity as her seven year old self could muster. She turned to wave and smile at the princess girl, ignoring the tapping of her mother's foot behind her.
'What's your name?' Alice asked.
'Theresa,' smiled the girl, turning back to her own house.
'Bye, Theresa!' she called as Mrs Hathaway pulled her inside.
After that she wasn't allowed to play in the front yard anymore. Still she watched number forty-two, trying to catch Theresa again, but Alice always missed her; having to leave for her own school before the teenagers, she only ever saw them arriving home, tired and clearly in no mood to chat to strangers.
She was eight before she had another encounter with her mysterious neighbours. She was playing the back garden this time, and her ball had gone over the fence. Alice was delighted, and could hardly believe she hadn't thought of this before. Wasting no time, she climbed up her tree and jumped over the high wooden fence, landing ungracefully in the grass on the other side. She was slightly disappointed to see that this seemed to be a backyard like any other, with a clothesline and a basketball ring and a small patio where seven chairs were clustered around a table. On one of the chairs sat a boy with brown hair, poring over many rolls and sheets of paper. For a moment she thought he was the one who sat in the window at night writing, but then noticed that his nose wasn't crooked, and his hair was neater than the writer's cowlicks. He didn't look up as she approached, deeply immersed in his papers, his brow furrowed.
'Um… hi,' she squeaked.
Immediately he stood up, alert and looking for the source of the noise, one hand diving into his pocket. His eyes landed on her and he froze, and then relaxed slightly, though the hand remained in his pocket, clenched around something.
'Hi,' he said politely, as if she was a dinner guest and not a stranger that had just appeared without warning in his backyard. 'Can I help you?'
'Um… sorry,' she mumbled, addressing her feet. 'My ball… went over my fence and…'
She was now seeing that it had been rather foolish to jump the fence without invitation.
Just as she was prepared to run for it and forget her ball completely the back door slid open and Theresa stepped out.
'Jay, please, just put them away and come and eat lunch with us for… once…' her voice died away as she spotted Alice standing on the patio, twisting her hands and blushing insanely. 'Oh, you're the little girl from next door, aren't you?'
Relief and pleasure at being remembered and recognised rush through her, and she nodded shyly.
'She says she lost her ball over our fence,' said the boy, Jay, keeping a strangely watchful eye on Alice as he spoke.
Theresa frowned at his guarded tone, her eyes flicking involuntarily towards the papers on the table and back to Jay.
'You've been thinking about him too much, Jay,' she said so quietly Alice barely caught the words. 'You're seeing shadows everywhere.'
Jay didn't answer, and Alice stared determinedly at her feet in embarrassment.
'Please, Jay,' pleaded Theresa, resting a hand on his shoulder gently. 'Put them away. Just for today.'
He muttered something intelligible, his face blank.
'Oh, for heaven's sake!' cried Theresa, losing her patience and throwing her hands in the air, stalking past Jay into the yard. 'She's just a little girl!'
She walked straight away to a large bush in the corner of the garden, and picked up the yellow ball completely hidden from view.
'Here,' she said not unkindly, pressing the ball into Alice's hands gently. Alice looked up at her, surprised, then guilty; Theresa seemed to be blinking back tears.
'Thanks… sorry…' Alice said uncertainly. 'How did you know where it was like that?'
That made Theresa smile briefly.
'Intuition,' she said.
As she scrambled back over the fence she heard Jay murmuring something which provoked another frustrated scoff from Theresa.
'She's just a girl, Jay! I've seen her before! Just a little girl who lost her ball over our fence; not a trick, not a hallucination, not a demon or a nymph or a harpy!'
Another mutter from Jay.
'Well, if you can't trust her, who can you trust?! Do you trust me?!'
'Yes! You know I do!'
'Do I? She's the reason we're doing this, the reason we're here; she is one of the people we're trying to save!' The door was slammed shut roughly.
Again she didn't see anything unusual for another year, when she was nine. This time she had been sitting on her front step, (her mother having long forgotten the rule about not playing in the front), Theresa the princess explorer doll clutched in one hand, far more worn and bedraggled than she was two years ago. Alice was looking at next door's hopefully; she had been sitting there since coming home from school and wanted to watch the teenagers' arrival.
Finally there was the blare of a horn from somewhere nearby and the familiar red truck came careering around the street corner, the windows open and letting laughter overflow outside. Alice straightened where she sat slumped, and looked up brightly. The truck pulled into the drive of number forty-two, and the teenagers jumped out one after the other, making a beeline for the door.
The tallest one lingered behind, a boy built like a heavy-weight-lifting champion. He was walking around the truck, checking it for scratches with the careful eye of an owner. As Alice peeked over her mom's rose bushes in astonishment the boy lifted up a side of the huge truck with one hand, scratching his head thoughtfully. He felt the underside of the truck, still holding it up with casual ease. There was a sound like screeching metal and he pulled out something larger than his hand. After lovingly replacing the truck on the ground he looked at his find more carefully, then let out a yelp and sprinted into the house holding the thing at arms length, yelling, 'JAY!'
There was an instant commotion inside the house and not one hour later the teenagers were back in the truck and driving off again.
Almost two more years passed without further incident. Staying up one night staring through the window her sleepy eyes caught movement in the street. Poking her head out the window so far the rest of her body almost followed it she saw a short dark boy with funny green glasses who she recognised from next door. He was glancing around himself furtively and couldn't make it more obvious that he didn't want to be seen, which was understandable as he was dragging a long cable as thick as a man's torso out of the house behind him. He reached the street lamp and stopped, dropping the cable with a dull thud and pulling some sort of tool out of his jacket pocket. Sparks flew as he worked on the street lamp post, carving out a hole which he heaved the cable into. With flash and a zap bright blue power shot through the cable into the house. The boy ran inside, casting a wary glance behind him.
The same year Alice was climbing a tree on her nature strip. Hearing her mom call her for lunch she checked for people passing under the tree and, when satisfied the coast was clear, jumped down onto the footpath.
'Hah! You can't beat me, Archie; give up already!'
'You're cheat—ATLANTA, LOOK OUT!'
Before she could work out what was happening Alice was knocked to the ground by two bodies a lot bigger than her and trapped in a sprawled tangle of arms and legs. She rolled out from under the two people crushing her and struggled to sit up, completely dazed and winded. Glancing beside her dizzily as her world started to come back into focus, she saw a pixie-like redhead girl stuck under a boy with pale skin and shock of bright purple hair. The boy was staring down at her in something akin to a mixture of horror and wonder; she in turn seemed utterly speechless. Alice blinked in surprise, shaking her head to clear it. The boy had a strikingly familiar crooked nose, and there were slight lines under his eyes, as if he sat awake all night…
It seemed that the girl hadn't been watching her path, and the boy had gone into a dive in a wild attempt to stop her.
'Um… sorry,' said Alice awkwardly, feeling very much that she was intruding upon something. 'I didn't see you there.'
They started and blushed in unison; the boy got to his feet gingerly and offered the girl his hand. She got up by herself, either ignoring the offer or not seeing it, and the purple boy shoved his hand in his pocket in disappointment, his blush rising.
'Sorry,' grinned the girl cheerfully. 'I didn't see you there either.'
'You came out of nowhere…'
'Yeah, Lanta can run fast,' smirked the boy, coming out of his embarrassment. 'Can't do much else though, like look where she's going,' he added, aiming at his friend. Atlanta poked her tongue out at him cheekily, again missing his blush as she turned back to Alice.
'Are you okay? You're the girl from next door, right?'
'Yeah, I'm Alice,' she said eagerly.
'Another A! I'm Atlanta, this dork here is Archie,' she said, elbowing the boy good-naturedly.
'You're the two who always fight!' exclaimed Alice. 'I can hear you from my house.'
'Arch hates it when I beat him,' Atlanta shot at the boy.
'As if you don't hate it when I beat you!'
'Like when have you ever beaten me?!'
'I beat you last night!'
'When?' Atlanta scoffed.
'I got seventeen marshmallows in my mouth; you only got fourteen!' he said triumphantly.
'Only 'cause your mouth is as big as a frog's!' she retorted, poking him in the chest.
As Archie floundered for a comeback there came a shout from the door of number forty-two.
'Hey, you two!' called the dark boy.
'Huh?' Atlanta looked around, and Archie seized the opportunity to grab her in a headlock, ruffling her hair.
'Ah! Get – off – Archie!' she laughed, wriggling about.
'Come on, it's lunchtime!'
'We better go,' said Archie, starting towards their house with Atlanta still pinned under his arm. 'See you 'round!'
'See ya'!' Alice shouted after them; Atlanta was now flapping her arms blindly, trying to grab Archie's hair.
It wasn't until she was thirteen that she noticed the last teenager, a blue eyed blonde boy. She started to wait on the front step every day just to catch a glimpse of him coming home. He never looked half as rumpled or sweaty as the others, in fact he always looked perfectly attractive, stirring little newly awakened butterflies in her tummy.
When her friend Claire came around for a sleepover Alice told her everything she knew about her neighbours. Claire was just as interested in them as Alice, the blonde boy in particular. One day there was an urgent knock on Alice's door; upon opening it Alice had a magazine shoved in her face.
'Look!' cried Claire, 'it's him! That guy! I knew I'd seen him somewhere, I just knew it!'
Alice grabbed the magazine and studied the page Claire had folded it open at. It was an advert for a new perfume featuring a handsome model grinning lazily as he lay amongst pure white flowers. The model was none other than the young man next door; he obviously required so little makeup and photo-shopping that Alice recognised him instantly.
'He's a model! Oh my god! I live next door to a celebrity!' she squealed, jumping up and down on the spot.
'D'you think they're all models, then?' said Claire excitedly.
Alice thought on this for a moment.
'I don't think so,' she said slowly. 'The rest don't dress as well as him…'
They retreated to the privacy of Alice's bedroom, sitting on the bed in silence, the magazine between them.
'So what do you think they're doing?' said Claire finally, her voice hushed.
'They seem… different,' said Alice off-handedly.
'What do you mean?'
'Just…' she hesitated in confiding her theory, not sure whether Claire would believe her, or think her crazy.
'You can tell me,' Claire urged. 'Go on…'
'They're not… normal. I think… I think they're on some sort of mission and… and they're magic,' she blurted. Claire stared at her.
'Magic?' she echoed. 'Like witches and stuff?'
Alice looked down at the bed covers, her cheeks burning.
'Huh?' She looked up. Claire was watching her, not with scepticism, but curiosity.
'I… I've seen it,' she said, surprised. 'The little pixie girl, Atlanta, she can run really fast. And there's another boy who lifted up his truck with one hand! And Theresa knew where my ball was without looking for it first…' She trailed off. Even as she listed them they seemed less impressive than they had been when she had witnessed them.
Claire was silent for a moment, and then said, 'you know, Al, they sound more like super powers to me.'
'Super powers?' Alice giggled.
'Hey, you were saying they were magic two seconds ago!'
Alice sobered, considering this new idea. Super heroes…?
Three days later she was sitting on her front step again with Claire, both waiting for a peek at the cute model.
Today the blonde was the last to jump out of the truck and as he headed towards the house with the others Claire did the unspeakable; she leapt to her feet and called out to him.
As he turned Alice yanked her friend back beneath the cover of the bushes.
'What the heck are you doing?' she hissed, 'he'll see you!'
'That's the point,' grinned Claire, and stood up again, waving and smiling. 'Hey!'
The boy came over to their fence, a mildly interested expression on his godly features.
'Uh, hi,' he drawled, looking them over once and turning back to his own house.
He stopped and sighed, turning around and crossing his immaculately tanned arms, surveying them with boredom.
'Yes?' he asked tiresomely, a silent 'what do you want' hovering in the air.
Here Claire's daring ran out and Alice jumped up to rescue her.
'We-saw-a-guy-in-our-magazine-and-he-looked-just-like-you-and-we-wondered-if-he-was-really-you,' she said breathlessly.
He looked more pleased at this, relaxing slightly.
'Oh, yeah, that was me,' he said, inspecting his nails casually.
'You're really a model?'
'You bet, kid,' he replied smugly.
Something inside Alice frowned the tiniest bit at being called a kid.
'Are your friends models too?' asked Claire, batting her eyelashes.
'What, those guys?' laughed the young man, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder. 'When Hades freezes over!'
'You know, the Underworld…' He was getting bored with their conversation.
'So what's your name?' said Alice.
'Can I have your autograph?' asked Claire simultaneously.
He only seemed to register with the last one. Another lazy smile floated across his face and he whipped a pocket notebook and pen out.
'Yeah, sure, why not?' He scrawled something carefully on a page, his tongue peeping from between his teeth, and then ripped it out of the notebook extravagantly. He passed it to Claire with a flourish.
Claire took it with shaking hands, biting her lip.
'Thanks,' she blushed.
'So what's your super power?' said Alice impulsively, unable to hold the words back any longer. Claire glared at her, scandalised.
The model, on the other hand, flashed another gorgeous grin with his blinding teeth and polished his nails on his expensive looking t-shirt.
'Well, apart from being the best fighter on the team,' he said smoothly, 'I'm also the best looking, obviously. And…' he added, with the air of someone saving the best for last, leaning towards them and sending the aroma of violets in their direction, 'the luckiest.'
'You're lucky?' said Alice, surprised.
He shot them another dazzling smile, clicking his tongue and winking at them.
'Catch ya' later, kids,' he said, walking back towards his house. As he passed a bush of jasmine flowers he plucked one and breathed in its scent happily, disappearing behind his door.
Claire sank down onto the step with a contented sigh, clutching the notebook page to her heart.
'Humph,' grunted Alice, scowling and crossing her arms.
'Oh, you're just jealous you didn't think to get an autograph…' teased Claire, looking at her scrap of paper with adoration. 'His name's Neil… isn't that just the cutest name?'
'Lucky?' said Alice. 'What kind of super power is that?'
'Hey,' Claire said suddenly, sitting up. 'He admitted it too!'
'He was just making fun of us,' said Alice scathingly. 'I didn't know he was so full of himself.'
'I'd be full of myself too, if I looked like that…' said Claire dreamily.
Alice plonked herself down beside Claire, still frowning, and trying to ignore the feeling of curling disappointment in the pit of her stomach.
After that day she lost interest in the strange, noisy occupants of number forty-two. She concentrated on her homework instead of looking out of the window and started playing basketball after school instead of waiting outside her house to watch strangers arriving home. She even tuned out the arguments and laughter and stopped eavesdropping on the girls' conversations. It was amazing how ordinary the house became after she stopped observing it. Overtime she and Claire grew apart, and then moved apart when Claire's dad uprooted their family.
'We'll keep in touch though,' Claire said to Alice over the phone, 'you've got my number.'
'Uh, yeah. Where did you say you're moving again?'
'Winnipeg. That's in Canada,' the girl on the other end said somewhat distractedly. 'No, mom, don't throw that out! Well, make room for it! Geez! Sorry,' she added to Alice, 'I've got to go, mom's being such a – no, I told you –'
The line went dead.
Claire never did call again, but then neither did Alice. She got new friends – she joined a photography club at school and told herself it was better without Claire and that last reminder of all she imagined lived next door.
Then, one night almost a year later, she woke with a start at the sounds of shouting and banging. Rubbing sleep from her eyes she climbed out of bed, pulling a hoodie over her pyjamas and sticking her head out the window. The teenagers of number forty-two were grouped on their front lawn, fully dressed and staring into the darkness surrounding them.
Those teenagers, Alice cursed to herself, and frowned at realising that she still thought of them as teenagers when they all must be into their twenties by now and should have grown out of their loud behaviour. This made her frown deeper, and she was about to yell at them to keep the noise down when she saw the figure of a tall man emerging from the shadows at the end of the street. He was dressed entirely in black, his dark hair streaked with grey. The sight of him froze her insides icy cold and her voice died in her throat even as she wanted to scream a warning. Although Alice was certain she'd never seen such a man before something instinctive in her mind recognised danger, lethal and terrifying. Rooted to the spot, she watched as something glinted in his hand, something she was sure hadn't been there before; a long deadly blade. At once all the lamps in the street went out and everything was plunged into a thick, heavy blackness. The spell was broken and Alice stumbled away from her window, tripping in the unnatural darkness and hitting the untidy floor painfully. She lay there for a moment, unknown objects on the floor jabbing into her, yet too scared to move.
Down below someone was speaking – a voice deeper and more dangerous than any of the familiar voices she knew from next door. She couldn't make out the words but the tone didn't bode well at all. There was a sudden shout from one of the boys, followed by the immediate sounds of fighting; yells and the clash of metal and the sickening crunch of bone against flesh. One of the girls gave a muffled yelp.
The padding of running feet, a flash and then a cry of rage and pain.
'No, Archie!' reprimanded the voice of the man with dark glee. 'How many times have I told you; control your emotions!' He was playing with them. 'You see, Jay?!' he continued, 'it's too easy, because I know you! And you're all getting too predictable. I take down the huntress and the warrior is down too! Take down the leader…'
'NO!' a voice Alice recognised as Theresa's shrieked, and just as she was about to scramble to her feet a bright purple flash curved through her window like the violent ripple of a gigantic pool. It swept over her head and she was cut down with one swoop, a different kind of all-immersing blackness closing in on her now…
Slowly she came to, her head aching fit to burst. Groaning, she pushed herself into a sitting position, massaging the spot where she had landed on something lumpy. Feeling the ground for it, she held the object up to the dim light now streaming through her open window. Theresa the princess explorer doll smiled up at her vacantly. Shaking her head, she dropped the old doll and crawled to her window, pulling herself up onto the sill. Clenching the wood tightly, her head still spinning, she looked out into the night. On the lawn of number forty-two, figures were stirring feebly as the street lamps flickered back on. A battle seemed to have raged while Alice was unconscious; there were deep cracks in the pavement and grass had been burnt and ripped up. The tree Alice had climbed when she was eleven was lying across the footpath. Despite the evidence of disaster the houses surrounding the scene were completely quiet; no lights came on, and no one seemed to have even woken. No doubt they had all been temporarily silenced by the purple flash, just as she had been.
Alice took another glance at the lawn, hesitated, and then made up her mind. She hurried to the foot of her bed, pulled her gumboots on, and crept downstairs. As she passed the landing that led to her mother's bedroom, she peeped inside. Mrs Hathaway was safe and sound, snoring slightly with her frilly eye cover lopsided. Alice continued down to the front door, swiped the keys from the jacket hanging beside it, and slipped out into the freezing night. As she approached the lawn she could hear someone sobbing, and dread mounted inside her. She sped up, half-running towards the dark shapes on the lawn.
The boy with the brown hair was helping Theresa to her feet; she was holding her forehead as if suffering from a headache. Jay looked up warily as she stepped out from behind the rose bushes, even more paranoid than he had been four years ago.
'Is she alright?' said Alice, starting forward. Jay moved in front of Theresa protectively.
'Jay,' said the young woman, touching his hand.
'I've come to help you,' said Alice, feeling extremely foolish and inadequate.
'Do you know first aid?' said Jay.
'N-no,' she stuttered. 'I saw you fighting from my window…'
Jay and Theresa exchanged a significant glance. Jay turned his back on her and muttered something to Theresa, who nodded and walked towards the front of the yard, raising her hands. A brief purple glow hung in the air, then dissipated like mist.
Alice looked in bemusement from Jay to Theresa, then, assuming she was being allowed to help, turned to the others. The model, Neil, looking indecently unscathed, was beside the tallest boy; both were bent over something smoking on the grass which was giving off a putrid stench.
'Ew…' shuddered Neil. 'He looks gross… What do we do with him?'
'I say we set him on fire again,' said the other man harshly, cracking his knuckles. 'Wouldn't be the first time we thought he was dead…'
'Leave him,' croaked the dark boy. He was sat a little further away, his arm bent at an unnatural angle, hanging limply. 'The gods will be here soon.'
'Not soon,' said Theresa, 'in half an hour.'
'What?!' cried the tallest boy. 'What about Archie?'
'We'll have to take him to Chiron ourselves,' said Jay grimly. 'Someone saw us.'
In unison the three boys turned to stare at Alice, who took a step back, intimidated.
The tall man swore under his breath. Alice backed away, her confusion rising. She almost fell over Atlanta and was halfway through apologising when she saw that she was the one crying. She was cradling Archie's head in her arms, her tears dripping onto his face and mixing with the blood there. A large gash had been ripped in his chest, staining his jacket, and one foot was twisted awkwardly, something gold lying broken in the grass half a metre away. Archie himself was even paler than usual, his eyes shut.
'C'mon, Arch,' she was sniffling. 'I'm sorry… 'bout what I said… didn't mean…'
'Herry,' Alice heard Theresa say behind her. 'Take her inside, now.'
As she stood transfixed in horror, Alice felt a strong hand on her shoulder.
'You better come in.'
Alice nodded numbly and followed the tall man inside. The house looked just as disappointingly normal as its backyard, neat but pleasantly untidy. Herry gestured at the seven seated table and she sat down, suddenly very aware of how stupid she'd been coming here and how ridiculous she must look with her 'smile like you mean it' hoodie and brightly coloured gumboots paired with her Kermit pyjamas. Herry dumped a mug of something hot in front of her, and sat down in a seat opposite.
'I'm sorry,' she said, her voice as small as she felt.
'S'not your fault,' said Herry gruffly, taking a deep swig of his own drink.
There was a silence. She could still hear Atlanta sobbing outside.
'Can't you help her?' said Alice, trying hard to keep the accusation from her tone.
'She wouldn't let us if we tried,' sighed Herry. He looked so tired; his face cut up and swollen.
The door opened and the dark man came inside, clumsily cleaning his glasses with one hand, followed by Jay.
'Theresa's head hurts, but apart from that she's fine; Odie's arm is definitely broken; I think Atlanta might have sprained something but she won't let anyone near her; Neil hasn't got a scratch on him; and you…' Jay listed off, looking at Herry.
'I think something might be cracked in here,' said Herry, gesturing to his ribcage and smiling bravely. 'What about Archie?'
'His chest and head are bleeding badly, from what I can tell,' said Theresa, appearing in doorway beside Jay. 'And his leg brace is… Athena will be back with the rest of the gods soon; I can't hold them off much longer without them noticing.'
'Gods?' said Alice, looking up at them all. 'There are gods? You really are super heroes aren't you?'
They looked at her in surprise, as if they'd forgotten she was even there.
'Yes,' said Theresa. She sat down next to Alice, looking her in the eye seriously. 'Now, you have to listen to me—'
'I don't understand,' said Alice, edging away, suddenly afraid.
'I know; I know and I'm sorry,' said Theresa sadly, 'but you have to listen. There are people coming here, and soon. No one is meant to know about this; we've been warned to not even speak to our neighbours, not after what happened at our last house. When the gods get here, and they find out, you won't be safe.'
'But – but you can talk to them, can't you?' said Alice desperately. 'You know them.'
Jay laughed without humour, and Theresa smiled bitterly.
'The gods… don't listen to reason,' she said slowly, as if choosing her words carefully. 'They get angry and – even if they might regret it later – they lash out. They aren't really known for forgiveness.'
'They'll hurt me?'
'We don't know,' said the dark skinned boy from the door. 'They might just erase your memory but—'
Alice shook her head frantically, her plaits bobbing.
'No, no, I don't want to forget—'
'Then you have to go home now.'
As Alice got to her feet Theresa clasped her wrist urgently.
'Promise not to tell anyone about this. You can't, not ever. Not even someone you think you can trust. Please.'
'Not ever?' Alice looked from tense face to tense face.
'Promise?' Theresa's eyes were wide and almost frightened.
'I – I promise.'
Theresa released her, and the men relaxed with relief.
'Will you be alright?' asked Alice, turning as she crossed the threshold. 'Archie…'
'We have the help of the gods,' said Jay. 'If all goes well we'll all be gone within a month or so. But you mustn't speak to us again.'
Alice nodded as Theresa gasped, one hand flying to her forehead.
'Jay! They're coming!'
'Go!' he hissed. 'Run!'
Alice flew back to her own house, almost slipping on the dewy grass and not stopping until she had slammed the door shut, locked it and slipped back up the stairs into the safe haven of her room.
She lay awake for the rest of the night, listening carefully for any sounds of disturbance from the house next door. For once it was eerily silent, and the neighbourhood slept on; unknowing of what had passed in their midst.
The next day Alice found the street cleaned and unharmed, and the neighbours only concerned with the upcoming Christmas expenses. Her mom dragged her around the supermarket and several chain stores for the whole day; loading her arms with bags and parcels and too busy to notice her daughter's sleep deprived and zombiefied state.
For the next week number forty-two carried on in its unnatural quiet, the only evidence of life the occasional door slam; the steam from the bathroom window; and a few lights switched on and off at night. The last window on the top floor was dark, empty of its usual writer, and the sight of it filled her heart with a chill every night. The window next to it glowed with the fainter light of a lamp instead, the sounds of ashamed crying muffled by pillows and blankets.
One night, getting up for a drink of water, Alice saw two figures up on the roof of next door, and tensed with fear. Setting the cup down on her table, she peered through the thick glass of her window at the distorted figures but with relief saw that they were merely Jay and Theresa. They were sitting side by side, murmuring lowly. Alice could just make out the tension in voices, which softened as the minutes wore on. For the first time she felt guilty for spying and turned away, although not before she saw Theresa kiss Jay softly on the cheek and lay her head down on his shoulder as he wrapped one arm around her. As she picked up her cup and drained it Alice felt strangely comforted by that small moment of moonlit peace amongst the worry and stress that seemed to now emanate twenty four-seven from the house.
Almost three more weeks passed by until Christmas Eve found Alice curled up on her bed, half asleep and half reading a book. Snow was falling softly outside, covering the houses of the street in perfect, picturesque white. All was quiet except for the turn of her page, until a sound from outside made her sit up and go to her window curiously.
Tramping through the ankle deep snow on the lawn of next door was a young man rugged up in a thick coat, a tuft of purple hair just visible beneath his blue hood. He was trailing deep, uneven footprints behind him as he limped heavily towards the house. He didn't get further than the front jasmine bushes, (which now resembled giant marshmallows), when, with an ear-piercing shriek of happiness, Atlanta burst out of the front door and sped towards him so fast Alice could have sworn she blurred, bowling into him with a hug that almost knocked him to the ground.
'Calm down, Lanta,' he laughed. 'If I knew you'd be this happy to see me I'd get mortally wounded more often!'
She didn't answer; she seemed to be trying to sob and laugh simultaneously into his jacket.
Slowly the rest of them poured out onto the snowy lawn until Archie was surrounded by a tight knot of people; tall and short, blonde, brown, red and purple. The little family crowded together, chattering with excitement and cheering and laughing like they hadn't in weeks. They retreated back into the house, arms looped around each other tightly.
Alice was left staring out of her window at the empty snow scattered with footprints. Seeing them together had always left her with a hollow feeling inside her, but it was only now that she could finally identify it. Loneliness. She sat on her bed silently, wrapping her arms around her knees and staring into space. There was thump and she started – glancing down at the floor she saw that her book had fallen. She picked it up, smoothing out the crumpled page it had fallen on.
"'You haven't got a letter on yours,' George observed. 'I suppose she thinks you don't forget your name. But we're not stupid – we know we're called Gred and Forge.'
'What's all this noise?'
Percy Weasley stuck his head through the door, looking disapproving. He had clearly come halfway through unwrapping his presents as he, too, carried a lumpy jumper over his arm, which Fred seized.
'P for prefect! Get it on, Percy, come on, we're all wearing ours, even Harry got one.'
'I – don't – want –' said Percy thickly, as the twins forced the jumper over his head, knocking his glasses askew.
'And you're not sitting with the prefects today either,' said George. 'Christmas is a time for family.'
They frog-marched Percy from the room, his arms pinned to his side by his jumper."
Alice sighed and turned the page idly, frowning at the tiny tear at the bottom.
"Harry and the Weasleys spent a happy afternoon having a furious snowball fight in the grounds. Then, cold, wet and gasping for breath, they returned to the fire in the Gryffindor common room, where Harry broke his new chess set by losing spectacularly to Ron. He suspected he wouldn't have lost so badly if Percy hadn't tried to help him so much."
She went to close the book, when a sentence caught her eye.
"It had been Harry's best Christmas day ever."
The loneliness inside her lurched almost sickeningly, and she slammed the book shut. It had been the same every year, ever since she could remember. Christmas morning she and her mother would brave the cold and the bitter wind to sit in the drafty church, shivering and bored half to death by the sermons. They would have Christmas lunch together, then open presents, then her mom would drift back to her bedroom and Alice would drift back to hers and read, or draw, or sit alone thinking. No one visited; with no aunts and uncles she had no cousins either, like her mother she was an only child, and there were no mischievous twins or stuffy prefects or little sisters in her family. Her grandmother had long since joined her grandpa up in the sky, and her dad was never spoken of. She had always accepted it all as the way it was, and she had always been very good at entertaining herself anyway. Unfortunately a common side effect of being able to entertain yourself was social awkwardness, and Alice never really knew the right thing to say or the right way to act around people. Alice pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her head on them, her hair falling around her like a short, cowlicked curtain.
'The first noel, the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay...'
Her ears pricked at the sound of faint music, rowdy singing to be more precise. She uncurled and crawled over her bed to her window.
'JINGLY BELLS, JINGLY BELLS!'
'And you don't have to be an angel, to sing way off-key! It's the NIIIIGHT before Christmas!'
'EASY COME, EASY GO, WILL YOU LET ME GO?!'
'That's not a carol –'
'Oh my god, Jay, SHUT UP!'
The singers roared with laughter, and Alice smiled over the lump in her throat, her eyes wet.
'I SEE A LITTLE SILHOUETTO OF A MAN!'
'SCARAMOUCHE, SCARAMOUCHE, WILL YOU DO THE FANDANGO?!'
'THUNDER BOLT AND LIGHTENING, VERY, VERY FRIGHTENING!'
'MAMAAAAAAA! JUST KILLED A MAN!'
'Neil, you're all out of order!'
'But that's my favourite part!'
Alice giggled, wiping tears from her eyes, leaning on the windowsill and setting her head down on her arms. The snow continued to fall, blown around and around in dizzy whirlwinds as the breeze picked up. The girl sat at her window listening as the singing wove on into the night, until she fell asleep with a smile still on her face, her cheeks pink from the cold.
Over the next few weeks the house remained cheery, although it became less free and more forced every day. Through the windows sometimes Alice caught glimpses of cardboard boxes being stacked and moved around, and suitcases and duffel bags were carried into the truck. Alice could feel the days falling past them all, as if a clock inside her was ticking down to the finish line. Finally the day came that she knew was their last. All their boxes were packed; there was no more hustle and bustle from within. She could almost see them drifting from room to room, retrieving their last belongings and digging odd pieces of long forgotten junk from between the couch cushions.
Night seemed to fall earlier than usual. There was no movie being played, no jokes and laughter from within, it seemed that everyone was sleeping early to escape the awkwardness, of course under the pretence of wanting to be well-rested for the next day. The lights in the windows all switched off, until one remained – the second last on the top floor. Alice sat up watching the girl pacing back and forth, hesitating, stopping, twitching towards her door, shaking her head and pacing again. Just as Alice was about to give up and sleep, the girl stopped and breathed deeply, pulling herself up to her full height. She disappeared from view and the light switched off. In the dead quiet of the night Alice just caught the noise of a door closing abruptly before the light in the room next door switched on. The boy inside stopped in the middle of his own pacing, frozen as the girl who had entered walked towards him. He fidgeted, and looked about to say something when the little pixie girl grabbed the front of his shirt without warning, pulled his crooked profile down to hers and kissed him. Alice smiled softly to herself and switched off her light, satisfied. It had been like a story, watching the house all these years. She had to see it finished.
The next day the house was empty. The red truck was gone from the drive, all the suncatchers and ornaments visible from the windows had been taken down, and the windows themselves were shut with a strange finality. Part of her wanted to go in and explore it, perhaps find some evidence that those people had existed and she had known them better than they were ever aware. A more sensible part of her knew that the house would be locked, and she wouldn't be able to get in anyway.
Years passed, and Alice's life continued without the noise and life of number forty-two, as impossible as such a thing had once seemed to her. She finished school and moved to another city and started working as a photographer for the newspaper, earning just enough to live in tiny little flat. She also worked various side jobs, and it was through waitressing at a bar that she met Darren. First he came to the bar to drown his lady troubles while she offered advice, and then he came back more and more often until he ran out of excuses and asked her on a date.
'So you're a writer, Darren?'
'Yeah; fantasy … sci-fi. Anything impossible.'
'You can do anything. No limits. That's the best thing about being a writer,' he smiled. 'Of course, being a writer you have to be careful too.'
'You can get carried away with your imagination. Lose your sense of what's real. And what's important.' He took a sip of his drink, and then glanced up at her.
Alice started, her eyes snapping back to him.
'Yeah, yeah, I'm fine,' she said brightly. 'Why?'
'Just seemed a bit ... far off.'
Four years later they were engaged, living together in a flat only slightly bigger than Alice's first, but they were happy. A year later they were quietly married, and only two years after that came Darren's big break.
'It's about a brother and a sister who find out that they actually live next door to superheroes, and they get sucked into this – this fantastical world with bad guys and – and monsters and of course superpowers. And they kind of become sidekicks but they aren't content to remain sidekicks forever.'
'Now, Darren, I heard your wife actually inspired you to write The Heroes Next Door?'
'Oh, yes, Michael, she's always liked heroes and superpowers. She's always been very supportive of me.'
'Any characters based on her?'
'Um, not really, I prefer not to mix reality with my work.'
'Well, folks, there you have it, that was Darren Simm and keep an eye out for his new book The Heroes Next Door; it's on sale now and atop the New York bestsellers list already. Moving on to the country's leading computer genius, in the studio today we have with us O—'
As the months and years wore on and she could no longer stretch the meaning of 'child' Alice began to pretend that she had forgotten about the inhabitants of number forty two. She had heard that pretending something often did wonders for making it come true. Sometimes late at night she would wake suddenly, as if some ghostly noise from the past had echoed through to her present and roused her. Even in the day they would be there, in the back of her mind.
'Ma'm? You going to buy that?'
Alice looked up from the magazine in her hands, hesitating midway through flipping through it.
'Oh, no, no I was just … I don't read … I was looking – wondered … um, sorry, never mind.'
Alice jammed the magazine back on the stack hurriedly, and was just about to walk out of the counter with her groceries when the customer in line behind her caught her arm.
'Alice? Alice Hathaway?'
Alice stared at the blonde woman, nonplussed.
'I'm sorry, I don't …' she began, but was cut off.
'It is you! I'd recognise those plaits anywhere!' the woman grinned. 'Don't you ever change your hair? It's me! Claire Stroud!'
'Claire?!' Alice squeaked, before finding herself crushed into a hug.
The checkout girl was tapping her plastic glue-on fingernails on the counter impatiently, chewing gum as noisily as she could muster.
Claire ignored the girl, releasing Alice finally.
'Just let me get these, then we'll go for coffee, 'kay?'
Alice nodded mutely, still dumbstruck.
'So you're married now?' mumbled Claire as they sat in a cheap café with oily tables, waiting for their orders to arrive. She was holding a cigarette between her teeth as she lit it.
Alice watched her, nodding.
'How about you?' she asked.
Something in the woman's demeanour turned cold, her mouth quirking as if she'd just tasted something bitter.
'Divorced,' she replied with a forced giggle, although Alice could tell there nothing funny about it; 'twice, actually.'
'Oh, I'm sorry,' said Alice immediately, 'that's terrible.'
'That's life being a grown up, Alice, you might want to try it,' she quipped cheekily. She took a long drag of the cigarette, rubbing at the edges of her eyes as if she could feel wrinkles forming there.
The waitress came with their drinks, and the two women accepted them gratefully as an excuse not to talk.
Claire wrapped her thin fingers around her coffee cup, small shoulders shivering slightly underneath her fashionable but impractical jacket. She eyed Alice's hot chocolate with disdain.
'Nothing,' Claire smiled tightly, as if she was humouring her.
They sat in silence sipping at their drinks for a few more minutes, both of them glancing around themselves for another subject to fall upon.
Alice started to fidget with her spoon, until she saw Claire's eyes frown slightly at the unnecessary movement, and she dropped the spoon with slight clatter.
'Claire,' she said suddenly, unable to make herself look at her old friend and sliding her gaze to the side instead, 'do you … remember … when you used to come over to my house … and I told you – I told you about my neighbours?'
She dared to sneak a peek at Claire. For a moment something flickered briefly behind her eyes, and in that moment those eyes seemed so familiar, and Alice could see sitting before her not a thirty-something women with wiry limbs and lipstick, but a little girl with a big smile and friendly blue eyes. In the second after she was gone, and a different kind of smile was pasted onto Claire's face.
'That game we used to play when we were kids?' she said, and laughed a little, as if she was ashamed of what a dork she used to be. 'Wasn't it dumb?'
Alice pulled her drink towards her, sitting back in her chair and shrinking into herself.
'Yeah,' she murmured faintly to cold linoleum floor, 'dumb.'
They ended the day by exchanging more emails they would throw away and more phone numbers they would never call, and then went back to their separate lives as if nothing had happened.
Alice managed another week of Not Thinking About It before she started to think she was crazy. How could she still believe in this childhood fantasy when the only other person in on the secret seemed to think it had never been real? She felt as isolated as she had as a child, with no one to confide in that wouldn't think her insane, and the horrible fact beginning to stare her in the face that she very possibly was.
'They might just erase your memory, but –'
'No, no, I don't want to forget!'
She would give anything to forget now, to forget it all and stop wondering who they were and how they could do all the fantastical things they did. She wanted to stop having to question her own sanity, she wanted to stop being so discontent and restless in her own normal, ordinary life, and she wanted to stop knowing that there was something better.
So frightening were the thoughts circling constantly through her battered mind that the news of her own pregnancy came as a dull surprise to her. While Darren danced wildly around the house spinning her in his arms, she could laugh, but the moment he let go, kissed her and she left for work, she felt the smile fade from her face. How could she take care of a baby if she couldn't even take care of herself properly? Suddenly it sunk in finally, and she was terrified, of childbirth, of hospitals, and most of all, of the responsibility of having a whole other little human being inside her needing to be looked after.
The months slipped by in a confused blur of tests and doctors and stale air filled with the smell of chemicals and being curled around the toilet in the early morning with Darren holding her hair back. There was so much to do, and so much to buy, and so many things to think about that she could forget the number forty two for some peculiarly blissful days. She stopped wondering if she was crazy and started wondering what the baby would look like. Would it have her dark hair and Darren's twinkling eyes? Perhaps his long fingers and her long nose? Then she would laugh at herself, imagining a baby with long fingers and a long nose.
When the baby did arrive, crying and spluttering, it looked like nothing she had imagined, pink and wet and tiny. It was whipped away from her and she was told to sleep. She woke to find an exhausted Darren beside her, staring agog down at the child he was nursing. Alice reached out for the baby, and Darren brought it to her, wrapping an arm around them both.
'What do you want to call her?'
Alice gazed down at her baby, awestruck and barely able to believe such a thing had ever been inside her stomach. She was still pink, and still small, her eyes closed and her fingers tiny beyond belief.
'What's your name?'
'They sound more like super powers to me …'
'You're just jealous you didn't think to get an autograph.'
'Another 'A'! I'm Atlanta, this dork here is Archie.'
'You're seeing shadows everywhere.'
'You bet, kid.'
'Wasn't it dumb?'
'I was thinking … Ellie?' Alice said tentatively, peeping at Darren.
'Ellie?' He struck a thoughtful pose, on finger tapping his chin – then smiled, 'any particular reason?'
Alice grinned, feeling something silently lift from her shoulders and float away as she turned to her husband and said truthfully, 'I just like it.'