Authors: John Burnside
Tags: #Fiction - General, #Missing Children, #General, #Literary, #Suspense, #Psychological, #Suspense Fiction, #Fiction
“I don't know,” I said. “Who are you going to use it on?”
He laughed. “Well,” he said, “I've started a list. I'm up to twenty-seven now.”
John looked hurt. “Why would I want to kill you, Leonard?” he said. “I mean,
of all people. The one other bibliophile in town?”
“Edmund Hillary,” I said. I felt a bit grim, to be honest.
“Edmund Hillary?” He looked puzzled.
“Because I'm there,” I said. Of course I knew that it doesn't matter what you read in a book, because you have to have the will to kill somebody to actually do it and you can't read up on
It doesn't matter what techniques you master, you actually have to be prepared to do it. The surprising thing about most people, considering how much we all hate one another, is that they're not prepared for that. They fantasize about it all the time, but they couldn't
it. At some unspoken level, that fact defines everything that happens between us. It's that simple. Even in the most law-abiding place, what makes the difference is that one man is capable of killing and another isn't. You put those two men in the same room, and it doesn't matter what else comes into play. It's the difference between giving a shit and not. No matter how bad things get, most people still care about something. That's what makes them so fucking sad, and that's what makes them beautiful. Still, I don't say any of this to John. I just wait for his answer.
“I'd never kill
Leonard,” he said. He looked unhappy. As if he was hurt that I asked.
“That's fine, then,” I said.
He gave me a wry smile. “Fucking
what I go by,” I said.
He nods. “Yeah,” he said. “She's got a really good recipe for rhubarb crumble, I hear.”
I made a face. “Now there's how to kill somebody,” I said.
So. A pretty dubious character when all is said and done. A mixed bag. Still, it was partly because of John that I met Elspeth. After he arrived, I had permission, I could hang about for hours and that was exactly what I did, partly because I was curious about John, but mostly because he had all kinds of secrets tucked away there, in back rooms, in forgotten boxes that he'd pulled out and started going through. Sometimes he would be too busy to talk, but when he was free, he'd get stuff out of the archives or the Reference section for me to look at. Sometimes, he'd just pull out a pile of stuff and let me go through it while he did his work. So one afternoon, after school, I've been sitting for a while, head down, going through a dictionary of quotations—sometimes
the way to read, in little snippets, the sushi version of food for thought—when, all of a sudden, I look up and I realize it's evening already. I can see the soft green of the evening trees and the splashes of orange between the leaves. I have this amazing sensation, then, a kind of quiet happiness, to think that everything—the park, the street-lamps, the little petrol station on the corner opposite—has all just arrived from nowhere, temporary, like a film set. Then I look into the space facing me and that is when I see her: a girl my age, but older-looking, in her short leather jacket and blue jeans, her hair cut short, like a boy, the plaid shirt under the jacket unbuttoned enough to show the thin gold chain around her neck. After a moment, she catches me watching her and shoots me a questioning glance. “Can I help you?” she says. She isn't being snotty, but she means it as a challenge. It makes me think she's been looking at me before I saw her, and she was just waiting for me to notice.
“What time is it?” I say. This is the best I can come up with.
She looks round at the clock on the far wall, then back to me. “Well,” she says, “the big hand is at six, and the little hand—”
“All right,” I say.
She laughs. “What's the problem?” she says. “Is there someplace you have to be?”
I shake my head. “No problem,” I say. I'm trying to place her. I think she looks like somebody at our school, some girl in fourth year, but she also looks different. Then I figure it out. “You used to go out with Jimmy van Doren,” I say. It sounds a bit like an accusation.
She smiles. “Oh my,” she says, “don't I have the checkered past.”
That makes me laugh, but I don't say anything.
“Well,” she says. “I don't go out with Jimmy van Doren anymore. He's
“So what are you doing here?” I say. On reflection, that sounds like a rude question, but she doesn't mind.
“Watching you read,” she says.
“That must be interesting.”
“It is,” she says. “I like the way your lips move when you come to the big words. It's very touching.”
“Ha ha,” I say.
“Ha ha,” she says. “So. Now that I'm free and everything, do you want to go out with me?”
“Why would I want to do that?” I say.
“Because I'm very sexy and very, very beautiful.”
“Is that so?”
“Absolutely,” she says. “So. What do you think?”
“I don't know.”
if you'd like to go out with me?”
“Don't rush me,” I say.
“We could stay in, if you like,” she says. “I'm not fussy.”
“I told you,” I say, “don't rush me.”
“Well,” she says, “suit yourself.”
“You don't know what you're missing.”
“I can imagine,” I say.
“Oh no you can't,” she says. She smiles real beautiful then, and I know I'm wasting my time pretending.
“I didn't say no,” I say. “I said don't rush me.”
“Well, you better make up your mind quick,” she says, “or you'll regret it forever.”
“Oh yeah?” I say. “How do you know that?”
me,” she says. “I know.”
I have to smile. She's pretty, that's for sure.
“So,” she says. “What's it to be?”
I don't say anything. Maybe, right at that moment, I am in love. Romantically, that is.
“I'll give you a blow job, if you like,” she says.
I'm a bit taken aback by that, but I manage not to show it. Or not too much. “Oh yeah?” I say, trying to look nonchalant.
“Absolutely,” she says.
“When?” I feel hollow deep down, like somebody has just scooped out my insides.
“Now,” she says.
“We can go outside,” she says. “Back of the library.” She looks over at John, who is pretending to put away books under the Home Improvements section, but is really watching us. “Where John goes to smoke reefer,” she says, just loud enough for him to hear.
By this time, she's pretty sure she has me, and she does, but not for the reason she's thinking. She's thinking I've never had a blow job before, but I have. Some old woman stopped me when I was going down the West Side Road toward the shore. She was in a car, and she just pulled up beside me and asked if I wanted to go for a little ride. I'd never seen her before, her or the car, which was odd because you don't get many tourists driving down the West Side Road. So I asked her what she meant and she said she would give me ten quid if I'd let her give me a blow job.
I wasn't sure, to be honest. She was pretty old, and she wasn't nice-looking by any stretch; if anything, she looked more like a bloke than a woman, with loads of makeup and dark red lipstick. But then, I thought, ten quid is ten quid. So I got in the car and she drove me down to the shore, which was where I was going anyway. It didn't take long, and she seemed happy enough. She told me I was a nice boy, and she gave me the ten quid. Then she gave me another five. “That's for your little brother,” she said. “Have you got a little brother?”
I didn't have a little brother, but I wasn't going to tell her that. “Yeah,” I said. “I've got two.”
“That's nice,” she said. “What are their names?”
“Liam and Benny,” I said. It was the first names I could think of.
“Lovely,” she said, but she didn't give me any more money and, I have to say, I was a bit disappointed for little Benny. “Well, now. I hope you don't mind if I drop you here, sweetheart.”
I shook my head. “This is fine,” I said.
“Thank you, dear,” she said. She waited for me to get out, smiling sweetly all the while, then she put the car in gear and drove away. I didn't see her after that.
Of course, it didn't occur to me till afterward that I shouldn't have got in the car, or that she might have anything to do with the lost boys. That was what the town were calling the boys who went missing. The lost boys. Like in
Now, I don't know if anybody else around here has read that book—I mean,
read the book,
not watched the film—but I don't think it's all it's cracked up to be. All that stuff about Wendy being their mother is a bit sickly, if you ask me. And you've got all these people going around killing one another, but you never get any details and you can't help thinking it isn't real. It's like in “Little Red Riding Hood,” when the Woodsman cuts the Wolf's belly open and Grandma comes out right as rain and ready to finish the next line of her knitting. I mean, what's all that about? People shouldn't be telling kids stories like that, where something bad happens and then it's all OK in the end ‘cause Mummy kissed it better. They should be telling it like it really is in the big wide world, which is: when you're fucked, you're fucked. Kind
of Anna Karenina
Anyhow, I don't think Elspeth will go through with it, but she does. Right there, behind the library, next to the bins. It's really good, too, not like the old woman. After that, I want to do something else, but she just laughs and says I have to wait till next time. Which is how we come to be going out. Not very romantic, but then we're not really that interested in romance. I think, on the whole, romance is something that should be saved for later, when you're old enough to deal with it. In the meantime, there's fucking. Kids are better at that than romance and all that difficult shit.
We've been going out for a few months now, and it's an eye-opener to say the least. I'd fucked a couple of girls before, but nothing like this. Elspeth and me, we play games, all kinds of stuff, things I never heard of. Elspeth is the one who thinks them up mostly, because that's not really my thing. Leave it to me, and it would be all blow jobs and mad shagging, because I'm fairly straightforward in matters of the heart. Still, I like the games, most of the time. It can seem a bit contrived, but when it's good, it's great, and when it's really good, it's scary.
It started with just little things, but then Elspeth read an article in a porno magazine about what some French kids were doing and she thought we could try it. It was called y
which means the scarf game, more or less. The first time, she hid the scarf in her pocket and only brought it out when we were safely past Dad and in the room; it was a long, poppy-red and dark-blue silky-looking scarf that she'd found among her mum's stuff. What I was supposed to do was tighten it round her neck until she passed out from not being able to breathe. It was supposed to be an amazing sensation, she said. I thought it sounded a bit dangerous, but it was exciting too, and we did it twice. I did it to her first, then she did it to me. It really was an amazing feeling when you were blacking out, not what I expected, because it wasn't just a sensation of passing out and things going dark, there was this amazing light, a pure white light that happened in my head just before I lost consciousness. The actual blacking-out part didn't last very long, and it was a bit uncomfortable when the scarf was being tightened, but Elspeth wanted me to do it to her again and the second time we did sex afterward. That was beautiful. We left the scarf round her neck when we were doing sex.
I've always liked Elspeth for sex. I didn't think I'd enjoy it as much as I did when we first started, but it's really beautiful with her, really exciting and pleasurable. She likes to do sex whenever we can, mostly in my room, but also outside, in the woods, or out at the plant. A lot of the time, she wears this big dress and she just sits down on me and spreads the dress over us, so nobody would see what was going on if they stumbled upon us. Once, when we were out walking in the woods, she just lifted up her dress and she didn't have anything on under it. She held the dress up round her waist and pressed her back to me. She looked round and gave me a really nice smile, then, like butter wouldn't melt, “You can stick it in my arse if you like,” she said. I thought that was a bit risky, out there on the footpath and everything, but we did try it for a while, before we had to give up. Later on, though, we worked out how to do it nicely, and we do that sometimes.
Of course, if Dad knew about any of this, he'd be pretty upset. He'd probably think we're too young, or that there was a risk of Elspeth getting banged up. He'd be wrong, though. We've done it plenty of times in loads of different ways and nothing bad has happened. Elspeth thinks it might be because a lot of men round here have dead sperm, because of what is in the ground around the plant. She says I might be one of them, which means I'll never have children, which is fine with me, considering how silly things are around here. She also makes it pretty clear she's not interested in love, or anything like that. Which also is fine by me, when she's saying it at least. Me, I sometimes think the real trick is to keep things like love and such abstract. Abstract can be complicated but, when it's all said and done, it's not difficult.
I don't know if what Elspeth says about the little white cells is right, but there might be something in it. The authorities go to great lengths to make it clear there's nothing wrong with us still living next to the plant, but they still do all kinds of tests on people—like when they go to see the doctor, for example. Some people, like Dad, are really sick for reasons nobody can explain, and he's had all kinds of tests. A week or so after Elspeth and I discovered
jeu du foulard,
I got a letter from the health center with three wooden sticks, like very thin ice-lolly sticks, a laminated-looking envelope with STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL, FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS CLOSELY printed