LOYAL - Nick Holdstock
His mother left in early June. “Be good,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.” She did not say where she was going, or why, but because she’d been away several times that year he didn’t bother to ask. That week he and his Dad ate burgers or pizza, then lots of ice cream, because his Dad said they deserved a treat. Most evenings he got to have Coke and his Dad drank wine and sometimes they finished their bottles. “It’s just us guys for now,” his Dad kept saying. After his mother had been away five days the boy asked where she was.
“In Norfolk. She’s visiting old friends.”
“Why did she go?”
“She needed a holiday.”
“So why didn’t we go with her?”
“Sometimes people need to have a holiday on their own.”
“But you said she was with friends.”
“She is. But it’s different. When you get to our age it’s like you’ve been lots of different people. Sometimes it’s nice to go back to being someone else. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said, but he didn’t. But during the second week it was still ok because whenever the boy asked when his mother was coming back, his father answered, “Soon, very soon”.
At the start of the third week he got red spots on his stomach, spots that became blisters. His skin felt the itchy way it did after a haircut except it was all over and he wasn’t allowed to scratch. He scratched. It felt good but then he was bleeding and still he wanted to scratch. Soon he felt like he was burning, he was dying of thirst, desperate for ice. Cold baths didn’t help. His skin was covered in blisters because he was diseased. When he looked at himself in the mirror he saw a boy becoming a zombie. At night he lay awake with socks on his hands and wondered if he’d survive until morning. He didn’t want to read or watch TV. He wanted to stop dying.
On the fourth night he called out for his mother even though he knew she wasn’t there. ‘Where’s mum?’ he kept saying to his father. “Where is she?” His father didn’t answer.
The blisters became scabs. Then there were more blisters. In his fevered dreams the boy sometimes saw his mother but she was either on a train or a horse that was galloping away. He shouted but she did not hear.
After ten days there were only scabs. He went back to school. A few boys made jokes about his face but the teacher made them shut up.
The woman who came to his house at the start of July was wearing his mother’s coat but her hair was much shorter and she seemed to have more face. She looked younger. He heard her and his father arguing when he was in bed. His Dad told her to stop making things up. He said he barely knew Claire.
The boy did not understand what had happened to his mother until he saw the film two weeks later. On a hot day a boy his age saw his parents die. They had been having a picnic when they were attacked. The last time he saw his parents they were on the ground and screaming, two unrecognisable lumps whose hands and faces were being swallowed by black waves.
At the start of the school holidays the weather got hot. He was able to stay home most of the time. On both of the days he had to go out with the woman it was raining. The rest of the time he stayed in and read, which made the woman very happy. When he ran out of books, he read the same ones again.
One evening she told him they were going to buy him some new trainers next day. “The forecast is very nice for tomorrow. It’ll be good to get you outside, you’re looking a bit pale.”
He didn’t argue. Next morning, after breakfast, he began drawing a picture. First he drew rain, because they didn’t like it, but then he realised snow would be better. He drew himself and his father standing on a white hill while snowballs dropped from the sky. Then she called to him.
“We’re leaving in twenty minutes. Okay?”
“Okay.” But he was only pretending. He wasn’t going out. He had to stay in the shade and the cool with all the windows closed, the front door shut, the back as well, the whole house sealed tight as a lunch box.
He drew a hat for his father because he had less hair. He gave him a scarf.
He drew a snowman and then some other children jumping with happiness because in winter they and their parents were safe.
She entered his room. “Can you get your shoes on? It’s time to stop drawing.”
He tried to ignore her, but she wasn’t going away. So he reminded her that he was almost nine. That he had been left on his own before. There was nothing wrong with his trainers, the holes in them were small. If another pair had to be bought he did not need to be present. He told her he’d be good, he promised, he said he’d tidy his room, he said pleease, pleeease, can I stay? Someone who loved him would have said yes. But someone who loved him wouldn’t have gone away for so long. When she said, “Put on your shoes,” he wasn’t surprised.
The boy watched the woman walk through the kitchen, open the door to the garage. He was going to have to risk death just for a pair of shoes. The new shoes would help him run faster, but not enough. When they got him they’d make his skin bubble like cheese in the microwave until it wasn’t his skin anymore.
But he wasn’t stupid. Although he had put on his shoes, he stayed inside and watched the woman get back into the car, settle herself, glance at the house, and still he did not move from the window. He ignored her beckoning. He fixed his gaze on a sky in which clouds refused to return.
Only when she sounded the horn did he take a deep breath, open the door, then pull it closed behind him as he hurled himself onto the porch. His front foot pushed him forward as soon as he landed; his next step crunched onto gravel. The third took him to the car. It was a remarkable performance in the triple jump for someone who’d spent the last fortnight indoors. But there was no time for medals, the next event had begun. It was the final of the Junior Car Door Yank. He tugged on the handle while stepping away, eyes flicking to the sky, heart hurting his chest, he had to get inside now, now, but the door was stuck. He could only keep pulling the handle even though it hadn’t worked three times.
With awful, sadistic slowness she stretched to unlock the door.
“Alright,’ she said. ‘Get in.”
Once the door closed he relaxed a little. Although the car wasn’t completely safe, it offered some protection. The shops weren’t far away. If they were lucky, they’d make it there and back in an hour.
As they went down the hill the boy saw people in their gardens sitting on deck chairs, lying on towels, making themselves a target. Even if he tried to warn them, it would do no good. No one listened to kids.
He stared at the back of the woman’s neck. The skin was pale and smooth. There was no trace of her transformation. Her blisters had healed.
He heard a smug, electric whirr, then air attacked him from both sides.
“That’s better,” she said as the hot breeze slapped his face. She was selfish, she was stupid, he hated her. It was like she wanted him to be changed. He said, “Please can you close the windows?”
And she laughed. She laughed! His death was funny to her.
“Please,” he begged, and she sighed. The window next to him slid up, but not the one on the other side, nor the ones in front. This was useless, no protection. This was an invitation.
“No, close them all,” he said.
“Don’t be silly. It’s so hot!”
But he was not silly, he was leaning to the other side of the car to at least raise that window. When he pressed the button the window went up, it shut, which changed nothing: there was no such thing as half-safe. At least he had shown her she couldn’t always have her own way.
“Are you going to be difficult?” she asked and he said “No,” because this woman could get very angry. She loved shouting at his Dad.
As they approached the main road the car slowed, then stopped. She looked left and right and nothing was coming but still the car stayed there like a carton of strawberries left outside.
She pulled out smoothly, picked up speed, passed through two green lights. At this rate they’d be at the shops in ten minutes.
Except they were stopping, stopped. There were ten cars ahead of them. All those hot engines and open windows were like a column of picnic tables.
And so he was not surprised when the first of them appeared. First as a sound on the edge of hearing, then as a blur that moved and yet was still while it assessed him. And if there was one, there were many, out of sight, beyond hearing, but ready to appear. Their black cloud would press him down the way they’d smothered those parents who’d only wanted to have a nice picnic. They had been stung on the hands, the arms, the legs, the face until the pain and the weight of their attackers forced them to the ground. Their sacrifice meant their son could escape but all the boy in the car could do as it came closer was keep extremely still. He mustn’t move because living things moved and living things were their favourite.
He felt the air move before he saw the rolled up magazine in her hand. “Got it,” she said. He didn’t understand why she’d saved him. Perhaps one of them wasn’t enough to change him.
A car horn sounded, then another. And horns were what they followed. They could hear such noises from far out to sea. Then the woman sighed so long it was like she was being emptied of breath. “Mum,” he said, and of course she didn’t answer. That was not her name.
The cars in front began to move. There was motion, breeze.
They passed the library.
They passed a school.
They were flying, unstoppable.
In the car park it was cool and dark, not like winter, but almost as safe as the room the boy had hidden in that was a big fridge. He had never seen one of those rooms in real life; perhaps they only had them in America.
“Come on,” she said and got out. She shut her door, and the sound was a slam, but this woman didn’t care about rules. She didn’t care about anything except herself.
She took his hand and as she led him up the ramp, into the light, he closed his eyes so that he could stay in the dark. He took three, four steps in darkness and safety and then the heat opened his eyes. He was on a concrete bridge that offered him to the sky like the Aztecs had done with their sacrifices. He shut his eyes again. He didn’t want any warning, he wanted it to be over quickly. They would strike like burning rain.
“What’s wrong with you today? Are you poorly?”
He shook his head. It was pointless talking to adults. They pretended to listen and then did what they wanted.
Inside the shop the air was so wonderfully cold like it was a fridge for clothes. They followed a path between racks of clothes waiting for new bodies. A shirt embraced a headless torso; underwear covered a groin. He wasn’t the only prisoner. A girl with pigtails was shaking her head and saying I wanna go home, but very quietly, as if she was scared to be heard.
When they got to the children’s section she asked him which shoes he liked. He pretended to think, then pointed at a black pair with a velcro seal.
“The same ones? Are you sure?” she said and he nodded.
“Alright, but I think you should try the next size up. You’re growing so fast.”
He pushed his feet in the bigger pair, but they didn’t feel any different. Yet he knew what to say.
“These are more comfortable,” he said and it was the right answer.
She paid and then they were heading for the door, the bridge, the vast outside, but at least they were going home. The woman walked quickly and didn’t speak. He couldn’t tell if she was angry or tired or hungry or also wanted new shoes. She was a mystery to him. No wonder his father had yelled, “I don’t know what you want anymore.”
Crossing the bridge in the heat and glare something screamed above. He flinched, but it wasn’t them. He’d never go on a plane.
In the car she said, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” and he said No.
They drove in circles, down and down the ramp. At the bottom she forced the ticket into the machine and the barrier lifted. The car park and shops were left behind. The car windows stayed closed. Soon he’d be home.
They passed the church where birthday parties happened. They passed the park with bad swings. Then they turned right, started going uphill. This was not the way home. She’d lied to him again. She was taking him to the farm that had eggs and raspberries and an old goat named Cliff. The farm was surrounded by fields and trees and hedges. Nowhere was more dangerous, it must be their secret base. They had so many places to hide. Logs and holes and hollow trees, skulls of pigs and cows. As soon as he got out the car they would appear.
After she’d parked she said, “Do you want to come out? Maybe we’ll see the goat.”
He shook his head.
“Sure? Alright. I won’t be long. Open the window if you get hot.”
She got out. She left him. She didn’t even look back.
He was alone for a few moment before he realised her door hadn’t shut properly. She had left it that way for them. He scrambled into the front seat, closed it hard. Then he checked the windows. The one on the left was definitely shut, but he wasn’t sure about the right one. He couldn’t feel a draught, there wasn’t a crack, but even the slightest opening would let them swarm in.
The sun kept coating his arms and face with a heat that lay so thick he wanted to close his eyes, curl up. It was like another fever. He wanted to feel a breath of air but that was impossible. The doors must not be opened, the windows had to stay shut, he had to remain in the metal coffin even though he was being baked. But he was still breathing, and so there was air, which had to come from outside. And if it could enter, so could they.
He checked the dashboard and found that one of the vents was open. He snapped it closed so hard the switch came off. But he was too late. The trees were moving. Something was shaking them. They were coming, they were close. They had only been waiting, with perfect manners, for all their kind to assemble before beginning the feast. They had been patient all summer. They knew that eventually she’d deliver him as surely as if she’d seated him at a picnic table on which peaches and bottles of fizzy orange called to them like beacons.
He got down behind the front seat and tried to make himself small even though he’d always look big to them. When she came back – if she came back – she’d be glad to see their darkness twisting inside the car. Once he was gone, once he was changed, she’d be able to leave for good. She’d go so far, much further than Norfolk. Like them, she’d soar above trees and buildings, over mountains, across oceans, always flying, always restless, only loyal to the sun.
Nick Holdstock is the author of The Casualties, a novel, and The False River, a short story collection. He has written three books about China, including Chasing the Chinese Dream: Stories from Modern China and China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State. His work has appeared in The Guardian, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.