School was strange when I first went back. I'd spent months outside the system, first in the asylum, then in the mansion with Dervish. It took me a while to find my feet. For the first couple of terms I didn't really speak to anybody except Bill-E and the school counsellor, Mr. Mauch, better known as Misery Mauch because of his long face. I'd always been popular at my old school, lots of friends, active in several sports teams, Mr. Cool.
All that changed at Carcery Vale. I was shy, unsure of myself, reluctant to get involved in conversations or commit to after-school events. On top of the hell I'd been through, there was Dervish to consider. He needed me at home. I became an anonymous kid, one who spent a lot of time by himself or with a similarly awkward friend (step forward Bill-E Spleen).
Things are different now. I've come out of my shell a bit. I'm more like the old me, not quiet in class or afraid to speak to other kids. I've always been bigger than most people my age. In the old days I was a show off and used my bulk to command respect. At the Vale I kept my head bent, shoulders hunched, trying to suck my frame in to make myself seem smaller.
Not any more. I'm no longer Mr. Flash, but I'm not hiding now. I don't feel that I have to.
I've made new friends. Charlie Rail, Robbie McCarthy, Mary Hayes. And Loch Gossel. Loch's big, not as massive as me, but closer to my size than anybody else. He wrestles a lot-real wrestling, not the showbiz stuff you see on TV. He's been trying to get me to join his team since I started school. I resisted for a long time, but now I'm thinking of giving it a go.
Loch also has a younger sister, Reni. She's pretty cute, even if she does have a nose that would put Gonzo to shame! I stare at her a lot and sometimes she makes eyes back. I think she'd go out with me if I asked. I haven't. Not yet. But soon... maybe... if I can work up the nerve.
The end of a typical school day. Yawning through classes, desperate for lunch-time so I could hang out with my friends and chat about movies, music, TV, computer games, whatever. Bill-E joined us for some of it. I don't spend as much time with Bill-E as I used to. He doesn't fit in with my new friends-they think he's geekish. They don't slag him off when I'm around, but I know they do when I'm not. I feel bad about that and try to help Bill-E relax so they can see his real side. But he gets nervous around the others, acts differently, becomes the butt of their jokes.
Thinking about Bill-E as I walk home. I don't want us to stop being friends. He's my brother and he was really good to me when I first moved here. But it's difficult because I don't want to lose my new friends either. Guess I'll just have to work harder to make him feel like part of the group. Try and be like one of those TV kids who always solve their problems by the end of each show.
Dervish is sitting on the stairs when I let myself in. I'm dripping wet-it's been pouring for the last couple of hours. Normally, when the weather's bad, he picks me up on his motorbike. When there was no sign of him today, I figured his mood hadn't improved since breakfast. I was right. He's as blank as he was this morning, staring off into space, not registering me until I'm right in front of him.
"Dervish! Hey, Derveeshio! Earth to Dervish! Are you reading me, captain?"
He blinks, frowns as if he doesn't know who I am, then smiles. "Grubbs. You're alive. I thought..." His expression clears. "Sorry. I was miles away."
I sit beside him. "Bad day?"
"Can't remember," he replies. "Why are you home early?" I hold up my watch and tap it. Dervish reads the time and sighs. "I'm losing it, Grubbs."
My insides tighten, but I don't let Dervish see my fear. "Losing what-your sanity? You can't lose what you never had."
"My grip." Dervish looks down at his feet, bare and dirty.
"I wasn't like this before. I wasn't this distracted and empty. Was I?" He looks at me pleadingly.
"You've been through hell, Derv," I tell him quietly. "You can't expect to recover without a few hiccups."
"I know. But I wasn't this way, right? Some days I can't remember. I feel like it's always been like this."
"No," I say firmly. "It's just a phase. It'll pass."
"All things must pass," Dervish mutters. Then he looks at me sideways, his cool blue eyes coming into focus. "Why are you wet?"
"Took a bath. Forgot to strip." I rap his forehead with my knuckles, then point to the windows and the rain battering the panes. "Numbnuts."
"Oh," Dervish says. "I should have picked you up."
"No worries." I rise and stretch, dripping steadily. "I'm going up to shower and change into dry clothes. I'll stick this lot in to wash. Anything you want me to add?" I did all the jobs around the house when Dervish was a vegetable. Hard to break the habit.
"No, I don't think so. I..." Dervish stares at his left hand. There's a black mark on it, a small 'd'. "There was something I meant to tell you. What...?" He clicks his fingers. "I had a phone call, a follow-up to some e-mails I've been getting recently. Ever heard of someone called Davida Haym?"
"No, can't say..." I pause. "Hold on. Not David A. Haym, the movie producer?"
"I thought that was a guy."
"Nope. She uses David A. on her movies, but it's Davida. You know about her?"
"Sure. She makes horror movies. Zombie Zest. Witches Weird. Night Mayors-that's, like, Nightmares, only two words. It's about evil mayors who band together to set up a meat production plant, except the meat they process is human flesh."
"Win many Oscars?" Dervish asks.
"Swept the board," I chuckle. "I can't believe she's a woman. I always thought... But what about her? I didn't think you were into horror flicks."
"She phoned me earlier."
I do a double-take. "David A. Haym called you?"
"Davida Haym. Yes." Dervish squints at me. "Have I grown a second head?"
"Hell, it's David A. Haym, Dervish! That's like saying Steven Spielberg was on the line, or George Lucas. OK, not as big as those, but still..."
"I didn't know she was famous," Dervish says. "She told me the names of some of her movies, but I don't watch a lot of films. She made it sound like she was a cult director."
"She is. She doesn't make films with big-name stars. But her movies are great! Anyone who loves horror knows about David A. Haym. Though I'm not sure many know she's a woman."
"That's a big sticking point for you, isn't it?" Dervish grins. "You're not turning into a chauvinist, are you?"
"No, I just..." I shake my head. Water flies from my ginger hair and splatters the wall. "What did she want?"
"She's making a new movie. Asked if she could meet me. She'd heard I know a lot about the occult. Wants to pick my brain." He tweaks his chin, forgetting the beard isn't there. "I hope she didn't mean that literally."
"Did you say yes?" I ask, excited.
"Said I'd think about it."
"Dervish! You've got to! It's David A. Haym! Did she say she'd come here? Can I meet her? Do you think-"
"Easy, tiger," Dervish laughs. "We didn't discuss where we'd meet. But you think I should agree to it?"
"Then meet we shall," Dervish says, getting to his feet and heading up to his office. "Anything to please Master Grady."
I tramp up the stairs after him, pulling off my clothes, thinking about how cool it would be if I could meet David A. Haym... and also how weird it is that one of the world's premier horror producers is a woman.
"David A. Haym's a woman? No bloody way!" Loch howls.
"You're having us on!" Robbie challenges me.
"How stupid do you think we are?" Charlie huffs.
"Of course she's a woman," Mary says. We gawp at her. "You didn't know?"
"No," Loch says. "You did?"
Mary shrugs. "I dunno. Years."
"And you never told us?" Robbie barks.
"It never came up," Mary laughs. "I've no interest in horror movies. I always tune out when you guys start on that rubbish."
"Then how did you know she's a woman?" I ask.
"There was a feature on her in a magazine my mum reads," Mary explains. "I think the headline was, 'The horror producer chick who beats the boys at their own game'."
They're nearly as excited as I am. Most of my friends don't know what to make of Dervish. In a way he's cool, the adult who rides a motorbike, dresses in denim, lets me do pretty much what I like. On the other hand he sometimes comes across as a complete nutter. Plus they know he was a veg for more than a year.
But now that he's in talks with the slickest, sickest producer of recent horror movies, his cred rises like a helium balloon. They want to know how she knows about him, when she's coming, what the new movie's about. I act mysterious and secretive, giving nothing away, but dropping hints that I'm fully clued-in. In truth, I know no more than they do. Dervish wasn't able to get through to her last night. He left a message and was waiting for her to phone back when I left this morning.
"Did she call?"
I groan, wishing Dervish wasn't a complete airhead. "David A. Haym, of course! Did she-"
"Oh, yeah, she rang."
"And?" I practically shriek, as Dervish focuses on getting dinner ready.
"She'll drop by within the next week."
"Here?" I gasp. "Carcery Vale?"
"No," he smirks. "Here-this house. I told her she could stay the night if she wanted, though I don't know if-"
"David A. Haym's going to stay in our house?" I shout.
"Davida," Dervish corrects me.
"Dervish... the terrible things I've said about you... the awful names I've called you... I take them all back!"
"Thanks," Dervish laughs. Stops and frowns. "What awful names?"
Everyone wants David A. Haym's autograph. They want to meet her, have dinner with us, maybe snag a part in her next movie. Loch auditions for me several times a day, moaning and screaming, pretending bits of his body have been chopped off, quoting lines from Zombie Zest and Night Mayors-"We elected a devil!" "That's not my hand on your knee!" "Mustard or mayo with your brains?" Draws curious stares from teachers and kids who haven't heard the big news.
Bill-E talks up script ideas. Reckons he can pitch to her and become the brains behind her next five movies. "Writers are getting younger all the time," he insists. "Producers want fresh talent, original ideas, guys who can think outside the box."
"You're about as far outside the box as they come," Loch laughs.
"I wouldn't have to write the whole script myself," Bill-E says, ignoring the jibe. "I could collaborate. I'm a team player."
"Yeah," Loch snorts. "Trouble is, you're a substitute!"
I let them scheme and dream. Smile smugly, as if they're just crazy, dreamy kids. Of course, I'm as full of wild notions as they are-I just prefer to play it cool.
Days pass-no sign of Davida Haym. The weekend comes and goes. I bug Dervish constantly, asking if there's been any further contact. Sometimes he pretends he doesn't know what I'm talking about, just to wind me up.
By Tuesday I'm starting to wonder if it's a gag, if Dervish never spoke to David A. Haym at all. It would be a weird, unfunny joke-but Dervish is into weird and unfunny. I'll look a right dope in school if she never shows. I'll have to invent a story, pretend she was called away on an emergency.
Thinking about excuses I could use as I'm walking home. Nothing too simple, like a sick relative or having to pick up an award. Needs to be more dramatic. Her house burnt to the ground? She caught bubonic plague and had to go into isolation?
Warming to the plague theory-can people still get it these days? - when a car pulls up beside me. A window rolls down. A thin, black-haired woman leans across. "Excuse me," she says. "Do you know where Dervish Grady lives?"
"Yeah." I bend down, excitement building. "I'm his nephew, Grubitsch. I mean, Grubbs. Grubbs Grady. That's me." Can't remember the last time I called myself Grubitsch. What a dork!
"Grubbs," the woman says, nodding shortly. "Yes. I know about you."
"You do?" Unable to hide my delight. "Dervish told you about me? Wow, that's great! Uh, I mean, yeah, cool. I know about you too, of course."
"Really?" She sounds surprised.
"Sure. I've been waiting all week for you."
"You knew I was coming?" Sharp this time.
"Yeah. Dervish told me."
She taps the steering wheel with her fingernails. They're cut short, down to the flesh. "Well, may I give you a lift home, Grubbs? That way you can direct me as we go."
"Sure!" I open the door and slide in. Put my seat belt on. Smile wide at David A. - I mean, Davida Haym. She smiles back thinly. A narrow, pale face. Moody, if not downright gloomy. Exactly the way I expected a horror producer to look. "Just go straight," I tell her. "The road runs by our house. You can't miss it-only mansion in the neighbourhood."
Silence. Davida is focused on the road. I'm trying to think of something to say that's casual and witty. But my mind's a blank. So I check her out. Thin all over, a long neck, bony hands, straight black hair, dark eyes. Dull white shirt and skirt. Flat, plain shoes. No jewellery, except one ring on her left hand with a large gold "L" in the middle of a circle of flat silver.
"How have you been, Grubbs?" she asks suddenly.
"I know something of your past. What happened last year with Billy Spleen."
"What do you know about me and Bill-E?" I ask suspiciously, guard rising.
"I know about the lycanthropy. How you fought it."
"Dervish told you that?" I cry, astonished.
"How has Billy been? Any recurrences of his old patterns?"
"Of course not! We cured him! He's normal now!"
"And you?" she says quietly, and her eyes flick across, cold and calculating.
"Who the hell are you?" I ask, a tremble in my voice.
"Who do you think I am?" she replies.
"I thought you were David A. Haym. But you're not... are you?"
In answer she raises a finger and points. "That must be the mansion."
She pulls into our drive. I have a bad feeling in my gut, not sure who this woman is or how she knows about Bill-E. She kills the engine and looks at me calmly. Her eyes are really dark. A robotlike expression. No make-up. Thin lips, almost invisible. A small nose with a wartish mole on the right nostril.
"Shall we go in together, or do you want to go on ahead and tell your uncle I'm here?" she asks.
"That depends. What's your name?" She only smiles in reply. She looks more normal when she smiles, like a teacher-stern, but human. I relax slightly. "You can come with me," I decide, not wanting to leave her here in case she's an old friend of Dervish's and I appear rude.
"Thank you," she says and gets out of the car. She's smoothing her skirt down and studying the mansion when I step out. "Nice place," she comments, then raises a thin eyebrow, the signal for me to lead the way. I start ahead of her, whistling, not letting her see that I'm unnerved, acting like she's an ordinary visitor. In through the oversized front doors. The juicy smell of sizzling steak drifts from the kitchen.
"Goodness," the woman says, looking at the high ceilings, the size of the rooms, the weapons on the walls, the staircase.
"This way," I tell her, heading for the kitchen. "You're just in time for dinner."
She follows slowly, absorbing the surroundings. Obviously hasn't been here before. I keep trying to put a name to her face, thinking of all the people Dervish has mentioned in the past.
I reach the kitchen. Dervish is hard at work on the steak. "No!" he shouts before I say anything. "She hasn't rung and there's been no sign of her. Now stop pestering me or I might-"
"We have company," I interrupt.
Dervish turns questioningly. The woman enters the kitchen. I step aside so he can see her. Instant recognition. His face goes white, then red. He steps away from the hob, abandoning the steak. Eyes tight. Lips quivering. With anger.
"You!" He spits the word out.
"It's been a long time, Dervish," the woman says softly, not moving forward to shake his hand. "You look better than I expected."
"I thought she was David A. Haym," I tell him.
"She's not," he barks. "She's Prae Athim."
"Pray at him?" I echo.
"Pray Ah-teem," the woman says, stressing the syllables.
"She's one of the Lambs," Dervish says with a sneer.
And the fear which was tickling away at me in the car kicks in solid, like a nail being hammered into my gut.