Thursday, 18 September 2014

Jack Beyond the World- First Five Chapters

Chapter 1- It’s Time
It was the date Bruno had said in his letter, the nineteenth of April. Jack had been waiting, with a complete trust that this was the day he needed to go to Team Teen. He stepped out onto the busy mid-morning Drail streets where as usual everyone was focused on getting from A to B, or were urgently using their phones. Yet his shoulders tensed as he worked his way through the crowds, a growing feeling in the pit of his stomach that what he was about to do was an extremely bad plan. Jack walked to the regional headquarters of Team Teen hiding in the shadows of the grey, gloomy day. At each corner he checked behind, scanning for the figure that had been lurking at the edge of his vision for the past few weeks, following him. 
As far as he knew it wasn’t a crime to watch the meetings, not yet anyway, but when he arrived his heart began to palpitate and he felt distinctly sick. He wanted to go home. Before Team Teen had started he’d walked past the ramshackle square building every day without giving it a second thought, except for noticing that it was tightly nestled between two towering bronze metallic high rises. Then last year it became the headquarters for the new children’s initiative and consequently bars were fixed at the windows, weeds pulled from the cracks in the uneven paving out the front and the whole place given a lick of gold paint. Flashing in mid-air outside, bold gold letters informed of upcoming events.
“Watch-your-parents Day, Wednesday 22nd!”
Followed by several holographic images of children listening in at bedroom and living room doors. The holograms faded, replaced by the little boy that Jack seemed to see everywhere now, the creepy cartoon little boy with the rosy cheeks, cheeky smile and army hat. The Team Teen slogan shimmered gold.
“Instilling Values, Ensuring Futures!”
Jack tip toed reluctantly towards the building. He had to do what Bruno said. Staying close to the metallic wall of the high rise to his left, he ignored his glowing reflection. He darted across to the Team Teen window, crouched under the ledge, leaning up against the gold, flaky paint. As he attempted to slow his breathing, he stared at the bush in front of him with the yellow shiny plastic flowers that was hiding him from the street. Straining to hear over the traffic and the drilling of road works, he felt like one of the holograms, listening in.  
“You’re efforts are truly beginning to show,” he could just about hear a man saying. “Well done to the security committee for the campaign this week, raising awareness of the need for metal detectors at school entrances!”
A short burst of applause followed, ending abruptly. Jack judged by how loud it was that there were a lot of people inside.   
The clapping stopped and the man began to speak again but Jack didn’t hear what he said because at the same moment his backpack, which was wedged between his back and the wall, began to shudder.
“Seriously, now?” he pulled the shuddering bag round to his front and opened it.
Inside the flute thing was shaking much more violently than it had before. He took it firmly out and held it with both hands, trying to get it under control as it shook manically. Pulling him every which way, soon Jack was grappling with it on the floor.
“Stop it,” he said through gritted teeth. 
To his relief, the flute abruptly lay still, as if obeying the command. He’d gone against his better instincts by bringing it with him. After finding it last week, he’d looked up the penalty for possession of a musical instrument under the amended Drail law. Six months in a juvenile maturity centre and almost complete isolation from his family. As he admired the flawless shiny silver casting fragments of light like a halo around it, all anger melted from him. It was so beautiful that for a moment he forgot everything.   
“Chill out, OK?” he said.
The flute didn’t move. Jack put it back in his bag as it shimmered up at him. He hugged the backpack to his chest and counted to three, breathing deeply. When he got to one he turned around and sat up on his knees. Through the metal bars he could clearly see the hall full of kids, facing away from him in rows towards the stage.
The man speaking was skinny, with the look of someone who was in need of a good night’s sleep. He was wearing an oversized suit jacket, a blue spotted tie and faded jeans.  
“…To the recreation committee for developing the interactive classroom baseball app!”  he said, as the crowd erupted into another short, sharp applause.
From what Jack could tell, the children’s ages spanned the whole of secondary school. With a jolt he spotted his old friends Eric and Bill, near the front. He didn’t even know they’d joined, but now it made perfect sense. The way they’d distanced themselves from him was exactly what had happened with Fay. 
“And last but not least,” the man peered over the top of his glasses at his phone. “A huge thank you to the management team for your continued commitment to recruitment!”
The crowd applauded again, this time louder and for longer. The man stepped down from the stage and beckoned to someone that Jack couldn’t see to come up and take his place, before leaving through a door to the right.
It wasn’t until she was standing up there with a proud grin on her face and waving at the crowd of onlookers, that Jack finally knew how deep Fay was in it.
She’d been taking more and more care over her appearance in the past few months, but now, Jack hardly recognised his sister. Sandy hair that used to be unruly like his, was now sleek and straight. Her eyes were dark with make-up and her lips deep red. And as if all that wasn’t enough, she was wearing a mini skirt and high heels.
So this was what Bruno had wanted him to see. 
The clapping stopped all at once, without a single straggler.  
“Thank you, thank you!” Fay spoke in a fake, butter-wouldn’t-melt voice, whilst curtsying. “It’s a huge honour to be the spokesperson for the committee. I owe a big thanks to my team- to Shane, Seeta, Jermaine and the rest, who’ve been working so hard on the recruitment drive. And may I say, on behalf of all of us, that we couldn’t have done it without you.” Palm up, she swept her arm out across the audience. “We’ve noticed your enthusiasm; we’ve seen your persistence. There were countless people handing out application forms at school this week, encouraging, convincing, watching. And I’m pleased to announce we’ve recruited fifty eight new members this week-“
An impressed “ooooh!” went through the crowd.
“—which is twenty more than last week. You are all vital to Team Teen and its future, and I thank you for your loyalty. Well done everyone!”
Another clap followed, this one the loudest of all. When it stopped, Fay’s expression soured.
“But it’s not enough,” she pointed her finger. “It’s not enough for success, not enough to transform the face of young people in our city. We need results and we need them now.” She banged her right fist into her left hand. “We need the cooperation of every last one of you, we need one hundred percent loyalty.”
A murmur went through the crowd.
Fay smiled, her voice returning to butter-wouldn’t-melt. “Which is why we will be conducting a sweep of our area. Door to door spot checks and encouraged recruitment. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. Thank you.”
Everyone clapped again, although this time it didn’t seem as loud. Fay curtsied a final time before leaving the stage, taking the steps slowly and carefully in her heels.  
“It really is quite a club,” a soft voice spoke behind Jack.
Jack turned sharply, his heart leaping into his mouth as he found the man in the oversized blazer and spotted tie crouched right there. They were so close that Jack could see every last line on the man’s face and the deep shadows under his hazel eyes.
A small, breathless “uh” escaped Jack’s mouth.
“Apologies for startling you,” the man stood up to the side of window, holding his back and groaning slightly as he did so. “I’m Alfred East,” he held out his hand.
Jack stood up too, backing away to the other side of the window. “I should get going.”
“Are you thinking of joining?” Alfred said.
“Well… I don’t know…maybe,” Jack took another step away. He wanted to run but his legs felt like jelly.
“You’ll have to join eventually, sweep or no sweep,” Alfred took a handkerchief out of his pocket, removed his glasses and wiped his brow. “Funny I should find you peeking in at the window, when I came outside for the exact purpose of seeking out spies.”
“I’m not a spy,” Jack said quickly, shoving his sweaty hands in his pockets.
“Indeed,” Alfred put his glasses back on. “Looking in at a window generally falls under the category of spying, but no matter.”
“I was checking on my sister.”
“Your sister?”
“Mum said to come and check where Fay was because-”
“Fay!” Alfred East studied Jack’s face. “Of course. How could I be so… You have the same blue eyes, the same sandy hair. And I have to say you share that same troublesome cheeky look.”
“OK,” Jack managed.
“The great Fay March’s little brother,” Alfred said with a small smile. “She’s climbed the ladder ever so quickly. Really helped this thing move along. Oh, there won’t be any getting out of it for you.”
“I should be getting home,” Jack said, panic rising in his chest.
“That’s not a good idea,” Alfred took a large stride towards Jack, clenching a fist around his forearm before Jack had time to react. Jack squirmed with terror, but the skinny man was stronger than he looked.
You’re first on the list, you know,” Alfred hissed.
“Let me go!” Jack struggled.
Alfred seized the other arm, holding Jack close so that their noses were almost touching and Jack could smell ginger on his breath.
“You should go.”
“Let go!” Jack said again, trying to break free.
Alfred’s eyes drilled right into him. “Go to the forest.”
Jack stopped struggling. “What?” he said, confused.
“The forest is safe,” Alfred whispered.  
This was madness. Throughout his twelve years of life Jack had been told that the forest was the most dangerous place in Drail. And now two people had told him the complete opposite. One person that he trusted, one that he didn’t.
“I’m not an idiot,” he muttered. “Everyone knows you get ripped to pieces. Let me go!”
Alfred’s grip didn’t let up. He began marching Jack towards the side door of the Team Teen building. “Come inside.”
Jack lost all sense of normality, as panic and fear overwhelmed him. He wriggled and scratched, trying to kick and bite as he was dragged closer and closer to the door. Was he going to be interrogated at one of the government’s new information chambers? He didn’t know exactly what they were, but he knew he didn’t want to go. He wished so badly that he hadn’t come.  
Then a door around the other side of the building slammed loudly and Alfred jumped out of his skin, releasing his hold on Jack’s arms. Alfred’s scared eyes darted left to right. He bolted for the door, opened it and went inside.   
Right before the door closed behind him, he turned back and said, “It’s time to wake up.”  
Without a moment’s hesitation, Jack ran.
It wasn’t until he was two streets away from Team Teen that he allowed himself to stop. Gasping, he leant against the wall of a house and bent over, hands on his knees.
What had happened was all a blur. He smiled, hardly believing that he was free. A moment later the situation crashed down on him and the smile turned to a frown. Alfred East knew who he was, and they were coming for him.
Why had Alfred told him to go to the forest? It made sense that a leader of Team Teen would be happy to send him into the place where children were ripped limb from limb. But why would Bruno want that? It made no sense that they would give the same advice. And on top of that, he’d also used the words that Bruno had ended each and every one of his letters with. It’s time to wake up.
Filling the wall opposite, a news report leapt to life.
“Child dead,” the words flashed, with an image of the thick evergreen trees of the forest.  A deep drum beat ominously over and over. Then the image changed to a snarling beast, all teeth and claws.
“Twenty-ninth animal attack of 2015.”
With a final bang of the drum the picture disappeared, replaced by bold black capital letters.
Jack’s mind was so full of buzzing questions that he didn’t notice the familiar whirr of the tiny Drail CCTV camera until it had slid along the invisible wire above and lowered itself to his eye line, close enough to touch. Although he was used to the citizen checks of the cameras of Drail, an uneasiness swept over Jack as the lens squeaked into focus on him. Sure that guilt was written all over his face, he looked at the floor and walked briskly away. 
Three streets later he was home, waving his fingertips gratefully over the identity pad outside, the doors mechanism unlocking with a clunk. Jack heaved the door open and went in, closing it as quickly as he could. He leant his head against the door, momentarily safe.   
It was Sunday which meant his parents were at work. Jack used to love Sundays, when he and Fay would watch films and eat junk, or plot how they were going to make their parents quit their jobs. But since Fay had joined Team Teen six months ago she’d been busy on Sundays. She was like a different person and never wanted to hang out with him anymore, let alone help him rescue their parents. 
For once, however, Jack was grateful for the solitude. He went into the kitchen, dropping his backpack on the floor. He plonked himself down on a tall stool at the table, which was clear except for a vase of putrid smelling fake purple flowers and a neat stack of magazines. The adrenaline had faded and he felt zapped of energy. Now that he was calmer, his stomach growled angrily, reminding him that he had been too nervous to eat that morning. The board on the fridge was flashing green, signaling a new message. Jack pressed his fingertip to the pad, to which his Mum’s voice rang out.
“We’ll be back later than usual today, so feed yourselves. Do your homework! Mum.”
This hardly came as a surprise, as his Mum regularly had to stay late on Sundays to attend extra meetings.
Jack took the butter and jam out of the fridge and slathered it on some bread, missing Fay’s aptitude for cooking. The ticking of the clock filled the room as he ate. He rifled half-heartedly through the pile of papers in the vain hope of a decent magazine. He pulled one out- Quick Riches. A man’s face smirked out from the front cover, the caption reading “Jordan Sommers- how I got really rich, really fast!”
“Urgh,” Jack tossed the magazine back onto the pile.
Further down was one of Fay’s recent favourite magazines, Beautiful Celebrity. It wasn’t so long ago that they used to laugh at these stupid magazines together. He flicked to the contents page- How to get flawless skin. Say no to calorific temptation! Teentastic plastic surgery! He clapped it closed again, reaching out to replace it in the pile. As he did a piece of paper inside came loose, revealing the Team Teen logo.
He pulled the paper out and threw the magazine back down.
Sweep Priority, the title read. Then underneath- Recommendations Name. Written in the space in the wobbly writing he could never mistake, was his name, JACK MARCH.
Briefly explain your reasons, specifically why this recommendation would be an asset to the Team.
Well at least some of it was complementary, Jack thought grimly. He re-read Fay’s words until they bounced around in his head. “Drifting away…getting lost…wrong idea……intervention.”
Bruno had told him this would happen and that it would begin today. Jack hadn’t wanted to believe it. He’d gone to the meeting hoping to prove Bruno wrong, hoping that there was a chance Fay would come with him.   
But there was no denying now that Fay was part of the problem.
At that moment two things happened at the same time. The front door unlocked with a clunk and Jack’s backpack on the floor began shuddering.
Jack shoved the application form back in the pile and lurched down to grab his bag, clutching it as Fay click-clacked into the kitchen.
“Hi Jacky!” she said brightly, going over to the kettle and flicking the switch. “Tea?”
“Um, no thanks,” her old nickname for him jarred.
“What you been up to?” she smiled.
“Nothing,” Jack said sharply, holding the shaking bag as still as he could.
Fay held her hands up defensively, “Just trying to be nice.”
“I’m going upstairs,” Jack hurried out of the kitchen.
Safely in his bedroom he threw his backpack on the bed, where it instantly lay still.
“Perfect,” he said. “Cheers for that.”
He was angry. How could Fay pretend to be nice when she was planning to sweep him? Whatever that meant. What annoyed him the most was that she hadn’t even told him to his face.
He slid open the bottom drawer of his desk, reaching expectantly underneath his history text book, Drails Big Victory, 1981-1988.  His hand found nothing. Flustered, he heaved the text book out, dumped it on the floor and looked again. The letters were gone.
There was no way he could leave without Bruno’s instructions, without the clues. It was Fay, it had to be. Although how she’d known about them he had no idea.
He was running out of time. Tip-toeing across the hall, Jack stood outside Fay’s room, with the full knowledge that she would kill him if she found him in there. Even back when they were good friends Fay was private about her room, but now… He pushed the thought to the back of his head; he needed the letters.
Slowly, carefully, aiming for silence, he pushed Fay’s bedroom door open. Inside was neat and tidy, everything in its proper place. Perfectly made bed, shoe collection lined up neatly by the door, colour coded make-up filling the dressing table. The room smelt of lemon and flowers. The boy with the rosy cheeks looked down from the wall with his mocking smile.
Jack went to the desk, which used to be piled high with doodles and ideas for stories but was now clear except for three pens in a pot and a recruitment flyer for Team Teen. For want of a better plan he opened the bottom drawer, finding only school books. The letters were not there, nor were they in the middle or top drawers. He moved to the bed, pulling a cardboard box from underneath. He rifled as fast as he could through the teddies and old toys. A photo caught his eye, the two of them sitting on a wall, squinting in the sun and eating ice creams. For years it had lived on Fay’s window ledge. He shoved it back and slammed the lid on the box.
He was never going to find them.
“Looking for something?” Fay was standing in the doorway, waving Bruno’s letters.
“Give them back,” Jack said quietly. “You had no right.”
“And you’ve got no right to be in my room,” Fay retorted. “Anyway, chill out. I only borrowed them for a project.”
“What project?”                                                                                                                                 
“That’s dumb.”
“It’s history. History isn’t dumb, it’s who we are.”
Jack considered reminding Fay that she always hated history; that she used to complain the teacher smelt of old coffee and that the subject was irrelevant.
“Your friend Bruce has quite beautiful handwriting.”
“His name’s Bruno.” Jack got up. “Can I have them back please?”
“What’s so important about them?” Fay’s heavily made-up eyes narrowed.
A car pulled up right outside the house and Jack heard the doors opening and shutting.
Fay pressed her fingertip to the pad to the left of the window, the metal blinds turning smoothly upwards into slats, revealing the street.
“He’s here,” she said, smiling. “Come and meet my friend, Jacky.”
Jack could see a white-silver car with blacked out windows parked in his Dad’s spot. The man walking towards the house was instantly recognisable in his oversized jacket and spotted tie.
The doorbell buzzed loudly and a voice came out of the intercom speaker in the corner of Fay’s room.
“Fay, it’s Alfred. It’s sweep time.”
“Here,” Fay held her arm out to Jack. “Take your precious letters.”
Jack grabbed them as Fay spun on her heel and left the room, click-clacking down the stairs.
This was it, Jack thought. Alfred had come for him and he was going to be part of the sweep and recruited into Team Teen, or worse. He felt sick. It was time to make a choice, to either go downstairs and face the consequences or follow Bruno’s advice. The problem was that following Bruno’s advice meant following Alfred’s too. The forest is safe. Who was telling the truth?
Clutching the letters, Jack went back to his room. His backpack was shaking again and had consequently worked its way across the bed, now teetering on the edge.
“Easy there,” Jack pulled it back.
Thankfully, he’d packed most of his stuff last weekend, just in case. Clothes, non-perishable food, his phone. He wouldn’t be calling anyone but at least the Trail Tech might help him figure out where to go. He reached up, taking his piggy bank off the shelf above the bed. The pig was wearing shirt and tie and had always reminded Jack of his Dad, only fatter and friendlier looking. He held the shiny pig that had lived up there for so long, slowly collecting money for no particular reason. Then with a swift motion he brought it down on the corner of his desk, the crash filling the room as it smashed into hundreds of pieces.
“Jack!” Fay called from downstairs. “What’re you doing? Come and meet my friend!”
“Be there in a minute!” Jack shouted back as coolly as possible, as he frantically scooped up the coins and notes that constituted his life savings. He put them into a small pocket inside his backpack, next to the flute thing that was shimmering bright, shaking. As he went to zip his bag up, the flute flung itself out, landing on the bed. Spindly string arms and legs shot out from the metal, bending and moving freely. Each had knots at the end, like tiny round hands and feet. The flute thing stood up straight, leaning forwards in a sort of bow.
Jack was so surprised that he laughed. Finding the beautiful, banned object on the street had been weird enough, but now it had sprouted arms and legs and was running around his room.
“This is crazy,” he whispered. 
The flute sprang from the bed over to the window sill, where it began clunking its head against the glass.
“Shhh!” Jack said urgently, succeeding only in making the flute clunk the window harder and faster.
“You’re gonna break the glass,” Jack went over and grabbed it away, to which the flute began to pummel his fingers with its knot fists, pointing frantically at the window.  
“Stop it!” Jack felt weird talking to it. “I get it. Let’s go.” 
He threw Bruno’s letters in his bag and zipped it up.
“Jacky!” Fay shouted again.
Jack put the flute back on the window sill. “Take it easy, would you?”
He opened the window, pushing it as far out as it would go. The flute sprang out and stood on the ledge outside. Jack went out slowly, one leg at a time. The flute jumped away and slid down the drainpipe to wait on the ground. Once he was out Jack closed the window as quietly as possible and began to shuffle along the ledge. He’d done this so many times before but it seemed like a million years ago since he used to sneak out to meet Bill and Eric after curfew to play football. That was way back before this had started, when he hadn’t known anything at all. Everything was different now and he had to get away before he became trapped. He had to find out the truth.

Chapter 2- Out and In
Jack clung to the bricks with his fingertips, his feet sideways and flat against the wall. Time seemed to slow down as he edged along the ledge, sure that at any moment Fay or Alfred would stick their heads out of his bedroom window. It was slow work, every second like an hour. Finally he reached out and clamped his arms around the drain pipe, beginning to shimmy down. As he went past the kitchen window he didn’t dare look in, painfully aware that he was in plain sight. Instead he concentrated on his movement, on pressing his feet against the drainpipe as he went steadily down. The flute whistled a clear, pretty note of encouragement from where it was waiting on the ground. When Jack was close enough he jumped down, his shoulders tightening as he thudded onto the concrete patio of the yard. Without looking at the kitchen window he unlocked the gate, the flute bounding straight out into the hustle and bustle of the street.
“Wait!” Jack called as loudly as he dared, “Someone’s gonna see you!”
He glanced nervously at the people walking past, sure that someone would notice, but everyone was either absorbed on their phones or staring straight ahead. The flute weaved undetected between their legs and off down the road. Jack followed, dodging in and out of the crowd, trying not to bump into people. It would only take one of them to look down and notice the flute... How had it happened that he was not only in possession of an illegal instrument, but it had now sprung to life and he was following it through the streets of Drail? It was totally surreal, not to mention dangerous. And if Fay and Alfred caught him now… He kept glancing back into the sea of anonymous faces, expecting to see them.
They passed Jack’s school, the tall iron gates padlocked for the weekend. After that the huge domed hypermarket, a stagnant queue of cars leading up to the entrance. High rise after high rise towered above, the metallic walls reflecting the dreary sky. Once they entered Freedom Park there was no doubt in Jack’s mind that they were heading east out of the city towards the forest. The park was almost empty, except for a couple of Bird Patrollers skulking near a pristine flower bed, necks craned as they inspected the tops of the identical trees. One of the men took his gun out of its holster and Jack’s heart skipped a beat. The man held the gun upwards and pulled the trigger. Jack ducked. The bang reverberated around the trees as a dead bird plummeted to the floor.  
On the other side of the park there were less people on the street, meaning that the flute was clearly visible to anyone who cared to look. Jack sprinted in an attempt to catch it, but the flute’s spindly legs only ran faster in response. Exasperated, Jack slowed to a walk.
“Run off, see if I care,” he clutched the cramp in his side.
The flute stopped a few metres ahead, beckoning him on with a stringy arm. A business woman came hurrying past, stopping exactly where the flute was. Jack looked on helplessly, sure the game was up but then the woman lifted her leg to inspect the sole of her stiletto shoe.
“Chewing gum,” she grumbled, rubbing her foot roughly against the curb before marching past Jack without giving him a second glance.
Jack and the flute walked on, the flute remaining a few steps ahead.
Were they really going to the forest? To the place where stupid children dared each other to go, the place where no one ever came out alive?
It’s safe, Jack told himself firmly. Bruno had reassured him repeatedly that it was all a con. On the other hand he couldn’t get the news reports out of his head. For as long as he could remember he’d watched the TV reports of the harrowing deaths and disappearances. And now he was about to enter it.
Was it too late to turn back? He was following an illegal flute towards a forest teeming with vicious monsters. Was that really a better option than Alfred and Team Teen?
The grey clouds in the sky were growing thicker, the air damp. Jack pulled his hood up and zipped his coat to the top, hoping it wouldn’t rain because if it did he would be nowhere near a safe place to hide from the burning acid.
A shrill siren filled the air, approaching fast from behind. Jack’s whole body tensed, but then the huge military jeep roared past, the siren going off key as it faded into the distance. Military jeeps were a recent addition to the police force, the machine gun clad officers often staying hidden behind the blacked out windows. Their purpose was for population protection, but Jack had never felt safe around them, least of all now.
Around the next corner Jack found himself at the T-junction where he’d first discovered the flute, shining enticingly up at him from the pavement. It was a Friday night and his Dad had been drinking as usual, watching the football in the living room. He’d gotten angry and shouted at Jack to get lost so Jack had gone for a long walk, even though it was after curfew. When he found the flute everything in him told him to leave it alone and yet somehow he couldn’t. He needed to touch it, to hold it and before he knew what he was doing he’d put it in his bag.
Jack crossed the road to where the Great Wall stretched out either way. He recalled from his studies that it was five metres tall and two metres thick, that it was there to keep them safe. But right now it looked pathetic. The yellowy-brown surface was crumbling, the looped barbed wire running along the top rusty. It didn’t even seem that tall.  
Jack soon found the football sized hole in the wall he’d seen last time. He peered through it expectantly, but saw a desolate grey landscape scattered with rocks and lifeless trees.
“That’s not right,” he said.
A black shape began moving in the shadows on the other side of the wall. More joined it, sleek, muscly bodies moving towards him. White teeth snarled in the gloom. They stopped all at once, raised their heads to the sky and howled, before rushing forwards as a pack.
Jack forcefully pushed himself away from the hole, slipping into the road. A car beeped as it swerved to avoid him.  
“Watch where you’re going!” the driver shouted angrily.
“Sorry,” Jack stumbled to the opposite side of the road, his heart thumping.
This was definitely the same hole, so where were the luscious green meadows and hills? He shuddered as he thought of those sharp teeth and drooling, hungry mouths.
The flute, a few steps to his right, sang a light note and pointed a knotted fist towards the hole in the wall. Jack went to the where the instrument was standing, watching the hole as he went. To his amazement the grey and black melted away to sun, grass and patterns of bright light dancing across water. Wanting to go closer he stepped into the road, but the beautiful scene vanished back to grey and black. It was only in the exact spot where the flute was standing that it looked this way, everywhere else it changed back to desolation.
“How is it doing that?” Jack puzzled.
He took Bruno’s letters out of his bag, quickly locating the one he wanted, the one he’d probably read the most times out of the thirteen. The blue handwritten swirly address on the front had become a comfort to Jack in the last few weeks, a reminder that he had a friend, somewhere out there. This letter was the first one that had made him realise that Bruno was someone special.   
Everything you think is inverted.
Colours on grey on colours.
Covers, over everything.
The hole in the wall exposed the lie being fed to the people of Drail.  
Each of Bruno’s thirteen letters contained a message to decipher. The codes were all different, some easy to crack, others seemingly impossible.
Jack put the letters back in his bag, thinking about Bruno. They’d met on holiday last year, thick as thieves from the beginning, playing cards, drinking milkshakes and attacking Fay with water guns around the pool. He’d had no idea that his friendship with Bruno was going to be the start of a whole new life. Part of him wished he could go back to being that innocent boy, the boy who hadn’t questioned his reality.
The flute whistled and bounced across the road, heading right.  Jack followed and together they walked next to the wall until it came to an abrupt end in an unceremonious heap of stones. It was replaced by closely packed emerald evergreen trees, tall and thin, each the same height and breadth as the next.
The forest.
Like in Freedom Park, the trees were perfect, not a leaf out of place. In stark contrast the fence that ran along the front was in major disrepair, white paint chipping off all over the place to reveal rotting wood. There was more rusty barbed wire curling along the top and a metal sign creaked from a branch.
Keep Out. Danger of Death, it read, a skull and crossbones underneath along with the number 29. 
The flute went through a gap in the fence, shimmering on the other side in the gloom of the forest. The gap was just about big enough for Jack. Pushing away the many doubts, he crouched and ducked low to avoid the barbed wire. Standing up on the other side, he was immediately enveloped by the close dinginess of the trees. Cars and people continued past, none noticing that he was about to enter the forest. A man walked by close enough for Jack to touch, but was preoccupied with holding his jacket hood up from the cold.   
Jack turned and went in.
One step at a time, he relied on the shimmer of the flute to guide his way. The regularly scheduled TV warnings kept flashing through his head. Ravaging beasts, child massacre, vicious monsters.
And yet his legs kept moving forwards. A quiet like he’d never known before descended around him, free from traffic, drilling road works and whining sirens. As he listened to the soft sound of his own footsteps, he felt like he was in another world.
Thick, twisting roots stuck out of the ground, making his progress slow. The green canopy was thick and unyielding, the forest void of almost any light. Jack remembered his phone, taking it out of his bag and clicking the Trail Tech app. No data, it said.
“Fat lot of good that was,” he put the torch on instead.
A strong beam fell on the flute, the bright silver reflection forcing Jack to cover his eyes. The flute did the same, holding its string arms up to the hole at the top of its body.
“Sorry,” Jack aimed his phone a little to the left.
It was only then that he saw the forest properly. The floor was a bed of a thousand tiny purple flowers, which reflected an oyster shell rainbow tint as he walked through them. Thin silver lines ran up the roots and trunks of each tree, luminous in the torchlight. A long line of electric blue ants marched along a root and away up the trunk of a tree.
“Wow,” Jack watched.
He’d only ever seen black ants before, in a swarm outside the house, right before his Mum poured boiling water on them.
He walked on. A few minutes later something on the ground caught his eye, drab amongst the vivid purple and silver. A dirty teddy bear with matted hair smiled up at him, one button eye missing. Jack picked it up, but as soon as he did, something cold and hard smacked him on the arm.
“Ouch!” he dropped the teddy.  
The flute was standing in front of him, tapping a stringy knot foot impatiently.  
“What was that about?” Jack said.
The flute turned and began to run across the springy flowers. Jack left the teddy leaning up against the trunk of a tree and went too. Only a few steps later, however, he found a small red jumper, dirty and ripped in half down the middle. A lump rose in his throat. The flute sang a note at him and waved his arms in big sweeping motions, as if to say no. They moved on, only to find a kid’s tattered trainer a little further on. The flute sang again, encouraging him to continue.
“It’s a trick,” Jack whispered, tearing his eyes away.
But what if it wasn’t?
He flashed his phone around, expecting something terrible lurking in the darkness. Speeding up, he went after the flute, hoping they would be out soon.   
A sharp, mechanical whistling broke the silence, getting quickly higher pitched and louder before ending with a dull thud on the ground.
Jack shone his phone around in the flowers, finding nothing. Seconds later it happened again, the whistle getting louder, then a thud. Whistles came more and more frequently after that and Jack started to run, as best he could. He tripped on a root, the soft flowers luckily cushioning his fall. Next to his nose was a bullet, shining silver like the flute. He held it as he stood back up, thinking of the gun in his Dad’s desk drawer at home.
At that moment bullets began to fall all around. With a thump a large black bird fell from a tree, its dead glassy eye open wide.
Jack started running again, shielding his head with his arms as if that would be enough to save him. To his great horror another sound became audible over the whistles. The unmistakable padding of an animal’s footsteps. In a flustered panic Jack dropped his phone, not stopping to pick it up. On he ran in the darkness, the flute the only light. A low, rolling growl came from close behind. Jack thought of the wild beasts he’d seen on the news so many times. It was all true after all, and he was the idiot who’d believed Bruno’s lies. No wonder Alfred had wanted him to come into the forest. The beast sped up, in clear pursuit. Not even sure anymore where the flute was, Jack ran, stumbling, tripping, grazing his arms and legs. 
The beast was gaining on him. He dared to look back, glimpsing a flash of orange and black between the trees. Any second it was going to pounce. He had no chance of making it out alive, but somehow his legs kept moving, propelling him on.
All at once, like a mirage, a patch of blue appeared through a gap in the trees ahead. It got bigger and bigger until it was impossible to mistake the edge of the forest. With a last surge Jack leapt out of the trees onto the grassy bank of a thin, shallow, snaking river. The water gurgled happily over rocks as it wooshed downstream. Jack half ran, half slid down the bank into the knee-deep water. He forced his way through, fighting against the pull of the water, expecting sharp claws to dig into his back at any second.
He emerged gratefully onto pebbles, crunching his way up to the grass verge, his saturated jeans weighing him down. Once on the grass he stopped and looked back.   
A huge, muscular tiger sat watching him from the edge of the forest. It was much bigger than the one Jack had seen in Drail zoo. Why wasn’t it coming after him?  He stared, confused, until suddenly the tiger cocked its head to the side, mouth curling into what could easily be a smile. As soon as the smile had appeared it disappeared again, the tiger’s face growing angry. It snarled, baring its teeth and moved its front leg forwards. Jack stood frozen, his heart in his mouth. He didn’t have a hope of outrunning the beast if it came for him. Then the tiger made a soft, bored “humph” sound, turned on its haunches and padded slowly back into the forest.
Jack’s eyes stayed on the spot where the tiger had been. Moments later he heard a pained yelp, followed by a whine. It had no doubt found its lunch after the chase.
Jack turned his attention to his surroundings, noticing for the first time where he was. A wide open meadow stretched far and wide, to distant lines of bushes and trees. The overgrown grass was nothing like the well mown grass of Freedom Park, and was moving as one in the light breeze. On the horizon to the right were black pointy mountains, which Jack calculated were even bigger than the skyscrapers of Drail. He turned around several times, scouring the meadow for people. There was not a soul in sight, other than the flute, which didn’t count.  He was completely alone.
Any thoughts of returning home were dashed. There was no way he was going back into that forest.
He flopped down into the lush green grass to rest. Its softness enveloped him, and soon he felt close to sleep. It was probably only a couple of hours since he’d left home and yet it felt like a lifetime. Was he really here, in this place?
He was thirsty, and annoyed at himself for not bringing something to drink. He briefly considered drinking from the river, but it was probably polluted. With some difficulty he peeled off his uncomfortable soggy jeans and laid them on the grass to dry in the sun, putting a pair of shorts on instead.
The sun was out!
Jack lay back and shielded his eyes. Unlike the Drail sky which was always grey, this one was bright blue, with scattered fluffy, white clouds. Bruno had been telling the truth after all.   
Everything was exactly like he’d seen through the hole in the wall, only so much more magnificent. Jack ran his arms up and down, the grass tickling his skin. Next to his head was a thicker piece of grass with a white fluffy ball on top. He picked it and blew, the ball separating into hundreds of pieces that flew away on the breeze. Why was this place hidden?
The flute was submerged in the grass next to him, shimmering boldly in the sun. Jack picked it up, with a sudden unexplainable urge to play it, even though he didn’t know how. Willingly, the flute retracted its stringy arms and legs. Jack remembered how Fay used to hold her flute, all those years ago before they were banned. Placing it to the side, his fingers awkwardly pressed the buttons as he blew gently into the hole near the end. He’d had no real hope of anything happening and yet, to his surprise, a strong note came out, singing across the meadow. He stopped and held the flute at arms-length.
He played it again. This time the note turned into a melody, slow and bold. As Jack kept going the tune transformed into an angelic voice.
“There are places in this…”
He dropped the flute into the grass. Was he going mad?  Perhaps the stress of the day was causing him to imagine things.
He did it one more time.
“There are places in this world you could never imagine,” the flute sang.
“Places of your wildest dreams.
Follow me Jack, I will show you, I will help you.
Follow me Jack, and your dreams will come true.”
Jack stopped, awestruck. “You know my name.”
The flute’s arms and legs popped out again and it jumped up, clunking Jack playfully on the head.
“Hey!” Jack rubbed the spot. “What were you singing about anyway?”   
Without any attempt at a reply, the flute bounded off up the hill. Feeling much better now, Jack got to his feet, put his jeans in his bag and went after it.  
A couple of minutes later they arrived at the top of the hill. Jack was mortified to find that on the other side the lush green grass gave way to a desolate grey plain, with nothing but rocks and dead trees as far as the eye could see. Nervously, he scanned the landscape for the black snarling animals he’d seen through the hole in the wall.
So the lush green hills were not the only reality after all.
In the distance was a town, which the flute began running towards.
“Are you sure?” Jack called, wishing he could play it to see what it had to say.
Figuring there was a chance that someone in the town would know Bruno, Jack began walking.
The sun was beating down and soon he began to sweat. The uneven rocky floor made walking difficult. Eventually a path emerged in the grey dust, leading to the town. It was a small place, with only a scattering of houses, each with a red triangular roof. There was a low wall running around the perimeter of the town. The path led them to the entrance, an unelaborate red brick archway. There was still no one in sight.
The main road had a handful of houses lining it on either side. Something cracked underfoot, the skeleton of a rodent. 
They came to a town square, a stone pillar in the middle, engraved with intricate twirling patterns. As Jack neared he saw a tattered piece of discoloured paper attached to the pillar, flapping loosely in the breeze. The words written on it were faded to the point of being barely visible.
“Stand up against intrusion. Defend what is ours!” Jack read aloud. He looked around at the deserted place. “I don’t think they did a very good job.”
A grey bird landed on top of the pillar, looking down its beak at Jack.
“Pigeons,” Jack wrinkled his nose.
“Caw,” the pigeon answered back, before flying up and away across the rooftops.
The houses all had front gardens, many with washing lines with clothes attached, swaying rhythmically back and forth in the wind. The flute ran over to one of the houses and Jack went too, peering cautiously through the window. Inside was a cozy living room, with a sofa and a tall armchair set around a fire place. Bookshelves and pictures lined the walls. But where were the people?
A loud bang made Jack jump, looking urgently up and down the street. Other than a sock that had come loose from a washing line and was now rolling on the wind along the floor, there was nothing.   
Bang! It happened again, this time followed by a rattle. Bang, bang!  Jack went round the side of the house to the overgrown and weedy back garden with a chicken coop littered with skeletons.
Bang! The back door of the house swung on its hinges, the wind slamming it shut again.
Jack opened it tentatively. “Hello?”
When there was no answer he added, “Your door was slamming.”
There was music coming from inside, music that Jack remembered as jazz.
“Hello?” he said again. 
The flute jumped through his legs, running into the house.
“Hey!” Jack hissed. “We haven’t been invited in.”
Not even sure why he was doing it, he stepped inside too, the door banging closed behind him. The air was musty, the flowery wallpaper in the dingy hallway faded. To the left was a kitchen, a rotten smell filling Jack’s nostrils as he went past. Flies buzzed around the pans on the hob, a stack of dirty, chipped plates to the side. The flute went into the room at the end of the hallway, the living room Jack had seen from outside, which was where the music was coming from.  His feet took him down the corridor before he’d decided whether he wanted to go or not. And then he was in the room with the flowery sofa that matched the wallpaper and the tall green arm chair, facing away towards the dusty, grey fireplace. The music emitted from a gramophone, exactly like the antique his Mum had owned when Jack was young. Without thinking what he was doing he went over to it and picked up the arm with the needle on the end. The music ended with a sharp scratch, plunging the room into silence.
“I was listening to that,” a man said, rising up out of the tall green armchair.

Chapter 3- Hoven Notes
The man was old and scrawny, wearing a tattered long coat and tweed flat cap. He grinned, displaying gappy yellow teeth, his white moustache turning upwards slightly at the sides. His beady green eyes twinkled.
“I didn’t mean to—” Jack started.
The old man wheezed. “No matter, dear boy, no matter.”
He spoke quickly, his voice raspy but soft, waving his walking stick in the air. “As a matter of fact I’ve been expecting you.”
“You have?” Jack was taken aback.
The man took a round golden watch out of the top pocket of his jacket, inspecting it closely. “You’re a bit late, although I suppose you came as fast as you could. Get caught up on the way?”
“On the way from where?”
The man wheezed as he laughed, throwing his right arm above his head, the stick banging the ceiling. “Why, Drail of course!”
Jack shook his head. “I don’t know you.”
The old man wheezed again and came round the green armchair to Jack, hobbling quickly on one leg shorter than the other. He stopped opposite Jack and grinned again.
“I do apologise, how very rude of me. How can I expect you to, without an introduction! My name is Hoven Notes, otherwise known as the Keeper.”
He held a bony hand out, the thumb nail long and pointy, grabbing Jack’s hand enthusiastically and pumping it up and down.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Notes,” Jack said. “I’m—”
“Jack! Of course you are. And you can call me Hoven.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I know plenty more besides.” Hoven finally let go of Jack’s hand, his eyes twinkling again. “What do you want to know?”  
“Who are you?” said Jack.
“I am Hoven Notes, the Keeper.”
“What’s a keeper?”
“I am. I keep all things musical and booky, trinkets and treasures and the such,” Hoven rolled his bony hand over and over. “I regret that I am not at liberty to show you my trove, but another time will allow me the pleasure, I’m sure.”
“Great,” said Jack, sarcastically. He couldn’t deny that he was glad to see another human being, but he didn’t know what to think of this lively, scrawny old man. “I need to get going.”  
“Ah, that’s right,” Hoven narrowed his eyes. “My little helper has told me you have a tendency towards impatience. Still, it’s no bad thing, I suppose.”
“Your little helper?”
“Yes. He’s learnt a lot about you.”
Jack wondered if this ‘helper’ was the person who’d been following him for the past few weeks.  
Are you satisfied with my answers?” Hoven hobbled quickly back around the armchair. “Come, sit down. You can ask me anything, I’m like an open book,” he let out a single burst of a laugh, as if highly amused. Slowly he lowered himself back into the chair, resting his stick to the side. “Would you care for tea?”
“No,” said Jack, despite his thirstiness. “Thanks.”
Was this man a friend or an enemy? Jack didn’t want to get into another situation like with Alfred East, although at the same time he was intrigued to hear more.
“Just give me five minutes,” Hoven picked up the teapot, pouring steaming tea into two white china cups with pink flowers around the rim. “I promise that if I can’t convince you in that time, you are free to go. I mean you no harm, I’m only asking that you hear me out.”
Jack was at the door, unsure of what to do. He didn’t particularly want to stay with the old man. On the other hand he was alone and friendless and had no reason to distrust.
“I believe you’ve met my helper, my instrument of help?” Hoven chuckled.
“That’s strange,” Hoven said. “Because I’m quite sure he’s in your bag.”
He took a thin wooden pipe out of his top pocket, about the size of Jack’s forefinger, and played a fast jingle on it. Jack’s backpack immediately shook violently.
“Just as I thought,” Hoven said.
 “You mean the flute?” Jack moved back into the room, wanting to see Hoven properly. “How did you know?”  
“A flute?” Hoven exclaimed, tutting over and over as he picked up a steaming cup of dark tea and sipped it. “Honestly, what are they teaching you in those Drail schools these days?” He tutted more. “Well, get him out, if you don’t mind, I’ve been missing the little fellow.”
Jack took off his madly shaking backpack. He had only unzipped it a fraction when the flute jumped out, up onto the arm of Hoven’s chair, bowing as he had done to Jack back in his bedroom. 
“Why, hello!” Hoven tapped the instrument affectionately. “I was starting to wonder where you’d got to. Jolly good job, I must say.”
“That’s my flute, I found it,” Jack said more sullenly than he’d intended.
“I’m afraid you have made not one but two mistakes there my boy. He is neither a flute nor is he yours,” Hoven said.
“Yes he is,” the childish words escaped Jack’s mouth.
“Wrong!” declared Hoven “He is a piccolo and he’s mine.”
“What’s a piccolo?” Jack asked sheepishly.
“What’s a—?” Hoven tutted again. “Dear, dear, dear, dear, dear. This is a Piccolo,” he pointed to the instrument on the armchair. “And this particular specimen is called Pic.”
The piccolo bowed to Jack.
Jack was suddenly overwhelmed with worry that he was going to lose the piccolo. “Can I have him back please?” 
“Splendid idea!” Hoven tossed the piccolo lightly to Jack.
Jack held it, relieved.
“He can show you the way,” said Hoven. “This is excellent, excellent!”
“The way to where?” said Jack.
“You could stay with me here,” Hoven offered. “And I’ll take you to the lake tomorrow. It’s really up to you which way you want to do it.”
“I’m not going to any lake,” Jack protested.   
“Not going to any lake!” Hoven’s eyes widened. “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life! Of course you are! We’re here to help, and help you we will! Ask Pic if you don’t believe me. Now, for goodness sake, come and sit down and have some tea.”
Jack didn’t know what to think. He held the piccolo up and blew into the hole.
It began singing at once.
“He is right, he is just, go his way we must, we must.
Listen, learn and you will see. The Keeper holds the key.”
“See,” Hoven folded his arms.
The piccolo perched itself on the edge of the arm of Hoven’s chair, gangly legs dangling down.
“I’m trying to help you,” said Hoven. “We both are.”
Jack looked from Pic to Hoven, who grinned again, his white moustache pointing upwards. For all Jack knew, this man could be telling the truth. With a sigh of resignation he slumped onto the sofa.
“I want to find my friend Bruno.”
“They’ll be able to help you with that at the lake,” said Hoven. 
“What’s at the lake?”  
“The answer to all your problems. It’s beautiful, amazing, indescribable. A piece of heaven on earth. Nothing like the grotty streets of Drail. Now drink your tea, there’s a good lad.”
“Why do they tell us not to come here?” said Jack.
Too thirsty to resist longer, he picked up the dainty china mug and sipped the dark, bitter contents.
“Well, my dear boy,” Hoven replied, “It wouldn’t work out for them if everyone started leaving, would it?”
“So they lie?”
“Regularly,” Hoven wheezed. “In fact, I’d be willing to bet that half the things you believe to be fact are not actually true at all.”
“Like what?”
“Well…” Hoven drummed his finger-tips rhythmically on the arm of the chair. “What do you suspect to be a lie?”
Jack thought about it. His old dog Fletcher popped into his head, his dog that was taken away when they banned pets.
“Is dog hair really toxic when inhaled?”
“Not in the least,” Hoven shook his head.
How could that possibly be true? Jack thought.
“Is organic fruit bad for your health?”
“Not unless by some strange coincidence it happens to be radioactive,” Hoven smiled.
“Does playing a musical instrument dumb your brain?”
“For goodness sake!” Hoven hooted.
Jack’s mind was reeling. He thought about the restrictions enforced on extra-curricular activities in recent years.
“Is creativity the root of all evil?”
Hoven snorted with laughter, then looked serious, stroking his moustache. “That’s a tricky one. I suppose it can lead to evil sometimes, although not in the way they say. They’ll tell you anything so long as it keeps control. That’s all they want, after all.”
Jack didn’t know what to think. Had the school been right to modify the curriculum into only fact driven analysis? Or was everything they said a complete lie?   
“What’s the point of Team Teen?” he asked.  
“Team Teen,” Hoven spat. “Poisonous, dirty thing. Couldn’t have a bright young thing like you stuck in their clutches now, could we?”
“What’s it about?” Jack edged forwards in his seat.
“The clouding of minds,” Hoven passed a bony hand in front of his face, fingers outstretched. “Control and manipulation. The big vision to imprison the youngsters from the inside out.”
Jack didn’t totally understand Hoven’s words, but felt that what he’d said made sense.
“You’re better off out of there Jack,” Hoven said. “You’ll be much happier at the lake.”
“What makes you think I’m going to the lake?” Jack said, irritated.
Hoven took a slurp of tea. “Oh, you’ll see for yourself, don’t worry.” He tipped the cup, drained it and replaced it with a clang on the saucer. “Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“For goodness sake, lad, to go to the lake!” Hoven threw his arms up, before pushing himself awkwardly out of his chair.
“I keep telling you,” Jack said. “I’m not going to the lake.”
“Just come with me,” Hoven tapped him on the head with his stick. “I want to show you something.”
Jack didn’t move.
“Have a little faith,” Hoven straightened his cap and hobbled to the door, Pic bounding afterwards. “You won’t regret it.”
“Fine,” Jack sighed, getting up.
In Drail what he was doing would be considered incredibly dangerous. Hoven was clearly mad by normal standards, and any rational thought was screaming at Jack that he should get away. But he would need friends if he was going to find Bruno.
He marched down the corridor and back outside. The air felt fresh after the staleness of the house, and he breathed in gratefully. Hoven was already down the road at the monument, waving his stick in Jack’s direction. Jack carefully avoided the small animal skeletons as he went. 
“Come on! Come on!” Hoven waved his stick wildly.
He hobbled over to a stone well with a miniature red triangular roof to match the houses.
“Look!” he pointed into it with a bony finger.
Jack arrived and leant on the circular brick wall next to Pic. He peered over into the wells depths but instead of the black he’d expected, the bottom of the well was flickering with all the colours of the rainbow. Brightness bounced off the walls all the way up, shining like hundreds of tiny bright diamonds.
Jack peered down in wonder, as an intense feeling of contentment washed over him, assuring him that everything was going to be OK.
“What is it?” he asked, dreamily.  
“You like it?” Hoven was also leaning over the edge. “It is but a fraction of the beauty of the lake. And that calmness you feel is a fraction of the peace you’ll feel there.”
Jack didn’t want to imagine a time when he would no longer be looking into the well. The desire to get closer caused him to lean further over the wall. If he could just reach out and touch the colours…
Suddenly his feet left the ground and he lurched, falling. He called out, startled, before a bony hand grabbed hold of his shoulder and pulled him back.
“You wouldn’t be the first,” Hoven said kindly. “The pull is powerful. So what do you say? Will you give the lake a go?”
Jack’s head was fuzzy and he already longed to look into the well again. “I could, I suppose.”
“Excellent!” Hoven wheezed triumphantly, jumping a little off the ground and plunging his stick into the air once more. “Pic will show you the way. You won’t regret it, not ever, I promise!”
The piccolo sprang to the floor, ready.
“And for a bit of company,” Hoven tapped the instrument lightly with his stick, fiery sparks shooting out of its buttons and holes.
Pic immediately began to play a happy, bouncy tune, so light and lovely, the most beautiful sound Jack had ever heard. As Pic began on his way, and the music got quieter, Jack went willingly after.
“Safe journeys,” Hoven called, donning his cap.  
Jack pursued Pic’s beautiful song out of the town, the opposite way from where they had come in. They emerged out into more barren wasteland, heading in the direction of the black mountains. Jack bounced along after Pic without a worry, following for hours through the dirt and dust. He didn’t mind that he was thirsty and tired, or that he didn’t really know where he was going.   
They passed a dead tree with two vultures sitting up in its spiky branches. Their beady yellow eyes pierced Jack as he passed. One of them let out a low squawk, but neither moved from their perches.
“This is a weird place,” Jack remarked, picking up a stick and following the piccolo’s happy sound.     
A strip of green finally became visible running along the bottom of the nearing mountains, taking shape into trees and bushes. The red sun dipped low, fading behind the mountain tops.  Out of nowhere, one of the vultures swooped down towards them, and both Jack and Pic had to dive to the floor.
“Ahh!” Jack shouted, grabbing Pic and looking around for a place to shelter, expecting the bird to swoop again at any second.
When he looked up, however, it had gone back to sit with its friend on the dead tree.
“Strange,” said Jack, holding the trembling Pic, whose tune had stopped. “It’s OK,” he comforted.
Doubts seeped into his mind and he began to feel awful. Who was Hoven? Why was he going to this lake? Where was he going to sleep? Perhaps in a tree, he thought, grimly imagining jamming himself awkwardly between two branches, being attacked by bugs and then falling out once he finally got to sleep. He thought of his bed at home.
It’s not safe there, he told himself sternly.
Jack looked up at the mountains and saw a trail of smoke snaking up into the sky from a source hidden under the trees. People were up there, people who might know Bruno. Without thinking he altered his direction and began towards it. As soon as he did, Pic stopped, beckoning him in the direction they had been going before.
“No Pic,” said Jack. “I wanna see what’s up there.”
Pic beckoned again, persistent, and bounded on. Jack stayed still, looking up at the trail of smoke. There might be a bed to sleep in up there. There might be someone to talk to, someone who could help.
Pic came back and clunked him on the leg.
“Seriously!” Jack said, grabbing Pic so he couldn’t move his stringy arms. “What’s with you? That’s really no way to make friends. I’m not gonna follow you just because some crazy old man told me to. I’m looking for Bruno, remember?”
The piccolo squirmed in his hand.
“What is it you want to say?” Jack said.
Pic retracted his arms and legs willingly and Jack blew into the hole.  
“Smoke leads to fire and fire leads to trouble.
Let me take you away from the rubble.”
“I just want to look,” Jack said. “Anyway, I’m sick of talking to you, you’re making me feel like a nutter.”
Pic’s arms and legs came out again. He dropped to the ground, drooping sadly.   
“C’mon mate,” Jack said. “I need somewhere to sleep, that’s all. We can always go to the lake afterwards.” He took his bag off his back. “I’m gonna put you in here for a bit. Can’t be doing with you hitting me again.”  
Pic didn’t protest.
Soon Jack reached the trees, which had emerald green heart shaped leaves the size of his head. The smell of fire was in the air as he climbed up the mountain towards the trail of smoke snaking up into the sky. 
A few minutes later faint singing became audible through the trees. A slow, wordless chant, with a deep drum keeping time. It got gradually louder and louder as Jack climbed, until it was all around. He emerged out of the trees onto a flat rock, the entrance of a cave.
The large cave opening was lit up with coloured fairy lights and flickering flame torches. Inside were a group of about twenty people, sitting round a camp fire, singing. Shadows danced on the walls, mirroring the swaying people. They all had bushy dark hair and were wearing brown or green clothes. A man in a bandana and gold hoop earrings was banging the beat on a large drum. Another man played a handheld one, his head bowed as he concentrated on tapping out the rhythm. A man and woman on the other side of the circle had guitars. The sound was repetitive and comforting and before Jack realised it, he began to bob up and down on the balls of his feet.
Along the inner left wall of the cave a long table was piled with the leftovers of a feast. Jack’s stomach growled, the bread and jam he’d eaten back at home feeling like a long time ago. In another world, in fact. He wondered then if his Mum and Dad even knew he was gone.
He considered going into the cave and saying hello. The people didn’t look unfriendly and would hopefully give him some food. But his Mum had always taught him and Fay about stranger danger. Years ago she’d caught them talking to a woman on the street who was engaged in conversation with a black cat. Their Mum had dragged them away by the scruff of their necks, livid. “Don’t you know you could’ve been abducted!” she’d said. 
What must she be thinking now? Had she called the police? To be fair, she was probably still at work and didn’t even know yet. Although soon enough she would be going out of her mind with worry. Jack pushed the thought away.
He was so preoccupied that it was only then that he noticed a girl standing a few metres away, watching him. She was barefoot and still as a statue, her shadow magnifying a huge mass of dark, curly hair. 
“What’re you doing?” Jack said, louder than he’d meant.
“What are you doing?” the girl said back.
“Why are you watching me?”
“You’re the one who’s looking into my house,” the girl came closer.
“You live here?” Jack asked.
The girl tilted her head slightly. “Of course I do. But you don’t.”
“No, I don’t. Why aren’t you in there?”
“I don’t have to be,” the girl said.
“Sorry,” Jack shrugged. “It looks like fun, that’s all.”
The girl turned towards the cave, her dark eyes shining. “Where are you from?”
“How do you know I’m not from here?”
The girl looked at Jack’s hoody and backpack with a lopsided smile, tilting her head again. “You look funny.”
“So do you,” Jack shot back.
But the girl’s attention was on the cave again, on a woman who had entered from one of the hallways at the back. She was totally unlike the others and was wearing a short, sequined red dress and sparkly high heels. The thick dark braid of hair that reached down her back was scattered with red flowers and dots that glimmered as they caught the light. The dark eye make-up and red lipstick reminded Jack of Fay.
The music and singing stopped, as everyone watched her. She clip-clopped to the entrance of the cave, swaying her hips and pouting. Then she posed and walked back, twirling and running her hands up her body and through her hair with a radiant smile.
“Thank you! Thank you!” she waved, as if to a crowd.
“Urgh,” Carla looked away.
“What?” said Jack, still watching.
The girl gritted her teeth, looking out into the sky.
“What’s the big deal?” asked Jack.
“Stop looking at my Mum!” the girl yanked Jack’s shoulder away.
“Sorry,” Jack rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. “I didn’t know.”
“Just go home,” she didn’t look back towards the cave.
“I can’t really do that.”
“I’m from Drail.”
“Haven’t you heard of Drail?” Jack was sure she must be messing with him.
“No,” the girl raised an eyebrow. “It sounds ridiculous.”
“Well—” Jack was about to retort, but then thought about it. “Yes, it is.” He gestured out down the mountain. “It’s somewhere out there. Past the wastelands and the forest with the tigers. I was there this morning.”
“This story gets more and more unbelievable,” Carla reached down to pick up a pebble, throwing it out into the darkness. “Do you wanna come and see Mother Gray with me?” she said, offhand.
“Who’s Mother Gray?”
“She’s great,” the girl leapt onto a ledge of rock behind Jack, pulling herself up effortlessly. “Unless of course you’d rather stay here and watch my Mum.”
She climbed nimbly up the rock, her dark curly hair cascading down her back. Soon she had disappeared out of sight.
Jack peered up. The music in the cave had begun again and the woman in the red dress was gone. Momentarily he glanced at the food, but didn’t do anything about it.  He wanted to know more about the girl. The girl with no shoes and bushy wild hair that looked like it had never been introduced to a hairbrush. The girl who claimed to never have heard of Drail.  
 “I don’t wanna watch your Mum!” he called, cringing at the high pitched tone of his voice. 
He found a piece of rock to grab on to, but as he pulled himself up it came away in his hand and he stumbled back down. A playful giggle came from above.  
“Whatever,” he grumbled, trying again.
This time the rock face held still and allowed him to climb. He’d only done this once before on an indoor activities trip with school and now he remembered why he had never wanted to do it again. The intense effort of holding his own weight with the tips of his fingers and edges of his feet was almost too much to take. He wished he at least had a harness on.
After a few very long minutes, he gratefully reached the top of the rock. With a final push he scrambled to his feet, brushing his stinging hands together lightly to get rid of the dirt and small pieces of rock, trying not to show the pain.
The girl was standing there, hands on hips, grinning. “Glad you could join me.”
“What are you, some kind of monkey?” Jack said.
“It’s this way,” the girl continued to grin. Then she was off again, skipping weightlessly across the rock. 
Jack followed behind, feeling clumsy and awkward. They came to a thin rickety bridge with planks missing, which led to another platform and cave. Below was a drop of at least twenty metres into the treetops.
“Can you handle this?” the girl teased.
“Course I can,” Jack lied.  
The girl stepped nimbly out onto the bridge, as if she hadn’t even noticed the drop. Jack gripped the rope sides as he stepped one plank at a time. The whole thing juddered as the girl practically skipped across. Jack didn’t let himself look down. His knees were shaking and he had stopped breathing altogether, sure that he was going to slip.  
The girl was on the other side, watching him with a big smile on her face. Finally Jack stepped out onto solid ground.
“Don’t like heights much, do you?” she said.
Jack didn’t trust his voice to answer.
The girl ran off through the trees. Jack went slowly, glad that she wasn’t watching him anymore. He came out of the trees onto another flat opening to a cave, where the girl was talking to an old, hunched over woman, with lots of deep wrinkles in her skin and long white hair braided down her back. She was dressed in black baggy trousers and a black t-shirt, also with no shoes. 
“Here he is,” the girl said. “He’s a bit slow.”
“I’m not, you’re stupidly fast,” retorted Jack.
The old woman smiled a shiny white smile.
“Nice to meet you,” her voice sounded younger than she looked. She came forwards and held out her old, wrinkly hand. “I’m Mother Gray. I can see where you’re from.”
“I’m Jack,” he shook her hand lightly. “What do you mean?”
But before Mother Gray could reply the sky darkened as a huge moving black mass filled it, getting rapidly bigger until Jack could make out the flapping wings and sharp beaks of hundreds of birds. The cawing and squawking got louder and louder as they flew straight towards him.
The last thing Jack saw before he crouched and covered his head was Mother Gray laughing.
“No!” he shouted, as claws dug into his skin.

Chapter 4- You’re From North West?

Jack stayed crouched, head huddled in his arms, as the cawing, flapping and scratching continued. He was so sure that he was going to be pecked to pieces that he didn’t stop to think if they were actually hurting him or not. Arms pulled him up and he didn’t resist, allowing them to guide him away, whilst he kept his head covered.
“You came just in time,” Mother Gray said, pushing him gently into the mouth of the cave. “Not a fan of birds I see,” she chuckled. “It’s a terrible shame, they love socializing with humans.”
Only then did Jack take his hands away from his face. “What?”
Mother Gray was standing close, a kind expression on her wrinkled face. “Oh they love to chatter.”
The birds were flocking around the entrance to the cave, circling the flat platform where the girl was standing, unfazed.
“If you give them a chance they’ll tell you all sorts of stories,” Mother Gray said. “In fact, I bet they’ve got a story or two about you.”
Jack watched the birds flying around, flinching as they swooped and dived. They were mainly pigeons, grey and black. There were so many that he couldn’t see the edge of the platform, or the trees on the slope of the mountainside. 
“Nice to meet you Jack,” the girl came over. “Jack’s a funny name.”
“No it isn’t,” Jack retorted.
“Were you at the party with Carla?” Mother Gray asked.
“Kind of,” Jack said. He looked back at the girl. “Jack isn’t as funny as Carla.”
“Yes it is,” Carla said. “So what’s the big problem with birds?”
“They’re vermin,” Jack couldn’t disguise the disgust in his voice.
“Don’t you know this, Carla?” Mother Gray said. “Where Jack’s from they kill birds.”
“No!” Carla said, shocked.
Mother Gray frowned. “I thought you were a good student.”
Carla made a face.
“If we didn’t we’d be overrun,” said Jack. “There are so many pigeons in the Grand Square, it’s disgusting. The shooters would have this lot in minutes.” 
“I’m quite sure they would,” Mother Gray said. “That’s why these darlings are here, they’re refugees.”
Jack fought back a laugh.
“It’s not funny,” Carla said.
Mother Gray shuffled inside the cave, disappearing into the darkness and reemerging moments later with a bulbous brown paper bag. She bent and placed it carefully on the floor. Carla undid the string around the top and opened it a fraction, plunging her hand in and pulling a fist back out. She went onto the platform, throwing her hand up and sending thousands of tiny yellow seeds into the air. They fell, scattering to the floor like the patter of rain. The birds dived madly and Jack instinctively dived too, behind a boulder at the mouth of the cave. Carla and Mother Gray laughed.
“Don’t you want to have a go?” Carla called over the noise as she enthusiastically threw more seeds in the air. “They won’t hurt you, they’re only birds.”
“Gross,” Jack said under his breath, staying safely crouched behind the boulder.
“I think he’s the one you’ve been waiting for!” Mother Gray called to Carla.
Carla looked embarrassed. “I don’t think so.” She threw more seeds, the birds trying to catch them in mid-air. “They’re getting better at this, Mother Gray!”
“Yes,” Mother Gray agreed.
The feeding went on for ten minutes and gradually Jack began to relax as he saw that the birds were not interested in him.
“They’re never gonna die out if you keep feeding them,” he said, but no one heard him.
Eventually Carla and Mother Gray stopped throwing the seeds. The birds continued to search and peck at the floor for a while, then after seeming to come to an unspoken consensus, they took flight, a mass of grey and black soaring off into the sky.
“You can come out now,” Mother Gray clapped her hands together to get the leftover seeds off.
Jack stood up and came out of the cave, straightening his hoodie.
“How can you not like birds?” Carla said.
“I didn’t think anyone liked them,” said Jack. “Especially an army like that.”
For the first time, Jack was able to see the view. The platform ended about five metres away, giving way to a steep downwards slope, covered in emerald green trees. Out beyond that, far away at the foot of the mountain was a wide plain of grey rock and barren land, dark with the shadows of dusk. It was the wasteland he’d come through earlier that day. In the distance he saw the town, with its tiny red bricked houses and surrounding wall. He wondered what Hoven was doing now. He also wondered if he should’ve gone to the Lake of Colours.
Further away than that was a mass of green that had to be the meadow and the forest. It seemed impossible he’d come all that way in a single day. And beyond that…
“What’s that tall shiny thing?” he pointed at the tower that shimmered gold in the fading light.
“That’s the Watch-Tower,” Carla said matter-of-factly. “And to the left’s the Ever Turning Wheel, see?”
Jack looked in the direction Carla was pointing and sure enough, he saw a glistening golden circle.
“It’s not moving,” he said.
“You can’t tell from this far away,” Mother Gray said. “It turns though, always. Of that you can be sure.”
“It never stops,” put in Carla.
Jack looked at the two colossal golden structures, so bright that he had to squint to look at them.
“Where’s Drail?”
“Not that again,” Carla sighed.
“It’s where I’m from!” said Jack.
“What is Drail, exactly?” Carla said loudly.
“It’s what we call North West,” Mother Gray answered, turning her attention back to Jack. “You mean to say you’ve come all this way on your own?”
“Well that can’t have been easy,” Mother Gray stroked her long white braid of hair. “How did you find the way?”
“I don’t know,” answered Jack. “I just did.”
He didn’t want to tell them about Pic, not yet anyway.
“You’re from North West?” said Carla, amazed. “Is it true that North West people never stop working? That they bow to the all-powerful small, round, golden shiny thing?”
“What?” said Jack.
Carla clicked her fingers trying to remember. “You know, that thing that you have, it’s small and round and shiny and golden and everyone needs it to do things and they want more and more of it.”
“Are you’re talking about money?” said Jack.
“Yes!” Carla jumped and pointed her finger at him.
“We don’t bow down to it,” said Jack.
“Do you need it for clothes?” Mother Gray asked.
“Yes,” replied Jack.
“And for food?”
“And what about if you don’t have any of it?”
Jack considered the question. “Then you’re in trouble.”
“Is there anything that people want more than money?” Mother Gray continued.
Jack thought again. “They want nice houses and stuff.”
“And how do you get nice houses and stuff?” Mother Gray said.
Jack paused. “With money.”   
“So you do bow down to mo-ney?” Carla said the last word slowly, as if testing it out.
“No,” Jack said quickly. “I don’t.”
“I bet you even carry it round with you,” said Carla.
“Yes,” said Jack, but that doesn’t mean—”
“I bet you’ve got it with you right now!” Carla hopped up and down on the spot. “Show me!”
Jack sighed, taking his backpack off. He pulled out a few Drail dollar coins and held them in the palm of his hand.
“Ooh, shiny,” said Carla. “Can I have it?”
“No!” Jack closed his fist.
“Ah-ha!” said Carla. “You do worship it!”
“No I don’t. I just need it.”
“It’s OK, Jack,” said Mother Gray. “That’s just how it is in Drail, isn’t it?”
Jack hesitated, then handed Carla a dollar. She took it disbelievingly.
“Have it,” Jack put the rest back in his bag.
Carla gazed admiringly at the coin, holding it out towards the Ever Turning Wheel, rotating it slowly. “I’ve never met a person from North West before.”
“Yes you have,” Mother Gray corrected. “You’ve met me.”
“You’re from Drail?” Jack asked, amazed.
“Yes,” Mother Gray nodded.
“Oh yes, I forgot,” Carla said. “But I meant I’ve never met someone new, someone young.”
“Well thank you very much,” Mother Gray smiled. “Of course I don’t blame you for valuing youth. Us oldies are so very stuck in our ways and opinions.”
“And armchairs,” Jack spoke without meaning to, thinking of his Grandma.
Carla laughed, slapping her hand over her mouth to stifle it. Mother Gray on the other hand gave Jack a disapproving look.
“We don’t all lock our elderly up to rot in homes,” she said.
“I...I didn’t mean it,” Jack backtracked.
“No harm done,” Mother Gray shuffled over to a wood pile in the corner. “You don’t know any better.”
Jack wanted to ask what she meant by that, but didn’t want his big mouth to get him in any more trouble.
Instead he said, “Why is everything so dead over there? What happened to the people in the town?”
“Ran away, didn’t they?” Carla spoke proudly.
“Yes,” Mother Gray nodded. “And can you tell us why?”
Without waiting for an answer, Mother Gray shuffled over to the shallow pit in the middle of the platform and threw some wood in it. Going into the cave, she came back with three soft purple cushions, placing them around the fire pit. She sat down, leant forwards and from nowhere suddenly a healthy fire was burning.
Carla sat down too. “It was near the end of the Great War,” she said confidently. “North West was losing, so they invaded Neem—that’s the town down there—and cut down all their trees for weapons.”
“So you do pay attention to your lessons!” Mother Gray patted Carla on the shoulder.  
“Yes, I do.”
Mother Gray looked at Jack. “In the eighties it was a wonderful place. Lush green trees, fields, a thriving community. They never bothered anyone and no one bothered them. But of course, they had the soil.”
“What—” Jack stopped, as he realised that he didn’t know which of the many questions in his head to ask first.
“And in the end none of it helped,” continued Mother Gray. “At least it didn’t help Drail. They still lost.”
“What war are you talking about?” Jack was utterly confused.
The war,” Carla said.
“The great war of the eighties. Don’t you know it?” said Mother Gray.
“Of course I do,” Jack didn’t want to look like an idiot. “We didn’t lose though.”
Mother Gray chuckled. “I suppose that’s what they would teach you. Now come and sit by the fire.”
The air was quite cold in the fading light and Jack was glad of the invitation. He sat on the remaining cushion, instantly warmed by the heat emanating from the flickering orange flames. Carla and Mother Gray were both quietly watching the fire. Jack rested his head on his hand and did the same, the crackling and dancing of the flames soothing. Then Mother Gray threw something into the fire, causing bright crackling sparks of blue to shoot out.
“Woah!” Jack leant back.
“So why are you here?” Mother Gray reached into her pocket and threw another handful of whatever it was into the flames, this time resulting in green sparks.
“I’m—” Jack started.
 “Wait boy, give me a chance!” she cut him off. “It’s not every day I get an opportunity like this.” Mother Gray closed her eyes, concentrating, her hands going to her temples. “You’re on a quest. You feel pushed out by your family, especially your sister.”
Jack’s mouth dropped open. “How did you know?” 
“I’m not finished,” Mother Gray said. She threw another handful, sending out purple sparks. “But why…why…I can’t put my finger on it.”
She blew on the fire and the flames tamed back to normal.
“I’m losing it. It’s my age I’m sure,” she looked exasperated. “What are you looking for, dear? I’m afraid you’ll have to tell me.”
“Well,” Jack thought about it. “I don’t really know.”
“A-ha!” Mother Gray beamed. “No wonder I couldn’t figure it out. You have to give me something to work with, for goodness sake.”
“I’m sorry?” said Jack. “I’m looking for a friend. His name’s Bruno.”
“Fascinating,” Mother Gray’s eyes glistened over the flames of the fire. “And this Bruno, is he human or animal?”
“Human!” said Jack. “I met him on holiday. He’s been writing me letters and that’s how I found out about everything. That’s why I left.”
“Wonderful,” Mother Gray nodded as if she understood.
“Do you know him?” asked Jack.
“No, I can’t say that I do. But then unless he lives in the mountains I’m not likely to.”
“Maybe you can help me,” Jack took his backpack off, feeling a twinge of excitement. “He writes in codes, and sometimes I can’t work out what he’s on about.”
He rifled through his bag, catching a shimmer of Pic, lying there motionless. Taking the wad of letters out he found the one he wanted and passed it to Mother Gray. She surveyed it at arms-length, squinting.
“It seems your friend Bruno is a clever one,” she said. “A code is of utmost importance in delicate matters such as these.”
“Do you know what it means?” Jack moved closer, pointing at the holes in the bottom of the page, small squares running across the length.
“I’m afraid to say I don’t,” Mother Gray said.
“Oh,” Jack couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out, at the right time.” Mother Gray ran her hand along the holes. “So what’s your plan? Where will you go?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said, taking the letter back.
“Let’s see if I can help with that.” Once again Mother Gray picked something out of her pocket and threw it in the fire. This time, a silver orb the size of a baseball hovered near the top of the flames, swirling slowly round and round.
She closed her eyes, concentrating and when she spoke her voice was softer. “He’s here, somewhere, of that I can be sure. It’s dark, too dark to say where, exactly.”
“Are you talking about Bruno?” said Jack, not sure what was going on.
“Your friend, yes,” said Mother Gray. “Seek out an old friend of a new one. They can help.” 
“You could go and see Mo!” Carla jumped up.
“Hmmm,” said Mother Gray, as the hovering orb promptly sank and melted to nothing.
“He’s my Dad’s friend,” Carla said. “He’s really clever and knows loads of stuff. I’m sure he could help you.”
“A great idea,” said Mother Gray. “Which would make you the new friend, I suppose?”
“No!” said Carla.
“Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to go too.”
“I’ve got school!” Carla shot back.
“Ha!” Mother Gray’s eyes sparkled in the firelight.
“I don’t know anything about him!” said Carla. “How can I just go with him? He’s strange!”
“Thanks a lot,” said Jack.
“Oh, I think he’s alright,” said Mother Gray. “I told you he might just be the one you’ve been waiting for. Have you forgotten what the orb said last time? You’re not the only one who has trouble with their parents. Might be you’re after the same thing.”
“Has your Mum—or your Dad—got Spratsy?” Carla asked.
“What—? No.” Jack said quickly, adding, “At least I don’t think so.”
“See,” Carla snapped at Mother Gray. “He doesn’t have my problem. No one does.”
“Isn’t there a part of you that’s curious about whether I’m right?” said Mother Gray. “Strikes me as the perfect opportunity. You know you haven’t got much time.”
“But my brothers—”
“I’ll look after Tak and Finn while you’re gone. Little tykes don’t mess around when they know I’ve got my beady eye on them. Nor does your mother, for that matter.”
“You’re crazy,” said Carla. “I bet Jack doesn’t want me tagging along with him, anyway.”
“I don’t mind,” Jack studied a small stone on the ground near him. “Only if you want to.”
He couldn’t help thinking that having someone who knew their way around, who knew where to sleep at night, might be really good, but he kept his face neutral.
“Maybe,” Carla narrowed her eyes at Mother Gray. “Why do you want to get rid of me so badly?” 
“You’ve been waiting for this,” said Mother Gray. “We both have.”
“Why don’t you go then?”
“You know I would if I could. I’d do anything to help you. But I’m old, Carla.”
Carla sighed. “It’s time to be getting back.” She looked at Jack. “You can stay at our house if you want?”
“Oh,” the invite filled Jack with surprise, followed by intense relief. “Would that be OK?”
“It’s fine. My Mum won’t care. And we’ve got a spare room.” Carla said. “We’d better go. See you soon Mother Gray. Or not, if you’ve got anything to do with it.” 
“It was just a suggestion,” Mother Gray pulled Carla into a hug. “You know I’ll miss you terribly if you go. I just don’t want you to leave it until it’s too late.”
“I know,” Jack heard Carla’s muffled voice, her head buried in Mother Gray’s hair.
“It might help the restlessness. I don’t believe Jack landed here by accident.”
She let Carla go, and Carla wiped her eyes roughly with her fist. “You’re probably right.”
“Promise me you’ll think about it?”
Carla nodded and began walking back to the trees. 
“It was nice to meet you Jack,” said Mother Gray. “Take care of yourself.”
And before he knew what was going on, she was hugging him. As embarrassed as he was, he didn’t fight it, taken aback by how comforted he felt.
When Mother Gray let him go, Jack turned and walked to the trees, muttering, “Bye.”  
He wasn’t keen on going back over the rickety bridge, but Carla was already on the other side waiting for him. Below was black now, the prospect of falling even more terrifying than before. Again he clutched the ropes and tried not to look down. Even though it was a little easier this time, he was glad when he reached the other side.
Carla craned her neck, looking up at the sky. Jack copied, a gasp escaping his mouth when he saw the thousands of twinkling stars.
“That’s wicked,” he said. “Is it real?”
“Of course it is!” said Carla.
“Nothing but clouds in Drail.”
“You haven’t got stars?”
Jack shrugged. “I guess they were always up there somewhere.”
“Let’s lie down,” said Carla.
“Isn’t it dirty?” Jack looked around them at the hard, rocky floor.
Carla laughed. “No. Come on.” She stretched out on the ground with her hands above her head. “It’s the only way to take them in properly.”
Jack stood their awkwardly.
“Come on!” said Carla. “Lie down!”
Figuring there was no one there to judge him, Jack lay down. He could hardly believe how many stars there were. Twinkling dots that stretched the length of the sky.
“This is so cool.”
Carla pointed out some of the constellations while Jack listened, taking it all in. They stayed for ages until a cold wind made Carla shiver.
“Let’s go,” she said.
They climbed back down to the entrance to Carla’s cave. The party was still going, although the music had mellowed and there were less people. Carla’s mum was twirling and dancing around the fire.
“Hey Mum,” Carla touched her lightly on the arm.
Her Mum stopped and wheeled round, her eyebrows creasing as she looked at Carla. Then recognition flashed across her face. 
“My baby!” she cried. “Dance with me!”
“I’m OK,” Carla stepped back.
“And who’s this handsome young man?” her Mum shrieked excitedly.
She took Jack’s hand and turned herself under his arm, with some difficulty as she was much taller than him in her heels.
“This is Jack,” said Carla. “He’s gonna stay at ours tonight, if that’s alright?”
“Wonderful!” Carla’s Mum smiled. “Why don’t we all move to North West together in the morning? The parties are much better there, and everything is cleaner and more organized and much, much more elegant! Oh, say you will!”
Carla frowned as her Mum giggled and danced away. “She’s obsessed.”
A couple of steps later Carla’s Mum lost her footing and fell heavily onto one of the musicians, knocking the guitar clean out of his hands.
“How mortifying!” she scrambled up from the floor, brushing the front of her dress with her hands. “Please forgive me.”
“It’s fine,” said the musician, picking up his guitar.
Carla went over to her. “You should go to bed soon.”
Her Mum tipped her head back and laughed, as if this were the funniest thing she’d heard in a long time. When she recovered she leant in close to Jack. “You don’t get this sort of caveman gathering in North West. We have to go there.”
“Goodnight Mum,” Carla said.
Her Mum’s face changed, eyes glazing over. “Why are you always so patronizing?”
“I’m not,” Carla’s voice was small.
“I don’t appreciate it. I’m a somebody, you know!” her Mum said angrily. “I’m famous and you have to do what I say!” 
“I’m your daughter.”
“You’re nothing!” Carla’s Mum was irate now. “I’m the one who matters. You don’t matter if nobody knows about you!”
At that, Carla turned and walked deeper into the cave. “Come on Jack.”
“What was she on about?” Jack asked as he followed, but Carla shook her head hard, her dark curls swaying fast from side to side. At the back of the cave was a corridor lit with hovering multi-coloured lights.
Carla led Jack to a round room with more lights and a window that looked out on a forest. There was a round desk, a fluffy purple rug and a bed with soft silver pillows.
“You can sleep here,” said Carla. “Are you hungry? I’m sorry, I forgot to ask.”
“I’m fine,” Jack fibbed, suddenly very hungry and tired all at the same time.
As if sensing the lie Carla said, “Wait here,” and rushed out of the room.
Jack lay on the bed looking out at the stars, incredibly grateful to be there. Soon Carla came back with a glass of water and what looked like a burger, only with orange meat.
“It’s fakey,” she said, but when he looked at her blankly, added, “It’s a meat substitute?”
“Thanks,” said Jack.
“Well, goodnight,” Carla went to the door and stopped. “Jack?”
She looked like she was deciding whether or not to say something. A few moments passed until she said, “Do you mind if I come with you?”
“Not at all,” Jack tried not to smile.
Carla nodded once, deliberately. “I’m just thinking,” she said, leaving the room and closing the door behind her.
Jack sat on the bed eating his burger, which tasted a lot like beef. He thought sleepily about what had happened in the last twenty four hours. Had he really been at home this time last night? It seemed impossible. Spying on the Team Teen meeting seemed like ages ago. And then there was Alfred and the things he’d said. Jack still hadn’t digested the fact that he’d actually plucked up the courage to go into the forest. Then there was the tiger and the bullets and Hoven Notes, and now Carla. He felt so much better knowing that she might come with him, that he might not have to be alone. Wherever he was headed and whatever he might find, he could certainly do with some company.
He finished his burger and put the plate on the side, clambering into bed. As tired as he was, however, he couldn’t sleep. He lay there wondering what Mo would be like and whether he would have any of the answers Jack was after. He’d discovered so much in one day that he couldn’t imagine what the next day had in store. Then he thought about his parents. Did they know he was missing yet? Had they informed the authorities? If so, a search party would be already be out. Would they think to look for him here? Would they even know how? 
His final thought as he fell asleep was of his Mum whispering goodnight to him in the darkness of this strange, wonderfully new place.  

Chapter 5- Two’s Company
Jack awoke from a deep sleep to the sound of Carla shouting elsewhere in the cave.
“Get down! How many times do I have to tell you? And you! Yes, you have to go to school!”
He sat up, rubbing his groggy head, the sky outside the window still dark. After shoving on his clothes and attempting to sort out his sticking up hair, he grabbed his bag and left the bedroom, heading down the corridor in the direction of Carla’s voice.
“Seriously, I won’t ask you again. Get down!”
Jack turned right at the end of the corridor into the kitchen. It had a huge fire oven, with pots, pans and utensils hanging all over the walls. Carla was standing next to the counter in the middle, looking angrily upwards.
Above the counter a rack hung from the ceiling, also covered with utensils. A skinny boy with the same dark, wild curly hair as Carla was swinging upside down from it by his legs, laughing. There was another, identical boy in the corner, jumping up and down wearing nothing but his underwear. He was grinning from ear to ear and clapping his hands together.
“Do the monkey!” he giggled. “Do the monkey!”
To which the boy hanging upside down put one hand on his head and the other under his armpit, proceeding to make monkey noises, “ooh ooh ah ah!”
“For goodness sake,” Carla rubbed her head, then noticing Jack standing in the doorway. “Oh, hi, good morning. Welcome to my life,” she sighed. “Boys, this is just embarrassing now! This is my friend Jack. I’m sorry,” she looked at Jack. “Did you sleep well?” She looked up again. “Could you two try and act like humans for a minute and say hi?”
The boys glanced at each other, as if silently discussing what their answer would be. Simultaneously they shrugged their shoulders at Carla and said, “Sure.”
With that the one on the ceiling flipped himself upright and back down to the floor, landing perfectly on his feet.
The two boys, who Jack guessed were about eight years old, were exactly the same height, with the same curly unkempt dark hair and the same front tooth missing. The only difference was that one had green eyes and the other dark brown, like Carla’s.
“This is Jack,” Carla said.
“Hi Jack!” the boys chimed.
“Do you like climbing?”
“Do you like adventures?”
“Do you like monsters?”
“Do you like dragons?”
Jack laughed, not knowing which of the boys to focus on or which question to answer.
“What are your names?” he asked.
“I’m Tak and he’s Finn,” said the one with green eyes, who’d been hanging upside down on the ceiling.
“Carla’s brothers?” 
“Well actually she’s our sister,” said the one with the dark brown eyes, Finn.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Jack.
“Pleased to meet you to,” the boys said, again together.
After that the questions began again.
“Are you going to school today?”
“Do you go to the same one as Carla?”
“Do you use the link up or do you go there in person?”
“Do you hate it too?”
“No,” said Jack, answering all the questions at once. “I’m not going to school today.”
“See,” Finn stuck his tongue out at Carla. “School’s stupid.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Carla let out another exasperated sigh. “You have to go.”
“You can’t make us,” said Finn.
“Yeah,” agreed Tak. “You’re not Mum.”
“I know I’m not,” Carla said, tiredly. “Where is she?”
“Dunno,” Tak shrugged. “She’s not in her bed.”
“Can it get any worse?” Carla whispered to herself. “Have some breakfast, Jack. I just need to pack some things.”
She went out of the kitchen, leaving Jack with the two boys.
“What do you want?” asked Tak. “We’ve got kinkle, kane, snaffleberries, wheat gern flats, fried fakey…” he pointed as he spoke at the vast array of bright foods on the counter, none of which Jack recognised.
“I don’t know,” said Jack. “I’m pretty thirsty though.”
“One mixed mountain shake coming up!” announced Finn, as the pair of them began throwing random ingredients into a blender, as if playing basketball.
“That’s enough!” Finn slammed the lid on protectively, as Tak made to throw something large and squishy in.
Finn pressed the button and the blender whizzed loudly for a few seconds. He poured the smooth, luminous turquoise mixture into a tall glass.
“What is it?” Jack took it tentatively, inspecting it closer.
“It’s a high powered fruit ‘n’ root shake,” said Finn.
“Respected and regularly drank throughout the mountains!” added Tak.
“One a day keeps the Spratsy away!” they sang together, finishing with a laugh.
“Great,” Jack took a cautious sip.
To his surprise it tasted amazing. It was sweet with a hint of sour and a vast array of fruits, with an intriguing hint of what Jack could only describe as earth.  He drank it until it was finished, clapping the glass back down on the table and wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve.
“Thanks, that was great.”
 “What do you want to eat?” asked Tak. “How about fakey cutlets and hollinger sticks?”
Despite his misgivings, Jack had enjoyed the fakey burger he’d had the night before, although he had no idea what the other thing was they were offering him.
“Yes please, why not,” he said. 
The boys looked delighted at this and proceeded to bounce around the kitchen as they prepared the food. Only ten minutes later they proudly presented him with a richly colourful meal, piled high with unfamiliar food, all cut into triangles and stars.
“Thanks,” Jack began eating. Once again, despite his misgivings, he found that everything on his plate tasted great. “This is really good,” he mumbled through a mouthful.  
Carla returned then, a satchel made from weaved leaves slung over her shoulder.
“Well it’s true,” she said. “She’s gone again. I can’t be doing with it. Boys—” she looked solemnly at her brothers who were both now sitting on top of the kitchen counter. “Mother Gray will be here soon. Get dressed and make sure your link up’s ready for school. You can do it here at the counter.”
“Yes Carla,” they both said, and Carla looked at them suspiciously, as if wondering what they were plotting.
Suddenly she looked teary eyed. “Look after yourselves,” she leaned over the counter and grabbed them both into a hug. “Be good.”
“We will,” the boys said together. “Gerroff!”
Carla let go of them, wiping her eyes roughly. “Let’s go.”
“Bye boys,” Jack made towards the door. “Thanks for breakfast.”
“Are you sure you want to come with me?” said Jack as they went into the corridor. “You can still change your mind.”
“Yes,” Carla said without hesitation. “If I don’t do something to help my Mum, she’s going to die.”
They didn’t go back to the room the party had been in the night before, but rather went the opposite way down the corridor. A door led outside, where it was now beginning to get light. They went through a small garden, busy with twisting vines, cracked coloured pots and wild bushes.
Carla picked her way through the bushes to the end of the garden, where it gave way to the steep edge of the mountain. They took a path meandering quite gently left and right over the black rocks. Jack tried his best to keep up with Carla, slipping occasionally on loose stones as the slope propelled him forwards. At first it was cold, but he soon warmed up as he trotted downwards. The ground levelled at the bottom of the mountain and they came out of the trees into a meadow, much like the one Jack had been in yesterday after he came through the forest. The sun was peeping out over the trees in the distance ahead, sending lines of an orange glow across the wispy clouds in the sky. Jack looked behind him at the huge, imposing mountains.
“How far up do you live?” he asked, breathing heavily.
“There,” Carla pointed to a gap in the foliage in the middle mountain, seemingly nowhere near as out of breath as he was. “About three quarters of the way up.”
“Wow,” Jack looked up at how far they had come.
They walked through the meadow, coming to a small brook that again reminded Jack of the one he’d seen the day before, only this one was overgrown with thick greeny-brown reeds. The water was just as lively, bubbling and sloshing noisily on its way downstream.
“Does it always move like that?” Jack said.
Carla laughed. “Of course it does. It has to go down towards the sea. Don’t you know that?”
“Yeah,” Jack didn’t make eye contact.
Drail had plenty of water, held in sharp sided man-made canals and immense reservoirs. None of it moved, though.   
If Carla sensed he wasn’t telling the truth, she didn’t seem to care. She was busy glancing around, up and down the banks of the brook, in amongst the reeds. “Where is he?”
“Where’s who?”
“He’ll be here,” she took an empty bottle out of her bag and went to the water, leaning down to fill it up.
“What are you doing?” asked Jack.
“Filling our water bottles,” said Carla, taking another bottle from her bag and doing the same. When she’d finished, she offered one to Jack. “Here.”
“No thanks,” said Jack.
“Aren’t you thirsty?”
“Yes, but…” Jack didn’t want to say.
“But what?”
“Isn’t it polluted?”
Carla smiled, glugging from her water bottle. Then her hands went to her throat, pretending to choke.
“Alright,” said Jack.
He took the other bottle as Carla smirked at him. Slowly, he took a sip. The water was cool and refreshing.
“You really are strange,” Carla shook her head.
“No I’m not,” Jack said. “Thanks for the water.” He leaned back in the grass, enjoying the relaxing sound of the babbling brook.
“There’s something I… something I want to tell you about,” he found himself saying.
“What?” Carla sat up.
“I have this thing, a piccolo, well its name’s Pic, and it wants me to go to the Lake of Colours, and it talks when I play it but it’s a sort of poem, not really talking…”
Carla tilted her head to the side, thick eyebrows furrowed.
“It’s hard to explain,” Jack said.
His hand hovered over the zip of his bag, again unsure if he was ready to share piccolo.
“Show me then,” said Carla, sensing his hesitation.
Jack opened his bag, the piccolo springing out of its own accord, doing a double flip and landing perfectly on thin stringy legs. It bowed to Carla, who laughed.
“Nice to meet you to too!” she said, as Pic sprang up onto her hand. “Where did you get it?”
“I found it on the street.”
“Oh,” said Carla. “That’s lucky.”
“It’s not really lucky,” said Jack, pleased that there was something Carla didn’t know. “Musical instruments are banned in Drail. I could’ve been in big trouble.”
“What!” Carla raised her voice. “That’s crazy. How do you make music?”
“We download it.”
“And where does it come from before that?”
“I don’t know, the computer.”
“No, before that,” Carla persisted.
Jack shrugged, irritated that somehow he had ended up looking like the ignorant one again.
Carla was twizzling Pic around in her hands, its arms and legs now retracted. “No one in the mountains has a piccolo. It’s wonderful.”
“Check this out,” Jack took Pic and held him to his mouth, blowing eagerly into the hole. The piccolo’s high, sweet voice rang out. 
“It’s nice to meet you on this fine day,
Although I fear you’re going the wrong way.”
Jack stopped.
“How is it doing that?” said Carla.
“That’s how it talks,” answered Jack.
“Can I try?”
Jack passed Pic back to her and she did the same. 
“I can show you which way to go,” Pic sang.
My way is best, I know more than you know.”
“Ooh!” Carla looked delighted. “It talked to me! But I wonder why it thinks it knows its way around more than I do? I’ve lived here all my life.”
“What do you think it is?” asked Jack.
“Well, it’s a musical instrument,” said Carla.
“Obviously,” Jack clicked his tongue.
“What would you know, North-West-boy!” Carla poked his arm. “Where does it want you to go?”
“The Lake of—” a noise made Jack stop.
An all too familiar soft padding in the grass nearby, coming closer. Jack’s eyes darted around, sure the tiger had found him. Before he had any idea where it was, the beast had pounced on him, pushing him face down onto the floor and pinning him there. He couldn’t breathe. It was only after a few moments of sheer panic that he realised the weight was far too light to be a tiger. Still, the grip was firm and he couldn’t move.
“Get off, would you?” there was amusement in Carla’s voice.
 Immediately after she said it the pressure on Jack’s back released and he was able to roll over. He groaned as he slowly sat up, rubbing his back.   
A ginger cat was sitting next to Carla, innocently licking its white front paws, its white and ginger stripy tail flicking sharply from side to side. 
Jack rubbed his shoulders. “What was that about?”
Carla smiled.
“He’s so small,” Jack said, feeling stupid.
The cat hissed, fixing his dark yellow eyes on Jack with a sharp “meow.”
Carla laughed. “He says you’re smaller.”
“I’m not,” bristled Jack. A moment later adding, “How do you know what he said?”
“Meow,” the cat said again, even more sharply. With a sound like an unimpressed sigh, it turned away.
Carla giggled. “That’s not very nice!”
“What did he say?” Jack found himself asking.
“He said that not everyone is so ignorant,” replied Carla.
He pounced on me!” Jack was annoyed.
Carla huffed impatiently. “That’s how he greets people. They all do it. It’s really quite polite.”
“Oh,” said Jack. “Really?” 
“In cat world Freddie’s almost full size, which makes him bigger than you.” Carla looked sternly at the cat. “But honestly Freddie that wasn’t a nice thing to do. You know humans don’t like it.”
To Jack’s great astonishment the cat opened its mouth and instead of meowing, he spoke, in a voice deep and gentle. “I feared you were in danger.”
Jack stared, mouth open.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Carla said. “Anyway, you know I can look after myself. I think you need to apologise.”
The cat’s ears pricked up and he hissed again, to which Carla gave him a stern look, her hands on her hips. They stood facing each other for a moment, and Jack didn’t know if either one was going to back down. Finally, Freddie’s ears flattened and he looked away.
He padded over to Jack, circling him slowly where he sat on the floor. “I hereby profusely apologise for ambushing you. It was not my intention to hurt, scare or startle, I merely wished to protect.”
“It’s fine,” said Jack.
First he’d talked to a musical instrument, now a cat.
Freddie went to stand next to Carla, who rubbed his head, to which he purred.
“Are you going to introduce us properly then, Carla dear?” the cat asked.
“Well, when you’ve quite finished getting at each other,” said Carla. “This is Jack, we’re going on a quest together to find Mo and the cure for Spratsy.”
“How marvelous,” said Freddie.
“And Jack, this is Freddie.”
“A pleasure,” Jack scrunched up his nose.
“What’ve you been doing this morning?” Carla asked.
Freddie had gone back to licking his paws, now using them to wipe his ears. “Oh, the usual,” he said, offhand. “Fishing. I’ve caught dozens already. Perch, cod, haddock, salmon, paddock, calmon, kerch…”
“That’s not even a real—” Jack started but Carla cut him off.
“Of course you have,” she stroked Freddie in between his ears, making him purr some more. A smile danced on the edge of her lips.
“Where are they?” asked Jack.
“I ate them,” said Freddie. “I was extremely hungry.”
“That’s a lot of fish, even for a cat,” said Jack.
“And how would you know how much cats can eat?” Freddie hissed.
“It just sounded like a lot,” Jack threw his hands in the air and stood up, patting the back of his trousers.
Freddie flattened into the grass, his eyes focused on an object close by. His shoulder blades began to move in circular motions as he prepared to pounce again.
“What’s he after?” Jack looked around, shouting too late, “Don’t even think about it!” as Freddie pounced on the unsuspecting Pic. Claws out, Freddie swiped at Pic, meowing ferociously as Pic’s stringy arms and legs flailed helplessly. 
“Get off him!” Jack lunged in to try and pull the cat off. 
All at once Freddie stopped and sat up casually, with one paw pinning Pic down.
“Who is this imposter?” he said with a growl.
“It’s a piccolo,” Carla laughed. “It’s not dangerous.”
“What’s your problem?” Jack was seething.
“My problem, boy, is that I recognise a problem when I see one.”
“You’re the problem,” said Jack.
Freddie ignored the comment and addressed Carla. “Would you like me to dispose of this…this creature for you?” he held Pic up, arms and legs now flailing in thin air.
“It’s Jack’s, not mine,” said Carla.
“Very well,” said Freddie, and without another word, he dropped Pic into the grass and pelted away up a nearby tree.
Pic promptly scampered back into Jack’s bag.
Jack was angry. “What’s up with your stupid kitty?”
“He’s not stupid,” said Carla. “He’s just looking out for me.” 
“What, by beating up me and Pic?”
“Are you saying you got beaten up by a tabby cat?” Carla said playfully.
“No,” Jack crossed his arms.
 “He’ll be helpful to have with us,” said Carla. “He’s knows a lot of useful stuff. He’ll get used to you.”
“Great,” said Jack.
“Look, don’t worry about him, we need to go and find Mo.”
“Is Mo a place?” asked Jack, still annoyed.
“So where are we actually going?”
Carla narrowed her eyes at him, then looked into the distance over the brook and the field. “He lives that way.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“No,” Carla got to her feet. “But my Dad told me about where Mo lives tons of times. I’ll know it when I see it. Come on.”
“OK,” Jack followed. Had these people never heard of Trail Tech? “What’s so good about this Mo guy, anyway?”
“He’ll know what to do,” Carla seemed annoyed now. “Is that alright?”
“Fine,” said Jack. 
“We need to head away from the mountain,” Carla hopped lightly over the brook on stepping stones.
“You don’t say,” mumbled Jack, wobbling behind her.
He stopped in the middle of the river and crouched down, holding his finger in the water, the rush of the current cold as it streamed past.
“Where’s it coming from?” he said under his breath.  
They walked on in silence for a while, the sun shining down on them from the blue sky.
“So how did you get here yesterday?” Carla asked suddenly. “Mother Gray says hardly anyone has ever come here from North West.”
“I dunno,” said Jack. “I went through a gap in the fence and through the forest…Is that really true?”
“That hardly anyone’s ever come here from North West—” he corrected himself, “I mean Drail?”
“Yes, Mother Gray said so.”
A sense of pride rushed through Jack and he couldn’t help smiling.
“If it’s so easy, why don’t more people do it?” asked Carla.
“It wasn’t that easy,” said Jack. “Anyway, I guess they don’t know the way.”
“Wait,” said Carla. “Did you go through bullet fur forest?”
“Well you’d know if you’d gone through it or not! It’s meant to be really dangerous.”
“It was, kinda,” Jack acted like it was nothing. “The bullets rained down around me.”
“How did you get out without getting hit?”
“I had to run. Fast. Which was easy because there was this huge tiger after me.”
Carla didn’t look as impressed as Jack had hoped. “I’ve heard bullets fall from the trees like pinecones,” she said. “They’re meant to whistle as they fall.”
“Yeah, they do.”
 Carla stopped. “This is amazing,” she shook her head. “Mother Gray told me about my great, great uncle Rufus who tried to get to North West but got hit with a bullet. Then again, he was completely deaf so he wouldn’t have heard the whistles.”
“Oh,” said Jack.
He could’ve died in that forest, died before he’d even had chance to see the meadow or the sky or the brook. 
They carried on walking and after a while saw a road up ahead. 
“Perfect!” Carla announced, “This will take us to where Mo lives!”
“How do you know?” Jack couldn’t help himself.
“I’ve got a feeling, OK?”
Jack didn’t bother to argue.
No sooner had they got onto the road than the air around them became thick, the sky turning an ominous grey. A second later there was a loud rumble of thunder and the heavens opened, rain pouring down on them heavy and fast.
“Ahh!” Jack shrieked, pulling his hood up tight over his head, as the rain wasted no time in soaking him to the skin. “We need to find cover!” 
“What?” shouted Carla, who Jack could barely see through the torrents of rain.
“We need to find cover!” Jack shouted louder. “The rain’s gonna burn us!”
“What are you talking about?” A bedraggled Carla came closer, her wild curly hair stuck to her forehead and hanging flat down her back. She was laughing.
“What are you talking about?” she repeated.
“The acid!” Jack said, covering his head with his arms and running about left and right, frantically looking for an escape. “The acid in the rain!”
“You’re nuts,” said Carla. “It’s only rain, it won’t hurt.”
“It’s acid!” shouted Jack, head bowed. “Don’t you know anything?”
Carla had walked away, and if she did hear him she didn’t reply. Jack went after her as quickly as he could, expecting to feel the searing burning he’d been warned about over and over in the rain drills at school.
As he struggled forwards, he felt the hard patter of rain hitting his body, but no pain.
Why didn’t it hurt?
Gradually he took his hand from its hiding place in the sleeve of his hoody and held it out. He didn’t breathe as he waited for the burning. The rain pelted onto it, creating nothing more than a tickling sensation.
It didn’t hurt!
In a moment of pure adrenaline he tipped his head back, baring his face to the downpour. The heavy drops pummeled him as he kept his eyes tight shut. It felt wonderful.   
Finally walking on, he continued up the path alone until it came to an abrupt end, out onto grass. As soon as Jack stepped off the path the sky cleared, the rain stopped and the sun came out. A drenched Carla was waiting for him. Jack turned to look back at the road, seeing a massive grey cloud raining heavily over the path but nowhere else. The rest of the sky was clear.
"Well that was totally unnecessary!” he said, although he didn’t regret it one bit.
Carla shook her head from side to side, spraying Jack with more water. "That must’ve been Downpour Drive!"
"Downpour Drive?" Jack said, wringing out his t-shirt. “You knew what it was?”
“Not exactly,” Carla shrugged. “At least I didn’t think it was really real.”
Jack rubbed his hand through his soaked hair. “That was crazy.”
“What were you talking about in there?” Carla asked.
“Oh,” Jack said, embarrassed. “Nothing.”
“You said something about acid. What did you mean?”
“In Drail they tell us…I thought it was gonna kill us.”
“You’re insane!” Carla said, not unkindly.
As if from nowhere Freddie appeared, sidling up to them, dry as a bone.
“Had a bath have we?” he purred, his tail high in the air.
"What do you want?" said Jack.
"I’m sure you’ll dry in no time," Freddie ignored the question.
After Jack finished wringing out his clothes he finally paid attention to what was ahead.  
“What is that?” he said.
A few hundred metres away was a town. At least Jack thought it was a town, only it was surrounded by a thick cloud of fuggy smoke, rising like a monster high up into the air.