Chapter 1- It’s Time
As far as he knew it wasn’t a crime to watch the meetings. At least not yet. And still Jack had walked the short distance from his house to the Team Teen regional headquarters hiding in the shadows of the dark day. The building that Team Teen met in was an ugly brick square with a flat roof, which had previously been left to rot. Out the front was a board with a list of upcoming events and a small version of the poster that was everywhere now, the little boy with the rosy cheeks, cheeky smile and army hat. The caption beneath read, “Instilling Values, Ensuring Futures!”A man inside was talking. Straining to hear over the drilling of the road works in a street nearby, Jack edged his way around the board and crouched down at the window. He leant against the brick, grateful for the big bush yellow shiny flowers that was hiding him.
“You’ve all been putting a lot of effort in,” Jack could now hear the man clearly. “Well done to the security committee for the flyers this week raising awareness of the need for metal detectors at schools!”
This was followed by a short, loud burst of applause, which ended abruptly after a couple of seconds.
Jack was starting to wish he’d stayed at home. If someone caught him they would look in his backpack for sure. Even if watching a meeting wasn’t illegal, possession of a flute certainly was. Part of him regretted taking it, although he also felt a certain pleasure knowing the beautiful, shiny instrument was now his.
He was here now, he’d been planning this all week. He had to at least look. Counting to three, he took a deep breath, turned around and sat up on his knees. He now had a clear view through the metal bars of the hall full of kids. He was aware that if any of them turned around they would have a clear view of his head, too. But luckily everyone was facing away from him towards the stage, silently listening. The man speaking was tall and thin, his suit jacket and faded jeans hanging off him. Even his blue tie looked too big for him.
“To the recreation committee for developing the interactive class baseball app!” the man continued, to another short, sharp burst of applause.
The children were seated in rows. There were kids as young as about seven all the way up to teenagers that were almost adults. He quickly spotted his old friends Eric and Bill. He didn’t even know they’d joined, but now it made perfect sense. There were many other people there from school.
“And last but not least,” the man paused, peering over the top of his glasses at his phone. “A huge thank you and well done to the management team for your continued commitment to recruitment!”
The crowd applauded again, this time for longer, as the man got down off the stage, and signaled to someone 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, waving at the 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, as he watched her, Jack hardly recognised his sister. Hair that used to be regularly un-brushed was now sleek and straight. Her eyes were dark with make-up and her lips red. And as if all that weren’t enough, she was wearing a mini skirt and high heels.
The applause stopped without a single straggler. Fay curtsied.
“Thank you, thank you!” she said. “It’s such an honour to be able to be the spokesperson for the committee. I owe a big thanks to my team- to Shane, Seeta, Jermaine and the rest, who’ve all 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.” Fay 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, giving talks, encouraging and convincing. And I’m pleased to announce we’ve recruited 58 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 to its future, and I thank you for your loyalty. Well done everyone!”
Another clap, this one loudest of all.
Fay curtsied again, grinning. She left the stage, taking the steps slowly and carefully in her heels.
“It really is quite a club,” said a soft voice somewhere close by. “Are you thinking of joining?”
Jack turned around. The man in the blue blazer and tie was crouched right next to him, also watching through the window.
A small, “uh” escaped Jack’s mouth.
“Apologies for startling you,” the man said, standing up to the side of window. “I’m Alfred East.”
Jack stood up then too. “I should get going.”
“Did you want to join Team Teen?” the man Alfred asked, the creases on his forehead and around his eyes becoming more defined.
“Well… I don’t know…maybe.”
“Funny I should find you peeking in at the window, and exactly at the time that I came outside to check for spies.”
“I’m not a spy,” Jack said quickly, shoving his sweaty hands in his pockets.
“Indeed?” Alfred pushed his glasses up his nose. “I fear the evidence is rather damning.”
“I was checking on my sister.”
“Mum said to come and check where Fay was because-”
“That’s right!” Alfred East clicked his fingers, looking amused. “Fay! I knew you looked familiar. You have the same mouth, the same eyes.” Alfred inspected Jack. “And I have to say you share that same troublesome cheeky look.”
“Thanks?” Jack said.
The man rubbed the back of his neck, smiling. “You’re the great Fay March’s little brother. There’s been talk about you.”
“The great-” Jack expelled some air.
“Don’t you know?” Alfred said. “She’s climbed the ladder ever so quickly. More so than anyone. Meant for great things, your sister.”
“I’m sure she is,” Jack took a step back. “I should be getting home.”
Alfred stepped towards him. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Before Jack new what had happened, the man Alfred had a fist clenched around his forearm. Jack squirmed but Alfred was stronger than his skinny exterior suggested.
Your sister…” Alfred shook his head. “Do you know about the forest?”
“Of course I do,” Jack struggled some more but it wasn’t working.
Alfred took Jacks other arm then. “You should go.”
“Let go then,” Jack said.
Alfred leaned in closer to Jack. “Go to the forest.”
“Sure. Be the next kid ripped up by some monster.”
“Don’t you ever wonder what it’s like?” Alfred shook Jack a little. “What’s really in there? I don’t have time—”
“Let me go!” Jack moved left and right, trying to free himself.
“Exactly!” Alfred said. “You should go. Into the forest. Some evils are worse than others you know.”
“You’d love it if I got eaten alive,” Jack gave up trying to free himself.
A door slammed loudly and Alfred let Jack go. He glanced around, then at Jack, beginning to move away. “It’s time to wake up,” he said. “Now get out of here.”
Jack didn’t need telling twice. He turned and ran.
It wasn’t until he was two streets away and completely out of breath that he let himself stop. He leant carefully against the pebble dash wall of a house and bent down, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.
What had happened was all a blur. Why had this leader of Team Teen not pulled him in for questioning? Had he been hoping to convince Jack to go on a suicide mission? Whatever had happened, Jack couldn’t ignore those last words, the exact ones Bruno had said in his last letter. It’s time to wake up.
On the wall opposite, the screen started playing a news report. “Child dead,” the words flashed across the screen, to an image of thick trees. A low drum beat rang out slowly over and over. “Suspected animal attack.” An image of snarling teeth, and sharp claws.
Jack hadn’t noticed the CCTV camera above him until it made a mechanical noise, slowly tilting downwards until it was at an awkward angle and was fixed directly on him. It wasn’t unusual for the CCTV cameras of Drail to do this, but today it made Jack unusually uneasy. Trying not to look up, he walked on.
Three streets later Jack was home. He touched his fingertip to the pad outside, the door unlocking with a loud click.
He shut the door behind him, breathing a sigh of relief. For once he was grateful that his parents were at work on a Sunday; it meant he wouldn’t have to answer any questions.
Going into the kitchen, Jack dropped his backpack on the floor and plonked himself down on a tall stool at the table, suddenly drained of energy. The table was clear except a vase of sweet smelling fake purple flowers, a neat stack of papers and a salt and pepper pot that they got on holiday of a man in a thobe and a woman in a burqa. Jack picked up the pots, turning them slowly in his hands as he waited for his body to relax. A couple of minutes later, his stomach gave an angry growl, reminding him that he had been too preoccupied to remember to eat today. His watch said quarter past twelve. He went to the fridge, where there was a note written on the screen that said, “We’ll be back late, feed yourselves. Do your homework! Mum.”
Now that Fay had better things to do, it was becoming a pain that Jack was rubbish at cooking. He took the butter and jam out of the fridge and put some of his Mum’s luxury seeded super-wheat bread in the toaster.
He sat down again, focusing on the tick-tock of the clock, that cut into the silence, becoming the only thing that existed. Then the toast popped, making him jump. He put it on a plate, poured a glass of milk and sat down again at the table, rifling through the pile of papers for a magazine or something.
He pulled one out- Quick Riches. A man’s face smirked out at him from the front cover, the caption reading “Jordan Summers- how I got really rich, really fast!”
“Urgh,” Jack said, tossing the magazine back onto the pile.
Further down was another one. Jack didn’t hold out much hope but still edged it out to give it a go. It was one of Fay’s: 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! Without reading on, Jack closed it again and reached out to replace it in the pile. As he did a piece of paper inside came loose, hanging out far enough for him to see the unmistakable Team Teen logo.
He pulled the paper out, throwing the magazine down.
Recommendation for New Recruit, the title read. Then underneath- Recommendations Name. Written in the space in bold capitals, in 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. HE NEEDS TO FOCUS, his sister had written. HE’S DRIFTING AWAY AND GETTING LOST. HE HAS THE WRONG IDEA OF WHAT’S IMPORTANT. HE’S HARD WORKING, CLEVER AND GOOD AT TALKING TO PEOPLE.
Well at least the last sentence was complementary. Jack re-read Fay’s words three times, until what she’d said about him rang round in his head. “Drifting away…getting lost…wrong idea…”
Bruno had told him this would happen, but he didn’t want to believe it. He’d tried to ignore the letter that said, “You have to leave her behind.”
Bruno had been right all along.
At that moment two things happened at the same time. The front door unlocked with the usual ‘click,’ and Jack could’ve sworn his backpack on the floor shuddered.
Jack quickly shoved the application form back under the magazine on top of the pile, just in time before Fay came into the kitchen.
“Hi Jacky!” she said brightly, going over to the kettle, flicking the lid and putting it under the tap. “Tea?”
“Um, no thanks.” Her old nickname for him sounded weird now.
“What you been up to?” she asked, smiling at him.
“What d’ya want?” Jack said.
Fay held her hands up defensively, “Just trying to be nice.”
“I’m going upstairs,” Jack stood up, taking his backpack and leaving the room.
He closed his bedroom door more loudly than he was usually allowed. How could she pretend to be nice after what she was trying to do to him? He slid open the bottom drawer of his desk, lifting up his history text book, Drails Big Victory, 1981-1988 and reached underneath. But his hand found nothing. He pulled the text book out, dumping it on the floor and looked again. The letters were gone.
It was her, it had to be. Although how she’d known where the letters were, or that they even existed, Jack had no idea. He glanced around his room, half expecting to find a newly installed CCTV camera.
He opened his door again and tip-toed across the hall. Even before all this Fay would’ve been angry if she’d found him snooping around in her room, but now… He pushed the thought to the back of his head, focusing instead on how important those letters were.
Slowly, carefully, aiming for silence, Jack pushed Fay’s bedroom door open. The room was neat and tidy, everything in its proper place. Perfectly made bed with floral print covers, shoe collection lined up neatly by the door. A smell of something like lemon and flowers. And that poster. The child’s face looked down on him, smiling, watching.
He went over to the desk that used to be piled high with ideas for stories and doodles and quotes but now was clear except a pencil pot with three pens in it and a neatly stacked pile of school books with a recruitment flyer for Team Teen on top. For want of a better plan, Jack opened the third drawer. There was only paper inside. Next he opened the middle one then the top one. Nothing. He moved to the bed, which had two big boxes under it, dragging one of them out quietly as if that would save him if Fay decided to come upstairs. Inside was a mess of stuff, thrown out of sight. Teddies and old clothes, a glow in the dark plastic turtle and a doll with long purple string hair that Fay used to love. Jack picked out a photo frame. The picture inside was of the two of them sitting on a wall in the sun eating ice creams. They were both squinting and smiling the same wide, cheesy grin. Last time Jack had been in here, the picture was on Fay’s window ledge. He shoved it back and replaced the lid on the box. This was pointless. He sat there on the carpet, deflated.
“Looking for something?” Fay was behind him, waving Bruno’s letters.
“Give them back,” Jack said, hardly even surprised. “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.”
“It’s History. History isn’t dumb, it’s who we are.”
Jack thought about reminding Fay that she always hated History, that she used to complain that the teacher smelt of old coffee and that everything was irrelevant.
“Your friend Bruce has quite beautiful handwriting.”
“His name’s Bruno.” Jack got up then. “Can I have them back please?”
“What’s so important about them?” Fay’s heavily made-up eyes narrowed. Outside the window came the sound of a car pulling up, then of doors being opened.
Fay pressed the button to the left of the window, inching the metal blinds from shut to partially open. “They’re here,” she said. “Come and meet my friends Jacky. I know they wanna meet you.”
Through the gaps in the blinds Jack could see that a shiny silver car with blacked out windows was now parked outside his house in his Dads spot. Two men were walking towards his house, the first one short and balding and wearing a suit. The second one Jack recognised straight away. He was tall, skinny with glasses, a suit jacket and faded jeans.
The doorbell rang.
“Here,” Fay placed the letters in Jack’s hand. “Take your precious letters.”
She left the room and Jack heard the soft thud, thudding of her going down the stairs.
Why had Alfred and the other man come round? Jack had to make a decision and he had to make it now. Either go downstairs and be recruited into Team Teen, or do what Bruno and Alfred said. Clutching the letters he went back to his room, unzipping his backpack on his bed. He threw in his jacket, some spare clothes and warm socks, his penknife and a torch. Then he reached up to the shelf above his bed, taking the piggy bank his Dad had given him years ago. In a shirt and tie, the pig had always reminded him of his Dad, although a lot fatter and friendlier looking. He held the piggy bank in both hands for a moment, looking at 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 echoing around the room as it smashed into hundreds of pieces.
“Jack!” Fay called from downstairs. “What’re you doing? Are you alright? Come and meet my friends!”
“Be there in a minute!” Jack shouted back as he frantically scooped up the coins and notes that were his life savings, and put them into a small pocket inside his backpack, next to the flute thing that shimmered as it caught the light. Finally, he put Bruno’s letters in his bag and zipped it up, throwing it onto his back.
“Jacky!” Fay shouted again.
Jack opened his window, pushing it as far out as it would go. Right leg first, he inched slowly out onto the ledge outside as he had done so many times before, a million years ago when he used to meet Bill and Eric to play football at night. Only this time it was different. This time he wasn’t coming back.