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Slade House(9)
David Mitchell

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The flame comes to life, and the symbols on the candlestick change, and keep changing as if it’s thinking fast and the symbols are its thoughts. Jonah Grayer’s head shifts. His clothes rustle. “Your mother sends her apologies,” he says, touching his face as if he’s testing whether it still fits. “She had to leave.” I try to ask “Why? Where?” but nothing I need to speak—jaw, tongue, lips—works. Why would Mum leave without me? The me in the mirror gazes back. Neither of us can move. Norah Grayer’s flexing her fingers like she’s just waking up. Did they inject me with something? “Every time I come back to my body,” she says, “it feels less of a homecoming, and more like entering an alien shell. A more enfeebled one. Do you know, I want to be free of it?”

“Be careful what you wish for,” says Jonah. “If anything happened to your birth-body, your soul would dissolve like a sugar cube and—”

“I know perfectly well what would happen.” Norah Grayer’s voice is chillier and throatier now. “The hairdresser paid an uninvited visit, I saw.”

Jonah asks, “What hairdresser are you talking about?”

“Our previous guest. Your ‘Honey Pie.’ She appeared in a window. Then on the stairs, by her portrait, she tried to give some sort of a warning to the boy.”

“Her afterimage showed up in a window, you mean. It happens. The girl is gone, as gone as a smoke ring puffed out years ago in a gale off Rockall. It’s harmless.”

A brownish moth fusses around the candle flame.

“They’re getting bolder,” says Norah Grayer. “The time will come when a ‘harmless afterimage’ will sabotage an Open Day.”

“If—if—our Theater of the Mind were ever ‘sabotaged’ and a guest escaped, we’d simply call our friends the Blackwatermen to bring them back again. That’s why we pay them. Handsomely.”

“You underestimate ordinary people, Jonah. You always did.”

“Would it kill you, sister, to once, just once, say, ‘Top job, a superb orison, you’ve landed us a juicy, tenderized soul to pay the power bills for the next nine years—bon appetit!’?”

“Your African lodge could not have been a cornier ersatz mishmash, brother, if Tarzan had swung in on a vine.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be real; it only had to match the Bushveld the guest imagined. Anyway, the boy’s mentally abnormal. He hasn’t even noticed his lungs have stopped working.” Jonah now looks at me like Gaz Ingram does.

It’s true. I’m not breathing. My switched-off body hasn’t raised the alarm. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.

“Oh, stop sniveling, for Christ’s sake,” groans Jonah. “I cannot abide snivelers. Your father would be ashamed of you. Why, I never sniveled when I was your age.”

“ ‘Never sniveled’?” snorts Norah. “When Mother died—”

“Let’s reminisce later, sister. Dinner is served. It’s warm, confused, afraid, it’s imbibed banjax, and it’s ready for filleting.”

The Grayer twins make letters in the air with their hands. There’s a slow thickening in the dark, above the candle, at a little above head height. The thickening becomes a something. Something fleshy, lumpish, fist-size, pulsing blood red, wine red, blood red, wine red, faster and brighter, the size of a human head, but more like a heart as big as a football, just suspended there. Veins grow out of it, like jellyfish tentacles, and twist like ivy through the air. They’re coming for me. I can’t turn my head or even shut my eyes. Some of the vein-things finger their way into my mouth, others into my ears, two up my nostrils. When I see my reflection, I’d scream if I could, or pass out, but I can’t. Then a dot of pain opens up on my forehead.

In the mirror, there’s a black spot there. Something…

…oozes out, and hovers there inches from my eyes, look: a clear cloud of stars, small enough to fit in your cupped palms. My soul.

Look.

Look.

Beautiful as, as…

Beautiful.

The Grayer twins lean in, their faces shining like Christmas, and I know what they’re hungry for. They pucker up their lips and suck. The round cloud stretches doughily into two smaller round clouds…and splits. One half of my soul goes into Jonah’s mouth, and the other into Norah’s. They shut their eyes like Mum did the time we saw Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Royal Albert Hall. Bliss. Bliss. Inside my skull, I howl and my howl echoes on and on and on and on but nothing lasts forever…The big beating heart-thing’s gone, and the Grayer twins are back kneeling where they were before. Time’s slowed down to nothing. The flame’s stopped flickering. The brownish moth is frozen an inch away from it. Cold bright star white. The Nathan in the mirror’s gone, and if he’s gone, I’m—

“Good evening, here are today’s headlines at six o’clock on Saturday, October the twenty-second. Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street today, the home secretary, Douglas Hurd, rejected criticism of the government’s ban on broadcast interviews with members of the Irish Republican party, Sinn Féin. Mr. Hurd said—” I switched off the radio, got out of my car and looked up at the pub. The Fox and Hounds. A memory came back to me, of me and Julie popping in for a drink here one time. We were house-hunting, and we’d viewed a place on Cranbury Avenue, one street up. It’d sounded all right in the estate agent’s but a right bloody shithole it turned out to be—damp, gloomy, with a garden too small to bury a corpse in, it was so depressing we needed a liquid pick-me-up just to face the drive home. Five years ago, that was. Five years, one wedding, one dismal honeymoon in Venice, four Christmases with Julie’s god-awful pinko tree-hugging relatives, fifteen hundred bowls of Shredded Wheat, two hundred and fifty bottles of wine, thirty haircuts, three toasters, three cats, two promotions, one Vauxhall Astra, a few boxes of Durex, two emergency visits to the dentist, dozens of arguments of assorted sizes and one beefed-up assault charge later, Julie’s still living in our cottage with a view of woods and horses, and I’m in a flat behind the multistory car park. Mr. Justice Jones said I was lucky I wasn’t booted out of the force. Thank God me and Julie’d never had kids, otherwise she’d be shafting me for child support as well as compensation for her “disfigurement.” Grasping bitch. Five years gone. Blink of a bloody eye.

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