Little Bites

Everyone knows bugs are creepy. That was probably my main reason for wanting to write this, because bugs are just one of those obviously creepy things I hadn’t written about yet. Also, I’ve been wanting to write a story with a treehouse in it for a while. I don’t know why, but I did. The two things seemed to go together.

 

Little Bites

By Ben Pienaar

 

The jacaranda tree in the corner of the garden had gone largely undiscovered since its first sprouting, and it was only now that Nathan began to notice it at all, since he was at last almost tall enough to reach the first branch. It was also for that reason that he’d been forced to build his first ‘tree house’ underground. Now that he was taller, he decided it was time to move up in the world.

At the bottom of the garden, where ten shoddy piles of bricks made steps down to his ‘ground house’. His father had dug the hole at the base of the wall for him, and given him the bricks, but he’d taken care of the rest. He’d assembled the stairs and made the ceiling out of bark strips and leaves. He’d even taken an old rug and laid it out on the floor, and often swept dirt off it. Most importantly, he had populated it with his pets.

Nathan’s pets were not furry or loyal or cuddly. They didn’t fetch for him, or lick him or even bark. Instead, they were small and slimy and brainless, and their daily concerns were eating, fighting, and growing their numbers. He loved them just for that: like him, they were simple and practical. He also loved them because of how they slithered on bare skin and made people scream, and how everyone but him was afraid of them. No one dared enter his house now, not even his father, and it was his secret place. His pets protected it for him.

Nathan stood at the foot of the stairs now, in front of the makeshift door he’d created. The door was really a wall of logs and sticks, but he’d made a wide opening at the bottom, so that to enter he had to crawl in on his stomach. That was so that anyone who wanted in had to get dirty, and be brave, and see what it was like to crawl on the ground like the insects.

He was here today because he had been so excited about a tree house, a real tree house, that he’d wanted to destroy this one. Everyone thought insects belonged underground but he knew that wasn’t true. Insects existed everywhere, and even if he destroyed this place he’d find a whole new world of precious pets up in the branches. Then his place would become not a burrow but a hive, and he could expand it to house anything he wanted. The jacaranda was certainly big enough, after all.

Now that he was standing here, he didn’t think he could do it. He stared down at the slit entrance, a scrawny black haired boy who looked almost like an insect himself, and shook his head. ‘Why should I?’ he whispered to himself.

‘Why should you what?’

His father had come up behind him somehow and was standing in the rose garden with a spade, looking down at him. He had a look of mild concern on his face, as he usually did when dealing with his son.

‘I’m going to build a tree house,’ Nathan said. ‘And I was thinking of breaking this one down. But I don’t think I should.’

‘Oh. Well I think you should. What about all the materials you could use from here? All the wood and bark and sticks would be great for making a tree house. Hey, I’ll even help you do it.’

He took a step forward, as if he was planning to attack the place right there and then with the spade.

‘I don’t want to,’ said Nathan.

His father hesitated. ‘Okay. Well, I’ll help you build your tree house if you want. Trust me, though, after a few months you’ll be having so much fun up there you won’t even remember this place.’

Nathan smiled, because he had a plan. ‘Okay!’ he said.

He began work on the tree house in earnest, and his father helped him out on every available afternoon.

For a while, it almost did seem as though he was neglecting his old tree house, where he used to spend hours every day, but on a slow Sunday afternoon, something happened that reminded him. He discovered an insect he’d never seen before.

He was up in the jacaranda at the time, building on the vast platform that now spanned a considerable space about halfway up the tree. That he could do on his own, but only his father had the hammer and nails and materials to put up real walls. (That had been part of Nathan’s plan, and he knew that as soon as his father finished the walls and he let slip that he planned to make this place his hive, Mr. Gallo would suddenly lose his enthusiasm). A seriously annoying itch began on the back of his neck and intensified to the point of pain.

At first, he thought it might be an ant and left it alone, but after a minute the pain was even worse and seemed to be intensifying, as whatever it was burrowed into his skin. Worried, he dropped the plank he was holding and snatched a brittle twig, which he scraped up and down his neck until the pain subsided.

He searched the boards for it, but there was nothing, and then he felt the same pain starting in the hand holding the twig and looked down. It was a tiny thing, so small that he might have mistaken it at a glance for a grain of soil. Nothing but a black dot, but it was biting into his hand like a bull ant, and it hurt like mad.

Nathan managed to bear the pain until he’d climbed down the tree and raced into the kitchen to get a Tupperware container. He rubbed at the little black spot until it fell inside and then shut the lid tightly and went out the back door again, ignoring his mother’s cries not to trail dirt in the house.

He didn’t get a good look at it until he’d crawled through the slit of his ground house and turned on the light (a high powered torch he’d taken from the garage). Before he opened the container, he put it aside and spent a minute nursing the tiny bite on his hand, where it had nibbled for a good minute or so. Then he went about maintaining his other pets. He kept almost anything that lived in moist, dark places. Several kinds of spiders, worms, ants, wood lice, centipedes, and beetles. Each of them lived in a designated place, tubs or trays full of dirt and leaves and whatever food they required. None of them were confined, however – Nathan liked to give them freedom, and so hundreds of little things were always scuttling over everything. It was impossible to be in this room without having at least two kinds of insect crawling on you somewhere. He kept the food in marked containers on an old wooden table in one corner.

Nathan sat down on a split log he’d set there as a stool and held the light close to this new specimen of his. He lifted a dusty book from the table entitled The Entymologist’s Dictionary and began to leaf through the pages. He flipped through the pictures until he came to something that might possibly be what was in the Tupperware and then decided it wasn’t.

He scrutinized the little dot and found that he actually could make out some of its features. It had six tiny legs and a round abdomen. When he analysed it under a magnifying glass, he found that the only part of it that really stuck out was its face, and that seemed to be made up of all mouth. It was difficult to tell with such a small thing, but it didn’t move with the restlessness of most insects he’d come across. At its head he saw two white pinpricks (eyes) and then beneath them a tiny red mouth. Every now and again he saw something shoot out of the mouth. It wanted food.

Nathan gave it every kind of food he could think of, but it ate nothing. Whenever he put anything in the container with it, it crawled over it for a bit and then seemed to ignore it. Only then did he remember the way it had latched onto his hand, and thought that it might be some sort of mosquito.

He left and returned a minute later with a Swiss army knife and a gleam of excitement in his eyes. With barely a hesitation, he cut his thumb with the sharp blade and squeezed a drop of blood into the container. He closed the lid and waited.

The effect was almost instantaneous. No sooner had the drop landed on the plastic bottom the thing went for it. It was so tiny that it almost disappeared into the liquid, but a few seconds later it had sucked the whole thing down and was looking decidedly fatter. It sat in the corner motionless.

He fed it two drops of blood a day from then on, and watched it grow in increments, but he quickly decided that it was the wrong food. After all, the thing lived in the trees – how could it possibly survive on human blood from there, if it couldn’t fly? Nathan told all this to his father over breakfast, partly to see what he’d say and partly just to watch his disgust.

‘And,’ he went on, as his father pushed a bowl of cornflakes aside, ‘it’s not anywhere in my dictionary. So it’s not even normal. Maybe they haven’t even discovered it yet! Maybe I’m the first one!’

Mr. Gallo smiled. ‘Sure, maybe. Anyway, I think it’s just that the little guy is carnivorous. Maybe you should give him one of your other buddies to eat?’

Nathan wasn’t sure if he’d been serious, but he did discover that day that his new pet took a voracious liking to ants. He fed it three in a row before it was satisfied, even though by then it wasn’t much bigger than they were. The ants were fast, but it caught them easily. It would crawl slowly over the floor of the container, and as soon as one whizzed it would shoot a thin red line from its mouth and snag it. After that, it just reeled in the ant with its tongue and demolished it in a matter of seconds. He decided then to name it Spike. Since he didn’t find any examples of it in The Entymologist’s Dictionary he thought he’d go ahead and name the species as well: bites.

Nathan didn’t find any more bites, though he spent a lot of time in his tree house after that. He could, however, make out a funny lump of green leaves near the top branches of the jacaranda tree and he wondered if that was their hive and this one had just fallen on him. It looked like a hive of something, anyway, and he intended to build his tree house wide and tall until he could reach it.

He hadn’t let Spike out of his little cage yet, but he continued to feed him three insects a day. It seemed that there was no living thing that the bite could not consume. Even the centipedes, which were much larger than him, were soon curling up or trying to escape from his needle tongue.

The summer holidays came and once again Nathan began to neglect his pets. He and his father worked on the tree house almost daily and after just a couple of weeks it was big enough to rival some folks’ real houses, or so he thought. Mr. Gallo, thinking he was at last helping his son escape his creepy obsession and maybe even get some friends one day, spared nothing. He built the walls with the care and skill of a carpenter, which was exceptional considering he was by trade an actuary.

When all the walls were up and the only things left were to add a few floors and ceilings, Nathan let slip that he was planning to use several of the rooms to house ‘tree bugs’. After that, his father’s enthusiasm for the project waned considerably and in the days that followed he tended to have important work to do in the afternoons. By the time Nathan started work on the top room of his now colossal tree house, neither of his parents ventured outside any longer and the garden was once more his domain.

The rooms of his house were spacious and sprawled, and any child’s dream during the final days of its construction. In less than a fortnight, however, Nathan had transformed it into any child’s nightmare but his. He left the top ceiling open and made small holes in the others, and then scattered soil and leaves everywhere. He took flowers from the garden and random scraps of food from the kitchen and spread them all over the floors.

It wasn’t long before insects were trailing into his house by the thousand, and Nathan went about making them at home. He took up boxes of soil and planted things in them. As for the insects themselves, he didn’t try to restrict them, as he had in the ground house, but allowed them to come and go as they pleased. He did make sure, though, that there was always plenty of food in his hive. As a result, when he finally declared himself finished his tree house was home to more kinds of creepy crawlies than the entire neighbourhood combined.

Sometimes, at night, Nathan would sneak out of the house, climb into his hive and sleep there instead. He’d strip off his shirt and stretch out on the damp boards and then close his eyes. Many nights he drifted off while thousands of little legs crawled over his skin, and though it was relaxing to him he always woke covered in bites. That was alright, he thought – it meant they were well fed.

Always, he hoped for the bites to come. In a way, he realised that he’d been trying to get that small green hive to move down here since the beginning. The problem was, though he sometimes saw the little black dots trailing down the branch to his place, they never wanted to stay. The miniature armies would strike, paralyse and murder several insects, and then transport them back to the top of the tree.

As his world grew, Nathan spent more and more time in his tree house, less in his real home, and none at all in the ground house. That was nothing to him now, and besides, he thought, all of his pets had either died, or escaped and come to the tree by now. Up here, he had more pets than he could ever dream of.

He eventually decided he’d have to go back one last time, to retrieve some of the equipment. He wanted the desk and stool so that he could read in the tree house, and the flashlight so he could keep the bottom rooms lit at night. Secretly (his father would have been horrified), he’d built a fireplace in the top room. It was made with a circle of stones on a heap of sand, and he kept the corner stocked with small logs to keep a small fire going. He made sure to build it far enough away that no smoke would reach the hive far above, lest it smoke out all the bites. He decided he’d also take whatever insects still remained in their old home and take them up with him.

He knew something was wrong the second he began to slide under his makeshift door by the smell. Usually it smelled of fresh dirt and stale air, and of rotting leaves. Today, it stank of graves and rotten gas and compost heaps. Also strange, when he slithered in over the ground, he was not met by scurrying centipedes or spiders at all – only dusty ground.

When he made it to the other side of the room and turned on the flashlight, he was only mildly surprised to find that all of his insects were gone. That in itself seemed unusual to him – he’d have thought there’d be at least one or two tiny corpses lying around. Insects could die horribly easily sometimes, and he’d have assumed a lot of them would starve in here without food.

Then he shone the light on the container in which he’d kept Spike and it all made sense. There was a hole in the side of the container about as big as a thumbprint (wasn’t that too big for something barely larger than an ant?). There was no other evidence of what had happened, but considering Spike’s appetite Nathan could pretty well guess. And where was his sticky mouthed friend now, he wondered? He shone the light into every corner and inside every little tub he’d set aside for other creatures and saw nothing. This place was as dead as a cemetery. A boneless cemetery, he thought.

If he’d thought to shine the light at the ceiling at all, which was only a foot or so taller than his head, he’d have found his little pet (though by now Spike could no longer be called ‘little’ at all), clinging to the boards in the far right corner. He’d grown to the size of a basketball, and his milky white eyes watched Nathan, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. He wanted badly to stick his barbed tongue into the meaty boy just feet away, but he was so bloated and full of insects just then that he couldn’t move. Having swallowed many of them whole, he could still feel them writhing and squirming around inside him.

But Nathan did not shine a light on the black monstrosity that watched him, and instead went about moving the stool and desk out of the room – at one point getting so close to the corner that the tip of his head almost brushed Spike’s belly. Luckily, both things were small enough to fit below the door. It took him an hour, but eventually he got them both up into the lower room of his tree house, and even had time to make another stool to set next to the fire. At last, he thought, he had created his paradise.

Needless to say, his parents did not approve of his new obsession, but thankfully neither of them had seen the inside of his tree house yet or they would undoubtedly have destroyed it. His mother complained about the danger of being bitten and only relented when he assured her all of his bugs were in special containers. His father urged him to take a walk to town, or join a football club, but that was as close as he got to keeping him out of his favourite place. The truth was, neither of them saw him aside from mealtimes, now, and they both knew there was nothing they could do about it.

As for him, Nathan revelled in his hive. He fed his pets and observed them and played with them and often slept by the fire all through the night. He noticed that the top room tended to be almost empty of insects, and that the hive at the top of the tree seemed to have doubled in size, but aside from that Spike and the bites remained far from his mind.

The memories returned soon enough, however, when he stepped out onto the rope ladder to descend and felt something watching him. He froze with his hands on the top rungs, and then looked over his shoulder. At first, he thought the garden was bare as usual, but then his gaze drifted over to the site of his old treehouse and he froze.

It took him a moment to recognize Spike, for he’d grown so huge now that he’d be more likely to squash ants as eat them. It was sickening enough to see such a small thing grown to such a ridiculous size, but what was worse was the mouth. Nathan had never been able to see Spike’s mouth before, but now that he could he realised how it had devoured so many of his pets so quickly. Like a fish, its black lips turned down at the edges and hundreds of tiny pointed teeth were just visible. They were finely bunched and sharp, like cactus spines. Somewhere behind them would be that long, stringy tongue, and behind that was a stomach that looked capable of fitting the head of a small boy. It watched him with blank eyes, motionless.

Nathan watched it, terrified, his knuckles white on the rungs of his ladder. He realised at some point that Spike had begun to move towards him, very slowly. Each of his six spindly legs moved at a time, moving his fat body slowly over the grass.

It’s trying to sneak up on me, he realised, and that shook him awake. He shot back up the ladder, spun around, and began to roll the ladder up after him as quick as he could. Somehow, Spike made it all the way across the garden before he pulled it the rest of the way up and leapt at the bottom rung. It was a frighteningly high jump, but it fell short and Nathan heard the whump as he landed in the grass a moment later.

He shoved the rope ladder aside and screamed for his parents as loud as he could. Then he remembered they were both out at work today, and wouldn’t return until dinnertime. That was soon, actually, but when he stuck his head over the side and looked down at his old pet he realised that the difference between soon and half an hour might mean his life.

Spike had moved over to the base of the jacaranda and was now standing on his four back legs while his two front ones probed the bark for leverage. Nathan noticed that his legs were covered in hundreds of barbs that had once been too small to see. For feet, he had large hooks that resembled oversized bee stingers. He dug these into the bark and pulled himself up a little, so that the pair of legs under his abdomen could lift up and begin probing the tree.

Every now and again, Nathan saw a long, red worm of a tongue shoot out from his mouth. It was not big or thick and full of barbs as he’d feared, but it was certainly long and about as thick as a piece of spaghetti.

The utter shock that had seized him initially was beginning to recede and be replaced by a fear so horrible and instinctive that for a moment all he wanted to do was throw himself from the treehouse and run for the house. That, of course, was madness. The way Spike had moved suggested that even with its wide body he’d feel its tongue on him in seconds. He remembered the way it had snagged the ants and pulled them into his mouth with painful leisure.

Nathan stood up and looked around the room for anything he could use. He had a flashlight, a log stool, and a desk. Useless. He couldn’t even throw them on Spike, since he was climbing the tree trunk and not the rope ladder.

The answer came to him a second later, just as Spike’s ugly head poked in through the doorway. So shocked was he that the fat thing had managed to climb so quickly, he staggered back and tripped over his own stool, landing on a heap of soil that ants were using for their home. They swarmed from the wreckage and onto his legs, covering him with angry bites, but he barely noticed.

The long, red spaghetti tongue shot from Spike’s mouth and into Nathan’s outstretched ankle. Not around it, or on it, but into it. The tip of it went through his skin like a needle through butter and snaked up his shin. When it clenched, he felt it close around his bone. The flesh yielded like ice under hot water. Nathan screamed.

Spike made an odd gurgling sound in the back of his throat and Nathan was thrown onto his back as he was dragged across the floor by his leg. The pain was maddening, but his foot was now less than a meter from Spike’s mouth and he knew that if he didn’t do something soon things weren’t likely to get better.

Summoning all his strength, he grabbed the log stool, fixed his aim between the wide milky eyes, and hurled. It struck Spike in the middle of his head and rolled with him out of the tree house. Now the tongue clutched Nathan’s bone so tight he’d swear it was cutting grooves, and for a second all he could do was stare at the ceiling and scream.

He sat up and hammered at the stringy tongue with all his might, but it seemed to be made of rubber. If only he had a knife, he could cut it. He felt the tugging on his bone as Spike began to pull himself up, like a spider ascending a string of its web. Nathan did not have a knife, and he might have despaired but for his ants. They were all over him by now, and those on his leg attacked the tongue with equal ferocity. Some of them began to crawl down it and that was when Spike relinquished. A second later, Nathan heard another whump, far below.

There was not much time, but now he knew what he had to do. Somehow bearing the agony in his leg, he grabbed his desk and lugged it up the branches to the top room. He dropped it just in the entrance and then fell by the fireplace, pushing the stones and sand aside. Safety was no longer his goal for this fire: size was.

He snatched a bundle of kindling and a box of matches he always kept nearby (along with a jug of water, just in case). The bundle lit on the third strike, and he forced himself to nurse it until it was big enough to take a few more substantial logs. He piled them on as fast as he dared, knowing that if he smothered it his only option would be to jump and run.

When a few of the sticks had caught on, he grabbed them and hurried down the branches to the lower room. He found a dry patch in one corner and scraped the dirt away before he lay them down.

When he turned, Spike goggled at him from the doorway once again. This time, instead of staggering backward, he raced across the room, and though he escaped he felt Spike’s tongue lick the sole of his right foot, drawing blood instantly.

He dove back into the fire room and saw that the flames weren’t nearly big enough yet. He turned and wedged the table hard into the doorway. Spike was already scrabbling up the spiralling branches that made a makeshift stairway.

He grabbed another flaming stick and hurled it at Spike. It struck him in the face and Nathan watched with relief as he retreated, squealing obscenely. Nathan turned and grabbed two armfuls of logs, almost all that was left now, and dumped them on the fire. It accepted them with a hiss and a crackle. By now, the heat was singeing the hairs on his body and the smoke was beginning to choke him.

Something red and sharp snaked into his left arm from behind and pulled. Nathan jerked backwards, screaming. He dropped to the floor and reached for the fire, and managed to snag a flaming twig by the tips of his fingers. He could feel hot breath on the back of his neck. Without looking, he thrust the twig over his shoulder and heard another squeal, and the tongue receded.

Nathan threw himself forward and then kicked every last loose bit of wood into the fire except one, which he kept. He flung the flashlight at Spike just as he was coming over the barrier. The desk broke and the whole mess went tumbling down the branches to the lower room.

He didn’t wait to see that flicking tongue again. Instead, he reached up through the open ceiling and hauled himself up onto the next branch. It was a few seconds before the smoke thinned out enough for him to see and breathe properly. When he wiped the tears from his eyes, he saw that he was barely twenty feet from the top of the tree, with the big green hive hanging from the top branch. Then he looked down and saw, amidst billowing smoke and fire, A black body and two milky eyes, steadily ascending.

‘Why don’t you die!’ He screamed at it, beginning to panic in earnest, now. ‘Why don’t you just burn and die!’ Then he turned his attention skywards once more and reached for the next branch.

His climbing was dangerous and uncertain, but Spike was sure and steady, and he was gaining. Soon, Nathan thought, he’d be within reach of his tongue, and if that thing curled around one of his bones once more he didn’t think he’d get free again. He didn’t want to think what those cactus spine teeth could do to his soft flesh.

He climbed with a fearlessness he would have once been awed by. Once, he had to leap from one branch to another, which was barely strong enough to take his weight. It cracked under him, and he found another to stand on just as it was breaking away. Beat that, you slippery turd, he thought, but Spike only goggled at him and flicked his tongue and hooked his way ever upwards.

The trunk grew thinner and thinner as he went, until it was barely as wide as he was, and he realised that he was at the top. Or not quite the top – the hive was almost an arm’s reach above him, now, and that was the top. It didn’t matter, really, because Spike was a fraction of his weight and he was going to reach him. There was nowhere else to go except down, and they were almost forty feet up. The tree house was twenty feet below him, and Spike was perhaps fifteen and climbing.

Nathan looked down at the distant grass, where he could make out massive lines of insects running across the garden, escaping from the fire. The smoke was all around now, thick even at this height.

He looked up at the hive and saw that it was, as he’d suspected, a biter hive. This close, he could see that it was crawling with the little black dots. It looked like a fat green fruit infested with living black mould. He decided, then, that if he couldn’t kill the slavering monster below him, he’d kill its extended family at least.

He couldn’t reach it from where he was – his fingertips barely brushed the bottom. But there was one more branch that might take his weight. Spike was less than ten feet below him, now, and he could hear those hook arms digging into the bark with each step. There was nothing for it, he hugged the trunk and took a step up.

The branch bent under his weight, but it held. Nathan cackled in a voice high with hysteria, and then reached around the trunk with both arms and grabbed hold of the narrow branch which held up the hive. He pulled down, almost resting his entire body on it. The wood began to give a little, and when he shook it he heard a snap. The bites fell from it like pepper from the shaker. As if he knew what was going to happen, Spike let out another gurgling squeal and increased his pace. His tongue leapt out, but he was still short of Nathan’s feet.

There was a loud snapping sound and Nathan felt the branch break. He watched gleefully as the hive fell through the air towards the inferno that was his tree house, and disappear into the smoke. He let out an insane scream, borne out of no particular emotion. It was all animal, and he screamed it down at the disgusting carnivore below him. It screamed back at him, and it was almost as though they were speaking the same language.

But now, Nathan saw, the end had come. Spike’s tongue came flying up towards him. The tip of it pierced the skin near his hip. For an agonizing second, he felt the tongue moving inside him as it groped for purchase. Eventually, it curled like ivy around his upper leg and held tight. He was almost near enough to take a bite.

In his pain and terror, Nathan stared down past this beast and saw the fire. He didn’t think, but he saw the fire and understood only that fire killed. That was the extent of his fear, and his desperation was enough that he needn’t think any further: he simply jumped. In the moments that followed, there was little that Nathan remembered. They were a blur of pain and horror that existed only as they occurred and no further.

Nathan plummeted towards the raging fire. He was jerked up by the leg at the moment Spike’s tongue went taught. Then Spike lost his grip and they went down together. Vision disappeared in masses of smoke, and then they struck the treehouse.

The previous summer, Nathan’s family had gone to the beach, and he and his father had gone swimming in stormy weather. He’d been dumped by a four meter wave that day, and this was like that. The difference was that that storm had been made of water and this one was made of wood and fire. He felt blows on every side and he flopped and turned like a rag doll.

He had no recollection of anything, but when his thoughts returned to him he was lying face down on damp grass, choking. He’d been on fire a moment before, and rolled around on the lawn, but he couldn’t remember even that. Now, all he sensed was heat behind him and he crawled away from it. In all his life, that was the closest he’d ever been to being an insect himself: Mindless, reacting on instinct to the basic sense of pain.

He opened his eyes again and twisted in the grass until he was looking up at his tree house. There was nothing left of it. Most of the fire had burned itself out, but there was a pillar of smoke stretching into the sky. The center had collapsed in on itself and whatever was left had been destroyed by his and Spike’s descent.

And there was Spike, too. He was lying less than five feet away from Nathan. He’d still been alive after the fall, apparently, because while Nathan lay unconscious he’d still been trying to reach him. When Nathan sat up, he saw the long tongue stretched out on the grass, and its tip lay inches from his neck.

Nathan turned and crawled further from the corpse and the smoking ruins. He could hear fire engine sirens in the distance and he had a good idea where they were headed.

He made it to the house and then turned and sat up against the brick wall. His legs were both screaming with pain and he thought one of his lungs must have been damaged because with every breath he received only half the air. He was crying, but they weren’t all tears of pain. He watched his favourite tree house – his sanctuary – burn, and he knew all the bites burned with it.

Nathan closed his eyes and fell back on the grass. He wondered how long it would take his parents to return when they heard there’d been a fire, and what they’d do to him. Eventually, he found he didn’t care.

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