Dale woke up on Monday morning feeling good. That weekend had been better than any before. They’d stayed in the other world for a full three days, and he’d even dared to go wading in the lake, the girls shrieking for him to come back and Brian and Matt egging him on and calling him a maniac at the same time. He’d ducked his head under water before it was up to his knees and looked around, and he was sure he could see almost all the way to the other side of the lake, but there had been no big black shark.
And god damn, what a party it had been that night. He’d brought containers full of pizza and they’d lit the biggest fire yet, drank rivers of vodka and slept for a day. He never thought he’d have friends like these, or see the things he’s seen – and that was just one world!
They hung out and talked at lunch, laughing about the weekend mostly. Afterwards, he gave the Book of Worlds back to Brian. He was the last to read it, and now they all knew the secrets, and the promise. It was all he could think about – besides his own brand of magic, of course, and when the others left after school he wandered up Harrow lane and made his way toward his house with his head in the clouds and a smile on his face.
From his school, the quickest way to Dale’s house was through Westlake park, and so far he’d yet to pass the forest without cutting through just to look at the almost invisible doorway. Had it been possible to make a copy of the key (and by now he’d actually tried, several times) Dale would almost certainly have used it every day. Not to explore in secret, but to lie on the sand by the lake, read, and go for long walks, breathing the thick air.
After he passed the forest, he usually crossed a short field and then hiked up the grassy hill that took him to the top of the cliffs. There he would stand for a few minutes, leaning on the wooden barrier and checking out the view, and then follow the gravel path to Blessing Street, where his house was. This day, he never made it past the cliffs.
He was just resting his forearms on the splintery wood, taking in deep breaths of pine scented air and watching the sun flash off the bubbling creek far below, when he sensed someone behind him and turned around.
Jordan, Ray, and Jimmy. Dale’s heart started hammering almost immediately, but the adrenaline was of no use to him then: there was nowhere to run. Jimmy and Ray came to a stop on either flank; Jordan was in front of him, and the cliffs were at his back. Jordan stopped a couple of meters short, and just stared, with a funny smile on his face. He had a heavy ridge over his eyes that cast them in permanent shadow, like a Neanderthal.
‘What do you want?’ Dale said, forcing his voice to remain steady. He understood that he was going to be beaten up. He could handle that. It just depended how bad. He tried to gauge the violence in them. Ray was grinning, Jimmy had no expression at all, and Jordan just wore that creepy smile.
‘What do I want?’ Jordan said. ‘What you got? You owe me a knife.’
Dale shrugged his schoolbag off his shoulders and tossed it to Jordan. While their eyes followed the bag through the air, he took his phone out of his right pocket and jammed it down the back of his underpants. It slid in and settled under his balls. Sleight of hand, the magician’s most useful trick.
Jordan unzipped the bag, saw the textbooks and half eaten lunch, and shook his head. ‘Pockets, mate,’ he said.
‘My pockets?’ Dale reached into his now empty right pocket and showed them it was empty, while palming the dollar coin he had in there – change for buying an ice cream from the canteen earlier. ‘You wanna check my shoes, too? I’m broke, but I just remembered I had a dollar in my shoe.’
Before Jordan could say anything he reached down and taken off his shoe with his right hand. He tossed it to Jordan, and just as the dollar coin spilled out and drew their attention he reached into his pocket with his left hand and flicked his wallet over the barrier behind him. It would land in the bushes below, unseen. When they looked up, he showed them his other empty pocket, and shrugged. ‘Guess you’re out of luck, dickhead.’
His voice shook that time, and pretty bad, too. The fear had got to him at last, because they knew they’d been tricked somehow. Jordan’s smile disappeared, and in the same moment the other two stepped in and grabbed his arms. He struggled, but not for long. Jordan stepped in and slugged him in the gut.
Dale doubled over, his mouth trying to suck air like a fish out of water, while Jordan searched his pockets and then, frustrated, took off his other shoe and searched that. He threw it aside, unsatisfied, and grabbed Dale’s head, forcing him to look into his big grey eyes.
‘Guess what? It’s not about your money, anyway. I’m gonna fucking kill you today.’
Dale felt the first surge of real fear. He meant it. He really seemed like he meant it. He was insane. Wouldn’t the other two do anything about it? No, not until it was too late. They’d get reluctant, but they’d hold him until it was one blow too many, and then they’d let go and run away.
‘Hang on a sec – ’
Jordan hit him on the right cheek and Dale’s head snapped to the side. When his vision cleared, he saw Jordan settle into a boxing pose. ‘Hey, hold him up higher. I gotta practice my boxing, bro.’
They held him up higher. Jordan shot a couple of jabs into his nose and then an uppercut. It was hard enough to snap his jaw closed and he heard a tooth crack.
‘Fuckin A, man,’ Ray said, laughing.
Jordan hit him a few more times in the ribs and stomach, practicing boxing combinations just like he would on a punching bag at home, and then he struck out with his right and Dale blacked out. When he came back, the other two boys were supporting his whole weight and he was watching his blood drip onto a pine cone in a patch of grass.
‘Fuuuuck,’ he heard Jimmy say. ‘Kid’s messed up, bro. Let’s get the fuck out of here.’
‘Alright, alright, one more, yeah? Gotta show these mother fuckers.’
‘One more?’ Ray said.
‘Yeah, one more, come on. Then drop him and let’s go.’
Dale vomited onto the pine cone. He had never felt so bad in his whole life, but a spark of hope lighted as he realised he was going to live. Jordan hadn’t meant to kill him after all. It was going to be alright.
He looked up at Jordan, his eyes almost too swollen to see anything, his lips numb and fat, and he forced a smile. ‘Hey, Jordan boy,’ he gurgled.
‘What, bitch? Last words?’
‘Screwed your mum. Twice.’
All of a sudden Jordan’s mouth was right in his ear, his hot breath reeking of onions and mushrooms, making Dale want to vomit again. ‘If you ever tell anyone it was me? I’m going to cut your little sister’s fingers off. I’m still too young for jail, remember.’
And he struck. There was a cracking sound as his foot connected with Dale’s chest, and then another one, but the latter was by far the worst, because it was the sound of wood breaking. The barrier broke behind Dale and he fell free of Ray and Jimmy’s grasp. He caught a glimpse of blue sky, hard clay, and then his head hit and he was dead to the world.
By the time he settled at the bottom of the cliffs with a cracked skull, two broken ribs and a broken arm, the three boys had set off at a sprint in three different directions. He wouldn’t be found for another fifteen minutes, by a young couple and their two children walking their beagle through the park.