Thomas watched the whole thing through the window.
He had seen the two boys before. They came to the bus stop opposite the house every day; sometimes racing each other and only just on time, sometimes early and standing apart as though they barely knew each other - yet it was clear they were brothers. The older one was stocky, with a heavy scowl that dared the world to cross him. The young one was quiet and wary. Both had a mop of chestnut curls, untamed and - Thomas suspected - quite untamable.
For the first few weeks, he had only noticed them in passing; an accidental glimpse as he lifted his gaze from the piano keys. But working from home meant that days were long and distraction was an ever-present issue. The view from his window became addictive, like a haunting piece of music or a gripping novel. He found himself sitting down at the piano ahead of time, mug of coffee abandoned on the high pile of sheet music at his side, staring through the window with an air of guilt-ridden fascination, as his fingers roamed the keys in a vague attempt to prove that he was still working. A story was playing out in front of him; vivid snatches that only left him wanting more.
And then it happened.
Something in the young boy's world had unsettled him today. His head was low and his foot kicked the dirt at the side of the road, firing it into the air all around him. He wore the same clothes as yesterday; a Superman t-shirt and a pair of over-sized jeans, lashed to his waist with a belt and rolled up at the ankles. Their tired state implied that they had belonged to someone else, not so very long ago. The boy standing next to him, perhaps. That delightful specimen of youth was staring down the road with a sullen, hangdog expression when, all at once, an errant stone flew up and stung his knuckles. He turned and grabbed his brother by the shoulders, shoving him backwards. The little boy stumbled and fell in a cloud of dust. His mouth flew open in shock but no sound came out. Instead, he scrabbled backwards to a safe distance and sat there, rocking on the ground with his arms around his knees. The small head drooped even lower until the only thing visible was a burning pair of blue eyes, red around the edges and scowling at the grubby tips of his sneakers.
Folding his arms and feigning satisfaction, even though he was clearly rattled by the intensity of his brother's distress, the older boy turned his back and stared down the road as though nothing was wrong. Now and then, he risked a glance behind him but the little boy never noticed; or at least, he chose not to. All this time, no words had passed between them.
What to do? Both boys would be horrified to learn that their actions were being observed, yet Thomas, full of sympathy for the little victim, felt a strong urge to intervene. His problem appeared to be solved when the school bus finally trundled into view, crawling out of the heat haze like an ugly yellow dinosaur, one hot summer away from extinction. The older boy stepped forward, holding out his hand to halt the bus. The little boy leapt to his feet and dove, head first, into the scrubby bushes that lined the road.
Thomas watched with bated breath, all pretense at work abandoned, as the bus crawled to a halt in front of his window. It was full of lively, chattering heads; happy children, on their way to a happy day at school. Climbing on with haste, the older brother spoke to the driver for a moment and then made his way to the back where his friends were waiting. With a sickly roar, the bus moved on.
A pair of wide eyes followed its progress from the bushes.
When the little boy judged that he was safe, he clambered out again with some difficulty, snagging his jeans in the process and ripping a hole in the left leg. His thin face was jubilant at first but, as he continued to watch the bus dwindle away down the road and slip back through the hazy cloak that circled his small world, his chin began to wobble and his eyes grew even wider; glassy with tears, like two blue marbles. No one could see him - and now it was safe to cry. Tilting his head back, he howled his distress to the open sky; a lonely child with nobody to help him.
Resolve set in like a burst of adrenaline, fiery and unstoppable. Before he could think too deeply about the consequences of his action, Thomas left his stool, his door and his house behind and walked across the wide grey road to the child that needed him.
New York City, 2005
Jason couldn't say exactly what it was that woke him. All he knew was that, suddenly, he found himself staring up at the ceiling, watching the sliding patches of light that meant a car was passing by outside. The room felt cold and lonely - and wrong somehow.
"Roo?" he whispered, straining his ears for the sound of her breathing. She must have snuggled deep beneath the covers tonight because he couldn't hear a thing. "Roo?" he tried again, a little more urgently this time.
No reply. With a shiver, Jason poked his toes out into the freezing air. The carpet that managed to cover two-thirds of the floor was old and thin. Setting his feet down, he gave a little squeak of shock. He dragged the quilt from his bed and wrapped it around his shoulders like a cloak. It was far too long, of course, and the tail end slithered behind him with a satisfying noise as he made his way to his sister's bed on the opposite side of the room.
But Roo wasn't there.
Her own quilt lay on the floor in a jumbled heap. The empty bed was pale and exposed; the white sheet gleaming through the darkness like a ghost. Reaching out, he stroked it curiously. The deep hollow worn by her body was warm to the touch. She had gone to the bathroom, then. That had to be it and, of course, she'd be back any minute. Jason smiled.
Climbing up, he pulled both quilts around him and sat on her bed, cross-legged, his eyes fixed on the crack of light that framed the Door as he waited for his sister to return. When he was very young, they often used to snuggle together for comfort and warmth. Now that Roo was older, and Jason too, she liked to discourage him, saying quite firmly that big boys belonged in their own beds. Tonight, however, he was cold and a little bit scared, all alone in the dark. Surely she would understand? He yearned for the comfort of her arms. Time passed, and he began to wonder why she was taking so long.
"Roo," he breathed, and this time it was more of a whimper. Jason knew. He knew exactly what he had to do and it frightened him.
He had to go and find her.
No, said the big black Door. You can't go past me. The cracks around it were so bright that when Jason looked away, he could still see a glowing shape painted on the air, like an empty frame. He watched it fade, wishing that Roo's face would pop up inside it; a living picture. That was the game they used to play, when neither one of them could sleep. But the room, like the frame, was empty and when the magic light had faded, Jason took a deep breath and slid down from the bed. "I'm going," he told the Door. "An' you can't stop me."
He stumbled towards his foe. Rules were rules, but this was important. He wasn't supposed to leave the room – like a baby, he couldn't control himself and still wore pull-ups at night – but what if Roo was hurt somewhere, and all alone?
Reaching out, he found the handle in the darkness. It was cold and stung his hand but he clung to it tightly and dragged it downwards. The Door swung over his toes, scraping the bare skin and making him jump. "Ow!" he cried out, and then froze. He listened intently, but no one had noticed the sound. Mommy was snoring in the Big Room; little piggy snores that stopped and started with a gurgle. Daddy was quiet – but then, he always was.
Jason crept past the Door with a shudder. As he tiptoed down the hallway, he could feel it behind him, watching sternly like a Cop. Every timid step took him further away from the place where he was meant to be. But Roo was meant to be there too, and Jason couldn't bear Not Knowing any longer. He clenched his little fists and headed for the bathroom.
She wasn't there either.
He tugged on the light switch and stared at the gleaming white sink. He checked the bath and the wash-basket. He even peered down the toilet, though he couldn't say why. The room was empty. It smelled of disinfectant, just the way Mommy liked it. Jason saw his own face in the mirror, white and scared, and watched his bottom lip begin to quiver. Where was Roo?
Padding out of the bathroom he tried not to cry but already, big fat tears were squeezing out of his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. He wondered where they came from and why they always made him feel so sad. Wiping the first few away with the back of his hand, he ventured even further. Every step felt like a new crime. When he poked his head into the living room, he stopped in shock.
The Front Door was open.
That was the worst crime of all, especially at night. Had Mommy done it? Or – Jason started to panic – surely not Roo? He trembled to think of the trouble they'd be in. Outside, the darkness was blacker than ever, a Nothing world. It swallowed the lobby completely. A hundred monsters could be waiting there to gobble him up and Jason would never see them until it was too late.
His hands clutched his mouth and he screamed in silence as a shape detached itself from Nothing and staggered through the doorway.
"Jason," a voice growled. "What are you doing there?"
He shook his head and backed away. The Monster was angry. Its claws reached out for him and they were red. There were scratches on its face – and the face was familiar.
"Daddy?" he whispered. "Where's Roo?"