My paintbrush clatters onto the desk as I notice a minuscule white dot on my fingernail. Not me, not me, not me. Please not me. I’m gonna have a heart attack. I push back on my chair, trace a circle round my heart, then spring up and pace round my attic room. This is ba-a-a-a-d.
“Alex, your dinner’s ready,” my mum calls from the bottom of the stairs.
I fling open my wardrobe then carefully start folding clothes into a rucksack. If I’m gonna lose my mind I’ll lose it in style. Having packed my most favourite clothes, I put on some trendy shoes which go with the outfit I’m wearing.
“Alex, dinner. Did you hear me?”
Instinctively I snatch up my paint tin and shove it into the bottom of my pack. Unable to face eating dinner I climb out my sky window onto the roof then scale down the house. On reaching the pavement below I tuck my hair behind my ears and run. Want to reach the edge of the world, know I won’t but at least lack a sense of direction so should lose myself in no time.
I sprint hard down my street. Past Casey’s house. Keep going wanting to get out of Kensington, which is deemed almost absolutely safe from the affliction. My chest tightens as smooth pavements turn to cracks then potholes. The world seems a lot greyer over here even though it isn’t. My neighbourhood manages to pretend they’re not part of the rest of the world because they can afford to maintain their homes. Outside of Kensington dilapidated tower blocks are rooted in the ground; their roofs almost touch the Cloud Barrier. I find I’ve ended up down a dodgy alley. While I catch my breath, I lean into a splintering doorway. Stare at the white spot on my fingernail; taunting me. What am I going to do?
I slide down the door until I’m crouched on the stoop with my knees pulled up to my chest. Gradually the white spot will get bigger, turn grey, along with my skin. A few weeks later I’ll grow insane, as my mind drifts away, bit by bit, until I’m numb, wandering mindless.
Rock rock, back and forth. Give a sniff as a tear slides down my cheek. I could give Casey’s door a knock. Show him my nail. Ask for help. No. He’d only tell me I was being annoying bugging him with more tears.
Thought I was safe from the affliction. Both my parents have lived a solid forty years without getting any white marks. They have been lucky. I should have been prepared for finding a mark. Most people outside Kensington develop the affliction; it’s the way things are. The norm.
“Eeek!” I shriek as a bony man with grey skin staggers past me. That’ll be me in a couple of years, perhaps less.
Not happening. Not happening.
I totes feel super healthy meaning I can’t be sick. Silly little spot.
Blinking back any more tears I find my feet. My hands shake. Ignoring those shakes I edge away from this alley. Part of me wants to go home. Can’t ’cause they’ll confine me to my room until my mind starts diminishing then do me a mercy killing. That happens to a lot of young people. Happened to poor Jess. Not me. I will live.
My feet wander out into open streets. Shabby citizens moan and murmur to themselves as they drift about in dazes. The odd coherent person walks by me either looking vacant or distressed. I crane my neck back trying to feel a breeze against my face. Nothing. I rarely feel breezes. I’ve heard air circulates better outside of Lundune. Outside. Yeah, I’ll leave Lundune.
Herm which way is outside? I come to a standstill and slowly spin round on the spot. Look down streets trying to figure which one would be best to take. This is the first time I’ve come this far out my neighbourhood alone; sometimes I get to go to Bloomsbury with our school to support the basketball team. My dad told me the rest of the world was too damaged to venture out into. Mum was less pessimistic but eventually agreed with Dad after they had a blazing row because she took me on a ferry over to France on one of her jobs. That’s the only time I have left Lundune.
Ooo there’s a group of kids with patches of grey on their skin. Perhaps they know a way out.
I wave. They ignore me. Maybe they didn’t see me. “Hi there.” I go over to the porch they’re sitting round. They look at me real slow with distant eyes. Yikes, their minds are leaving them. “Do you know a way out of the city?”
“Mister Hans,” says a boy. The left side of his face is completely grey. His finger slowly points over to a street vendor who has a crowd of customers gathered round his wares cart.
“Thank you,” I shriek in my excitement as I run to join the rest of the customers.
Mister Hans’s eyes pick me out from the crowd as soon as I get close. “Pretty boy want an elixir?” he calls to me from behind his pull a long cart. The crowd clustered round his wares part to let Mister Hans get a better view of me. I tug up the hood on my cloak. “Pretty boy need an elixir?”
“I’m not sick!”
“Then what you doing away from home?” Mister Hans leans his elbows a top his cart, upsetting vials which contain liquid resembling watered down vinegar. Probably is vinegar. People get desperate when they know their time is short. Mister Hans beckons to me. “Come come. I have something which might be able to help you.”
“You can help him?” asks a customer with greying hair.
“Certainly, he’s not too far gone.”
Another shriek leaves me as hands grab for me. I get dragged into the midst of the crowd of desperate customers. I keep on shrieking until I’m pushed into the front of the cart. Expectant eyes look at Mister Hans as though waiting to witness a miracle.
“Behold a white spot.” Mister Hans grabs my hands searching my nails for the mark condemning my sanity.
“I’m perfectly healthy,” I insist.
“For now.” Mister Hans rubs my marked nail with his thumb then drags me round to his side of the cart. Speaks almost in a whisper so only I can hear. “You’re Annie and Dave’s boy, aren’t you?”
I shake my head despite wondering how he knows who I am.
“You should go home. Lose your wits round your family. At least you’ll have home comforts. Lucky you having immune folks with a solid business.”
“I’m not sick.”
“So you wouldn’t be interested in my elixirs yet. Hermmm I see you want something special until the time comes for elixir.” Mister Hans presses a finger to his lips as he pulls a small key from a pocket within his shirt. “Not sick hermmm.” He ducks behind the cart out of the crowd’s sight and pushes his key into a lock on the side of the cart. Click goes the lock and Mister Hans pulls open a drawer. From the drawer he takes out a bottle of nail polish.
“That’s contraband,” I breathe. Nail polish is illegal so are full length gloves, so as not to hide the first stages of the affliction. A lot of the immune prefer to segregate themselves from those infected.
“Not your regular bottle of nail polish,” whispers Mister Hans. “This type is extremely difficult to get hold of. You need friends in exceedingly low places. Would you like a free sample, pretty boy?”
I really shouldn’t be letting some chancy street vendor paint my nail with an illegal substance. Yet the silly white spot taunts me. “Out of sight out of mind.” I hold out my hand. Mister Hans brushes over my nail with clear polish. In a second my nail looks regular with no white spot showing through. Doesn’t even look like I’m wearing nail polish.
“Works a treat hermmm? You could go home and pretend you’re normal for a few months. All you’d have to do is apply this polish to infected nail areas once a week. It’s tough stuff. Won’t come off easy.”
I scratch at my nail. Feels regular without any stickiness neither does the polish flake away. “How much?”
“Expensive I’m afraid. This is the only bottle I could get hold of this month.”
I dig round in my pack. Come out with a coin pouch. I pour the contents onto the top of the cart.
“That’ll do.” Mister Hans’s greedy eyes gleam over three gold coins, six silver, and a handful of bronze.
I place a hand over the coins. “You never saw me.”
“You mean to say you’re not going home?”
“No because I’m perfectly healthy.”
“And I am mistaken. The Harlington boy wouldn’t be foolish enough to spend all his money on magical cosmetics off a fraudster.”
I lift my hand from the coins and take the bottle of nail polish from Mister Hans. Place it in my coin pouch, pull the cord tight, and push it into the bottom of my pack then give Mister Hans a wink.
“Another satisfied customer,” exclaims Mister Hans as he turns to the crowd and starts handing out elixirs for scraps of whatever these desperate people have lurking in their pockets. “Are you still here?” he asks on seeing me lingering.
“Yeah. I was wondering if you knew the way out of Lundune?”
“You’re more or less out. Keep walking along this street. Take your next left down a twisty turny alley. You’ll see your gate to freedom at the end of it.”