After a freak accident sees Mattie dying and being revived by a handsome young scientist, the side effects from her revival lead to her being able to see auras. As she struggles to come to terms with what happened to her, she attracts the notice of an unscrupulous psychic. But the real danger may come from spending time with the man who brought her back to life. Employer, mentor, confidant; Doc is the last person she should be developing feelings for.
(I am excited to be revisiting this story and sharing it with you as I work on it. As it is a work in progress, there may be errors and changes that will made once this revision is complete and sent off to the editor)
The Revival Project 1: Freak
‘I’m sorry I can’t give you a lift home,’ said Mrs Dawson, light from the front doorway spilling around her tall frame, ‘but Frank is too sick to be left alone with the kids. Are you sure you don’t want me to call your parents, get them to come and pick you up?’
I switched on the light between the handlebars of my bike and settled the overnight bag containing my pyjamas and spare clothes more comfortably on my back.
With the long hours Dad had been working, opening up a new bank branch, he’d been missing out on sleep as it was. I didn’t want to disturb him just because my overnight babysitting shift had been cut short. Mum was just as tired, having spent last month packing up our old house in Brisbane, and then making sure everything was put exactly where she wanted after we’d arrived at our new place two weeks ago.
I smiled at Mrs Dawson. ‘I’ll be fine. It’s not far. I hope Mr Dawson feels better soon.’
‘Thanks, Mattie. It certainly has been an interesting start to our anniversary celebrations.’
I buckled on my bike helmet before waving goodbye. A cool breeze rippled over my bare arms, and I shivered as I pedalled out of the cul-de-sac. The one advantage to moving to a small town was being able to ride my bike at night. The streets were empty, lights on in the houses I rode past as I headed toward the road that wound around the park in the middle of Merranville.
It was peaceful. Quiet.
Just the way I liked it, with no one to expect things from me that I couldn’t give.
Laughter and the din of happy voices intruded on my solitude as I got closer to the park. I stopped peddling to pull over to the kerb and peered ahead.
A group of kids sat around a rustic picnic table on the outskirts of the park closest to me. The streetlights circling the park illuminated happy, smiling faces I recognised from my new high school. The three girls and four boys joked around with the familiarity of friends who had grown up together. The way I used to joke around with my friends back in Brisbane. Before…
Pain gripped my chest, my breathing hard and fast. Despite the breeze, heat flushed through my body and sweat broke out on my face.
No. I had to stop thinking about that. It was in the past. A past I could not change. But one I could learn from. I focused on taking deep, steadying breaths as I counted down from ten, like the therapist had taught me. The pain in my chest eased, and I exhaled slowly as my count ended.
If I were to continue home this way, I would have to ride past them. A couple of them had already tried to make friends, and I’d made it clear I wasn’t interested. But one girl had been persistent, and I could see her with them. Even though I knew I was being a total jerk when I brushed Claire off, the ache in my chest would not let up until I was alone. Safe.
Best if she never saw me tonight at all.
I turned my bike around and headed in the direction of the rickety wooden bridge connecting the two sides of Merranville. Mum and Dad wouldn’t be happy with me going this way, preferring I use the main bridge, but I could not risk riding past Claire and the others.
The wind cooled the sweat on my face, and I was breathing normally by the time I drew near the old bridge, smooth bitumen beneath my tyres replaced by gravel. I shuddered as I rode past houses that looked as if they were being strangled by weeds; broken windows and missing tiles giving the elements full access. Dad said these empty houses would be knocked down soon, to make way for the construction of accommodation for the hundreds of miners and their families expected to flock to town once the new coal mine was operational. Creepy enough in the day time, night shadows gave them the appearance of haunted houses waiting to gobble up the unwary.
I left the last forgotten house behind and moved onto the bridge, sticking to the centre line. Dad called the bridge a minefield of rotting timber, but I knew cars still used it so it couldn’t be that bad. The town council would have closed it for sure if it wasn’t safe to use. Still, I sped up, eager to get to the other side as fast as possible
As I reached the middle of the bridge a car appeared out of the darkness at the other end of the bridge, headlights on high beam. I used one hand to shield my eyes from the glare while directing my bike through a gap in the guardrail and onto the walkway. The front wheel hit a loose board and I jolted forward, abdomen slamming into the handlebars. The bike slid sideways and I let go of the handlebars, windmilling my arms in an attempt to regain my balance.
It didn’t help.
My bike hit the railing, followed by an ominous creak. The wooden railing shattered and I toppled over the edge.
I screamed, plummeting through the air. The slap ricocheted through my body when I landed in cold, murky water that poured into my open mouth. Violent coughs ripped through me as my lungs worked to expel the water and replace it with air.
The bike landed on top of me, pushing me under the surface. I tried to twist out from under it, but the strap of my overnight bag got caught. I wriggled around, desperate to untangle myself before the scant air I had managed to suck in ran out.
The weight of the bike forced me deeper into the river. I gave up trying to free my bag and slipped it off my shoulders. I thrashed in the water, searching for the surface. It was so dark. I didn’t know which way to go.
My lungs screamed for air. I had to breathe. I opened my mouth.
Dirty river water flooded my throat, choking me, forcing its way into my lungs. I coughed, body jerking, agony engulfing my chest.
Ohmygod. I was going to die.
I launched myself into a sitting position, coughing as river water was expelled from my lungs. Tremors started in my shoulders and worked their way to my feet. I huddled in a ball, knees tucked into my chest, eyes closed, head bowed.
What the hell had happened to me?
Memory hit and I flung my eyes open, nostrils flaring. I’d been in the river.
I gulped in air, sure I could still feel the weight of the bike dragging me under and the water forcing its way down my throat. The tremors in my limbs worsened, and my teeth chattered.
I struggled to a kneeling position.
Bright green goo clung to every inch of my bare skin, globs of it sticking to my bra and knickers. A pool of it lapped at my thighs and squelched with each movement, emitting a scent that remined me of the disinfectant Mum used when she was cleaning the bathroom.
What the hell was going on? Where were my clothes?
Eyes wide, I looked around and gasped, freezing me in place.
I was not alone.
A young guy with dark blonde hair, wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt, stared at me from the other side of a glass wall. A strange, multi-coloured glow swirled around his head.
Goose bumps rippling over my body, I crossed my arms over my chest and backed away, colliding with a barrier behind me. I spun around and found another glass wall, and two more on either side of me. Breath coming in gasps, my eyes darted everywhere, trying to take everything in at once.
I was in a giant tank. A tank that sat on a low bench in the middle of a large room. One wall of the room was taken up by computer monitors that rested on a long desk overflowing with paperwork. The other side was cluttered with more desks, filing cabinets, and enough technical gadgets to power a spaceship.
To the side of the tank was a stainless steel trolley. My breathing sped up, throat closing over, when I spotted a tray filled with gleaming medical implements in the middle of it. I fought to control my breathing, struggling to understand where I was and what had happened.
My gaze darted back to the young guy standing silently in front of me. ‘Am I in the hospital?’ It was the only explanation that made sense.
‘No. This is Oak Laboratory.’ His voice was low, soothing, as if he were trying to calm a skittish kitten to stop it from climbing the curtains.
‘Oak?’ I frowned, brain racing. I’d heard about this place; it was a veterinary research facility, situated on the outskirts of town.
‘What am I doing here? Why aren’t I in the hospital? Has somebody called my mum and dad?’ My voice rose with each question, my attempt to settle my breathing failing miserably.
He put his hands in the air, palms out. ‘It’s okay. You’re okay. I brought you here after I got you out of the river. Getting you to the hospital would have taken too long.’
Desperate for something, anything, to help me make sense of all this, I latched onto his words, using them to ground my thoughts. ‘You got me out? You saved me?’ My eyes widened. ‘You were in the car, the one on the bridge.’
He gave a nod, clear green eyes focused on mine.
I closed my eyes and for the second time that night went through my breathing exercise. Ten, nine, eight … By the time I reached one the panic surging through me had abated somewhat. I was okay. This guy had saved me from drowning. He’d helped me. I was going to be fine.
I opened my eyes and managed a wobbly smile when I spotted the towel my saviour was now holding out.
My hands trembled as I took the towel from him, grateful when he immediately turned around to give me privacy. My legs were just as wobbly as my hands, and I used the edge of the tank to steady myself as I stood. I quickly wrapped the towel around me, and then contemplated the sides of the tank and distance to the floor. The tank almost completely covered the bench it rested on, leaving me an edge the width of my palm to step out onto. No way would I be able to get out of here on my own, not without falling.
The guy who had saved my life still stood with his back to me. He held himself rigid, head up, focused on the opposite wall.
‘Um, could you give me a hand, please?’
At my request, he immediately turned around and stepped closer to the table. Then he carefully placed his hands at my waist. I rested my palms on his broad shoulders to steady myself as I stepped over the side of the tank and balanced my heels on the edge of the bench. My saviour lifted me down with little effort, releasing me as soon as my feet touched the floor, He stepped away, turning his back again while I towelled myself dry.
The goop had made my skin sticky, and I concentrated on trying to scrub off the green residue before running a hand through my hair. It appeared to be sticking up in spikes and I tried in vain to smooth it down. God, I must look awful.
Through all this, the guy who had pulled me from the river remained silent. With a sigh, I gave up trying to fix my hair and looked around the lab for my things. He may have saved my life, but that did not make me any more comfortable to be alone with him when I was only dressed in my underwear and a towel. ‘Where are my clothes?’
He finally turned to face me, a sheepish expression on his face. ‘I’m sorry. I had to cut them off before I put you in the tank.’ He gestured towards a sodden pile of clothing on the floor by the silver trolley.
He strode over to the wall to where a number of lab coats hung on hooks beside a set of elevator doors. He took one down and returned to stand in front of me, avoiding eye contact as he held the coat out. ‘You can borrow this.’
‘Thank you,’ I said as I slipped it on over top of the towel. The coat was too big, the hem coming to my calves and as I rolled up the sleeves I read the embroidered badge on the front. ‘Dr Jonathon Oak. Who’s he?’
‘I’m Dr Oak.’
My breath caught and my heart rate sped up. I shook my head. ‘You can’t be a doctor. You’re too young.’ He could have only been three or four years older than me, five at the most. ‘And isn’t this an animal lab?’
He shrugged, cheeks flushing. ‘I was a child prodigy. I completed a PhD in veterinary science earlier this year.’
‘Oh.’ I rubbed my face, not sure what to think. I was barely scraping through my last year of high school. Could someone so young really have a PhD? But then, why would he lie about something like that?
I scanned the lab once more, eyeing all the high-tech equipment. He was certainly in the right place, if he was some kind of prodigy. Maybe he was telling the truth. Either way, he had saved my life and I owed him for that.
‘My name’s Mattie, Mattie Budd.’ I fought to keep a quiver out of my voice at the memory of being pinned under my bike, desperate for air, as I said, ‘It’s a good thing you were there to pull me out of the river. I thought I was going to die.’
He stared at me, green eyes brimming with sorrow. ‘I am so sorry to have to tell you this, Mattie, but you did die.’
I flung my head back. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Have a seat,’ he said. ‘This is a lot to take in, but I can explain.’
The distressed expression on his face caused a hard lump to appear in my throat, making it hurt to swallow. I wanted to run, get out of the room, block my ears so I couldn’t hear what he was about to tell me. But my legs defied me, losing their strength as he ushered me to a chair. The wheels skidded on the tiled floor as I collapsed onto it. Dr Oak knelt in front of me, taking my hands in his.
He heaved a sigh that sounded like it pained him as it fought its way out of his lungs. ‘I need you to listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.’ He took another of those lung defying sighs.
‘What happened to me?’ My hands were limp in his, body frozen at the tortured expression in his eyes when he looked at me.
‘When you went in the river, it took me a while to find you. By the time I got you to the bank you’d been without air for too long. I tried to resuscitate you, but it didn’t work. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t save you.’
‘What are you talking about? Of course you saved me.’ I pulled my hands free, voice rising. ‘I’m as alive as you can get.’
He shook his head. ‘I realise this is hard for you to believe, but you did die. Then I brought your body here and used a synthetic blood replacement I’ve been working on to bring you back to life. This is a highly experimental process, one that will take years before it can be perfected. As a result, your revival was … incomplete. Though you look and feel like you’re fully alive-’
I shot to my feet. ‘Stop saying that. I am not dead.’
Dr Oak stood as well, backing off to give me space. ‘Hold your breath,’ he said.
‘I want you to hold your breath for as long as you can.’
I stared at him for a long moment. He was crazy. Had to be. All his talk about being some kind of doctor must be a lie, a sick and twisted game. My stomach churned and I could taste bile in the back of my throat as I glanced over at the elevator. I would not be able to get the door open and get out of there before he could stop me. I’d have to play along, humour him, until I got a chance to escape.
Swallowing hard, I stamped down on the panic welling inside me. If I let myself go I’d start screaming and never stop. I took three deep breaths, holding the last one in.
Dr Oak set a timer on his phone and held it up in front of me. I watched as first one minute ticked over, then another, and another. Five minutes elapsed and I still felt no need to take a breath. Heart pounding, I lifted my gaze to his.
‘What have you done to me?’
Expression grave, Dr Oak said, ‘I replaced your blood with a synthetic version, Oxy-Revival3. It repaired the damage done to your brain and body due to lack of oxygen. Then I immersed you in a super-conductive gel and used electricity to start your heart beating again.’
Nausea roiled in my stomach and I hunched over as I gasped out, ‘That’s impossible.’
He gave me a gentle smile. ‘I’m afraid it is entirely possible. For the last two years I have been working on creating a synthetic blood that would not only carry oxygen but also assist the body to recover from illness and injury. During the initial testing phase I discovered Oxy-Revival3 had amazing healing properties. With complete replacement of the original blood supply, it could reanimate animals that had recently died. A human is a far more complex creature but I knew the results would not be dissimilar, which is why I used it on you.’
The colours swirling around his head pulsed as I stared at him, unable to speak. Thoughts crowded my head, none of them concrete enough to form words. My eyes stung, but I would not cry.
‘I promise you, if there was any other way to bring you back I would have done it,’ he said. ‘I know this won’t seem like much at the moment, but your body will follow normal patterns to some extent. You can breathe, eat and sleep, just like always. If for any reason you can’t do these things, the Oxy-Revival3 will continue to control your body’s natural functions without detriment to you for an extended period of time. There will also be no outward changes. You will age normally and no one will know you are any different.’
No different? I had just held my breath for five minutes without needing air. That was as far from normal as you could get.
As if they wanted to prove the test a lie, my lungs were now sucking in oxygen like it was about to go extinct, while my heart was beating so hard and fast it hurt. My entire body was rigid, frozen in place, even though I wanted to run, fight, do something.
Eyes squeezed shut, I blocked out Dr Oak and the lab as I fought to regain control, to not let the panic suck me under. If I gave in now, I might never resurface.
Silence filled the lab, my harsh breathing the only sound for several minutes. When I opened my eyes, Dr Oak had not moved. Concern filled his green gaze as he watched me. I looked away, searching the lab for something, anything that would free me from the nightmare I’d stumbled into. My gaze fell on a large glass container filled with blood.
It stood beside an identical container empty apart for gold flecks coating the inside. Both containers had long tubes dangling from them, with wicked looking needles poking out the ends.
The tiny measure of composure I had regained fled as I turned away from the macabre sight and collapsed back onto the chair. Cold washed over me in a wave and I wrapped arms around myself, the tears I’d held back before threatening to burst free. ‘This is crazy. It can’t be happening.’
Dr Oak strode over to the implement tray and picked up a sharp, shiny scalpel.
My breath caught as he returned to stand in front of me and took hold of my right hand. With the edge of the scalpel, he pricked my index finger. I stared in dismay at the tiny drop of gold that welled up before he wiped it away, swallowing heavily as the small puncture closed over.
‘Minor wounds will be repaired almost immediately. Serious ones will take more time. Your body will survive any trauma so long as it doesn’t lose too much blood. Incidentally, you are now protected against every disease known to man and those that aren’t.’ He released my hand.
I couldn’t care less about my sudden resistance to disease. My hand fell to my lap. ‘What have you done? You’ve turned me into a freak.’
‘You are not a freak. You are a young woman who has been given another chance. I couldn’t let you go without doing everything possible to save you.’
Anger surged through me, washing away the cold. ‘I’m a walking corpse, and you think that’s giving me another chance; that you’ve saved me? What kind of life am I going to have if I’m half-dead?’ I pulled free of his grasp.
‘Mattie, listen to me. Nothing needs to change. You just need to take a few precautions. You can’t tell anyone about this. They wouldn’t understand. And you can’t let anyone take your blood. If they see yours is gold, and not red, they’ll start asking questions. If people find out what I’ve done, scientists all over the world would want access to you.’ Fear darkened his gaze.
Fear for me.
My throat closed over at the words he left unsaid. Those scientists would want to run tests. Lots of tests. The thought of being locked away in a lab, while people in white coats experimented on me, set my body trembling again. They’d probably sell tickets to anyone who wanted to gawk at the girl who was half-dead.
Voice a whisper, I asked, ‘Why did you do this to me, if you knew what would happen?’
‘It was my fault you drowned. I had to save you.’ His eyes brimmed with guilt, while his broad shoulders hunched as if he braced for a blow.
I wanted to hit him. Smash his lab to smithereens. But none of that would undo what he had done. Exhaustion hit, and I sagged back in the chair.
‘What happens now? Am I supposed to go home and pretend this never happened?’ Denial had not worked as a coping mechanism for me before, and I didn’t think this time would be any different.
‘I wish I had all the answers. I’ve only used Oxy-Revival3 on animals before, so this is a first for me too,’ he said. ‘You’re lucky you have olive skin, though. It makes it harder to see your veins, but you should be careful not to let anyone look too closely. You need to remain as inconspicuous as possible, until we can figure this out. Do you understand?’
‘Yeah, I guess.’ I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation. Exhausted by my earlier panic, I now felt displaced, as if this was happening to someone else. I blinked hard, and then rubbed my eyes but couldn’t dispel the glow I was seeing each time I looked at him.
‘I see colours all around you. It’s pretty, but strange.’ I twisted around to look at my reflection in the glass tank walls. ‘I don’t see any colours around me, just you.’
Concern lit his gaze as he stared at me. ‘It could be a side effect from the revival process, but I can’t say for sure. None of my earlier test subjects were able to tell me what they were experiencing. So, while I know the basics of what you will go through, there are whole layers that need to be explored.’
He moved over to the silver trolley and picked through the medical implements on the tray, movements brisk and efficient. ‘I’ll need to run some tests. I’ll check your eyes first, and then we’ll see how the rest of your body is adapting to the Oxy-Revival3.’
A fresh surge of energy washed through me and I shot to my feet. Hands in front of me, I backed away. ‘No. No tests.’
He froze, brow creased. ‘Mattie, I understand you’re scared but this is important. I need to know how your body is functioning. I must complete my tests to make sure your revival is everything it should be.’
Mouth dry, I swallowed heavily. ‘I can’t deal with this. Not now. I want to go home.’ I wanted my mum and dad, to have them hold me in their arms and tell me everything was okay, and this was just a terrible nightmare.
At my entreaty, he gave a sigh and put his implements back on the tray. Then he gave me a troubled smile. ‘I’m sorry for upsetting you. Of course you can go home. But it is imperative I complete these tests. I need your promise you will not tell your parents about what happened here tonight, and that you will come back as soon as you can.’
‘Absolutely.’ I would have promised him anything, just to get out of there, though the thought of having to keep such a monumental secret from my parents set my stomach churning. Then again, I’d put them through so much already. Dumping a half-dead daughter in their laps might be the blow that broke our family altogether.
‘I could come here on Monday, after school. Will that be okay?’ Hopefully he could get his tests done in one afternoon and I would never have to see him again.
‘Thank you. I’ll just turn everything off, and then I’ll take you home.’ He stopped fiddling with the instruments on the tray and began moving about the lab, shutting the computers and equipment down.
While I waited, I looked at my hands, turning them over, tracing the line of veins beneath the skin. He was right. Even in the fluorescent light, it was hard to tell what was really keeping my heart pumping. I made my hands into fists and grimaced when the veins became more visible. I’d have to remember not to do that, if I wanted to keep my new identity as a freak secret.
‘Ready?’ He stood beside the elevator, hand poised above the call button.
With a nod, I scooped up my wet things and hunted through them, frowning when all I found was my clothes. ‘Did you see my overnight bag, or my phone?’
‘Sorry, no. They must still be in the river, along with your bike.’
Pain swept through me. There had been a lot of memories stored on my mobile phone, photos I could never replace. One more piece of the past lost to me forever.
Straightening my shoulders, I took a deep breath and fished my house keys out of my jeans pocket before tossing my ruined clothes into the bin. I managed to salvage my bike helmet and joggers and then stepped inside the elevator. Dr Oak was quiet as he pushed the button for the ground floor, and I was grateful he didn’t try to fill the silence as the elevator rose.
The doors opened on a dark reception area, and he quickly ushered me to a set of double doors that led outside. As I stepped out and we made our way to a carpark, I looked up at stars twinkling so far above me, their light cool and aloof.
I managed a small smile when Dr Oak opened the passenger door of a sleek sedan and waited for me to slide inside. Other than giving him directions, I remained silent for the drive. The minutes stretched, my nerves stretching with them, until he pulled up on the opposite side of the road to my house and turned to look at me.
I kept my face averted. ‘I guess this is it then. I go home and pretend I’m a regular girl, like none of this ever happened.’
He reached over and took my hand, giving it a squeeze. ‘I wish there was something else I could do, to make this right.’
I didn’t want his sympathy. That made it all too real. I pulled my hand free, opened the door and got out of the car, belongings clutched to my chest. Once on the kerb I looked back at him, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to say. I closed the door quietly before bolting across the road and around the back of the low block brick house that was now my home. I unlocked the back door and slipped inside, dumping my bike helmet and joggers in the laundry sink before I tip-toed to the bathroom.
Body on auto pilot, I showered quietly so as not to wake Mum and Dad, or Darcy, desperate to remove all trace of the sticky liquid I’d been immersed in. Wrapped in a fresh towel and clutching the lab coat to my chest, I hurried down the hallway to my bedroom. I hung the lab coat behind the door and put on a clean pair of pyjamas before climbing into bed. Then I lay there, reluctant to turn off the lamp on the bedside table. The darkness outside pressed down on me as my family slept on.
Gut wrenching sobs racked my body and I clamped both hands over my mouth, not wanting my parents to hear. This wasn’t something they could help me with. Nobody could help me.
I cried until there were no more tears left in my body, hugging the pillow as I fought to come to terms with everything that had happened. Dr Oak had said no one would be able to tell I was half-dead, and I could live a normal life. My chest was still rising and falling as my body went through the motions.
I would have to go through the motions too. After all, that was what I’d had been doing for months now, ever since the events that led to us moving to Merranville.
Exhausted both mentally and physically, I let the natural rhythms of my body take over and drifted off to sleep.
The clatter of dishes and tramping footsteps drifted through the house. Sunlight worked its way through a gap in the curtains and I stared at it for a long moment, not ready to get out of bed.
The events of the night before were as unreal as a dream. I would have thought I’d imagined it, if not for the lab coat hanging on the hook behind the door. I worked hard to ignore it as I got up and dressed in denim shorts and a print T-shirt. A quick trip to the bathroom told me none of the past night’s events were visible in my brown eyes, the gold in my veins camouflaged by the olive skin I’d inherited from Mum.
While I might not look different on the outside, inside my stomach was churning at the notion I was about to face my family. My promise to Dr Oak to keep my revival a secret had been easy to give last night, when all I’d wanted to do was flee his lab. Now, in the light of day, I was no longer sure keeping quiet was the right thing to do. But maybe I didn’t have to decide now. After Dr Oak completed his tests on Monday, and I could put that all behind me, then I could make my decision. Until then I would pretend I was a normal girl, giving my parents no reason to worry about me any more than they already did.
Stomach settling now I had a plan, I took a steadying breath, and headed down the hallway and into the kitchen, faking a cheeriness I did not feel as Mum gazed at me from the other side of the breakfast bar. She had a mug of coffee in one hand and, like me, her wavy brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail.
‘Mattie? What are you doing home?’
I took a seat at the dining table opposite Dad, cheeks aching as I forced myself to smile. ‘Mr Dawson caught a stomach bug so they had to turn around and come home.’
Dad put down the newspaper he’d been reading and peered at me, glasses forgotten on the table beside him, black hair in need of a comb. ‘I hope Frank will be right for work on Monday. I can’t afford to have anyone off sick for the grand opening.’
I shrugged. Wondering whether Mr Dawson would no longer be sick on Monday didn’t concern me anywhere near as much as the halo of colours that surrounded each member of my family. Just like the one I had seen with Dr Oak.
Mum’s was blue, tinged with orange and green. Dad’s was yellow and red. Even my thirteen-year-old brother, who was scoffing down a huge bowl of cereal, had one. Darcy’s was a chaotic mix of colours, in constant movement, like a wave. I stared at it, mesmerised.
‘Seeing as you don’t have to babysit all weekend, you’ll be able to spend time with your friends. Why don’t you invite some of them over?’
My head swung around at Mum’s suggestion, mouth dropping open as my brain scrambled to come up with an excuse that wouldn’t cause her to worry or make me sound like a loser.
‘Mattie can’t invite friends over because she doesn’t have any,’ said Darcy.
‘Shut up, twerp.’
‘Who are you calling a twerp? I’m a foot taller than you.’
‘You’re a whole lot dumber too, little brother.’
‘Matilda, Darcy,’ said Mum.
‘He started it.’
‘Enough. Matilda, eat some breakfast. Darcy, you can go clean your room. I want to see carpet in there, and I’ll be looking under the bed and in the wardrobe.’
Darcy shot me a dirty look as he slunk off to do his chores. With the way he cleaned, he’d be out of my hair for the rest of the day.
I had no appetite, but with Mum watching on I made myself a small bowl of cereal. As I began to eat, I looked over at Dad. He was wearing a blue polo shirt and black trousers, instead of his usual weekend wear of shorts and a T-shirt.
‘Are you going into the bank today?’
‘I’m afraid so. There’s still a lot to be done before we officially open for business, and as bank manager it falls on me to make sure everything is in place for Monday morning.’
‘First to get there. Last to leave. That’s what it means to be a manager, right?’ Least that’s what he’d always told Darcy and me when he had to work longer hours than anyone else.
He gave me a slight smile. ‘Right.’
‘Can I have the paper when you’re finished with it?’
‘It’s all yours.’ He got up and gave Mum a kiss goodbye before heading out the front door.
Talking about the bank had reminded me of the reason I’d agreed to babysit for an entire weekend in the first place. I ate breakfast with the paper open on the job vacancies page. Just like every other time I’d checked, there were zero positions on offer for a seventeen-year-old, and I needed a regular paying job more than ever. Occasional babysitting for some of Dad’s new employees wouldn’t cover the expense of a new bike, phone, and the two sets of clothing lost the night before. I closed the paper and tossed it into the middle of the table.
As I stood, my gaze fell on the paper’s front page headline.
“Dead Dog Ravages Livestock.”
I snatched the paper back up and read the article, a chill enveloping my body at the tale of a dog returning from the dead, sure this couldn’t be a coincidence. It had to be Dr Oak’s doing. If dead animals were running around town, people would find out about his experiments. They’d find out about me.
The churning in my stomach returned tenfold, the cereal I’d eaten threatening to come back up at the thought of being hounded by the media and scientists. I’d become a freak for real. I had to go see Dr Oak, make sure my secret was safe.
After hurriedly cleaning my dishes, I cut out the article and said a hasty goodbye to Mum. Then I grabbed my bike helmet and headed for the garage, stopping as soon as I stepped through the connecting door. My bike was still at the bottom of the Merran River. Now how was I going to get to Oak Laboratory?
Darcy’s bike was in the garage, but the twerp would never let me borrow it, even if I asked nicely. I rolled up the garage door and checked outside to make sure Darcy wasn’t lurking nearby, or looking out his bedroom window, and gasped.
A bike, bright blue and obviously brand new, rested against the side of the house. I moved over to it, and stared down at the business card for “Oak Laboratory” on the seat. Penned on the back in bold letters, it read “Sorry about your bike. See you Monday.”
I slipped the card into my pocket, secured my helmet, and climbed onto the new bike. After I coasted down the driveway, I headed for the old bridge. Not that I intended to go across it. I just wanted to have a look at it in daylight and gaze into the water that had nearly been my grave.
A few minutes later I stared at the spot on the bridge where it had all gone wrong. The broken ends of the rotten railing looked raw, splinters jutting out of the wood on either side. I shuddered, shifting my focus to a bright red and yellow sign at the end of the bridge.
The sign warned people to stay away and advised that the bridge itself was closed to traffic until long overdue repairs were completed. I sat on my bike and looked down at the murky brown water, remembering how it felt as the water closed over me. I shivered before turning away and making for the laboratory, pushing the events of the previous night to the back of my mind.
The gates at Oak were locked, with no cars in the carpark and a sign on the gate stated they were closed were closed on weekends. Hot, bothered, and annoyed, there was nothing I could do but ride home again.
‘Whose bike is that?’ Darcy called out from the front door as I pedalled up the driveway.
‘It’s mine, so keep your hands off.’ I slipped off the bike and glared at him when he followed me into the garage.
‘Where did you get the money for a bike like that? Did you rob Dad’s bank or something?’
I froze, looking around the garage for inspiration. It had never occurred to me that I would need an explanation for having a new bike. I parked it near the wall, hanging my helmet off the handlebar.
Chin lifted, I faced Darcy. ‘I got a job, and the boss gave me an advance to trade in my old bike,’ I said, wishing I could take the words back when I realised Mum was standing at the connecting door to the house.
‘You never said anything to your father or me about having an interview,’ she said, a frown creasing her brow. ‘Where are you going to be working?’
I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. ‘Oak Laboratory.’
‘Mattie’s a lab rat. Mattie’s a lab rat.’
‘Darcy, that’s enough,’ said Mum, before turning back to me. ‘What sort of work will you be doing, honey?’
‘Um, I’m going to be a research assistant for one of the doctors.’ As I had inadvertently become part of Dr Oak’s experiment, I figured he would forgive me for the lie, even if the words left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Mum’s eyes lit up as she came forward and hugged me. ‘That’s wonderful, Mattie. I’m so proud of you. I’m sure you’ll enjoy being a research assistant much more than babysitting.’
My smile was more of a grimace as I said, ‘I hope so.’
Her happiness made me feel ten times worse for lying, and I had to field questions about my non-existent job for the rest of the weekend, making it a welcome relief to escape to school on Monday morning. In my backpack, I stashed the lab coat and another article cut out of the paper. The locals were not happy about the “dead dog”. They wanted something done about the menace and were looking to the police for answers. I could have told them they were looking in the wrong place. They had to go to Oak Laboratory, and that was where I was headed as soon as I’d had my last class.
Not only did I need to speak with Dr Oak about the dog; I also wanted to let him know I was seeing colours around everyone I saw. Kid or adult, each glow was different and I wanted to find out what it meant. Determined this would be the last time I went to Oak Laboratory, I planned on getting all my questions answered.
All through the morning classes my mind was whirling with questions for Dr Oak. At lunch, I was so caught up in my own dramas that I didn’t notice the girl standing in front of me until she spoke.
‘Hey, do you mind if I sit here?’
My heart sank as I recognised her. Claire. The girl from my English class who kept trying to make friends. As I gazed up at her, she indicated towards the seat beside me with a fine boned hand. Tiny, with delicate features, she smoothed down the long side fringe of her golden brown hair as she waited for my answer.
‘Suit yourself. I was just leaving.’ I stood and walked away; doing my best to ignore the hurt in her hazel eyes and the way the glow around her head faded.
Appetite gone, feeling her eyes upon me, I dumped the remains of my lunch in the bin and spent the rest of the lunch hour wandering the school grounds. I had English next, and a familiar churning started in my stomach at the thought of encountering Claire. No matter how much I hated hurting people, I had to rebuff her friendly overtures. I couldn’t risk making friends with any of my classmates.
I took a seat at the back of the room, the churning getting worse as Claire entered, looked around, and spotted me. I gulped in air, a cold sweat breaking out as she determinedly walked over and took the seat next to me.
She flashed me a confident smile. ‘Hello, Matilda. Are you going to run away from me again?’
The words were tossed like a challenge and I flushed, fear lessening its grip on my heart. ‘My name is Mattie, and I didn’t run away. I walked.’
‘Didn’t look that way to me.’
I focused on my anger to force back the rest of the fear. ‘I don’t care how it looked. I did not run away.’
‘What is it with you? Are you scared of making friends?’
The teacher arrived, saving me from having to answer. Not that I would have told her how right she was. Having friends meant someone to care about. Caring led to gut wrenching pain. I’d learned that the hard way when my best friend had been killed by a drunk driver right in front of me. I’d had to watch as the life leeched out of Rachel’s eyes. After her funeral I’d vowed to never feel that way again. If I didn’t care about anyone, I wouldn’t be devastated when something bad happened to them.
Tension kept me rigid all through class, and it was a relief when the bell finally went. Though I took care not to rush out the door, not wanting to give Claire another opportunity to say I was running away. I had a free period next and determined to make the most of it. I had to get out to Oak Laboratory and see Dr Oak.
At the laboratory, the gates were open with three cars side by side in a car park built for ten times that number. I parked my bike near the front door and went inside. The receptionist looked me over with a disparaging eye as she put down her nail file.
‘Can I help you?’
With manicured nails, shapely figure shown to advantage in a closely tailored hot pink suit, and a flowing blonde mane of hair, she would have looked more at home on a magazine cover than at a front desk.
‘I’m here to see Dr Oak. Dr Jonathon Oak.’ I showed her the business card I’d found on my new bike. ‘I’m Mattie Budd. He’s expecting me.’
The receptionist checked the diary open on her desk. ‘I don’t see your name in the appointment book?’
‘I’m his new research assistant.’ The lie had worked to keep my family satisfied; surely it would work on a woman who looked like a real life Barbie doll.
‘Research assistant? Why would Dr Oak hire a research assistant?’
‘Maybe because he has research he wants done.’
She gave me a black look. ‘I know that. I meant why wouldn’t he ask me to do his research for him?’
I cast my mind for a reason that would explain why Dr Oak had given the non-existent job of research assistant to a senior at high school. ‘Perhaps he knows how busy you are and didn’t want to bother you with extra work,’ I said with a wince, remembering what the receptionist was doing when I’d walked in. Filing her nails probably meant she wasn’t run off her feet.
‘Look, why don’t you call the guy and tell him I’m here. Then you can ask him why he gave me the job and not you.’
The receptionist gave a haughty sniff as she picked up the phone and dialled. ‘Dr Oak, this is Catherine.’ Her voice was buttered honey as she spoke into the mouthpiece. ‘Your new research assistant is here to see you.’ She cocked her head to one side.
‘You don’t have a new research assistant?’ Catherine gave me another of her black looks.
‘Tell him it’s Mattie Budd.’
I was rewarded by a sour look from the receptionist when he responded to my name.
‘He’ll be right up to see you. It seems he forgot you were starting work today.’ Catherine replaced the handset, giving me a look as cold as a winter blizzard.
Dr Oak arrived and ushered me into the elevator without a single glance in the receptionist’s direction. As soon as the elevator doors closed, he turned to face me, eyebrows raised. ‘Why did the receptionist think you were my new research assistant?’
‘I had to explain to my parents where the bike came from. Thank you for that, by the way. When they asked me where I got it from, I didn’t know what to say, so I told them I had a part time job. When they asked where, this was the first place that popped into my head.’ I gave a shrug. ‘Sorry for putting you on the spot like that, but I didn’t think Catherine would let me in otherwise.’
‘Oh, well, that’s okay then, and I can give you a job if you want. I could do with some help around here.’ The elevator doors opened on his lab and, as we stepped out, he gestured at a workbench covered with papers. ‘I’ve needed help for a while but couldn’t risk anyone finding out about Oxy-Revival3.’ He ran his hands through his hair, mussing it up. ‘As you already know about the project, that won’t matter.’
I froze. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ It was a terrible idea. How was I supposed to forget about dying if I started working for the guy who’d revived me? I’d been determined to come here, get my questions answered, find out what was wrong with my eyes, and never return.
‘Are you sure? You’ve already told your parents you are working for me. Won’t they think it strange if you no longer have a job?’
‘I’ll just tell them I got sacked. No big deal.’ But it would be a big deal. Mum and Dad would be devastated if they thought I’d lost my job so soon, and then there was the bike. I’d said I’d gotten an advance to pay for it. I’d have to give it back, and I still needed money to get a new phone before they figured out I’d lost that too.
‘Is it because of what I did? Is that why you won’t work for me? I’m so sorry, about everything.’ His deep voice resonated with sincerity, making me squirm.
‘No, that’s not it, I just …’
‘Please, take the job. I could really do with the help.’
My resolve to stay away crumbled under the desperate entreaty in his eyes. ‘Okay, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll work for you.’
His smile lit up his eyes. ‘That’s great. This place is a mess. My files are everywhere and I can’t find anything.’
I let my misgivings slide away, caught up in his infectious mood. But there were a few things I had to take care of before I started work. ‘I need to give this back to you,’ I said, pulling the lab coat out of my backpack, ‘and to show you these.’
I held up the newspaper clippings. ‘You revived this dog, didn’t you, Doc?’
His brow creased as he read the article. ‘I thought he was dead.’
‘He was one of your experiments?’
‘The dog was terminally ill. Using Oxy-Revival3 on him was the last option I had for curing him. Initially, I used small amounts. It wasn’t until I completely replaced his blood that his body began to overcome the cancer. It was incredible.’ His eyes lit up as he relived the thrill of his discovery.
I tugged on my ponytail. ‘I don’t understand. If you cured him, why did you think he was dead?’
‘I was asked to help the dog by the animal aid agency I do pro bono veterinary work for. He’d been dumped and, at first, I thought that was due to the cancer. It wasn’t until I cured him I realised he was an extremely aggressive animal and could never be rehomed. I had to keep him locked up and he began to inflict injuries on himself. Superficial bites healed almost immediately, deeper ones healing in a day or two.’ He ran a hand through his hair, mussing the dark blonde strands.
‘Even though he was part of the most amazing discovery I had ever made, I couldn’t justify keeping him locked up forever and decided to euthanise him. Afterwards, I drained as much of the Oxy-Revival3 from his body as I could. I monitored him for twenty-four hours to ensure there were no signs of life, and then took the body out into the bush, buried it, and reported his death to the animal aid agency. That was two weeks ago.’
Revulsion swept through me, my entire body flushing with heat, and I put a hand on the back of a chair to steady myself. The same substance that cured the dog, and then brought it back to life, was inside me. ‘Looks like you didn’t get enough of your wonder blood out.’
‘I have to find him before he hurts someone.’
The determination in his voice helped to ground me. ‘How are you going to do that?’
‘I don’t know, yet. But this is my fault. I will find him and this time I’ll make sure he doesn’t come back.’ He straightened up, giving me a strained smile. ‘But that’s enough about the dog. How have you been feeling?’
More than happy to change the subject, I said, ‘I feel fine. Only, I’m still seeing colours around everyone, and each person is different.’
‘Here, take a seat.’ He gestured towards the chair I was still bracing myself against and rolled the stainless steel trolley over while I sat down.
I looked at the implements resting on top of the trolley, noting he’d added some extras since Friday night. He grabbed another chair, sat in front of me, picked up a small torch and shone it into my eyes.
For the next half hour he tested my eyesight; which was perfect. Then he monitored my breathing and checked my blood pressure; also perfect. After each test he would go to one of the computers and type up his findings. Other than the occasional request that I cough, move my head or change position he didn’t speak and neither did I. The silence was not uncomfortable, even though this was like no trip to the doctors I had ever experienced.
For starters, none of my previous doctors had been this young or good looking. His touch was gentle but sure as he tested my reflexes. It was only when he asked me to undo the top buttons of my school blouse so he could use a stethoscope to listen to my heart and lungs that awareness of our proximity seeped in.
It seemed I wasn’t the only one conscious of how close we were and what parts of my anatomy his hands were close to. A blush coated his features as he fumbled to place the end piece of the stethoscope against my chest without touching anything he shouldn’t. When the cold metal met my skin, I couldn’t contain a shiver.
He immediately scooted backwards, removing the offending item before heading to the computer to record the latest results of his examination. I buttoned up my blouse, determined to get things back on a more professional footing.
When he turned around to face me, I said, ‘That’s enough medical stuff. How about you put me to work?’
‘There are some other tests I want to-’
‘I’ve had it with being a lab rat for today. I want to get to work. Unless the poking and prodding revealed a death-defying emergency, what say we give it a rest?’
‘I’m sorry if I upset you, but I’ve never had an opportunity like this before. Your results are amazing. It’s like you’re supercharged. Every inch of your body is working at its optimum level. You are the most perfect human being in existence.’ His eyes glowed.
‘That’s good to know.’ I ducked my head to hide the blush rising in my cheeks at the intensity of his gaze. ‘But I don’t want to be treated like a science experiment. I just want to be a regular girl and forget about what you did to me. I can’t work for you if I’m always looking over my shoulder wondering if you’re going to come at me with a scalpel and a test tube.’
‘Forgive me. I got carried away. I promise it won’t happen again. I would never want to do anything to make you feel uncomfortable.’
With him staring at me with those luminous green eyes, uncomfortable was the last thing I was feeling. A sense of misgiving rose up, warning me that working with him was a bad idea. But what else was I supposed to do. If I resigned, I’d be letting my parents down, and I didn’t think I could stand to see the disappointment in his eyes either.
‘Are you the only doctor using the lab?’ With the size of the place, I would have thought there would have been more than three cars in the carpark.
He nodded. ‘I’ve advertised that I have lab space available, but no one has applied so far. Other than me, and now you, the only other people who work here are the receptionist, a security guard, and a veterinary student who comes in when I have animals in my care for the animal aid agency. In time, I’m hoping Oak Laboratory will once again be the thriving community it was when my grandfather founded it.’
‘Is that where you got your passion for animal research from? Your grandfather?’
A fleeting look of sadness flickered in his eyes and his smile looked forced when he said, ‘Not quite. His research focused on genetically modified food, as did my father’s. While I chose to become a Veterinary Scientist, more interested in finding ways to cure and prevent animal diseases that are decimating our native animals.’
Sensing a painful story behind his words, I merely said, ‘I see.’
An awkward pause settled around us, and I cleared my throat. ‘I better get to work. What do you need me to do?’
The rest of the afternoon was spent with me trying to make sense of his filing system, before I decided to design my own. While he might be a genius, he had no idea when it came to organisation. From the chaotic piles of papers spread around the lab, I knew I was going to be working hard to earn my pay.
At five o’clock, after I had neat stacks of papers on one desk, ready to be colour coded and filed away, he escorted me back to the ground and out into the carpark.
‘Thank you for agreeing to work for me. The lab is looking ten times better already.’ he said as we walked towards my bike.
‘You’re welcome, Doc.’
‘You know, you can call me Jonathon.’
I shot him a quick smile as I fastened my bike helmet. ‘Nah, Doc suits you better.’
He shook his head as I pedalled off, and I rode home in the best mood I’d experienced for longer than I cared to remember. After parking my bike in the garage, I informed my parents I’d be working each day after school for two hours. They were so pleased I finally appeared to be settling in, I was able to get away from the dinner table without having to dodge too many questions. Darcy was the worst, coming up with the most ridiculous things he could think of to see if he could throw me. But I had the best approach for all questions concerning what I did out at Oak. I looked Darcy in the eye and spoke in a serious manner.
‘Sorry, that’s classified.’
‘Do you get to cut rats in half and play with their guts?’ He stirred his spaghetti around on the plate. ‘Like this.’
‘Classified.’ I shrugged, refusing to let the twerp put me off dinner. Being half-dead had not affected my appetite. As I climbed into bed that night, I had to admit that living in Merranville wasn’t turning out to be as bad as I had thought it would be. I was actually starting to like the place, though I would need to keep reminding myself not to let anyone get too close. I never wanted to experience the pain of losing someone I cared about again.
Hours later a loud thud jolted me awake. I scanned the darkness, searching for what had woken me. The thud came again, from outside the house. I tossed back the covers and got out of bed and crossed to the window. The curtains were open and I could see into the backyard. Moonlight glinted on shadow shrouded trees and bushes, nothing else.
I shrugged and turned to go back to bed, stopping when the thud came again. But there was still no sign of whatever was making the noise. I frowned. It was probably Darcy playing a trick. It was the kind of stupid prank he would pull, especially after I’d refused to answer his questions about working at Oak. He’d be waiting to jump out and scare me if I went outside to investigate.
Usually, if woken in the middle of the night, I would have been half asleep as I stumbled in search of whatever was making the noise. Tonight, thanks to the wonder blood Doc had pumped into me, I was wide awake and ready to turn the tables on my annoying little brother.
I tiptoed down the hall, smirking as I imagined the shock he was going to get when I jumped out at him. I reached the back door in the laundry and peeked through the glass window section. My new glow vision meant Darcy would stand out like lights on a Christmas tree.
In the middle of the yard, up in the scrubby mango tree, I could see a faint glow. Obviously his plan was to jump on me when I passed underneath. Well, we would see about that. After opening the door I pretended to be puzzled by the strange noises, yawned in apparent tiredness and slipped outside, the cool night air caressing my skin. I scratched my head and scanned the back yard, suppressing a grin when the noise came again. I walked over to the tree, ready to grab Darcy as soon as he made a move, but nothing happened.
If it wasn’t Darcy making the noise, then who was it?
All of a sudden standing in the back yard in the middle of the night, in my bright pink Pooh Bear shortie pyjamas, did not sound like a good idea. It might not be safer in a small town after all.
A rustle in the leaves above my head came a second before a streak of black dropped to the ground at my feet. I stumbled, heart pounding, and glared at the cat that had just frightened the hell out of me. The cat hissed, then shot off through the fence and back into its own yard.
When my heartbeat returned to normal, I shook my head at how foolish I was. I’d come outside to turn the tables on my little brother and had a cat turn the tables on me, making me glad no one had been around to see how frightened I’d been.
I caught a streak of black to my left and sighed. The bloody cat was going to keep me awake all night. I turned to chase the cat away and froze.
A large dog stood six feet away. Drool dribbled from its lips to glisten in the moonlight shining on razor sharp teeth. Unlike the cat, the dog did not have a glow around its head, but I had no time to ponder this strange fact, not if I didn’t want to be its next meal.
‘Nice doggy.’ I tried to keep my voice calm; to show no fear as I backed up against the tree trunk, the rough bark digging into the skin on my arms. The dog slunk closer, a deep growl emerging from its throat, muscles bunched, ready to pounce.
With a garbled curse, I darted around the tree, grabbing the lowest branch, scrambling to get a foothold when the dog leapt for me. I could feel the heat of its breath on my leg as I pulled myself up, crying out at the flash of pain when its teeth grazed my calf.
Perched in the tree like the cat had been moments earlier, I stared into the dog’s crazed brown eyes. It clawed at the trunk, desperate to scale the tree in its frenzy to get to me. I tore off a thin branch and hit the dog on the head. It bit at the branch and ripped it out of my hands but not before I landed a blow on its nose, cutting into the soft flesh.
‘Oh no.’ Gold drops of blood welled up in the cut.
As my brain scrambled to understand why Doc’s dead dog was in my backyard, trying to eat me, someone called my name. I looked to where Dad stood in the laundry doorway, hair dishevelled, pyjamas rumpled.
‘You stay right there, Rosebud. I’ll get the shovel from the garage.’ His voice was tense, and he disappeared back inside the house.
As I waited, I could hear Mum asking him what was going on; then Darcy’s annoying voice as he demanded to be allowed outside to watch the dog eat me. Dad swiftly returned, hefting the shovel in both hands as he slowly approached the dog. It backed away, growling when he slid in front of the tree, his back to me.
‘Climb down nice and slow,’ said Dad. ‘When I say now, I want you to run inside and close the door. I’ll take care of the dog.’
I extricated myself from the tree, looking over at Mum who stood with the laundry door open. Darcy was in my room, watching the drama unfold from behind the safety of a closed window.
‘Now.’ Dad launched himself at the dog, shovel swinging from side to side.
I raced for the back door, sure I was about to feel the sting of dog’s teeth latching onto me, unable to hear anything but my own raspy breaths.
Relief swamped me as I reached the door without getting bitten. I called out to let Dad know I was okay as Mum hustled me inside. She closed the door behind me, and we stood side by side, looking out the laundry window, to see Dad and the dog in a tense stand-off in the middle of the backyard.
After a few seconds that stretched for hours, the dog made a feint for Dad before turning and bolting around the side of the house. The breath escaped my lungs in a rush as Dad followed the dog, and Mum and I hurried through the house to the lounge.
I sidestepped the couch and rushed to the window and could see Dad standing in the middle of the driveway, shovel at his side, looking down the street. As I watched, he turned around and headed for the front door.
‘Are you hurt, honey?’ Mum tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Did it bite you?’ Dad entered the house, propping the shovel up against the wall.
My pulse raced. I couldn’t let them see where the dog had got me or they’d find out my blood was now gold. But before I could answer, Darcy shoved in between them and grinned at me.
‘I want to see where the dog bit you.’
‘I’m fine. The dog didn’t get me,’ I said, turning so my calf was not in line of sight for any of them.
Mum frowned. ‘What were you doing outside in the middle of the night?’
‘There was a cat stuck in the tree. It woke me up. I didn’t know a dog was the reason the cat was up the tree in the first place or I would have stayed in bed.’
‘I think it’s time you went back to bed. You have school tomorrow.’ Dad ushered us towards our rooms. ‘I’ll call the council and report this first thing in the morning.’
I intended to report the dog attack too; but not to the council.
Back in my room, I sat on the bed and looked at my calf, wiping gold flecks off the slight abrasion where the dog’s teeth had grazed me, and watched as the graze healed over. By dawn it was almost completely gone. I pried at the fading scab with a fingernail, breaking the skin and causing a fresh eruption of gold. It wasn’t until my alarm sounded, I realised I’d been holding my breath the entire time.
It was disturbing to think I’d been so lost in fascination with my newfound healing properties I’d forgotten to breathe. What if I did that when other people were around? That was a sure way to get a no return ticket to the Freak Club. If I wasn’t careful, I’d be locked up and put on display, doomed to a life of being poked and prodded by stodgy scientists who talked about me like I wasn’t even in the room.
Doc might have given me a second chance at life with his wonder blood, but he was a scientist at heart, though definitely not a stodgy one. Still, after our talk the day before he had respected my wishes and stopped with the scientific examination. As long as he remembered I was a girl first and foremost, and not one of his experiments, we should get along fine.
I dragged myself out of bed and slowly got ready for school.
‘Not so bouncy this morning, hmm?’ Mum placed a plate of vegemite toast in front of me when I ventured into the kitchen in search of breakfast.
I gave her a wan smile. ‘Guess being attacked by a dog in the middle of the night messes with a girl’s bounciness.’
‘Your father called the council and they’ve promised their animal control inspectors will keep an eye on the area until they catch it. But try to keep the midnight excursions to a minimum until they do, okay?’
‘Sure thing. Midnight excursions are definitely off the menu.’ My appetite fled at the thought of the animal control people catching the dog.
They’d be sure to take it to a vet and discover it had gold blood. A discovery that would lead them straight to Doc. A chill swept over me at the thought of them finding out about his Oxy-Revival3 and what it could do. Now that I worked at the lab, I’d become part of the investigation for sure. I hoped the dog had found a good hiding place and would evade capture until Doc could figure something out. Though the thought it might attack someone else while roaming free preyed on my mind as I got ready for school.
Claire sat next to me in English again and I did my best to ignore her, and the churning in my stomach, as the teacher set up for the lesson. Then I noticed a guy sitting on the other side of the classroom had twisted around to stare at us. I’d seen him around school, and he’d always been with Claire. He’d been in the park the other night with her as well.
I nudged Claire’s shoulder. ‘I think your boyfriend is missing you. Maybe you should go sit with him.’
‘What?’ She turned around and stared at me, hazel eyes narrowed.
‘He can’t take his eyes off you. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of true love.’ I pointed in the guy’s direction.
‘Nick?’ Claire gave a snort. ‘He’s not my boyfriend. We’re just friends.’
From the intent way he was watching her, he wasn’t giving off a friend’s vibe. I raised my eyebrows. ‘Are you sure you aren’t running away?’
The frown on her face said the dig had got to her, and I was pleased when I overheard her talking to Nick as they walked out of the classroom.
‘Do people think we’re going out?’
‘Not that I know of,’ he said. ‘Why?’
‘Mattie thought you were my boyfriend. She said I should be sitting next to you, not her.’
‘Why are you sitting next to her?’
At that stage I decided it was time to split. I did not want to hear what Claire had to say. Nick’s question did get me thinking though. Why did she want to be my friend?
It wasn’t like I was a fun person to be around. Not anymore. Not since Rachel died. Whatever her reasons, Claire’s friendship campaign was doomed to fail. The only thing on my agenda was making it though my last class and getting out to Oak. Doc needed to know about the latest dog attack. He had to find it before the council did.
When I arrived at Oak, I said hello to Catherine as I walked through the foyer. She grunted something in reply, never taking her eyes off me as I stepped inside the elevator, swiped my access card, and punched in the code to take me to the basement level.
Once I reached the lab, I tossed my backpack and bike helmet under a desk. ‘Hey, Doc, you will never guess what happened to me last night.’
Doc was sitting at the bench opposite, working on the computer. He looked away from the monitor and focused on me. ‘Do I have to guess or are you going to tell me?’
‘You know how yesterday you told me not to worry. Well, you shouldn’t have. Your dead dog attacked me last night.’
‘What?’ He sprang up and came over to stand in front of me. ‘Are you okay?’
‘I’m fine, I climbed a tree and my dad chased him away. The dog did get me, but it’s all healed up, see.’ I presented my calf for his inspection, pointing out where the dog’s teeth had grazed me. I decided against mentioning I had watched it heal over and then reopened the graze just to watch it heal again.
Doc bent down and lightly ran his fingers over the area to confirm no evidence remained of the wound. The fresh clean scent of him wrapped around me, and I backed up as I filled him in on what had happened the night before.
His brow creased as he listened. ‘The dog didn’t try to attack your father?’
‘Dad obviously didn’t look as tasty as I did.’
‘I wonder?’ Doc cocked his head to the side.
‘What are you wondering about?’
‘It’s nothing. Forget I said anything. How’s your eyesight?’
‘I’m still seeing rainbows.’ I frowned. ‘It’s funny, last night the cat had a glow, but the dog didn’t. Your dead dog is the first one I’ve seen, human or animal, that hasn’t had a glow.’
Doc stared at me for a long moment, and I fidgeted under his intent gaze. I jumped when he grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the elevator. He took me to ground level and down a hallway, stopping at a door marked “Security”. He ushered me into a small office and led me over to a large cage resting on a table in front of the window. Two rats stared up at me, one brown and one white, whiskers twitching as they inspected their visitors.
‘What do you see? Do you see glows around these rats?’
‘The brown one, yes. But not the white one.’ I turned to face him. ‘So, Doc, what does it all mean?’
‘Bert, the white rat, died last week. I used Oxy-Revival3 to revive his body.’
I stared at Bert, swallowing heavily as I processed Doc’s words. ‘I see dead people,’ I said finally. After an awkward silence, I qualified my statement. ‘Well, dead animals. That’s a handy skill to have, don’t you think.’ The smile I attempted turned into a grimace.
‘Mattie, I’m sorry. I did what I thought was best.’
‘I know you did. It’s just, sometimes I forget I’m half-dead and then something like this reminds me.’
‘Dr Oak, is something wrong with Bert or Ernie?’
I turned and saw an old man dressed up in full security mode, complete with a headset that sat awkwardly on his balding head. His eyes darted from Doc to the cage containing the rats.
‘Everything’s fine, Arthur. I just wanted to see how my patient was doing.’
‘I can’t thank you enough for saving him. I thought the little guy was a goner for sure when he stopped breathing.’ Arthur’s eyes shone with unshed tears as he moved over to the cage and opened the door. Bert and Ernie immediately scampered out and climbed up his arm to sit perched on his bony shoulders.
‘I’m glad I could help.’
Doc strode to the door and I followed him out into the hall.
‘Before you go,’ said Arthur, ‘I’ve had a technician run a complete diagnostic on the cameras and there’s nothing wrong with them. He couldn’t find any reason why they didn’t record on Friday night.’
‘Oh,’ said Doc, a blush on his cheeks as he ducked his head. ‘I guess it must have been a one off problem, nothing to worry about.’
‘I don’t like the idea of the centre being unguarded,’ said Arthur. ‘The gardener said something has been digging holes in the gardens.’
‘It’s probably just an animal, I wouldn’t worry too much about it,’ said Doc as he gestured for me to continue on to the elevator.
Seeking a way to distract myself from the whole “I see dead animals” bombshell, I said to Doc, ‘how are you going to keep what you did to me a secret with a dodgy security system?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with the cameras. I deleted Friday night’s footage so no one would see me entering the premises with your body.’
‘Good to know I’m not going to be popping up on YouTube anytime soon. Wonder how many views a dead girl walking would get?’ My attempt at levity felt and sounded desperate. Guess I wasn’t dealing with the whole “being undead’ issue as well as I’d thought.
‘Do you wish I hadn’t revived you?’
‘No, of course not. I’m just having a bad day. Go figure out how to catch that dog before the council do,’ I said as the doors opened on the lab, relieved when he did as requested and I could concentrate on my own tasks.
I busied myself at the filing cabinet, continuing the mammoth task of reorganising the jumble of papers. If I was going to make this job thing work, I had to stop thinking about being undead. What was done couldn’t be undone. It was time to move on. I’d survived the worst thing that could happen to a person. As long as my secret remained safe, life was looking up. I had a job and would soon have enough money to replace the clothes I’d lost the night I died and to buy a new mobile phone. Not that I had anyone to call.
People with no friends didn’t need to stay connected.
The papers were in neat piles by the time I was ready to leave. I turned to face Doc, who had just returned to the lab. ‘Unlike some people around here, I’ve been working hard. Tomorrow I can start putting these files of yours back in the cabinets where they belong,’ I said as I picked up my backpack and bike helmet.
‘I have been working,’ said Doc.
‘You’ve hardly even been in the lab.’
‘Just because I wasn’t working here doesn’t mean I wasn’t working in one of the other labs.’
‘What were you working on?’
Doc flushed. ‘Ah, nothing important. I just had some stuff I needed to do, upstairs.’
‘Did this … stuff … involve a certain blonde and perky receptionist?’
‘You raced out of here after Catherine called you. Guess she had some important … stuff … to tell you, right?’ The way she looked at him, all hungry and adoring had not escaped my attention. Neither had the jealousy she did little to disguise every time she saw me with Doc.
‘No, um, she just had a message from the gardener, that’s all.’
‘Whatever. I’m out of here.’ I headed for the elevator. ‘It’s none of my business what you’ve got going on with Catherine. But I’d be careful with that one. Her hair colour isn’t all that’s fake.’
‘I’m sorry. I have no idea what you are talking about.’
I stared at him, noting the frown creasing his brow and the rumpled nature of his hair. He’d been running his hands through it again. I softened my gaze. ‘No, I guess you don’t.’ I gave him a smile. ‘See you tomorrow, Doc.’
I ignored the glare Catherine gave me as I walked through the foyer. Impossible as it seemed, Doc remained unaware of the way his receptionist was throwing herself at him. Dressing in outfits that showed off enough cleavage to sink the Titanic, she was quick to lean forward anytime he was around. But I hadn’t caught him sneaking a peek once. I might have thought he was gay if not for the way he’d reacted each time we’d been in close contact.
I flushed at the memory of Doc checking my heartbeat.
Okay, time to think about something else.
It was getting close to teatime and I let my stomach drown out the image of my cute boss as I pedalled out of the carpark. I’d only eaten half my breakfast and had skipped out of the house so fast I’d forgotten to pack lunch. Though my body could now go much longer without food, my brain was telling me it was time to fill up.
The scattering of gum trees growing beside the road cast plentiful shadows and I moved my bike deeper into them as a car came up from behind. The car drove by and I had the road to myself once more.
A big black dog, scarily familiar, darted out from the shadows, barrelling into the front wheel of my bike. The force of its charge sent the bike veering off the road. I fought to regain my balance, dodging rocks and bushes. The dog rammed the wheel again and I went down, air escaping my lungs in a rush as I hit the ground.
Winded but unhurt, I scrambled to my feet, searching for the dog. It was on the other side of the bike and this time there was no tree nearby for me to climb.
The dog growled, muscles bunching in its powerful body. It launched itself over the bike as I screamed and leapt aside. My foot slipped on a rock and I lost my footing, falling heavily, spinning around on my butt to face the dog as it stalked towards me.
Suddenly Doc was beside me, a weird looking gun in his hand. Before I had a chance to register his presence, he shot a blue tipped dart into the dog’s side, then another one. He reloaded as the dog yelped and limped into the shadows, the tranquilliser slowly taking effect. Doc followed and fired two more darts, each one hitting the target. The dog fell on its side. Doc reloaded and fired two final darts.
‘Don’t you think that’s overkill?’ Heart thudding like crazy in my chest, I got up and dusted myself off. ‘You had him down at four.’
‘I’m not taking any chances this time.’
‘I’ll say.’ I stood beside the dog lying on the ground. It almost looked like it was sleeping, except for the darts sticking out of it. Doc had come prepared.
My eyes narrowed. ‘Do you often roam the woods with a tranquilliser gun or was this a special occasion?’
‘I’ve been following you since you left Oak.’
‘You knew the dog was going to attack me.’ I glared at him. ‘You knew and didn’t say a thing.’
‘I’m sorry, but I had to catch the dog before the police or the council did.’
I put it together as I paced. ‘That’s what the message from the gardener was all about. Those holes, the ones Arthur mentioned, the dog was at Oak yesterday.’
‘It must have followed you home. I figured it might try to attack you again and decided to follow you until it did.’
‘Is that supposed to reassure me? The last time I was in dire straits, and you were around, I died. What if you’d been too slow, or missed? I’d be dog food by now, all thanks to you.’
Doc blanched, staring at me with haunted green eyes. ‘I would never have let the dog hurt you, you have to believe me.’
I took a deep breath. ‘I do. I just wish you’d told me what was going on, so I’d been prepared. If you ever decide to use me as bait again, tell me. That way I won’t have a heart attack when something with big teeth jumps out at me.’ I shook my head. ‘Just because I’ll heal fast if something goes wrong doesn’t give you the right to put me in danger without asking first. Okay?’
‘Okay.’ Doc gave a relieved smile.
I picked up my bike. I’d only had it for four days and it was scratched already. I sighed, wheeling it over to Doc.
‘What are you going to do with it?’ I gestured towards the dog.
‘Destroy it. This time I intend to make sure it stays dead.’
‘Good.’ I climbed on my bike. ‘Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, Doc.’
‘Mattie, I wish you wouldn’t call me that. My name is Jonathon.’
‘I know, Doc.’ I gave him a wave and headed home, heart resuming a normal pattern as I went.
At least I had one less thing to worry about. With the dog taken care of, there was no need to fear the authorities tracing it back to Oak. Doc would take care of it, and with no more sightings or attacks, interest in the “dead” dog would fade.
As I rode past the corner store down the road from my house, I spotted a young man with close cropped red hair and a neatly trimmed beard putting up a poster. He wore a black singlet that exposed the tattoos covering his muscular arms. But that wasn’t what made me stare.
The glow around him was so bright; it flashed and pulsed across my gaze. I looked closer, surprised to see a tinge of darkness around the edges. No one I’d seen had a glow anything like it.
He walked away and I coasted over to look at the poster. The writing was large and read; “Psychic Expo – Come and Have Your Aura Read.” In smaller writing it said the expo would be held at the weekend, in the Community Hall. Below that was a picture of a woman surrounded by a glow, the same type of glow I’d been seeing around people ever since Doc revived me.
I couldn’t wait to get to school the next day as it meant I was closer to getting to Oak to tell Doc about the poster. Of course, I had to keep dodging Claire which wasn’t easy. Tiny though she was, she appeared to be filled with a strong determination to be my friend.
She stuck to my side throughout English and lunch, and with her company came Nick’s. Listening to the two of them joking around, enduring their efforts to include me in their conversations, it was hard not to get sucked into the whole friendship thing. Nicholas Singleton, as well as being good looking, was a nice guy. Much as I tried to ignore him, I found myself responding to his light-hearted banter.
It was a relief to get away with the excuse that I had to go to work. At Oak, I stepped into the elevator and coasted down to the basement, intending to tell Doc about the upcoming expo. The words froze on my tongue.
The body of the dead dog was in the tank, submerged in gooey green liquid.
Doc had gotten rid of the glass container that held my blood days ago, but there had still been an empty container resting beside the tank. Now it was half filled with gold fluid.
‘I meant to get rid of it before you got here.’ Doc rushed forward and stood in front of the tank, blocking my view. ‘I’m sorry, I lost track of time.’
I lifted my eyes to his, managing a smile. ‘It’s okay. It was just a shock to see it, that’s all.’ I sidestepped him and moved to stand in front of the tank.
‘You’re sure you got it all out.’ I made myself look at the dead dog, determined not to flinch even though I vividly remembered how it felt to be in that tank.
Like me the dog hadn’t chosen to become part of an experiment, but unlike me it didn’t have a chance to live a normal life afterwards. Its aggressive nature had made life unbearable for it. While I knew Doc had no choice but to kill it completely this time, I still felt sorry for it.
‘I’m positive. It would have started to revive by now if there was any trace of vaccine left in its system,’ said Doc. ‘I kept it here so I could observe it throughout the day to make sure the process was completely reversed, and will cremate the remains.’ He placed his hands on my shoulders and moved me away from the tank. ‘I’ll take care of it while you get back to your filing. I’m sure the things are multiplying every time my back is turned.’
As I began shuffling through the piles of papers spread all over my desk, I kept my back turned. I didn’t turn around again until Doc had left the lab with the dog’s dead body.
He returned an hour later, a faint hint of smoke drifting through the air as he moved to his desk and got back to whatever work he’d been doing when I arrived. Refusing to dwell on what he’d been burning, I continued with my sorting. Soon I would be able to transfer my neat piles into the filing cabinets and take on more of an assisting. It wasn’t until I was ready to go home that I remembered the Psychic Expo.
‘Doc, I saw this poster yesterday and I think I’m seeing auras,’ I said as I grabbed my bag and bike helmet form under my desk.
‘What?’ He looked up from his microscope.
I gave him the details. ‘I figured I would check this expo out on Saturday.’
‘Do you think that’s wise? How do you know these guys are genuine?’ He studied me, a frown on his handsome face.
‘I won’t know until I take a look. Do you want to come with me, as the voice of scientific reason?’
‘That’s a good idea,’ he said as he walked me over to the elevator, expression lightening. ‘I’ll see what I can find out about auras and fill you in tomorrow.’
‘Great. See you then.’ I rode home with a smile on my face, good mood continuing despite Darcy managing to weasel his way out of doing the dishes by bunging on a stomach ache. His stomach wouldn’t hurt if he hadn’t stuffed himself at dinner. When he’d put on his “poor Darcy” act his aura had shrunk, the brightness fading.
The next day at school I was still in a good mood until Claire flopped into the seat next to me at lunch. Nick sat down on the other side of me, sandwiching me in.
‘You are coming to the movies with us Saturday night and we aren’t taking no for an answer,’ Claire said in a hoarse voice.
‘You might want to suck on a soother,’ I said. ‘Your voice sounds terrible.’
‘Isn’t that the understatement of the year?’ Nick nudged me with his elbow. ‘She thinks she sounds tough.’
‘Nick. Shut up.’ Claire stood as she scowled over at him, her voice restored to its usual melodious tones.
‘You want to sound tough? Sorry, Claire, you and tough do not go together. It’s like chalk and cheese, oil and water. They just don’t mix.’ I shook my head.
‘Yeah, you and tough are like milk and cookies,’ said Nick.
‘Actually, I think those two do go together.’ I smiled at his enthusiasm even if his attempt to think up suitable opposites sucked.
‘Really? What about fire and water?’
‘Could be?’ I shrugged as I thought about it. ‘Water would put the fire out and turn it into steam. Does that go together or not?’
Claire glared at both of us before storming off.
‘Looks like the movie’s a no go,’ I said, turning to Nick. He had a strange expression on his face as he watched Claire walk away.
‘She really admires you,’ he said in a quiet tone.
‘She’s been following you around, wanting to be tough, like you.’ Nick turned back to face me.
‘I’m not tough.’ I remembered how broken and alone I’d felt when Rachel was killed, the horror of watching her die. There had been so much blood. Rachel’s blonde hair had been covered in it, her grey eyes filled with agony before the light went out in them. The memory took me back to that horrible night, tears pricking at my eyes. No, I wasn’t tough at all.
‘Word around school is you were part of a street gang in the city and your family moved here to get you away from them.’
‘What a load of rubbish.’ Indignation dried my tears. ‘We came to Merranville because my dad’s bank wanted him to open up a new branch here. It had nothing to do with me being in a gang. Trust me; I’m not the gang type.’
‘That’s not what we heard.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘It started the first day of school, after you let everyone know you weren’t out to be Miss Sociable. Stacey’s mum’s best friend got one of the jobs at the bank. The word is your dad agreed to move to Merranville because you got in some sort of trouble back in Brisbane.’ Nick gave a shrug. ‘Put that with your antisocial behaviour and everyone came up with the gang scenario.’
I was stunned to realise what everyone was thinking and talking about behind my back; and in a way it was true. Not that I had been in a gang, but that the move had been partly for my benefit, because of my inability to deal with Rachel’s death.
‘People look at Claire and because she’s so petite they think she’s a fragile doll. She hates it,’ said Nick. ‘She sees you as the perfect role model. Though she tries to hide it, she’s hurting because you won’t let her be your friend. What I want to know is, why? Why do you push her and everyone else away?’
I was still in shock and answered before I realised what I was doing. ‘You let people get close to you and you wind up getting hurt.’
Nick was silent for a while. ‘I don’t know who hurt you. But you are the one who’s hurting Claire. She likes you in spite of everything. I like you too, but I wish you wouldn’t hurt her anymore. Is it really that bad to have a friend?’ Nick got up and walked away, leaving me sitting alone on the bench.
My happy mood went with him.
The ride to Oak took longer than usual that afternoon as I thought about what Nick had said. He was right. I was hurting Claire, but couldn’t let her in. If I did that, it would be an invitation for even more pain, and I couldn’t handle the hurt I already had.
By the time I arrived at work I was no closer to a solution to the problem Claire presented me with. Perhaps it really would have been better if I had stayed dead.
In the lab Doc, as usual, was bent over his microscope. His hair was all mussed, making my fingers itch to smooth it down. I pushed the urge away as I strode over to stand beside him.
‘So, Doc, am I going to live?’
He straightened up. ‘You are going to insist on calling me that, aren’t you?’
‘You are the doctor, Doc. Besides, Jonathon sounds way too stuffy. Did you find anything out about auras?’
‘Every living thing has one and it shows up as a corona of colours surrounding the subject.’ He grabbed several sheets of paper from his desk and handed them to me. ‘Anybody can see auras, but most need to learn how first.’
I flicked through the papers. ‘Glow vision is real nice, but is there a point to it?’
‘Apparently seeing auras can be very helpful. You can tell what people are feeling, what type of person they are, if they are sick or healthy, all by the colours they have in their aura.’
‘Is that where the saying “show your true colours” comes from?’
‘It’s possible,’ he said, a thoughtful expression on his face. ‘People have been seeing auras since the earliest records of man, and a lot of the sayings we use today do have their basis in history.’
‘Like what?’ I gazed at him, liking the way his face lit up when he was in explaining mode.
‘When people say you’re looking off colour or that someone is green with envy. People associate emotions with colours – red for rage, blue for tranquillity, yellow for happiness. This stems from the aura projected by the people feeling these emotions. Some researchers believe the halo effect as described with many great religious figures is actually their aura.’
‘That’s fascinating, but it still doesn’t tell me why I have glow vision? Any ideas?’ I plonked myself on the desk.
‘It is well known people do not access the full potential of their brain power. I think the Oxy-Revival3 gave you access to more of yours.’
‘Say what?’ I scratched at the side of my face.
‘The left side of the human brain is analytical, meaning it deals with the matter of facts of life like reasoning, logic, skills. The right side is seen as the more creative or even spiritual side. Here we have intuition, and some believe the sixth sense resides in the right side of the brain.’
‘You’re not talking the movie here, are you?’
‘In a way I am. A medium is someone who can contact the dead, while a psychic is the term commonly used to describe those who predict events, tell fortunes, read auras. For those with genuine ability, they probably have greater access to the right side of their brains.’
He ran his hands through his hair. ‘The blood I gave you is designed to heal your body. I think it also opened up the right side of your brain, giving you the ability to see auras. Glow vision.’
I smiled. ‘Move over Super Girl; here comes Psychic Girl.’
‘I didn’t say you were psychic.’
‘But can you honestly say I’m not? I think it is now more important than ever for me to go to that expo.’ I wanted to learn all I could about auras and intended to read every scrap of information Doc had downloaded for me as soon as I finished wrestling with the files.
The next day at school Claire avoided me, which meant Nick did too. Even though I had been determined not to make friends, I felt their absence and experienced a new level of isolation from the students who crowded around me in the hallways and classrooms. It was like I was encased in an impenetrable bubble that pushed everyone away without them even noticing. I had become part of the scenery, invisible unless someone was forced to face me.
Within my bubble I noted the changes to their auras as my classmates interacted with each other. The main colours stayed the same but other hues pulsed in unlimited combinations. I began to recognise what some of the differences meant.
The student whose aura flared a dirty red when he stormed off the field after being caught out by one of the fielders while playing cricket was a sore loser. He didn’t need to toss the bat at the next batter-up to let me know he was angry. Then there was the way the aura of one girl shrank and went all hazy while telling the teacher a sob story about how the computer had blown up before she could save her assignment to a memory stick or print it out. I thought back to the night when Darcy did his dishes dodge. His aura had done the same thing.
In my excitement at being able to decipher another aura clue I said, ‘she’s lying.’
The Maths teacher, whose hearing was way too good, spun around and fixed her glare on me. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Sorry, just talking to myself. Don’t mind me.’ I gave a weak grin, not liking the way the liar glared at me while the teacher’s back was turned.
‘If you have something to share about what really happened to Amanda’s assignment, I’d like to hear it.’
The entire class fell silent.
‘I don’t know anything about Amanda’s assignment. I don’t even know Amanda,’ I said with an apologetic shrug.
‘I see.’ The teacher gave me one last stern look before facing Amanda. ‘I do know you, and I don’t believe your computer blew up. You have until Monday afternoon to hand in your completed assignment or you will be given detention for the rest of the term.’
‘This is non-negotiable. I want your assignment on my desk Monday afternoon, by three o’clock and not a minute later.’ Miss Pickering smiled, revealing rows of sharklike teeth. ‘You’re going to be a very busy young lady this weekend.’
Amanda sulked her way back to her seat, giving me a filthy look, aura coated in a dark and furious red.
I couldn’t wait for class to end, conscious of the looks the other students were giving me, cursing my slip of the tongue. When the bell rang, I bolted for the door as fast as I could go. It wasn’t fast enough.
‘Just you wait, bitch. You’ll get yours.’ Amanda accompanied her threat with a hard shove, sending me flying into the door jam.
Pain flared down the side that had collied with the door jam, but I refused to let it show as the rest of the class filed past. Most of them avoided looking directly at me. The ones who did meet my gaze wore smug smirks as they turned away to whisper to their friends.
It was time for lunch and, as I headed to the port racks, I could tell from the sideways looks I received that word about what happened in Maths had spread. There was no sign of Nick and Claire but the bubble that encased me earlier in the day had burst, and it was not a nice experience. Amanda sat at the next table talking loudly to her friends. After hearing for about the hundredth time how people who told tales would get their comeuppance in the end, I stood and marched over to face Amanda.
‘I’m sorry if you think I ruined your perfect little Maths scam, but Pickering was never going to fall for it. I may have slipped up, but I only said what the teacher was already thinking. So get over it because you’re starting to piss me off, and if you’ve listened to any of the rumours floating around about me you’d know we city girls fight dirty.’
Amanda blanched and took a step back, while her previously vocal friends averted their gazes. Satisfied I’d made my point, I headed off to get my history books with a smile on my face. The smile vanished when I got to class and Nick, who was already seated, flushed and looked away as soon as I entered the room. But that was fine. I didn’t want or need friends. I had my family and my work.
The thought that I would be indulging in an extracurricular work activity with Doc the next day sustained me throughout English and PE, shared with a subdued Nick and Claire. After PE I shoved my books into my backpack and took off for the bike racks.
On the way I dodged Amanda, scooting behind a tree as the blonde cornered another girl from our Maths class. The girl’s eyes were downcast, and she kept shaking her head. Amanda grabbed her by the arm, squeezing hard enough to elicit a wince and a nod before storming off. I took the opportunity to escape from my hiding place without being seen.
Though I felt sorry for the girl Amanda had cornered, I couldn’t afford to get involved in whatever was going on between them. I put it out of my mind as I rode to Oak. I had finished compiling the new filing system so spent the afternoon reading the print outs Doc had given me on auras, learning more about what each colour represented. I’d already figured out red meant anger but was surprised to see it had a positive aspect as well. It could mean a desire to achieve.
Most of the colours had positive and negative sides, and it was when the main hue changed, becoming dark or bright, hazy or luminous, that it gave a clue as to what the person was feeling. Even the size of an aura had meaning and those who could see them were able to help diagnose illness.
I lost myself in the world of auras and began to realise there was more of a point to glow vision than I had previously thought. I would have to keep my mouth shut though, to avoid another incident like in Maths class. Hopefully my hint about an imaginary gang background would stop Amanda from planning any payback. The whole matter should be forgotten now she had another victim to torment.
Close to five o’clock, I put down the last piece of paper and looked off into the distance, thinking about everything I had learned. My gaze fell on the empty tank, with Doc’s reflection in the glass.
He was sitting at his desk, staring at me with an unreadable expression on his face. The yellow in his aura was more prominent round his head, and according to the notes I’d just read that meant he was deep in thought. His green eyes were focused, brow furrowed, clearly unaware I was able to see him in the refection. It was obvious whatever he was thinking about so intently had something to do with me. I shuffled the papers on my lap into order, stood, and turned around to face him.
He was now hunched over his computer, apparently engrossed in his work.
‘Interesting,’ I said.
He jumped and spun round on his chair, eyes wide. ‘What’s interesting?’
‘I finished reading this aura stuff. Glow vision is actually kind of cool.’
‘Oh.’ He relaxed back. ‘I agree. I read more about it last night. There’s a lot you can learn about people if you see auras. Unfortunately, I’m not one of the lucky ones with the ability.’
‘You tried the exercises?’ There had been a list of ways in which people could learn to see rudimentary auras.
‘Yes, and I’m a dud. Couldn’t catch sight of an aura if one up and announced itself with fireworks and a full orchestra.’ He gave his hair a rueful tug.
‘Well, we can’t all be super psychic like me,’ I said, expecting him to respond with a caution as I moved to sit on the desk beside his computer.
‘I guess not.’ He leant back and minimised the document he’d been working on.
The he stood. ‘You should get going. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow and I don’t want your parents thinking work is interfering with your life too much. I really need the help around here.’
He ushered me out of the lab in such a hurry it felt like he was trying to get rid of me. The way he’d minimised his document was strange too, as if he hadn’t wanted me to see what he was working on. But what could he be hiding? He’d hired me as his research assistant because there was no need to keep his project a secret with me. And what was with the way he’d been staring at me when he thought I couldn’t see him?
No answers presented themselves as I rode home. After dinner I was distracted from my worries by making sure Darcy didn’t get out of doing the dishes again. While he washed, and I dried the dishes and put them away, I practised one of the exercises mentioned in the aura papers Doc had downloaded for me.
For people like me, able to see auras all the time, it could be overwhelming. This particular exercise dealt with training the mind to not focus on the auras around the reader unless they actually chose to see them. With Mum, Dad and Darcy as my oblivious subjects, I worked hard to not see their auras until it was time to go to bed. I had some success and was confident that with practise I would be able to avoid a repeat of what happened in Maths.
In the darkness of my room, snuggled in bed, I thought back over the day. School had been bad, but I’d survived the drama with Amanda and hoped it would all be forgotten by Monday. It hadn’t been nice to be ignored by Claire and Nick, but that was for the best. If they had given up on their campaign to make me their new BFF, the chance of having my heart broken by the loss of someone I cared about dropped by two.
But my heart may not be the only thing in danger. Doc had closed the document he’d been working on the moment I approached his desk, so whatever he’d been writing must have something to do with why he’d been staring at me so intently.
Was he studying me, like he studied diseases under his microscope?
Doc had assured me I was safe, my secret known only to the two of us, but could I really trust him? He was a scientist after all, and I was part of the greatest discovery he had ever made. All he would have to do was expose me to the world and he’d become the most famous scientist since Einstein, while I’d be Freak of the Year. He could just be biding his time until he had all the data he needed before announcing his findings.
The thought that his nice guy persona could be an act made me shudder. Was he planning the ultimate betrayal of my trust? I pulled the covers up to my neck. When I was little I’d thought being tucked in tight would save me from the monsters hiding beneath my bed. But my sleeping habits hadn’t kept a monster from taking Rachel away from me. Nor would they save me if Doc turned out to be the evil genius type, intent on ruining my life for a chance at fame and fortune.
With the covers gripped in my hands, unable to sleep, I remained frozen until morning dawned fresh and bright. I reluctantly dragged my body out of bed to get ready for the trip to the expo with Doc. Despite lack of sleep, the wonder blood made me feel as if I’d slept for ten hours straight; it was my spirit slowing me down.
My heart was in my mouth as I waited at the kerb for Doc to arrive, sure now my eyes were open to his possible motives there would be clues to his intentions in his behaviour. I clenched my hands into fists, cold despite the warmth of the sun on my back as I waited to see if my fears were going to be given substance.
Doc’s car rounded the corner and he pulled up in front of me, leaning across to open the passenger door. A welcoming smile covered his handsome face. In the light of day, the lingering imaginings of the night before were washed away in an instant. I grinned in relief as I slid into the passenger seat, buckled up, and focused on his aura. Clear and vibrant; there was no dishonesty on display or darkness at its core. No one with an aura like that could ever mean me harm.
When we got to the Community Hall I bounded out of the car as soon as it came to a stop, took three steps down the footpath and froze. A man slowly made his way down the front steps of the hall. With the way he walked, all bent over, I didn’t need glow vision to tell me he was not well.
It was Mr Jensen, my Science teacher. When I’d seen him in class the day before he’d been full of health and vitality, his aura a beautiful mix of green, blue and yellow. Today he looked ill, the colours in his aura muted by a layer of grey.
‘Mr Jensen, are you okay?’ I rushed to his side, Doc at my heels. The middle-aged teacher was one of my favourites; always making jokes and setting neat experiments to do in class.
‘Do I know you?’ Mr Jensen rubbed his eyes; staring first at me and then Doc. ‘Have we met before, young man?’
‘It’s me, Mattie Budd. I’m one of your students. And this is Doc, I mean, Doctor Jonathon Oak.’
‘Oh? I don’t … of course, Mattie, what can I do for you?’ Mr Jensen blinked several times and straightened up.
‘I just wanted to know how you were feeling.’
‘I’m fine, just a little tired. Are you and your boyfriend here to check out the expo?’
I shot a glance at Doc, cheeks flushing that Mr Jensen thought he was my boyfriend, before I answered. ‘Yeah, we were thinking of having our auras read.’
‘Me too. That’s why I came, and he was good … I think.’ Mr Jensen’s frown crinkled the already lined brow exposed by receding hair.
‘What colours did he say it was?’
‘Green mostly, with blue and yellow. Very complementary colours apparently.’
I frowned. ‘He didn’t say there was any grey in it?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Mr Jensen. ‘Well then, I mustn’t keep you any longer. I’m sure you are eager to see what the future holds for you. I suppose like all young lovebirds you want to know if you are meant to be together.’ He smiled at me. ‘For your sake, I hope he’s the one. He seems like a nice boy.’ The science teacher gave us a vague smile before shuffling down the path towards his car.
‘That was weird.’ I turned to Doc.
He was still watching Mr Jensen, a sad expression on his face. ‘He knew my father and has known me since I was a boy, yet today he didn’t know who I was. I didn’t realise he had Alzheimer’s.’
‘He doesn’t. At least he didn’t yesterday. He can’t have Alzheimer’s or they wouldn’t let him keep teaching, would they?’
‘If he doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, then what’s wrong with him?’
‘I don’t know, but my glow vision told me he wasn’t sick yesterday and today there was a lot of grey in his aura. The grey was starting to fade out while we talked to him. That was when he was more with it.’ I started walking up the stairs into the Community Hall. ‘What I want to know is how this Aura Reading Specialist missed seeing the grey.’
We marched inside, taking a moment to check the place out. There were several stalls containing everything from books, crystals and jewellery, to incense and holders. Other stands advertised massage treatments and psychic readings done by clairvoyants. The clairvoyants had brightly coloured auras and there was a lot of white and violet surrounding them as they spoke to their customers; colours which signified spirituality and intuitiveness.
I was also disappointed to see so-called psychics who had none of these colours on display as they “read” their customers. Instead, they had tinges of black and green which meant they were focused on making money.
I turned away from the clairvoyants and looked for the guy who read auras. Was he a fake too?
At the back of the hall, I spotted a booth shrouded in black curtains and pointed it out to Doc. When we got closer, I could see a sign pinned to the side that said this was what we were looking for. The tattooed guy I’d seen putting the poster up ushered a customer into the booth. They were inside for fifteen minutes and when they came out I took a step backwards, bumping into Doc.
‘Mattie, what’s wrong?’ Doc turned me around to face him, hands on my shoulders.
‘That woman’s aura is covered in grey, like Mr Jensen’s. But it wasn’t like that when she went in.’
We both turned to watch the woman as she walked past and, like Mr Jensen, she looked ready to collapse from fatigue. Her eyes were clouded, and she appeared confused as she slowly made her way across the room. I snuck a look at the man running the booth. His aura was even brighter than when I’d first seen it, with hints of black and green and, even more disturbing, streaks of red and yellow.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said. ‘I don’t want this guy to see me. The colours in his aura spell bad news.’
Doc cast a startled glance at the aura reader. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m telling you, there’s going to be big trouble if he realises I don’t have an aura. He’s doing way more than reading people and he’s not going to like me knowing about it. We have to go, and we have to go now.’ Dread sat like a brick in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t ignore the siren going off inside my head.
I spun around and started towards the door. In my haste, I didn’t look where I was going and bumped into someone on their way in. I reeled and would have fallen if Doc hadn’t put his arms around me. As I steadied myself, I stared at the person I had collided with.
‘Claire, what are you doing here?’
‘I’m here to have my aura read, not that you care.’ She shot me a dark look.
I clutched her arm. ‘There’s something funny about this guy. Please don’t go in there.’
‘I can do whatever I want, so mind your own business.’ She sent a disapproving glare Doc’s way as she shook off my hand. ‘Don’t let me keep you. You obviously have better things to do.’ She stormed towards the booth.
I pulled away from Doc to run after her, grabbing hold of her sleeve. ‘I can’t explain it, but I need you to trust me. Don’t do this.’
‘Why should I trust you?’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘You don’t even like me.’
‘I do like you,’ I said, stung by the hurt in her eyes.
Anger darkened her pretty features. ‘Sure, you insult all the people you like. I get it, okay. You only want to be friends with rich, handsome scientists, and gee, that lets me out.’ She tugged her sleeve free of my grasp, heading towards the booth and marching up to the man standing beside it.
‘Hi, I’m Claire Tyler and I’m here for my reading.’
The man smiled and ushered her into the booth. Before he joined her, he looked around the room. His gaze swept past me, then swung back with a snap. His blue eyes narrowed as he stared at me. I shuddered when an oily smile curved his lips. He dipped his head towards me, smile widening, before he joined Claire inside the booth.
I wanted to run to the booth and wrench Claire out, by the hair if I had to. But what could I say, how could I explain the peril she was in without giving away my secret? Claire might be willing to let a stranger read her aura, but how would she feel if she knew I could do it too? She’d be sure to tell other people, and not even gang rumours would stop our fellow students from treating me like a freak or trying to take advantage of my ability.
What could I even say to convince Claire she was in trouble in the first place? I was sure the man had done something to turn Mr Jensen’s aura grey, and that of the last customer, but how could I prove it?
I didn’t resist when Doc took hold of my arm, leading me outside. When we reached his car we stood on the kerb waiting for Claire to come outside. Moments later my would-be friend stumble down the stairs, obviously exhausted. Her normally vibrant aura was dull and covered in grey.
I described to Doc what I saw, guilt churning in my stomach.
‘It’s not your fault,’ said Doc, laying a hand on my arm. ‘You tried to stop her going in there.’
Taking a deep breath, I turned to face him. ‘We need to find out what is going on inside that booth. That creep is doing something to the people he reads. We have to stop him hurting anyone else.’
Doc might not agree, but I could have stopped it, if only I’d had the courage to speak up and tell the truth. Claire was sick, preyed on by the aura guy, and it was my fault. Arms wrapped around my middle, I hunched over in the seat, pulling against the seat belt.
Doc was silent for the rest of the drive until he pulled up outside my house. ‘I’ll go back tonight and take a look inside,’ he said.
‘You’re going to break in?’
‘No. I have a key.’ He smiled when I rolled my eyes. ‘My father was a member of the Merranville Town Events Committee. His key is still in his office at Oak.’
‘What time are you picking me up?’
‘You’re not coming with me.’ Doc fixed me with a firm stare.
‘Yes, I am. If you don’t come and pick me up I’ll ride my bike. Either way, we do this together.’
‘What if I tell your parents to keep you at home?’
‘What if I tell my parents you killed me?’
There was nothing for a scowling Doc to do other than arrange a time to pick me up before he sped off.
‘Mattie, are you going out?’
I let go of the front door and spun around to face Mum, striving to keep my voice steady. ‘Um, yeah. I thought I’d go to the movies.’ Eyes locked on hers, I attempted a bright smile. ‘Is that okay?’
‘Of course, dear. I think it’s wonderful that you’re finally going out.’ Her smile was even brighter than mine. Then it dimmed. ‘You are going with friends, right?’
‘Oh, sure.’ I suppressed a wince as I added to the lie. ‘What, did you really think I was going to watch a movie, at the cinema, all alone on a Saturday night? How lame would that be?’
‘I didn’t mean it like that. And there’s nothing wrong with watching a movie on your own. It’s just you haven’t talked about any of the friends you’ve been making at school.’
I nodded. ‘And Darcy told you I didn’t have any, right? He was just being a twerp. I do have friends. Claire, and Nick. That’s who I’m going to the movies with.’
Her smile brightened considerably. ‘That’s wonderful, sweetheart. What are they like? When do we get to meet them?’
‘Wow, Mum, slow down.’ Heart thudding, I held up a hand, wishing I didn’t have to keep lying to her. ‘They’ll be here to pick me up any minute, and we’ll be late for the movie if we don’t leave straight away.’
She frowned. ‘Who’s driving?’
‘Nick He’s eighteen, and he has his driver’s license. But you don’t need to worry. He’s a really good driver.’
‘I’m not worried, honey. You have a good time.’ She darted forward and gave me a quick hug. ‘Enjoy the movie, but don’t stay out too late.’
I couldn’t speak, throat choking up at her obvious happiness for me. I bolted out of the house and ran to the kerb, whispering a thank you when Doc’s car pulled up a second later. As I opened the passenger door, I looked back at the house.
Mum had taken up a position near the front windows, probably so she could observe the car when it pulled up. Fortunately for me it was too dark for her to see anything, so she had no idea I was going out with my employer instead of a couple of high school students. I gave her a wave before slipping inside the car and closing the door.
I’d dressed in black, in keeping with the stealth theme, and was pleased to see Doc had done the same. He looked good in his T-shirt, leather jacket and jeans, and a thrill of excitement raced through me at the sight of him. Even though Doc had a key, we were planning what would technically be a break and enter.
We sat in the car for a while when we reached the Community Hall, wanting to make sure the place was empty. When it was time to move Doc went first, keeping to the shadows. I followed suit. He unlocked the door and we slipped inside, closing the door behind us.
Uncurtained windows allowed moonlight to stream unchecked into the hall and guide us to the booth. We slipped behind the curtaining and encountered pitch-blackness until Doc switched on a torch. His light showed a small desk with an office chair behind it and two wooden chairs in front.
‘I’m glad you thought to bring a light. It’s spooky in here.’
‘We’d better whisper. Someone might hear us,’ Doc whispered in my ear, his warm breath tickling my neck.
‘Who? We’re the only ones here.’ My heartbeat picked up speed. Having him so close, in the dark, made me jittery. I moved away and started searching for evidence. With only the light from one torch to go by, that wasn’t easy. Doc didn’t seem to be having much luck either as he inspected the desk.
Fed up with my fruitless endeavours, I slumped into one of the wooden chairs.
‘Ouch.’ I bounded up again.
‘What’s wrong?’ Doc swung around and shone the torch at me.
‘The bloody seat bit me.’
‘What?’ Doc came around the desk, shining the torch at my hand. In the heel of my palm was a tiny puncture mark and a glitter of gold.
As I stared at it the puncture closed over and a wave of dizziness washed over me. I swayed, sure I was about to collapse at Doc’s feet. He put out his arms to steady me, grip firm on my shoulders as he pulled me towards him. I forced myself to straighten up, and shook my head as the dizzy spell cleared.
‘Whoa. That felt weird.’ I moved away from Doc, expecting him to still be concerned. But he wasn’t even looking at me.
All his attention was focused on the chair I’d just vacated. With a mumbled excuse me, he brushed past me and shone the torch over the arm of the chair. After several minutes of careful probing, he took a bag from his jacket pocket and placed something in it.
He turned to face me. ‘Let’s go. I’ve got what we came for.’ He switched off the torch and pushed the curtain aside, holding it up for me to pass through in front of him. Before I could ask him what he’d found, he took hold of my arm and pulled me out of the hall. It wasn’t until we were in the car that I had a chance to question him.
‘What bit me?’
‘There was a small needle in the arm of the chair with some form of drug inside.’ Doc didn’t take his eyes off the road and, after a quick look out the window, I realised we were heading to Oak.
‘Well, aren’t you worried?’
‘Me. That needle bit me and I nearly passed out. Whatever the drug is, it obviously did something to me.’
‘There’s nothing to worry about.’
‘Doc, the last time you told me not to worry I got attacked by a big dog with sharp teeth. Forgive me if I’m not exactly brimming with confidence right now.’
He shot me a quick glance and grinned, he actually grinned at me, before pulling over to the side of the road.
‘Mattie, this is completely different.’
‘You don’t mind if I keep an eye out for rabid dogs anyway, do you?’ I crossed my arms in front of me. It would be nice if he showed at least a smidge of concern for my wellbeing.
‘Go ahead,’ he said with a crooked smile. ‘But remember this, whatever the drug is, it only affected you for a couple of seconds and then your body’s accelerated repair mechanism took over and rendered it harmless.’
‘Oh.’ I looked away from his amused gaze. I’d forgotten about the wonder blood he’d pumped into me. I took a deep breath and looked at him. ‘What you’re saying is I’m indestructible, right?’
‘In such a minute dose there was no way it could cause you any lasting harm. It took six darts to knock the dog out cold. I really don’t think you have anything to worry about.’
‘Okay, you’ve made your point. Let’s get to Oak and find out what this drug is, because it obviously affects everyone else.’
As Doc pulled out onto the road again, I looked into the side mirror and spotted the headlights of a car in the distance behind us. My stomach lurched, getting the feeling something bad was about to happen. I shook my head, convinced the sense of dread was linked to the memory of encountering Doc’s car on the bridge the night I’d died. I pushed the dark thoughts that particular memory prompted out of my mind when we arrived at the gates to the lab.
Inside the lab, Doc set about discovering what type of drug was in the needle while I watched on. After what felt like hours, he came towards me, green eyes sombre.
‘What is it? What did that creep do to Claire?’
Doc took a deep breath. ‘I’ve seen this drug before, at the Melbourne Research Facility where I did my PhD.’
‘It was an experimental drug designed to manipulate emotions, to help control difficult patients in psychiatric institutions,’ he said, voice grim. ‘It made them more biddable, easier to control, and its use was banned three years ago.’
My eyes widened. ‘Why?’
‘There were unpleasant side effects with long time use.’
‘It was highly addictive and had to be given in higher doses or the patient would become violent, dangerously so, to themselves and others.’
I started to pace. ‘Why would he be giving it to people when he reads their auras? That doesn’t make sense.’
‘I don’t know. But tomorrow I am going to find out,’ he said.
‘How?’ The steely look in his eyes left me in no doubt he would do as he said, a shiver tickling my spine as the mind mannered Doc transformed into a man of resolve in front of my eyes.
‘I’m going to ask him to give me a reading. He won’t know I’ve disabled the needle and, as I am aware of how someone would react when first feeling the effects of the drug, I’ll be able to fake it.’
It sounded like a good plan, but a sense of foreboding nagged at me. ‘What if something goes wrong?’
‘Nothing is going to go wrong.’
‘You can’t know that. This guy could be dangerous.’
‘Mattie, you don’t need to worry. I can handle him.’
‘Yeah, but what if you-’
‘Come on, it’s getting late and your parents will be wondering if I’ve kidnapped you,’ he said, expression lightening as he moved towards the elevator.
‘No, they won’t, they think I’m out with Claire and her friend Nick.’
‘You lied to them? Why would you do that?’
‘I didn’t think telling them my boss was taking me on a break and enter would go down well,’ I said, hating the reproachful way he was looking at me.
He frowned. ‘I guess that makes sense.’
On the drive home we planned out what was to happen the next day. Doc was to pick me up first thing in the morning as I’d insisted on coming along. I couldn’t explain it, but knew I had to be there or everything would go wrong. As it was, I still wasn’t convinced it hadn’t gone pear shaped already. My mind flicked back to when I’d spotted the headlights of the car behind us on the way to Oak and hoped the feeling of dread I’d experienced had not been an omen of things to come.
I spent the rest of the night sitting on my bed staring at the clock, watching each minute tick over. I relied on Doc’s wonder blood to refresh my energy levels for the coming day as sleep proved impossible. Each time I closed my eyes I replayed the look on the aura reader’s face when he’d seen me. This guy was bad news and Doc was headed into trouble. I wished I believed him when he said he could handle the situation, but the churning in the pit of my stomach said he was wrong.
For the second day in a row I felt chilled even though the sun was shining as I waited for Doc to pick me up. When I got into the car one look at his aura said all the arguments I’d thought up throughout the longest night of my life would be useless and I remained silent as he drove to the Community Hall.
Doc was the first customer to arrive for an aura reading and, as I watched the man lead him into the booth from a position near the door, my apprehension grew. I needed to stay out of sight, sure he would recognise me from the day before. But it was hard to stay put when the feeling Doc was in danger intensified once the black curtains hid him from view.
Fear tore at me with sharp teeth, tearing its way into every crevice of my mind until I could stand it no longer. I moved towards the booth. I had to get him out of there before it was too late.
I had barely taken two steps when the black curtains swung open and Doc stepped out. I rushed to his side. ‘I didn’t think you were ever going to come out of there.’
Doc gazed down at me, a sweet smile on his face as he uttered three heart-wrenching words.
‘I’m a frog.’
‘You’re a what?’
‘I’m a frog. Ribbit. Ribbit.’ Doc put his head on the side as I stifled the urge to shake him.
‘What are you talking about?’
He blinked rapidly. ‘Do you have any flies? I’m very hungry.’
‘No, I do not have any flies.’ This was insane. I backed up to take a good look at him. Doc’s earnest expression told me he was completely serious. As for my glow vision, his aura wasn’t grey like the others, but it was foggy, especially around the head.
I looked over at the booth and saw the aura reader had come out. He watched us with a wide smirk on his face. Something had gone seriously wrong, and I had to find out what.
But not here. Doc was busy flicking his tongue in and out as he searched his surroundings for flies. I had to get him out of there before anyone noticed his bizarre behaviour.
‘Come on, Doc, I’ve got lots of flies for you to eat.’
‘Flies? Where?’ He spun around and inspected me, eyes blinking in time with his flickering tongue.
I grimaced. ‘They’re at your house. There are lots of nice juicy flies there, just waiting for you to eat them all up.’ The thought of anyone eating flies made me nauseous, but I would put up with the mental image if it got him out of there. People were starting to stare.
With the lure of fresh flies Doc was docile as I led him to the car, only causing a fuss when I refused to let him drive.
Finally I said, ‘Doc, you’re a frog. Frogs don’t drive.’
‘Oh? Okay.’ He handed me the keys and hopped into the passenger seat.
I took a deep breath and climbed into the driver’s seat. Doc hadn’t put his seatbelt on so I leaned over to buckle him in. He chuckled as my hair tickled his nose and put up a hand to brush the strands out of his way. His hand slipped to touch my cheek and I froze, caught by the curious expression in his green eyes.
He leaned in, lips inches away from mine. ‘Ribbit,’ he said softly.
The sound broke me out of my reverie. I sat up and put my seatbelt on, then fiddled around trying to work out how to move the seat forward. After some manoeuvring, it was time to drive away. The only trouble was I didn’t know how. Surely all my years as a passenger would allow me to muddle through a drive to Doc’s house.
I inspected the pedals at my feet. There were only two. Good, Doc’s car was an automatic; I wouldn’t have to worry about a clutch. Down beside me was the gear stick thing and it currently rested in Park. Another section read Drive. I turned the key, put the car into Drive and pressed my foot lightly to the accelerator.
I frowned. What had I done wrong? The engine was running, the car was in Drive, so why wouldn’t it go? Perhaps I had to use more acceleration? I gave that a try and the car crept forward. We were moving, but the car was vibrating as the engine worked overtime. I looked down at the centre console.
‘Oops. Forgot to take the handbrake off.’ I released the handbrake and pulled away from the kerb. Caught up in the thrill of driving, I forgot about my embarrassing start. I wasn’t doing too badly for my first time behind the wheel. Now I just had to get us to Doc’s place in one piece.
He helpfully gave directions, interspersed with requests for flies. His home was at the end of a cul-de-sac in the newest part of town, not far from Mrs Dawson’s. Doc’s was the only finished house in his street. Thankful I didn’t have to deal with nosy neighbours, I quickly ushered Frog Man to the door. His behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic as the urge to catch and eat flies became stronger.
I fumbled with the keys until I found the right one, unlocked the front door and shoved Doc inside. I locked the door behind me, pocketed the keys, and hurried to catch up with him as he headed further into the house.
From room to room, he quested for sustenance.
I followed, trying to figure out how I was going to stop him acting like a frog? It was obvious he was not going to be able to help figure out what had gone wrong, at least not until after he’d had lunch. But the thought of watching as he downed a few flies turned my stomach. There had to be an alternative.
I raced out to the car to grab my backpack off the backseat, rifling through its contents. When I came back inside Doc was in the kitchen.
‘Where are the flies?’ He opened every cupboard door as he searched for winged treats to satisfy what was obviously an intense craving.
‘They’re right here.’ I waved a packet of jelly babies in front of him.
He frowned as I emptied them out on the bench. He picked up a red one and stared at it. ‘These aren’t flies.’
‘Sure they are. They’re a new kind of fly, a fruit fly, juicy and sweet. Try one. You’ll like it.’
Some of the tension roiling in my stomach eased as he sniffed at the jelly baby before putting it in his mouth. He looked exactly like Darcy when Mum made him try something new. Darcy would usually spit it out whether he liked it or not, just to be a brat. It was a relief when Doc nodded.
‘Hmm. These fruit flies are good.’
‘Great. Eat them all up.’ I moved into the lounge and sank onto the couch. The jelly babies should keep him occupied for a while, allowing me time to figure out what had happened. Doc had said the drug was used to make people easier to control, he’d said nothing about it making them crazy. Then again, what about mind control?
Doc popped the last jelly baby into his mouth and came to stand in front of me, the corners of his mouth turned down. ‘No more flies.’
Before I had a chance to say anything, he sat beside me and leaned over to rest his head in my lap.
‘Okay. This is different.’ I wasn’t sure what to do but as he seemed to be upset I comforted him by smoothing his hair. Like a small child seeking solace he nestled in, shutting his eyes. Soon, deep even breathing told me he was asleep.
My eyes followed the strong contours of his profile, caught by the way long lashes, a touch darker than his hair, draped his cheekbone. I stopped playing with his hair but then didn’t know where to put my hands and folding them up above him was uncomfortable. In the end I placed one hand back on his head and rested the other on his shoulder. I laid my head against the back of the couch, closed my eyes, and allowed the peace and quiet to still my mind.
The sun dipped in the sky as morning turned into afternoon. Doc began to stir, and I gazed at him as his eyelids flickered before opening. He drowsily stared up at me.
‘Mattie.’ Doc sat up abruptly, a deep red flush covered his face and he stared at me, mouth open but no words coming out.
‘Are you okay?’
‘What? Oh, yes, I’m fine.’ Doc ran his hands through his hair.
He didn’t take his eyes off me as I focused on his aura. It was no longer cloudy, back to its usual glorious state.
‘I guess this means you don’t think you’re a frog anymore.’
‘Of course I don’t think I’m a frog.’ He recoiled. ‘Why on earth would I think that?’
‘You tell me. You’re the one who said you wanted to eat flies.’ I gave him the rundown of his behaviour since exiting the booth.
‘I’m thinking this guy used some kind of mind control on you, made you think you were a frog to get us out of his hair.’
Doc nodded. ‘That makes sense, but there’s only one way to find out for sure.’
With him behind the wheel the trip back to the Community Hall was a quick one. Even so, it wasn’t quick enough. The hall was empty, save a lone cleaner in dirty white overalls who was busy emptying rubbish bins.
Doc walked over to him. ‘Excuse me, sir. Do you know what town the expo is headed to next?’
‘Sorry, mate, can’t help ya.’ The cleaner shook out the garbage bag in his hands. ‘I don’t hold with all that airy fairy stuff. I just clean up after ‘em.’ He turned away and continued emptying the bins, conversation over.
‘How are we going to find them now?’ I asked. There were numerous small towns in the area. The expo could have moved on to any one of them or none at all. I hated to think the creep who had hurt Claire and turned Doc into a frog could go and do it again to someone else.
‘I’ll think of something. No one turns me into a frog and gets away with it. I’m just glad you were there to keep me under control. I’d never be able to show my face in town again, if it wasn’t for you.’ Doc shook his head.
‘I don’t understand how he was able to drug you. You’d disabled the needle.’
‘He must have seen me with you yesterday, or last night.’
I groaned. ‘Of course. There was a car behind us when we drove to Oak. It must have been him. I should have realised.’
‘There was no way you could have known who was in that car,’ said Doc as we walked back to the car. ‘We don’t even know for sure it was him.’
‘It had to be.’
‘What’s done is done. Now we have to concentrate on finding him.’
Doc drove me home and I shook off my disappointment to give Mum a brief account of a day supposedly spent watching videos at Claire’s. I escaped to my room as soon as I could to mope over my failure to connect the dots the night before. When morning showed up, it was followed by a marbled sky patterned in rich greys. The overcast sky suited my mood perfectly and the light drizzle said it all.
Life sucked. Technically though, it was death that sucked in my case. If I didn’t have glow vision, I would have no idea what was wrong with Claire as she listlessly made her way to the port racks to stow her bag Monday morning before first class. But I did know, and it was frustrating I couldn’t do anything about it. At least her aura was brighter than it had been on Saturday. Although she still looked exhausted, whatever had been done to her appeared to be wearing off.
Nor was she the only one. A number of students were in a similar condition, along with a few of the teachers. Careful questioning revealed they’d all had their aura read at the expo. The alarm on their faces when I talked to them was almost comical. With my reputation for being a gang member, they acted like I was a dangerous animal that could attack at any moment. They’d be even more freaked out if they knew the truth.
I had a Maths double first up. When I entered the classroom, Amanda was handing over a sheaf of papers to the teacher. The blonde shot me a triumphant glare as Miss Pickering thanked her for handing in the assignment. As Amanda took her seat, she gave the mousey looking girl she’d cornered on Friday afternoon a pat on the shoulder. The other girl slunk down, looking embarrassed to be singled out, aura shrinking.
The byplay made me think Amanda may have had help completing her assignment. If she had, it was nothing to do with me. I was done interfering in the lives of my fellow students. That is, I’d retreat to my bubble once I knew the aura guy was taken care of. Claire and the others might be on the mend, but it was hard to watch them wandering around the school with their diminished auras still streaked with grey.
At lunchtime, I spotted Nick and Claire sitting at one of the tables around the quadrangle and hid behind a tree to observe them.
Claire had a wrapped sandwich on the table in front of her, but she pushed it aside, shaking her head when Nick tried to get her to take it again. His expression was grave, and he said something to her, earning himself another headshake.
I tossed my sandwich in the bin beside the tree and walked away, wanting to find somewhere quiet where I wouldn’t encounter anyone. My objective was foiled at every turn. Not a single inch of the school was unoccupied. In desperation I headed for the library, intending to hide in a study room at the back, sure this was the one place no one else would head to when the sun was shining and class was on a break.
I entered the room and stopped, horrified to find I had once again blundered in where I was not wanted.
With matching expressions of guilt on their faces, Amanda and the mousy girl from Maths spun around to face me. The smaller girl looked relieved at the interruption, while the blonde had no hesitation in letting her feelings known.
‘Are you stalking me?’ Amanda strode forward and loomed over me, face twisted into a mask of anger.
‘Hey, I was just looking for some peace and quiet. How was I to know you and your girlfriend had the same idea?’
Amanda’s head flung up, nostrils flaring. ‘Julia is not my girlfriend and if you even think about spreading rumours about us I will make your life miserable.’
‘Amanda, you already make me miserable. Just looking at you ruins my day. But your secret is safe with me.’ I should have backed out of the room, pretended I had no idea what was going on, but the frightened look in Julia’s eyes kept me from leaving.
Amanda’s aura darkened, matching the red in her face. ‘There is no secret. I don’t even like Julia. I like boys, lots of boys.’
‘Poor Julia, cast aside like yesterday’s newspaper, or would that be today’s Maths assignment.’ At my mention of the assignment, Julia flushed and bolted from the room.
Amanda went to brush past me to go after her.
‘Leave her alone.’ I grabbed her arm. ‘You’ve already terrorised her into doing your work for you. Quit while you’re ahead or I go to Pickering.’
She shook her arm free. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘You might want to work on your innocent face. Pickering is going to take one look at you and know you’re lying, especially after I tell her what I saw.’
‘You didn’t see anything. We were just having a friendly conversation when you barged in on us.’
‘I’m not talking about today. I’m talking Friday, near the bike racks, you and Julia having a quiet moment discussing the weather, Maths assignments and threats. I’m sure Pickering would love to hear all about it.’
Amanda went pale. ‘You wouldn’t dare.’
‘Sure I would. Leave her alone or you’ll be spending the rest of your educational life in detention.’
When I saw from Amanda’s aura that she’d taken the warning to heart, I let her leave. I sank into one of the seats and closed my eyes, wondering if I’d just made a huge mistake. But it had felt good to stand up for someone after letting Claire down at the expo.
‘Thank you so much.’
My eyes sprang open at the timid voice. Julia stood in front of me, hands clasped in front of her neck, like a worshipper standing before the altar of divine intervention. With a groan, I closed my eyes. I did not need this. Maybe if I kept my eyes closed she would take the hint and go away.
Soft breathing and the occasional rustle of a school uniform let me know my hope was in vain. I opened my eyes and steeled myself to be mean to the girl I’d just saved.
‘I know you don’t want to be friends with anyone here, and you’re probably missing your gang friends, but thanks for taking care of Amanda. She’s not a nice person at all, not like you.’ Julia finished her speech before scurrying out of the room.
I spent the rest of the lunch break hiding out, unsure whether what I’d done was a good thing or not. Amanda might be subdued for now, but girls like her didn’t stay down for long. I would have to watch my back.
When I emerged from the study room after the bell went, the first person I saw was Claire. I hung back while she grabbed her books out of her bag before moving forward to collect my own.
In English, I sat up the back of the room with Claire and Nick only a few seats away, unable to concentrate. Claire’s energy levels were clearly depleted and in the end, at Nick’s urging, she admitted defeat and asked to be excused to go to sick bay. The teacher gave permission and Nick watched on with worried eyes as she left the room. After class finished it was time for History, which I shared with Nick. We were both called out for being inattentive during the hour long lesson, and I knew he was distracted for the same reason I was.
When the last bell rang, I raced to the bike racks and pedalled like mad all the way to Oak, hoping Doc had found out more about the aura guy and what he’d done to Claire and the others. I coasted down the long driveway and dumped my bike in front of the building, not caring if it got scratched, and took off inside.
Doc bounded up out of his seat the second I stepped into the lab. ‘I know where the expo went.’ He ushered me into the elevator and minutes later we were in his car.
‘How did you find them?’ I buckled up as Doc accelerated out the gates.
‘I went online and looked up sites for psychics until I found one that listed upcoming events. The expo is now at Hallston.’
I filled him in on my day, detailing the changes in the auras of Claire, Mr Jensen and the others, leaving out the encounter with Amanda and Julia.
‘Claire was the worst of all the ones I saw. I guess because she’s so tiny it hit her harder. The teachers looked like they’d had a big weekend and the other kids were tired but didn’t look like they were about to collapse. I’m guessing they’ll all be back to normal by the end of the week and will write this off as some kind of flu.’
‘You’re probably right,’ said Doc. ‘With a lot of people affected it will be natural for them to assume it’s a virus of some sort. There is a tendency for influenza and bugs to spread when large groups of people get together, like at Show Week.’
‘It makes you wonder how many special occasion sicknesses are really sicknesses.’ I frowned. ‘There could be more people out there; travelling from town to town, doing to people whatever it is this guy does.’
‘Let’s not get carried away. Why don’t we concentrate on the one guy we do know about? We’ll worry about the others when or if we see them.’
I was more than willing to drop the subject. It was bad enough knowing one guy was out there sucking people dry; more would be horrifying.
The drive to Hallston, a town even smaller than Merranville, took an hour. My heart raced as we entered the expo, eyes scanning the small room for the black curtained booth. It was in a back corner and I strode over to it, fists clenched as I thought about what I would do to the guy who had hurt Claire and turned Doc into a frog.
A look of caution from Doc slowed me down. Instead of ripping the curtain aside, I gently peeled back part of it and peeked inside.
A shiver swept over my body as my brain translated what I was seeing.