A Monster Calls (Page 11)

And now his grandma was hanging around the house and he was dreaming about trees.

Or maybe it wasn’t a dream. Which would actually be worse.

He walked on angrily to school. He blamed Lily because it was mostly her fault, wasn’t it?

He blamed Lily, because who else was there?

This time, Harry’s fist was in his stomach.

Conor fell to the ground, scraping his knee on the concrete step, tearing a hole in his uniform trousers. The hole was the worst part of it. He was terrible at sewing.

“You’re such a spaz, O’Malley,” Sully said, laughing behind him somewhere. “It’s like you fall every day.”

“You should go to a doctor for that,” he heard Anton say.

“Maybe he’s drunk,” Sully said, and there was more laughter, except for a silent spot between them where Conor knew Harry wasn’t laughing. He knew, without looking back, that Harry was just watching him, waiting to see what he would do.

As he stood, he saw Lily against the school wall. She was with some other girls, heading back inside at the end of break time. She wasn’t talking to them, just looking at Conor as she walked away.

“No help from Super Poodle today,” Sully said, still laughing.

“Lucky for you, Sully,” Harry said, speaking for the first time. Conor still hadn’t turned back to face them, but he could tell Harry wasn’t laughing at Sully’s joke. Conor watched Lily until she was gone.

“Hey, look at us when we’re talking to you,” Sully said, burning from Harry’s comment no doubt and grabbing Conor’s shoulder, spinning him around.

“Don’t touch him,” Harry said, calm and low, but so ominously that Sully immediately stepped back. “O’Malley and I have an understanding,” Harry said. “I’m the only one who touches him. Isn’t that right?”

Conor waited for a moment and then slowly nodded. That did seem to be the understanding.

Harry, his face still blank, his eyes still locked on Conor’s, stepped up close to him. Conor didn’t flinch, and they stood, eye-to-eye, while Anton and Sully looked at each other a bit nervously.

Harry cocked his head slightly, as if a question had occurred to him, one he was trying to puzzle out. Conor still didn’t move. The rest of their Year had already gone inside. He could feel the quiet opening up around them, even Anton and Sully falling silent. They would have to go soon. They needed to go now.

But nobody moved.

Harry raised a fist and pulled it back as if to swing it at Conor’s face.

Conor still didn’t flinch. He didn’t even move. He just stared into Harry’s eyes, waiting for the punch to fall.

But it didn’t.

Harry lowered his fist, dropping it slowly down by his side, still staring at Conor. “Yes,” he finally said, quietly, as if he’d worked something out. “That’s what I thought.”

And then, once more, came the voice of doom.

“You boys!” Miss Kwan called, coming across the yard towards them like terror on two legs. “Break was over three minutes ago! What do you think you’re still doing out here?”

“Sorry, Miss,” Harry said, his voice suddenly light. “We were discussing Mrs Marl’s Life Writing homework with Conor and lost track of time.” He slapped a hand on Conor’s shoulder as if they were lifelong friends. “No one knows about stories like Conor here.” He nodded seriously at Miss Kwan. “And talking about it helps get him out of himself.”

“Yes,” Miss Kwan frowned, “that sounds entirely likely. Everyone here is on first warning. One more problem today, and that’s detention for all of you.”

“Yes, Miss,” Harry said brightly, with Anton and Sully mumbling the same. They trudged off back to lessons, Conor following in step a metre behind.

“A moment please, Conor,” Miss Kwan said.

He stopped and turned to her but didn’t look up at her face.

“Are you sure everything’s all right between you and those boys?” Miss Kwan said, putting her voice into its “kindly” mode, which was only slightly less scary than full-on shouting.

“Yes, Miss,” Conor said, still not looking at her.

“Because I’m not blind to how Harry works, you know,” she said. “A bully with charisma and top marks is still a bully.” She sighed, annoyed. “He’ll probably end up Prime Minister one day. God help us all.”

Conor said nothing, and the silence took on a particular quality, one he was familiar with, caused by how Miss Kwan’s body shifted forward, her shoulders dropping, her head leaning down towards Conor’s.

He knew what was coming. He knew and hated it.

“I can’t imagine what you must be going through, Conor,” Miss Kwan said, so quiet it was almost a whisper, “but if you ever want to talk, my door is always open.”

He couldn’t look at her, couldn’t see the care there, couldn’t bear to hear it in her voice.

(Because he didn’t deserve it.)

(The nightmare flashed in him, the screaming and the terror, and what happened at the end–)

“I’m fine, Miss,” he mumbled, looking at his shoes. “I’m not going through anything.”

After a second, he heard Miss Kwan sigh again. “All right then,” she said. “Forget about the first warning and come back inside.” She patted him once on the shoulder and re-crossed the yard to the doors.

And for a moment, Conor was entirely alone.

He knew right then he could probably stay out there all day and no one would punish him for it.

Which somehow made him feel even worse.

LITTLE TALK

After school, his grandma was waiting for him on the settee.

“We need to have a talk,” she said before he even got the door shut, and there was a look on her face that made him stop. A look that made his stomach hurt.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

His grandmother took in a long, loud breath through her nose and stared out of the front window, as if gathering herself. She looked like a bird of prey. A hawk that could carry off a sheep.

“Your mother has to go back to the hospital,” she said. “You’re going to come and stay with me for a few days. You’ll need to pack a bag.”

Conor didn’t move. “What’s wrong with her?”

His grandma’s eyes widened for just a second, as if she couldn’t believe he was asking a question so cataclysmically stupid. Then she relented. “There’s a lot of pain,” she said. “More than there should be.”