A Monster Calls (Page 24)

It took Conor a moment to realize it was over. That this was it. This was all he was going to get.

“You’re not punishing me?” he said.

The Headmistress gave him a grim smile, almost kind, and then she said almost exactly the same thing his father had said. “What purpose could that possibly serve?”

– • –

Miss Kwan walked him back to his lesson. The two pupils they passed in the corridor backed up against the wall to let him go by.

His classroom fell silent when he opened the door, and no one, including the teacher, said a word as he made his way back to his desk. Lily, at the desk beside him, looked like she was going to say something. But she didn’t.

No one spoke to him for the rest of the day.

There are worse things than being invisible, the monster had said, and it was right.

Conor was no longer invisible. They all saw him now.

But he was further away than ever.

A NOTE

A few days passed. Then a few more. It was hard to tell exactly how many. They all seemed to be one big, grey day to Conor. He’d get up in the morning and his grandma wouldn’t talk to him, not even about the phone call from the Headmistress. He’d go to school, and no one would talk to him there either. He’d visit his mum in hospital, and she’d be too tired to talk to him. His dad would phone, and he’d have nothing to say.

There was no sign of the monster either, not since the attack on Harry, even though it was supposed to be time for Conor to tell a story in return. Every night, Conor waited. Every night, it didn’t appear. Maybe because it knew Conor didn’t know what story to tell. Or that Conor did know, but would refuse.

Eventually, Conor would fall asleep, and the nightmare would come. It came every time he slept now, and worse than before, if that was possible. He’d wake up shouting three or four times a night, once so bad his grandma knocked on his door to see if he was all right.

She didn’t come in, though.

The weekend arrived and was spent at the hospital, though his mum’s new medicine was taking its time to work and meanwhile she had developed an infection in her lungs. Her pain had got worse, too, so she spent most of the time either asleep or not making a lot of sense because of the painkillers. Conor’s grandma would send him out when she was like that, and he got so familiar with wandering around the hospital he once correctly took a lost old woman to the X-ray department.

Lily and her mum came to visit on the weekend, too, but he made sure he spent the whole time they were there reading magazines in the gift shop.

Then, somehow, he was back at school again. As incredible as it seemed, time kept moving forward for the rest of the world.

The rest of the world that wasn’t waiting.

Mrs Marl was handing back the Life Writing homework. To everyone who had a life, anyway. Conor just sat at his desk, chin in hand, looking at the clock. It was still two and a half hours until 12.07. Not that it would probably matter. He was beginning to think the monster was gone for good.

Someone else who wouldn’t talk to him, then.

“Hey,” he heard, whispered in his general vicinity. Making fun of him no doubt. Look at Conor O’Malley, just sitting there like a lump. What a freak.

“Hey,” he heard again, this time more insistent.

He realized it was someone whispering to him.

Lily was sitting across the aisle, where she’d sat throughout all the years they’d been in school together. She kept looking up at Mrs Marl, but her fingers were slyly holding out a note.

A note for Conor.

“Take it,” she whispered out of the side of her mouth, gesturing with the note.

Conor looked to see if Mrs Marl was watching, but she was too busy expressing mild disappointment that Sully’s life had an awfully close resemblance to a particular insect-based superhero. Conor reached across the aisle and took the note.

It was folded what seemed like a couple of hundred times and getting it open was like untying a knot. He gave Lily an irritated look, but she was still pretending to watch the teacher.

Conor flattened the note on his desk and read it. For all the folding, it was only four lines long.

Four lines, and the world went quiet.

– • –

I’m sorry for telling everyone about your mum, read the first line.

I miss being your friend, read the second.

Are you okay? read the third.

I see you, read the fourth, with the I underlined about a hundred times.

He read it again. And again.

He looked back over to Lily, who was busy receiving all kinds of praise from Mrs Marl, but he could see that she was blushing furiously and not just because of what Mrs Marl was saying.

Mrs Marl moved on, passing lightly over Conor.

When she was gone, Lily looked at him. Looked him right in the eye.

And she was right. She saw him, really saw him.

He had to swallow before he could speak.

“Lily–” he started to say, but the door to the classroom opened and the school secretary entered, beckoning to Mrs Marl and whispering something to her.

They both turned to look at Conor.

100 YEARS

Conor’s grandma stopped outside his mum’s hospital room.

“Aren’t you coming in?” Conor asked.

She shook her head. “I’ll be down in the waiting room,” she said, and left him to enter on his own.

He had a sour feeling in his stomach at what he might find inside. They’d never pulled him out of school before, not in the middle of the day, not even when she was hospitalized last Easter.

Questions raced through his mind.

Questions he ignored.

He pushed open the door, fearing the worst.

But his mum was awake, her bed in its sitting-up position. What’s more, she was smiling, and for a second, Conor’s heart leapt. The treatment must have worked. The yew tree had healed her. The monster had done it–

Then he saw that the smile didn’t match her eyes. She was happy to see him, but she was frightened, too. And sad. And more tired than he’d ever seen her, which was saying something.

And they wouldn’t have pulled him out of school to tell him she was feeling a little bit better.

“Hi, son,” she said, and when she said it, her eyes filled and he could hear the thickness in her voice.

Conor could feel himself slowly starting to get very, very angry.

“Come here,” she said, tapping the bedcovers next to her.

He didn’t sit there, though, slumping instead in a chair next to her bed.

“How’re you doing, sweetheart?” she asked, her voice faint, her breath even shakier than it had been yesterday. There seemed to be more tubes invading her today, giving her medicines and air and who knew what else? She wasn’t wearing a scarf and her head was bare and white in the room’s fluorescent lights. Conor felt an almost irresistible urge to find something to cover it, protect it, before anyone saw how vulnerable it was.