He’s closing on the car in front; his foot is pressed hard on the accelerator. He’s near enough to see the BMW badge on its boot, for its tail lights to turn the inside of his car a glowing red. He sees the eyes of the driver in the rear view mirror, wide, surprised, confused. He’s thought about those eyes every day for the past thirteen years, waiting for this moment. He blasts the horn, flashes the headlights, grins. Might as well play a little; stretch out the fun.
“Not so sure of yourself now are you, Mr Grass-on-your-own-Grandmother-because-it’s-your-Public-Duty?” he mocks. His voice is harsh and triumphant.
They’re nearing the river. The engine roars as he pulls out to overtake. He’s chosen this car well, enjoys its power. Its owner will be angry when he returns to the car park and finds it gone. As he pulls alongside, he grits his teeth, takes a grip of the wheel and swings it hard towards the BMW.
* * *
Lee’s head smashed sideways into the car window. The sound of twisting, tearing metal screamed in his ears as the bumper of the red car beside them tore into the driver’s door.
A red car?
But he was sitting in the living room watching the football match.
He squeezed his eyes shut. The image remained. Windscreen wipers clunked rhythmically revealing a narrow country lane, shiny and black from the February rain.
Screams echoed in his ears.
He opened his eyes. It made no difference. The football match had disappeared.
“John! The car!”
“I can bloody see it, Sylvia.”
Again the red car veered crazily towards them. Strapped in the back seat of the car, Lee glimpsed the silhouette of the driver, baseball cap, cigarette glowing, then the two cars connected with a violent jolt.
More screaming, louder, desperate.
“What’s he doing? Why doesn’t he pass?”
The driver braked hard and steered away from the collision but the tyres broke away, taking their own direction, shrieking like souls in hell. A hedge loomed in front.
Where was this? Who were these people? What on earth was happening? Lee’s heart pounded, sending blood racing round his body in shuddering waves.
Branches clawed at the car but failed to catch them. They burst through the shrubbery and careered down a steep embankment. The car bounced over the rough ground, shaking him so violently he felt his brain might splatter inside his skull.
“The river!” yelled the woman.
The man yanked on the steering wheel.
“The tree!” she howled.
The seatbelt grabbed him, forcing the air out of his lungs in a single gasp. The sound of bending metal and splintering glass filled the night as the car rammed into the trunk of a huge oak tree. The windscreen disappeared. The roof buckled, the bonnet crushed, the door twisted. Finally, the airbags detonated; two deafening explosions ripping through the darkness leaving wisps of white powder winding upwards into the frosty air.
The smell of burning rubber from the tyres mixed with hot oil in a toxic cocktail as the engine ruptured and bled into the night. The windscreen wipers twitched on the dashboard until, in a spray of electric sparks, they too became still. Only the slight hiss of steam escaping from the fractured radiator broke the silence.
“Mum … Dad,” said a trembling voice.
The impact had crushed the car roof in such a way that the driver’s mirror pointed straight at Lee, but instead of his own reflection, he saw the face of a girl, her dark eyes wide and frightened. Her scream pierced his ears, reverberating around his head.
“Are you all right?”
The face of his foster mother replaced the girl’s terrified eyes.
“You must’ve been dreaming,” Joan said. “You were sort of twitching and breathing funny.”
“Yeah?” Lee rubbed his eyes, trying to shake the images of the car crash from his mind.
“You had me going there for a minute,” added Derek. “Thought you were having a heart attack.”
“Err … no …”
Joan returned to her armchair, plumping up the faded floral cushions before sitting down. “How’s that girlfriend of yours?” she asked. “I’ve not seen her for a few days.”
“Ex-girlfriend,” said Lee.
“Oh.” Joan looked like she was hoping for details but thankfully she didn’t push for them. ‘Not wanting to get serious’ had seemed like a lame explanation even as he’d said it and Kirsty had definitely not taken the news well. But getting attached to people was always a bad idea … that was something his sixteen years had taught him.
Joan sighed. “You should turn in for an early night,” she told him. “You look tired.”
“Uh huh.” He ran his hand through his hair. The girl’s screams still rang in his ears. The car crash had seemed so real; so much more than images, so much more than a dream. There’d been sounds and smells and feelings, feelings that somehow weren’t his own. It had been one crazy-arse nightmare.
Several hours later, he woke to the sound of hushed voices downstairs. He knew what that meant. His foster parents, Joan and Derek Webb, had picked up another stray. He wondered whether he should get up and wedge his backpack against the bedroom door, but it was cold and he couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed. Anyway, even the skinny kid who had scarpered with his CD player, Joan’s handbag and half of Derek’s fishing rods hadn’t stolen anything on the first night.
He sighed. Of course, not all the kids who came to the house were psycho. There’d been the little boy whose dad had busted his nose. He’d called Lee ‘big brother’ and pestered him to play football, which had been sort of cool, and there was the lad who’d taken the overdose. He’d been OK in a quiet way but he’d left in an ambulance and hadn’t returned. That was the trouble really. Just when he got used to someone, they left. Not like Lee. He’d been there two years. He heard the front door open and close as the social worker left.
Lee never liked the social workers.
Then came footsteps on the stairs. Joan kept the bed in the adjoining room permanently ready for its next emergency occupant.
“The bathroom’s across the landing,” he heard Joan say.
The door clicked shut.
Silence, then muffled sobs.
He turned over but it was always the same when someone new arrived. It reminded him of his mother lying in the hospital bed with the social worker hovering behind him, waiting to bring him through this very same front door in the middle of the night. He pulled the duvet over his face and fell into an uneasy sleep.
It took the alarm clock three attempts before Lee finally dragged himself out of bed next morning. It almost felt like he hadn’t slept at all. He lingered in the shower, trying to wash the memories from his mind until the water ran cold. He retrieved his school uniform from its usual place on the floor, pulled a hoodie over his school sweatshirt and jammed his feet into his trainers.
Thirty-seven Highfield Road stood on a tree-lined street on the edge of Shrewsbury. The warm aroma of toast and coffee drifted through the large Victorian semi, reminding him that, as usual, he was absolutely starving.
“Morning.” Joan handed him a plate holding several thick rounds of cheese on toast. “We had a new arrival last night.”
“I heard,” he muttered. Joan never seemed to learn he had zero interest in the problems of the people who passed through.
“Her name’s Paige,” Joan went on.
“Paige?” He said through a mouthful of toast. “Since when do we have girls staying?”
“Now, don’t go getting any ideas,” said Joan. “Social Services don’t like doing mixed placements but they’re so short of emergency homes at the moment.”
He took a swig of his hot chocolate.
Ideas? What planet did Joan live on? Anyway this girl was probably about five, or else a total loser. After all, why else would she end up at Highfield Road?
“Paige’s been in a car crash,” Joan said. “It killed both her parents but Paige only got a bump on the head. It’s a miracle, really.”
A car crash? The images from the night before overloaded his brain, as fresh and clear as reality but completely senseless.
“She’ll be staying until her uncle arrives from Scotland,” continued Joan.
His stomach twisted with a stab of jealousy, threatening to throw out his toast. An uncle. Real family. Not just a gran who lives in a nursing home and only remembers me on good days. He took a deep breath, allowing the scents of the kitchen to unwind the knot in his stomach.
“Shouldn’t Paige be in hospital or something?” he asked.
“Well, she’s not hurt physically,” said Joan. “And the hospital’s so short of beds …”
“Short of beds, short of homes.” He bit into the toast. “The world stinks.”
Joan sighed. “Make Paige welcome. You know what it’s like.”
He shrugged. “Don’t expect I’ll see much of her,” he replied. “She’ll stay in her room until you can coax her down, like all the others. Then she’ll go.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than he heard light footsteps on the stairs. He raised an eyebrow. “Or, she could just come straight down for breakfast.”
The kitchen door opened.
“Come in, Paige.” Joan’s hand automatically reached for the kettle.
Lee almost choked on his toast. Paige’s eyes looked puffy from crying, but there could be no mistake about it. This was the same girl he’d seen in his dream the night before.
How was that possible?
“What would you like for breakfast, Paige?” Joan asked.
“I’m not really hungry, thank you.” Paige glanced round the kitchen and ended up studying the floor tiles.
“You’ve got to keep your strength up at times like this,” fussed Joan.
Paige pushed her thumbs into the pockets of her designer jeans. “Maybe a slice of toast then.”
She sat on the very edge of a chair at the opposite end of the table, her long dark hair falling over her smart jumper which Lee guessed cost more than all his clothes put together. Definitely not their usual loser.
“Mary Grantham, the social worker, will be round later,” Joan told Paige.
Lee frowned. He didn’t like Mary Grantham but it wasn’t really the woman’s fault. Someone had had to be with him when his mother died and she’d drawn the short straw.
Last night’s image of the car crash replayed in his head like a video he couldn’t turn off.
“Was it a red car?” he blurted. Immediately he wished he hadn’t said it. Joan started slapping butter on the toast with a ‘what-kind-of-a-question’s-that?’ look on her face and Paige’s brown eyes stared at him as though he’d suggested the car had wings.
Stupid thing to say, he told himself. But he did see Paige in the accident. He did see the red car. His mind spun with a million questions all coming down to the same one – how?
He peered at Paige over the top of his mug. Maybe it was the expensive clothes but she had a killer figure, curvy yet toned and even with a tearstained face she was pretty in a soft, gentle sort of way. But as for why he should have seen her in the accident …
“You’re going to be late.” Joan’s voice jolted him out of his thoughts. “And didn’t the headmaster give you a warning about wearing trainers at school?” she continued, glaring at his feet.
“Shoes’re in my bag,” he said. “I can put them on if anyone insists.” Like that’s important.
Joan tutted. “What are your plans after school? Will you be doing … what’s it called … you know … that running thing with Andy?” she asked.
“Parkour,” he told her for what seemed the thousandth time. “It’s a proper sport, remember? Like gymnastics, but outside.”
“Yes, yes.” Joan dismissed the explanation with a wave of her hand. “But will you be home early or late?”
“Early. Andy’s got a driving lesson.”
Joan frowned. “Andy seems to have been learning to drive forever,” she said. “It must be costing a fortune.” She dropped the butter knife in the sink. “How’s your car fund coming along anyway?” Lee’s stomach tied itself into a hangman’s noose around his breakfast. “Umm, yeah, good,” he blustered.
OK, so when he’d started saving money from his Saturday job it had been for a car, but that was before his gran told him his dad had gone to Australia. Did she really know his father’s identity when his mum had always insisted the man had been a stupid one-night stand and his birth certificate read ‘father unknown’? Or had Gran’s memories become so distorted she was confusing him with someone else? Lee’s visits to the nursing home had become fact finding missions whilst the five hundred and twenty pounds which had been his car savings were now his Australia fund … he’d just never told anyone. He watched Joan stirring milk into a cup for Paige. He didn’t need telling his plan was doomed to fail.
Joan placed a plate of toast and a cup of hot chocolate in front of Paige. “Mary’s trying to contact your uncle,” she told her. Lee saw Paige’s bottom lip trembling. She reached for the chocolate, took a sip and swallowed hard.
You’ll be all right. You’ve got your uncle. He gulped down his jealousy with the last mouthful of hot chocolate and picked up his backpack, leaving Paige pushing the toast round her plate.
He’s sitting in a corner of the café on the motorway services, the last stop before home. A collection of empty coffee cups and a half-eaten sandwich sit on the greasy table before him. It’s busy and the place resounds with the clanking of coffee cups and noisy children for whom the journey has already been too long. A bored-looking waitress is clearing the tables. Her eyes are ringed with dark circles.
“You finished?” she asks him, through a mouthful of gum.
“Finished?” A slow smile spreads across his face as he gets to his feet. “Hell, I’m only just getting started.”
* * *
Paige stood with Joan on the church steps. She couldn’t believe it had been a week since the accident. She still couldn’t believe it had happened at all. Rain streaked down relentlessly out of a dull, grey sky. The sort of rain which wasn’t much to look at but wet you to the bone. A miserable day for a funeral. A miserable day for anything.
“Should we go inside?” asked Joan.
The coffins are in there. Mum and Dad. The longer she could stay outside the better.
Hands slid round her waist.
“Gavin?” She twisted round, managing a small smile. “You’re here,” she said. “I thought you had exams.”
“Only mocks.” Gavin tossed his long blond fringe out of his eyes and planted a quick kiss on her cheek. “I’m doing them tomorrow instead.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. What was she going to do without Gavin when she moved to Scotland with Uncle Roy?
“Hey, don’t worry about it, babe.” Gavin gave her a squeeze. “It’s given me an extra day to revise,” he said with a grin.
Paige blinked rapidly. Worrying about Gavin’s exams had never crossed her mind.
Gavin kept one arm round her waist. “You look nice, hun,” he said. “You should wear black more often.”
“What?” Had he missed the whole reason for her outfit? She turned to face him but Gavin’s attention was on a shiny new car pulling alongside the church wall.
“Wow, it’s the latest Audi,” he said. “Are they friends of yours?”
Three men got out wearing dark city suits and serious faces.
She shrugged. “I guess they’re from the bank where my father works … worked,” she corrected and to her horror, her voice cracked as she said it.
Gavin’s mobile rang.
“Hey, Chris. Look, I can’t talk; I’m at this funeral. No, I’ll be back in an hour or so. There’s no prob. I’ll meet you at lunch.”
Paige pulled at his sleeve. “Aren’t you staying afterwards? I thought … ”
“The squash match, babe,” Gavin interrupted. “It’s the semi-finals. Did you forget?”
“Forget?” she murmured. Like she had nothing else on her mind?
Paige shifted from one foot to the other, trying to stop shivering, trying to keep her mind off the black hearse and the solemn-faced vicar lurking round the doorway guiding the mourners into the church. It didn’t work.
A small hire car pulled onto the grass opposite the church and a stocky man with thinning hair eased himself out of the driver’s seat; an older weather-worn version of her father.
“Uncle Roy.” She flew down the gravel and threw herself into his arms, tears pricking her eyes. Uncle Roy stood motionless. Then he pulled away.
“Hello there, Tiger,” he said. “Let me put my jacket on?”
“Of course,” she murmured.
Gavin appeared behind her. He waited while Uncle Roy changed out of his windcheater then shook hands. Uncle Roy gave him a brief nod before heading into the church.
Paige followed close behind. A crowd of teachers from the school where her mother had taught sat by the door, sniffling as she passed. A woman in a baggy brown cardigan played mournful chords on a not-quite-in-tune organ. Uncle Roy moved aside to sit down and there, directly in front of her, beside the altar, stood the two coffins. Suddenly, her legs refused to move.
“Come on, babe,” said Gavin. He stood by the front row of seats.
“Can’t we sit further away?” she choked out.
“It’s close family at the front,” said Gavin. “That’s how it works.”
He linked his arm through hers and pulled her along the hard wooden pew just metres away from the coffins. The scent of lilies from the wreaths wafted over her, catching in her throat. Her mum had liked lilies.
Paige looked at Uncle Roy but he stared straight ahead, leaving an uncomfortable space between them.
Lee sprawled on the bench under the maths classroom window. He still wore his hoodie and his trainers.
“Doesn’t look like the cover teacher’s turning up,” he said to Josh with a grin.
Josh opened the classroom window and flicked a pen top at two girls walking below. It missed them.
“If I’d been over there,” Josh pointed to the bike shed roof, “I’d have got that top down her t-shirt.”
Lee laughed. “We could jump to the bike shed easy enough,” he said.
“What about over the shed to the wall?” asked Josh. “Think that’s possible?”
“Don’t see why not,” said Lee. “It’s not as difficult as some of the other jumps we’ve done.”
Josh checked round the room. “Still no teacher,” he said.
“Trouble is,” said Lee, “the windowsill’s wet. It’s not safe in the rain.”
Josh pulled his soccer shirt out of his bag and mopped the sill. “There,” he said. “Fixed it.”
Lee climbed through the window and balanced on the ledge.
The funeral party moved outside. The rain had stopped but the day remained dull and cold. Paige stood silently between Joan and Uncle Roy as Gavin busied himself with a text message. Her body seemed to have been invaded by butterflies. Their wings trembled and danced in her stomach, fluttering outwards until her whole body quivered. Tears stung her eyes.
She gulped. Her mum would never have approved of her losing control and showing herself up in front of all these people.
Gavin flashed a smile but Uncle Roy appeared as ashen as the grey churchyard beneath the sullen sky. He stood stiffly, his hands clasped behind him, his face expressionless. The butterflies reached her throat and she gave a loud, choking sob.
Joan put an arm round her and she buried her face in Joan’s black funeral coat. The fabric smelled warm and flowery. She tried not to think about the coffins, or the newly dug hole in the ground, or the fact she’d never see Mum and Dad again. Paige tried to think of something else, anything else, tried not to cry.
She felt dizzy, light-headed. A sinking feeling gripped the pit of her stomach. No, not sinking, more like falling, as though she’d stepped off the pavement and never hit the road. She could see a white wall. But … her eyes were shut …
Her breath caught in mid-sob. She lifted her face from Joan’s coat. The wall remained.
I’m hallucinating. I’m going crazy.
Beneath her, she could see shiny grey squares, a roof wet from the February rain. She landed and the world rolled over before she was falling once more, faster, breathless, awkward. This time the floor seemed to rise up and meet her and she felt a sharp pain in her knee. She winced in surprise.
“You’ll be all right.” Joan squeezed her arm, jolting Paige back to reality. “You’ll see.”
Fear gripped every muscle in her body and held her immobile, forcing her to watch as men in black suits with expressionless faces lowered the coffins into the ground.
Things were not going to be ‘all right’. How could anything ever be ‘all right’ again? Her parents were dead … really dead … never-coming-back dead … and she was seeing things that weren’t there …
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading ShockWaves chapters 1 and 2. Want to know what happens next?