LILY was not going to let it catch her. She ran.
Black clouds hid the moon, and where the streetlights didn’t reach the shadows were hard and deep. The windows in the houses were dark too; only a few glowed to show that people were inside. Toys and bikes lay abandoned on lawns. Lily’s own home was far behind her, and she was running down the middle of the street to stay in what little light there was.
She saw a car coming and had to slow down, breathing hard, and move out of the way, although she didn’t step onto the shadowy sidewalk. She blinked against the painfully bright headlamps as they passed, fighting hard not to shut her eyes, and then she was running again. The people in the car may have looked at her. If they did they would have seen a ten-year-old girl in a thin jacket and a skirt, arms hugging her shoulders, her tightly-curled hair blowing around her face.
Every now and again, when she couldn’t help it any longer, Lily looked back. A cold wind made the trees shake and the shadows jump and reach about. Then she tried to move faster and pull the jacket tighter. The long days of summer had come to an end and dead leaves rattled on the branches. She caught a voice from a house as she passed – someone shouting – and that only made her feel more distant, out here in the road. She came to an intersection and turned without thinking onto another identical street.
She was not going to let it catch her.
There was a strong gust of wind and she felt it against her bare legs; a cold dampness and biting grit. She hunched her shoulders and had to close her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them she was staring into an unlit yard, unsure of which way she’d been going. She turned quickly and walked, out of breath. Down another street, around another corner, down one more.
There were sounds and whispers from high up in the trees behind her now, among those dry leaves, getting closer, and she didn’t turn to look this time but started to run again. The wind came and she was pushed and shoved as she tried to keep to the safety of the road.
Tears crawled down one cheek as she struggled to keep her eyes open. She ran around another corner but after a few steps saw she was in a dead end. The houses curved around in a circle up ahead and there was no way out. Lily slowed and turned, her untied hair flying around her face, and behind her were the clawing shadows and the nameless thing she had been running from. She began edging backwards, searching the blackness with her watering eyes.
There was nowhere to run now.
Her only thought was the rushing, scraping noise, like something huge dragging itself. She jerked her head to try to see the movements at the edges of her vision, and the whispers came louder. They didn’t have words but they told her to be afraid. They told her that she was trapped. She took a faltering step back, and then another.
Something reached out and touched her back.
Her scream was small and high and over quickly. She spun and looked, mouth open and now terrified into silence, her whole body stiff and wanting hopelessly to get away.
Behind her stood a boy.
He tilted his head to one side.
“Hm,” he said.
Lily stared through watering eyes.
“You need to come with me,” the boy went on.
“What?” Lily gasped.
“You need to come with me,” he repeated. “Please.” He was slightly shorter than her, and she was looking down at his untidy hair. “You’re messing everything up,” he added.
He sounded tired and annoyed, which was so different from how Lily felt, here in the terrible night, that confusion pushed out fear for a few seconds. She looked and saw a house that had an open front door. Warm light spilled out onto a lawn and a driveway with a car. She shivered, her back prickling, and she glanced again at the darkness with its unknown thing made of fear. She was not going to let it catch her.
“OK,” she said.
The boy walked towards the house. Lily rushed to follow him inside, not looking back, and he closed the door behind them.
“Up here,” he told her casually.
He went up the hallway stairs. Lily glimpsed photos and a light carpet and a doorway into a room with a table and chairs, but she didn’t look closely as she followed him. He pushed a door at the top, leading her into a cramped room containing two beds and a lot of mess. Lily wiped her eyes on her sleeve and heard the windows rattle.
The boy was pointing at a desk covered with books and pens. A laptop was perched precariously on one corner.
In the middle of it all was a rock.
It was large and square with several strands of wire wrapped tightly around it. It was completely out of place – a strange thing to find anywhere, and stranger still on a messy table in a bedroom. She put out her hand and then stopped, looking around again, and at the boy.
“The stone. Put your hand on it,” he said, sighing slightly as he nodded toward it. “Please.”
With the fear of the night on one side and the mystery of the strange boy on the other, Lily stepped forward and put her palm gently on top of the bulky rock.
The lights flickered and got brighter – perhaps, she wasn’t completely sure – and it seemed like the wind that was shaking the windows stopped instantly. It felt like something that had been squeezing and making it hard to breathe had released her, that a buzzing in her head suddenly went silent.
Lily blinked and looked around the room as if for the first time.
“Thank you,” the boy said, in his matter-of-fact tone. “You can sit down there.” He pointed to one of the beds.
Lily stared at her hand, still resting on the large stone, then back at the boy. She blinked again – all those feelings, the terrors of outside, the darkness, the need to run. They had gone. With her mind suddenly clear she realized that she had absolutely no idea what was happening.
“It’s fine,” said the boy as if explaining everything.
Lily stepped back and sat without a word on the crumpled comforter. She continued looking at her hand, turning her palm over. That was all it was: her hand. Normal.
The boy turned his back and moved some of the things on the desk around. Lily looked past him, trying to work out what had just happened, and saw books, wires and a few tools, bit of electronics, like the insides of a computer tipped out and mixed up. And there, in the middle of it all, was that stone. It was grey-blue in color with tiny flecks of white and black, and the thin wire that encircled it a few times was orange. Copper, she knew immediately. The stone was large, about the size of a toaster oven and the same sort of shape; square and blocky, and heavy-looking.
The boy continued to shuffle the things on his desk as if he’d forgotten about her.
“What is that thing?” Lily asked, finding her voice dry and quiet. She coughed.
The boy at the desk turned his head to look at her. “The stone?” Lily nodded – what else would she be talking about? “It’s dolerite. From the Preseli mountains.” He saw her blank expression. “From Wales. In Britain.” After that he turned back to the desk.
Lily nodded at his back, wondering how that clarified anything, and glanced around the room. The other bed was pushed against the opposite wall. There were lots of posters stuck up over there, mainly of baseball players. Two bookshelves seemed to be holding only comics, in untidy piles. There were clothes on the floor and on the beds. It was exactly how she’d imagine a boy’s room to look.
She was being ignored. She frowned at the boy’s back.
“What…what’s your name?” she asked, suddenly realizing she had no idea who she was talking to, or whose house she was in, or where exactly in the streets around her neighborhood they were.
“I’m Sam,” he replied, turning around to look at her. “I know your name. It’s Lily.” Her mouth opened silently. “I only know that because you’re in the year ahead of me at Bartholomew Elementary, and you were new this year,” he added quickly.
“Oh. Okay.” She stared at this boy called Sam. “What did it do?” she asked, a little louder. The terror of the dark streets had vanished as soon as her hand touched that strange rock, but the memories were still there. “I was being chased. There were…a thing…following me…I wasn’t going to let it catch me…” It was hard to find the right words.
Sam leaned back on the desk. Lily saw he was holding something in his hands – a yellow box with dials and switches. The boy tried to smile, and it was lopsided and looked out of place, like his face wasn’t very practiced at it.
“You weren’t really being chased,” he said. “It was just energy.”
Sam was about to speak, but then the laptop on the desk started pinging.
“Oh,” he said. “I have to do it again now.”
“Do what?” asked Lily quickly. “To me?”
“No,” Sam sighed. “But you can stay to watch if you want.”
“Ummm…” Lily hesitated, but Sam had already hit a button on his laptop.