From the author: In 1990, British politician John Gummer famously attempted to quell public fears about mad cow disease by making his four-year-old daughter eat a beef burger on camera — because if people can say, ‘This is good enough for my kids,’ then it HAS to be okay. Doesn’t it...?
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Anton drew his legs up underneath him. The car seat was huge and puffy, and the leather made a breathy creak when he moved. It sounded like it was sighing.
‘How much longer?’ he said.
For a while, nobody answered. He thought maybe they hadn’t heard him, but then his mother said, ‘We’ll be there soon.’
There meant the place where our new friends lived. When people talked about them, you could hear something extra in the words. Like they were names: Our New Friends. Anton was trying to look forward to it, because it was good to make new friends, but he sometimes got nervous when there were a lot of new things, different things, to take in. But his mother said they all had to get used to things being different now, so he was trying. He was trying hard.
‘Can’t you stop fidgeting?’ Marissa said. Which was totally unfair, because she was the one who kept twisting around to look out the window. And it wasn’t even as if there was anything to see.
Although their father kept looking, too. ‘This used to be the West End,’ he said. ‘Time was, you could never have driven through here. The traffic used to be terrible.’
Anton knew what traffic meant. It was the word for a group of cars, like cattle was the word for a group of cows. You didn’t really get either of them anymore, though.
‘We lived in London when you were a baby, Anton,’ his father went on. ‘We brought you both up here to see the Christmas lights.’
‘I remember that,’ Marissa said. ‘They crisscrossed all over Oxford Street, and they made shapes. Christmas trees and reindeer.’
‘That’s right,’ their father said. He blinked hard and looked away from the window.
‘I remember it too,’ Anton said, although he didn’t. He wasn’t sure about Oxford or reindeer, but he could guess what a West End was. All places were either West, East, South, or North. Anton and his family came from the South, which was where he’d been born.
He’d asked which one Our New Friends came from, but Marissa said it wasn’t any of them. He said it had to be, because that was all there was, but she’d just given him a look like he was a baby and didn’t understand anything. He hated that look.
It was warm in the car — it was always warm everywhere now — and he must have dozed for a while, because he had confused dreams like watching deleted scenes on one of his DVDs. Or maybe Marissa’s DVDs, because he preferred cartoons with bright colours, but these were all dark and grey and had scary things in them. Marissa was the only one who liked scary things.
Then he jolted awake and he was back in the car, with his neck sort of hanging sideways. He sat up and quickly wiped his mouth, but nobody was looking at him.
‘We’re here,’ his mother said.
Although she wasn’t just his mother, now. She was the Special Ambassador. And because she was special, it made them special too. Anton was still waiting to see what that felt like. Although maybe it just meant getting to ride in long black cars.
The driver got out and opened the door. Marissa jumped out first, and their mother followed. She stood on the pavement, smoothing down her jacket and her hair.
Anton hesitated. He liked it, in the car. It was comfortable.
‘Come on,’ his father said. ‘We’re all going to have a nice time. Okay?’
He smiled, but his voice was a bit strange. It made what he’d said sound more like an instruction. More like when he said you’re going to be a good boy, aren’t you?
‘Okay,’ Anton said. He could be a good boy. He could have a nice time.
His father ruffled his hair, then gave him a little push. Anton slid along the seat and out of the car.
The driver slammed the door closed again. It sounded very loud. There used to be a lot of different noises when you were outside — birds, dogs, sirens and bangs. But now, it was very quiet. Anton didn’t know if he liked it. It made it sound funny when he breathed. Echo-y. Maybe there was too much quiet in his head, too.
His father put a hand on Anton’s shoulder, and gave him another little push. They all walked up to the front of the big building. There were men standing outside, watching. They had helmets on, and Anton couldn’t see their faces — just his own reflection in the dark grey glass. He looked weird, kind of curvy. And his hair was a mess. He smoothed it down, using both hands just like his mother had done.
They formed a little queue, with his mother at the front. ‘Can I ring the doorbell?’ Anton asked, although he couldn’t see one. It didn’t really look like the door of a house at all. His father shushed him and he fell back into line.
The door opened anyway, even without anyone ringing. A tall woman stood there, much taller than Anton’s mother. She bowed, very low.
It didn’t look like a comfortable move. Anton tried it, but it hurt his back. His father gripped his arm and gave him a little shake, and he snapped upright again. The tall woman was looking at him, but she was smiling. Although that didn’t look like it was really comfortable, either.
‘Please,’ she said. ‘It’s fine. He’s adorable.’
Anton’s father blinked rapidly. His face looked kind of pinched.
Anton’s mother bowed too, although not as low. ‘I’m Special Ambassador Selina Gardie, and this is my family — Marissa, Benjamin, and Anton.’
She looked at them all in turn, a long look that seemed as if it was trying to say something, although Anton wasn’t sure what. It was a bit like the look that was really a warning to behave, but she was giving it to his father as well, so maybe that wasn’t it.
‘This is Special Ambassador Jane,’ she said. ‘Say hello.’
‘Hello, Special Ambassador Jane,’ Marissa said brightly. Anton’s father just blinked some more.
‘Please,’ the tall woman said, ‘just Jane. We are informal among friends, yes?’
She looked down at Anton. ‘Hello, Jane,’ he said. It seemed like a funny name for her to have. She didn’t look much like a Jane.
She held out her hand to be shaken, and he had to go up on tiptoe to reach. Her skin was hot to the touch, and a bit clammy. After she let go, Anton wiped his palm on his dungarees.
‘We will go inside now,’ Jane said. ‘And the adorable children will play.’
Marissa stiffened — Anton knew she thought she was too old to play, especially with him — but their mother said, ‘Thank you,’ and followed Jane inside.
‘This is lovely,’ Anton’s father said, but his voice sounded higher than usual, and Anton knew he was just Being Polite. Being Polite was like lying, but not the normal kind. If you were trying to pretend your sister had broken something when it was really you, that was normal lying and that was still wrong. This kind of lying was special, and it was only done because you wanted to make people happy, and have a nice time. Especially with Our New Friends.
Jane led them through a narrow hallway into a large, white room with a very high ceiling. There were lots of lights and windows, but it still seemed quite dark inside. A long table was set with plates, thin glasses and shiny cutlery. There were seven chairs around it, although only four of them had places set. A smell swirled around, like something roasting. He wasn’t sure what it was, but his stomach rumbled appreciatively.
He sneaked a glance at Marissa, who’d been a vegetarian for five months, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was watching Jane.
‘The children would like to see the garden,’ Jane said. She smiled some more. ‘While we wait for the cooking. We have many fine toys and games for their fun.’
Jane smiled a lot, but her lips just kind of stretched, rather than lifting up at the corners. She never showed her teeth.
‘Oh, I think—’ Anton’s father began, but then he didn’t say anything else.
‘Please,’ Jane said. ‘It is very safe, the environmental controls are excellent. Our young one is waiting to play too, he will enjoy companions. It will be most educational for all.’ She pointed towards a door at the back of the room.
Anton hesitated, but Marissa grabbed his hand and yanked him forward. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘It’s a mission. An adventure.’
Anton tried to resist — he much preferred his adventures to take place in books or DVDs than real life — but Marissa was stronger.
The door opened into another narrow hallway that took them, eventually, outside onto a wooden deck. Both the deck and the grass around it were covered with toys — bikes, pogo sticks, skipping ropes, scooters, and water pistols.
Anton had always wanted a garden to play in, but he hung back. Everything was arranged in such neat, straight lines, it almost seemed a shame to mess it up by taking something out of place.
‘Who are we supposed to play with?’ he said. ‘There’s nobody here.’
‘Wait,’ Marissa said. ‘Be patient.’
She took off her shoes and walked barefoot on the grass. Anton peered closer at it and noticed it was sand underneath, not dirt. He kicked off his trainers and stuffed his socks inside, then went barefoot like Marissa. The sand was warm. There were no worms in it. Maybe that was why there were no birds anymore. No worms, no early birds.
‘It’s harder for them than it is for the grown-ups,’ Marissa said.
‘What do you mean? What is?’
‘Pretending.’ Marissa grinned at him. ‘Like you. Pretending to be a good little boy.’
‘I am good,’ Anton said, affronted. Marissa just grinned again and went over to the tree at the end of the garden. It was tall and gnarly, with branches twisted all different ways.
‘That’s really ugly,’ he said.
Marissa shrugged. ‘So are a lot of things. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. Don’t be so judgemental.’
Anton pouted, but said nothing. He didn’t know what that word meant, so he didn’t know how to defend himself. He hoped it didn’t mean ugly.
‘Hello,’ said a new voice, behind them.
Anton and Marissa turned together. The newcomer was a skinny kid in shorts and a t-shirt. The shirt was too big, and looked a bit grubby around the neck. Anton immediately felt better about his dungarees. Now Marissa looked like the one out of place, in her smart black suit.
She tossed her hair out of her eyes. ‘Hello. I’m Marissa, and that’s my little brother, Anton. What’s your name?’
‘We are called,’ the kid said, then made a funny noise.
The kid ran a very long, very dark tongue over dry-looking lips. ‘Jane.’
Anton frowned. ‘Jane? The same as your mum?’
The kid blinked at him. ‘John.’
‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’ Marissa asked.
‘Yes,’ John said. ‘Very many. But not here.’
Anton thought that sounded like a shame. Marissa and he argued a lot, but he would have missed her if she wasn’t there. Even if he would never have told her that. He couldn’t imagine being on his own all the time.
‘Do you want to play?’ he said.
John took a while thinking about it. Maybe he was thinking that he was too old to play, like Marissa.
Anton looked down at the ground. The tree had shed a lot of thin little twigs. ‘We could play War,’ he said, ‘and use these for soldiers.’
He and Marissa used to do that, before. Twigs and stones and spiders in matchboxes. His best general had been a snail.
But Marissa took a hissing sort of breath, and Anton remembered they weren’t supposed to play War anymore. It wasn’t appropriate, their father said. Especially for the children of Special Ambassadors.
‘Or we could climb the tree?’ he said quickly.
John turned, very slowly, and looked at the tree.
Anton ran over and placed his hands on the bark. It was softer than it looked, almost spongy.
Marissa looked down at her skirt, then up at the tree. She shrugged, reached down for the hem and pulled it up. She tucked it into her waistband, halving its length, and began to climb.
Anton watched. She was good, moving steadily and smoothly just like on the climbing wall at the sports centre they used to go to back home. But John was even better. He scrambled up the tree in a flash, looking like he didn’t need handholds or footholds at all. Looking like he could just stick to the tree wherever he put himself.
Marissa reached one of the middle branches and sat on it, edging out just a little. She swung her legs and waved down at Anton. He waved back.
John was already right at the top. The branches up there were very spindly.
‘Be careful,’ Anton called out. Once, back home, Marissa had fallen from the top of a slide. If he shut his eyes, even now, he could see the red and white. The blood and bone.
He stepped back from the tree trunk. Climbing didn’t seem like so much fun, anymore.
Marissa was leaning back on her branch. Anton’s chest tightened. ‘Be careful,’ he said again. His voice sounded wavery.
She smiled. ‘It’s okay. I’ll be fine. John will look after me. Won’t you, John?’
John sat, swaying, on a branch of his own. It looked thin, impossibly thin. Anton looked away.
‘Yes,’ John said. ‘Oh, yes. That is what we do. Protect. Improve.’
‘What?’ Anton said, but John couldn’t have heard him, because he didn’t reply.
Behind them, the door opened and the others came outside. Anton ran to his mother, barrelling into her legs. She put one hand on the top of his head and raised the other to her eyes, shading them against the light.
John jumped down, all the way from the top of the tree. He landed lightly, and didn’t even take the kind of showy step backwards that Marissa did in her gymnastics class.
He turned around, raised his face up to Marissa, and held out his arms. It took Anton a second to realise that the gesture meant jump, and I’ll catch you.
His breath caught in his throat. John didn’t look big enough to catch her. He looked too flimsy, just like the top branches of the tree.
‘Can we go home now?’ Anton said, clutching at his mother. ‘I want to go home.’
‘It’s all right,’ his mother said. ‘Everything’s going to be all right.’ Her voice was steady, and when he looked up she was smiling, but her hand was pushing down hard on his head, the fingers curling and digging into his scalp. Anton squirmed out from under it.
His father was staring up at the tree. His hands were over his mouth, and he said nothing at all.
‘Be at ease, young Anton,’ Jane said. She bowed very low again, down to Anton’s eye level. ‘All is well. We are friends.’
From the top of the tree, Marissa waved down at them. Anton blinked. Had it grown taller, since she’d climbed it? She looked very small. Very small and far away. John still waited at the bottom.
Anton’s mother cleared her throat. ‘Perhaps she shouldn’t,’ she said softly.
Jane unfolded herself and straightened up again. She smiled. ‘But she is at the top. There is nowhere else for her to go. She must trust in my young one. You will tell her this, now, and she will tell her friends. You will all tell your friends, yes?’
They all looked up. Marissa was watching them. Anton’s mother seemed frozen, her eyes unblinking. Then she nodded — a sharp, violent movement. Anton’s father turned away.
Marissa nodded back, then raised her hands above her head like a diver. She edged along her branch, further and further, until there was nothing under her feet but air.
Anton made a small noise. Jane’s hand replaced his mother’s on his head. It was heavy.
‘No fears, now,’ she said. ‘We are here, we will catch you.’ She smiled her strange, stretchy smile again, but this time she let him see her teeth. ‘We will always catch you.’
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.