by Tamara Podella
I opened the door to my new room and choked back an onrush of nausea. With every move came the same morbid smell. Of mildew and prison staleness ineffectively disguised by a spraying of Spring Breeze air freshener.
The house was Mom’s standard choice: upstairs, three bedrooms and two bathrooms; downstairs, a breakfast kitchen and lounge. My bed loomed between two large windows with a view onto a paradisiacal garden of flowering trees, a swimming pool, a Hollywood swing and a trampoline. Tall trees provided ample shade. They circled the property like black guardians against the scintillating blue sky. And above the treetops I could see Cape Town harbour and the ocean.
Sure, this was better than pressing my nose against a frost-clouded skylight in Anchorage, but I wasn’t about to get excited over nice weather. I hadn’t in Mexico, Kilkenny, Sydney or York. I had decided not to let anything influence me, to stay calm and focused.
Nothing influenced my father; he was as mad under the hot sun as he was mad when a cold winter wind blew.
An inconspicuous blue rucksack contained the few precious things I had accumulated since the night the ‘journey’ of the Sheldon family began, five years ago. They were forty-two volumes of Nightmare Jack, a pocket-knife, a magnifying glass and an onyx carving of a gargoyle with his wings spread wide.
I placed them all on a shelf in a corner, moved the bed underneath it, kicked the empty rucksack across the room and stuck out my tongue when I caught my reflection in the mirror of the built-in cupboard. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assigned dark hair, but after Alaska it looked shocking, as black as coal against my pale complexion and the bluish rings under my light eyes. I loved looking at my eyes because they were neither like Dad’s nor like Mom’s. They were mine.
Whenever we moved I wondered what it would be like to truly become someone else. Wouldn’t it be cool to be Nightmare Jack. I’d live on my own, in a lofty apartment in Rome filled with ancient books on witchcraft and vampires, and statues that weren’t really statues but nightmare creatures frozen to stone by a power I, the nightmare hunter, and nobody else on earth commanded.
By day I’d sleep and study, with only Renegade, my pitch black cat, and sometimes a beautiful girl with mysterious eyes for company. In the evenings I’d receive my clients, and by night I’d be working the whispering streets like a shadow. I’d never have to be scared, and everyone would know and respect me for who I was.
A quick rap on the door and Eleanor Sheldon’s freshly coal-dyed and permed head popped in. “Do you like your new room, Mathew? Dinner is served in ten minutes,” she said.
She said it every time. Only the name changed with each move. I felt like shaking her. My name is Jack. “You couldn’t have thought of a stupider name, could you?” I said.
“If you don’t like the name why didn’t you tell me sooner, darling? It’s a little late now.”
She gave me a smile, but it looked wilted. I thought it went along well with the mildew smell. “Oh, forget it, Mom,” I said, forcing a smile of my own. “I’m just in a bad mood.”
“Your brother told me he would prefer Paul over Nicolas and now he’s happy. You just have to talk to me, darling!”
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’m okay with it, really.” Poor Harry. At eleven he still needed Mom so much. I turned back to the mirror, unable to look at her and her studio-tanned hand on the doorknob, a hand that seemed so fragile that it might snap off at the wrist any second.
“It’s not good for you to stare in the mirror too long,” she said before softly closing the door.
* * *
Greenleaf High was no worse than other schools Harry and I had attended; and the blue uniform, no uglier.
When the bell rang for break, I expertly avoided eye contact and headed out alone. I found a spot in the shade of a tree on the far side of the yard and started reading last month’s edition of Nightmare Jack, which I had saved up for just this loathed and awkward situation. I still had to find out whether they even sold the comic in Cape Town.
“What a tan. Did you fly in from Transylvania or something?”
I glanced up at the girl who had interrupted me and nearly choked on the harsh line I’d used a million times to let the curious know they didn’t want to talk to me. I felt like a fool even thinking it, but before me stood the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in all my fifteen years. “Uh, yeah, you guessed it,” I said.
The girl pushed back strands of long black hair and sat down opposite me, Indian style, giving me no time to come up with an excuse why she shouldn’t. “I’m Ramona.”
“Mathew,” I said, hating the name with every cell in my body. She picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dirt, frowning. She stared at the back cover of my Nightmare Jack, which advertised next month’s volume Monster’s Son; or was she staring at my hands? Then her features relaxed into the most wonderful smile.“Funny, you don’t really look like a Mathew,” she said.
I shrugged, reminding myself to stay on guard.
“Would you like to see something really cool? We’d have to bunk the next lesson though. Ag, but you probably won’t want to... it’s your first day and everything.” She started biting her lower lip and chewing her pinkie nail at the same time.
I cursed myself for being a fool but I had to see her happy again. “Let’s go.”
The wave of her smile wrapped around me. Seconds later she was pulling me along, through bunches of kids eating tuna sandwiches and chips and drinking Creme Soda, past some bushes, through a hole at the bottom of a meshed fence, up the hill and behind a cluster of purple heather. As she peered through the flowers to make sure no one had noticed our escape, I caught a breath of her scent on the humid summer breeze.
I had to gulp for breath.
“Are you all right?” she said, tugging on my sleeve. Her eyes were twilight blue, Nightmare Jack might have said.
“Don’t move.” Trying to be relaxed about it I coaxed a long black lash from the top of her cheek onto the tip of my finger. “Make a wish.”
She blew the lash away quickly, and when she looked up at me a shadow had crept into her eyes. She always makes the same wish, I thought.
Then we were running, higher and higher up through the trees and brush, the hot air fragrant with pine, and as I watched the way the light played on her flowing hair my heart started beating so hard it scared me to death. And even though I tried with everything I had to swallow the feeling, drawing up pictures of Mom and Dad and Harry in my mind, it overwhelmed me, until all I could think was There is no way I’m moving again.
At the top of the rise we threw ourselves down on our bellies, fingers wrapping around the crumbly sandstone edge, and breathlessly peered into the deep valley of purple, scarlet, pink, yellow and summer green fynbos below.
“I love this place. I always think Nightmare Jack would too. He’d come here to watch the sun rise.”
She was tough enough to read Nightmare Jack, but she thought like a girl, convinced that a nightmare hunter would enjoy spending his mornings watching the sun rise over a pretty valley. I didn’t even feel corny for digging that about her.
“Here I was worrying I wouldn’t get Nightmare Jack in Cape Town.”
“You won’t,” she said. “I order it from London.”
“Oh.” Now that was bad news. Sheldons paid cash or made do without. One of the rules.
“My Mom complains that I’m wasting all my pocket money on horror junk. But Nightmare Jack has nothing to do with horror. It’s about—”
“Dealing with demons,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said, her face lighting up in that radiance I had never seen on anyone else. A strand of her silky black hair brushed my hand. I couldn’t have been more amazed if a raven had alighted there on the edge of the abyss just to touch me with its wing.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Tamara Podella