Chapter 1: His Sister’s Envoy

This is the opening from one of my WIP (work in progress) novels. I plan to post following chapters in the coming weeks. I hope you enjoy. Constructive feedback, likes and follows are greatly appreciated.

(Yes, one character in particular was inspired by the Netflix version of The Umbrella Academy: no points for guessing who).

Max put his earbuds in, deliberately breathing slowly, tying up his heartbeat to the rhythm of the music. He dared a glance sideways. The boy leant against the wall adjacent to the counter, arms folded, watching Max and pretending that he wasn’t.

He had dark, deep-set eyes, half-hidden behind thick curls of coal-black hair. Most interesting, or concerning, depending on how you looked at it, were the handful of separate scars criss-crossing the tanned skin of his face and hands, some of them old, some of them clearly very recent.

When he had first noticed the boy, four days ago now, (Max shivered to think how long the boy might have been watching him without his notice), he’d almost been pleased – normally, he wouldn’t at all have minded the attention; Max was far too introverted to go and talk to him, obviously, but he might’ve been flattered. But the more he paid attention, the more the boy kept showing up, it had started to worry him. And now the boy was here, in the shop, where Max worked, the closest he’d ever been.

It was the end of his shift, and as he sorted through his rucksack, Max kept casting furtive glances towards the boy. Then the boy happened to meet his eye, and immediately Max felt the weight of his stare root him to the floor. His gaze was full of deliberateness, carefully calculated. Max’s skin crawled under the scrutiny, his instincts screaming for caution, made all the worse by the fact that the threat this boy posed was entirely unknowable. What does he want? Max wondered, tense.

The boy was slim, even leaner than Max, which was saying something. But something in the boy’s stance, the way he leant casually with both feet planted firmly on the ground, even more than the scars, suggested a familiarity with violence, as though he were well-accustomed to getting into fights and winning them.

And now he wouldn’t look away.

Max shouldered his rucksack. The boy straightened then, pushing himself up off the wall, and took a step towards him.

Max’s breath caught in his chest, swelling like a storm – his mouth went dry. For a moment he was frozen.

And then, as if no one else existed besides he and the boy, as though they were participants in some abstract dance, the boy’s approach triggered Max’s flight. With as much restraint as he could manage, Max turned and slipped around the edge of the room, skirting tables and chairs on his path to the door, all the while keeping the boy in his peripheral vision, maintaining as much distance between them as was feasibly possible.

Escaping through the door, he lost sight of the boy, and for a moment the simple rush of the cold winter air on his face and filling his lungs was such a contrast to the stifling warm air of the coffee shop that it overwhelmed his senses. He pulled down his mask, and briefly revelled in the sense of relief induced by the change in environment.

With the rain falling lightly on his face, he felt suddenly foolish. But it was too late to bother going back inside now. Lightly, he descended the stone steps and stepped along the pavement, crossing in front of the book shop. As he walked, he looked down at his feet, watching small puddles gathering where the tributaries ran along the cracks in the pavement coalesced. Straying from his habitual route in favour of a shorter path home, Max turned a corner, only to stop short.

On the opposite side of the street, in the shadow of a cramped alleyway that disappeared behind a butcher’s shop, leant against the wall as if he had been waiting the whole time, stood the boy. Max swallowed, standing frozen in the rain, unable to meet the boy’s stare but unable to entirely avoid it either. Seconds passed, achingly, and Max’s brain finally caught up, incomprehension rendering his shock all the more poignant. He didn’t waste time trying to rationalise the impossibility. He spun on his heel and strode briskly back down the by-street, back onto the main road. He turned left away from the coffee shop, pulling his grey hood up.

Tactically, Max weaved through the gaggles of unassuming pedestrians, tailing behind a mournful-looking huddle of teenagers for several blocks before turning down a different street. He kept his eyes down, not daring himself to look up and risk seeing the boy again, though the more rational part of him objected to the superstitious notion. He walked fast, and made surreptitious attempts to ingratiate himself into the dissipating flow of pedestrians as they fled the streets and the drizzle.

As he turned onto the next street, Max darted an optimistic glance along the terrace towards his house. The street was all but empty, but now Max’s heart leapt into his throat.

The boy leant against the fence at the end of his front garden, hands in his pockets, watching him. Max swallowed, internally debating turning around even as his feet carried him closer. The boy’s gaze never left him as he approached. His eyes seemed to narrow as he scrutinised Max’s face. Max stopped two metres away.

“Who are you?” He demanded, his voice high-pitched, even to his own ears. The second the words left his lips he regretted them – by acknowledging it out loud, he had somehow turned the circumstance into something real, unignorable.

The boy kept looking at him, frowning, dark eyes fixed on his face. When he spoke, his expression hardly changed.

“Lane,” he answered, and then finally his posture altered, as he extended a hand to Max. Max looked at his open palm warily.

Lane’s hand fell back to his side, but he looked undaunted.“You’re Max Heathrow, right?”

Max’s frown deepened as he exhaled in a soft whistle.

“You know who I am,” he said, and sniffed, the situation getting to him. He stuffed his trembling hands in his pockets, dipping his head as he looked at his feet. What on Earth is happening? Who is this guy?

Lane cocked his head slightly, his lip quirking. “I’m here on behalf of your sister,” he said, and for a moment, Max was so focused on his officious tone and the world-weary breath of a sigh that trailed the statement that its contents bypassed him completely. Then the sentence hit him like a punch to the gut.

“My sister is dead,” he answered resolutely, his voice decidedly flat even as alarm bells rang in his ears. He caught himself speaking to the floor, and dragged his gaze back to Lane, lip curling. “Is this some sick joke?” He snapped, and Lane’s natural scowl became active.

“Keeper asked me to find you,”

Max’s head spun as his brain caught the name and set it alight – his thoughts fraying and sparking. Keeper. An old nickname, his sister’s nickname, unspoken for six years. A burning began in his chest, and seemed to spread through him – at odds with the cold drizzle seeping through his clothes. The air suddenly felt robbed of all its oxygen, or perhaps the burning blaze inside him had consumed it all. Outwardly, Max knew his expression was neutral, and that he gave little away – Diana had reassured him of that often enough when he had panic attacks at work, but it was little solace. How does he know her name? Max’s skin felt too tight. He was burning up. He opened his mouth to speak, and found that no sound came; panic was threatening to choke him and his dry throat provided no outlet.

For a moment, Max just stood there, wrestling with his emotions. The questions rolled, crashed, turned, raced through his mind – always coming back to the same things. Who is he? How does he know her name? Why is he here for me?

As his panic eventually subsided, smothered by his frantic attempts at rationalisation, and Max found himself swelling with indignation. Anger, at being reminded of his younger sister, humiliation at being rendered speechless, fear of what was happening and what it could lead to, all of it, he directed at the boy in front of him. This was some sick joke. A trick. A ploy against him. He glared at Lane, who just kept standing there with that infuriating, impassively smug expression.

Finally, Max found his voice. “I want no part in this,” he hissed.

Something inscrutable flickered across Lane’s countenance, if it weren’t so fleeting, Max might have taken it for bitter understanding. Then Lane seemed to steel himself. Max’s anger evaporated, replaced by trepidation as Lane’s expression shifted. Suddenly Lane seized his arm. Max jerked backwards, alarmed, but Lane’s grip was vice-like.

All at once, Max’s surroundings seemed to blur and distort. For a split-second, Max glimpsed in Lane’s pupils a reflection of Lane’s fist around his own arm, glowing with blue light. Simultaneously, Max felt a sensation like a ripple of energy moving through him. Max’s stomach flipped, as though he was falling. In a moment he had lost all awareness of his surroundings, the only tangible thing was Lane’s unshakable grip on his forearm. Suddenly, the floor surged up to meet his feet, and with the abrupt return of sensation, Max’s knees buckled.

Retching, Max fell onto a cold stone floor, clamping his hand over his mouth. He fought down the taste of bile, trying to steady his breathing. The world seemed to warp and swirl around him, gradually coming back into focus with disorienting clarity. Blinking away hot tears and swallowing the burning in his throat, Max realised, in the same way that most people realise an impossibility (that is, with a jolt of bewildered panic) that they were no longer standing on the street outside his house. What he’d taken for the stone of pavement beneath his knees he realised was actually smooth, white marble. Ahead of him, he could see a skirting board, which gave way to golden wallpaper embellished with various geometric patterns. Gradually raising his head, he noticed, a short way to his left, a sideboard made of some rich dark wood, and along from that, a panelled oak door left slight ajar, through which he could glimpse the outlines of rich tapestried furniture, and a huge fireplace against one wall. Slowly, uncomprehending, Max turned his head, and realised Lane stood just beside him, still gripping his arm. Max thought dizzily that Lane’s hold on his arm was the only thing stopping him falling further to the ground.

“Take your time,” Lane said. “The nausea will wear off in a few minutes,”

Slowly, Max absorbed the details of his new surroundings. They were in some sort of lobby – an immense staircase began in front of Max, then curled off to the left and right, and a large chandelier hung unlit above them.

Max got unsteadily to his feet, and Lane released him. Max turned to him, vainly attempting to calm his breathing.

“Where are we?” He asked haltingly. Lane eyed him skeptically, as though making sure he weren’t about to fall over again.

“This is Ivanna’s house,” he answered, as though that explained anything, then turned and sauntered through the hall to a door on the right, revealing a large living room, leaving Max to trail behind him, shaking. Who’s Ivanna?

The sitting room was enormous, with a vast marble fireplace at one end, and a bar at the other, the intervening space occupied by two sage-green leather sofas, and glass coffee table. Two enormous bay windows took up most of the far wall, bathing the room in warm sunlight, and bookshelves lined the wall closest to him. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of books on those shelves, all arranged neatly.

“What just happened?” Max found his voice, more assertive this time.

Lane was sitting languidly on a barstool, and glanced at him appraisingly as he approached the bar. To Max’s surprise, Lane had taken out and was eating from a packet of Jelly Babies.

“I’d have thought you would have figured that out by now,” he sighed, “Given your sister’s abilities,” The Jelly Babies packet vanished back into his pocket.

Max swallowed. “Is she here?” he asked, a hint of hysteria creeping into his voice. Lane gave him a once-over, then reached over the bar top and started making a drink.

“She said she’d be back by this evening,” he said, “In the meantime, you should meet the others.”

Max sat down on a bar stool. “Others?” he asked in a strangled voice.

Lane pushed a drink along the bar top towards him, and lifted his own to his lips, downing it in a single gulp.

“I don’t drink,” Max said.

Lane raised an eyebrow, then shrugged, and leaned forward again, picking up Max’s glass again and drinking it too. “You’ll meet them soon,” he said, “They’re around.”

Max sat there, frowning. After a moment of silence, he said, “Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but I don’t want anything to do with this,” he tried to keep his voice calm, reasonable.

Lane sighed. “Yeah, she said you wouldn’t want to be involved. Unfortunately, we haven’t got a choice.”

“I think you do,” Max interrupted, “Just leave me alone,” he stood up. “I told you, I don’t know anything about whatever you’re doing, and I don’t want to.”

His voice rose on the last line, and he bit his lip, turning away. He heard footsteps behind him, and sighed as Lane’s hand fell on his shoulder briefly. He glanced back. Lane’s dark eyes regarded him solemnly.

“We need your help, Max,” he said gravely, “The Earth could be destroyed if we don’t find out what’s happening in the Other Place,”

He said it with such severity that for a moment Max was dumbfounded. Then Max scoffed. “You’re insane,” he concluded, and made move to leave.

All of a sudden, Lane was standing in front of him, jabbing a finger against his chest with an expression of manic fury. The afterimage of blue light flickered in front of Max’s eyes as he blinked.

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” Lane said vehemently. Max took a step back, shocked by the sudden change in demeanour, but Lane pressed forward, incensed. “It’s one thing to try and stay out of this world, but you have no right to deny its-“

Max punched him. A short, sharp jab to his nose. Lane grunted, staggering backwards. Then abruptly he vanished in a rush of air and a flash of blue light. Max looked around him in surprise, and then Lane reappeared, landing (‘landing’ was the only way Max could think of it, as there was a soft thud as Lane’s feet hit the floor again) a few metres away, a hand over his nose, blood dripping from between his fingers. Max rubbed his knuckles, and winced. Lane swore colourfully, then stepped towards him, fists clenched. Adrenaline shot through Max’s system, even as his thoughts reeled – what he could do against Lane’s powers was dubious, but a stubborn, objectively less rational part of his brain insisted that whatever happened Lane was not going to come out of it unscathed.

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