Demon Thief

Chapter 3. THE WITCH

Paskinston's a sleepy place, with a couple of tiny shops, a crumbling old school, a stumpy, ugly, modern church, and not much else. It's in the middle of nowhere, miles away from any town or city. Power cuts are common. Television and radio reception is poor. Cars are mostly ancient wrecks. The sort of place where you expect to find loads of old people, but in fact most of the villagers are youngish parents and their children.

We've been here almost a year. It's not a bad place to live. Quiet and clean. Lots of open space around the village. No pollution or crime, and people are very relaxed and friendly. A few commute to cities or towns, but most work locally. Quite a few are craftspeople and artists. We don't get many tourists in Paskinston, but our artisans (as Dad calls them) supply a lot of tourist shops around the country. Musical instruments are the village's speciality, traditionally carved, lovingly created and packaged, then expensively priced!

Dad's got a job painting instruments. It doesn't pay very well, but you don't need much money in Paskinston. He's happier than he ever was in the city, finally able to call himself a real artist. Mum helps out kids with learning problems, and does some teaching in the school when one of the regular teachers is off sick. She's happy too, the happiest I've seen her since Annabella died.

Mum and Dad never talk about the time Art and I went missing. It's a forbidden subject. If I ever bring it up, they change the topic immediately. Once, when I pressed, Mum snapped at me, swore and told me never to mention it again.

And me? Well, I'm OK. Dad was right. The kids here are nicer than in the city. They chat to me at school, include me in their games, invite me to their houses to read and play, take me on day trips into the local countryside at weekends. Nobody bullies me, says nasty things to me or tries to make me feel like I'm a freak. (Of course, it helps that I don't mention the secret patches of light!)

But I still don't fit in. I feel out of place. It's hard to talk freely, to join in, to behave naturally. I always feel as though I'm acting. Most of the kids in Paskinston were born here or moved here when they were very young. This is the only world they know and they believe it's perfect.

I don't agree. While I'm certainly happier now than I was in the city, I miss the cinemas and museums. Except for not having any friends, I liked being part of a big city, where there was always something new to see or do. The village is nice, but it's a bit boring. And although the kids are nicer to me, I still haven't made any real friends.

But it's not that important because I'm not miserable any more. I'm not sure why, but I don't feel lonely these days. I'm happy just to be with Mum, Dad and Art. Especially Art. He might only be a baby, but I love dragging him around with me, explaining the world to him, telling him about books, television and life, trying to teach him to speak. He should have started by now, but so far not a word. Dad and Mum don't mind. They say Einstein was older than Art is before he spoke. But I don't think Art's an Einstein - he likes tugging ears, biting people and burping too much to be a genius!

Art's all I really need from the world right now. He keeps me company better than any friend ever could. As Dad once said when I was lonely and he was trying to cheer me up, "Who needs friends when you have family?"

To get to school, I have to pass the witch's house.

The "witch" is Mrs. Egin. There are thirty-seven families and six single people in Paskinston, and everyone's on friendly terms with everybody else. There's a real sense of community. They all take an interest in and see a lot of each other, chat among themselves when they meet in the street or at church, hold big parties every few months to which everyone comes.

Except Mrs. Egin. She lives by herself in a dirty old house and almost never has anything to say to anybody. She comes out for a long walk every day and to draw water from the well. (There's running water in Paskinston, but Mrs. Egin and a few others prefer to get theirs from an old well in the centre of the village.) But otherwise we rarely see her. She spends most of her time indoors, behind thick curtains, doing whatever it is that witches do.

I'm sure she's not really a witch, but all the kids call her the Pricklish Witch of Paskinston. Some of the adults do too!

There isn't a real school in Paskinston, just a converted stable which is being used as a school until the villagers manage to build a proper one. There are three teachers (two are volunteers), crappy old desks, wobbly chairs, a few tired blackboards, and nothing else except the ancient toilets out the back. A big change from my school in the city!

The school's down the street and round the corner to the left from where we live. To get there, I have to walk past Mrs. Egin's house. I could go the opposite way and circle round the backs of the houses if I wanted. But Mrs. Egin has never done anything bad to me. She hasn't even spoken to me in the year that I've lived here. She doesn't frighten me.

Today, I set off for school as normal. Classes start at 9:30 a.m. but I normally get there for 9 o'clock, to play some games with the other kids beforehand. Trying hard to fit in, to be like they are, to have them accept me. Not that I'm too bothered if they don't.

"Off to school?" Mum asks as I'm heading out.


"Want to take Art to the cr锟斤拷che?"


The makeshift cr锟斤拷che is in another converted stable, right next to the school. I often drop Art off.

Art's small and skinny. A large head though. Dad says that's a sign that he has lots of brains, but I think it's because he has a thick skull - all the better for headbutting!

I stop Art trying to bite the hands off a soldier doll and pick him up. He struggles, eager to finish off the soldier. "Stop," I grunt. Art calms down immediately. He always does what I tell him. He's more obedient for me than for Mum or Dad. Mum says that's a sign that he really loves me. It makes me proud when she says stuff like that, though I usually scowl - don't want her thinking I'm soft.

Art's pale, like Mum, with dirty dark hair that looks like it's never been washed. Mum always complains about Art's hair. She regularly threatens to shave him bald like me. (Not that I need to shave - I've been bald since birth.) She says every guy should be bald - it makes life much simpler for the women looking after them.

I throw Art up in the air and catch him. He laughs and gurgles for me to do it again. I compare my skin to his as I toss him up a second time. I'm much darker, a nice creamy brown, more Dad's colour than Mum's. We don't look like brothers. Mum says that's good - people won't confuse us when we're older.

I settle Art down and head for the door, carrying him under one arm like a skateboard. He swings his fists around, looking for something to hit. He almost never hits or bites me, but I'm the only one who's safe around him. He's given Mum a black eye a few times and bit one of Dad's fingernails off once. He'll be a real terror when he's a couple of years older.

We set off down the street. There's nobody else around. A quiet spring day. Birds are twittering in the trees. A cow moos in the distance. I feel warm and happy. Looking forward to summer. Dad said we might go to the beach for a week or two. We haven't been on a holiday since we left the city. I'm excited about it.

"You've never seen a beach, have you?" I say to Art. "It's great. More sand than you could imagine. Salt water, not like the ponds here. Seaweed. We can swim and make sandcastles. Eat ice cream and candyfloss. You'll love it. And if we can't go, well, we'll camp round here instead. Find a lake, maybe near a small town, with a cinema and amusement arcades and - "

"Thief!" someone screeches.

We've just passed the witch's house. I look back. The front door's open. Mrs. Egin is standing on the doorstep. Her eyes are wild and she's trembling. Her hair's normally tied in a ponytail, but today it's hanging loose, strands blowing across her face in the light breeze.

"Who's the thief?" she mutters, staggering towards me.

"Mrs. Egin? Are you all right? Do you want me to fetch help?" I set Art down to my left and step in front of him, shielding him with my legs, in case she falls on top of him.

Mrs. Egin stops less than a foot away. She's mumbling to herself, strange words, no language that I know. Her lips are bleeding - she's bitten through them in several places. Her fingers are wriggling like ten angry snakes.

"Mrs. Egin?" I say softly, heart racing.

"Such a beautiful baby," the witch says, eyes fixed on Art. He's staring up at her silently. Mrs. Egin bends and reaches for Art, cooing, smiling crookedly.

"Leave him alone," I gasp, shuffling Art back with my left foot, standing firmly in front of him now, blocking her way.

"Not yours!" she snarls, glaring at me. I've never seen an adult look at me that way, with total hate. It scares me. I feel like I have to pee. Clench my legs together so I don't have an accident. But, scared as I am, I don't move. I stand my ground. I have to protect Art.

"Are you ill, Mrs. Egin?" I ask, my voice a lot calmer than I feel.

"Find him!" she shouts in reply. "Find the thief! Beautiful baby." She smiles at Art again, then mumbles to herself, like a minute ago, but gesturing at Art this time, as though she's casting a spell on him.

I look for help but we're all alone. I can't just stand here and let this go on. No telling what she'll do next. So, without taking my eyes off her, I stoop, grab Art and awkwardly hold him up behind my back. Art squeals happily - he thinks I'm giving him a piggyback ride.

"We have to go now," I say, edging away. Mrs. Egin's still looking at the spot where Art was. I notice that lots of the patches of light around us are pulsing. They're closer than they normally are, as if hedging us in. But I can't worry about the lights. Not with Mrs. Egin acting like a real, mad witch.

"Soon!" Mrs. Egin barks and her eyes snap upwards. "All be happening soon. They thought I didn't have it in me. Said I was weak. But they were wrong. I have the power. I can serve." Her hands go still. Her eyes soften. "You will see me die," she says quietly.

Tears of confusion and fear come to my eyes. "Mrs. Egin, I... I'll fetch help... I'll get someone who can - "

"Thief!" she yells, silencing me, wild and twisted again. Her hands come up and wave angrily at me. "Find the thief! Soon! You'll see. The mad old witch going up in a puff of smoke. Boom, Kernel Fleck. Boom!"

She laughs hysterically. When you hear a witch laugh in a movie, it's funny. But this isn't. The laughter hurts my ears, makes them ring from deep inside. I half expect them to start bleeding.

"I have to go now," I say quickly, turning away from her, sliding Art round so he's in front of me, all the time protecting him from her.

"Kernel," the witch says in a cold, commanding tone. Reluctantly, I stop and look back. "You won't tell anyone what you've seen today." It's not a question.

"Mrs. Egin... you need help... I think..."

She spits on the ground by her right foot. "You're a fool. I'm not the one who needs help - you are. But never mind that. You won't tell anyone. Because if you do, I'll creep into your room late at night when you're asleep and slit your throat from your left ear to your right." She uses a trembling index finger to illustrate.

That's too much. I lose control and, to my shame, feel the front of my trousers go wet. Fortunately Mrs. Egin doesn't see. She's already turned away. Walks back to her house. Pauses at the front door. Looks up. There's a six-sided patch of pink light pulsing rapidly just above her head. She reaches up and strokes it. The pulse rate slows, as if the light was afraid and she has calmed it down.

"Thought you were the only one who could see them," she says as I stare at her in shock. "But I can too. Now. For a while. Until they take me."

Then she goes inside and shuts the door. For a long moment I stand, fighting back tears, ears still ringing, wanting to run away and never return. But I can't do that, and I can't turn up at school with wet, stained trousers. So I hurry home, clutching Art tight to my chest, steering as far wide of the witch's house as I can.

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