In the sudden flash of lightning, bright enough to make him wince as he’s standing at the window, Jamie sees someone slipping into his garden shed.
This isn’t as unusual as it might have been were Jamie someone else. He sees people in all sorts of places they don’t belong, including inside his own house. Sometimes it’s the old woman in the long nightgown, holding a candle to light her way. Other times it’s the small boy in old-fashioned clothing, trousers held up with suspenders. Once, in the cellar, it was a middle-aged man with a grim expression that spoke volumes and a rickety wooden chair placed carefully under the largest beam.
Jamie is glad he only saw that man the one time.
Tonight, he tries to convince himself that what he’s seen is yet another of these phantoms. There’s a fantastic storm outside, the trees bent nearly to the ground by the force of the wind as if they’re bowing to invisible royalty. The late-fall leaves are flying this way and that, occasionally lashing against the windows along with the heavy rain that seems to come and go, uncommitted to its only task. It would be insanity for anyone to be out in this weather, not to mention nearly two miles from any of the nearby houses. He’s only a few hours north of London, but he might as well be a world away. Jamie’s house stands alone, isolated, far from anyone else’s, and that’s how he prefers it.
But after another few moments of watching, he can see a faint light from the window of the shed.
He doesn’t fancy going out into the storm, certainly. But the idea of an actual, living person huddled in the cold, likely wet to the skin, bothers Jamie more than it ought to, more than he wishes it did, and he finds himself at the side door, tying a scarf around his throat and tugging a hat down over his ears in preparation.
Hand clutching an old, battered torch, the only one he can find, he opens the door. The wind takes it from his hand and whips it against the house with a loud bang, and he has to fight to regain control and shove it closed again. He runs for the shed.
It isn’t until he reaches the small, worn building that it occurs to him whoever’s inside it might not have the best intentions, but he’s already soaking wet with cold rain, and it’s too late for further caution. Jamie pushes the shed door open.
The boy who looks up at him, startled, eyes wide and dark and shocked, flinches back from the beam of Jamie’s torch, and for a few moments Jamie doesn’t know what to say.
“I believe this is my shed you’re squatting in,” is what comes out finally, not as gruffly as he’d intended in the face of the boy’s obvious fear. “Well? No explanations?”
The boy shakes his head and raises trembling fingers to his lips. Keeping them pressed there, he shakes his head again. Outside, there’s a flash of lightning followed by a crack of thunder so violent that they both jump.
Mute? Or hurt? It doesn’t matter why the boy can’t speak, Jamie decides. “Well, come on, then.” The boy blinks and doesn’t move. “Come on to the house, and I’ll find you some dry clothes, all right? It’s not as if I can leave you out here.”
The jog back to the house, with the boy shadowing him, is blessedly quick, and Jamie shuts the side door firmly behind the shivering boy and turns on the light above the stove. “Sit down. Put your knapsack over there on the mat. I’ll get you some towels. No, don’t worry about the furniture—it’s older than I am, and it’s seen worse than a couple of sopping-wet blokes like us.”
When Jamie comes back to the kitchen with an armful of towels and clothes, having already swapped his own wet jeans for a dry pair, the boy is slouched at the kitchen table, hands folded on the edge of it as if to reassure Jamie that there will be no attempts at theft.
“There’s nothing here worth stealing,” Jamie tells him, but when he holds a towel out, the boy shrinks away from him, nostrils flaring with his sharp inhalation. “Easy. I’m not going to hurt you. Just…here.” He sets the pile on the table and steps back, putting some space between them. “There’s a bathroom there”—he points—“so get yourself dried off and changed, and I’ll get you something to eat. Are you hungry?”
The boy nods and slips around the other side of the table with the things and into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Jamie can hear the click
of the lock as he sets a pan on the stove top. He heats up some tinned soup and finds some crackers that might well be stale to go along with it. The bathroom door opens before the soup is hot.
“What’s your name?” Jamie asks the boy, who has smoothed his long hair with his fingers and put on Jamie’s clothes, which hang on his thinner frame.
Sharp blue eyes widen slightly. Then the boy mimes writing something and lifts his eyebrows.
“Oh, right. Hang on.” Jamie finds a takeaway menu and a pen and puts them on the table, and the boy picks up the pen.
, he writes in a blocky, easy-to-read script.
“I’m Jamie. Is anyone looking for you?” It’s a question he probably should have asked before allowing the kid into his house, but better late than never. “The police?”
Sebastian snorts and shakes his head.
“What about your parents?”
, Sebastian writes and underlines the number several times in emphasis before glaring at Jamie.
“Sorry.” Jamie is surprised—the young man doesn’t look older than seventeen or so, though studying his face, it’s possible that’s only because he’s so thin. His cheekbones stand out like he hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks, which reminds Jamie about the soup just before it boils over. “Shit,” he says anyway and ladles it into a big bowl that he moves over to the table with careful hands, figuring that all he needs to make this day complete is to burn the hell out of himself. “Easy, it’s hot.”
Sebastian writes, Thanks. Sorry I was in your shed.
He glances at Jamie nervously, then shoves a couple of crackers into his mouth and chews.
“I’d imagine there are dozens of better places to be in weather like this,” Jamie tells him, looking out the window. The rain seems to have let up again, at least. “Did you get caught out in the storm?”
“Where were you headed?”
A shrug and a worried look.
“Well, eat your food. You can sleep in the spare room, and in the morning we’ll sort out what to do with you.”
Something about that makes Sebastian decisive; he shakes his head again and sets down the spoon he’s just picked up, pushing his chair back.
“No, no,” Jamie says. “For God’s sake, be reasonable, will you? I’m not going to make you do anything you don’t want to do.”
Sebastian seems unconvinced, but he picks up his spoon again and begins to eat. The soup is still far too hot, but apparently he’s hungry enough that it doesn’t matter, and he empties the bowl in almost no time at all, then looks longingly at the pan on the stove.
“More?” Jamie gets it for him, then digs around in the cupboard until he finds a package of biscuits he’d bought a few weeks before and then hidden from himself so he wouldn’t be tempted to eat them. “Here, have these as well. You’d be doing me a favor—my waistline’s a bit strained these days.” He pats his flat stomach in illustration of what a ridiculous statement this is.
There’s another flash of what Jamie thought he saw before—a sense of humor. Sebastian stops eating long enough to scribble, You look fit enough to me
, on his paper before abandoning the spoon, drinking the rest of the soup from the edge of the bowl, and then tearing open the biscuit package. He wolfs down several biscuits in quick succession, then stops, looking faintly nauseated.
Jamie takes the remaining food away hastily. “When was the last time you ate?”
Sebastian swallows, then shrugs again and writes, Day before yesterday?
“Well, help yourself to anything in the cupboards for as long as you’re here,” Jamie says. “Best to stop for now, though. Would you like to…er, talk?” It isn’t the right word, obviously, but he’s already put his foot in it and probably will again. Sebastian gestures at the piece of paper on the table, indicating that there isn’t much space left on it, and Jamie takes this as an answer and goes in search of a notebook, which he finds in the drawer of the desk in the sitting room. “We could relocate to the other room?” he suggests. “There’s a fire.”
Nodding gratefully, Sebastian gets up and follows him, folding himself up onto the end of the sofa nearest the flames as Jamie puts a few more logs onto the fire.
“Are you all right? I mean, you’re not hurt at all?”
Sebastian shakes his head, then hesitates before shaking it again, more definitively this time. Jamie files that response away for later consideration.
“Have you always been mute?”
A longer hesitation but eventually another shake of the head.
“Something happened? And you lost your voice?”
“And you don’t know where you’re going? You’re just wandering about? What do you do?”
Sebastian scribbles in the notebook, then turns it so that Jamie, sitting on the hearth rug, can read it. Odd jobs. Work in people’s gardens, that sort of thing.
“In Witcombe?” Jamie’s doubt is evident in his voice.
No, I thought maybe Gloucester. I just hadn’t got that far. Before that I was in Newbury.
Jamie brushes a bit of tree bark from his trousers. “And you don’t want to spend the night here. Why? You can trust me, I promise.” For someone who prefers to keep only his own company, it’s odd that he’s trying to convince the young man to stay, but really, he isn’t a total cretin. He wouldn’t send a dog out in weather like this.
Sebastian just looks at him nervously, biting his lip.
“It’s all right,” Jamie says. “You’re safe here.”
Finally, Sebastian sighs and nods, rubbing his upper arms with hands that might be shaking. He makes a gesture with his hand, touching his mouth and then dropping it away again, which Jamie recognizes as the sign for “thank you.”
“It’s not as if it’s any trouble,” Jamie grumbles. “Come upstairs, and I’ll show you where things are.”
It’s the work of a minute at most to show Sebastian the things he’ll need to know—where the bathroom is, across the hallway from the guest room that hasn’t seen a guest in all the time Jamie’s lived there. The extra blankets in the closet.
“You’re welcome to take a shower, although at this point I suspect you’ve been wet enough for one night,” Jamie says. “I get up early, but I’ll try to be quiet so I don’t wake you. Don’t worry—we’ll sort out what to do in the morning, okay?” He can certainly give Sebastian a ride somewhere, or help him find some sort of welfare benefits, or something.
Sebastian closes the door to the guest room and locks it behind him, and Jamie, who had been about to go to bed at the time he’d looked out the window and seen Sebastian going into his garden shed, stifles a yawn and goes off to his own room.