Blood beast, p.11
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       Blood Beast, p.11

         Part #5 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
 
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  “And that set you straight.” I sit beside him. I think for a moment of putting an arm around him but decide against it — no need to go overboard. “Don’t cut yourself off from your friends, Bill-E.”

  “Do I have any?” he asks sadly.

  “You know you do,” I snap. “Maybe not as many as you wish, but there are plenty of people who like you and feel sorry for you, who’ll help you through this. But they can’t if you shut yourself off, if you let your grandparents smother you. Come back to school. Move on. You know it makes sense.”

  “Loch can’t move on.” Bill-E sighs.

  “No,” I agree stiffly. “He can’t. But we didn’t die in that cave. We’re alive. Loch isn’t, and that’s a wretched shame. But life goes on. Loch goes to a grave, we go back to school. That’s how it has to be.”

  Bill-E nods slowly. “Are you going to the funeral?”

  “I don’t want to, but I think I need to.”

  “I can’t,” Bill-E whispers. “I can go back to school, but not. . . ”

  “That’s OK,” I smile. “School will be torture enough.”

  Bill-E returns the smile briefly, then stares off into space. “I can still hear his scream,” he mutters. “And I can see his face. His eyes. . . He didn’t know he was going to die. There wasn’t terror in his expression, just worry. And a bit of anger. He should have looked more terrified. If he’d known. . . ”

  We sit there for hours after that, TV off, sniffling occasionally, but otherwise as silent as Loch must be.

  Friday. The funeral. It’s horrible. And that’s all I’m saying about it.

  Monday. School. Everyone staring and whispering. Kids scurry out of my way. It’s like the Grim Reaper’s walking next to me.

  I spot the gang in one of our usual hangouts behind the cafeteria, taking shelter from the rain. Talk dries up as I approach. When I stop, they stare at me, I stare at them, and for a few long seconds nothing is said. Then Charlie breaks the silence with, “Loch must have been mad as hell, looking down on his funeral — he hated flowers. And having to wear a suit too!”

  Everybody laughs.

  “You’re an ass, Charlie,” Frank giggles.

  “Don’t say anything like that in front of Reni,” Shannon warns him.

  “Please,” he huffs. “I’m not a total jerk.”

  The laughter fades. Frank clears his throat. “Was it really bad?”

  “Crapville,” I say tightly.

  “Did he say anything before he. . . you know?” Mary asks. I nod soberly. “His last words. . . I had to strain to hear them. . . he. . . ” I cough and everyone leans in close to listen. “He said. . . his voice a painful croak. . . fighting for breath. . . eyes locked on mine. . . ‘Mary Hayes has a face like a cow’s dirty rear.’”

  Mary roars with fury and clubs me with her bag. The others laugh. Then the bell rings and we march into class. Back to normal — or as much as it can be.

  A rumor at lunchtime. Misery Mauch has gone on sick leave. A mental breakdown. Some say he was overcome with grief when he heard about Loch, but that’s rubbish — Loch never went to see Misery. Apparently he’s been replaced by a woman. They say she’s quite young, though nobody’s had a good look at her yet — she’s been in Misery’s office most of the day.

  I don’t see Bill-E during lunch. He’s with the new counselor. I hope she has more of a clue than old Misery. Bill-E needs professional help, not some overeager do-gooder. I’ll have to check her out, make sure she’s not going to mess him up even further. Grubbs Grady — rooter-out of frauds!

  Halfway through geography, a freshman kid delivers a note to my teacher. The new counselor wants to see me. Guess I’ll get to give her the once-over sooner than I thought.

  I’m kept waiting outside the office for a few minutes before I’m called in. The counselor is standing by the side of Misery’s desk when I enter, her back to me. When she turns round, I almost drop through the floor.

  A slender woman of medium height, in her late thirties or early forties. Well dressed, more like a businesswoman than a teacher. Pretty but not gorgeous. Very little makeup. Pure white hair tied back in a ponytail. Extremely pale skin. Pinkish eyes. She’s an albino. But that’s not what knocks the wind out of my sails. It’s the fact that I know her and last saw her a year ago in Slawter frying the brains of a demon collaborator named Chuda Sool.

  “Juni Swan!” I cry.

  “That’s Miss Swan to you, young man,” she says with a little smile. Then steps forward and wraps her arms around me, hugging me tight while I stand frozen, stunned, staring down at the top of her pale white orb of a head.

  Juni was one of film producer Davida Haym’s assistants. A psychologist, it was her job to make sure the children on-set were being well treated. Dervish fell for her, and I think she had a thing for him too. I doubt the pair got beyond lovesick looks and holding hands, but I bet they would have if life hadn’t gone crazy on us all.

  When hell hit the fan and the demons ran wild, Juni helped us break a hole through the barrier that Lord Loss had erected around the town. Without that gap, everyone would have perished. She was knocked out during the fighting and only recovered when the barrier had closed again, trapping hundreds of members of the cast and crew inside. Like the rest of us, she was helpless and had to stand by, watching and listening as the demons tortured and killed them.

  She lost herself to fury and found that like me she could tap into the magical energy in the air. In a fit of rage she used this power to kill Chuda Sool, a demon collaborator who’d slipped through the gap. She regretted it afterwards. Snuck away in the night, leaving a note for Dervish saying she was confused and filled with sorrow. Said she might contact him someday if she straightened her head out, but not to expect to hear from her again.

  Now here she is, filling in for Misery Mauch, looking a bit more strained than when I last saw her, but otherwise no different.

  “Why are you here?” I gasp once I’ve recovered from my initial shock. “How?”

  “That’s what Billy asked.” She chuckles. We’re sitting in front of the desk, chairs close together. Juni’s holding my hands. “Aren’t you pleased to see me?”

  “Of course. But it’s been so long. I never thought. . . And how did you wind up here, in our school? You’re not a guidance counselor. Are you?”

  “Not exactly.” She sighs and lets go of my hands. “It’s not a long story or particularly complicated. My head was in a mess after our experiences on the film set.” She pauses. Her eyes make flickering contact with mine and I get the message — don’t mention the demons or the slaughter. Please. “It took me months to recover,” she continues, “but not as long as I thought. I realized early on that work would help, that I needed to be busy, that by helping others with their problems, I could help myself too.

  “A friend offered me a job involving school work. I became an adviser to a network of counselors. I supervised them, provided them with guidelines, helped out with their problems, organized meetings and conferences. The school network I initially covered was far from here. Then, a couple of months ago, I was given an opportunity to relocate. I knew your school would be part of my new network. To be honest, that’s largely what drew me to it.”

  She smiles weakly. “I’ve been wanting to get in touch with Dervish since the day I ran off. I haven’t because of fear, guilt, shame. This was a way to take a step closer. I meant to ease myself into his life, observe from a distance for a while, work up the courage to face him again. Then William Mauch got sick just when you and Billy most needed a compassionate and understanding ear. As his superior I was expected to step in for him. As your friend I felt compelled to. So . . .” She shrugs, embarrassed. “Tah-dah!”

  “Dervish will be happy,” I grin. “He missed you.”

  Her face creases. “Please don’t tell him. Not yet. Not until I’m ready.”

  “But —”

  “Please.” She stops me, sharp this time. “I’ll see him soon b
ut not right now. Not until I’ve had time to settle in, get my bearings, and finish what I came here to do.”

  “What do you mean?”

  She leans forward, eyes warm but serious, and says, “I want to talk about your friend, Loch Gossel.” Puts a small, thin hand on one of my large, knobbly ones. “I want to discuss his death and how that hurt you.”

  We talk for almost an hour about my friendship with Loch, what he was like, how he died, what I felt, how I’ve coped since then. I feel awkward at first, but Juni listens patiently, asks all the right questions, never pushy, always sensitive. She doesn’t pretend we’re not old friends, but at the same time she treats me like a patient, the way a professional should. No falseness, no charade, not smarmy. I find myself opening up to her, telling her things I haven’t even told Dervish, about my pain, my nightmares, my loss.

  We talk about Bill-E a lot. She spent most of the morning with him and she’s worried. “I can’t tell you everything that we talked about,” she says. “I have to respect his privacy. But I got the feeling there was animosity between him and Loch. Would you say that was an accurate assumption?”

  “They didn’t get along,” I admit.

  “Did they ever fight?”

  I smile. “No.”

  “Why the smile?”

  “Loch was almost as big as me. A wrestler. It wouldn’t have been much of a fight.”

  “But they argued?” she presses.

  “Loch . . .” I hesitate, not wanting to say anything bad about my dead friend.

  “He teased?” Juni guesses.

  “Yeah. He picked on Bill-E. Sometimes he was cruel. I didn’t like that but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was Bill-E’s problem, not mine.”

  “Was Loch teasing Billy on the day of his death?” Juni asks. She’s not afraid to talk about death openly. Doesn’t hide behind softer terms like “incident” or “accident.” I like that.

  I think about it. “A little bit, yeah. But we were tired from di — I mean, from climbing in the quarry. We were all a little cranky.”

  “They didn’t fight?”

  “No.”

  “You didn’t argue with Loch or try to stop him from teasing Billy?”

  “Not really.”

  “You’re sure?”

  I shrug. “I don’t remember everything that was said. The hour or two before he fell is kind of blank. I’m not blocking it out. I just. . . it’s like, when I look back, I’m looking through a mist. Do you know what I mean?”

  Juni nods. “I know exactly what you mean. Part of my job will be to help you pierce that mist.”

  “Does it matter that much?” I frown.

  “Absolutely. It could be a mist of guilt. If you said something ugly to Loch that you regret now, you might have buried it. If you don’t deal with that, it could lie within you for years, then work its way back to the surface, hurting you, making you feel horrible about yourself.”

  “Is that what you’re doing with Bill-E?” I ask. “Piercing the mist?”

  “Yes. Although it will be harder with him than you. You’re not the still-waters-run-deep type.”

  “Huh?”

  “You’re honest and straight. What one sees is what one gets. Loch’s death hurt, but I don’t think it struck you to the core like Billy. You’re made of tougher stuff, Grubbs Grady. Tougher than Billy and tougher than me. I doubt we’ll have any serious problems. You’re too plain to be complex.”

  “You might be wrong,” I mutter, annoyed at being described that way. “Maybe I just do a good job of covering up my pain and confusion.”

  “Perhaps,” Juni says. “But don’t worry, I make no rash assumptions. If you are suffering deep inside, I’ll find out and help. You have my word on that.”

  We talk a while longer about Loch’s teasing and what I thought of it. Then a bit more about the day he died, how long I held him, my efforts to keep him alive, my feelings when I realized he was dead. I cry at that point. Juni makes no move to comfort me, just sits, watching, waiting. When I recover, she hands me a tissue to wipe my cheeks dry, then moves on.

  At the end of the session she stands and shakes my hand. When I try to pull away, she grips tight, pink eyes finding mine and holding them. “Billy promised not to tell Dervish about me. If you can’t make that promise or feel strange about it, please say so. I want to be the one to tell him I’m here. I’d rather do it later, when I’m ready, but if you feel like I’m putting you in an awkward position, I’ll do it now.”

  “No.” I smile. “I’ll keep it quiet. He doesn’t take much of an interest in school life. If he asks, I’ll tell him some nutty dame replaced Misery Mauch. I bet he won’t even ask for your name.”

  “Thank you.” She releases me. “We’ll talk again tomorrow if you don’t mind.”

  “I’d like that.”

  She smiles broadly, then ushers me out, leaving me to wander back to class, head buzzing, lips lifting at the edges, feeling for the first time since Loch’s death that there might be a touch of silver to what previously seemed to be a bleak, black beast of a future.

  Home Visit

  BILL-E improves over the next few days. He starts talking again, loses that faraway look in his eyes, stops moping around like a zombie. He sings Juni’s praises whenever we meet. Tells me how closely she listens, how she understands him perfectly and says the right things at exactly the right moments.

  “I never saw her in action in Slawter,” he says as we trudge out of school, Thursday afternoon. “I didn’t realize how cool she was. I thought it would be weeks, maybe months, before I could smile again. But look at me!” He grins widely. “She’s a miracle worker.”

  I smile, slightly strained, ridiculously jealous. I’ve seen Juni every day but our sessions have been brief. She’s spending far more time with Bill-E than me, and when we meet, she talks more about Bill-E’s feelings than my own.

  “I feel like I can say anything to her,” Bill-E gushes. “She’s like . . .” He stops. We’re about to turn a corner. There’s a bum sitting on the pavement, his back against the wall, head low, face hidden by a bushy beard and straggly hair. Bill-E reaches into his right pocket, then his left. Finds some change and holds out his hand. The tramp doesn’t respond immediately, then reaches out without looking up. Bill-E drops the coins into the bum’s hand and smiles. The guy doesn’t smile back. Bill-E shrugs and moves on.

  “Where was I?” he asks.

  “Discussing the miracle worker,” I grunt.

  “Oh, yes!” And he’s off again, Juni this, Miss Swan that. I want to snap at him to shut up, he’s driving me crazy with his fan talk. But that would be cruel and childish of me. And I’d only be saying it because I envy the hours and secrets they share.

  Friday. I try getting Juni to take more of an interest in me. I tell her about my parents and Gret, what my emotions were when they were murdered and how I felt after all the killing in Slawter. I run her through a few of my grislier nightmares. I expect her to jump at this fresh information and pump me for all the juicy details. But I expect wrong.

  “That’s ancient history,” she says. “I don’t think it’s relevant now.”

  “But I thought it was all linked,” I sputter. “The past. . . the present. . . that what I felt then influences what I feel now.”

  “Of course,” she says. “But I believe you’ve dealt with the past adequately. Your nightmares are natural, a healthy way of releasing tension and confronting your fears. I see no reason to reopen old wounds. Don’t you agree?” She waits, one eyebrow raised.

  I shift awkwardly in my seat, blushing.

  “It’s not a contest, Grubbs,” Juni says quietly. I stare at her uncertainly. “My time isn’t something you need to fight with Billy for. My relationship with Billy in school is the same as with you — purely professional. I spend more time with him because he needs me more. There are others who need me too. I’ve met with several students over the past week, including Loch’s sister, Reni, at her ho
me.”

  “You’ve met Reni?” I ask, startled.

  Juni nods. “Like I told you on Monday, I’m not an ordinary guidance counselor. My work takes me outside the classroom. Reni is really suffering. But she’s coping. She’ll be back in school next week. And when she comes, I’ll be spending time with her here. Which means I’ll have even less time for you. That can’t be an issue.”

  “Of course it isn’t. I never. . . I didn’t . . .”

  “It’s all right,” she smiles. “Jealousy is normal, even in a boy your age.”

  “I’m not jealous,” I huff.

  “Maybe not. But if you are, it’s OK. We can’t help irrational feelings. The important thing is to recognize such feelings and not allow them to fester. I don’t want a rift to develop between you and Billy.”

  “I don’t know what you’re —”

  “Grubbs,” she interrupts, “I’m being blunt because I respect you. This is how I’d address an adult. If you want, I can treat you like a child and tiptoe around these issues. But if —”

  “OK,” I cut in, angry but cool. “It’s no big deal. I understand. I can keep a handle on my . . .” I scowl, then spit it out. “My jealousy.”

  “I’m glad to hear it.” Juni smiles, patting my right hand. “Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk some more about Billy and what you, as his best friend, can do to help him manage his pain.”

  Marching home, thinking about what Juni said. She saw through me as if I was made of glass and knew exactly how to deal with me. She’s in a different league from Misery Mauch. Every school should have a counselor like Juni Swan, someone who can really connect with —

  A man steps out in front of me and I almost crash into him. I have to take a quick step back. It’s a homeless person. He’s standing in the middle of the narrow path that leads from Carcery Vale to my home. He’s staring at me with small, dark eyes. Very hairy. Smells bad. Dressed in
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