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Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (10 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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I'm taking time
, she thought hopefully.

Through the crowd, she could see more red coats and tall tufted hats. The
thump, thump, thump
of the drums was getting closer.

A flash of movement caught her eyes. Aaron was gesturing at her to drop her hand. Joan had been too slow.

Joan pushed down the beginnings of panic. What if she couldn't figure this out?

“Breathe,” Aaron murmured. “You just need to concentrate.” He moved away again, putting a man between them. He held up his water bottle, and Joan reached over the man's shoulder for it.

The new man was heavyset, with dark hair. Joan let the edge of her hand shift against his neck.
Concentrate
, she told herself fiercely.

She squeezed her eyes shut. She wasn't here in a crowd, outside Buckingham Palace. She was at home in Milton Keynes. It was a school morning. Monday morning. She imagined fumbling with the alarm. Pulling on her blue-and-mustard uniform. The bell on Monday afternoon. Tuesday. Then Mr. Larch's noisy history class on Wednesday. Thursday. The happy sound of the last bell on Friday afternoon. Then Monday again. Wednesday again. Friday again.

Nothing happened. Joan tightened her grip on the bottle. She was trying her hardest, and it still wasn't working.

She opened her eyes and shook her head at Aaron.

She moved to shift away from the man, and then she was choking on it. Time ran into her like a jolt of strong coffee, like butterflies before an exam. Energy, intense and insistent, flowed through her. It felt horrible. It felt incredible.

Someone was there suddenly. Aaron. He tugged her hand, guiding it away from the man's neck.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Joan breathed out shakily. She nodded.

Aaron took time as naturally as breathing. Joan struggled with every take. She knew she was being too slow. She could see Aaron becoming more and more tense as the ceremony drew closer. His eyes were everywhere—tracking every phone, scanning the crowd.

As the guards reached the palace, the crowd became so dense that it was difficult to move. Joan slowed down even more. She took time, then painstakingly shifted and squeezed to the next person.

She tried to concentrate on the mechanical act of it, but as she did, she found her mind returning to the Gilt Room. To Nick's grave face as he'd said:
If you ever steal time from a human again, I will kill you myself. I won't hesitate.

She was stealing time from these people. She was a monster. She felt so fucking ugly inside. And at the same time, she
wanted to scream at Nick:
Why did you have to kill my family?

The next man was wearing a hoodie. Strange for such a warm day. Joan pushed the hood aside.

There was a tattoo on the back of his neck. A snarling wolf. Joan gasped. She'd seen that wolf before. The man in the maze had had the same tattoo.

This man turned fast, perhaps feeling the cool air on his neck. He reached for Joan, but she was already propelling herself into the crowd. She could hear him struggling after her as she muscled herself through the crush of people to the low fence that cut off the memorial from the road.

“Stay behind the barricades!” a cop shouted.

Joan leaped over the barricade, ignoring the “Oi!” behind her. She sprinted across the street. Here the crowd was even more dense. People were pressed ten deep, right up against the palace fence.

Someone grabbed Joan's arm. She threw a wild punch.

“It's me! It's me!” Aaron looked weirdly disheveled. He'd lost the floppy hat somewhere. He dragged her farther into the crowd, toward the fence.

“They're here!” Joan said. She looked over her shoulder, trying to pick them out from the crowd. “They're here!”

“I know.” Aaron's grip tightened painfully around Joan's arm. “Do you have enough time to go?”

“I don't know.” Was Nick here? Joan couldn't see the man with the tattoo. She couldn't see Nick.

Aaron's grip shifted so that he and Joan were holding hands.

It surprised Joan enough that she turned back to him. “What are you doing?”

“We have to leave now!”

“But . . . I don't know if I've taken enough time.”


Look.
There.” Aaron pointed. He sounded as scared as Joan felt. “There. There.” People jumped over the barricades and ran toward them. A pack of wolves converging. “I'll do destination,” Aaron said, “but you have to jump too. As long as we're holding hands, we'll go together. Are you ready?”

Joan nodded, even though she had no idea what she was actually supposed to do.

“Okay,
now
,” Aaron said.

Joan couldn't take her eyes off the men running toward them. Aaron had said to jump
.
She imagined herself jumping. Nothing happened.

“Do it!” Aaron said. “They're coming!”

Joan visualized jumping again. Nothing happened.

“I'm doing the hard part!” Aaron said. “You just have to jump!”

Joan jumped for real, jostling everyone around her. People turned and stared.

“What the hell are you doing?” Aaron said.

“You said to jump.”

“Through time!”

Joan heard herself make a sound that might have been a laugh and might just have been terror. She thought frantically back to that morning with Mr. Solt, when he'd pushed her
and day had turned into night. She couldn't remember doing anything—it had just happened. Nick's people were in the crowd now. Joan still couldn't see Nick. “You need to go without me,” she said.

“Don't be stupid!” Aaron said. “Jump!”

“I don't know how!”

“You annoying, backward, time-mired Hunt. Jump!”

She imagined jumping again. Nothing. “You have to go!” she said. “They're almost here!”

“Look at me,” Aaron said.

“It's too late!” The sword wound in Joan's side ached: a reminder of how much this was going to hurt. “You have to go!”

“Don't look at them,” Aaron said. “Look at
me
.”

Joan swallowed and lifted her head to look at him.

“You can do this,” Aaron said. His face was very serious. His eyes were gray, Joan thought distantly. Like the sky before rain. “You've done it before. You know how.”

“I really don't,” Joan whispered. Oh God, there were more people leaping over the barricades now. “Aaron, you have to go.”

“Look at
me
,” Aaron said. Joan forced her gaze back to him. “Yeah, just like that. Tell me why you were working at Holland House.”

“What? What are you talking about? Holland House?”

“You volunteered at Holland House.” Aaron seemed so calm. “Why?”

“What are you
talking
about?”

“Just think,” Aaron said. “Why?”

“Why?” Joan took a breath. “I don't know. I don't know, okay? I just did. I like history.”

“You like history.”


Yes
,” Joan said impatiently. “Aaron, they're coming.”

“You liked the re-creations of history at the house,” Aaron said.

“Yes. I—yes.”

“Holland House showed you another time,” Aaron said. “And you were drawn to it. It wasn't the real thing. It was just a cardboard cutout, but it was as close as you could get to being in another time.”

Joan stared at him. She remembered the first time she'd walked into the house. She'd loved it—immediately and irrationally. It had been restored to its Georgian heyday, and Joan had felt as though she'd stepped into another time.

“Traveling to other times is your birthright, Joan,” Aaron said. “It's in your blood. You've been stuck here a long time, but you don't have to be. Remember the feeling you had? When you first walked into the house. Do you remember?”

Nick's people were almost upon them. Joan saw the shine of a knife.

“Do you remember?” Aaron asked.

Joan felt it again then. The yearning she'd felt when she'd first arrived at Holland House. Her heart wrenched with it. “I remember,” she whispered.

The knife slashed toward her.

And the world shifted.

Eight

For a long moment, Joan couldn't hear anything but her own harsh breaths. Nick's people had vanished. She pressed her hand against her throat, where the knife had been about to slash her. She turned her palm over. Her skin felt strangely tender with anticipated pain. But there was no blood.

Nick's people were gone. The knife was gone.

No.
She
was gone.

Buckingham Palace seemed unchanged. People were still jostling for position to see the guards. The great statue of Victoria still sat on her throne.

But the man beside Joan had an old-fashioned camera, its thick strap looped around his neck. A second ago everyone had been holding up phones. Now no one was. And there were other differences too. Clothes were looser; hair was bigger.

Joan took a breath. She was breathing air from another time. She was standing with people from another time.

The sounds of the world came back in a rush—the drums, the trumpets, the marching footsteps of the guards. The ceremony was on top of them. No one seemed to have noticed that
two people had arrived out of nowhere.

“We did it.” Joan could hear the muted shock in her voice. “We traveled.”


I
traveled,” Aaron said dryly. “Dragging you along.”

A woman nearby gave them both a curious look. Joan realized she was still holding Aaron's hand at the same moment he did. He tore his grip from hers as if she'd burned him. Joan rolled her eyes.

The Changing of the Guard was ending now in a last thunder of drums and trumpets. And it was suddenly all too loud. A lifted camera made Joan flinch. She was safe, but her body didn't believe it. Not yet.

She needed to breathe clear air. With effort, she pushed her way out of the crush, until the crowd finally yielded and she found herself in open space.

And then her breath stopped in her throat. Here, the past lay all around her. Cars circled the memorial in an unbroken stream, wide and boxy and low to the ground as she'd only ever seen in movies.

She was in the past. She turned a slow circle, following the cars. She was in the
past
. On the horizon, there was an empty space where the London Eye should have been: a missing tooth on the skyline.

The last turn brought her face-to-face with Aaron. He was watching her with an unexpectedly soft expression that disappeared as she focused on him. “Have you finished staring?” His voice was studied boredom.
This is nothing. I do this all the time.

“Yes,” Joan said. Her eyes returned to the piece of sky where the London Eye should have been. “No.”

The world felt infinite. She could go anywhere. Any
when
. She could travel back to the Regency. To the Restoration. To the Roman Empire. She could see Pompeii before it fell. She could see— Then she remembered how they'd gotten here. She shuddered. No, she could never do that.

Tourists strolled around them. Girls and boys snuck Aaron a second look. Even with his hair all messed up, he was good-looking enough to turn heads. If these people only knew what he was, what Joan was—what she'd just fantasized about doing—they'd run screaming from them both.

Joan took a step toward the road, and then realized that she'd started for the Tube, to get to Gran's house in Kensington. She stopped, disoriented.

Gran moved every year. Here, in this time, Joan had no idea where the Hunt family lived. She had no idea where anyone was. When she'd imagined going back in time, she'd imagined going back a few days to warn everyone. Now she was decades in the past, before she was even born.

She wished suddenly that she could go home—not to Gran's.
Home
home, to Dad's, in Milton Keynes. She'd tell him everything, and he'd make a big pot of rice porridge with lots of ginger, like he did when she was sick. They'd scoop it into the little bowls from the top of the cupboard. Dad would crack an egg into Joan's bowl, and he'd tell her that everything would be okay.

But there was no home in this time. Right now, Dad was still living in Malaysia—he hadn't moved to England yet. If Joan went home to Milton Keynes, a stranger would answer the door.

“Are you about to lose it?” Aaron sounded more curious than concerned.

“No,” Joan said.

“Because you look like you're freaking out.”

“Yeah, well, I'm not,” Joan said. It came out as embarrassingly emphatic.

She expected Aaron to mock her, but his eyes turned back to the clumps of tourists. “We can't stay here,” he said. “We just appeared out of thin air. Someone might have noticed.”

No one was even looking at them. Around them, people were either following the marching guards or peeling away. But of the two of them, Aaron knew this world. Aaron knew people here. Joan needed him. She hated that she needed him.

Aaron turned toward St. James's Park. The relieved guards were marching back down the long red stretch of the Mall. Thinning streams of tourists followed them, still taking photos with those big boxy cameras.

“Wait,” Joan said, and only realized she'd spoken when Aaron turned back to her. “Where are we going?” she said. “We can't go to your family.”

Aaron was silent for so long that Joan thought he wasn't going to answer at all.

“I know,” he said finally. His expression was closed off. Joan
waited for him to elaborate. But instead he started again toward the park.

Joan stared at his back for a long moment before following.

It was a sunnier day than the one they'd left. St. James's Park was a patchwork of picnic blankets and deck chairs, and people eating sandwiches and soft serves.

Conversation blended with kids shrieking and a tinny cricket match streaming from someone's—Joan blinked. Coming from a silver box the size of a bread bin.

This wasn't her London, she remembered again.

After that, all she could see were differences. The drape of people's clothes, the haircuts. Even the air smelled different in this time—like cigarettes and tar. The cars sounded different. When Joan closed her eyes, she could have been in a different city.

And something inside her was drawn to it—just as she'd been drawn to Holland House. She wanted to keep traveling, to see London grow stranger and stranger until there wasn't even a London here anymore. And then to keep going beyond that. To see the Iron Age, the Bronze Age.

Or to travel forward. To see wonders.
Time travel is in your blood
, Aaron had said.

“Hey!” Aaron's hand clamped over her arm.

Joan blinked at him, feeling weirdly muzzy. His grip hurt, but in the same distant way that her arm had hurt the time she'd broken it and Dr. de Witt had prescribed a wildly strong
painkiller that had made her head float.

Aaron's face was right up close then, eyes wide. “Joan?” His voice sounded far away, as though he were speaking through a long pipe. “Hey, stay with me.”

“Shouldn't,” she mumbled. “Your family tried to kill me.”

At school, Mr. Larch had said that there were once elephants and camels in St. James's Park. And crocodiles. King Charles II had played French croquet here. And before that, it had been a hunting ground. Wild deer and ducks for the king's table.

“Joan.” The suddenness of Aaron's voice jolted her again. “Are you with me? Can you hear anything?”

“Can hear your stupid voice.” Her own voice came out weirdly dreamy.

Aaron's small smile hit her right in the gut. It was unfair for him to be so good-looking, she thought distantly, when he was so disagreeable all the time.

“Can you feel me touching you?” he said.

His hand was on her arm. Joan opened her mouth to say that of course she could feel it. But the truth was, she could hardly feel her body at all. And Aaron's voice was the only thing she
could
hear clearly. Where a moment ago the park had been full of bird chatter and people talking, now everything seemed muffled. Panic stirred inside her, but even that felt far away and cotton-wooled. “What's happening?” she mumbled.

“You're all right,” Aaron said. “But you need to listen to me very carefully. You have to stay in the moment.
This
moment. Pick out one detail from the park. What can you hear?”

“I don't—” She tried to pick out a thread from the muffled mess of her senses, but everything wisped away like smoke. “I don't know.”

“I can hear the wind in the trees,” Aaron said. And again his voice was the only clear thing. “Now you.”

Joan struggled to focus. There
was
a sound floating above the others. Something high and sweet. She had to struggle even harder to find the word that went with it. “Bird,” she managed. It was like talking underwater. She saw Aaron's hand tighten, but she still couldn't feel it.

“Good,” he said. “What else? I can hear people talking.”

Joan made another exhausting effort. It was like being stuck inside a dream, unable to wake up. “Cars.”

“One more.”

Joan struggled again. “Water. Fountain.”

She wasn't sure how long they stood there together, naming sounds in the park. Aaron's hand gradually solidified against her skin, temperature coming back first so that she felt the warmth of him before anything else. The conversations around them reemerged, and then got louder and louder, like someone was turning the volume up. Joan took a breath that tasted like bitter rubber and fuel, and nearly choked on it.

Aaron squeezed her arm, and this time she definitely felt it. “There,” he said. “There you are.”

Joan took another choking breath. The fog in her head was clearing. She shook her head, trying to clear it faster. “What's going on?”

“You nearly died.”

“What?”

“You tried to travel without taking time first.”

“No,” Joan said, confused. “I took time at the Pit. I must have had some leftover.”

“It doesn't work like that,” Aaron said. “Once you jump, it's gone. You jumped and then you tried to jump again. You didn't know how to put on the brakes.”

“No, I just felt . . .” All Joan had felt was a yearning—a pull in her chest. The same pull she'd felt in the Pit. But if that was how you jumped, how were you supposed to stop yourself from traveling accidentally? How could you stop yourself from feeling a feeling?

“You should eat something,” Aaron said. “Food from this time will ground you. Until then, you need to focus on the details. Smell, sound, temperature. Stay in the present. Don't think about anything but now.”

But when
was
now? Suddenly, Joan had to know. She pulled away from Aaron with an almost frantic desperation. She had to find something—anything—with a date.

There was a rubbish bin beside the path. She rifled through it, pushing aside empty crisp packets, the remains of sandwiches. Half a Galaxy bar.

“Um.” Aaron sounded mildly horrified. “When I said eat something, I didn't mean other people's refuse.”

“Heh,” Joan said absently. A Coke can. A crumpled Twiglets packet. No newspapers, no magazines. Damn.

“Is this a human thing?” Aaron said. “Caressing rubbish? I don't spend much time with humans.”

“I'm looking for—” Joan glared at him. “
No
, it's not a human thing. I'm looking for the date.”

Aaron's eyebrows lifted. “In the bin?”

“There might be a newspaper in there.” Joan was starting to feel defensive. “In the movies, people always find the date in the newspaper. It happens in
Doctor Who
all the time. They do it in
Back to the Future
.”

“What on earth is
Back to the Future
?”

Joan bit her lip, but the laugh spluttered out of her, half-hysterical. They'd traveled in time. Now she was here with this ridiculous posh boy who didn't even watch movies.

“I fail to see what's so amusing,” Aaron said.

“What in the name of Eton is
Back to the Future
?” Joan said. “What is it? What is it, old bean?”

“I don't— Well, that's childish. I don't sound like that.”

“You sound exactly like that.”

Aaron huffed. “Oh, take your hands out of the bin! We don't need a newspaper to determine the date.” He gave the picnickers and joggers a look of professional assessment—the kind of look that Ruth might give a lock she was about to pick. “It's 1993,” he said.

Joan opened her mouth at his audacity. “You can't know that just by looking.”

“Big hair, but not giant hair,” Aaron said. “And no neon. So we're not in the eighties. No Rachel haircuts either, so this must
be pre-
Friends
. That's a window of 1990 to 1994. After that, it's easy enough to narrow it down. That man's phone.” Aaron pointed out the guy, still chatting on his phone. “BT Jade—it came out in 1993. So we could be in 1993 or 1994, but look at his watch. Look at his shoes. Brand-new. He likes new things. It's 1993.”

BOOK: Only a Monster
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