The bus journey took a whole day and night and part of the following day. Even then, the novelty of the rolling landscape never wore off. Lupin spent most of the time with his nose pressed to the window, savouring every detail his hungry mind could devour. There were towns full of people who looked just like those he had left behind, transplanted to strange locales. Sometimes the bus would pass through a larger concrete sprawl and Lupin's eyes would widen further as he was filled with a cocktail of excitement and fear. Everything seemed so impossibly new. Even through the nighttime portion of the trip he watched the hills, farms and fields pass by in one glorious, moonlit mosaic.
Eventually, as the sun grew bolder on the second day, the stretches of landscape and towns gave way to a great evening-out of detail, filled with indistinguishable houses and small clusters of shops. Everything seemed dirtier and uncared for. A sadness grew in Lupin's chest as he watched the cluttered emptiness. Surely this wasn't the city that had been mentioned in hushed tones by the children of his town. The city was supposed to be a magical place, full of giant wonders, with sounds and smells to tax the senses. Tears threatened Lupin's eyes as he wondered if he had made a dreadful mistake. Then, as the bus turned a corner, Lupin saw a sight that stilled his breath. Picked out in the dazzling brightness of the morning sun were buildings that stretched almost to the clouds themselves. The sunlight reflected off vast windows with twinkles and refracted rainbows. The sheer scale made it almost impossible for Lupin to understand all that he saw, but the pleasure of it split his mouth in an awestruck grin.
The short ride through the city itself was stupefying. Lupin had never imagined that so many people could occupy so little space. How could their senses stand the constant assault? Cars darted past each other with reckless abandon, somehow missing the inevitable catastrophes. The endless network of roads stretched off into infinity at every junction. There were shops with windows full of wares of such variety and colour that Lupin could only laugh. Without realising it, he stood up in his seat and pressed his whole body against the window, cackling and howling.
He felt a pang of disappointment when the dark mouth of the terminal swallowed the bus. The featureless concrete ramps and dirty shadows made him feel like a candle flame in the grip of the snuffer. He sat down again and became very quiet. Soon he would be out of those streets he had seen, just another member of the anonymous crowd. The thought delighted and appalled him. By the time the bus pulled into its parking bay he felt vaguely sick with anticipation.
After a couple of attempts to get into the aisle of the bus and being pushed back by over-eager passengers, Lupin swallowed his impatience and sat still until he was the only passenger left. He made his way out to the hatch that held the luggage and, after apologising to the few people who knocked into him, retrieved his suitcase. Following the group, Lupin wandered up the ramp and into the main terminal.
The sight of such a huge open space hidden away inside a building made Lupin stop in wonder. He just looked around at the white tiles and scuffed concrete that surrounded him. An escalator led up to a mezzanine, but Lupin just glanced at it suspiciously and walked on. The echoes of amplified, incoherent announcements fought the noise of a thousand conversations.
A glitter of light from a shop on his left caught Lupin's attention. Walking over, he could see that the back wall was covered with keys. There were keys of every size and metallic hue imaginable, from long, stern looking staves to small, shiny ones that looked too sharp to be safe. Some even had highlights of bright colour, making them look more like jewellery. If even such commonplace items could become marvels, then maybe the city was the magical place he had heard of after all.
Reminding himself that the day would not last forever, Lupin turned back to the main concourse. With a start he realised that his suitcase was no longer by his side. Looking around frantically, he saw suitcases everywhere. His mind struggled to sort them all as he darted into the sprawl of people. There were angry shouts and poorly-aimed cuffs as Lupin caromed his way through the crowd, but it was hopeless. His will to continue failed before his stamina and he stopped in front of a newsstand, empty and betrayed.
People in his town were never like this. Even if someone had been insane enough to steal, all the other townsfolk would have helped Lupin, rather than hurl abuse at him. What kind of a place was this? Was the magic simply on the surface? For the second time in the day Lupin found himself fighting back tears.
"What's the matter, kid?"
Lupin heard the man's voice before he smelled his presence. The voice was warm and glib, but the scent of the man sent an angry shiver through Lupin's spine; he smelled of meat. Looking up, Lupin saw a tall man dressed casually, with a long, dark coat and a woollen hat. Lupin watched him carefully.
"I asked what the matter was." A note of impatience entered the man's voice. "How am I supposed to help you if I don't know what's wrong?"
After a moment's thought, Lupin spoke. "My suitcase," he said, holding up an empty hand by way of illustration.
"Ah." The man nodded sagely. "I see. Your suitcase." He stood up on tiptoes and looked around. "When did you last see it?"
With a shrug, Lupin pointed toward the key shop. "It was over there."
After another quick look around the man stopped and put his hands on his hips. "Bastards." He put a hand on Lupin's shoulder but pulled it back quickly when Lupin showed teeth. "Easy, kid. I'm here to help you."
Lupin blinked at the man, unconvinced.
"I'll tell you what. I'll get you an ice cream, and then we can talk about how I can help you out. Would you like an ice cream?"
Lupin blinked again.
"You're a hard sell, aren't you kid? What is it you want, then?"
"My suitcase," said Lupin. He waited.
With another half-hearted glance around, the man said, "I don't think we're going to find it now. I'm sorry. What was in it? Clothes and stuff? I have some spare clothes back at my place that would probably fit you. Hell, I might even have a suitcase you could have. How does that sound?"
The scent of the man became tinged with something sharp and coppery. Lupin wrinkled his nose and stared back. It would be easy to lose the man in such a crowded place. He tensed the muscles in his thighs in readiness.
Before Lupin had an opportunity to flee, he heard another, older voice from behind him. "I thought I told you I'd call the cops if I saw you round here again."
The man looked uncomfortable. "I was just trying to help the kid here find his suitcase. No harm done."
Lupin looked around to see the other man. He was taller and much older, with grey hair and a big, bushy moustache. He wore a dark blue uniform which made him look even more imposing. "That's very civic minded of you. I think I can take it from here, though." The curl of his lip made him look dangerous.
The first man went away; Lupin didn't even need to look to know. He heard hurried steps and the scent dissipated like a bad memory. Smiling, he looked up at the uniformed man. "Do you know where my suitcase is?" he asked.
The office smelled of coffee, cigars and stale sweat. There was something comforting about this combination and Lupin found himself relaxing. It was a fatherly smell.
The walls were an appalling shade of green that owed nothing to nature. The only light came from a fluorescent strip in the ceiling. There was a small, barred window high up one wall, but all Lupin could see through it was concrete. Maybe he wasn't tall enough to see the sky.
"Sit." The uniformed man indicated a battered office chair with a casual flick of his hand. He stayed standing while Lupin did as he was told. "You travelling alone?"
Lupin nodded before realising that the man still wasn't looking at him. "Yes," he said.
The man walked slowly to the chair that sat on the other side of his desk. "And what do your parents think about that?"
"Nothing." Lupin frowned. "They're dead."
The man's face flickered with a hint of shared pain. "Sorry to hear it. Have they been dead long?"
Lupin pulled his legs up and hugged them to his body, teetering on the chair. "They died during Carnival."
"Oh." The man shut his eyes and shook his head slowly. "Carnival?" He let the question hang in the air for a few seconds. "So who looks after you now?"
Lupin shrugged. "Are you a policeman?"
"Not any more. I just work here. If we're lucky we won't have to call the police. I need to know where your home is, though."
How was Lupin supposed to tell in this airless, lightless box? He looked around carefully, trying to get some kind of bearing. "That way," he said in time, pointing towards a corner. "I think."
"I'll let that one slide for now. I'm not sure if you're simple or a smartass. Either way, I'd like it if you made things a bit easier for me. For both of us, really.
"Let's try it this way: If I were to stick you on a bus heading home, which one would it be?"
The chair rocked alarmingly as Lupin flinched. He crouched and drew an arm over his head.
"OK. Bad question. We'll get back to the home thing later."
Carefully, Lupin dropped his legs and rolled the chair forwards with little pulls. He looked at the man's desk. There was very little paperwork on it, but it was untidy enough to look cluttered anyway. A cracked plastic telephone sat next to a picture in a plush leather frame. Lupin picked the picture frame up and looked at it; it held a black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged woman. He traced the outline of the woman's face slowly with his index finger.
"Put that down," the man said. Then, more softly, "Please."
Slowly, Lupin put the picture back on the desk, taking time to align it exactly as it had been. He turned to look at the man, making contact with sad, old eyes.
"My wife. Well, she was. Anyway, we're talking about you, not me."
Lupin nodded and waited patiently.
"There must be something helpful you can tell me. Anything. Do you have any family in the city? Anyone who can come and pick you up?"
A small fleck of plaster fell from the ceiling and Lupin followed its meandering trail all the way down to the floor. "No," he said, without looking up again.
The man sat on the edge of the desk in front of Lupin. He reached over and cupped Lupin's chin with a large, blunt hand, and lifted Lupin's gaze up to meet his own. "It may not seem like it right now, but I'm trying to help you. If we can't find someone to come and pick you up, I have to call the social workers. They'll take you and put you into some god-awful children's home. I don't know if you understand what that means, but it's not something I want to see happen. Please help me stop it happening."
Lupin blinked at the man and then shrugged. "There isn't anyone."
"Shit." The man reached behind him and picked up the telephone, stretching its flex across the desk. "Please, in the next few months, or whenever it is you end up thinking about me, remember that I tried to stop this happening." He looked at the handset as if he expected it to bite him. "Shit."
The man put the telephone back on the desk with a solid thump. "Say, son," he said, "Are you hungry?"
Lupin beamed at him.
"Let's get some lunch then," he said, getting up. "By the way, the name's Murphy. You can call me Mister Murphy."
Murphy kept a protective hand on the boy's shoulder as he walked him across the concourse to the food court. Crowds of travellers and workers from nearby offices milled around them, but Murphy steered Lupin through them expertly. Murphy found himself grinning at the wide-eyed astonishment with which the child looked at everything around him. Even cheesy fast food joints seemed a source of wonder to him. The kid really must be from the Boonies, Murphy thought.
"So what do you want? I think it's going to come down to pizza or burgers. The burger place does chicken and fish sandwiches as well, but if you're smart you'll avoid them. It's been a while since the health inspectors were last here." Murphy looked at the earnest expression on Lupin's face and said, "Joke!"
"Shall I get us a sack of burgers? I don't know about you, but I could eat at least two or three of them."
The boy just shrugged. "OK," Murphy said, "Burgers it is by unanimous vote." He tousled Lupin's hair and grinned at him.
As they approached the front of the counter, Lupin started to look twitchy. He sniffed the air a couple of times and then rocked on tip-toes, trying to got a better look over the counter. "Is it Carnival?" he asked.
"Carnival. Is it Carnival?" he asked, his voice high and quick.
"I'm sorry, kid, I don't understand. I don't see any carnival around here."
"I smell meat."
"Well, yeah, sure." Murphy gestured toward the kitchen area behind the counter. "That's what they cook here - beef. You know, like in beefburgers."
Lupin started panting, eyes darting with panic. "Carnival!" he shouted. The people on either side of them in the line edged away slowly, obviously trying not to stare.
"There's no carnival round here, I promise." Murphy knelt down and put both hands on Lupin's shoulders. "Nothing bad's going to happen to you, son. We'll sit down, have some lunch and talk, just like best pals. Does that sound OK?"
After a few moments of quick eye movements, Lupin appeared to calm down slightly. "If you say so," he said.
"I say so." Murphy looked behind him. "Hey, it's our turn to get served. Come on."
It didn't take long for a table to become free. Lupin settled himself into one of the hard plastic seats while Murphy cleared away the detritus of previous meals. Once there was space, heput the tray on the table and emptied the paper sack of food right onto it, separating out individual items. "Right, we have a couple of cheeseburgers, two bacon cheeseburgers and a plain quarter-pounder. What sounds good to you?"
Lupin picked up the paper-wrapped burgers one by one and sniffed them suspiciously. "Meat," he said as he examined each one.
"Yeah, meat." Murphy picked up one of the cheeseburgers and unwrapped it, taking an ostentatious bite. "Mighty fine meat too. Are you some kind of vegetarian?"
Lupin picked up the plain hamburger and shrugged. "It is Carnival." The tone of his voice made it plain this wasn't a question. A look of resignation took up residence on his face. "If this is meat, it must be Carnival."
"I wish I understood you," Murphy said through a mouth of half-chewed burger. "I really wish I did."
Lupin's expression was blank as he unwrapped his hamburger. Murphy felt like he was witnessing a ceremony as Lupin lifted the burger to his mouth and took the first bite. Immediately, the boy's whole manner changed. There was no longer any air of doubt to him. He took another bite and then another, barely stopping to chew. The noises he made were wet, appreciative and very loud, verging on growls. With each bite his mouth opened wider. Murphy hadn't noticed how sharp and white the boy's teeth were - they looked like little enamel knives, designed for shredding food rather than chewing. His expression was tight and focused as he unwrapped the next burger.
Murphy heard a chatter of voices from behind and turned around. Everyone at the surrounding tables had stopped eating in order to watch. Passers-by stared openly, pointing the strange child out to each other.
Murphy glared at a fat woman, sitting with a group of children at the next table. "How would you like it if I gawped at your kids, lady?" he asked, angry at himself for the note of desperation he heard in his own voice. The woman didn't seem to notice. Her eyes widened suddenly and her breath gasped in preparation for a scream that never quite came. Others did, though and Murphy felt the sick pull of panic as he turned back to face Lupin.
The boy sat surrounded by torn pieces of wrapper, scraps of food and an absurd amount of ketchup. His mouth was smeared red and wet with drool. He brought his hands up to his mouth hungrily. Murphy's face froze as he saw the raw scraps of flesh, the painful white of bone and sinew shining through Lupin's ruined fingers as he took another tearing bite. Bright eyes met Murphy's, lit by an awful joy. Lupin smiled with a mouth full of sharp, bloody teeth.
"Meat," he said.
(c) 1999 XoYo
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