The key was turning in the lock and the group watched the downward movement of the handle.
Laura had armed herself with her largest pan, Michael and Nick held knives. If they were to be found, they would fight. The Piper had reminded them of things they had not thought they knew. They were aware that this had happened before, that they had stood side by side in grim determination not to give in. In the unlit kitchen, they could have been anybody from any time. They were the hunted who had reached the end of their run. This would be the time they would stand and fight.
The door was unlocked and was moving silently on its arc. Two figures were entering. The defenders tensed themselves for combat. Laura was the first to move. She pushed all of her anger into a swing that was intended to take the head off whatever had set their sights on them. This was for both her missing boys.
In fact, this was for everyone who had been taken.
Chris saw the object coming towards him at the last moment. He ducked, raising his arms for protection, managing to avoid the intended death blow by a fraction. Instead, his left wrist took the impact with an immediate bolt of pain registering damage. Whoever was attacking him did not stop at this. With its target down, it moved around him searching for another opportunity to strike home. The pain in his arm was intense; the thing on him was intent.
Chris managed to look up and saw with relief that Mr Hunter was now in the fray attempting to hold the flailing arms. As with Chris, the attacker was proving to be formidable. Blows started raining down on him too. Nevertheless, the teacher stuck to his task even though he was registering others in the room. Shadows were now moving towards them and with the boy down it would only be a matter of time.
With his eyes adjusted to the light, Michael recognised the prone form of his brother. His mother, to his alarm, was beginning her assault on what she thought was a diabolical intruder. Michael rushed forward and tried to stop her. To his amazement, she seemed to be too strong for him.
Like Michael, Nick reacted late. Nevertheless, when things fell together, he moved to prevent the imminent tragedy. Michael was trying to hold his mother and was losing the battle. Laura’s body was filled with depthless rage. Nick moved in. With Michael’s arms around her, she still managed to continue her assault on the one protecting the other on the floor. By the way he was lying; the one on the floor was injured. Whoever he was, he was not the threat that Laura thought him to be. Moving into the space between her and her directed anger, Nick was able to grab the heavy pan by the handle stopping it reaching its target. Laura’s eyes flashed at him again with the same fury he had seen earlier.
“Mum, stop. It’s Chris. It’s Chris.”
Her eyes blinked and the wrath was no more. The violence of the previous seconds hung in the air before dissipating. The tableau remained for moments longer with each of its parts breathing deeply.
“Mum, it’s me Chris.”
Laura dropped to her knees and embraced the injured son. Tears fell upon him as she soothed his brow.
“Chris,” she uttered through sobs, “I didn’t know. I thought it was them. I thought it was them.”
She buried her head into the curve of his neck and hugged him tightly. His arm exploded with pain and he cried out.
“It’s my arm. I think you might have broken it.”
Indeed she had.
The teacher stood by bewildered. He was bleeding from a few places around his head where the pan had glanced him with a scything blow. He recognised Michael’s voice and had now placed the other pieces of the jigsaw together. The thing that had attacked him was none other than the boy’s mother. She had fought with a venom that was incredible. Now that he saw her, she was only a mother, a slight figure that would not cause anybody any intentional harm. Then he saw Nick and a distant memory nipped the edge of his consciousness.
They lifted Chris to his feet and assisted him into the lounge. Nick took the keys and locked the kitchen door before following. With the next door closed behind them, it was safe to turn on the light. They sat looking at each other, Laura holding the arm that she had broken.
“We need to fix that soon or it will cause him agony,” Nick said.
“We’ve got a big first aid kit in the attic,” suggested Michael. “I remember putting it up there when we moved in. Silly place to keep it I suppose. I’ll bring it down.”
The eldest son was reacting quickly to events with an unruffled approach. His clear head would be needed many times before this was over. As he walked towards the hallway, Chris gazed at him with a mixture of guilt and admiration. This was the brother he had traded for his day with his father. This was the one he had chosen to leave behind when the Piper had dropped into his dreams. This was Michael, his elder brother, who was so selfless in his actions, who never thought about himself before others. He was a brother who should never have been betrayed.
“It was me who sold you out. I’m sorry. I believed him. He said that we could have Dad back if you were gone. He said that you were the cause of all the badness that was happening. He said that you were not real.”
“That’s how the Piper works.”
They all turned to Nick who was seated in the armchair.
“He works on lies. He unties the bonds that connect us. He sows the seeds of hatred and distrust. You have come through a test today and you have done well. The Piper has not achieved what he needed to achieve and the repercussions will be devastating. There will be a huge sacrifice that will be the signal for the thing to begin. I don’t know what it will be, but its tremors will be felt around the world. This thing will break the dam of restraint and hell will follow. If we only knew what he had planned, we could try to stop him.”
“I think I know,” said the teacher. “I think they’re going to do something with the school.”
The school brought back memories for Michael that he wished to forget. They would have to revisit it and try to stop what was going to happen. He shuddered with the memory of the rats.
“Mum, I’ll need the torch.”
“It’s by the door. I left it there last night for some reason.” Laura thought of last night and it was a million years away.
Michael found the torch and started up the stairs. Once he reached the safety of the top flight, he switched it on. He was relieved that the battery was not dead. Above him was the attic entrance. He reached up and unclipped the catch that kept it secure. The door fell open and he pulled at the ladder that would allow him to enter the attic space.
He climbed carefully and watched as the torch’s beam cut through the dust. All the things that would not fit in this smaller house were stored here . A small window framed the moonlight as it cut a block into the dark. His torch picked out the fireplace at the back of the room that suggested that this had been more than a storage area in a previous time. His mother had intentions of moving that fireplace to the lounge to give the place character, but she hadn’t got around to it.
Michael found the first aid box and stifled a giggle at how big it was. He had always thought his mother was a little overanxious and had wondered if she had been expecting a war rather than the cuts and bruises that accompany childhood. He stopped in mid-thought and realised how useful this would now be.
He lifted the box and felt its weight. Carrying it towards the doorway, he looked back at the fireplace and noticed something protruding from its ancient grate. He put the box down and walked towards what had attracted his interest. Kneeling down, he saw that it was an envelope. Michael pulled it from its resting place and looked at it. Like the fireplace, it was old. Time had stained it with its passage. The paper was fragile so he handled it carefully. There was no address on its front. He placed the envelope on top of the box and descended the ladder.
In the lounge, the group waited. They had spoken only a little whilst awaiting Michael’s return. Nick had told them how he would put together a sling that would be able to keep the break supported. He told them that he would need to see someone who knew more about such things, but that they couldn’t trust themselves to a regular hospital. The Piper had his spies everywhere. As Nick put together the sling, Laura searched for the painkillers and handed two to Chris.
“This should help. Do you need water?”
Chris shook his head and then tried to swallow one. His mouth was completely dry and the tablet felt like a brick.
“I think I’ll need that water after all.”
Michael held out the envelope.
“I found this in the fireplace. It’s strange that we never saw it when we were putting stuff in the attic.”
Laura returned with the glass of water and Chris washed down the tablets. Michael opened the envelope and he gently pulled out a leaf of paper on which an elegant hand had written its message.
“To whom this may concern,” Michael read loud. “Peter, your youngest son is safe. He is with us at the hospital. I am afraid that he met with an accident and was in need of immediate medical attention. Do not worry for he is now recovering. He says that you need to come and find him post haste. The teacher is correct in his assumption that the school is the target and, therefore, you will need to halt their plans. I need not remind you that you are all in extreme peril. Act quickly and effectively. Save all you can, but remember to remain as a family. He has no power that can break this bond.
Peter asks for his mother not to worry. He loves her and his brothers more than time itself.
When they come for you, as they will, remember that your strength is your unity. Never give up on your quest to be reunited no matter what befalls you.
Take God’s care and trust in Nicholas,
Dr William Melrose.”