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Chapter 12 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 precisely the right moments.

"I never saw her in action in Slawter," he says as we trundle out of school, Thursday afternoon. "I didn't realise 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 tramp 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 coins and holds them out. The tramp doesn't respond immediately, then reaches out without looking up. Bill-E drops the coins into the tramp's hand and smiles. The tramp 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 mad with his fanboy drivel. But that would be cruel and childish of me. And I'd only be saying it because I envy the hours and confidences 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 the widescale 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 splutter. "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 Bill-E for. My relationship with Bill-E 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 last week, including Loch's sister, Reni, at her home."

"You've met Reni?" I ask, startled.

Juni nods. "Like I told you on Monday, I'm not an ordinary school counsellor. My work takes me outside the classroom. Reni is suffering dreadfully. But she's coping. She'll be back at 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 recognise 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 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 to Misery Mauch. Every school should have a counsellor 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 tramp. 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 shabby clothes which are thirty or forty years out of date. Wears a small posy of flowers in one of his upper button holes-they look ridiculously out of place.

"Excuse me," I mutter, trying to nudge my way around him. He doesn't react. I take a more cautious look-we're alone, nobody in sight, flanked by trees. My warning senses kick in. I prepare to run or fight if needs dictate. But the tramp makes no threatening moves. Just stares at me, saying nothing, hands by his sides, eyes steady.

"Could you...?" I make a sign for him to shift slightly. But still he doesn't budge. Sighing, I step off to the side, trampling down a patch of nettles. I wave sarcastically at the clear path. The tramp nods at me slowly, then walks past.

Shaking my head, I get on the path again and head for home. I've taken no more than five or six steps when I remember the tramp from yesterday, the one Bill-E gave money to. I turn to give this tramp the once-over, wondering if it's the same guy. But the path is empty. No sign of him. He must have slipped back into the forest. It's like he disappeared.

Homework. Struggling with a complicated chemistry formula when somebody knocks at the front doors. I gratefully close my textbook and go see who's there, glad of the excuse for a break.

It's Juni.

"Hello, Grubbs," she says nervously. "Is your uncle in?"

"Yeah. But... um... I thought you didn't want to see him yet."

"I didn't." She laughs thinly. "Then, on my way to my hotel, I found myself taking a left instead of a right and I ended up here." She shrugs. "I guess the part of me that makes the big decisions thinks it's time."

"Do you want me to call him or would you rather go find him yourself?"

"Call him, please. It would be more polite."

"Dervish!" I bellow, then gesture for Juni to enter. "May I take your coat?" I ask as she steps inside.

"Thank you." She takes it off and passes it to me. Her fingers tremble as we touch. I think about taking hold of her hand and giving it a friendly squeeze, but before I can Dervish comes trotting down the stairs from his study.

"There's no need to roar," Dervish grumbles. "I'm not deaf. I can..."

He sees Juni. Comes to a complete halt, left foot in mid-air. His jaw slowly, comically drops.

"Hello, Dervish," Juni says, waving awkwardly. "I'm back."

And they blink at each other like a pair of startled owls.

Two hours later. Dervish and Juni have spent the time shut inside the TV room. I've been in the kitchen, where I'm still stuck on the same chemistry problem. Not that I've been trying hard. Most of my thoughts have been devoted to Dervish and Juni, and the things they might be discussing.

Part of me wants to creep to the door and eavesdrop, but that would be sneaky and unfair. I'd hate if somebody did that to me, so I'm not going to do it to them.

About half an hour after that, when Juni's gone to the toilet, Dervish pops into the kitchen. He sticks the kettle on, prepares two mugs, grabs some biscuits, then sits beside me. He's grinning softly. "You should have told me," he says but there's no anger in his tone.

"She asked me not to," I reply.

"I know, but..." He chuckles. "No. It doesn't matter. Maybe it was better this way. The shock was nice. I'm just glad I didn't fall down the stairs and break my neck." He focuses on me. "Juni told me about the counselling-without revealing any of the confidential details. Said you're doing great, all things considered. She thinks you're a marvel. Said if everyone had your powers of recovery, she'd be out of a job."

I shrug like it's no big thing, but the compliment tickles me.

"Billy's not so lucky." He sighs. "I knew Loch's death hit him hard but I didn't realise things were this bad. I thought, after Slawter, he'd be prepared for death. He seemed to handle that OK. But Juni says he bottled up his feelings, that his reaction now reflects a delayed response to what happened then."

"She's the expert, I guess."

Dervish nods slowly, then says, "Billy told her I was his father."

"Oh?" Bill-E doesn't know that his mother had an affair with my father, that I'm his half-brother, that Dervish is his uncle. He thinks Dervish is his dad.

"She normally wouldn't share information like that," Dervish goes on, "but this was one time she felt she had to. She needed to know if it was true."

"What did you tell her?"

"The truth. Well, some of it. I didn't mention Cal or your relationship to Billy. That's our secret. I didn't see the need to reveal that much."

The kettle boils. Dervish pours water into the two mugs. Glances at me as he's dunking tea bags. "I thought you might have told Billy about your dad."

"No," I say softly.

"You know that you can if you want? It's your call, not mine."

"I know. I want to tell him and I will. But I've never found the right moment. It's the sort of news that will turn his world upside down. I've been waiting for a quiet, uneventful period, but we haven't had any over the last few years."

Dervish picks up the mugs and pauses. "I wouldn't wait too long. You know better than most that time is precious. Waiting's a dangerous game. Sometimes you miss the boat and end up regretting it."

I nod thoughtfully. "I'll give it a few months, let Bill-E get over Loch. When I think he's ready, I'll sit him down and spit it all out."

"If you want any help..."

"I'll ask. Thanks."

We smile at each other. Then Dervish heads back to the TV room to continue playing catch-up with Juni.

Eleven. Juni's still here. At her invitation I've joined her and Dervish in the TV room. They're sitting together on the couch, not touching but very close. They're chatting away as if they hadn't seen each other for decades. They hardly ever toss a question or comment my way. I feel like a third wheel but I don't mind. It's fun watching them. I've never seen Dervish so gushy. Didn't think the bald old coot had any romance in him.

They talk about all sorts of things-school, Carcery Vale, motorbikes, bands, films, TV. For a man who's never shown any interest in music, movies or sitcoms, Dervish has become awfully knowledgeable all of a sudden.

"You were at that gig too?" Juni squeals-yes, squeals!-when talk turns to a punk band they both liked. "I don't believe it. What a small world. I was in the pit-what about you?"

"Backstage," Dervish says modestly. "I knew one of the roadies. He got me a pass. Actually I used to hang out with the lead singer when we were younger."

Dervish hanging out with punk frontmen? Moshing backstage at concerts? It's official-I've stepped through into an alternate reality.

"I'm off to bed," I mutter, rising and faking a yawn. I normally don't hit the sack before midnight but this is getting too surreal.

"Bed?" Juni blinks and checks her watch. "Goodness. How did it get so late? I have to go. I need to get up early in the morning."

She stands. Dervish is on his feet a split second later. "Not yet," he gasps. "It's only eleven. That's not late."

"It is for me," she laughs.

"But I haven't shown you round the house yet." He throws it out in desperation, as if she must see the house now or self-combust. "You said you wanted to see the upper floors, didn't you?"

"Yes," Juni says hesitantly, looking at her watch again. "Perhaps another time?"

"It won't take long," Dervish smiles. "A quick tour. You can come back for a better look later."

"Perhaps you won't invite me back again," Juni murmurs, lowering her lashes demurely. Yipes! What a line! You can't get much cornier than that.

"You can visit any time you like," Dervish simpers. I stand corrected on the corniness front.

"Well... OK," Juni decides. "But it will have to be quick-fifteen or twenty minutes max. Agreed?"

"You can have it in writing if you wish," Dervish smirks.

"No," Juni says and touches his hand. "I trust you."

Talk about love-struck puppies! This is excruciating. Any more slushiness and I might vomit.

I accompany Dervish and Juni around the mansion, hanging back a few paces, grimacing like an old crone every time one of them makes some lovey-dovey coo or comment.

Dervish is super-animated, whisking her through the maze of corridors and rooms, treating her to brief sound bites about the house's history. She loves the cellar-she's a big wine connoisseur too.

"You'll have to come and uncork a few bottles with me," Dervish insists.

"Wine is made for sharing," Juni agrees.

"I was just about to say that," Dervish says excitedly. "I can't believe how much we have in common."

"I know," Juni smiles. "The same bands, movies, books, wine... It's freaky."

She sounds a lot younger when she says things like that. I've noticed that in adults before. People learn a new way of speaking as they grow up, but words and phrases from their childhood pop out sometimes, taking them back twenty or thirty years in the space of a couple of syllables.

Up the stairs the tour continues, although now they're talking more about bands and books, less about the house. I think of injecting some cutting remark-"Maybe you're really twins who were separated at birth"-but why spoil their fun? Besides, the more I let them babble, the more ammo I'll have to tease Dervish with later.

We come to Dervish's study. The lights and PC are still on from when he was in there earlier. The door's ajar. Juni's slightly ahead of Dervish and starts to go in ahead of him. Dervish doesn't mind. He's smiling serenely. But then he remembers the spells. (I think of them before he does but wickedly choose not to say anything, thinking how much fun it will be if she turns into an elk or a zebra.)

"Juni, no!" he barks. She stops short, surprised. He smiles shakily. "I mean, it's a mess in there. Please let me go in first and..."

He tries to press past her but she puts up a hand and stops him. "Wait." She frowns at the door, then takes another step towards it.

"Juni, I really don't think..."

"It's OK." She looks back at him, calm and composed. "Just give me a minute. I want to try something."

She faces the door again and closes her eyes. Raises her right hand and holds her palm up to the open doorway. I nudge up beside Dervish, wondering what she's doing. He's staring at her uncertainly.

Juni takes a breath. Holds it. Murmurs something softly. The light in the room dims and her fingers glow. Then the lights come back up strong again and the glow in her fingers fades.

She steps forward into the study and nothing happens.

Dervish stands outside, gawping at her as she does a twirl and smiles at him. "You... the magic... the spells... you lifted them!"

Juni snaps her fingers. A book shoots off a shelf and into her hand. "Tah-dah!" she sings, like when I first met her at school. Then she looks at Dervish seriously. "I've had a busier year than I led you to believe," she says.

Then Dervish is through the door, by her side, babbling with excitement, asking about her magical abilities, what she can do, who taught her. A dozen questions a second, Juni laughing and shaking her head, struggling to answer them all.

I linger outside, staring with disbelief at my uncle and Juni Swan, bewildered and, for some reason I can't put my finger on, oddly ill at ease.

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