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Chapter 5 SPONGE

Beranabus is only half human. His father was a demon who ravaged his mother against her will. In later life, Beranabus tracked the monster down and slaughtered him. He took the beast's head as a trophy. Held it close to his chest that night and wept for hours, stroking his dead father's face, hating and mourning him in equal measures.

Meera loved Dervish when they were younger. She wanted to marry him and have children. She dreamt of teaching their kids to be Disciples, the entire family battling evil together and saving the world. But she knew he would never father a baby. He was afraid any child of his might catch the curse of the Gradys and turn into a werewolf. So she never confessed her love or told anybody.

Reni saw her mother steal a purse from a shop. It was the most shocking thing she experienced until Loch died. She spent many restless nights wondering what else her mother might have stolen, worrying about what would happen if she was caught. She wanted to discuss it with someone, but it wasn't something she could talk about, so she kept it to herself.

I know these things because I've touched those people and absorbed their inner thoughts. I'm a human sponge-I soak up memories.

I became aware of my gift not long after I returned to life. I spent hours with Beranabus that night, hugging and holding him. Memories seeped into me thick and fast, but it was a time of great confusion and I wasn't able to separate his memories from Bill-E's until later.

It took me a few days to make sense of what happened. I had all these images of the distant past swirling around inside my head-starting with his wretched birth in the Labyrinth-and I wasn't sure where they'd come from. When I worked it out, I thought it was a temporary side-effect of my miraculous return to life. Or maybe Beranabus had fed his memories to me, to help me cope with the new world.

I didn't touch anybody else until Meera hugged me, in an attempt to comfort me when she found me crying. As soon as we touched, I began absorbing. When I realised what was happening, I broke contact. I felt like a thief, stealing her innermost secrets. The flow of images stopped as soon as I let go.

I learnt less about Meera than Beranabus, since we were in contact for only a handful of seconds. The flow of information was fast, but not instantaneous. I took many of her big secrets and recent memories, but little of her younger life.

I hadn't touched anyone since then. I don't like this power. It's intrusive and sneaky, and I can't control it. I don't seem to do any harm. I think the person retains their memories, but I can't be certain. Maybe, if I held on for a long time, I'd drain all their thoughts and they'd end up a mindless zombie.

I wish I could experiment and find out more about my unwelcome gift, but I can't without the risk of damaging those I touch. If I was in the Demonata's universe, I could test it on demons- although I'm not entirely sure I want to get inside a demon's head!

Nobody knows about it. I'd tell Beranabus if he was here, but he isn't. I could search for him-I learnt what he knew about opening windows when we touched, and I'm sure I could open one myself-but I don't want to disturb him. He's on an important mission and this would distract him. If I'm lucky, the unwelcome gift will fade with time. If not, what of it? I live in seclusion and almost never touch people. I'm sure Reni Gossel won't come back for another face-to-face. What harm can a secluded hermit do to anyone?

I'm in Dervish's study, telling him about Bill-E's problems at school. Bill-E was a shy boy. He found it hard to make friends or fit in. Dervish wants to get to the root of his nephew's difficulties. There's no point-he can't do anything to fix them now-but he's persistent.

"Was it his eye?" Dervish asks. "Billy had a lazy left eye. He often asked me to correct it with magic. If I had, would he have been more confident?"

I shrug.

"Come on," Dervish presses angrily. "You know. Don't pretend you don't."

For a moment I feel like telling him to stop pestering me. I want to scream at him to stop obsessing about a dead boy and let me start living a life of my own. It's not fair that I'm forced to spend my days and nights playing these sick games.

But Dervish scares me. He's not big, but he's strong, I can see that in his pale blue eyes. He might hurt me if I crossed him. I'm not sure how far he'd go to keep learning about his nephew. Bill-E loved him unconditionally, so he saw only good things in this balding, bearded man. But Dervish has a tougher side which Bill-E never saw. I'm afraid he might punish me if I annoy him. So I let my anger pass, bow my head in shame and mutter softly in response to his accusation.

"I don't know, because Bill-E didn't know. It was lots of things, all jumbled up. The death of his mum, his eye, just feeling different. There was no simple reason. If there had been, he could have dealt with it."

Dervish studies me silently, face creased. Finally he nods, accepting my answer. He doesn't apologise for snapping at me-he doesn't see any need to.

"Was he happier when Grubbs came?" Dervish asks, leaning back in his chair. We've talked about this before. We've covered most of Bill-E's life. The only part we've never touched on is the night of his death. Dervish never asks about that.

"Yes," I say, raising my head and flashing a short smile across the table. I know Dervish likes hearing about Bill-E's lighter moments, his friendship with Grubbs, hunting for buried treasure, life with his mum before she died. "Grubbs was his best friend ever, even though they didn't know each other for long."

"Did he suspect they were brothers?"

"No. He sometimes wished they were, but he never had any idea who his true father was. He thought it was you.

Dervish flinches. I knew, even as I was saying it, that I shouldn't. He feels guilty about not telling Bill-E the truth. He doesn't like to imagine he was the cause of any unhappiness in his nephew's short life.

"That's enough for now," Dervish mutters, turning away from me, switching on his computer.

I stand up and edge around the desk. My gaze settles on Dervish's narrow back. I feel an almost irresistible urge to put a hand between his shoulder blades. Partly I want to touch him just to make contact, to say, "I'm real. I have feelings. See me." But mostly I want to absorb his memories and secrets, learn what makes him tick. If I knew more about him, maybe I needn't be so afraid. I might find some way to break through the barriers he's erected and make him see me as a person, not just a direct line to his dead nephew.

But that would be wrong. I'd be stealing. I already feel bad for unintentionally taking from Beranabus, Meera and Reni. I won't do it on purpose, not even to make life easier for myself. So I slide out wordlessly, leaving Dervish hunched over the computer, his secrets intact, the coldness between us preserved.

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