A silent ephemeral wind out of the northeast, full of summer heat, covered me like a blanket. A belch of northern pollution drifted across the river and settled over my head. My black eye throbbed as I struggled to find a comfortable spot on the wall. Then someone screamed across the road from me.
I’d sat for an hour, staring at the bright lights and glittering people, watching teenagers shriek and shout in between pouring booze down their necks. Then, finally, a murmuration of students flocked outside the university bar. I was supposed to be one of them, yet I hid in the shadows. I didn’t want to go in, but I promised I would. And I never break my word.
Next to my trembling leg was a moth trapped in a web, about to be devoured by a spider. It was nature in action, an example of the science I studied. I leant down and removed the insect as a whiff of fresh pizza flowed through the air. The moth flew from my fingers towards the moonlight. To be that close to death made my head wobble, shaking loose a memory of someone buried inside my mind.
Ms Peel was the first person I ever knew who died. I was eight years old, a veteran of foster homes and orphanages since birth. She was the only adult who showed an interest in me, the one who taught me about books, music, and science. ‘Religion is the retreat from reason,’ she told me the day some Jehovah’s Witnesses’ turned up at the door. She wanted me to believe in myself and not in fairy tales. The cancer which took her at thirty broke her body and my heart.
A blast of heavy rock swept from the bar and into the street. The sounds washed towards me, sonic fingers beckoning me forward as students in dazzling outfits queued to get in. All the girls had wild hairstyles and inappropriate clothes, either too tight or too small and sometimes both.
My shoes were wet. The large puddle below me contained something I didn’t like to see. The mirror is a harsh mistress, so I always hated staring into one. I avoided my reflection whenever I could and despised anything that reminded me of how I looked. I stamped into the middle of the puddle and observed the ripples split me into many parts.
The spider scuttled away. I wondered if it observed me through its many eyes and perceived me as a two-legged arachnid god. I’d given the moth its freedom, but at what cost? The spider needed to eat the moth to survive, so had I hastened its death? Hadn’t I saved the moth only to condemn some other insect to that fate? I scratched at my chin and watched those a few years older than me stumbling in the street, groups of friends throwing their arms around each other before they threw up. I understood something they didn’t: their joy was as fleeting and meaningless as the freedom I’d given the moth.
I jumped from the wall and headed for my moonlight. I walked up the crumbling steps and flashed my student badge at the bored-looking security guard. I strode through the door, my clothes ten years older than me, the price I paid for bargain hunting in charity shops.
The bar stank of stale alcohol, stodgy burgers, and teenage desperation. Snooping gazes followed me around the room as my otherness shone from me like cheap perfume. I ordered a Coke, the real thing and not any of that zero or light rubbish. The bartender plunked two ice cubes into a drink using his dirty fingers. I placed my hands over my glass when he tried it with me.
‘Thirty per cent of ice served in bars contains bacteria, some of which is faecal matter.’ He stared at me as if I spoke an alien language. ‘That’s crap to me and you and everyone else.’ He wiped his face on his sleeve and served some poor unfortunate at the other end of the bar.
It was an example of the low standards of hygiene amongst today’s student intake. The boy standing next to me was no better. So much hair covered his knuckles I thought he was wearing gloves. It was dark inside, but he wore wraparound sunglasses. He grinned at me, an unnerving twitch of his lips more disturbing than it should have been. No wonder I was useless at meeting people. Give me an equation to solve or a science riddle to ponder instead of talking to another person any day of the week. I headed for the first free seat. Its tatty leather was frayed and coming apart, an unloved and unwanted item far away from the plush seats occupied by tonight’s popular patrons.
A pretty girl with purple hair sat next to me and dropped the local paper onto the table.
‘They haven’t caught the guy yet, the serial killer.’
The drink slipped down my mouth, a chill clutching at my throat.
‘How do you know the killer’s a bloke?’
She leant in close. ‘In my experience, the killers are always men.’ I was stumped for a reply. The girl pulled back. ‘I’m Akemi.’ Her eyes were brighter than the disco lights dazzling above my head. ‘It means the beauty of dawn.’
‘I’m Alice.’ I wasn’t sure if I should shake her hand or not.
‘I know who you are.’ She had a smile like a light bulb and a laugh reminiscent of a kitten purring.
‘Oh.’ I struggled for more words.
‘Everyone at the university knows about the sixteen-year-old girl with the piercing blue eyes. People say you’re a teenage prodigy, a science whizz kid.’
I scrunched my face and squashed my lips together. ‘Is that a good thing?’
She laughed again. ‘I think so. Don’t you?’
My cheeks grew warm, meaning it was time to change the subject.
‘After six months and three murders, the coppers should have caught this killer.’
My experiences with the police were many and unsatisfactory. Their inability to understand the simplest of situations was no surprise. This many homicides in a small town shouldn’t have been difficult to solve.
She glanced at the front cover. ‘My parents didn’t want me to come to England.’ She pulled on a long strand of purple hair. ‘They thought someone would murder me as soon as I got to my university digs.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘Pingxi. You’ve probably never heard of it.’
I shook my head. ‘I have a comprehensive knowledge of world geography. And I know all about the Sky Lantern Festival in Pingxi. I’d love to go someday.’
Akemi laughed. ‘Perhaps you will, Alice. And what wish would you write on your sky lantern?’
She threw me with the question. I’d only ever wanted one thing in life, but I’d given up on that a long time ago. I didn’t know to reply, so I checked the time on my phone. It was approaching ten o’clock, and the bar would be open for another three hours. The DJ played some entertaining Korean surf pop, and I tapped along to the tune without realising it and changed the subject.
‘Are you worried about your parents in Taiwan?’
Her eyebrows arched towards me. ‘Because of China?’ I nodded. ‘No, they’re always huffing and puffing about the island they believe is theirs, but they’d never provoke the Americans into doing something nobody wants.’ She leant in close to me. ‘Do you want to know my secret, of why I’m studying at Teesside University?’
I gripped the chair as her perfume clouded my senses. ‘What secret?’
Kate Bush was singing about hounds of love as Akemi whispered below the music.
‘I’m here to study the techniques of plutonium production for our secret nuclear program. The Chinese won’t bother us after that.’ My lack of experience in social interactions meant I couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. Then she winked at laughed at me. ‘Higher, further, faster.’
‘It’s from the movie Captain Marvel. I’ve seen it twelve times. How about you?’
‘I don’t watch movies or television. They’re chewing gum for the eyes.’
She grinned at me. ‘So what do you do for entertainment? I’m guessing you’ve got no mates.’
‘I have my books, my music, and my studies. That’s all I need.’ I rubbed at the tension in my forehead. ‘I need to leave now.’
‘The university warned students about walking alone at night.’
I searched for her friends. ‘Your mates have left you.’
‘Yours haven’t arrived.’
‘I’ll be waiting a long time for them.’
‘It looks like we walk home together then.’
‘That’s presumptuous of you.’
‘It’s just the way I’m sat.’ Something strange burst from my mouth, and it took me a few seconds to realise I was laughing. Akemi put her hand on my arm. ‘Perhaps we should leave. Where do you live?’
My brain was a blank sheet, forgetting where I’d been staying the last two weeks. It returned when I shook the numbskulls from my mind.
‘I’ve got a rented flat on the far side of the park. What about you?’
We stood, and she guided me towards the exit.
‘Same direction as you but in university digs. We can keep each other company.’ Akemi linked arms with me. ‘What happened to your eye?’
‘I dropped a tin of beans on my head.’
They made the cupboards in the flat for giants. The air warmed my face as we got outside, and we headed down the first side street.
‘What are you studying?’
‘I’m here for biology, physics, and mathematics. Then I’ll move on to medicine.’ Students pushed past us, heading into the place we’d left. ‘Shouldn’t we aim for the main road and the street lights?’ It was a longer route, but the illumination would provide a blanket of safety. The gloom we trudged through was darker than chocolate cake.
Akemi removed her arm from mine and waved her hand in the air.
‘It’s much quicker this way.’
The wind turned dagger-sharp. ‘Yes, you’re right, plus it’s freezing.’
We picked up the pace, striding by sallow looking dogs and upturned rubbish bins. I smelt fresh kebabs and fried chicken coming from the other direction.
She ran ahead of me. ‘We can cut through the park.’
Before I could reply, she was across the road and climbing the fence. Then, she disappeared into the bushes. A taxi just missed me as I stepped into the road. When I reached the railing, she screamed.
‘Akemi!’ I shouted as I scrambled over the rusted metal. Gravity got the better of me, crashing through the bushes and into the filth below. As I hit the ground, I rolled next to her.
‘Some good you’d be in an emergency.’ She spat dirt from her mouth. We helped each other up and dusted mud from our clothes.
‘I tried my best.’ My ribs ached, and the wind messed up my hair.
‘I trained as a gymnast in Taipei.’ She shook her head. ‘Fancy getting caught by an overhanging branch.’
We stepped out of the bushes and in front of the tennis courts. Leaves rolled across the white lines as the breeze blew us forward.
‘I thought the killer might have snatched you.’
There was a thump against my heart. I’d only just met this girl, but imagining her death hit me like a sledgehammer.
She stopped near a park bench and stared at me. ‘How do you know I’m not the murderer?’
‘Because you told me the killer was a bloke.’
Moonlight bathed us as she let out an enormous laugh. ‘I like you, Alice. I think we’ll be great friends.’
It terrified me. Having friends meant eventual disappointment, heartache and abandonment. We continued walking, arms around each other’s shoulders and plodding through the park, when she stopped and peered at me.
‘What’s a sixteen-year-old doing at university?’
‘My father died before I was born. Then my mother gave me away. I spent the rest of my life passed from the orphanage to care home and to foster homes. None of them stuck, but a charity called Artemis ran most of them. They discovered how clever I was on my tenth birthday, and they’ve financed my education ever since. I wanted to be the first woman on Mars, but I doubt we’ll get a mission to the Red Planet in my lifetime. So I focused on maths, biology and physics.’
‘Wow.’ Akemi appeared impressed.
‘What about you?’
Before she replied, a long howling sound burst through the forest.
Akemi gripped my arm. ‘Do they have wolves around here?’
‘Wolves were exterminated from Britain centuries ago.’
I twisted my head to scan the area. There was nothing in the park apart from us and a bunch of moths nipping at the light.
Then something hairy hit me, and we went flying.