But then the men came.
They weren’t police, and they weren’t social services, and they weren’t criminals—at least as far as Will could judge. They wouldn’t tell him what they wanted, in spite of his efforts to keep them away; they’d speak only to his mother. And her state was fragile just then.
But he listened outside the door, and heard them ask about his father, and felt his breath come more quickly.
The men wanted to know where John Parry had gone, and whether he’d sent anything back to her, and when she’d last heard from him, and whether he’d had contact with any foreign embassies. Will heard his mother getting more and more distressed, and finally he ran into the room and told them to go.
He looked so fierce that neither of the men laughed, though he was so young. They could easily have knocked him down, or held him off the floor with one hand, but he was fearless, and his anger was hot and deadly.
So they left. Naturally, this episode strengthened Will’s conviction: his father was in trouble somewhere, and only he could help. His games weren’t childish anymore, and he didn’t play so openly. It was coming true, and he had to be worthy of it.
And not long afterward the men came back, insisting that Will’s mother had something to tell them. They came when Will was at school, and one of them kept her talking downstairs while the other searched the bedrooms. She didn’t realize what they were doing. But Will came home early and found them, and once again he blazed at them, and once again they left.
They seemed to know that he wouldn’t go to the police, for fear of losing his mother to the authorities, and they got more and more persistent. Finally they broke into the house when Will had gone to fetch his mother home from the park. It was getting worse for her now, and she believed that she had to touch every separate slat in every separate bench beside the pond. Will would help her, to get it done quicker. When they got home that day they saw the back of the men’s car disappearing out of the close, and he got inside to find that they’d been through the house and searched most of the drawers and cupboards.
He knew what they were after. The green leather case was his mother’s most precious possession; he would never dream of looking through it, and he didn’t even know where she kept it. But he knew it contained letters, and he knew she read them sometimes, and cried, and it was then that she talked about his father. So Will supposed that this was what the men were after, and knew he had to do something about it.
He decided first to find somewhere safe for his mother to stay. He thought and thought, but he had no friends to ask, and the neighbors were already suspicious, and the only person he thought he could trust was Mrs. Cooper. Once his mother was safely there, he was going to find the green leather case and look at what was in it, and then he was going to go to Oxford, where he’d find the answer to some of his questions. But the men came too soon.
And now he’d killed one of them.
So the police would be after him too.
Well, he was good at not being noticed. He’d have to not be noticed harder than he’d ever done in his life before, and keep it up as long as he could, till either he found his father or they found him. And if they found him first, he didn’t care how many more of them he killed.
Later that day, toward midnight in fact, Will was walking out of the city of Oxford, forty miles away. He was tired to his very bones. He had hitchhiked, and ridden on two buses, and walked, and reached Oxford at six in the evening, too late to do what he needed to do. He’d eaten at a Burger King and gone to a cinema to hide (though what the film was, he forgot even as he was watching it), and now he was walking along an endless road through the suburbs, heading north.
No one had noticed him so far. But he was aware that he’d better find somewhere to sleep before long, because the later it got, the more noticeable he’d be. The trouble was that there was nowhere to hide in the gardens of the comfortable houses along this road, and there was still no sign of open country.
He came to a large traffic circle where the road going north crossed the Oxford ring road going east and west. At this time of night there was very little traffic, and the road where he stood was quiet, with comfortable houses set back behind a wide expanse of grass on either side. Planted along the grass at the road’s edge were two lines of hornbeam trees, odd-looking things with perfectly symmetrical close-leafed crowns, more like children’s drawings than like real trees. The streetlights made the scene look artificial, like a stage set. Will was stupefied with exhaustion, and he might have gone on to the north, or he might have laid his head on the grass under one of those trees and slept; but as he stood trying to clear his head, he saw a cat.
She was a tabby, like Moxie. She padded out of a garden on the Oxford side of the road, where Will was standing. Will put down his tote bag and held out his hand, and the cat came up to rub her head against his knuckles, just as Moxie did. Of course, every cat behaved like that, but all the same Will felt such a longing .for home that tears scalded his eyes.
Eventually the cat turned away. This was night, and there was a territory to patrol, there were mice to hunt. She padded across the road and toward the bushes just beyond the hornbeam trees, and there she stopped.
Will, still watching, saw the cat behave curiously.
She reached out a paw to pat something in the air in front of her, something quite invisible to Will. Then she leaped backward, back arched and fur on end, tail held out stiffly. Will knew cat behavior. He watched more alertly as the cat approached the spot again, just an empty patch of grass between the hornbeams and the bushes of a garden hedge, and patted the air once more.
Again she leaped back, but less far and with less alarm this time. After another few seconds of sniffing, touching, and whisker twitching, curiosity overcame wariness.
The cat stepped forward and vanished.
Will blinked. Then he stood still, close to the trunk of the nearest tree, as a truck came around the circle and swept its lights over him. When it had gone past, he crossed the road, keeping his eyes on the spot where the cat had been investigating. It wasn’t easy, because there was nothing to fix on, but when he came to the place and cast about to look closely, he saw it.
At least, he saw it from some angles. It looked as if someone had cut a patch out of the air, about two yards from the edge of the road, a patch roughly square in shape and less than a yard across. If you were level with the patch so that it was edge-on, it was nearly invisible, and it was completely invisible from behind. You could see it only from the side nearest the road, and you couldn’t see it easily even from there, because all you could see through it was exactly the same kind of thing that lay in front of it on this side: a patch of grass lit by a streetlight.
But Will knew without the slightest doubt that that patch of grass on the other side was in a different world.
He couldn’t possibly have said why. He knew it at once, as strongly as he knew that fire burned and kindness was good. He was looking at something profoundly alien.
And for that reason alone, it enticed him to stoop and look further. What he saw made his head swim and his heart thump harder, but he didn’t hesitate: he pushed his tote bag through, and then scrambled through himself, through the hole in the fabric of this world and into another.
He found himself standing under a row of trees. But not hornbeam trees: these were tall palms, and they were growing, like the trees in Oxford, in a row along the grass. But this was the center of a broad boulevard, and at the side of the boulevard was a line of cafés and small shops, all brightly lit, all open, and all utterly silent and empty beneath a sky thick with stars. The hot night was laden with the scent of flowers and with the salt smell of the sea.
Will looked around carefully. Behind him the full moon shone down over a distant prospect of great green hills, and on the slopes at the foot of the hills there were houses with rich gardens, and an open parkland with groves of trees and the white gleam of a classical temple.
Just beside him was that bare patch in the air, as hard to see from this side as from the other, but definitely there. He bent to look through and saw the road in Oxford, his own world. He turned away with a shudder: whatever this new world was, it had to be better than what he’d just left. With a dawning lightheadedness, the feeling that he was dreaming but awake at the same time, he stood up and looked around for the cat, his guide.