Changers' Summer sample chapters
It was raining the day it started. The thin, green, sticky rain that stuck your hair to your head in tangled strands. The kind of rain that dripped in long strings from the bottom of your coat.
Tom sat at the kitchen window looking out across the farmyard, his feet tucked under him. He half watched the rain and half watched his mother baking. Although Tom didn’t like the green rain — he hated the way it marked your shoes and stained your clothes –- it was a welcome sight after the days of yellow rain.
You couldn’t go out in the yellow rain. It attacked your clothes, ate holes in the soles of your shoes and generally messed you up. Yellow rain meant days stuck in doors.
“What’re you looking at?” Tom’s mother asked from behind him. He could see her reflection in the window, her features wavering in the light from the oil lamp.
“Nothing much,” he said, staring through her reflection and out into the green, wet world beyond.
“You should go out while you can,” his mother said. “It’ll be school again soon and then you’ll be stuck in doors even on green rain days.” Tom turned to face her and watched her hands kneading the large, soft ball of dough.
“I’ll go out,” he said, pushing up his glasses. He knew that his mother would soon find a chore for him to do if he didn’t leave now. Perhaps he could find Jordan?
“Good.” His mother turned back to her cooking, humming an old song quietly to herself.
Tom put on his big old black boots and the thick raincoat, which had been new that year. He pushed open the heavy back door and stepped into the porch. The patter of the rain was louder now and Tom could smell the wet stickiness of the ground.
Bess, their old collie dog, was lying across the doorstep and Tom had to step across her to reach the yard. She looked up with sad old eyes and muttered something in a deep growl before flopping back onto her paws. She didn’t speak much nowadays. Her voice-box was wearing out and Tom’s father hadn’t been able to get the parts to replace it. Tom nodded at her and stroked her head for a moment, tracing the grey hairs now showing through the black. “Just going for a walk, Bess,” he said. Bess had taught him his first few words and they used to have long conversations when he had been much younger.
He walked across the yard, the hood of his coat pulled firmly over his head. The rain still managed to seep in though, and he could feel the sticky trails it left on his face. He sheltered from the rain for a moment, by the doors of the first barn, and tried to wipe clinging droplets from his glasses. He could smell the warm, dank air that seeped through the doorway and he took a deep breath, savouring the metallic tang at the back of his throat. He wanted to go inside and look at the animals and play with their young but he could hear his father’s voice through the door. Tom had been told often enough that he should keep away from the animals — he didn’t have a special suit like the workers wore in there.
He picked his way through the puddles, the sticky, green mud glooping around his boots, and went between the barns to the back of the farm. He glanced at the abandoned wrecks of machinery. Normally, they excited him but today he didn’t feel like pretending to drive a tractor or climbing on the back of the great bailer. The machines looked sad, their metal rusted and pitted by the yellow rain as they slowly subsided into twisted heaps.
Tom reached the end barn and stopped when he saw a scruffy figure walking round the corner. The boy looked up and shouted Tom’s name in greeting. It was Jordan; Tom recognised the patched coat with its multi-coloured squares of welded plastic. He waved in answer and walked over to the other boy.
Jordan was standing washing his boots in a puddle. The two of them stood for a moment and watched the oily water cascade in rainbow patterns across the brown leather.
“What you doing?” Tom asked.
“Nothing much. Been a boring week.”
“Yeah,” Tom agreed, there had been little to do with no school to go to. It nearly made you want to be back in the school with Mrs Finch.
“Let’s look for rats,” Jordan said. He pointed to the end barn. “We haven’t tried there for a while.”
Tom nodded. The grain barn was one of the best places to catch rats and they could get a penny a head from the farm.
The barn door was heavy and it took their combined weight to shift the lever back. Jordan was a head taller than Tom so he was able to reach the bolt and undo it. Tom always had to jump up and swing on the bolt before it would open. They slipped through the doorway and then closed the door behind them.
Tom stood for a moment, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the bright light of the barn. He waved his arms around, luxuriating in the warmth and light of the huge, open space. He let the warm air, pushed by the fans at the far end of the barn, play over his face.
Jordan was already walking away, between the tall rows of swaying corn that stretched to the other end of the barn. Tom ran after him, not wanting to be alone in this space which somehow seemed to be larger than the world outside. As he reached Jordan, the two of them stopped and then bent down. They walked slowly along the row, searching the crop tubs for signs of the rats. There were the odd tell-tale signs here and there; a broken plant stem or a track marked in the dust. Tom pointed excitedly to the end of one tub.
“See there!” he said to Jordan and pulled his discovery from the soil. He held it up for Jordan to see. It was a crude ladder made from stalks of grass and plaited crosspieces. The rats were becoming more adept at making tools, it seemed. Tom studied the ladder, entranced by the plaiting and the intricate way it had been built.
“Give me a look,” Jordan said. He snatched it from Tom’s hands.
“Hey!” Tom tried to snatch it back and the ladder tore across the middle, leaving them holding two halves.
“I wanted to keep that,” Tom said.
“Why?” said Jordan. “It’s only a stupid rat ladder.” He dropped his half of the ladder on the floor. He turned away and moved to the back of the barn, his shadow stretching out in front of him as he passed under the overhead arc lights. “Let’s find some proper rats,” he said over his shoulder.
Tom picked up the pieces of the ladder and put them in his pocket. He might be able to repair it and add it to the other things he had collected from here — the crude knives and bags he had found.
Tom followed him again, scuffing the ground with his feet. He was so intent on the cloud of dust his feet raised that he nearly ran into Jordan who stood in the middle of the row.
“Watch it,” Tom said.
“What’s that?” Jordan asked, pointing to something ahead of him.
Tom stepped past him and looked. At first Tom thought that Jordan was holding something, then he realised that he was actually pointing at something in front of him in mid-air.
Tom walked round to the other side of the object, which seemed to hover three feet off the ground. Jordan reached out to touch it.
“Oh,” he said and stepped back. “That’s strange!”
“I can’t touch it,” Jordan said.
Tom reached for the object from the other side and saw what Jordan meant. As your hand reached out, it stopped short as though there was a wall in the way, and your hand tingled.
“What is it?” Jordan asked, kneeling down so he could see under the object.
Tom shrugged. “I dunno, but it looks like a finger.” Tom looked closer and realised that it was a finger. A finger that ended where it should join the hand. A finger hanging in mid-air.
There was a small group now, crowded together in the narrow space between the corn stalks. They stood and stared at the finger, not looking at each other.
Tom had run to fetch his parents and Jordan had brought his father. The two men stood together conversing in low tones as they circled the finger at a distance. They had come straight from the animal barns and still wore the long boots and overalls. Their protective masks were slung around their necks and the goggles rested on their foreheads, like a second pair of eyes.
Tom’s mother stood back from the two men, resting her hands on Tom and Jordan’s shoulders as if to hold them back. Tom could feel her squeezing his shoulder and smell the dough and flour still on her hands. He looked across at Jordan, hoping to catch his eye, but the other boy was intently watching his father.
The two men finally stopped talking and rejoined the three of them.
“It’s a finger all right,” said Jordan’s father slowly. Tom had to stifle a grin. Mr. Jones was always stating the obvious. He was a big ponderous man; the opposite of Tom’s father, who was thin and quick.
“It is that, Alex,” said Tom’s father and clapped the big man on the back with a laugh.
“But what are we going to do about it?” asked Tom’s mother in a tone which showed she thought it was no laughing matter.
“Do? Well, nothing I guess. There is nothing we can do. We can’t touch it and it’s doing no harm.”
“Well, I don’t want it here,” Tom’s mother said firmly. She let go of Tom’s shoulder and then walked over to the finger. It looked to Tom as if she meant to snatch it up and throw it away. The two men shuffled back and Tom’s father shrugged at Mr. Jones with a resigned expression that Tom had seen before.
At that moment the barn was plunged into darkness. Tom jumped at the sudden absence of light and felt Jordan also start beside him. There was a scream from his mother and Tom could hear his father cursing.
Then came the sound of footsteps heading away from them to the side of the barn.
“It’s okay Christine,” Tom’s father said from somewhere nearby. “It’s just night kicking in.”
The lights came back on and Tom could see his father had an arm around his mother and that she seemed upset.
“I knew that,” she said and pulled away from his arms.
“Okay, leave it if you want to,” she said, looking at the finger again. “But you mark my words it’s the work of the Changers.”
With that she walked off and left the three of them. They stood for a moment and looked at each other and the finger until Mr. Jones came back to join them.
“I’ve set it for five minutes,” he said to Tom’s father, nodding in the direction of the lights.
“Come on lads, it’s time we were back at work,” Tom’s father said. The two men shepherded the boys out of the barn and left them standing outside in the rain.
“Let’s have another look?” said Jordan eagerly.
“No,” Tom shook his head. “It’s dark in there now. We can’t see anything and anyway father will be looking out for us.”
“What did your mother mean by the Changers?” Jordan asked. “Is it like the things Mrs Finch talked about?”
“I don’t know,” Tom said, but somehow he knew it was something significant and he intended to find out.
Tom didn’t manage to get to the barn the next day. He was suddenly very busy. One moment his mother wanted him to help her in the kitchen, refilling the oil lamps. The next it was his father who needed someone to pass tools as he worked on the wind generator.
Tom didn’t mind helping his father. He liked being up on the generator platform looking across the farm and the hills beyond. It hadn’t rained yet, and light grey clouds scurried across the sky above his head. From up here you could see the other houses in the commune and the square shed that was Tom’s school. He wondered when they would get a new teacher and he’d go back to lessons again. His mother had said it might be weeks before someone else could be found.
“Pass the wrench, Tom,” his father said from above him, interrupting Tom’s thoughts.
Tom picked up the heavy, oily wrench and passed it to his father who was leaning over the rotating mechanism at the base of the wind tower. Tom looked up at him and the long vanes of the turbine that towered above them both.
“Who are the Changers?” Tom asked. It was a question that had bothered him all of the previous night. He had wanted to ask his mother as he poured oil into the lamps but she was not in one of her better moods and he thought it better just to finish the job as quickly as possible.
“The Changers?” His father’s voice had an odd, metallic quality to it as it echoed in the rotation chamber. Then he stood up and looked down at Tom, and wiped his hand across his forehead, leaving streaks of white through the grime.
“Who were the Changers you mean,” he said, “There aren’t any of them left these days. Despite what your mother might think.”
“Okay, who were they then?”
His father sat down on the edge of the rotation chamber and took a swig of water from a bottle. He passed the bottle to Tom who drank a mouthful of the cool liquid. Tom sat next to his father and repeated his question.
“Okay, I’ll tell you, but you mustn’t repeat this to anyone,” his father said, looking at him. “You understand?” Tom nodded.
“Was that why Mrs Finch went away?” Tom asked.
His father grimaced and shook his head. He took a swig of water.
“Partly,” he said. “But, about the Changers.
“They were a group of people who lived a long time ago, before you were born, before I was born even. They wanted to change things, improve on things all the time.”
“Like what?” Tom asked, trying to think of all the things he would change — like the yellow rain, and having to fill oil lamps.
“The world wasn’t always like this,” his father waved a hand at the valley below them. “It didn’t always rain, we used to be able to grow things outside.”
“Outside?” Tom said in amazement. Everyone knew that nothing you could eat grew outside without a barn to protect it from the yellow rain.
“Yes, outside under blue skies with no clouds, apparently. I’ve never seen it myself, but my grandfather once told me about it.”
“So, why do we have clouds now?” Tom said, trying to imagine what a blue sky would look like.
“Because of the things the Changers did. They adapted things, improved on nature. The pigoats come from Changer animals. They wanted to improve things, but they changed too many things and it all went wrong. Their changes caused the rain, and the clouds and a lot of other things to happen.”
“What happened to them?”
“A lot of them were killed in the fighting that started after the problems. Most people blamed them. It wasn’t safe after the Change, so most of them just stopped changing things and concentrated on surviving. It was difficult in those first few years.
“Then a lot of them just disappeared, or so people said. I don’t know where they went to, but people certainly didn’t miss them.”
“But are there still people who can change things?” Tom asked, “If they wanted to?”
His father shook his head. “No, we’ve forgotten a lot of things and thankfully one of them is how to Change things.”
“Oh,” Tom said, slightly disappointed. Changing had sounded interesting if a little frightening.
“We’d better get back, your mother will be wondering where we’ve got to. And I don’t want her worrying too much — so don’t go asking her questions about the Changers, okay?”
“Besides, this business about fingers in barns has got her occupied enough as it is,” his father added and starting gathering up the tools. Tom bent down to help him. If the finger wasn’t to do with Changers, Tom thought, then what was it?
Tom lifted the heavy pan and poured another measure of the mixture slowly and carefully into the jar. The sweet, sticky smell of the jam filled the kitchen and Tom’s nostrils burnt from the overpowering sweetness. The liquid reached the top of the jar and he set the pan back down on the stove.
“Five,” his mother said, and screwed the lid down tightly. She put the full jar next to the other four on the shelf above the table. Tom flexed his hands. His forearms ached from holding the heavy pan.
“Only another twelve to do,” his mother said brightly. Tom groaned and turned to pick up the pan again. He had spent the whole morning trapped in the house with his mother while yellow rain fell outside. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have minded helping with the jam making. He liked the way his mother sang to herself as they worked. But he still hadn’t been back to the barn and it had been three days now since he and Jordan had seen the finger.
“If you can fill these five Tom, I’ll take your father his lunch.” His mother lined up five jars on the kitchen table. Tom could feel the heat radiating from them as they had come straight from the oven. His mother picked up the lunchbox and slipped on an old cloak.
“I won’t be long,” she promised and then slipped out through the doorway. Tom watched her dart across the farmyard towards the animal barns. He looked back at the row of steaming jars and sighed. He reached for the saucepan just as something furry brushed against his leg.
“Oh,” Tom jumped and then looked down. It was Bess, she must have slipped into the kitchen when his mother opened the door.
“Tom,” Bess growled. She sat thumping her tail on the hardstone kitchen floor. Tom knelt down next to her and tried to make out what she was saying. It was difficult above the crackles and squawks of her voicebox.
“Jordan — Barn — Now” Tom could pick out the three words from the background of static.
“Jordan sent you?” Tom said and Bess nodded. She pawed at his shoulder and moved towards the kitchen door.
Tom hesitated and looked out of the window. The farmyard was empty. He should have time to get to the barn and back before his mother returned. He pulled on his old coat — the patched one, not the new coat — and followed Bess out of the kitchen and across the yard to the far barn. He stepped carefully between the puddles and pulled the coat tightly around him. He could feel the drops of rain striking the fabric and though there was no sound, he could almost hear the yellow droplets marking the cloth. Jordan was waiting for him in the shelter of the barn.
“About time,” Jordan complained.
“Sorry, making jam,” Tom said as an apology. “What’s up?”
“It’s getting bigger,” Jordan said. He pulled at the barn door and Tom lent his weight to it. The door swung open.
Tom didn’t have to ask what the it was, it could only be the finger.
“What do you mean the finger’s getting bigger?” he asked, trying to imagine it.
“Yes, well, no. Look.” Jordan pulled him into the barn and pushed the door shut. “Just come and look at it.”
“Wait here, Bess,” Tom ordered. The dog growled her agreement and lay down by the doorway
The two boys hurried along the rows of corn and then stopped just short of where the finger hung. Or rather, where it had hung. Jordan was right it had become bigger, though not in the way that Tom had imagined. The finger was still the same size, but the rest of a hand and an arm had joined it. The arm hung in mid air, as though cut just above the elbow. The white shirt covering the arm also ended on exactly the same line as the arm. Tom walked round the arm and felt slightly sick when he looked at the stump of the arm from the back.
“You still can’t touch it,” Jordan said, “I tried to shake hands with it but it’s still fuzzy.”
“Has anyone else seen it?” Tom asked.
“No, just our dads. Your dad has sent for the Mayor, but she’s in Westbridge at the moment and my dad said she won’t be here for a couple of days.”
“Jordan,” Tom said, “have you noticed something odd?”
“It’s growing.” Tom pointed to the arm. While they had been talking, Tom was sure that the part of the arm above the elbow had got bigger.
Jordan moved closer to the arm and stared at it.
“I don’t know”, he said slowly, “It might be.”
“It is,” Tom was sure of it now. “And look!” He pointed to a spot about six inches above the top of the arm. There was now a vague outline forming. “What’s that?”
Jordan looked at the hazy shadow and then back at Tom.
“I think it’s a face,” he said.
“It’s a man,” Tom whispered. They had both fallen silent now and stood together as the face of a man formed in front of them. A second set of fingers appeared next to the first and began to grow into a full hand. Tom looked across at Jordan. The other boy was rooted to the spot, staring with his mouth open.
It had always been Jordan who had told Tom what to do in the past, but Tom now felt that someone should take charge of the situation.
“Jordan, go and fetch my dad,” Tom whispered at him, unwilling to speak aloud and break the silence. “Jordan!” he said again as the other boy failed to respond.
Jordan started and looked at Tom. “What? Oh right,” he whispered back and slowly walked away. He kept his eyes on the man the whole time, edging backwards to the line of corn. Then he turned, his multi-coloured coat flapping around him as he ran down the row. Tom heard Jordan’s footsteps fade and then he was alone.
He turned back to look at the man. Both arms were now visible and the man’s body was starting to appear. Tom could see the whole of the man’s face. The man’s eyes were closed and his face was screwed up – his forehead wrinkled and his cheeks puffed out. Tom thought he looked like someone who was underwater and holding his breath; like when you ducked for apples at the fair.
He looked younger than Tom’s father – his hair was dark without any grey streaks.
Tom was tempted to walk round to the back of the figure, but the memory of the end of the arm kept him firmly in his place. He stared at the body and thought he could see it moving forward. He looked away and refocused his eyes on the other side of the shed before looking back. Yes, the man was moving forward at a much faster rate.
Now that Tom could see more of the man, it was becoming clear that he was walking. He had one hand held out in front — the original hand whose extended finger they had first seen. It was almost as if he was walking through a doorway and Tom could only see the man as he emerged on this side of it.
“Tom! What are you doing!” his mother’s voice coming from behind him broke the silence like a hammer blow and Tom jumped from the shock. He turned to face his mother, feelings of guilt already rising.
“I was just looking –” he started to say, but his mother was in no mood to hear excuses and grabbed his arm.
“You know you’re not allowed to come out and you’ve just left all the jam, it’s probably ruined. Just wait until I tell your father and –- ” She stopped speaking for a moment and then said “Oh,” in a very quiet, small voice.
“I was trying to tell you,” Tom said, twisting out of his mother’s grasp. His mother stood with her hand still raised, staring at the figure behind him, “Jordan has gone to fetch Dad.”
Tom’s mother didn’t say anything but just swallowed nervously and nodded. Tom rarely saw her at a loss for words and somehow this made him uneasy. He took his mother’s hand and held it tightly. She put her arm around his shoulders and the two of them watched the figure in front of them appear.
“He’s nearly through,” Tom whispered. His mother said nothing but squeezed his hand in reply.
The man was now almost whole. Just his back leg was incomplete, cut off at the knee as though he were a pirate.
As they watched, the rest of the leg formed. For a moment, the figure stood there like a statue of a man caught in mid-stride; frozen into an unbalanced pose. Then, the statue came to life. One moment immobile, the next the figure finished his stride and stumbled forward.
Tom and his mother stepped back, both of them shouting in surprise. The man stopped his stumble and stood for a moment, hands on his knees, his chest heaving as he took long, deep breaths. He shook his head and then looked up at them, his eyes wide open in surprise.
“I made it then,” he said. His voice was deep and rough, the words had a strange twang to them that Tom had never heard before.
“Who are you?” Tom asked. He tried to step forward, but his mother’s hands held him back.
“Collins, Dr Paul Collins,” the man said. His breath came in short, sharp gasps and his face was suddenly very pale.
“You okay?” Tom asked. There was a sudden commotion behind them and Tom heard his father arriving and Jordan’s voice urging him on.
“I think –“ The man swayed and then fell full length onto the barn floor where he lay still.
Tom wanted to help the man, but his mother’s arm tightened around his shoulder. His father pushed past them and knelt by the fallen figure. He bent over the man’s chest and listened, then checked his wrist. Tom had seen him make similar checks on new-born pigoats.
“He’s still breathing — run and get some other men Jordan, they’re in the Long Shed,” his father said, “And, Christine, send for the doctor. It’s stopped raining for the moment, we’ll have to move him inside.”
“I’ll go,” Tom said, wanting to do something to help the mysterious newcomer.
“Okay, but hurry!”
Tom turned and ran down the rows of corn to the main door, which stood wide open. Bess looked up at him as he passed.
“Stay here, girl,” he said. He paused in the doorway to put up his hood and then ran across the yard to the backdoor. His bike was just by the door, in a small shed at the back of the house. He pulled the bike out, adjusted the saddle and set off slowly across the farm yard, trying to avoid the puddles of yellow rain.
He wasn’t normally allowed to ride his bike on rainy days, and hadn’t used it since the rainy season had started. He reached the edge of the farmyard and turned onto the gravel road and had to put his head down to avoid the driving wind sweeping across the valley. Thankfully the yellow rain had stopped or he wouldn’t have been allowed out at all. He usually cycled this way to school and back each day, but hadn’t done that since Mrs Finch had gone.
He concentrated on pedalling as fast as he could until he reached the end of the lane and was able to freewheel down the main road and towards the school. As he concentrated on avoiding the pot holes and ruts that covered the road, his mind raced as he thought about the man who had appeared from thin air. Where could he have come from, what did he want?
Tom nearly missed the turn-off past the school; he was so lost in thought. He skidded to a halt, using his feet to send up a spray of gravel as he rounded the corner. The bike wobbled and he fought hard to control it, before stopping outside the school and catching his breath. That had been a close one. It wouldn’t do the man any good if Tom knocked himself out on the way to the doctor’s.
The school building was still locked up; a large padlock hung on the outside of the main door. The closure notice was peeling at the edges now, the writing blurred by the rain and wind. Tom could still make out the words “by order of the Mayor” and “gross offence”, but the rest was too distorted to read. He steadied his bike and started off again past the school and up the hill to Dr Morton’s house.
The cycling was harder up the hill and Tom wished again for gears on his bike. His father had told him that bikes used to be made with gears, like miniature versions of the great cogs used to turn the big wind turbine. There seemed to be a big list of things that Tom would like; it was getting bigger every day!
The road was deserted, as you would expect on a yellow rain day. Tom saw no one in the few houses he passed. He arrived at the Doctor’s house panting with the exertion and rested on his saddle for a moment to catch his breath.
“What do you want, boy?” a voice said. Tom looked up to see Dr Morton looking out of an upstairs window. His face was set in its usual frown. “You shouldn’t be out today!”
“There’s a man who’s appeared. He fainted and –” Tom started to say, trying to describe everything that had happened in the last few hours and not really knowing where to begin.
“Oh I suppose you’d better come in and tell me!” The doctor’s face disappeared from the window and shortly afterwards, the front door opened. Tom pushed his bike into the hallway and leant it against the banisters. Drops of yellow rain dripped from the frame and started to pool on the hall floor. Tom hastily stood in front of the bike as the doctor closed the door.
“Now, tell me what’s going on? And be quick about it!” Dr Morton demanded. “I don’t have all day to waste with farm boys.”
Tom took a deep breath and explained about finding the finger in the barn and how it had grown.
“I see, and I expect everyone thinks I can cure people who pop out of nowhere, do they?”
Tom didn’t answer the question. He was scared of the doctor who always prodded and poked you when you were ill and then invariably gave you some disgusting medicine to take.
“I’ll get my stuff then,” the doctor snapped. He hurried around, his glance occasionally darting back to Tom, while he pulled bottles and instruments from drawers and cupboards and shoved them into a bag.
Tom watched the doctor and had to bite his lip to stop himself from telling him to hurry up. However, surprisingly quickly, Doctor Morton finally snapped his case shut and pronounced that he was ready to go.
“I can’t take Mitzi out in this,” he said. Mitzi was the Doctor’s horse. “So, it’ll have to be the tricycle.” He picked up his bag and ushered Tom and his bicycle out of the front door. “Wait there, I won’t be a moment.”
Sure enough, within a couple of minutes, the doctor reappeared wearing a large, multicoloured cape — which looked like a larger version of Jordan’s coat — and riding a tricycle with a large boot at the back.
“Okay, let’s go!” he said sharply. Without waiting for Tom, he turned the tricycle in the direction of the farm and cycled off. Tom followed him at a distance. The doctor didn’t bother to look back and Tom was soon lagging behind. He stopped at the school again and watched the multi-coloured figure labouring up the hill ahead.
“I hope he falls off,” he thought sourly and then starting pedalling slowly up the hill himself.
The farm seemed deserted when Tom reached it. The yard was empty and the barns were quiet.
Tom wheeled his bike into the small, narrow shed. He propped it against the wall below the onions that hung in string bags. The whole shed smelt of the musty dampness of drying onions and he wrinkled his nose as he hunted around for a spare rag. He found an old cloth on the shelf and carefully wiped down the bike frame and handlebars, removing all traces of the yellow rain. As he concentrated on wiping each of the spokes, he heard a murmur of voices coming from the kitchen.
He checked over his bicycle to make sure he hadn’t missed any part and placed the rag back on the shelf. He closed the shed door and walked into the kitchen to find it full of people. His mother was pouring out cups of tea as various farm workers and other people from the village commune sat around the kitchen talking animatedly about the stranger.
“I think he’s come from the future to warn us,” one of them was saying as Tom entered. That was Alan Giles who believed in aliens. Tom’s mother said Alan was touched in the head. Tom thought the idea of aliens sounded quite exciting.
He picked up a biscuit from one of the plates and tried to slip through the people to the kitchen door without his mother noticing.
“Rubbish,” Tom’s mother said. “Tom!” She had caught sight of him just as he reached the door to upstairs.
“Yes?” Tom said, trying to hide the biscuit behind his back.
“We’ve put Mr. Collins in your room for the moment — the doctor is with him. You’ll have to sleep downstairs.”
“Oh,” Tom sighed.” Is he all right?”
“Don’t know, we’ll find out when the doctor comes back down.”
“Okay.” He took the biscuit and slipped into the porch where he sat with Bess and Jordan and they listened to the discussions in the kitchen as people proposed more and more outlandish ideas.
“He might be a Changer,” he heard someone say — an opinion which was greeted with laughter. It seemed that word had got around about his mother’s superstitious fear of the Changers.
“No laughing matter,” his mother said. ”If we get Changers back there’ll be trouble, you mark my words.”
Then the laughter and noise fell silent and Tom could hear Dr Morton’s voice. He pressed his ear against the kitchen door so he could make out every word, waving Jordan quiet when he tried to ask what was going on.
“He’s okay, he’ll live,” the doctor said, “He’s sleeping at the moment, but I think he’ll be up and around in a few days. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I‘ve got sick people to see.”
Tom moved away from the door and stood back as it opened and the doctor came out. He saw Tom and frowned.
“What you doing young man?” he asked.
“Just waiting,” Tom said.
“Well, wait indoors,” Dr Morton said. “I’ve already had words with your mother about letting you out in the yellow rain.” He sniffed and then pulled on his coat. Tom stayed quiet and watched him climb back on the tricycle and leave the farmyard.
Tom woke early the next day, after a restless night on the couch. The house was dark and still. He lay listening to the sounds of house and the farm around him: the gentle ticking of the grandfather clock on the mantlepiece; the distant cry of an animal in the fields beyond the commune; the whisper of the wind in the trees outside the window. As dawn came and the windows of the living room lightened, he heard his parents get up and come down the stairs. The door opened and he closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep.
“I’ll let him sleep,” his mother said. “It was a lot of excitement yesterday.” The door closed again and Tom lay with his eyes open, staring at the smudges on the ceiling where smoke from the fire had marked the plaster. He could hear his parents making breakfast in the next room.
He kept replaying the scenes from yesterday over and over in his head. Dr Collins must be a time traveller or something. Tom was sure that Alan Giles was right. He must have come from the future to help them. Perhaps he knew how to stop the yellow rain.
When he heard his father leave the house and his mother go back upstairs, Tom threw off the bedclothes and climbed off the couch. His mother had piled some of his clothes next to the fireplace and he sorted through them until he found some warm trousers and a jumper. He dressed quickly and then crept into the kitchen. He took some fruit and bit into an apple as he looked out of the window. It was another yellow rain day. He sighed and dropped the apple core in the bin — another day stuck indoors and this time even without access to his own room!
He had wanted to spend some time today fixing the rat ladder. Perhaps he could fetch it from his room without anyone noticing? Tom listened carefully. He could hear the distant sounds of his mother singing to herself from her bedroom. Through the window, he caught sight of his father crossing the yard; he looked like one of Alan Giles’ aliens in his protective clothing.
His mind made up, Tom slipped up the stairs. He avoided the creaky stair, the second one below the landing. He stopped at the top of the stairs and walked slowly towards his bedroom. The door stood slightly ajar and he stopped with surprise at what he saw through it.
Paul Collins stood in front on the shelf where Tom kept all his favourite things and he held the two halves of the rat ladder his hands. Tom acted without thinking and pushed open the door to the room and walked in.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
Paul Collins dropped the ladder back on the shelf with a guilty start and turned to face Tom. He smiled nervously.
“I’m sorry, I’m just looking around. I realise I shouldn’t have touched anything, but this stuff is all so fascinating. Did you make it yourself?” Paul Collins still looked very pale, but Tom thought he looked a lot better than when he had appeared. He wore an old pair of Tom’s father’s pajamas, which were tied around the waist with a big bit of pink sash cord. Tom couldn’t stay angry with someone who looked so funny.
“It’s okay,” Tom said. He checked the shelf to make sure everything was still there. “I’m sorry I shouted. I found these things, I didn’t make them.” Paul Collins looked puzzled.
“They were made by the rats,” Tom explained. “I found them rat hunting.”
“Rats?” Paul Collins began to laugh. “So old Forsyth managed to get the opposing thumbs to stick,” he said to himself quietly. Tom wondered what he was talking about and Paul must have seen the expression on his face because he stopped laughing and smiled again. “Please, just ignore me — an old joke I used to share with a friend. These reminded me of it.”
“What’s funny about rats?” asked Tom, “My dad says they are more of a menace each year — they adapt he says — the more you kill, the more they seem to change.”
“He might be right Tom, he might be right,” said Collins thoughtfully.
“Tom, what are you doing in here?” His mother came into the room behind them and they both turned to face her. As they did so, Collins winked at Tom and nodded to him.
“Please don’t tell him off, he has every right to be here. It is, after all, his room I’m using.”
“As maybe,” Tom’s mother said. “But he has chores to do — come on Tom, there’s milk to be churned.”
Tom sighed and nodded. “Okay.” He turned to Collins and whispered, “See you later.” The man smiled and winked again. Tom followed his mother down the stairs and into kitchen.
Tom was busy all morning and it wasn’t until after lunch, when he had finished all his chores, that he next saw Paul Collins. Tom was sitting in the porch, talking to Bess and watching the rain when he heard some noise in the kitchen. The back door opened and Paul Collins came out munching on an apple. He was now dressed in the clothes he had been wearing the day before, a pair of black trousers and white shirt. He also wore a black, scruffy jacket that Tom recognised as his father’s. He had some type of plastic shoes on his feet.
“We weren’t properly introduced this morning,” he said and held out a hand. “I’m Paul.”
“I’m Tom.” Tom took his hand and shook it. They stood in an awkward silence for a moment.
“Hey, nice dog!” Paul said and squatted down to look at Bess and pat her. “How are you girl?” he asked, stroking her head.
Bess cocked up her ears and looked at him. She growled, but any reply was lost in the static from her voicebox.
“She not talk much?” Paul asked. He stood and looked out the window at the rain. Tom explained about her voicebox being broken and that they couldn’t get spares to fix it.
“Can I have a look?” Paul asked. Tom looked at him and then back at Bess. He really wanted to ask him about who he was, but he didn’t know how to start the conversation.
“I guess so, you can’t make it any worse. My dad won’t let me look at it,” Tom said. “The last time I tried to repair something I couldn’t get it back together again. Now I’m not allowed to touch anything on the farm.” Tom explained.
“You seen one of these before?” he asked as Paul bent down next to Bess.
“I used to have a voice-enhanced dog as a child. Pretty simple unit though, couldn’t really hold a conversation.”
“Bess has a vocabulary of three hundred words,” Tom said proudly. Though of course she can now only say one or two of them, he thought sadly.
“Yeah, my dad got her from a traveller, said that the unit was one of the last ones.”
Paul was fiddling with the voicebox as they spoke and removed it from Bess’s collar. She lay down at his feet and looked up at him, watching his fingers working through the intricate mechanism.
“Ah, I see the problem,” Paul said. He pulled a small box from an inside jacket pocket, opened it and pulled out a small wire component.
“What’s that?” Tom asked, struggling to see what he was doing without standing in the way of the light from the window.
“Just a resistor that’s burnt out. Luckily, I’ve got a spare with me,” Paul said, and continued to fiddle with the unit. “I always carry some spare bits and pieces, you never know when you might need them.” He looked up at Tom. “Does it always rain like this?”
Tom laughed. What an odd question. “No, of course not. If it always rained like this we’d be under water!”
Paul laughed as well.
“Mind you my Dad says a lot of the country past Westbridge is under water. Though I’ve never seen it myself.”
“But it does rain a lot?”
“It rains mostly green rain during the rainy season, that’s about half the year. The rest of the year you get occasional yellow or green rain days.” Tom explained.
“Doesn’t it rain where you come from?” Tom asked.
“Well, yes it rains. But it doesn’t rain like this,” Paul said. “Our rain was just water, no yellow rain.”
“Where do you come from?” Tom asked. There, he had said it, straight out, “Only, Alan Giles said you came from the future to help us.” He stopped, feeling awkward. It sounded so stupid when you said it out loud.
Paul fell silent for a moment and stared down at the box he was working on. There was a sudden click and he slid the cover back on. He held it up to Tom.
“There, that should fix it,” he said. Tom watched as Paul put the voicebox back on Bess. The box squawked loudly and Bess jumped back, her ears flattening against her head.
“Ah, sorry old girl, here let me adjust that.” Paul knelt down next to the dog and fiddled again with the voicebox. Tom couldn’t see what he was doing.
“Hello. Tom.” The voice was rough and there was still a slight hiss of static, but it was recognisably Bess’s. Tom put his arms around Bess and hugged her.
“Bess, it’s so good to hear you!” He looked up at Paul, “Thanks, that’s just great!”
“Don’t mention it,” Paul said, smiling down at them.
“There you are,” Tom’s father said from behind them. They both turned and saw him standing in the kitchen doorway. Tom thought he looked very serious.
“Paul has fixed Bess’s voicebox!”
“Has he? Oh good, good.” Tom’s father said. He seemed distracted and unsure of what to say next.
“Tell him John, tell him,” Tom’s mother said. Tom could now see her standing in the kitchen behind his father. She had a serious, yet almost eager look on her face as well, as though she couldn’t wait for something.
“Tell me what?” asked Paul. He stood up and looked at Tom’s father and mother.
“We’ve heard from the mayor — you’ve to go to Westbridge to meet the council so they can decide what to do with you,”
“What to do with me?“
“Because of what you are,” Tom’s mother said loudly.
“Ah, so you know then.” Paul sighed.
Tom was confused, “Know what?” he asked.
Paul turned to him. “I’m a time traveller like you thought Tom, but I haven’t come from the future. I’ve come from your past.”
“He’s a Changer,” Tom’s mother said triumphantly. “Just like I said.”
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