‘How much longer?’ he said.
For a while, nobody answered. He thought maybe they hadn’t heard him, but then his mother said, ‘We’ll be there soon.’
There meant the place where our new friends lived. When people talked about them, you could hear something extra in the words. Like they were names: Our New Friends. Anton was trying to look forward to it, because it was good to make new friends, but he sometimes got nervous when there were a lot of new things, different things, to take in. But his mother said they all had to get used to things being different now, so he was trying. He was trying hard.
Jump and I’ll Catch You
by Michelle Ann King
Anton drew his legs up underneath him. The car seat was huge and
puffy, and the leather made a breathy creak when he moved. It sounded
like it was sighing.
‘How much longer?’ he said.
For a while, nobody answered. He thought maybe they hadn’t heard him,
but then his mother said, ‘We’ll be there soon.’
There meant the place where our new friends lived. When people talked
about them, you could hear something extra in the words. Like they
were names: Our New Friends. Anton was trying to look forward to it,
because it was good to make new friends, but he sometimes got nervous
when there were a lot of new things, different things, to take in. But
his mother said they all had to get used to things being different
now, so he was trying. He was trying hard.
‘Can’t you stop fidgeting?’ Marissa said. Which was totally unfair,
because she was the one who kept twisting round to look out the
window. And it wasn’t even as if there was anything to see.
Although their father kept looking, too. ‘This used to be the West
End,’ he said. ‘Time was, you could never have driven through here.
The traffic used to be terrible.’
Anton knew what traffic meant. It was the word for a group of cars,
like cattle was the word for a group of cows. You didn’t really get
either of them any more, though.
‘We lived in London when you were a baby, Anton,’ his father went on.
‘We brought you both up here to see the Christmas lights.’
‘I remember that,’ Marissa said. ‘They criss-crossed all over Oxford
Street, and they made shapes. Christmas trees and reindeer.’
‘That’s right,’ their father said. He blinked hard and looked away
from the window.
‘I remember it too,’ Anton said, although he didn’t. He wasn’t sure
about Oxford or reindeer, but he could guess what a West End was. All
places were either West, East, South or North. Anton and his family
came from the South, which was where he’d been born.
He’d asked which one Our New Friends came from, but Marissa said it
wasn’t any of them. He said it had to be, because that was all there
was, but she’d just given him a look like he was a baby and didn’t
understand anything. He hated that look.
It was warm in the car–it was always warm everywhere now–and he must
have dozed for a while, because he had confused dreams like watching
deleted scenes on one of his DVDs. Or maybe Marissa’s DVDs, because he
preferred cartoons with bright colours, but these were all dark and
grey and had scary things in them. Marissa was the only one who liked
Then he jolted awake and he was back in the car, with his neck sort of
hanging sideways. He sat up and quickly wiped his mouth, but nobody
was looking at him.
‘We’re here,’ his mother said.
Although she wasn’t just his mother, now. She was the Special
Ambassador. And because she was special, it made them special too.
Anton was still waiting to see what that felt like. Although maybe it
just meant getting to ride in long black cars.
The driver got out and opened the door. Marissa jumped out first, and
their mother followed. She stood on the pavement, smoothing down her
jacket and her hair.
Anton hesitated. He liked it, in the car. It was comfortable.
‘Come on,’ his father said. ‘We’re all going to have a nice time. Okay?’
He smiled, but his voice was a bit strange. It made what he’d said
sound more like an instruction. More like when he said you’re going to
be a good boy, aren’t you?
‘Okay,’ Anton said. He could be a good boy. He could have a nice time.
His father ruffled his hair, then gave him a little push. Anton slid
along the seat and out of the car.
The driver slammed the door closed again. It sounded very loud. There
used to be a lot of different noises when you were outside–birds,
dogs, sirens and bangs. But now, it was very quiet. Anton didn’t know
if he liked it. It made it sound funny when he breathed. Echo-y. Maybe
there was too much quiet in his head, too.
His father put his hand on Anton’s shoulder, and gave him another
little push. They all walked up to the front of the big building.
There were men standing outside, watching. They had helmets on, and
Anton couldn’t see their faces–just his own reflection in the dark
grey glass. He looked weird, kind of curvy. And his hair was a mess.
He smoothed it down, using both hands just like his mother had done.
They formed a little queue, with his mother at the front. ‘Can I ring
the doorbell?’ Anton asked, although he couldn’t see one. It didn’t
really look like the door of a house at all. His father shushed him
and he fell back into line.
The door opened anyway, even without anyone ringing. A tall woman
stood there, much taller than Anton’s mother. She bowed, very low.
It didn’t look like a comfortable move. Anton tried it, but it hurt
his back. His father gripped his arm and gave him a little shake, and
he snapped upright again. The tall woman was looking at him, but she
was smiling. Although that didn’t look like it was really comfortable,
‘Please,’ she said. ‘It’s fine. He’s adorable.’
Anton’s father blinked rapidly. His face looked kind of pinched.
Anton’s mother bowed too, although not as low. ‘I’m Special Ambassador
Selina Gardie, and this is my family–Marissa, Benjamin, and Anton.’
She looked at them all in turn, a long look that seemed as if it was
trying to say something, although Anton wasn’t sure what. It was a bit
like the look that was really a warning to behave, but she was giving
it to his father as well, so maybe that wasn’t it.
‘This is Special Ambassador Jane,’ she said. ‘Say hello.’
‘Hello, Special Ambassador Jane,’ Marissa said brightly. Anton’s
father just blinked some more.
‘Please,’ the tall woman said, ‘just Jane. We are informal among friends, yes?’
She looked down at Anton. ‘Hello, Jane,’ he said. It seemed like a
funny name for her to have. She didn’t look much like a Jane.
She held out her hand to be shaken, and he had to go up on tiptoe to
reach. Her skin was hot to the touch, and a bit clammy. After she let
go, Anton wiped his palm on his dungarees.
‘We will go inside now,’ Jane said. ‘And the adorable children will play.’
Marissa stiffened–Anton knew she thought she was too old to play,
especially with him–but their mother said, ‘Thank you,’ and followed
‘This is lovely,’ Anton’s father said, but his voice sounded higher
than usual, and Anton knew he was just Being Polite. Being Polite was
like lying, but not the normal kind. If you were trying to pretend
your sister had broken something when it was really you, that was
normal lying and that was still wrong. This kind of lying was special,
and it was only done because you wanted to make people happy, and have
a nice time. Especially with Our New Friends.
Jane led them through a narrow hallway into a large, white room with a
very high ceiling. There were lots of lights and windows, but it still
seemed quite dark inside. A long table was set with plates, thin
glasses and shiny cutlery. There were seven chairs around it, although
only four of them had places set. A smell swirled around, like
something roasting. He wasn’t sure what it was, but his stomach
He sneaked a glance at Marissa, who’d been a vegetarian for five
months, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was watching Jane.
‘The children would like to see the garden,’ Jane said. She smiled
some more. ‘While we wait for the cooking. We have many fine toys and
games for their fun.’
Jane smiled a lot, but her lips just kind of stretched, rather than
lifting up at the corners. She never showed her teeth.
‘Oh, I think–‘ Anton’s father began, but then he didn’t say anything else.
‘Please,’ Jane said. ‘It is very safe, the environmental controls are
excellent. Our young one is waiting to play too, he will enjoy
companions. It will be most educational for all.’ She pointed towards
a door at the back of the room.
Anton hesitated, but Marissa grabbed his hand and yanked him forward.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘It’s a mission. An adventure.’
Anton tried to resist–he much preferred his adventures to take place
in books or DVDs than real life–but Marissa was stronger.
The door opened into another narrow hallway that took them,
eventually, outside onto a wooden deck. Both the deck and the grass
around it were covered with toys–bikes, pogo sticks, skipping ropes,
scooters, and water pistols.
Anton had always wanted a garden to play in, but he hung back.
Everything was arranged in such neat, straight lines, it almost seemed
a shame to mess it up by taking something out of place.
‘Who are we supposed to play with?’ he said. ‘There’s nobody here.’
‘Wait,’ Marissa said. ‘Be patient.’
She took off her shoes and walked barefoot on the grass. Anton peered
closer at it and noticed it was sand underneath, not dirt. He kicked
off his trainers and stuffed his socks inside, then went barefoot like
Marissa. The sand was warm. There were no worms in it. Maybe that was
why there were no birds any more. No worms, no early birds.
‘It’s harder for them than it is for the grown-ups,’ Marissa said.
‘What do you mean? What is?’
‘Pretending.’ Marissa grinned at him. ‘Like you. Pretending to be a
good little boy.’
‘I am good,’ Anton said, affronted. Marissa just grinned again and
went over to the tree at the end of the garden. It was tall and
gnarly, with branches twisted all different ways.
‘That’s really ugly,’ he said.
Marissa shrugged. ‘So are a lot of things. It doesn’t mean they’re
bad. Don’t be so judgemental.’
Anton pouted, but said nothing. He didn’t know what that word meant,
so he didn’t know how to defend himself. He hoped it didn’t mean ugly.
‘Hello,’ said a new voice, behind them.
Anton and Marissa turned together. The newcomer was a skinny kid in
shorts and a t-shirt. The shirt was too big, and looked a bit grubby
around the neck. Anton immediately felt better about his dungarees.
Now Marissa looked like the one out of place, in her smart black suit.
She tossed her hair out of her eyes. ‘Hello. I’m Marissa, and that’s
my little brother, Anton. What’s your name?’
‘We are called,’ the kid said, then made a funny noise.
The kid ran a very long, very dark tongue over dry-looking lips. ‘Jane.’
Anton frowned. ‘Jane? The same as your mum?’
The kid blinked at him. ‘John.’
‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’ Marissa asked.
‘Yes,’ John said. ‘Very many. But not here.’
Anton thought that sounded like a shame. Marissa and he argued a lot,
but he would have missed her if she wasn’t there. Even if he would
never have told her that. He couldn’t imagine being on his own all the
‘Do you want to play?’ he said.
John took a while thinking about it. Maybe he was thinking that he was
too old to play, like Marissa.
Anton looked down at the ground. The tree had shed a lot of thin
little twigs. ‘We could play war,’ he said, ‘and use these for
He and Marissa used to do that, before. Twigs and stones and spiders
in matchboxes. His best general had been a snail.
But Marissa took a hissing sort of breath, and Anton remembered they
weren’t supposed to play war any more. It wasn’t appropriate, their
father said. Especially for the children of Special Ambassadors.
‘Or we could climb the tree?’ he said quickly.
John turned, very slowly, and looked at the tree.
Anton ran over and placed his hands on the bark. It was softer than it
looked, almost spongy.
Marissa looked down at her skirt, then up at the tree. She shrugged,
reached down for the hem and pulled it up. She tucked it into her
waistband, halving its length, and began to climb.
Anton watched. She was good, moving steadily and smoothly just like on
the climbing wall at the sports centre they used to go to back home.
But John was even better. He scrambled up the tree in a flash, looking
like he didn’t need handholds or footholds at all. Looking like he
could just stick to the tree wherever he put himself.
Marissa reached one of the middle branches and sat on it, edging out
just a little. She swung her legs and waved down at Anton. He waved
John was already right at the top. The branches up there were very spindly.
‘Be careful,’ Anton called out. Once, back home, Marissa had fallen
from the top of a slide. If he shut his eyes, even now, he could see
the red and white. The blood and bone.
He stepped back from the tree trunk. Climbing didn’t seem like so much
fun, any more.
Marissa was leaning back on her branch. Anton’s chest tightened. ‘Be
careful,’ he said again. His voice sounded wavery.
She smiled. ‘It’s okay. I’ll be fine. John will look after me. Won’t you, John?’
John sat, swaying, on a branch of his own. It looked thin, impossibly
thin. Anton looked away.
‘Yes,’ John said. ‘Oh, yes. That is what we do. Protect. Improve.’
‘What?’ Anton said, but John couldn’t have heard him, because he didn’t reply.
Behind them, the door opened and the others came outside, Anton ran to
his mother, barrelling into her legs. She put on hand on the top of
his head and raised the other to her eyes, shading them against the
John jumped down, all the way from the top of the tree. He landed
lightly, and didn’t even take the kind of showy step backward that
Marissa did in her gymnastics class.
He turned around, raised his face up to Marissa, and held out his
arms. It took Anton a second to realise that the gesture meant jump,
and I’ll catch you.
His breath caught in his throat. John didn’t look big enough to catch
her. He looked too flimsy, just like the top branches of the tree.
‘Can we go home now?’ Anton said, clutching at his mother. ‘I want to go home.’
‘It’s all right,’ his mother said. ‘Everything’s going to be all
right.’ Her voice was steady, and when he looked up she was smiling,
but her hand was pushing down hard on his head, the fingers curling
and digging into his scalp. Anton squirmed out from under it.
His father was staring up at the tree. His hands were over his mouth,
and he said nothing at all.
‘Be at ease, young Anton,’ Jane said. She bowed very low again, down
to Anton’s eye level. ‘All is well. We are friends.’
From the top of the tree, Marissa waved down at them. Anton blinked.
Had it grown taller, since she’d climbed it? She looked very small.
Very small and far away. John still waited at the bottom.
Anton’s mother cleared her throat. ‘Perhaps she shouldn’t,’ she said softly.
Jane unfolded herself and straightened up again. She smiled. ‘But she
is at the top. There is nowhere else for her to go. She must trust in
my young one. You will tell her this, now, and she will tell her
friends. You will all tell your friends, yes?’
They all looked up. Marissa was watching them. Anton’s mother seemed
frozen, her eyes unblinking. Then she nodded–a sharp, violent
movement. Anton’s father turned away.
Marissa nodded back, then raised her hands above her head like a
diver. She edged along her branch, further and further, until there
was nothing under her feet but air.
Anton made a small noise. Jane’s hand replaced his mother’s on his
head. It was heavy.
‘No fears, now,’ she said. ‘We are here, we will catch you.’ She
smiled her strange, stretchy smile again, but this time she let him
see her teeth. ‘We will always catch you.’