Serendipity - Uncle Vernon's Lie by Patrick Samphire

Uncle Vernon's Lie
by Patrick Samphire

"Your Uncle Vernon will only tell you one lie in your whole life," Benji's dad said on the day he packed Benji off for his summer holiday. "Watch out for it."

Benji's mum had had to stay at home to look after the baby, so Benji and his dad were travelling together on the bus to the railway station. Benji had never been away on his own before, and he'd never met his uncle, but he wanted to look brave in front of his dad, and he was trying hard not to cry, so he just said, "Okay," and that was that.

Uncle Vernon, Benji discovered, didn't use teabags. He used whole leaves that had rolled up into tight, almost-black balls when they dried. He tipped a single teaspoonful into his teapot then poured in the boiling water. ("Always fresh, boiling water," he said as he poured. "Always.") Benji watched, fascinated.

Within moments, dozens of tiny bubbles had risen to the surface of the tea.

"Why are there bubbles?" Benji asked.

"Ah," said Uncle Vernon, leaning across the breakfast table. He had thick, white eyebrows, and these rose as he leaned forward, as though they were attached to the ceiling by strings. "Now that's a secret, but I shall tell you anyway. Then we'll both have a secret. Would you like that?"

"Okay," Benji said.

"Well," said Uncle Vernon. "There's a tiny little man wrapped up inside each tealeaf. When the boiling water hits the men, they scream. That's what makes the bubbles." He waggled his eyebrows.

Benji sat back, satisfied. He might have been young, but he wasn't stupid. One lie.

Uncle Vernon's house was large. It was made of old red brick, with gables and bay windows and a dozen chimneys that rose in two clumps like the exhausts of a clay rocketship.

A maze of gravel paths wound through the walled garden behind the house, between borders filled with tall flowers and thick shrubs. A single, closed wooden door in the surrounding brick wall led from the garden at the far end. Beyond the wall, Benji could see the tops of swaying trees.

Benji was walking along, feet crunching on the gravel path as though he was walking on the crumbling shells of million-year-old sea creatures, when he heard humming from the bushes ahead.

He stopped short. How could somebody be humming in the garden? Uncle Vernon was in his study. No one else lived here. That meant it must be someone who shouldn't be in the garden. A stranger. Benji's teachers had told him never to talk to strangers. Strangers were dangerous.

He backed away. He would run back to his room, hide there.

And then what? Hide there all holiday?

If he had to.

He turned and hurried away down the path.

Do you think Uncle Vernon will let you stay in your room all the time? He'll make you go out and play.

The paths twisted and turned and crossed over themselves. Benji dared not look away from them, in case they writhed like worms in water. Now the humming came from the left, then the right, ahead, behind as the path wound.

When Uncle Vernon made him come out to play again, that faceless stranger might still be there, humming in the bushes, watching Benji with invisible eyes. Reaching out a hand. He would be too scared to breathe.

"Doesn't matter. I'll run back to the house again. Every time."

He'd seen this bush before, hadn't he? Just a minute ago. Maybe he had run in a circle. Benji didn't even know if he was on the right path. He couldn't see the house.

His parents' house in London only had a small garden, just a patch of grass, some concrete, and a single tree. This one seemed to stretch on forever, and there were too many places for a stranger to hide.

The path swung suddenly around a high bed of lavender. Benji stopped.

The humming was coming from just behind the bush ahead of him, a high sound, reaching up and down, up and down.

His throat hurt like someone had hold of it.

The stranger was following him, slipping through the bushes.

Benji stared around. He didn't know where he was. He didn't'

A girl appeared from behind the bush.

She was on her hands and knees, pushing a little toy fire engine before her. Benji realised that her humming was supposed to be the sound of its siren.

The girl looked up and stopped humming.

"Oh," she said.

Benji's breath came back so quickly he coughed. The girl frowned.

She was about Benji's age, eight or so, although sometimes girls grew quicker, like Matt's sister who was twice as tall as either of them, even though she was only eleven, so Benji figured the girl could have been a bit younger than him. Benji's dad had said that Uncle Vernon didn't have any children.

"You don't look dangerous," Benji said.

"Hmm," the girl said.

"I was scared."

"That's silly. What's there to be scared of?"

Benji didn't answer, although he wanted to say, "Everything," because everything was scary. Uncle Vernon's house, the wild garden, the silence, the hidden, dark corners, the strange lie Uncle Vernon had told.

Benji squatted down in front of the girl. "What are you doing?"

She rolled her eyes. "Putting out a fire. What does it look like?"

"Where's the fire?" Benji asked.

"It's not a real fire. It's just a game." The girl sighed. "Games get so boring, don't you think?"

Benji shrugged. He didn't find games boring.

"Who are you?" the girl asked.

"I'm Uncle Vernon's nephew," Benji said.

"Oh." She half-heartedly shoved her fire engine a little further along the path then left it there. "That's good. Uncle Vernon needs a friend. He doesn't talk to me very much any more. I think he's worried that I might become too grown-up if I spend too long with him."

"Who are you?" Benji asked.

"I don't really know," the girl said. "Uncle Vernon looks after me. He's always looked after me."

"Oh," Benji said, then, suddenly, surprising himself, "I didn't want to come here. My dad made me. He said I was too serious." His mouth turned down. "I wanted to stay at home."

The girl looked startled. "Why didn't you want to come? Isn't it nice here?"

Benji looked around the garden, at the flowers and statues and the big house. It did look nice, like a painting, but it was also scary.

"I didn't know it was nice."

She stared at him. "You only like doing things you already know about?"

Benji looked down at his shoes. "I get frightened."

She shook her head, and sighed. Then she looked up hopefully. "Can you think of any new games?"

Uncle Vernon's car was old, smooth, and solid. It looked like a matchbox car that had been blown up to real size and polished for a year. Everything was old around here. Benji had had to change trains a couple of stations from Uncle Vernon's stop. He'd had to get on a cranky old steam train. Benji hadn't ever seen a steam train before, except on TV.

Uncle Vernon didn't have a TV. He didn't have a computer or radio or anything like that. So there was nothing to do except play in the frightening, old garden, and hope no one was watching out of the shadows. They played every game that Benji could think of, but the girl had played them all before. She did play them, but she never really looked happy.

Dinner wasn't until nine o'clock. By the time Benji and Uncle Vernon were finished, Benji was too tired even to yawn. Uncle Vernon leaned backwards and stretched. His spine popped, one vertebra after another.

"So, Benji," Uncle Vernon said, "do you want to go up to the roof?"

Benji looked up at the clock. "It's past my bedtime."

"Hmph. Well, we won't worry about that. There won't be any bedtimes here, only when you're tired, and I'm sure a boy like you doesn't get tired very early."

A spiral oak staircase led up through the house. The wood was dark and old, and it creaked beneath Uncle Vernon's steps. From time to time, the whole staircase swayed. Benji walked as lightly as he could as he followed his uncle up.

About half way up, Uncle Vernon stopped and bent over, coughing. Benji waited while his uncle dabbed at his lips with a handkerchief. When he was done, Uncle Vernon winked down at Benji.

"Not as young as I used to be."

The light had faded when they came out onto the flat wooden platform on the roof of the house. A big brass telescope on a tripod took up much of the platform, along with a deckchair and a coil of rope. Uncle Vernon placed his eye to the telescope and peered up into the sky.

"What are you looking at?" Benji asked.

"The stars." Uncle Vernon glanced down at him. "Want to look?"

Benji nodded. His uncle lifted him up around the waist. Benji squinted. Normally, the stars were flat and small, like a faint scattering of powdered sugar on black paper. Not any more. They were round, like tiny glowing balls, and deep. They seemed to stretch back forever, in front and behind each other. And they seemed close, too. He could reach out his hands and cup them like fiery cherries.

Uncle Vernon lowered him.

"A river of stars flows over the house," Uncle Vernon said. "You have to be careful at night. If you stand on your head while you're outside, you might fall in and be swept away." He turned his eye back to the great brass telescope. "That's why I watch, so that I can see if any little boys or girls have been swept away and throw them a rope."

One lie, Benji thought. Only one.

That night, after Uncle Vernon had tucked him into bed, Benji snuck down to the kitchen. He found the sharpest knife in the drawer, the one that glinted like the edge of broken glass. Carefully, he sliced open every rolled tealeaf and watched the tiny men run to safety, ducking under the back door and away. It took all night, and by the end, Benji was exhausted. But he was happy.

The sun got up early. By the time Benji had finished his cereal and gone out to play, it was well up in the sky and pouring heat down into the walled garden. The shadows were deep though, and although he peered close, Benji could not see what they hid.

An owl peered at him from a tree, its eyes following him. Benji shivered. He felt cold from tiredness, despite the heat. Every time his eyes drifted shut, he remembered the tiny men running away. At breakfast, when Uncle Vernon had made tea, Benji had been so afraid that his uncle would be angry at him. But all Uncle Vernon had said was, "No bubbles today?" and raised his eyebrows.

Benji's tired mind kept trying to trick him into thinking that things were moving in the dark places, hidden by leaves. He clenched his fists, tightened his jaw, and tried not to jump. His breath was quick and shallow in his nose.

This place was too scary. He just wanted to go home.

Something rustled in the undergrowth. Benji stumbled away, his face crinkling with the effort of not screaming.

A face emerged. Benji sagged. The girl he had met in the garden the previous day frowned up at him.

"Oh," she said. "It's you."

She showed a smile that quickly faded.

"Aren't you going to help me out?" she said.

Benji offered a hand and pulled her from the undergrowth.

"Thanks," she said as she brushed off the leaves and twigs and dirt. "The bushes like to hang on."

Benji gave the bushes a wary look. A lie? The truth? He didn't want to find out.

"What were you doing?" he said.

The girl frowned again. Benji could see the lines on her forehead even when she didn't frown.

"I've lost something," she said. "I'm trying to find it."

"What have you lost?"

Her frown deepened. "I don't know. I don't remember."

They looked all day, behind leering statues, in pools, on paths, in bushes. Every time Benji had to part the undergrowth or lean past a statue, he was sure something cruel would reach out and grab him.

Finally, when the shadows had returned and grown late-evening-long, the girl said, "You should go. Uncle Vernon will be worrying about you."

"What about you?" Benji asked

"Oh. I'll just...just..."

She shrugged and wandered away down one of the paths.

Benji's bed was the biggest bed he had ever seen. Four of him could have fitted in without bumping elbows. The mattress and pillows were full of feathers and soft, so that he sank deep into them. He felt like he was blinking out of a hole. The room smelled of mothballs and warm wood.

Benji could hardly keep his eyes open. He felt like weights were hanging from the skin beneath his eyes.

"You must have had a tiring day," Uncle Vernon said, smiling, as he pulled the sheet up to Benji's chin.

"Mm-hmm," Benji said.

"I suppose you've heard what people say about how cats sit on your chest when you're asleep and suck out your breath?"

Benji's eyes popped open. He had seen the cats lying in the sun on the kitchen doorstep. His heart trembled. He pulled his sheet a little further up.


"Poppycock," Uncle Vernon said. "Complete rubbish. Those people don't know what they're talking about. You don't have to worry about cats."

"Oh," Benji said, relieved, but also a bit disappointed.

"No, it's the owls you have to look out for," Uncle Vernon said. "They'll suck out your breath, peck out your eyes, and feed your soul to the things in the dark." He shook his head. "Look out for them, that's all." He got up and crossed to the door. "Shall I turn out the light?"

"No," Benji whispered.

It had to be a lie. It had to be.

He listened to his uncle walk away down the corridor. Uncle Vernon coughed as he walked, a nasty, sticky, raking, wet cough that sounded like the coughs Benji used to get when he was a kid, the kind of coughs that just wouldn't go away.

Benji couldn't sleep. He lay there in his bed and listened to the owls in the corridor and on the window ledges, listened to their beaks rattle against the windows and their claws scratch on the floorboards.

"Let me go home," he sobbed into the pillows. "Please, let me go home."

It had to be a lie. The owls couldn't be like Uncle Vernon said. If they were, Benji didn't think he could ever sleep again. How could he sleep if he thought the owls could sneak in and climb onto his chest?

He pulled the sheet off and rolled to the edge of the bed.

It was a lie, but that meant that everything else Uncle Vernon had said had to be true. He would prove it was. Then he could sleep.

The floorboards felt rough beneath his feet. The room was filled with liquid dark so that he could scarcely see. Against the windows, hard beaks tapped.

Benji closed his hand around the door handle. Claws skittered in the corridor outside.

It had to be the lie.

He pulled open the door and slipped out into the corridor.

A white shape ghosted from the dark. Benji ducked and felt soft wings brush his cheeks.

Fear grabbed him and shook him like a rag.

He ran. His feet slapped on the floorboards and then the stairs. An owl screeched. Eyes shone like tiny moons.

Benji burst from the house, out into the garden. The gravel stabbed into the soles of his feet. Stars sparkled brightly above him.

He found a patch of grass and stood there, panting. He peered up. Were the stars flowing? He couldn't tell. A river of stars, Uncle Vernon had said.

The owls did not seem to have followed. Perhaps they were waiting in his bedroom, up on top of the wardrobe or on the curtain rail. Waiting for him to close his eyes.

He crouched down and placed his head on the grass, his hands flat on the ground on either side of his head. Then he flung his legs up and stood on his head.

The world turned.

Below Benji's feet, stars flowed.

He fell.

Desperately, Benji tightened his fists in the grass. He jerked to a halt. He hung there by his burning arms. Below his feet, the river of stars rushed on.

Benji kicked his feet. If he could turn himself, maybe the world would right itself. Tears fell from his eyes, down to the river.

Grass parted between his fingers.

"Help me," he whispered. No one answered

His legs wouldn't go high enough. He was too weak to pull himself up. His muscles stretched and shook.

The grass gave way, and Benji fell, into the river of burning stars. The current swept him away.

A rope snaked down into the river. Benji flailed for it. He caught on and held tight as he was pulled from the river.

Uncle Vernon hauled Benji up onto the platform and laid him down.

Once again, the world turned, and Benji found himself lying next to his uncle's deckchair.

"Are you all right?" Uncle Vernon said. "Did you get burned?" He was busy coiling his rope again.

Benji sat up.

"I'm okay."

His tears were still falling. He reached up to brush them away. Gently, Uncle Vernon caught his hand.

"Did you know," Uncle Vernon said, "there are planets that are just made of water? The people in them are happy and sad, they love, they hate, they sing, they fight, they build the most beautiful things and the most ugly. They're selfish and generous and cruel and wonderful. They're just like us, and every tear we shed is one of their worlds. They only have the time it takes for a tear to fall to the ground to do everything, and then they're gone. Tears are never wasted, and you should never wipe them away. Be happy when you're crying."

Benji stared up at his uncle. "Is that a lie?"

"No. Of course not."

"I'm scared," Benji said.

Uncle Vernon nodded. "The world's a frightening place. But it's also wonderful. You can't have one without the other. You just have to go poking into the corners to find the wonderful things." He pulled Benji up. "The worst thing about growing up is that you stop believing things. A long time ago, I decided I would believe everything I could. That way, growing up wouldn't be so bad. Maybe I wouldn't have to grow up at all. Now, let's get you back to bed." He winked. "Don't worry. I never let the owls get into the bedrooms."

Uncle Vernon's study was at the front of the house. A wide wooden desk with neat piles of paper stood in front of a tall bay window. From there, Uncle Vernon could see the front lawn with its towering chestnut trees. He sat in there most of the day. Sometimes the piles of paper seemed to move around, but Benji had never seen him actually touch any of them. Whenever he had looked in, Uncle Vernon had been staring out those windows.

The front of the house would not work, then.

As soon as Uncle Vernon had disappeared off to his study, Benji headed for the back garden. He could never quite remember which path led where, but he knew that they all reached everywhere, in the end. Perhaps they were all the same path. Benji set off, feet crunching the gravel.

Butterflies swirled from flower to flower, their wings like tumbling confetti in the sunlight. The flowers were wild with colour and intoxicating with scent. Benji found his pace slowing and himself drifting towards the flower beds.

He forced himself to keep going. It would be easy to stop by the flowers. But there were shadows in the undergrowth, and bushes that grabbed. His heart fluttered like the butterflies' wings.

The path led around a final curve, and Benji saw it in front of him. The door through the wall. Out of the garden. He reached for the handle, laid his palm on the cool iron.

"What are you doing?"

Benji jerked back and around. The girl was staring at him.

"I'm running away," Benji said.

"Running away?" Her eyes widened. "Why?"

"Because I hate it!" Benji shouted. He hadn't meant to shout, but now it came bursting out of him, he couldn't stop it. "I'm scared of it all. I'm scared of the owls and the men in the tea leaves and the river of stars. I'm scared to cry in case worlds come out of my eyes. I just want to go home." He blinked. He wouldn't cry. "I don't mean to leave you on your own, and I don't mean to leave Uncle Vernon, and I know I promised you I would help you find whatever you've lost. But..." His voice became a whisper. "I just can't stay anymore. I'm too scared. It's all too horrible."

"You can't run away from the world," the girl said.

"I don't want to," Benji said. "I just want to get away from all of this. The rest of the world's not like this. It doesn't have all these horrible things."

"Are you sure?" the girl said. "Have you ever gone looking for them?"

Benji didn't answer.

"The world's full of magic and miracles," the girl said. She was frowning again. "They're everywhere around you."

"I've never'"

The girl shook her head. "It's true. That's why you're a child, so you can see and touch and know the magic and miracles. If you don't, what's the point of being a child? You might as well grow up."

She came along the path to him and took his hand.

"Yeah, some of them are scary," she said. "Some of them are dangerous. But things have to be dangerous when you're a kid. It's part of being a kid. Otherwise you're just an egg all wrapped up in cotton wool, blind and suffocating instead of being young. You have to believe in the magic and the miracles. You have to stop being scared."

"It might hurt," Benji said.

The girl shrugged. "It might. But it'll also be wonderful. And if you don't, you'll be scared all your life. In the end, you'll just wither away like a stick all burned up and falling into ash. Being scared hurts more than anything."

Spots of sunlight scattered across the gravel between them, like dust on water.

"I don't know what to do," Benji said.

"You have to choose not to be afraid anymore."

Benji stared into the girl's eyes. She stared back. He didn't remember when he hadn't been afraid., he wasn't sure he was afraid at all. Not here.

"I'll try," he said, and it was as if until that point he had been a bird trapped in a net, afraid to move in case he broke his wings.

He smiled. The girl returned his smile, although Benji thought that her smile wasn't as happy as his.

"So," Benji said, his wings beating inside him. "Are we going to look for whatever you've lost?"

The girl nodded. "I always look. Every day."

"We'll find it. What does it look like?"

"I don't remember," the girl said. The corners of her mouth turned down. "I just know I lost it."

"Was it big or small?"

"Big, I think," she said. "It must have been, because when I think about it I feel very small."

"Then we should be able to find it, shouldn't we?" Benji said. "Come on."

They looked all morning until Benji started to feel hungry.

"Aren't you coming for lunch?" Benji said. "Uncle Vernon won't mind."

"No," the girl said. "I'll just keep looking."

Benji's stomach rumbled.

"Okay," Benji said. "I'll come back afterwards."

He turned and raced back to the house.

The food was already spread on the table: gently steaming bread, salads, cheese, soup, pickles. But Uncle Vernon wasn't there.

"Uncle Vernon?" Benji called.

There was no answer. Benji crossed the room and opened the door to the corridor. At the far end of the corridor was Uncle Vernon's study. The door was ajar.

"Uncle Vernon?"

Perhaps his uncle had fallen asleep. He was very old, after all. Old people seemed to fall asleep all the time. Benji hurried along the corridor. He paused for a second then pushed through into the study.

Uncle Vernon was there, hunched up under his big desk.

"Get down!" Uncle Vernon whispered the moment he saw Benji.

Benji dropped to his stomach and wiggled his way across the carpet to the desk.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Shh!" Uncle Vernon hissed.

Someone hammered on the front door. Uncle Vernon screwed up his eyes and hunched deeper.

They huddled under the wide, heavy desk. Outside, there was silence.

Eventually, Uncle Vernon said, "Take a look out. See if he's still there."

Benji inched his way up until he could peer over the windowsill. A man was pacing up and down outside the house. He wore a brown hat and a long brown coat, despite the heat, and he carried a leather bag.

"He's there," Benji said.

"Oh, God."

The man pulled a watch out of his pocket, looked at it, and shook his head.

"He's going," Benji said.

The man strode off down the path, beneath the chestnut trees, to the road. There he got into a car and, moments later, drove away.

"He's gone."

Benji scrambled out from under the desk and reached back to help his uncle.

Uncle Vernon's eyes were watering, and his face was red. He started to get to his hands and knees, then stopped. His chest spasmed, his back kicked, and he began to cough. His whole body shook. He coughed and coughed, unable to stop. His head bounced against the underside of the desk.

"Uncle Vernon?"

Uncle Vernon grabbed a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and pressed it to his mouth.

Eventually, his coughing subsided. He wiped his lips and then balled the handkerchief and shoved it into his pocket. He crawled out from under the desk and straightened, throwing a nervous glance out the window.

Benji stared at his uncle.

Uncle Vernon caught Benji staring and gave him a watercolour smile.

"Just a bit of a chest," he said.

"What did that man want?" Benji asked.

Uncle Vernon grimaced. "He's a doctor."

"Then why didn't you let him in?"

"In?" Uncle Vernon's face whitened. "No, my boy. That would never do. Doctors make people ill."

"What do you mean?" Benji said. "They make people better."

"They don't, whatever they might tell you," Uncle Vernon said. "They make diseases. They make cancer and bad backs and in-grown toenails and colds and the Black Death and the dreaded lurgy. Doctors go poking around looking for new illnesses. They find someone who's a little under-the-weather and say, 'Ah-ha, you've got lung cancer'. Then, ever-after, people have to suffer from lung cancer, and the doctor gets a medal or certificate." He shook his head. "I let a doctor into my house once, and he made me a new disease. That's why I never let doctors in anymore." He glanced out the window. "Doesn't stop them trying. Meddlers."

Benji considered that. "The dreaded lurgy isn't a real disease," he said.

"Ah!" Uncle Vernon leaned down. "Not yet, it isn't. Stay away from doctors, and it might never be. See?" He peered out the window again. "Are you sure he's gone?"

Benji took his uncle's big hand in his own. "You can't be afraid forever," he told his uncle.

Uncle Vernon smiled down at him. "What's that, my boy?" To Benji it looked like his uncle wasn't really smiling, not like he meant it.

"You can't be afraid forever."

Uncle Vernon cleared his throat. "Why don't we go and have lunch before it gets cold?" he said. "There's cake." He placed his hands on Benji's shoulders. "Don't tell your mother I gave you cake for lunch, or I'll never hear the end of it."

Benji hiked himself up onto his chair while his uncle heaped salad onto his plate.

"Tell me something," Benji said.

Uncle Vernon's eyebrows rose. "Something?"

"Something amazing," Benji said. "Tell me about the magic in the world."

Uncle Vernon gave him an enormous smile. "I wondered when you'd come around to that. What to tell... Ah. Did you know that there's a big spring in the middle of the Earth? Well, there is. A man has to go down there every month and give it a wind, otherwise the world would stop turning and everybody would fall off. It's true. There's a coil sticking up through my garden. I keep asking for someone to come and tuck it back in, in case something goes wrong, but you know what it's like trying to get things fixed. One of these days I'll have to go and tuck it in myself. Maybe you can help me."

"Okay," Benji said, then, "Is that true? Would we really fall off?"

"Oh, yes. Have you ever been on a roundabout when someone suddenly stops it? Everyone falls off."

Benji stared with wide eyes. "Tell me something more."

They sat there for an hour while Uncle Vernon told Benji about satyrs who weaved stories into the air on their looms made of moonbeams so that children would have something to dream, and pools where every time you skipped a stone an eye was opened for the water to stare out, and the shadows that shadows cast when the sun turns its face away, and a dozen other hidden miracles that Benji had never seen.

"I wish I could stay with you forever," Benji said.

"For a while," said Uncle Vernon. "Just long enough to be young, not long enough to grow old." And he looked sad again. "Now, why don't you go out and play? A flower has just opened in the garden. Every time a new flower opens, it lets out a kiss. If you hurry, you might manage to catch it before someone else does."

She was out in the garden, sitting on a stone bench from which carved faces leered. Benji came around and sat down next to her. She turned as he sat, took his face in her hands, and kissed him gently on his lips. Benji's chest stuttered and stalled. Kisses had never felt this way before.

At last, she released him.

"I caught the kiss," she said. "I wanted to share it. To say thank you. For helping me search."

"Thank you," Benji said.

She smiled. "You taste like bees."

"Like honey?" Benji asked.

"No. Like bees." She jumped up. "Shall we keep searching?"

The days passed, full of summer and life and miracles. Benji listened to the tales the satyrs wove, and skipped stones on pools of silver, and played hide-and-seek with the shadows of shadows. He tucked the spring coil back down into the Earth and felt it thrum under his hands. And still they both searched for whatever the girl had lost.

As time drew on, the girl's frown deepened. "Why can't we find it?" she said, over and over again. "It's big. I know it is."

Eventually, Benji's last day arrived. He rose early, before breakfast, and went down to the garden. The sun was low and cast long, feeling shadows across the garden from the trees beyond the walls.

The girl was curled up beneath a mulberry bush, frowning even as she slept. Benji touched her shoulder. She blinked awake. Her face was so serious, so down. But she smiled at Benji.

"Come on," he said. "Let's start looking. I'm sure we're going to find what you lost today."

Yet when the bell rang for breakfast, they had found nothing.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," Benji said. "I don't have to leave until two o'clock."

"Yes," she said. "Yes."

Uncle Vernon had made a pot of steaming, hot porridge. Benji could see the currants in it, and the pools of thick condensed milk. Uncle Vernon sprinkled brown sugar over it, and Benji watched the sugar melt.

After they had eaten, Uncle Vernon leaned back and patted his stomach. "Now that's what I call breakfast."

"Uncle," Benji said. "Who's the girl in the garden?"

"Her name's Aimee," Uncle Vernon said. "She fell into the river of stars and was swept away. I pulled her out forty years ago, and she decided to stay. Such a sweet girl. She brings me berries from the raspberry bushes every summer." He smiled happily to himself.

"She's sad," Benji said.

"Sad? How can she be sad when the world is full of wonder?"

"She is."

Uncle Vernon's mouth worked, but for a minute he couldn't make a single sound. He looked like he was going to cry.

"I showed her every miracle and all the magic in the world." His voice sounded empty, like an echo in an old bucket.

"Even so," Benji said.

Uncle Vernon turned away. "I thought she would never grow old." His voice was as weak as a winter leaf. He coughed, hawked something up, and wiped it away with his handkerchief. "Never."

Quietly, Benji slipped from the table and snuck out of the room.

Behind him, he heard his uncle start to cough. The sound did not end until Benji was halfway down the garden and the bushes had hidden the house from view.

The girl, Aimee, was sitting on the stone bench, crying. She glanced up as Benji approached.

"I don't think I'll ever find it," she said. "I've looked everywhere."

Benji crouched before her. "Do you believe in miracles and magic?" he asked.

Aimee looked down. "Not any more," she whispered.

"Then I know what you've lost." Benji took her hand. "Come on."

"Are we going to find it?"

"No," Benji said. "I don't think you can ever find it again. You just have to stop being scared."

He led her along the winding paths through the garden until they reached the door in the wall.

"I can't'"

"Shh," Benji said.

He pulled open the door. A path led through the woods ahead.

"Go on," he said.

She glanced at him.

He nodded. "It's okay."

She gave him a smile, then turned, and walked through the door. Benji stood there and watched her walk away into the trees. Although she was walking away from him, she seemed to be growing as he watched. By the time she disappeared from sight, she was as tall as Benji's mum, and her stride had become determined and firm. She didn't look like a little girl anymore at all.

Uncle Vernon was talking on the phone when Benji got back to the house. He covered the mouthpiece with a hand.

"Why don't you go and pack?"

Benji hurried upstairs. When he got to his room he started to stuff all of his things into his bag. It didn't feel like he was going home. It felt like he was leaving. The feeling hung heavy in his throat and chest.

Part way through, he stopped by his window. From here he could see the front garden and the road beyond. A car had pulled up, and as Benji watched, a figure emerged.

At first Benji thought it was the doctor again, and he was ready to race downstairs to look after his uncle. But this man was different. He seemed to be made of shadows: he wore a long, black cloak that reached down to his black shoes, and a wide, black hat hid his face. He started along the path beneath the chestnut trees towards the house. When the man's cloak flapped in the breeze, Benji thought he saw dark wings flutter beneath it.

Benji shoved the last of his clothes into his bag and raced downstairs. Uncle Vernon was waiting by the front door. He had donned his hat and his driving gloves. He gave Benji a wink.

"If I didn't know better," he said, "I'd say you were trying to be late and miss the train. Eh?"

"I saw a man outside," Benji said. "He was wearing black."

Uncle Vernon's face softened, so that despite his white hair and wrinkles, he looked like a child to Benji.

"He's the raven."

"What does he want?" Benji said, heart hammering.

"I called him," Uncle Vernon said. "You were right, Benji. I've been afraid too long." He straightened. "The raven is a great doctor. He's not like other doctors. He doesn't make people ill."

"Oh," Benji said. For some reason, he felt sad. Things shouldn't change here.

"Come on," Uncle Vernon said, and led Benji out.

They drove to the station in Uncle Vernon's Bentley, sliding almost silently along the tree-lined lanes to the town.

The train was already at the station, puffing smoke-signals of steam into the blue sky. Uncle Vernon helped Benji up into his compartment and passed him the bag.

"Give your parents my love," Uncle Vernon said. "I miss them."

"Why don't you come with me?" Benji said desperately. "You could stay in my room."

"I can't," Uncle Vernon said. He smiled. "The raven's waiting to take my illness away. It would be rude to keep him waiting any longer."

"Can he do that?" Benji said.

"The raven can take it all away," Uncle Vernon said.

"I don't want to go home." Benji stared down at his uncle. A tide seemed to be rising within him. "I don't want to leave you."

Uncle Vernon kissed him. "You have to. Don't cry."

But Benji couldn't stop. Worlds tumbled from his eyes and fell to break on the stone platform. Uncle Vernon's mouth turned down at the corners. Benji thought his uncle was going to burst into tears too. Then his uncle stiffened his shoulders. He gave Benji a wink.

"Don't cry. I'll see you back here again next summer. I promise."

Benji sniffed. He could wait that long. "Okay, then."

The whistle blew, and the train pulled away. Benji watched his uncle slip further and further behind, until the steam hid him from view, and Benji's perfect summer holiday was gone.

Benji's father was waiting at the station. They walked silently across the platform out to the car park.

"Sit by me," his dad said.

Benji slid into the passenger's seat.

"What lie did your uncle tell you?" his dad asked.

The lie. Benji had forgotten about the lie.

He looked down at his lap.

"He said he would see me back there again next year," Benji whispered. "He promised."

"Yeah," Benji's dad said, and the word came out as a sob. "Yeah."

This time, neither of them even tried not to cry.

Story Copyright © 2007 by Patrick Samphire. All rights reserved.
Next: The Tongue by Brendan Connell

About the author

Patrick Samphire grew up in Zambia and Bristol and currently lives in Leeds with his wife, Stephanie Burgis, and their crazy-sweet border collie mix, Maya.

His short fiction has been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, The Third Alternative, and Year's Best Fantasy 6. He's got a PhD in Theoretical Physics that he's never used so far, so he's making another stab at academia by working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. You can find out more about him at his website