Nervously, Penny knocks on the door of Michelle’s house. It’s about half past seven in the morning — a school day, no less — so she’s dressed in her school uniform, carrying a heavy rucksack and yawning profusely. She didn’t manage to get much sleep last night, and she’s skipped breakfast, leaving a brief note for her parents on the kitchen door. At this point, she’s kind of running on fumes.
The O’Clares live in a nicer part of town than the Reeds; their home towers over Penny, filling her eyes with smooth walls in painted concrete that alternate with rough stone bricks in a painfully fashionable mixture of old and new. The building’s surrounded on all sides by garden, one of a dozen or so buildings in the same style that form a neighbourhood of quiet affluence.
Penny knocks again, rehearsing in her head for what she’s going to say. Her train of thought is interrupted when the door is answered by a woman in her late thirties with somewhat unruly hair, wearing a light green dressing gown. She gives Penny a look that wavers between bewilderment and thinly-veiled contempt.
“Hi, Mrs O’Clare,” Penny says with a slight mumble. “Is Michelle still here? I… I need to talk to her.”
Mrs O’Clare stares for a while, as though she’s trying to come up with some kind of objection. Eventually, and with a reluctant sigh, she says: “Wait here.” She closes the door.
Penny hears the thuds of someone walking up stairs with near-theatrical displeasure. Some minutes later, after a not inconsiderable amount of muffled disagreement, the door opens once more to reveal Michelle, clad in school uniform and blinking bloodshot eyes.
She hisses at Penny, stumbling over words. “For fu—… for eff’s sake, Pen— er, Daniel!” She looks over her shoulder, apparently satisfying herself that her mother’s no longer listening in. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
Swallowing anxiously, Penny looks down at her feet. “I wanted to apologise,” she says. “And… to tell you the truth about stuff.”
Michelle pauses for an interminable moment, then sighs. “Come in, then. But the truth’ll have to wait. Can’t talk here.”
Penny nods solemnly and follows her friend inside. It’s been years since she’s been here — Mr and Mrs O’Clare’s parenting style is rather more invasive than pleasant — but it’s about as fancy as she remembers. The hallway, rather more like a reception, opens both outwards and upwards with an elegant wooden staircase leading to a landing that’s almost a mezzanine. The walls bear photographs and paintings (probably prints) in beautifully ornate frames, all tastefully chosen and carefully arranged. The carpet is white, and soft without being overly fluffy. Penny takes extra care when wiping her shoes on the mat.
Michelle takes Penny via a rather well-appointed dining room into the kitchen. She puts two slices of nice-looking seeded bread into a toaster with far too many controls on it, pushing the lever down firmly. The two girls stand in silence for about a minute, before Penny can take the silence no more.
“I shouldn’t’ve lied to you.”
Michelle doesn’t respond in words, but her demeanour softens almost imperceptibly.
After a moment, the toast pops up. Michelle grabs her toast eagerly, dropping it onto a plate with all the urgency of mildly scorched fingers. She looks at Penny with a serious expression that lasts for only a few seconds before she starts to giggle. Penny follows suit soon thereafter.
After a few moments’ mirth, Michelle sighs, starting to butter her toast from a ceramic butter dish. “You didn’t think I’d believe the truth, did you?”
It’s not quite a question, but Penny shakes her head softly nonetheless. She adds: “And, I didn’t want to get in trouble for telling you something I shouldn’t.” She sighs. “But neither of those are actually good reasons, I know. I’m sorry.”
Michelle bites into a slice of toast, smiling wryly; at least, as much as one can with a mouthful of bread in one’s teeth. After a few seconds’ chewing, she says: “Not outside of books or TV, no.” She swallows, and chuckles for a fraction of a moment. “But I don’t know where you’d get the real-world experience for telling people about…” She carefully mouths the word: “magic”.
“You…” Penny replies, taken aback. “You knew, then? A—are you..?”
Michelle shakes her head. “It took me a while to work it all out. And no, I’m not. Pretty sure Mum’s Protestant upbringing wouldn’t allow it.” She says that last sentence quietly, and with some bitterness. She finishes her toast in silence; Penny’s not really sure what to say, and the feeling seems to be mutual.
Once Michelle’s breakfast is over, the girls start heading towards school together. There’s an awkward presence between them: Penny desperately wants to tell her friend about Yarn and Diana and Angie and Rakesh and Garl and the Lucerists and the Umbratists and all of that, but she has no idea how or when to start. It lurks behind her lips, a bitter and undercooked lump of emotion that she desperately wants to spit out, but can’t. What right does she have to inflict this upon her?
But Diana’s words come into her head: She chose to be your friend, didn’t she? And as sick as she is of repeating the story, Michelle kind of deserves to know. She needs to know.
And that’s how the words come out.
“He was going to help me.”
Michelle says nothing, only nodding and waiting for more.
“He came when I was trying to summon a demon. I… don’t know if I believed it would work. I was desperate enough to try anything. You know, to…” The words die in Penny’s throat, and there’s a heavy silence that drowns out the noise of passing cars. It lasts for a short age.
“You know, I used to pray to God to let me be straight,” Michelle says softly. “I… to be honest, I still do. You know, sometimes.”
Penny timidly offers her hand to Michelle; Michelle takes it with a squeeze. Her grip is firm, without being hard.
“It was okay at first,” Penny says softly. “He taught me… how to fight, and how to disguise myself.”
Michelle nods as though this explains a lot. Penny supposes it does.
“But he wanted something in return,” she continues. “He wanted me to spy on people.”
“What do you mean, people?” Michelle asks. Her tone is flat and neutral, but in a gentle way.
Penny briefly considers explaining the whole political situation, but decides that it would take way too long to give all of the relevant details. “Political opponents,” she says eventually, hoping that’s a satisfactory answer.
Michelle stops walking suddenly, and Penny’s heart lurches, terrified for a moment that she’s said something wrong. Suddenly, Michelle groans. “So you tried to summon the Devil,” she says, “but you got… a politician? Fucking hell. That’s almost worse!”
Michelle turns on the spot and gives Penny one of the most intense embraces she’s ever experienced; she’s not sure if the tears in her eyes are from emotion or from being mildly crushed. “Fuck,” Michelle repeats. “I had no idea it was that bad. Jesus.” She relaxes, allowing Penny to breathe, and Penny coughs slightly theatrically.
“Oh, shit, sorry,” Michelle says, as the pair resume walking. There’s another pocket of silence, but it’s a bit more agreeable than the last.
“I… I wanted to quit,” Penny says, struggling to get the words to behave in her mouth, “but he didn’t… want me to.”
“What happened?” Michelle asks, slightly too quickly for comfort. It makes Penny feel a little rushed; it takes her a moment to work up some strength, not to mention to find the necessary words.
“He… took control,” she says. “Of me, I mean.”
Michelle inhales sharply, keeping her breath in for a second or two. “That sounds bad,” she says, in careful and measured tones.
“I fucked up,” Penny says, nearly too quiet to even hear it herself. The two girls continue walking, stopping at a crossing to wait for the light.
“Everyone fucks up,” Michelle says. She’s bouncing on her heels a little as she waits; it’s a little at odds with the tone of the conversation. “Pretty sure I fucked up, too.”
Penny looks at her friend, about to ask what she means — but the crossing starts beeping. The two girls make the obligatory glances left and right, and begin to cross; Michelle walks ahead slightly, shifting the weight of her rucksack between her shoulders. They both reach the other side without speaking.
“Are… Are you gonna be okay?” Michelle asks.
It’s kind of an odd question for her to ask, really, and not one that Penny has any sort of answer for. She sighs heavily.
“I don’t know,” she says. She thinks for a little longer. “I think I might need some help. But I don’t know who to ask or even what to ask for.”
Michelle nods gravely. “Well, um. If there’s anything I can do..?”
The question hangs in the air, unsupported by any reply. “…yeah,” is all Penny can say, as the two girls round the last corner before school…
…and right into Roberts and Bennet, busy talking to a stern-looking man in a police uniform.
Roberts drops the cardboard coffee cup he’s holding; it pulverises itself on the pavement with an ominous splat. Bennet jumps a little, though remaining calmer than his subordinate. This doesn’t at all look like a good situation.
“Fuck,” Penny says, half-whispering. There’s not really any point in being quiet, to be honest — they’ve definitely seen her — but it’s almost a reflex. Michelle glances over, worry carried in her features.
“This him?” the cop asks, as though he knows the answer already.
Bennet nods. “That’s him.”
Penny glances at Michelle, mouthing one word: “Diana”. Michelle nods subtly, signalling some sort of understanding, though she looks a little surprised. Penny hadn’t got to that bit of the story, after all.
The cop pulls out a pair of handcuffs with his free hand. “Now, I don’t want to have to use these…” he says, leaving the rest implied.
Penny nods, trying to look meek and subservient, and the two Investigators and the cop lead her to an unassuming-looking vehicle parked a desperate twenty metres from school, a dark blue Ford that’s clearly seen some use. She’s bundled into the car without ceremony, and the doors slam closed with a dreadful thud, leaving the chassis of the vehicle shaking from the impact.
She swallows nervous saliva. It’s in Michelle’s hands, now.