Bath Children’s Novel Award shortlisted: The Waiting Room by Fiona Longmuir

Chapter One

Jessica Hart was in trouble. Well, Jessica Hart was always in trouble but this time, she might be in over her head. She seemed to get into these situations a lot where Alex was concerned. She knew she had to learn to say no to him but right now, she’d do just about anything to get out of her house, away from her mum playing happy families with Call-Me-Dad Jim.

The day had not started well for Jess. A mistimed double maths truancy had led her straight into the path of new headmaster, Mr Strickland. Still out to make a name for himself, her excuses fell on deaf ears and it only took a few quips to land her in after-school detention. So when Alex had suggested that they take the guy down a few pegs, Jess had agreed. Now that the red mist had dissipated a little, she was starting to have doubts. Maybe topping off detention with an expulsion wasn’t such a great plan.

She looked over at Alex, who flashed that wolfish grin at her. The face that she’d known her whole life was changing, soft puppy fat melting into the hard lines of adulthood. He had that clumsy look that all teenage boys have, like their limbs have grown too fast and they don’t quite know where to put them. Despite his lanky build, there was real strength in his frame and he had no qualms about using it to persuade. Jess preferred when they were kids, fighting over a turn on the swings, back when they were the same height and she was as strong as he was. They had been making mischief together for so long that she hadn’t really noticed it getting more extreme. From harmless pranks on the uppity kids in school, to that ear piercing that Jess’s mum still hadn’t forgiven, to skipping class and sneaking cigarettes behind the bike sheds. And now this. Jess shook her head. What the hell was she doing? Alex caught her eye and his grin blew like a lightbulb.

“You’re not chickening out on me, are you J?”

Jess exhaled hard. A glossy curl had escaped from her hood and she tucked it back carefully. She clenched and unclenched her fists, cracking her cold joints and buying herself some time. She could just say no. Call the whole thing off. That would be the smart thing to do. She worried at her bottom lip with her teeth, fiddled with the zip on her coat, wrapped a wiry rope of hair around her finger. Alex grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Jess. Cut it out. You’re overthinking this. It’s just a bit of fun. He might call the shots in school, but out here, he’s fair game. Are you gonna let him push you around and get away with it?”

Jess pondered the irony of Alex telling her not to let people push her around and then shook the thought from her head.

“Are you scared of him? Is that it?” he asked.

She knew he was goading her, pushing the buttons he thought would get a response. That was the problem with someone knowing you so well. He thought correctly. She sighed and stretched her palm towards him.

“I’m not scared. Just give me the lighter.”

Alex’s smile cracked wide open as he fished the lighter from his pockets and tossed it to her.

“Go get ‘em.”

Jess made an exceedingly rude gesture towards him and started to creep towards the panelled door of the house. Her hands were shaking as she took three fireworks from her bag and laid them out on the doorstep. It took four attempts to click the lighter into life. She held the flame to the fuse of each firework and had to bite her lip to smother the yell that instinctively rose when the gold sparks sputtered out. She straightened up, pushed the doorbell twice and ran for it. She dived over the bush, landing right on top of Alex, who shoved her off and scrambled for a better view.

They had timed it to perfection. Jess saw the door swing open and just had time to make out the shiny top of Strickland’s balding head before he was enveloped in a blaze of incandescent streaks. Jet after jet of colour shot into the night sky, filling the suburban garden with the sound of chaos and the hot, sharp smell of gunpowder. From their vantage point in the bushes, Alex and Jess whooped and yelled and grabbed at each other, drunk on the madness of it all. It was a wild, beautiful, perfect moment until a familiar sound bellowed out over the crackle of the fireworks: the enraged cry of an angry headmaster. It almost sounded like he was yelling a name. Jessica’s insides froze. He couldn’t have seen her. He couldn’t possibly know it was her. Keep your cool, Jess, she thought. She turned terrified eyes towards Alex, only to find that his gaze was fixed on the house and he was already a couple of feet behind her. This did not reassure her. She reluctantly tore her eyes away from him and glanced back. Strickland was advancing towards them through the haze of the dying fireworks, somehow managing to look menacing even in a tartan dressing gown. She didn’t remember him being this big. She stayed rooted to the spot, almost hoping that he wouldn’t see her if she didn’t move. Their eyes locked through the smoky air and the spell was broken. Uttering a silent thanks that she still had her hood pulled down over her face, she turned on her heels and ran. She was pretty sure that he couldn’t actually hit her, being a teacher and all but getting thrown out of school was unlikely to thaw the cold front raging between Jess and her mum. Alex was nowhere to be seen as she rounded the corner at the end of the street. She cursed him inwardly and swore never to let him talk her into something like this again. Her feet slapped against the wet ground, not quite drowning out the sound of the feet behind her. She risked a glance backwards and immediately regretted it. Not only had she failed to shake Strickland off, he actually seemed to be gaining on her. His breath steaming into the cold night air put her in mind of a charging bull, like in the cartoons. She tried not to think about how their opponents usually ended up. God, he looked angry. Maybe he would hit her. Her chest felt like a balloon blown up to bursting point, hot daggers stabbing into her with every breath. Who’d have thought the old man would be so fit? She threw herself round another corner and headed for the main road. She didn’t even see the car.

 

 

 

She felt an enormous, sickening jolt as it hit her, her head snapping back hard. Some part of her reflexively braced for the impact of the pavement. It never came. She was vaguely aware of movement around her. The cold air seemed to be seeping into her, chilling her to the bone. Her ears were ringing and it was making her head hurt. She had screwed her eyes shut against the glare of the headlights but the white light was still trickling through, scraping against her nerves, burning her retinas raw. She felt like yelling at the driver to turn them the hell off, but she wasn’t ready to move just yet. She should probably be in more pain, she thought. She was in shock, most likely. At least Strickland wouldn’t be able to yell at her now. Surely getting hit by a car gives you the moral high ground. She’d probably get some time off school as well. Maybe this wasn’t so bad. She opened her eyes a sliver and slammed them shut again. The light was unbearable. She put her hands over her face and peeked out gingerly from between knitted fingers. What she saw concerned her.

The light wasn’t coming from headlights. In fact, the car was nowhere to be seen. The light was coming from fluorescent overhead panels, bouncing off impossibly clean, white walls. She was also sitting on a chair, which threw her sense of balance and made her feel queasy. She must be in some kind of hospital. But she couldn’t remember getting here. Maybe she had that post traumatic stress thing that soldiers get. Or maybe she had smacked her head on the pavement and lost her memory. She saw a film where that had happened once. The thought depressed her. She started running through the alphabet in her head as she checked out her surroundings. She was sitting in a long narrow hallway, uncomfortable plastic chairs lining the sides. There must have been hundreds of seats but Jess was the only one there. At the end of the hall, a tall desk came into focus. She hadn’t noticed it before because like everything else in the corridor, it was white. She walked towards it, conscious of her shoes squeaking on the polished floors. The sound was deafening amidst the silence. She passed a series of doors and wondered briefly whether there were other patients behind them. As she approached the desk, she noticed the man sitting behind it. Attractive, if you liked the sleazy Prince Charming sort. Soft brown hair, florid features, muscles not-so-subtly rippling beneath a tight t-shirt. He had his feet resting on a small set of office drawers and was nonchalantly chewing the end of the pen in his hand. A small silver name badge identified him only as “Lucas” and assured her that he was “Happy to help”. Jess cleared her throat and self-consciously rested her hands on the gleaming surface of the desk. The man swiveled around in his seat and sighed exasperatedly. He looked anything but happy to help.

“Name?” he said, batting her hands from the desk and running his fingers over the glossy top, rubbing at some imagined smear. His voice was high and surly, a thick undercurrent of boredom running through each word.

“Uh, Jess. Jessica. Jessica Hart.”

“Okay, Jess Jessica Jessica Hart. We’re going to need you to fill out some forms.”

He fished in his drawers and pulled out a small stack of papers.

“Basic details, incident report, personal statement, special requirements. Look here please.”

He took her wrist and snapped a silver bracelet around it. His other hand raised a tiny paddle filled with LEDs in front of her eyes. The thing flashed and Jessica yelped in pain. She felt as though she had been electrocuted; short, sharp pricks pulsating from the base of her neck down her spine and into her fingertips. The sensation sliced through her body, making her stiffen and tense until she thought her back might snap. Eventually, the pain subsided, leaving a dull, whirring ache in the back of her head. She put her hand to her neck, rubbing away the insistent pins and needles.

“What the hell was that?”

“Your chip. We need to start processing as soon as possible. You’re pretty young to be here.”

“I’m seventeen,” said Jess fiercely.

“Seventeen. That is young. Are you going to need to see a counsellor?”

“A counsellor? What? What’s going on? What are you talking about chips for? What the hell kind of a hospital is this?”

At this, Lucas looked up at her for the first time. His teeth ground down on the pen and he exhaled huffily.

“Oh great, you’re one of those. You know, I’m astonished that humans have progressed so far as a species. None of you ever seem to have any idea what’s going on. And who has to pick up the pieces? Me. I do not get paid enough for this. What do you remember?”

“I don’t really know. I…I was being chased and then there was a car and then…there’s nothing after that.”

“Oh, honey, you have no idea how much you’ve just hit the nail on the head there.”

She shuddered. Something about him made her skin crawl. He pulled the pen from his mouth, put it behind his ear and gestured dramatically.

“There is nothing. That’s the end of your story.”

Jess was getting frustrated. “What are you talking about? Can you just tell me what happened?”

“Well of course I can, sweetie, I’ve got your file right here.”

He picked up a clipboard from his desk and swung back around to face her. He licked his finger and started to flick through the pages, occasionally squinting at a highlighted detail.

“Let’s see here. Looks like a pretty nasty one. Collision with a car. Neck broken on impact. Fractured jaw, busted ribs, punctured lung…to be honest, you’re probably lucky to have died, no one wants to deal with those kind of injuries.”

Jess’s head started to swim. The world shifted and she had to grip the desk to keep herself from keeling over with it.

“Why did you say that?” she asked.

“What?” said Lucas, eyes still on the clipboard.

“Why did you say I had died? Why would you say something like that?”

Lucas tossed the clipboard back onto the desk, placed his chin on his clasped hands and sighed.

“Look, I know it can be hard to come to terms with-”

“You’re sick. This is so messed up.”

“Listen to me. Nobody goes a round with a Merc doing 40 and comes out of it feeling as good as you do. Think about it. You got hit by a car. How are you walking right now? Where are your injuries?”

The world gave another lurch and so did Jessica’s stomach. She started to hyperventilate as her fingers slipped from the desk. She grasped her knees hard and tried to steady herself. Her forehead came to rest on the surface. It felt cool. She clung on to this feeling, wondering if she could just stay like this for the rest of her life. The phrase jarred and echoed in her mind. Her insides heaved.

“I’m going to be sick,” she breathed, head spinning.

This was too much for Lucas, who burst into cruel laughter.

“You are? With what? There’s nothing in your stomach to throw up. In fact, technically speaking, you don’t even have a stomach anymore. But it’s best not to get too hung up on that sort of thing. Trying to understand the physics of this place…that way madness lies.”

Jess felt her insides turn over again. Her confusion escaped in a hollow scream. Lucas rolled his eyes.

“Okay, Miss Drama Queen. We’ll book you in with a counsellor, they’ll get you sorted right out.”

“I don’t want to see a counsellor. I want to go home.”

“Yeah, okay sure. Counselling.”

Jess broke into gasping, wracking sobs. Lucas clicked his pen and waited for the deluge to subside.

“Okay, I’ve booked you in with a counsellor. When he’s ready for you, your bracelet will buzz.”

Jess looked down at her wrist. She hadn’t really registered that the bracelet was there. She pulled at it instinctively, trying to loosen its grip. Lucas sighed again.

“Don’t waste your time,” he said boredly, “It won’t budge. No body, remember? No wrist, no bracelet, no fingers to pull at it with. It’s part of you now, even though you don’t technically exist, physically. Don’t think about it.”

Jess gave it another defiant tug and then gave up.

“Okay, so that’s you been chipped and calmed down a bit. I’d say you’re ready to go on through and get settled in. You’ve got Cait. She’ll be waiting for you.”

He swung back round in his chair, apparently done with her and gestured towards the door to her right. She grasped the heavy brass knob in one hand and glanced back at him. He didn’t even look up, absorbed in some papers on his desk. Jess just hoped that there was a hospital wing on the other side of this door. She took a deep breath and pushed.

The room she entered was as white and barren as the one she had just left, but with one crucial difference. This one was filled with people. The room was enormous; stretching so far in every direction that she couldn’t tell where it ended. Her head spun. She sank to the ground and blocked the aggressive white glare from her eyes. She willed herself to wake up. To shake off this nightmare that had taken hold of her. Maybe she’d been really badly hurt and they had her on some kind of crazy medicine. Her efforts to snap herself out of it were interrupted by a voice piercing the room.

“Hart?”

She blinked and looked around. The voice was soft but there was steel running through it. It seemed to echo and multiply around her. Something in it made Jess’s teeth stand on edge. She eventually caught sight of its source: a woman, impossibly tall, with a rope of golden hair braided down her back. Jess’s feeble hopes that she was a nurse were quickly shattered. The woman had wings. Gigantic, powerful, snowy wings, folded but throbbing menacingly at her back. She caught Jess’s eye and sauntered over to her. Eyes as cold and hard as chunks of obsidian scanned Jess up and down.

“Jessica, my name is Cait. I’ll be your Guarding Angel.”

Jess started.

“My guardian angel? Gee, bang up job so far. What were you grabbing coffee when I was running in front of a car?”

Cait rolled her eyes and shuffled her wings irritably.

“You humans and your stupid ideas about death. Your Guarding Angel, not your guardian angel. I’m here to keep an eye on you while you’re here.”

Something inside Jess clicked. The wings. The white room. The whole being dead thing.

“Am I in heaven?”

Cait snorted.

“Not quite, Princess. This is the Waiting Room. Processing for the recently deceased. We chip you, process your life, that bracelet around your wrist turns a pretty shade of red or gold and you get to walk through another door.”

“You mean…?”

“You bet. Up or down. Gold or red.”

Jess gulped.

“How long will it take?”

“Why, you got somewhere you need to be? We don’t measure time here, it’ll take as long as it takes. Your bracelet is your control centre while you’re here. You want to speak to someone, you make an appointment with your bracelet. It’ll buzz when it’s time. You’ll get used to it. It responds to your touch.”

Cait grabbed Jess’s hand and pressed her thumb into the bracelet. A menu of icons arced out round the metal. Cait lazily swiped her fingers back and forth.

“Swipe to scroll, tap to open a folder. Press your thumb to the bracelet to close.”

Cait pushed Jess’s thumb into the metal again and the icons retracted.

“Well, that’s the basics. I’ll be around, so try not to get into trouble.”

She turned away, pulling her thick braid over her shoulder.

“Wait!” shouted Jessica, “What am I supposed to do now?”

Cait turned those cold eyes back on Jessica with a sly smirk.

“You said it. It’s the Waiting Room. So wait.”

Before Jess could protest any further, she strode off, wings rustling behind her. Jess sank back to the ground and sat cross legged, trying to get used to the idea that she was dead. It was no use. She pulled Lucas’s forms from her pocket and scanned the questions.

In your own words, describe the circumstances leading to your death:

Are you currently harbouring vengeful feelings?

Do you have any reason to believe that you lived a good life?

Are you having difficulty accepting that your life has ended?

Nausea curled through her like a thin finger and she groaned. She stuffed the forms back into her pocket. She’d deal with them later. Or never. Her skin was still prickling from the shock of the chip. The ache in her neck deepened as she remembered it was there. She put her hand to the back of her head, to see if she could feel it. Nothing. Not even a scar. She brought her hands back into her lap and looked at the steely bracelet encircling her wrist. Curious, she pushed her thumb into its surface. As before, the icons appeared, following the shape of the band. She tapped the folder entitled “Memories” with her forefinger, feeling foolish as it passed straight through into the air. The folder opened. Images appeared, as though being beamed onto a tiny cinema screen, whirring past too fast for her to focus. She touched her finger to the stream of pictures and they stopped. A video started to play. Jess was tiny, playing with her teddy in the garden. Her mother was holding a video camera and grinning expectantly. Her dad came into view, holding a small round cake, topped with three candles. Not call-me-dad Jim. Her real dad. Tears pricked the back of Jess’s eyes. She couldn’t remember this happening, although she guessed it was a memory. She could barely remember her dad at all, most memories taken from the photos tucked in the back of the old albums in the attic. Stung with newfound anger and loss, she swiped crossly at the image. It was replaced by a curve of greyed out rectangles, overlaid with circling loading icons. For the first time, she noticed the text beneath the images, running parallel to the bracelet:

 

Currency available: 2,000 credits. *credits incomplete, still processing

 

What the hell was a credit? Jess didn’t realise she had spoken aloud until a voice answered her.

“They’re how you get by here.”

She lifted her head to see who had spoken. A boy around her age sat on a ledge a couple of feet away from her, one leg pulled up close to his chest, the other dangling. He looked as though he’d been drawn in black and white: pale, poreless skin stretched over a thin, angular face, a shock of dark hair falling towards his eyes. His eyes were incongruous, infinite green pools blazing among all that white. He turned towards her and his eyes climbed over her like searchlights. Jess shifted uncomfortably beneath that penetrating gaze.

“What do you mean? Like money?”

“Sure, like money. Each memory is worth a certain number of credits. The happier the memory, the more it’s worth. People always said that happy memories were the true riches…they had no idea how right they were.”

Jess gripped her wrist protectively. The boy glanced down at the counter slowly ticking upwards.

“Looks like you had a happy childhood. You’ll be processed in no time, if you can bring yourself to give it up.”

Jess met his eyes.

“I’d have to give it up?”

“Of course you would. Parts of it anyway. You don’t get to pay for something and keep the money. That’s how it works here. Not officially, of course. Officially, we’re all on equal ground, just waiting for our paperwork to come through. Credits are supposed to be a tool for finding significant memories quickly, making processing faster. But things up here are just as messed up as they are down on the ground. Someone had the bright idea of turning them into a resource. You drop someone a few thousand credits, you get bumped up the line. All depends what you’re willing to lose. Elvis is partying away the afterlife on the right hand side of the big man, with absolutely no idea who he is. That’s what I’m told anyway.”

“That’s horrible.”

“Is it? Why waste this life just to cling onto the one that’s already over?”

“If that’s what you think, why are you still here?”

The boy laughed, but there was no joy in it.

“I’m not exactly in great credit. I suppose that’s the irony: my life was unhappy enough that I’d give it up in a second but nobody wants it.”

Jess dipped her head, guiltily. She felt like he shouldn’t have told her that. She felt like she shouldn’t have asked.

“I’m Jess,” she offered quietly.

The boy eyed her suspiciously. Eventually, he swung his legs round to face her and jumped from the ledge.

“Kit. Kit Sharpe.”

Jess glanced around awkwardly, looking for something else to talk about. She noticed that her memories folder was still open, more pictures filling the greyed out boxes. She touched the surface of the bracelet gently and the pictures receded. She sighed. She felt like they were safe in there.

“I won’t give up my memories. I’ll wait. How long does it usually take?”

Again, that quiet, unhappy chuckle.

“Time doesn’t really work here. There’s no way to measure it. But judging by things down on the ground, I’d say I’ve been here about five years.”
Jess’s head reeled. Five years stuck in this room. She would lose her mind. But suddenly, something else he had said pushed that from her thoughts.

“On the ground? You can see them?”

Kit sighed and turned away from her.

“It doesn’t usually help. Come with me.”

He strode away from her fast, leaving her running to catch up. He didn’t speak again. Jess followed close behind him, pushing through crowds of maudlin ghosts, shivering every time her cold flesh brushed against theirs. The crowds started to thin out and the atmosphere grew hushed and heavy, like that of a church. Kit stopped suddenly and gestured for her to look. There were people sprawled everywhere, faces pressed up against the floor of the Waiting Room. Some were smiling, many more were crying. It made Jess feel uncomfortable. Kit sat cross legged on the floor and motioned for Jess to sit next to him. She noticed a tiny hole in the ground by his hand. He covered it defensively and pulled a small pocket knife from his trousers.

“You have to make your own,” he explained, handing it to her.

She looked at him uncertainly and tentatively poked at the surface of the floor. To her surprise, it tore like fabric.

“Technically, we’re not supposed to do this. But everyone does,” Kit explained, “Take a look. Think of your family.”

Jess screwed up her face and put her eye to the tiny opening. She immediately drew back and burst into shocked tears. Kit shuffled awkwardly and handed her a tissue from his pocket. Jess briefly wondered how clean it was, then decided it didn’t matter and buried her face in it. She tried to freeze her chest, tried to get those huge sobs under control. Her heart felt like it was straining, teetering painfully at bursting point. Kit stiffly moved his hand a couple of centimetres towards her on the ground, then changed his mind and stuffed it back in his pocket instead. She took a few more gulping breaths, feeling tears still brimming close to the surface. She blinked them away and looked through the peephole again. Her mother looked awful. Really awful. She was sitting at the kitchen table in her old dressing gown, a cigarette smouldering to nothing between her fingers. Jess hadn’t seen her mum smoke for years. Her face was grey and drawn and run through with deep frown lines that Jess didn’t recognise. Her hair hung in lank clumps around her face where it had escaped from the lopsided topknot on her head. Her eyes fixated on nothing, gazing blankly at the kitchen wall. Her whole body shook ever so slightly. She didn’t move as Jim entered the room and put a cup of coffee in front of her. He put his hand on her shoulder and gently squeezed. She brought her hand up to meet his, eyes keeping that blank, faraway look. He kissed the top of her head and after a couple of moments, started to bustle around the kitchen. Jess’s mum sat very still, only the curling currents of the smoke from her cigarette and the steam from her coffee betraying that she was breathing at all.

“I told you it doesn’t usually help,” said Kit.