I ambled away but I thought I heard my name muttered, so softly, almost inaudibly, that I wasn’t sure he had even said it. When I turned around Jack hadn’t moved, hadn’t crossed the road. He had a strange look on his face and was rubbing his temples again.
#14: Jack is always sick; constantly bombarded with flu, colds, headaches, pain of some kind.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “Are you going to have another fit?”
He shook his head. “This is going to sound kind of silly,” he said.
I snorted. “After today Jack, nothing is going to sound silly.”
He was embarrassed, struggling to find the words. “Still have that bad feeling.”
I wished I’d never asked. It was exactly the kind of thing my Nan used to say when she talked about her ‘gift’, when she told us she was a little bit psychic. We all ignored her, thought she was batty. We left her to rattle round the house, muttering to herself like a neglected, never ending radio programme.
Jack rushed to explain. “Feel things more than other people.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
He squished his face up. “My body reacts to how other people feel.” He checked to see if he should continue. “Everything constricts, my organs condense, it’s–” Jack tailed off, sensing my embarrassment on his behalf. The disappointment that my brand new friend wasn’t different good, that he might be different weird.
#15: the DING DONG – Jack is sensitive. He has ‘feelings’.
“You get feelings?” I tried not to sound like Mum when I try to tell her how I feel. “About what?” I said.
“Whatever people are feeling. Good or bad. But it has to be strong, mostly when lots of people are feeling the same thing. Hospitals, car accidents, when people die.” His face lit up. “Works the other way too. Football matches, on labour wards. Sometimes I hang around those places to feel good.”
“You hang around hospitals?” My words hung in the air and we stood on the High Street surrounded by Christmas – shiny baubles, flashing Santa hats, the smell of chestnuts – taking in the red and whiteness of everything, everything other than each other, for maybe a minute or more. “I’m not sure what you want me to say,” I said.
He looked so serious. “Don’t want to make you uncomfortable,” he said.
I lied. “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable,” I stomped my boots through the muddy snow. “I don’t know what to say. There’s no way for me to disprove it, is there? It’s like those people who claim to be psychics and ask a packed audience if someone knows someone called John or someone that’s just died. It’s too bloody obvious. You can just pretend to feel something and I’d have to believe you.” If it can’t be scientifically measured, quantified and explained then I can’t get my head around it.
Jack sighed, like I was too inexperienced, too naïve to understand, like I couldn’t possible appreciate the enormity of the feelings he had, the thoughts running through his head.
I was irritated. Bothered that he thought he had these supposed “feelings”, bothered by the idea that he thought I couldn’t understand them, bothered that I was bothered at all. But I thought back to the park earlier. How he had definitely had an attack of some kind.
“Look,” he said. “Doesn’t have to be mystical mumbo-jumbo. You do agree that some people can see things, observe things more keenly than others, right?”
Jack had started using long sentences; it made me uneasy. I didn’t want him to win his argument but I had to agree. “I suppose.”
“Well, that’s me. Guess you could say that I have more of a gut instinct than most, that’s all. I pick up on signals that other people miss, that’s it. That’s what happened today,” he said. “They did that to me. There was just so much horrible, bad,” he paused before continuing, “energy.”
Now he sounded like a New Age Mystic spouting pseudo-science. “You mean they gave you their bad energy, their,” I couldn’t keep the mockery out of my voice, “bad karma?”
“You can make fun of it all you like.” Jack was irritated. “Doesn’t make it wrong.”
I tried to block out the shrill Christmas song jangling in my brain. “You mean that you have heightened-sensory perception? That you’re some sort of walking, talking, giant energy receptacle for other people?”
Jack shrugged. “Never explained it like that before, but well, yeah.”
“So,” I challenged. “Today at the park. You came in to help because you knew they were thinking bad thoughts?”
I waved my hand back towards the playground. “I’m confused. You didn’t know they would do that with the bird?”
“No,” he said. “Can’t predict anything. Just feel things. Sometimes when they’re already happening, sometimes it’s what people are intending to do. Just how they feel. What I was feeling wasn’t about the bird, or the boy. What they were doing wasn’t that bad.”
I couldn’t work him out. “It wasn’t that bad?” I said. “They were trying to get a small child to rip a bird’s head off, Jack. It was awful. And then Rebecca –” but I still couldn’t say it. “What she did –”
He was getting impatient, regretting his decision to tell me. “– no, I started to feel it after I’d untied Charlie. What I felt was worse. By comparison, that was nothing.”
He was freaking me out. “What’s worse than that?” I whispered.
“Lots of things are worse than that,” he said. Despite my skepticism, his words made me shivery, like someone was walking over my grave. “Whether you believe me or not, I’m normally right. Please be careful.”
“Be careful?” I yelped. “Why, be careful. You said you only feel things. Nothing bad has to happen, does it?”
“I’ve been here before. When I feel that way –.”
“– You think something bad is going to happen to me?”
“No,” he said, before he cocked his head to one side. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?” My voice was a little screechy.
He spread his palms out in front of him to calm me down. “Just get the signals. Can’t always interpret them.”
Bloody hell. I tried to ease the tension. “So, what signals are you getting from me right now?” I asked.
Jack finally grinned. “Ah,” he said. “Easy. Uncertainty. You’re wondering what to make of me.”
I nodded. “You’re not wrong. Hero to a ten-year-old boy, savior to a clipped bird and,” I checked he was still smiling, “a raving lunatic with chaotic feelings.”
Jack laughed, but it felt strained, like he was trying to make me feel at ease. “Glad you understand. That you believe me.”
One summer, during my parent’s slow disintegration, we’d rented a holiday cottage at the side of a Scottish loch where all three of us had avoided the back bedroom. It was full of musty, oppressive air that refused to leave no matter how much Mum opened the windows in the torrential rain. A woman at the local pub was kind enough to inform us that some guy had hung himself in the same room thirty years earlier. As if that explained the terrible way we all felt when we were in there. I didn’t believe it then and I still don’t; that as he’d checked out, he’d left his suffering behind for us to collect generations later like some sort of cosmic safety deposit box or a mystical postal service.
“Well,” I said. “I believe that you believe it.” Lily was beginning to cry. “Okay,” I said. “I need to go home now before you freak me out even more.”
He raised his arm as a goodbye gesture and I began to mooch quickly along the street, trying to give the impression of not rushing, while trying to gain some distance.
A few shops down, where the High Street curves a little in line with the river below, I found Lily a piece of rusk underneath the pram – it was stale, getting slightly mushy but seemed to fit with her expectations – and we watched Jack walking down Boat Lane to get on the ferry. He was covered in mud, a soggy cardboard box full of food in his arms and a nearly dead bird snuggled in his pocket. No doubt about it. Fifty-three minutes in and my list was pretty full in all of the ways that Jack wasn’t normal, the ways he was special, so very bloody different from everyone else. I had to admit it – despite my fierce reservations – I liked him all the more for it.
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