Be Afraid by vegetables
Chapter 1: Cover
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
Chapter 10: Chapter 9
Chapter 11: Chapter 10
Chapter 12: Chapter 11
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Joe knew all the people round the dinner table: his mum, his brother, and the man with a face like a skull. The man had been there for some time, and he wouldn't go away; Joe had asked, then begged, then cursed. He’d given up, now, but that hadn't worked either: the skull man still sat at the table whenever Joe came for food.
“Tonight,” the man with the skull was saying. “It will happen tonight, and there's nothing you can do.” He sounded disinterested, in the way that adults do, like how his father would talk about stock markets or events in a distant war. Joe sighed, disguising his gnawing terror. “Mum,” he said, “the skull man says it’s tonight. Whatever he’s been planning, whatever he’s waited for. Tonight's when he's going to kill us all.”
His Mum sighed in a different way from Joe, a sigh that was exhausted and angry at once. “Stop it with your skull man, Joe! I can't take it now, not with the whole of today. I'm not buying it, it's not an excuse. ‘There's no point studying ‘cause the skull man will kill us all!’ It’s more inventive than the dog eating your homework, but it's still just as bloody annoying.”
Joe’s brother grunted assent from behind his giant book. Invisibly, the skull man rose from his chair.
“Can't you see him?” Joe said weakly. “It's not exactly like he’s small.” The skull man now nearly filled the kitchen with his wispy body, expanding like gas as he moved towards the flaming hob.
“They can't see me, Joe,” said the man with a face like a skull. “There are few of your people who can. That’s why I'm here, I suppose. That’s why your family has to die.” His wispy body moved over the hob, and flames licked up and over him until he was just fire wreathed round a bone-dead grin. Joe’s courage collapsed, and he began to cry. His mother, anger forgotten, stopped what she was doing and came down to his side.
“It's okay, honey,” she said. “The skull man isn’t real. It's just us here, okay? With our skulls all safe in our heads. There’s nothing to be frightened of.”
The flames spread up to the roof, and down the walls. The fire alarm failed to go off, and melted off the ceiling instead. Smoke filled up the tiny room, and at the centre of it was a single grinning skull.
“There’s nothing to be frightened of,” repeated Joe’s mother, as fire dripped down and ignited her hair. “N’thn to be frightened of,” grunted his brother, as he read from a book that burned and burned. It was hard to see it now, but it was almost as if the skull was grinning even wider…
...Joe screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed.
Fire continued to fill up the burning room.
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“I just thought it was strange,” said Chris to her mother in the car. “Can't you see why I would?”
“Of course we can, Chrissy,” said her mum from behind the wheel, “your father and I both can. You've lost two of your friends in a very short time. That's a hard thing for anyone, let alone someone as young as you.”
“They both died in fires,” said Chris levelly. “In their homes, with their families. After saying a skull-headed man would kill them both. Like the man who sits at our table. Who’s here in the car with us now.”
“She won't listen,” said the man with the face of a skull. “None of them will. Better to be like Stacey, and tell no one what you see. Better to seem sane, in the time that you’ve got left.”
“You can tell the Doctor about the skull-faced man,” said Chris’s mum, pronouncing the word with a capital D. “She knows all about other children who’ve seen similar things. It's good of her to see us so soon, and on the NHS. She said your story was unusual enough that it was worth seeing you early. We’re lucky, Chrissy. Don't go forgetting that.”
“Psychiatrist,” said Chris, not agreeing with her mother. “People call her a psychiatrist, not a Doctor.”
“You’ll call her a Doctor,” said her mum. “A doctor for your brain, like Doctor Khan is for my lungs. ‘Psychiatrist’ makes people think you’re broken, and I don't want them to go on thinking that.”
Joe had said the world was broken, Chris thought but didn't say. That in the future the stuff they learned in school would all be done by robots, or the world would be blown away by some disagreement between grown-ups. School was a thing adults made you do so they could pretend that there still was a future. He’d pulled the four of them together, and now he was dead in a fire.
In the seat beside her, the skull man continued to grin.
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When they got to the hospital, Chris’s spirits didn't improve. The Doctor and her mum talked about her for ages, as if she wasn't there in the room at all. They used words she didn't understand and words they thought she didn't understand, and she felt like a broken appliance rather than a person. After what seemed like a thousand days the Doctor said she wanted to talk to Chris alone, and with reluctance her mother left the room.
“Sorry about that,” said the Doctor. “It's what grown ups want, to talk about children as if they weren't there. Your mother’s gone now, so we can be honest with each other.”
Chris braced herself. The worst sort of adult tried to get you on side, as if they understood you when in fact they didn't at all. You're not like me, Chris thought, you don’t remember what it’s like to be a child. The Doctor would pretend, though; Chris knew the drill. She knew the sort of thing this woman was going to say.
“So,” said the Doctor. “I'm an alien.”
Chris had been wrong.“Is this a test?” she found herself saying at last.
The Doctor looked confused. “I'm not sure what you mean.”
“You know, a psychiatric test. You say something that can't be true, to see if I'll go along with it?”
“Oh!” said the Doctor, “That’d be clever! No, nothing like that. I'm just saying it ‘cause I'm an alien. From space. Up there!” She pointed at the sky. “And down there.” She pointed at the ground. “And, uh, sort of everywhere.” She waved her arms around. “That's the thing about space, really.”
“You don't look like an alien,” said Chris, feeling silly as the words left her mouth.
“Oh? And what should an alien look like?”
“They–” Chris stopped. Like lots of eyes and tentacles, a part of her was going to say, or — said a darker part — like a man with a skull instead of a head. But she suddenly realised an alien might look like something else entirely. She had once read about a mantis that pretended to be a flower, and was good enough at it that a bee would land on it for it to be gobbled up. What if an alien worked in the same way? If they just looked and sounded like normal people, and seemed perfectly ordinary until it was too late for you?
“I guess an alien could look like you,” she said, hoping she wouldn't be gobbled up. A thought struck her. “Are all the doctors in this place aliens? Are all the doctors in the world?”
“Ha! No. And I haven't been in this place long. I just sort of landed here and had people asking who I was. I said I was the Doctor, and they asked what my specialism was, and I said I was a sort of doctor… of the mind, and one thing led to another, and here I am.”
“I showed them this,” said the Doctor by way of explanation, waving a blank piece of paper in Chris’s face.
“That's a blank piece of paper,” said Chris.
“Yes, but they didn't know that! They thought it was a qualification from the country’s most respected school of medicine, and things worked out for me after that.”
“But that’s not on,” said Chris. “You can't go practicing medicine without a qualification, even if you are an alien. You wouldn't know what you were doing. People might die.”
“You're quite right,” said the Doctor. “That's why after I got here I had to get myself a qualification. From the country's most respected school of medicine.”
“But doing that must take a long time?”
“Oh, many years. But that's okay.” She leant in to whisper at Chris, although no one was listening. “I have a time machine”. She smiled. “And that's not another test.” Chris had no idea whether to go along with this, or protest, or give up talking altogether, so decided she should change the subject entirely.
“I suppose all that might be true,” she said. “But even if you are an alien with a time machine, in the end you are still my psychiatrist. My mother’s wanted me to meet you for weeks now; she's been really worried about me. But you haven't asked anything about me, or my condition. You’ve just talked about yourself for a while.”
The Doctor didn't respond to that, not for a while. She just looked sad, and old, and distant. For the first time, Chris noticed her eyes and the look that was in them, a gaze that melted fire and stopped the sun. She was an alien, then, Chris knew. It hadn't even been a very good disguise.
“Your mum told me about what you saw,” the Doctor finally said. “A man with a skull for a head, following you through every thought. Telling you terrible things. And she told me what happened to your friends, to make you afraid.” She knelt down by Chris to look her in the eye.
“I'm not an adult, Christina,” she said, “however much I look like one. And I wish I was, because someone in your situation should have an adult to talk to, because I know how that really matters. And I'm sorry it’s me, who has to be saying what I’m about to now.”
She stood up and looked out at the window, light casting a snaking shadow.
“They're called the Nack,” she said, “and they're hard for me to explain. Only children can see them, and there’s only a few who can…”
There was a knock at the door. Chris’s mother was calling her name.
“We don't have much time left today,” said the Doctor, “but I have to tell you this. The skull men are real, Christina. They’re real, and it's okay to be terrified of them, because what they do to people is a terrifying thing. I'm trying to stop them — and I will — but until then things might get a bit difficult for you. Don't feel bad, not for being scared. Sometimes it's okay to be afraid.”
“Thank you,” said Chris, turning towards the door.
“Thank you,” said the Doctor. “Goodbye, Christina.”
“It's Chris,” said Chris, “and that isn't a boy’s name.”
“Of course it isn't. I lost a friend recently, and she didn't have a boy’s name either. Goodbye, Chris.”
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It was a long time since Stacey had slept a whole night’s sleep. She’d been stressed, been biting her nails. Her family knew something was wrong — of course it was, with two friends dead to fires — but she'd been determined not to tell them what. That was the skull man’s advice, after all. She didn't want to disobey anything the skull man said.
Her family had said lots of children worried about things these days. They’d told her about websites that talked about it, that would help her stop being afraid. But none of them worked, in the end. They had told her the events she was afraid of weren't likely to happen to her, but not what she should do if they actually were. They said that a girl like her would not come to die in a fire. But that wasn't what the skull man said, and it was him who was beside her right now.
“You should keep your worries to yourself,” he said. “It's not good for the people you love to go fretting. To know how little time they have left.” In the dark of the room the skull looked blank and inhuman– but then a skull is one of the most human things there is. It’s all that's left of us, Stacey thought, after everything that makes us people is peeled away. They would find her skull, not long from now. The fact was stuck right into her, just like her skull and bones.
Just like every night, Stacey began to cry.
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The psychiatrists at the hospital had many opinions about what the Doctor did in the canteen. Not long after she’d started, one of them had said there was a Member of Parliament just like her– who’d eat with the cleaners and dinner ladies, while people of her profession ate elsewhere. And the Doctor had frowned and asked why all the Members didn't do the same, and now that psychiatrist didn't talk to her any more. Some of her colleagues thought the Doctor’s behaviour was stupid, and some of them thought it was noble. But none of them came to sit with her as she sat where she did for lunch, to be with her as she munched away on her oddly-cut corned beef sandwiches.
“People think I'm normal,” she said to her good friend Mary. “I'm still not used to that. Time was they'd say things like ‘Why are you wearing those question marks?’ or ‘What are you doing in my garage?’ Normal is a whole different ball game.”
“I don't think anyone’s really normal,” said Mary. “My friend draws pictures of men with chicken heads; my niece is mad about underwater hockey. Normal’s just a word people use, to describe folk they don't really know.”
“I think it's the eyebrows,” the Doctor went on as though Mary hadn't said anything. “I used to have giant eyebrows. Attack eyebrows.” She mimed a hair explosion on her brow. “People think there's something going on, when they see eyebrows the size of that.”
“Get them plucked, did you?”
“Something like that.” The Doctor took a big bite out of her sandwich. “Thing is,” she said through a mouthful of whatever corned beef might be, “it wasn't just the eyebrows. I would lecture people, tell them things they already knew. Pudding brains, I used to call them.”
“Pudding brains!” said Mary, shocked. “That doesn't sound like the Jean Smith I know at all.”
“Oh, but it was. And I still believe it, in a way. People do have pudding brains– but have you seen the puddings they have on the shelves these days? There’s all kinds of stuff in them; you never know what you’re going to find.” She swallowed. “I was so busy thinking about what I knew I'm not sure I noticed what I didn't, you know? And there’s always so much of it, more than I’d even realised.” She laughed. “But I haven't changed that much, have I? All these monologues, talking about myself all the time. How about you, Mary? How’re things with you these days?”
Mary looked cornered. “They're… they’ve been better, Jean. I work two jobs now, you know, cleaning this hospital then the other. I hear people talk. Everyone’s struggling, even if they say it in private. The health system’s at breaking point. And there’s so many people coming here, aren't there? Who we say are sick in the head. Sometimes I wonder if it’s not the people who’re sick, Jean, but something else– like the sickness is coming through us, corrupting us. What can people like you even do, against something like that?”
The Doctor looked into the distance, her jaw set. A human would have said she was looking into nothing, but there are lots of things a human cannot see.
“We can do something, Mary. However bad things get. I promise you we can do something.”
“Well,” said Mary, “that’s a vague thing to say. S’how I know you’re a psychiatrist, Jean.”
The Doctor mock-glared with a face that was covered in crumbs.
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“Do you say what you said to me to everyone?” Chris asked the Doctor.
“That depends,” said the Doctor, idly completing paperwork with her sonic screwdriver. “What was I saying to you?”
“That the things in my head are real. That people might tell me they aren't, that I'm delusional– but that I shouldn't listen to them, no matter what they say.”
“Not at all,” said the Doctor. “I tell most people I see that they’d benefit from medication. The universe is full of surprising things, astonishing things. But that doesn't mean people’s visions are always there.” She absent-mindedly waggled her screwdriver, blotting ink all over a form. “Time was, I didn't believe in pills. Thought they were made by people with tiny minds to make everyone as small as them. But I was wrong. Earth medication is very, very primitive. But it's often still the best thing I can offer, to the people who I see.”
“Could you not just give them better pills?” said Chris. “Ones from space.”
“Can't do that sort of thing. Time would explode.” The Doctor blew out her cheeks, making a poofing noise.
“Oh. Fair enough. Y’know, I'm glad you said that. About pills. If you were going around saying to everyone the things that you say to me, I’d’ve had to contact someone in charge. It wouldn't be right. Even if you are an alien.”
“No. It wouldn't be. You can't go round telling people their visions are real. Except, of course” — she glanced meaningfully at Chris — “except if it happens to be true.”
“That's the other thing,” said Chris. If they are real — the Nack — then why do they look like that? A grinning skull on a load of gas, but it’s a human skull. Is that the sort of thing all aliens have?”
“Aliens look like all sorts of things,” the Doctor said, “but that's not what the Nack really look like. You have to understand” — she hesitated — “that they're a bit beyond you.”
“What? Because I'm a child?”
“No! Because you're a human. And what you just said there, that's why you can see them at all. Skulls mean danger, at a primal level; you know that there's something there and turn it to something you can understand. But it's the knowing there's a world outside you that does it. You’re smart, but you're also young; adults are always telling you off. Saying there are things a child’s too young to know. Never occurs to them.”
“That there’s things an adult’s too young to know, too. Look, what would they say if I told them there was a creature whose reality — whose conceptual world — was utterly beyond adult understanding? That the things that creature thought and did were things their brains just couldn't understand– not because they were stupid, but because they weren’t built that way? And what would an adult say if I told them those creatures would put their world in danger, and that they wouldn't even see it until it was far too late?”
“They’d say you were mad,” said Chris. “They’d stop you from being a psychiatrist.”
“And what would the creatures in that forest say,” said the Doctor, waving out of the window, “if we could say the same thing to them?”
Chris went to look at the forest, fenced in with trees all covered in red X’s. Soon the bulldozers would move in, to build houses that were closer to the hospital, houses that no one would be able to afford.
Suddenly, she began to feel very, very afraid.
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Chris would never have assumed funerals would get easier, not when they were ones for her friends. But she always expected them to be better than they were, before finding that they were just the same again. As Stacey’s closest remaining friend, she was right up at the front, right near Stacey’s coffin and squeezing her mother’s hand. Taking time off for so many funerals was hard for her mum — it meant more time off work, so less money to spend on food — but Chris could tell she was trying hard not to let it show. She was good at reading her mum, even in places like this. Even with the skull man sitting there on her lap.
“You won’t want me to say this,” said Chris, “but the man with the skull for a head is sitting on you. His fronds are on your legs, his skull is in front of your head. I don’t understand how you’re even able to see anything.” The skull just grinned, as if she had told a joke.
“You’re right,” said her mum, “I didn’t want you to say that. Please let the skull man go, Chris. Not here at a funeral, not now. It isn’t the place.”
“Stacey didn’t mention him, not ever,” said Chris. “Not to anybody except for us. She wanted to keep her family safe, I think, to keep them from the truth. I’m not sure it was right of her, in the end.” Her mum began to cry, and Chris knew if she asked she’d be told it was because of the funeral.
Chris looked round. A funeral for a child is a terrible thing, and the crematorium was as packed as it had been for Joe and Grant. Most of the school had turned out, and lots of the teachers, and lots more people of all ages that could have been from anywhere at all. All lives cast long shadows, but a child’s was longer than most, and for the third time Chris wondered who’d come to her funeral, after the skull man had burned her down.
“Three fires, and three families dead,” said the skull man in his bored, old way. “You’d think someone would say something, wouldn’t you? But it’s funny what you can make people not notice, once you set your mind to it.”
“Not the Doctor,” said Chris, in a voice only monsters could hear, speaking out loud before she could help herself. Instantly, she knew it was a mistake. At a glance, the floating skull looked much the same. But Chris somehow Chris could tell that inside it was no longer grinning.
“The Doctor,” said the man, now sounding less bored. “An old, grey man? Haughty, and rude. Enormous eyebrows. Not patient with people he thinks aren’t as smart as him.”
“You must be thinking of Doctor O’Neil,” said Chris. “Or Doctor Marr. Most of the psychiatrists sound a bit like that, now that you happen to mention it.” The skull man looked a little bit relieved. “Doctor,” he said, more to himself than anything.
“I shouldn't have done that”, thought Chris. “I shouldn't have told him about the Doctor.” She had never thought that you could be too sad, at the funeral of your very best friend. But now, she realised there was a way. There was a place below the tiny coffin, and it was a place that no one should ever have to go.
Chris wondered about the time she could see the Doctor again, and wished more than anything that time could be right now.
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“It's spreading,” said the Doctor. “Across the city, but across the Earth as well. The Nack just needs to feed, just one more time. Before it breaks apart the world.”
“They’re not an it,” said Chris. “They're a they. Four of them, coming for me and my friends.”
“Oh, they're a they,” agreed the Doctor. “But they're also an it as well. You lot, you don’t like letting go of your rigid categories. A thing can be lots of different things, even if you don't understand why.”
“I did a bad thing,” she said.
“Yes, well, I wasn't going to mention it,” said the Doctor. “You do it a lot, anyway. That silly thing you do.”
“I don’t do a thing. No, I told the skull man. The Nack. I told him about you.”
The Doctor’s face went stern. Suddenly she looked serious, and terribly sad as well. “You shouldn't have done that,” she said quietly.
“No, I shouldn’t. I'm sorry.”
“Don't be. I should've said. If they know I'm here, they'll speed things up; things’ll go faster than I would have liked.” She looked Chris straight in the eye. “We might not have much time.”
Chris paused. And then, “Am I going to die?”
“Oh, definitely! Everyone is. That's what comes with being alive. But all being well, you shouldn't die soon.” She hesitated. “Except–”
“It's possible,” Chris said.
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “Yes it is.”
Chris started to cry. She'd known, of course, up there in her smart girl’s brain. But knowing a thing in your mind wasn't like knowing it in your bones. Everything seemed to dissolve, except the enormity of it. The Doctor came down to her, and squeezed her hand.
“I'm not an adult,” the alien said at last. “I'm much, much older, and younger too. I’m like the Nack; I’m two things at the same time. An adult would say to you that it won't happen, that you shouldn't worry. But that won't help, ‘cause you know that it might. The worst isn't something that never comes.”
Light shone through the surgery window, down onto their crouching forms.
“All this life, all this beauty,” said the Doctor. “Who wouldn't be scared of leaving it? Not being so means it's wasted on you, that you haven’t noticed how wonderful it is.” She paused. “I'm scared too, and I think I'm right to be. I've almost died so, so many times. You forget there's a risk, after a while, forget what dying means. You become worse than an adult, and you never even realise.”
She stood up.
“I'm the Doctor,” she said. “And I will do everything in my power to save you, Chris. But I don't know if that makes anything better.”
“It doesn't make it worse,” said Chris.
“Then that's something. Watch out for the Nack. And be afraid.”
The sun bellowed down into the tiny room.
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Chris filled the Doctor’s mind as she ate in the staff canteen. She wanted to listen, whether she was paid to or not, but her thoughts blotted out the hearing from her mind. It was important to push through it, though– Mary was pouring her heart out in front of her, and that was more important than worrying should be.
“I don't know how we’ll do it, Jean,” Mary was saying. “Two full-time jobs and I'm skipping more meals than I’d like, but even then it’s not going to be enough. We don't ask for much, not really. It's not like we’re a family of scroungers. I just want to know I can feed my children, you know? But they always need more, and the costs’re always going up. I've told myself they’ll never have to go to a food bank, but sometimes I don't know–” she trailed off.
“I saw a quote on one of those sites once,” she finally said. “On the internet. It said that children didn't need fairy tales to tell them dragons existed, ‘cause they already knew they were real. And I think about it a lot, you know? Because adults forget. That our children know things, know when they aren't okay. I tell myself I'm putting a brave face on for them, but sometimes I think that it’s really the other way round, that it’s us who need telling the fairy stories–”
“–Listen to me, though,” she said. “Nattering away. I'm making you do your job out here, and with you on your time off!”
“People have a lot to say wherever I am,” said the Doctor, “Someone like me, she's always on the job.”
“People talk more, don't they? To a female doctor?”
“That’s certainly something I’ve been discovering.” The Doctor frowned to herself, looking past at the wider canteen. Shadows were gathering, and something about them was wrong. The people at lunch still laughed and ate, but a strange expression was humming in their eyes.
“Sorry, Jean,” said Mary, “But I’m feeling a bit funny today. I think there might be something wrong with the weather.”
“They know I'm here,” said the Doctor to herself, drawing her sonic screwdriver from her side. If Chris had been there she would have seen four men with their faces like skulls, wisps stretching towards the centre of the canteen. But the Doctor could see the Nack for what it was, and so what she saw was something more awful entirely.
The humans in the room could not have seen what happened to the Doctor next, any more than the spiders on the ceiling could have known they were in a canteen. Some of them might have felt cold, or sad, or like something was wrong with the air. A few of them might even have sensed a fight was happening, for hope and for joy and the world. None of the humans in that room was a child, so none of them would see the Doctor battering against the wisps, hammering against the skulls. And only one woman herself saw the fight as it really was.
There was a pop, and the Doctor fell from mid-air, panting and covered in sweat.
“Tonight,” she said to Mary. “They're coming for Chris tonight.”
“Sorry, dear,” said Mary. “I don't know who Chris is.”
“It doesn't matter,” said the Doctor. “I mean, it does matter! It matters impossibly much. But it's not what you should be thinking about now.”
“Mary,” she said, “Pride, and strength. We think they're the same thing. But sometimes they're opposites, and we have to know when that is. Sometimes…” she chose her words carefully. “...sometimes the strongest thing to do is come clean, however hard that might be. To tell people how difficult things are, and that they might not ever be okay.”
“I think tonight” — she hesitated — “it might be the last night of the world. And I'm not saying that to scare you, athough it should! I'm saying it ‘cause I think you should live like it's true, because maybe it might be, this time round. And one day it will be, for you and for me.”
“You weren't kidding, Ms Psychiatrist,” said Mary in the end. “You really do think you're always on your job.”
“I always am,” said the Doctor, looking at the twisting shadows.
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It was tonight, Chris thought. The Doctor had texted her to say so. She had no idea how she'd gotten her number, and it was probably breaking patient confidentiality– but in this case it was probably fair if she didn't complain. Some things went out the window when a child was in danger, and Chris accepted she was certainly in it now. Her mum was in the other room, clattering away at something. Soon she would come to cook, and light the gas.
“You’re going to try it soon,” she said to the skull at the table, “but you won't succeed. The Doctor will stop you. That's what she always does.”
“There's no point saying stuff you don't believe,” said the man with the skull for a face. “She's fighting us now, fighting all that we are. But we’re going to end her, and I'm going to kill your world.” There was an air of confidence hung around the skull; Chris knew what he said was true. And she could see the Doctor anyway, if she squinted a bit. There was a space that was not a space where she was fighting, even if Chris couldn't make out the shape she was battling against. If Chris struggled she could even hear the Doctor’s voice, bonging away like a bell inside her head.
“I'm occupying them,” the Doctor was saying, “But the Nack is a very strong thing. We’ll have to hit it in its soft spot, where it’s weak.” She whispered. “At the moment it’s starting to feed.”
“Did you say something about food?” said Chris’s mum, coming in. “It's bangers and beans tonight. Sausages. I'm looking forward to them, I can tell you, after the mess of a day I've had!”
“Don't light the hob,” said Chris. “Light it, he’ll burn us down. He’ll kill us tonight, like Grant, and Joe, and Stacey. And I've decided that I don't think I want to die.”
Her mum groaned. “Not this again! I've enough on, Christina, without you and your skull-faced man. I took you to the Doctor, didn't I? What's she told you, to help make the thoughts go away?”
The hollow sockets of the skull bored into Chris’s soul. Her heart was hammering; it had never been so scared. She didn't want to do it, what she was going to do next. But the Doctor had said it was alright to be afraid.
“She said my thoughts shouldn't go away,” said Chris at last. “That there were children who saw things that weren't there, believed what wasn't true– but that I wasn't one of them. She told me the skull faced man was real.”
“She said what?!” said her mum. “But she's a respected psychiatrist! I don't know, people with that sort of power, they get away with all kinds of things. I'm telling you,” she pointed at the sky, “I'm calling that hospital this second and getting that doctor struck off– arrested. There are things you don't do to children!” She roared in rage, choking back the tears.
“All this emoting, someone might forget about dinner,” said the skull at the table beside them. “Perhaps it's time I took matters into my own hands.” Silently, he rose from the ground, wisps snaking towards the dial of the hob. Chris could attack him, but that wouldn't be enough. The skull faced man could only be beaten by someone stronger...
“You're wrong!” said Chris at last. “The Doctor's been nothing but good. She took me in and she heard my fears, and” — she wept — “and she listened to what I had to say–”
“You should do some bloody listening to yourself,” snarled her mother. Behind her, the hob erupted into flame. Chris looked from her mother, to the skull man snaking towards the fire, to the Doctor, sweating as her strength was beginning to fail…
...and then a phone dinged in a cheery way.
Chris’s mum flinched, startled, picking it up before she had time to think. “‘Mass text from Mary,” she said to herself. “This time it’s about” — she frowned —”it’s about–”
“Hello to you all! You're used to these texts by now, I expect. Something cheery, to get you through the day. This one’s a bit different, I'm afraid. See, it’s been hard for a while now, and there was something I wanted to say.
“Things have been tough, the past few months. I've been worried about making ends meet. And I've put a brave face on it, because that's what you do– but a friend of mine made me think about who that brave face was for. Because it’s wrong, isn't it? To lie to the people you love. To pretend that everything's going to be okay, when deep down you know you haven't believed that, not for longer than you can remember. So tonight, when I got home, I told my boys how I was really feeling. I thought they might laugh, or might shout. But of course they’d just always known, in the way that always do. And that's more of a weight off me than I can say.
“I'm not sending this text to cheer you up, or to make you think. I’m sending it because I’ve seen you don’t have to hide, if hiding’s the thing that you’re doing. Jean told me that, and I wanted to tell it to you. More important, isn't it, than some silly aspirational message?”
“–I,” said Chris’s mum, “I don't–”
A strange look came over her face, like something was falling away.
“He’s real,” wept Chris. “The skull faced man is real.” Her mum looked past her, over to the thing in their kitchen. “Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, I see that he is.”
She turned off the hob, and picked up the pan beside it.
“I don't know who or what you are,” she said. “But you've hurt Christina, and you've broken into my house. And you've killed all those families, all those children. I don't think you even thought that it was wrong.”
“You silly, tiny animal,” said a voice that was no longer bored, “You have no idea how much you don't understand. What the Nack want, what we want with your world. You can’t comprehend the things we truly are.”
“I am very silly,” said Chris’s mum, stone faced. “All sorts of things I don't know. But, I figure, I can always find out. Right now, for example, I'm wondering” — she swung the pan behind her arm — “if you can kill a skull by smashing it in the face.”
The pan crashed into the jaw of the open skull. Everything bent, in a way that everything shouldn't, and some of the cutlery started to rearrange. The skull and the wisps all howled and spun to dust, and outside the giant billboard buckled and blew away. There was a blast, and a flash of brilliant light. And then there was nothing, but shards of falling bone. The Nack were beyond anything a human could understand, and that was true even as they died. But that didn’t mean a human couldn’t beat them, if she hit them in exactly the right kind of way.
“Turns out you can,” said Chris's mum happily. “I might be silly. But I'm always happy to learn new useful things.”
She turned to Chris.
“I was wrong,” she said. “I wanted to protect you, and I didn’t. I wanted you to be safe, and I put you in more danger than I could ever realise. I've just been trying to do what’s right–” she squeezed Chris into her arms. “I've been seeing a doctor too, Chris. A psychiatrist. They've been trying to make me see things differently, to show me that everything’s okay. But sometimes everything isn't okay, is it? Things get hard, and you can’t tell people why. But not being okay is okay in itself, Christina. I think that's what your doctor understood.”
She hugged Chris. “I love you,” she said.
“I love you too, mum.”
A blonde-haired woman materialised, and crashed straight into the floor.
“Ah!” said a muffled voice from between the tiles. “Lots of techniques, in psychiatry. Sometimes we like to make it look like we just appear out of thin air, because, um, isn't that what all our problems do? Sort of come along when you don’t expect them. It’s really a very clever technique.” The woman got up, and brushed down her trousers. “So, um, if you appreciated that innovative lesson–”
“You don't have to pretend,” said Chris's mum. “I know exactly who you are. You're the Doctor. You fought those things and you believed my child, I already know you're something special. What's a little appearing got to do with anything, when you can do things as important as that?” She gave the Doctor an enormous hug, then burst into floods of tears.
“Gosh, that actually was quite a good technique,” said the Doctor to no one in particular.
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A day had been saved, and a new day had begun. The Doctor was going away to space and time. She met Chris out by her front door, and Chris boggled again at how human she could seem. She was an ordinary woman, in ordinary clothes. Someone might walk past her in a crowded street and think whatever they thought about women, and they’d never once think to look into her eyes. But then that’s true of all us, Chris thought as she looked at her friend. Later, she remembered it as the first adult thought she’d had.
The pair walked down towards the doomed forest, which stretched down from the hospital where they had met. “There it is!” said the Doctor after they’d come to the tumbledown wall.
Chris wouldn't even have noticed it, if it hadn't been pointed out. She’d have thought it was a mechanical thing whose function could only be guessed at– the top of a well, perhaps, or some kind of electrical substation.
“That’s my machine for travelling everywhere. Through time and space and the things that lie in between. The TARDIS. Don't say that it should be pink.”
“Why would I say that?”
“Oh, you wouldn't. I just sort of worry, that it's something a person might say.”
Pink was about the only colour the TARDIS wasn't. It was mostly blue, but covered in spots of peeling paint; lime greens and yellows and something that looked like rust. It was decked in graffiti all faded and incompressible, and bits that had once been windows lay all cracked in and smashed.
“It's a bit rubbish, your TARDIS,” said Chris after looking at it for a while.
“It's a police box. They used them long ago. People use ones that are left are coffee shops, or places to take away food– but sometimes they don’t use them at all. Some police boxes just go on and get old, and stay on unnoticed in the shadows.” She looked up happily at her ruined ship. “Time was I'd make her look as blue and bold as possible, like she didn't want to be hidden away. An old girl, pretending she's something she's not. But I'm over that sort of thing now.”
“I want to come with you,” said Chris, blurting it out in case she forgot.
“And you can! But just back to your mother's, and no more. The places I go aren't safe, not for a child as young as you.”
“But it might not be safe here. You said the Nack were going to destroy the world, or do something even worse to it. And my friend Joe — a friend they killed — he thought we’d all be destroyed anyway. That we’d all die in terrorism or a war, or that things would get so bad we’d all just stop sort of bothering.”
“Sounds like a right laugh, your friend.”
“He's dead, Doctor.”
“Yes. Sorry. Rudeness,” she winced. “Hard habit to break.”
“It makes me think, though,” said Chris. “Is there a future, Doctor? For all of us here on Earth. You must be able to go and check, in your time and space machine.”
“Yes!” she said, “and no. It's complicated; doesn’t work like people think. Sometimes, you branch out, go spiralling out among the stars.” She looked at the ground. “And sometimes… well, sometimes you don't. But it's not something that's set in stone. There are wonderful futures, fantastic ones. But it’s true some are terrible too. And I can't promise you which will happen, not to you or anyone else.
“But I want to see the future, whatever it turns out to be. I want to travel with you.”
The Doctor sighed. “Thing is. I've lost a lot of people over the years, a lot of friends. And one of them was a schoolteacher. She wasn't dead, not really, but things had to work out that everyone thought she was. You've been to lots of funerals for your friends; you know what it's like when a child dies. It's not so different, with a primary school teacher. Rows and rows of children, all gaunt, all learning that death can happen at any time. I’d always said I had a duty of care to my friend, but I hadn't really realised– that I'd had it to them as well, and that I’d broken it. All those tiny faces curled up, and me responsible. And like I said, a child's funeral’s the same. I can't do something like that again, Chris. And I'm sorry.”
She turned round sadly to look at her battered machine.
“It scares me to think that there might not be a future,” said Chris. “It scares me that Joe might have been right. If things are hard now, and they'll keep getting harder… it doesn't seem like there's much room for hope.”
“But that's not what hope is,” said the Doctor. “It's not reassurance, not a certainty. It’s not saying things will definitely turn out alright. It’s more–” she trailed off, squinting at the sun. “I used to say. Where there's life, there's hope. Because it's ludicrous, isn't it? To think life happened at all– get a big rock, throw some sludge around, wait a while and you've got yourself a rhino. It’s silly, but it all happened anyway. . And you lot, too! Go back even a million years ago, tell the creatures about your world of beds and washing machines, they’d think it was mad– and you go round thinking that it’s normal. But normal’s the last thing it is. It’s beautiful, and more beautiful because it’s true.”
“This whole world you live in” — she waved her hands — “it didn't have to happen. You'd never think it would have happened. And it's almost been destroyed so, so many times. But it's all still here; there’s still life. And there’ll still be hope, as long as that’s still true. It’s true that it might all end, that it might end soon. But life’s about looking at the beauty, not at the ending. That’s what I believe, anyway. That’s what I think hope is.”
She turned the key in the lock of the TARDIS, creaking its cracked door open.
“Don't get me wrong,” said the Doctor, “There’s some terrible stuff out there. And I'm not saying you shouldn't be afraid of it. But it's like my old friend Gilbert didn't quite say: you don't tell fairy tales so children know the dragons exist–”
She smiled. “.–but so they know that they can be beaten.” She paused. “Terrible racist, of course, and a sexist. God knows what he’d make of me now. Still, it's true what they say– we’re all of us a product of our time.”
She turned round. “Come on, Chris,” she smiled, throwing open the TARDIS door. Not unnervously, Chris walked in.
“Oh,” said Chris in a disinterested way, “it's bigger on the inside.”
Behind her, a woman was looking at a world that still remained. She had seen many things, in her many lives. She had fought many monsters, and talked down a sun. She had killed an entire race of gods, then bought them back because that was better. She had been right and wrong, old and young. And she was now a qualified psychiatrist.
An old, old being walked through a broken door, and a sound that was older than them both swept through the evening air. Light and noise filled the edge of the forest, and for a moment it seemed like it was somewhere beyond all the world.
The TARDIS winked away, and then was gone.
An owl flew through the raw, unseasonal air.
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