One: she's a brat. Yeah, you think your little sister's a brat, but you haven't met Anna (and you're about to find out how lucky that makes you). She transforms into a miniature whirlwind of pouts and slammed doors and stamping feet when she doesn't get her way.
On the other hand, when *I* get into trouble, Anna always ensures she's around to smirk and enjoy it. I swear I never saw such a smile of joy on that girl's face as when we were younger and she'd get me spanked by telling tales. Invented ones, half the time.
This brings me onto point two. Despite being a brat, and I would hazard well on the way to fully-fledged sadistic bitchhood, Anna has the cutie-pie routine down pat -- fluttering eyelashes and all -- which means that adults look at her and see five foot three of adorable angel. In their eyes, she can do no wrong.
Anna's taken the last slice of cake from the fridge? Poor dear, she must have been starving. (But I would be shouted at.) Anna's come home drenched in mud at ten on a school night? Poor thing, let's get her out of those wet clothes. (Whereas I would be nagged for a week.) Anna's perched happily on my back twisting my arm so violently that I am actually screaming for her to stop? "He made me do it." (And Tom, stop that infernal yelling.)
You get the idea.
I haven't had much to do with Anna lately, since I've had exams and she's been getting into all those girly teenage things: messing about with hair and shoes, spending hours in the bathroom or on the phone -- or both at once -- and giggling even more than usual. That's been fine by me.
Unfortunately, as of today there's a third thing to tell you about my sister, which is that she's twenty-five times our size.
And you know what kind of girl my sister is. So you see how this means trouble.
At this point I should bow to the conventions of the genre and explain how this transpired: how someone had got hold of a "shrink gun" from a research laboratory, or a bunch of implausibly militant-feminist aliens had come from outer space, or a strange fortune-teller had given someone a spooky crystal... you know, the usual stuff. But in all honesty, I still have no idea how it happened.
All I know now is that Anna rules the world, and her world is not a nice world for us to live in.
* * *
Suffice to say that I had thought my sixteenth birthday would be the best one ever.
The guys were staying over for the weekend, starting Friday (no school in the week before Easter). My parents were out of town; I had procured, through a slightly older proxy, a respectable stash of beer; and for non-alcoholic entertainment, other than the usual video games and table-tennis, Gareth had outdone himself and managed to locate a DVD of the legendary "Super Sick Pranks" ("Banned in Australia! You won't believe the stunts these freaks pull!").
Plus, Anna was ice-skating with one of her intolerable friends, so she wouldn't be around to bother us until the evening.
Instead of all this revelry, I and my buddies found ourselves inexplicably two or three inches tall, up to our ankles in the living-room carpet -- except for Kevin, who had been sprawled over one of the armchairs and was now stranded up there. The shrinking had placed us relatively far apart, each person left in the tiny centre of his original position, and we hurried to convene in the centre of the suddenly enormous room. It was two minutes before everybody had completed the journey.
Andy was the first to speak. "What the fuck, dude?"
The rest of us were agreed on this point. It was fruitless to apply the traditional pinch: the situation was far too real -- and indeed too surreal -- to be any kind of dream. It was equally clear that nobody had the slightest inkling of what had shrunk us, or how that was even possible.
"This is impossible," Nathan went so far as to declare. Nathan the nerd. He was a pretty good friend of mine, and especially valuable around exam time, but his freckles and thick glasses were often the subject of mockery, and his general irritating aptitude for the sciences could make him wearisome company. "Our bone structure wouldn't support our bodies at this size. It's the ratio of volume to weight--"
"Wow, Nathan, are we about to get one of your maths lectures?" This was the ever sarcastic Gareth. "I was just thinking, 'Hey, I'm suddenly two inches tall and might never see my loved ones again. Gee, I wish someone would start telling me about bone structure!'"
Fat Ollie snorted. "Loved ones! Nobody loves you, Gareth."
"Shouldn't even be possible," Nathan muttered sulkily, as though by repeating it he could reverse the situation. I started to wish I hadn't invited him.
"Maybe we'll change back in a minute," Chris ventured. "If it happened without warning, it might un-happen without warning. Right? Until then, can we at least cut out the squabbling?"
Kevin's head poked gingerly over a vast expanse of armchair. "Guys? I don't want to interrupt your meeting or whatever, but have we got room on the agenda for getting me the hell down from here?"
On the face of it, Kevin's predicament was a tricky one. To fall six or seven times his own reduced height would surely break bones, or worse. The armchair had four short, glossy legs -- they looked very slippery -- and although these jutted out slightly they were housed within the interior of the under-surface rather than its edge. To reach Kevin, therefore, one would practically have to be Spiderman, and in any case there was no obvious route back down.
"The sofa," Matt murmured almost to himself. He was a quiet one, Matt Lewis, but he occasionally came up with ingenious ideas, so when he did say something it made sense to listen.
We glanced up -- *way* up -- at the sofa. It was right next to the armchair, their respective arms almost touching, and Kevin could probably climb the arm and leap across to it without much trouble. But its seat cushions were barely lower than those of the armchair, so what was the point?
Kevin, with remarkable dexterity, had already squirmed up the arm of the chair and was steadying himself for the jump. He had remembered the same thing that Matt had just spotted: someone had dragged my beanbag into the living room earlier, in anticipation of the DVD (we didn't have enough seats for everybody), and it was still there, a saggy soft mass at the foot of the sofa's far end. From our perspective, it was a furry mountain in the middle distance.
There was something decidedly comical about Kevin's trek to the other side of the sofa. The soft cushions tended to absorb his footsteps, and he bounced and stumbled in slow motion like an astronaut taking steps on the Moon. The faster he tried to go, the more the pressure of his feet made him sink. However, he made it across in a minute or two, and -- carefully lowering himself as far as possible down the edge of the sofa, feet first -- dropped onto the beanbag and slid down its lumpy incline to the floor, out of breath but unharmed.
The completion of his mission was greeted with cheers and raucous applause. Fat Ollie slapped him on the back. "Nice one."
My thoughts were elsewhere. I stared contemplatively into the dark depths of an electrical plug socket above the skirting-board. If we changed back, as Chris had suggested, then all well and good. We'd have had a strange little adventure, and knowing human nature we'd probably shrug it off as a mass hallucination. But if we didn't change back...
And then I thought of Anna, and a chill of fear went through me.
As it happened, Andy was thinking along similar lines. "Hey, Tom, you told me your parents are out of town all week. What are we going to do? We can't get out of the house... we can't contact anyone... we aren't even gonna be able to eat."
Matt helpfully gestured towards a Dorito fragment on the carpet, half his height.
"Uhh, okay, yeah, we can eat someone's drool-covered Dorito for a couple of days," Andy went on. "Great. What about water? It would take five of us to turn a tap on, if we could even reach one. How will we-- hey, your sister will help us, right?"
I shook my head slowly. "We need to make sure Anna doesn't find us."
"I-isn't she the only one who can help us?" Nathan stammered. Just what I needed, I thought: for Nathan to launch into one of his n-n-n-nerdy panic attacks.
"For someone who gets an A in every subject at school, Nathan, you're one hell of an idiot sometimes," said Gareth. "What's she going to do? Water us until we grow? Stretch us out on a rack? We're stuck like this forever, whatever happens, unless it somehow wears off -- which I am starting to doubt," he concluded bitterly.
I couldn't help thinking that Anna would enjoy the rack idea.
"She could f-feed us," said Nathan. "And try to get help. Maybe scientists--"
"Look," I said, before Nathan could start talking about scientists, "you don't know what she's *like*! I know she tries to come across all cute and lovable, but it's an act, get it? Seriously, she's about the meanest girl I know. She'll probably step on us for kicks. She does it with insects. And snails."
Fat Ollie's remark that he had always thought snails *were* insects went scornfully unacknowledged.
"She likes me!" Chris protested. "She always had a crush on me."
"You go near her like this," I warned him, "and you are going to get a whole other sort of crush."
The debate continued. On our side, I pointed out, was the fact that the house didn't have stairs, which would have been an almost insurmountable barrier at our size. Given a few minutes of walking -- and an open door, or a sufficiently large crack underneath a closed one -- we should be able to get into any room. The kitchen was likely to be the most important.
Against us, as already raised, was the malevolent presence of Anna (though the others weren't entirely convinced of her true nature just yet, especially Chris) and the absence of parents, who for all their favouritism were essentially helpful and responsible people.
I don't know how long we would have stood there arguing and making plans, but the discussion was cut short by the loudest sound I had ever heard.
The loudest sound I had ever heard was a car pulling up outside, followed by cavernous footsteps, the same car departing, and an ear-splitting series of metallic cracks as a key turned in the front door, just a few feet from the entrance to the living room.
Anna was home.
* * *
We scattered. Well, most of us did.
I dived for the nearest shelter I could find, which was the cupboard supporting the stereo system. My parents' old vinyl records were in there, along with various books and leaflets about the countries they'd visited, and although the base of the cupboard was level with the floor -- no way to hide underneath -- one of the sliding doors had been left ajar. I scrambled inside. Kevin and Andy piled in after me, and we gasped for breath in the musty semi-darkness.
Fat Ollie, Matt, Gareth and Nathan had disappeared somewhere else. I tried to work out where they might have gone, individually or en masse, but I wasn't used to thinking about my house on this absurdly distorted scale: the more I thought about it, the more possible hiding-places there were. I shrugged mentally and hoped we'd find them again later.
Chris stayed where he was. And he became the first victim.
Anna didn't come into the living room immediately. First, we heard a sequence of impossibly loud noises as she dumped something heavy near the door (the bag with her ice-skating gear, I supposed), unzipped her jacket and hung it up, and stepped out of her shoes, pushing them into the cupboard by the front door, which she closed with a huge, resounding click.
"YOU HERE, TOM?"
Even after the other amplified sounds, I wasn't prepared for my giant sister's voice. It was the same familiar sugary tone that could so easily turn to a sadistic sneer, but magnified beyond belief. Her words boomed down to us like the pronouncement of a goddess to her whole world. I knew that wherever the others were, they were hearing it too, and I hoped for their sake they had found somewhere good to hide.
"HERE, TOMMY, TOMMY." Anna giggled, and we clasped our hands around our ears. "I THOUGHT YOU WERE HAVING YOUR LOSER BIRTHDAY PARTY."
Feeling like an insect, and remembering the number of insects I had seen pulped under Anna's shoes, I cowered against the spines of the books.
"OH, WELL, LOOKS LIKE YOU'VE ALL GONE OUT."
I risked a peek out of the cupboard door, Kevin and Andy hanging annoyingly over my shoulders. Chris was still standing on the carpet, facing the hallway, waiting for Anna to find him. The poor bastard really thought that her little crush on him meant she wouldn't hurt him.
"For God's sake, Chris, get in here!" Kevin hissed; but Chris was too far away to hear him, and I found myself feeling uncharitably glad. If my sister spotted Chris while he was heading for the cupboard, there was a good chance she'd look inside, and then all three of us would suffer horribly under whatever inventive cruelties she might dream up.
Imagine seeing an office block swing round towards you. That's the impression we had as the living-room door was pushed open, just before a series of ground-shaking footsteps thudded close to us and Anna stepped into the room.
"Oh shit," Andy whispered.
I knew she was just my bratty little sister, I knew she was a fourteen-year-old girl, but at this size Anna was a towering goddess. If I looked straight ahead, only her white socks were visible. Looking upwards slightly, I took in the vast expanse of her bare legs, curtailed by -- I had to tilt my head still further -- a faded blue denim skirt at mid-thigh. Kevin and Andy were straining their necks with me as we gazed up past her exposed stomach to her white crop-top ("Angel", it said in sparkly silver letters, under an enormous halo) and thence to her face.
Anna was pretty: not "stunning", or "gorgeous", or any of those words used to describe animated Barbie dolls in the media, but pretty. She had a clear, uncomplicated face that lent itself to genuine laughter as much as the giggles and smirks I was more used to; and even in her most spiteful moods, I had to admit there was something cute about her frowns and pouts. Today, her light brown hair was in a girlish ponytail held back by a pink scrunchie.
While our heads were still tilted back as far as possible to gaze upon the giantess in awe, her own blue eyes darted downwards to the carpet, where she had apparently glimpsed something moving.
Chris was waving, and he barely reached her ankles. Oh, this got worse and worse.
Anna bent her head for a closer look. Even from her celestial perspective, it must have been pretty clear that a waving man was a man waving, because she let out a little gasp of surprise. "OH!" This was followed by a second "OH...", a thoughtful, musing one, and I groaned inwardly, interpreting Anna's thoughts from years of experience: "I wonder if he'd squish if I stepped on him. That would be fun."
A wicked smile slowly spread across her face, and Chris, who was evidently having second thoughts, began to run.
I didn't need Nathan the nerd by my side to see the futility of running, though I've since had time to attempt the mental arithmetic. If a normal-sized person can run at five miles per hour, then the two-and-a-half-inch Chris might be expected to run something like twenty feet in a minute -- or four inches per second -- while five-foot-three Anna could cover thirty inches in one thundering step. Which she did.
She gave the hapless Chris a few seconds to escape, locating him conveniently one footfall away, and then we saw our first, unforgettable proof of Anna's cruelty. My sister's lips parted in excitement as she lifted one titanic, white-socked foot and brought it down on the fleeing tiny man in front of her.
Those were the two distinct sounds, horribly apparent to our miniaturised ears: the wet crunch as Chris was pulped under the tremendous pressure of Anna's descending sole, and the gory squish as her foot settled into the carpet, spreading his guts beneath her. The entire sequence took no longer than the casual crushing of a cigarette butt, but it was obvious from the delighted expression on my sister's face that it had given her a great deal of pleasure.
"SQUISHY, SQUISHY," Anna boomed, and she twisted her foot back and forth.
Wherever the other guys were hiding, I felt sure that there was no longer any doubt in anybody's mind that my sister was a sick bitch.
* * *
Despite my foreknowledge of Chris' doom, I had been frozen to the spot in shock as I saw him crushed. Perhaps he wasn't my very best friend -- he'd been relatively new to the school, and I hadn't known him long enough -- but he was a good guy, and seeing him mashed to pulp to amuse Anna for two or three seconds would have fazed anybody.
Now, though, Andy gripped my shoulders and yanked me back into the depths of the cupboard, where Kevin was softly swearing to himself, over and over, as though reciting a mantra. "Oh my God. Oh my fucking God. Oh fuck." Our white faces were like pallid moons in the darkness.
I soon realised why I had been so abruptly pulled from my viewing point. Having squelched out Chris, Anna was casting her gaze around the carpet, evidently searching for any other little creatures of the same kind. Had she glanced at the little gap between the cupboard and its door, there was some small chance that she would have spied me -- and thus inevitably found the others.
"We have to get out of here," Andy whispered, looking at the silhouettes of the books and vinyls. "There's nowhere to hide. If she opens it, we're dead."
I had to concede that he was right. Leaving our sanctuary for that boggy, ankle-deep carpet -- or even investigating other rooms, with all their dangers and open spaces -- was a terrifying prospect with Anna in the house, but on the other hand there was no way we could stay in our cupboard indefinitely. We'd have to eat, to sleep, to find the others, and ultimately to find a way to escape the house, or at least to keep out of my merciless sister's way until my parents returned.
I glanced across at Kevin, who had wrapped his arms around his knees and was still chanting, "Oh shit... oh my God." I gave him a shake and he shut up, but the woebegone expression on his face was terrible. "We're going to get out of here, Kev," I promised; but it was difficult to convince myself, let alone anybody else.
A noise louder and shriller than anything yet heard blasted into our heads, and we jumped in fear. After a couple of seconds, I realised what it was. "Telephone," I said, but my voice was instantly drowned out. Taking another approach, I lifted an imaginary phone to my ear. Andy nodded.
We heard the quaking booms as Anna ran to answer the phone -- it was always for her -- and then her voice, if anything sweeter and chirpier than before she had crushed Chris.
"HELLO? OH HEY! YEAH, THE SKATING WAS GREAT. NO, IT WAS THE NEW RINK... I HADN'T BEEN THERE BEFORE... IT WAS REALLY GOOD. KATRINA'S TAKING LESSONS."
So my parents were calling, I thought to myself. No doubt they were having second thoughts about the party and worriedly checking that my birthday guests hadn't trashed the place. They probably wondered why Anna had picked up the phone.
"OH, DEFINITELY. I'M HAVING *LOTS* OF FUN." A pause. "TOM'S FINE. NO, I THINK SOME OF THEM WENT OUT. ACTUALLY, WE'RE ABOUT TO PLAY A GAME, IF I CAN FIND HIM." A cutesy Anna giggle that turned my stomach. "LOVE YOU TOO, MUM. BYE!"
The phone was replaced in its charger with a clunk.
"SEVEN," Anna suddenly announced to nobody. Andy frowned in bewilderment, but I knew three things. One: that Anna remembered how many people I had invited for my birthday. Two: that she had guessed or deduced that all of us were shrunken, not only the unlucky Chris; after all, we would hardly have left the house without him. And three, from her comment about "playing a game": that it would give her infinitely more pleasure to find me and obliterate me in some way than to do so with any of the others.
For the first time, I started to think seriously about hiding-places.
* * *
Let me tell you a little about the unusual layout of my house.
When I was born, we still lived in the old place, crumbly on the outside but more than generously large on the inside. Unlike this house, it had two floors and a larger complement of rooms; but the rent was expensive, and my parents didn't want to do the renovation work on the exterior, and indeed we didn't need that many rooms, so we moved here when I was one or two years old. Then, naturally, my parents made the fateful decision to have another child, and satanic Anna was brought into the world.
The new house has only one floor, as I've mentioned. The rooms are all connected by a central hallway, which is shaped like an L, if you rotated it clockwise so that the long stroke was horizontal and the short one was pointing down. (It helps if you've played Tetris.) The hallway has a wooden parquet floor, and when you come in through the front door, you're entering the shorter leg of that L from the south. Still with me? Good.
Now, the living room is immediately on your left, and that's the biggest room of all. My parents set up a table at one end, so that we can have proper family meals together on occasion, though mostly we end up watching TV or eating in the kitchen. Moving gradually to the right along the hallway (these rooms all facing the front door), you have my parents' room, then my bedroom -- yep, can't do anything in there without the old folks knowing about it -- and the bathroom. There's a door connecting the living room and my parents' room (which used to be a dining room, or something less private, anyway), but we rarely use it.
That leaves three rooms. The one that that takes up the remainder of the space in the L is the kitchen, which is atypically large. Its entrance is opposite the bathroom. We use half of it as a sort of utility room, so the washing machine and tumble-dryer don't get in the way when you're trying to cook.
There's a back door from the kitchen out to the garage, which juts out from the main body of the house. Apart from the usual tools and junk, the garage is empty at the moment, since my parents took the car.
The final room, the one furthest east, whose entrance would be at the top of the L before rotation, is Anna's bedroom. So there's a point where the doors meet as if to form three sides of a square: Anna's bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen.
What you may glean from all of this is that the living room and Anna's bedroom are on opposite sides of the house, so *in theory* by hiding in the living room we should be least likely to encounter Anna. But of course, people don't live entirely in their bedrooms, and my sister's discovery of a shrunken man in the living room -- along with her suspicions about the rest of us -- made it an exceptionally dangerous place to be.
* * *
Late evening. Anna had wandered to the kitchen to make herself a snack, or so I gathered from her pounding footsteps. About an hour had passed since Andy's suggestion that we leave the dead-end cupboard, but the distances between rooms -- and the unthinkable consequences of getting caught -- had dissuaded us from action.
Still, for my part, I was not only restless but increasingly anxious about the others. Wherever they had originally hidden, our four pals might be alone or together; might have travelled almost anywhere in the house; might, in the worst case, already have been captured and crushed by Anna (though I took some comfort in the belief that she would have crowed about it in our earshot, which she hadn't).
It seemed, in any case, that she had not yet devoted any serious time or effort to hunting us down. I hadn't heard the scraping of furniture or the opening of drawers. But I knew it was only a matter of time. Tomorrow, we would need to stay on the alert and on the move.
So we waited there in the cupboard, among the old Beatles records and multicultural detritus, until night should fall and Anna go to bed. Kevin was still in a shell-shocked state from what we had witnessed, but Andy and I sat on either side of him and chatted as optimistically as we could. In particular, I described the precise layout of the house to Andy -- the furniture and curtains, things that would affect our floor-level traversal, rather than the larger-scale layout he already vaguely knew -- and we thought about how we might try to survive while evading detection.
There was one additional point in our favour, which I had completely forgotten until we heard Anna taking her "snack" from kitchen to bedroom and unzipping her schoolbag. It was a packed lunch, which meant she had school tomorrow!
School on a Saturday isn't exactly normal, especially after a week off, but Anna goes to a Catholic girls' school called St Mary's. (I doubt she believes one word of the religious bullshit, but my parents liked the look of the school's performance record.) Tomorrow being Holy Saturday, the students would all be expected to attend for morning psalms, which would keep Anna out of the house until at least three or four in the afternoon. This was an extremely heartening realisation.
Night came. The light was on in the hall, and a few ghostly photons still crept into our cupboard, but for the most part the living room was a sea of darkness. I gently took Kevin's wrist and prodded at the buttons on his digital watch until I found the one that lit up the display. It was 22:43, quarter to eleven, and on a school night I was sure that Anna would be in bed by eleven or soon afterwards.
"Let's move," Andy whispered finally, as the sounds of running water and brushing of teeth reached us from the distant bathroom. There was no need to whisper, our tiny voices incapable of carrying along the hallway even without the bathroom noises, but the fear was contagious.
"We should wait," I hissed back. "She'll turn the light off before she goes to bed." It wasn't just that, either. Knowing how devious my sister could be, I wanted to be sure she'd been sleeping for at least twenty minutes before we began to creep around the house. It was all too believable that Anna would pretend to go to bed, lie there awake for a minute or two, and suddenly leap out to catch us. Thinking of our puny size and inability to outrun her, I had disgusting visions of a sticky end under her bare feet.
So we continued to wait, and wait, and wait; and when the house was completely dark, and when even my paranoia about Anna's cunning had faded, we hopped down out of the cupboard and made our move.
I had thought that glassy-eyed, traumatised Kevin would be a problem from the start, but fortunately that wasn't the case. He followed us mechanically, and for all our concerns about his health we knew we could keep him safe as long as he tagged along with us. The real problem was the darkness.
You've probably had to traverse your house at night -- perhaps to get a drink of water or to turn off the burglar alarm -- and you'll know how difficult it is. Human beings just aren't built to see in the dark, and if you can't navigate using the fuzzy, grainy image provided by your weakened eyes, you end up stumbling around and groping for the nearest solid surface, such as a door frame.
When you're only a couple of inches tall, the problem is severely aggravated, because you could easily be walking for several minutes before you hit anything. There is no question of simply reaching out for the nearest object and navigating from that. You have to know where you're going, and ideally you should know it to a level of precision more usually associated with seafarers and Antarctic expeditions.
In our favour, it was almost a full moon that night, and certain parts of the room were illuminated; but for the most part our progress was set to be slow and tedious. Andy and I had decided that, since we'd eventually need a supply of food, we should make our way to the kitchen, so in theory we would have slipped out into the hallway and proceeded for some minutes until we found the kitchen door. However, we'd agreed that it was an even more important priority to find the others, so our journey was extended into something of an odyssey.
The plan was this. We would cover the entire house (as far as possible, and avoiding Anna's room) en route to the kitchen. Specifically, we would cross the longer dimension of the living room and go through the lesser-used door to my parents' room, in case anybody was in there; then along the hallway to my own bedroom, where we would look for any remaining companions, and ditto the bathroom. At this point we could cross the hallway and enter the kitchen.
The garage didn't seem important yet, but I noted that its ill-fitting door might prove to be our best escape route, *if* we decided that the outside world was any safer than the house. The only other way out was the front door, which fit snugly in its frame. I couldn't see that being left open, and trying to dart outside at the same time as eagle-eyed Anna would mean certain death beneath her heels.
We found Nathan almost at once; or, rather, he found us. There was a big bookcase at one end of the room which we would otherwise have ignored, travelling in the other direction as we were; but less than a minute after we climbed out of the cupboard Nathan, who had been hiding under the bookcase all this time, caught up with us. Never much of an athlete, he was panting pathetically after such a short run, but we were relieved to see him.
"Did you-- did you s-see what she did?" he stammered. We nodded, and I tried to fill him in as quickly as possible. Nathan's well-organised mind soon took in what I told him, including our travel plans (so to speak), and I felt encouraged by this early success in the quest to locate our friends.
"We should go around the outside," Nathan added, his glasses glinting in the half-light. "It's the safest way."
"What are you talking about?" said Andy.
Nathan explained, in his inimitable way, that shrunken people would naturally hide in corners, or under furniture placed along the walls, and that following the walls of the house, despite being a longer route per Pythagoras, was the only way we could guarantee we were covering every room thoroughly. He started to explain it in terms of mazes, edges, and vertices, but Andy expertly hushed him. "We'll do what we can, okay? We might not have time to sniff along every skirting-board in the house."
Not for the first time, I found myself admiring Andy's spirit and stamina. Kevin, dopey as he was, would have been little use even in his normal state of mind, and Nathan... Well, frankly I would have preferred Matt's understated common sense to Nathan's pedantic geekery. Still, company was company, and I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn't been left alone in the house with my towering sister.
* * *
The first stage of our journey went without a hitch. We moved in a mixed double-single file, Andy and I scouting ahead with Nathan behind us (I noticed his continual jittery glances towards the receding hallway) and Kevin trudging along listlessly in the rear. Our shoes made soft shuffling sounds in the deep carpet, and this was the only noise apart from the insistently regular tick of the wall clock, too high above us even to be distinguished in the darkness.
We moved out from the wall in order to avoid a cluster of dusty cables behind the television. They looked like enormous, convoluted pipes on this scale. As we tramped past under the looming TV screen, bigger than any billboard, we were briefly bathed in an eerie glow from the green power light on the front of the DVD player.
I suddenly remembered the way Anna had swivelled her foot left and right on the remains of Chris, and I felt thankful that we were making for the side door into my parents' room. Had we headed out into the hallway, we would doubtless have had a demoralising close-up of whatever was left of him, and perhaps Kevin would have flipped again.
"I'm hungry," Nathan piped up suddenly, with a longing glance at the giant coffee table on which, we knew, stood an immense bag of Doritos and a tube of Pringles that would make California's giant sequoias look like sickly saplings.
"Mm," I grunted. We were probably all hungry by now, but we had to find somewhere to hide, to use as our base, before we could risk any random forays for food. The coffee table was certainly out of the question: even with a whole rig of ladders and scaffolding, to climb such a height would be dizzying. In fact, I had already resigned myself to the fact that we wouldn't eat for at least another ten hours, until Anna was safely at school.
"Now isn't this convenient?" Andy said. He was pointing at something in the shadows: a dark brown M&M, I realised. To us it was the size of a basketball.
Normally, there would be nothing appealing about an M&M on the floor; but we were hungry, and the only alternative was that half-eaten Dorito on the other side of the room, so we attacked it with relish. Lifting it easily in four pairs of hands, we began by gnawing at the sugar coating until our lips were sweet and filthy; then, having gobbled as much of that as we could stand, we bit into the expanse of chocolate beneath. Kevin, too, seemed to be enjoying his share, and I was pleased to see him rejoining the land of the living.
It was frustrating to think that my sister had already reduced us to nocturnal, timorous things subsisting, like mice, on fallen crumbs. A couple of years ago, Jasmine, our cat, would bring the occasional live mouse indoors, and twelve-year-old Anna had delighted in setting and checking the mousetraps. Luckily for us now, poor Jasmine had been killed by traffic more than a year ago, and my parents had got rid of the traps.
"We should take it with us," Nathan said, as we set down the well-nibbled M&M on the carpet. It was a tempting prospect when we didn't know where our next "meal" would come from, but after conferring we decided it was safest to leave it. We should now be able to reach the kitchen before our stomachs began to grumble again too insistently, and then the cupboards would offer unlimited fare. Patches of chocolate crumbs, however infinitesimal, might help Anna to find us.
Now, of course, we were thirsty; but providence came to our aid once again. At the end of our trek along the stone hearth we came upon the bottle of Pepsi that we had intended to open when the beer ran out. Had it stood upright, I doubt that our combined efforts would have made it quiver, let alone toppled it, but it lay massively on its side with the white screw-cap in easy reach.
If you bring to mind an occasion when you couldn't open a plastic bottle without, say, wrapping a towel around it, and multiply that by twenty-five for our miniature scale, then you will start to imagine the fun and games we had with that screw-cap.
First of all, we hooked our fingers into the ridges and tugged downwards, but even the four of us together couldn't produce enough traction to move it one millimetre. It seemed like a dead loss; but Andy insisted that we help him up to the top of the cap, where he sat regally, shifting his hips rhythmically forward, while the rest of us heaved at the cap as before. We kept shifting our positions and trying out new strategies, until finally -- with Andy balancing precariously on top, Kevin pushing from behind, and Nathan and I pulling in front -- the cap slowly began to turn.
We were primed and ready to dive out of the way when the Pepsi flood should begin, of course, but what we hadn't counted on was the carbonation. As soon as our exertions had rotated the cap by about half a turn, and before any liquid was ready to emerge, there was the almighty hiss of a thousand untuned televisions as the pent-up gas fizzed out under pressure.
It seemed impossible that anybody in the world would not have heard such a blast. In a sudden panic that the noise had woken our sleeping adversary, we scurried underneath the only available cover, an old armchair beloved of my father whose scuffed tan leather looked no better for the magnification. Eyeing the squeaky metal castors with dread, I dimly wondered whether they would mow us down as my sister rolled the chair aside, or whether we would survive to undergo Anna's tortures. But we heard nothing, and Anna sleeps with her door closed, so out we furtively crept once more to resume our labours on the newly loosened cap.
Soon enough, the cap came free and the sugary drink began to glug wastefully onto the carpet. Drenched despite our attempts to dodge the initial flow, we waded back to the neck of the bottle and tilted our heads towards the edge of the brown stream, guzzling the spilling liquid as one might drink from an enormous tap. Though warm from several hours outside the fridge, it was refreshing and revitalising.
Our feet squelched as we made our way out of the marsh and prepared to move on.
"I kinda need to *go*," Andy admitted. "Do we just crap on the carpet and let the bitch clean it up, or what?"
This was a good point, if a weird one. We might easily overcome any squeamishness about relieving ourselves on the carpet -- they'd be small enough stains, after all -- but, just like the conjectured M&M crumbs, our little mouse-droppings could leave a trail that would tell Anna exactly where we had been. Doing it in the open was something we couldn't afford to risk, we concluded, and we would have to be careful even choosing spots under furniture, lest the faintest rancid odour should later give us away.
In this particular case, though, Nathan had an idea of especial genius. He lifted the soggy edge of the carpet alongside the hearth, in the centre of the area where the Pepsi had spilled. We all saw what he meant. If and when Anna cleaned up, she was unlikely to look *under* the carpet, and the sweet smell of the drink should easily mask our tiny leavings.
We lined up beside the hearth, therefore, and emptied our bladders with the heavy wet carpet pressing down on our backs, each friend looking studiously away from his companions as if we were strangers at the urinal.
"I wouldn't normally be doing this," Andy remarked. "I'm classier than that. I only shit in champagne." Even Kevin managed a wan smile at that one.
And so we cringingly wiped our rear ends on the underside of the carpet, as best we could, and tramped away from the scene of the crime.
Allowing for eating, drinking, toilet, navigation around the larger pieces of furniture, and the time we had spent with that accursed bottle cap, crossing the living room had taken us about two hours, which meant that it was now half past one in the morning. Yawning, I hoped that we'd soon find a safe place to sleep.
* * *
The little-used door to my parents' room was closed, unsurprisingly, but it had never been a good fit for its frame and we had no trouble in rolling underneath, commando-style. I was actually starting to enjoy certain aspects of our bizarre journey through the house, and I think the others were too.
A tempting hiding-place presented itself almost immediately, for a vast chest of drawers stood near the door to the living room, and the lowest of the four drawers had been pulled out slightly. The inside of the drawer itself was out of our reach, but since this lowest drawer had a "lip" of sorts along its base, there was a gap between the bottom of the drawer and its containing piece of furniture; so we could have hopped over the wooden strip running along the bottom and slept on the carpet beneath the lowest drawer.
Unfortunately, while we knew very well that there was no chance in Hell that we could manipulate such an enormous piece of furniture, the open drawer was still likely to draw (no pun intended) Anna's attention, and once again the risk was too great; so on we went.
The dominant item in my parents' room was, of course, the double bed, and I had an inkling that the friends we had failed to find in the living room, who could hardly have escaped into the hallway on Anna's arrival, might have concealed themselves under this. It was still too dark to survey the low-ceilinged region under the bed, but I realised it would be shadowy down there even in broad daylight, so I stood beneath the very edge and called, "Hey! Is anyone down here? Ollie? Matt? Gareth?"
I rejoined the other three and we continued along the outer wall, past a yellowing plug socket and the withered fallen leaf of a philodendron on the windowsill.
Having already described the living room in excruciating detail, I need hardly enumerate every nook and cranny of my parents' bedroom. Suffice to say that we covered not only the two walls necessary to reach the main door to the hallway, but also -- doubling back -- the other two walls, and there was no sign of anybody.
"Where are they?!" I finally asked in bemusement, as we arrived back at our starting point, the door to the living room.
Nathan suggested that perhaps the three of them were travelling in a group and had made more progress than we had. I wasn't convinced that they would have been so organised, given Anna's sudden appearance, but then again three of us had leapt into the same cupboard, so it was possible. The fact that Anna hadn't caught them (as far as we could tell; she would hardly have gone to bed so predictably otherwise) and that we hadn't yet run into them *did* imply that they were one or two steps ahead of us.
"Should we just head for the kitchen, then?" Kevin asked. He seemed to be back to his normal self, minus some of the usual bounce. "I mean, we're going to have to eat again soon, and if they've managed to look after themselves so far then they might be there already."
He was right. Fond as I was of my junk-filled bedroom, it would avail us nothing to traipse around it if the others were ahead of us, and in fact we would be wasting time and energy by pointlessly scouring it in search of them. If they'd made it this far, they too must have headed for the kitchen. As for the original plan, whereby we would continue to the bathroom, it now seemed like suicide. There was nothing to be done there and precious little cover, and who knew when Anna might not sleepily wander to the bathroom?
Agreed about this, we made our way back to the door, standing slightly ajar, that connected my parents' room with the hallway. We were familiar with the room now, from our four-wall traversal, and going diagonally (and under the bed, of course) it must have taken us less than five minutes.
We checked Kevin's watch: 2:18 a.m. I estimated that this gave us five or six hours until my sister's alarm clock would wake her for school.
We crept into the hall. It was eerily long and empty, the polished surface devoid of any cover except for an indistinguishable mass of dark shapes far away by the front door. Anna hadn't put her ice-skating gear away yet; or perhaps it was her schoolbag. On the up-side, this meant that once again our route diagonally across the room was simple and unimpeded.
Halfway to the kitchen, we heard a girl's soft, regular breathing and quaked in our tiny shoes at the thought that only one closed door stood between our squishable forms and the sleeping goddess.
"Is she going to come into the kitchen before school?" Nathan whispered.
"Yeah," I admitted. "She'll probably get some breakfast, and if her bike isn't outside she'll have to get it out of the garage. But none of that will take long."
"Great. There'd better be somewhere really, really good to hide in here," Kevin moaned as we crossed the wide metal strip that marked the threshold of the kitchen.
"Psst, guys!" somebody hissed urgently. "Over here."
We wheeled around to the right, saw Gareth beckoning from the tiled shadows, and hastened across to join him. It was all set to be an emotional moment as Andy threw his arms around our friend's shoulders in a manly hug.
"Get off me, you gayer!" Gareth protested, but he was smiling. Then he added: "Where the fuck have you all been? I thought you would have made it to the kitchen hours ago. Food, right? Not that we've had any."
We related our escapades with the M&M and the Pepsi.
"Well, aren't you a resourceful bunch of bastards?" said Gareth, evidently impressed. "Me and Ollie got under the CD rack and then pegged it down the hallway while she was in her room. You should have seen us. Scariest five minutes of my life. No idea what happened to Matt, though."
Kevin was incredulous. "Fat Ollie covered that hallway in five minutes?"
"Fear can do remarkable things to a man," Gareth replied sagely. "Now follow me."
We followed him as far as the boiler cupboard, where it seemed that the two of them had set up home. Squeezing under the cupboard door would have been difficult or impossible, but a row of circular ventilation holes along its base allowed easy access, and we plunged through them in parallel like synchronised swimmers.
The inside was like some sort of enormous metalworks, with the grimy boiler looming above us and its roaring blue flame visible a few yards away. It was pleasantly warm, and the flickering light lent a cosiness to the strange environment. "As you can see," said Gareth, aping an estate agent on a tour, "our bijou residence is fitted with the very latest in central heating." Andy swatted at him.
"Gareth," I said, surveying our surroundings, "you are a genius. Even if she knew we were under here, the boiler's cemented in. She'd have to--"
"*He's* a genius?" Ollie interrupted. "I found the place."
After a brief reunion with Ollie, we decided that the best course of action was to go to sleep. There was no doubt that we would awaken with Anna -- her stomping footsteps, if not the piercing alarm clock -- but we could get four hours of sleep now and reasonably hope for some more in the daytime, while she was at school. So the six of us sprawled under the boiler in various poses and let the warmth, and the subdued roar of the flame, lull us to sleep.
* * *
I woke several hours later, thinking that I had heard voices. My back ached from the hard floor. I could tell that it was morning, for the daylight flooding in had transformed the flame from a leaping light source to an unimportant background ornament.
I sat up. Andy, Kevin and Gareth were still sleeping in various awkward-looking postures. Nathan was awake, sitting with his back against the cupboard wall. Of Fat Ollie there was no sign.
I walked over to Nathan. "Ollie was starving," he told me. "He said he'd be able to find something to eat in there." Pointing through one of the ventilation holes through which we had entered, he indicated a low cupboard on the other side of the kitchen.
"Huh? Isn't that dangerous? What time is it?"
Nathan shrugged stupidly. "He wanted to go. Kevin's the only person with a wristwatch, and we didn't want to wake you guys up."
I could have cried. We had finally reassembled our team, with the exception of missing Matt and crushed Chris, and now a combination of impetuousness and incompetence had split us up again. And that wasn't all.
"Nathan," I said, "do you know what there is to eat in that cupboard? Breakfast cereals. And do you know what my sister likes to have for breakfast? Oh, you are a stupid bitch. Why didn't you wake us?"
Nathan's nerdy complexion had turned even paler.
We quickly woke the others and consulted Kevin's timepiece. It was almost a quarter past seven.
"I-I'll go and fetch him back," Nathan said fearfully.
"Jesus! Are you insane?" I wanted to shake him. "You go if you want to. I'm not stepping out of here until that bitch is out of the house. Which will be soon enough, right after she finishes a nice bowl of Ollie-Bran."
The sound of an alarm clock detonated in our ears. From behind her closed door, we heard the faint creak and thud of Anna rolling out of bed, followed by other miscellaneous sounds of getting up. We backed fearfully away from the cupboard door and huddled against the rear wall.
All except Nathan. Having either lost his mind or (more likely) made a grave misjudgement of the time and distance involved, he had launched himself out of the nearest ventilation hole and was careering across the exposed floor of the kitchen.
Andy gasped. Gareth swore. Kevin put his head in his hands. I desperately tried to recall my sister's morning routine. Like the rest of us, Ollie must have been warned by the alarm and (I hoped) had realised the peril of remaining among the cereals; but Nathan's only hope was Anna going to the bathroom before entering the kitchen. But wait: breakfast first, then cleaning teeth. Nathan was doomed.
A door clicked loudly open.
Through the crack where the edge of the boiler cupboard met its immense door, I could make out the skyscraper of a girl as she entered the kitchen. Her hair was loose, not yet fastened into its customary ponytail, and she wore a short pink nightdress. As my gaze travelled up past her thighs to the outline of her breasts, I noted against my will that my sister was filling out attractively for her fourteen years.
The others, lined up along the wall to my right, could see only her bare feet slapping against the tiles, a sight however that was enough in itself to strike fear into our miniature souls.
Anna yawned, bringing her hand unconsciously up to her mouth, and then she stopped. Either the sound or the movement had alerted her to Nathan, who (we could make out through the holes at the base of the door) was still scurrying hopelessly across the tiles.
"HELLO, VERMIN," Anna thundered.
Kevin began to whine softly, until Andy clapped a hand over his mouth.
My sister took an eager step forward, and her bare foot descended on Nathan's running form, knocking him to the ground. I cringed, awaiting the same horrible crunch that Chris had experienced, but nothing happened -- except that Nathan struggled and squirmed, pinned under Anna's gigantic sole.
"THAT TICKLES," Anna giggled; and then, slowly, horribly, she shifted her unimaginable weight from one foot to the other, crushing him wetly. Then, as if for our benefit, she gave a cute wriggle of her toes and dragged her foot stickily backwards across the floor, leaving a gory smear across the tiles.
Andy vomited. "Oh God, be quiet, be quiet," Kevin sobbed at him.
Luckily for us, at the back of the boiler with its constant purr and roar, there was relatively little chance that any sound we made would reach Anna's ears.
"OHH, FUCK. THAT WAS HOT," Anna sighed dreamily, looking down at her handiwork (or, rather, footwork). I had already suspected that there was a sexual element to my sister's love of cruelty, but to hear it so unabashedly from her own lips was a shock. The others looked shaken, too, but whether it was for this reason or merely from witnessing our comrade squelched by barefoot Anna in her nightdress would have been impossible to say.
Anna matter-of-factly tore a sheet of kitchen paper from the holder and wiped her foot, not without a gleeful look at the gruesome mess on her sole, but left Nathan's liquefied remains on the kitchen floor. I had no doubt that she wanted us to see them.
[to be continued?]