David sat down hard, head spinning. Why had this never occurred to him? He could fall down a manhole, collapse of a stroke. A car crash could sever his spinal cord. He could catch bird flu. A tree could fall on him. There were comets. Killer bees. Foreign armies. Floods. Serial killers. There was buried nuclear waste. Ethnic cleansing. Alien invasion.
A plane crash.
Suddenly, everywhere he looked he saw catastrophe, bloodshed, the demise of the planet, the ruin of the human race, not to mention (to pinpoint the exact source of his anxiety) possible pain and suffering to himself.
Who could have thought up a scenario this bleak?
Whoever (whatever) it was, he could feel the dark malevolence of it settling in, making itself at home like some vicious bird of prey, its sharp claws sunk deep into the quivering gray jelly of his terrified brain. He pulled his brother close, tucking him in against his body, pressed his lips to the childs face.
What if . . . ?
He became enmired in what if.
The weight of it wrapped itself around his ankles and dragged him under.
A year earlier, Davids father had woken him with a shout.
David, your mothers home! Arent you interested in seeing the baby?
Not really, David thought, burying his head in his pillow. I know what a baby looks like.
But then they were in his room, grinning and making inane noises in the direction of a small, serene-looking creature with jet black eyes.
David sat up with a groan and peered at his new brother. OK, seen him, he thought.
Of course he cant see you yet. His father, superior as ever. Babies cant focus properly for weeks.
David was about to go back to sleep when he noticed the new baby gazing at him with a peculiar expression of calm authority.
Im Charlie, said the new babys eyes, as clearly as if he had spoken the words out loud. Who are you?
His brother repeated the question slowly, politely, as if to a person of limited intelligence. Who, exactly, are you?
The baby inclined his head, his face registering something that might have been pity. Such a simple question, he thought.
But if his brother knew the answer, he gave no sign.
This disturbed Charlie. Over the next few months, he tried approaching his parents for answers, but his father was always at work and his mother seemed strangely ill informed on the subject of her older son.
Hes usually on time, she would comment brightly, or I wish hed tidy his room more. But nothing about who he was. And when she caught Charlie staring intently at David, she merely thought, How sweet. Theyre bonding.
But they werent bonding. Charlie was comparing the David he knew with the Davids he saw displayed around the house in family pictures. The younger Davids looked cheerful and carefree; they held books or bikes or ice creams and gazed at the camera with expressions of trust. The younger Davids kicked balls, swung from trees, blew out the candles on birthday cakes. They had clear edges and cloudless eyes.
But the David that Charlie knew now was wavery and fizzy with nerves. The new David reminded Charlie of a birthday card hed seen where the picture of a clown shifted gradually into the picture of a tightrope walker, depending on how you tilted it. Exactly when this transformation had begun, the child couldnt say. According to the photos, his brothers outline had begun to blur sometime between playing football at thirteen and losing his status as only child the following year.
Charlie had spent a good deal of his short life worrying about his older brother. Now he paused in the middle of playing Monkey Rides in a Car with Donkey to gather his thoughts. He saw that his recent attempt to fly had been a mistake. It seemed to have nudged his brother past some invisible tipping point and this filled him with remorse. Charlie wanted to make amends, to offer advice on how David could regain his footing. But he couldnt get his brother to listen.
Excerpted from Just In Case by Meg Rosoff Copyright © 2006 by Meg Rosoff. Excerpted by permission of Wendy Lamb Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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