Today sees the publication of Chasers by James Phelan, the first novel in the ALONE TRILOGY. It's completely engrossing, full of danger, mystery and action and it has an amazing twist . . . but we won't spoil it for you! Read on to see what you think.
then . . .
I missed home, that Australian heat, the laid-back people, the peace and quiet. Here, it was colder than I’d thought possible and everyone was in a hurry. Back home, I knew my mates would be hanging out at backyard barbies and playing cricket in the street, laughing and joking and vying to get each other out.
Maybe with time I’d get used to this place – who knows? All I know is that Manhattan is vast, too big for me to ever really feel comfortable in. It’s as if the city has an entire country stuffed into it and is slowly being swallowed up, like that snake that eats itself. Ouroboros? I think that’s what it’s called. If I had to sum this place up for someone I’d say: New York City, home to millions of people, endless city blocks, snow dump’n clouds, crowds that never stay still, consuming itself. Too busy, too lonely, too much for me.
‘What’s the matter, Jesse? Never been on a subway before?’ Dave asked. He was a big guy for sixteen, or at least big compared to the rest of us. His name might have been David but next to me he was more like Goliath. Dave and I had got on okay at the start of the camp, but right now I wished he’d put his foot in his mouth and start chomping, like Ouroboros.
‘No, why do you say that?’ I shifted my focus away from the guys in the middle of the carriage, who may or may not have been wearing gang colours and may or may not have been packing heat. I tried to look more confident, and smiled at the thought of Dave eating one of his stupid running shoes.
‘You look a little nervous,’ Dave said. ‘Don’t they have subways where you’re from?’
‘Yeah, but we don’t call it that,’ I replied. ‘It’s small – just a few stops in the city.’
‘Everything must be small where you’re from, huh?’ Dave said, grinning. His perfect teeth were blindingly white against his dark skin.
‘Where’s that again?’ Anna asked. She turned to look at me, flicking her shiny black hair over her shoulder. Anna’s English but her parents are from India, and for a moment I was lost in her long eyelashes and bright red mouth.
'Melbourne . . .’ I said. Dave’s comment had just hit me – he thought I was small. I was kinda tall for my age back home, but yeah, I’m slight. It’s just that I haven’t quite filled out yet. I was torn between launching a comeback and trying to look unfazed in front of Anna. We’re all sixteen, but she seems older, more sure of herself. I stood up a little straighter and tried to push my chest out.
‘So, what is it then, Jesse? Never been on the subway without your mom?’ Dave pushed. I wondered what his problem was. We’d been getting along so well until today. Maybe we were just getting cabin fever, which always seemed to happen on camps – sooner or later you’d get sick of your friends.
‘Leave it,’ Mini said in her quiet voice. He looked from me to her, annoyed.
‘I don’t have a mum,’ I said. The three of them stood in silence then. Looked at each other and then at the wet floor. That was always a conversation stopper. And it was mostly true. Okay, I did have a mum out there somewhere. And a step-mum back in Melbourne. But Barbara was a dragon and for all I knew my real mother might be dead.
‘I’ve got two,’ Anna said, like it was as natural as saying I’ve got a mum.
‘Huh?’ Mini asked.
‘Carol and Megan.’
‘How does that work?’ I asked, then realised as soon as the words were out of my mouth. ‘Oh, right, I get it. That’s cool, I guess.’
‘Trust me, you’re not missing out on much.’
‘Not at all,’ Mini added.
There was a bit of an awkward beat and I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. I tried to think of a joke to lighten the mood, but I didn’t know any where having a mum was the punch line.
‘Check out the others,’ Dave said. He was at least a head taller than us and had a clear view. The rest of our group were packed like sardines in the next subway carriage, a sea of light-blue parkas. As I looked, I tried not to make eye contact with the guys who may have been gang members. They were already on the subway when we’d got on at Grand Central, near our hotel and the UN, but I doubted they were headed to the 9/11 Memorial like us.
‘They definitely don’t look like the brightest sixteenyear-olds from around the world,’ Anna said dryly. She was right. Like the four of us, they looked like total geeks, wearing blue plastic parkas with white UN lettering on the back, and UN Youth Ambassadors on the front left pocket. They stood out about as much as the gang members closer to us, as if we all wore colours as labels of who we were.
‘Guess they won’t get lost in a crowd,’ I said. Mini laughed. She had this quiet, deep laugh that seemed odd coming from such a small package – the kind of laugh that was contagious. ‘They’re really getting into the spirit of togetherness.’
Beside the gang members there were only half a dozen other people in our carriage, the last of the train. It was just before midday and in between rush hours, so there were more tourists on the subway than commuters.
‘Bet it really stinks in their carriage,’ Anna said, her eyes fixed on the glass doors ahead. Mr Lawson, one of our UN minders, clocked us and started to head for the interconnecting doors. ‘Like my brothers’ rooms with all their dirty wet socks after football.’
'I don’t know about you guys, but I’m gonna commute to work via helicopter when I’m older,’ Dave said.
‘What, are you gonna be a traffic reporter?’ I said.
The girls laughed.
‘Nah, I wanna work for the UN,’ he said, ‘like my grandpa.’
‘They had the UN back then?’
‘Only I want to be out in the field,’ he said, ignoring my remark. ‘The front lines, relief work, disaster zones. Really get things done. What about you guys?’
‘Teacher,’ Anna said straightaway. ‘In India. Start up a school for kids in poverty. There’s millions and millions of them and they have nothing, nothing at all.’
I’m sixteen; I had no idea what I wanted to be, and I certainly didn’t have a prepackaged beauty-pageant answer ready. Dave and Anna looked at me but I just shrugged. They turned to Min Pei.
‘I don’t know either,’ Mini said. ‘Maybe a doctor or a vet. Or an artist. Or maybe I’ll marry money and do nothing. That would be cool.’
‘I’m not sure if that’s how it works, Min,’ I said. I could see Mr Lawson was almost at the interconnecting doors, but to get to us he’d have to push through the gang members and half a dozen tourists; we were right at the back of the carriage. Beyond the door at our end was the darkness of the tracks as we rattled south towards Lower Manhattan. Mini looked through the window in silence. I saw her face reflected in the glass and realised she wasn’t watching the tunnel disappear behind us – she was watching me. We locked eyes for a second and I felt myself going red.
‘Think they live by the Golden Rule?’ Mini asked, nodding towards the gang members.
‘Sorry, Min?’ Anna said. ‘You know, that graffiti we saw when we did the city tour?’ Mini said. ‘You think those guys live by that?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ Dave said. ‘Treat others how you want to be treated. Yep, I’m real sure that’s their creed.’
‘Did we see that on some graffiti, or a mural at the UN?’ Anna asked. We all thought about it and shrugged – even Dave, who had a memory like a bank vault.
‘Let’s just not bother them and they won’t bother us,’ I said. I noticed one of the guys had a massive gold crucifix hanging around his neck. Maybe they did have rules – maybe they were some kind of cool hip-hop priests? I doubted it, but I hoped they weren’t as much of a threat as we were making them out to be.
‘So, I got a joke,’ Dave said. ‘What do you get when you get a teenager from Australia, England, China and the US, and put them in a subway?’
Anna rolled her eyes.
‘I’m not Chinese, I’m Taiwanese,’ Mini said. ‘What’s the difference?’
‘What’s the difference between you and a Canadian?’
‘Ouch, all right,’ Dave said. ‘Taiwanese, then. Okay, what do you get?’
‘A boring trip?’
‘A growing contempt for American humour?’
Dave didn’t seem put off. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You get—’
There was a loud noise and our train shook so violently that we had to reach out to grab the handrails. Before I could say anything it happened again, the carriage tilting wildly sideways, creating sparks in the darkness outside. Mini fell next to me and I crouched down to help her up. We heard screams and shouts from the other end of the carriage as people spilled from their seats.
Mini and I stood up slowly. I must have hit my head on something when the train jolted because when I touched my eyebrow my hand came away covered in blood.
‘Oh my god, are you okay?’ Mini asked.
Anna pulled tissues from her backpack and told me to keep pressure on the cut. In the flickering lights of the carriage the gang guys didn’t look so scary anymore. In fact, they were wide-eyed as they helped a tourist to his feet and stared back at us – no, behind us. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled as I turned around and looked out the back window.
A massive fireball was chasing the train – it was only twenty metres behind us and closing fast. I yelled at the others to get down and reached out to Anna. By the time the four of us were on the floor, the subway carriage was rocked again, this time going off its rails and tipping on its side. There was a tearing screech of steel on steel and squealing and screaming and a whoosh of fire, and everything went from hot to black in a second.
now . . .
All I saw was darkness. I wondered if my eyes were open. It might have been some awful dream but I knew it wasn’t. I felt pain, I felt pressure. I felt alone. I couldn’t hear, but I knew there were sounds out here, around me. I was not alone.
A hand brushed my face, the fingers soft but probing in the dark. Purposeful, searching. It took me a second to realise it was my own hand, and it came away from my face wet and sticky. I felt a hot sharp pain above my left eye. I blinked but everything was pitch black.
Light erupted in a shower of sparks at the same moment the rest of my senses returned. There was an acrid, copper taste in my mouth and I could smell smoke. I tried to get up but something heavy was pressing against my back. I tunnelled backwards on my stomach, groped around in the dark—
A light shone in my eyes but I was even blinder than before. I saw stars and it hurt my head, like the light was hitting the inside of my skull and bouncing around in there. As my vision cleared I saw a tangle of—
I heard one of the girls call my name. I was helped up from the ground and in that motion I was suddenly awake, like the blood was pumping again and I had snapped out of whatever trance I’d been under.
Anna was there, her torch pointed at me, the light making me dizzy – and I saw Mini by her side. Dave was propped against the roof of the subway carriage, which I now realised was on its side. It was dark in the train, like we were in a cave or the belly of a monster. By the weak torchlight I could see my friends looked pale and frightened but otherwise seemed okay. There was another shower of sparks that ended with a small explosion and I saw what was left of the carriage ahead.
The others? I said.
Dave shook his head.
I swallowed some vomit. Started to shake.
How did this . . . ?
Some kind of accident, Dave said in a low voice. We must have hit something and derailed. I can’t see far into the carriage in front of us – can’t see much of anything.
There was fire though, Anna added. Fire, coming up behind us, remember? And then pounding noises, like banging . . . It wasn’t an accident, more like some kind of explosion.
I could still hear the banging, like far-off pounding on a door. I remembered the fireball coming at us but it didn’t make sense. What could catch on fire in a concrete tunnel? The fireball had chased us, licked at the end of the carriage just seconds before everything went black and the world had turned on its side.
I bet it was terrorists, Mini said. My friends told me this might happen in New York. There must have been a bomb on the train or at one of the subway stations – it was terrorists, I know it was.
It wasn’t terrorists . . . Dave’s voice trailed off, like he was trying to convince himself as much as us.
We’ve had that kind of thing in London, Anna said. We have to get out of here—
It’s not terrorists, Dave said in a loud voice, trying to end the discussion.
If it was terrorists, there might be more attacks, Anna said. We have to go and warn everyone!
I heard our breathing, hard and fast and irregular. I took the torch from Anna and held it out in front of me. As the light arced around the carriage I saw tangled legs, then a couple of familiar faces – the gang members, their expressions frozen in vacant, disturbing ways.
We have to get out of here! Anna’s voice was edgy, like she was trying not to cry.
Shouldn’t we try to get to the others—
And what? Anna said. Sit with them while they die? Wait here for the next train to come along and smash us to bits?
I heard her take a deep breath before she spoke again: Look, there might be another fireball and we need to find help. Proper, emergency services kind of help. We have to leave.
No one moved or said anything. We were waiting – probably for someone to come and find us. But I knew that help could be a long time coming, especially if we were counting on there being other survivors on the train. Anna was right.
I shone the torch towards the end of the carriage, just a few paces from us. The door had been blown off its hinges and the tunnel beyond disappeared into darkness. But not compete darkness – there was a faint light further down the tunnel, a dim shaft of illumination.
Is everyone all right? I asked. I mean, can you all move okay? Do you think we could make it to that light?
The others followed my gaze towards the distant point in the tunnel. We watched the light for a few seconds and I wondered if it was an approaching train. It didn’t change though, didn’t move.
Looks like a spotlight, Dave said, like emergency lighting or something.
Maybe it’s daylight, I said. It could be an access hatch to the street above or coming from a subway station.
I steadied myself with one hand on an upturned seat, then turned and shone the torch back up the carriage. The beam was pitiful – the torch was a small wind-up one we’d each been given in our UN pack on induction day.
My phone has no reception, Mini said behind me, her voice close.
It won’t down here—
Shh! I cut Dave off and we were all silent. There was a noise. I moved forward a couple of steps, the torch beam creeping over the twisted bodies of the gang members. There was no sign of Mr Lawson. Beyond the bodies, the subway car was pinched shut, like the roof of the tunnel had come down on top of it. I felt sick. This wasn’t a collision, no way.
One of the gang members moved. A twitch of a leg. A hand raised towards the light. A faint groan.
Oh my god, Mini said. I felt her bump in close behind me.
I traced the beam up the man’s outstretched arm and saw a face covered with blood, eyes looking back at me, caught in the weak light. He blinked once, then slowly closed his eyes.
Stay, I told Mini. I moved up the carriage, supporting myself against the roof of the train and stepping over the bodies of the other gang members. As I bent down to feel the man’s pulse, the torchlight swung across his body and I saw where his legs used to be and more blood, so much blood. By his side was a pistol – a shiny, steel automatic, mean-looking. My fingers left the cold skin of his neck and I moved back to the others as quickly as I could.
We need to head towards that light out there, I said.
Yes, let’s move.
Okay, Mini said.
Dave planted himself by the dooropening at the end of the carriage and helped the girls out. He practically lifted them to the ground outside. I wondered if he had some kind of super strength that came immediately after accidents, like when parents are able to lift cars off their kids. I went last and almost fell after tripping on a railway sleeper. The torch beam shook in my hands.
We walked in silence down the tracks, shell-shocked, the smell of smoke becoming stronger the further we went. We kept a hand on each other as we moved through the darkness and I realised for the first time that the white UN lettering on our parkas was fluorescent. We were like an emergency crew, only we were trying to get away from the scene of an accident. The image of the gang member’s staring eyes flashed in my mind but I pushed it away.
There, Anna said. We were standing under the source of the light – a manhole high above us, the cover blown off. Smoke from the tunnel wisped out. The grey wintry clouds seemed unnaturally bright.
Can I have the flashlight? Dave asked.
I’ll light the way for you guys, I said. I wound the base of the torch’s plastic handle and the beam instantly became brighter. I pointed it towards the tunnel walls until I found the ladder rungs.
Can you all climb up? Dave asked us.
Yes, we said quickly, almost in synch.
Dave led the way. Anna followed his big bulk, which blocked out the light coming from above as he exited the tunnel. I watched as he helped Anna out, then held the torch steady for Mini, directing the beam ahead of her hands so she could see.
When Mini had reached the top, I checked my watch in the light before putting the torch in my pocket. It was after 1 pm. I realised I must have been unconscious for about an hour back in the train. Why hadn’t the others said anything? Had they been out of it too?
Jesse! Dave called from above. Hurry!
I grabbed the dusty steel ladder and climbed one rung at a time, concentrating on not letting go. Halfway up I felt so dizzy I had to stop. My head was pounding and the pressure in my ears was so great it felt like it might blow my head clean off.
Jesse, you have to hurry! Anna yelled down into the tunnel.
I was almost at the top when I felt strong hands reach down and haul me up by my armpits. I was pulled out
of the darkness and onto the cold white ground. I sat with my legs splayed, in the middle of a Manhattan street. There was no traffic. All was quiet but for the construction noises in the distance, like a million people were building an entire city in a hurry.
The others were all squatting down, close to me. Anna’s hand rested on Mini’s shoulder. I felt snow falling, the light, soft flakes that made for good skiing. It had rained too, turning the snow to slush underfoot. I closed my eyes, letting the snow fall on my face.
I opened my eyes and suddenly understood why there was no traffic. Along the street were hundreds of cars crashed into one another, some with their lights and engines still on, the exhausts steaming in the frigid air. The street was closed off, in both directions, by massive pile-ups.
Jesse? Mini said again.
The others were all staring at a point further down the street. I followed their gaze and saw thirty or forty people huddled in a big group.
Should we go to them? Anna asked.
Dave shook his head. Look at them, he said. Look . . .
I watched the group. Most of them seemed to have their heads tilted up towards the sky. The rest were kneeling on the ground, as if they were looking for something or in some kind of prayer.
What are they doing? Mini asked. Are they . . . are they drinking?
The group shifted a bit and I saw they were crowded around a broken fire hydrant. Water was spurting into the air like a geyser and these people were standing underneath, their mouths wide open, trying to catch the water as it fell. Others drank from puddles on the ground.
Is that Mr Lawson? Anna said.
It was. He was walking towards us, his UN parka hanging off one arm. He looked different from the man we’d known; his eyes stared vacantly and he was coming towards us at a strangely rhythmical pace.
Mr Lawson! I yelled.
He didn’t reply.
What’s wrong with him? Mini said.
He was ten metres away, but he stared straight through us as if we weren’t there.
He stopped short before us, squatted down and with cupped hands drank from a puddle. His thousand-yard stare was fixed on the water.
Mr Lawson, are you okay?
Anna had moved to go to him when Dave pulled her back.
Oh my god! he said. Behind him. They’re . . . they’re—
I caught the look on Mini’s face and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I followed her gaze and saw, as if in slow motion, the scene that had my friends transfixed in shock.
Amongst the group of people drinking from the sky and the ground was another, smaller group, hunched over the dead bodies in the street.
In horror, I realised that their mouths were closed over the bare flesh of those bodies. They were drinking from them. They were drinking everything. Anything.
Then they saw us.