“You coming?” Dudu said, raising her eyebrows at Sive. Sive wanted to talk to her alone, warn her, get her away – but he couldn’t, not in front of Jeremy.

Dudu was doing what she always did – flying in the face of danger, and he hated her for it, then.

She knows I can’t say anything in front of him, and she’s using it as a way of doing her own thing, as usual, he thought. He smiled stiffly. “No thanks Jeremy. I gotta get going.”

But he didn’t want to leave them.

“Later,” said Dudu casually and walked up the driveway to Jeremy’s front door. He opened it and let Dudu enter. Before going in himself, Jeremy turned round and stared at Sive in a blank, confusing way that made Sive’s skin crawl. He wanted to run – whether away or toward he didn’t know – but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t move as long as Jeremy was looking at him.

Then Jeremy seemed to lose interest, and headed inside, closing the door behind him.

Dudu followed Jeremy down a dark corridor. The temperature in the house was pleasantly cool. She passed pictures of places she didn’t recognise, maps, and diagrams of plants and animals. She was reminded of a museum.

They passed through a sparsely furnished living room, and into a dining room with an enormous, dark table in the middle of it. Around it were twelve chairs, in the same dark, gleaming mahogany. He pulled one out for her.

“Sit here,” he said simply, and she obeyed. There seemed no other choice. He walked to the other side of the table so that he faced her. Then, he pulled the chair back. It scraped against the wooden floor. The sound of the scrape was the only noise. It seemed to Dudu to last a long time, though it was only a second.

Before sitting, he asked her, his hand still on the back of the throne-like chair: “Can I offer you something to drink? We have Coke, fruit-juice, tea and milk. I guess I could also make chocolate milk.”

When he spoke like this, Dudu felt less threatened. He just looked funny standing there in this weird room, talking about chocolate milk.

“Water, thanks.” She didn’t really know why she said that. She just didn’t feel like agreeing to anything he offered.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m trying to cut down on all the junk food and everything, you know,” she babbled. What am I talking about? she thought. Relax. Everything is normal.

Just then, a phone rang. Somehow Dudu was glad to know that there was a phone nearby. At least the family wasn’t so weird they didn’t have phones.

As he heard the phone ring, Jeremy frowned. A grim tension entered his jaw. “Won’t be long,” he said through gritted teeth. He seemed unwilling to leave her alone in the room. Was he hiding something?

“Wait here,” he said. “For a few minutes,” he added worriedly.

“Uh, OK,” was all Dudu could come up with.

He dashed out. Dudu was alone. She looked around at her surroundings. The room was decorated in a very sombre, heavy way. It felt like the house of a grand old widow, not a house for a young boy.

She walked over to the doorway till she could hear Jeremy’s babble on the phone, then looked down the hall to his bedroom. She could make it, sneak a peek, and be back in her seat by the time he had finished.

She listened carefully to see if they were still talking. She had to strain her ears.

“No, no, it would be more like February, March. Not before,” she heard him say. Good. He was discussing something.

She listened intently, closing her eyes.

“Never,” she heard. Then, something that sounded like “I need them urgently. It’s just about finished.”

Then she heard a word which got repeated, then said again. She couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like ‘surgery.’ Her pulse skipped a beat, two, three. Surgery! The word was like a knife.

Then: “Of course they don’t know. How could they? You know I can’t talk about it!” This, she was sure she’d heard correctly. Then, a pause. More listening. Whoever was on the other end of the line seemed to have a lot to say.

Good, thought Dudu. Keep chatting.

She spun around soundlessly and started to tiptoe. She entered a second hallway. Again, the wood panelling, the black and white photos. The wooden floorboards creaked horribly as she walked. She cringed. She needed to be totally silent. Shut up, shut up! she thought at them in her head, furiously. Just a little further…

She came to a room at the end. It had to be his. The room before had been a bathroom. She stopped. She heard her pulse race in her ears. Calm down, she thought. Everything is fine. You’re at a friend’s. You’re just exploring! But the cheerful tone she was trying to force in her mind was not getting through to her body. She was rigid as a plank.

The door was ajar. She couldn’t touch the door to push it open further. She didn’t dare to. Her body was made of stone.

Then she felt her back prickle suddenly. A low, reedy voice spoke: “My room is kind of a mess.”

* * *

Tell us: What do you think Dudu might have glimpsed in Jeremy’s room? Do you know anyone like Jeremy?