Jake sat on the edge of his bed staring intently at his alarm clock. The time was 11:59pm and in exactly one minute, it would be his birthday. In his hands, he held a brown parcel, which had written on it in big black letters ‘To Jake, from Uncle Bert. Not to be opened until your birthday’. Uncle Bert had given him the parcel over 11 months ago. Since that time, it had nearly driven him crazy. However, despite handling the parcel so many times he had nearly worn the paper out, he hadn’t opened it.
Jake’s clock ticked over to 12.00 midnight. With shaking hands, he tore off the wrapping, revealing a plain brown wooden box. It had a brass catch, which was locked with a small padlock. Jake almost screamed with frustration, but to his relief, he noticed a key taped to the side of the box. Beneath it his uncle had written ‘Always keep locked.’
With shaking hands, he peeled off the tape, and several attempts later, finally managed to unlock the padlock. As he opened the lid, his heart was pounding so much it made his ears ring. When at last he saw what was inside the box, all the blood rushed from his face and for a second he thought he was going to faint.
Uncle Bert had lived in Beretsville for as long as anyone could remember. He was a bit of a loner, but despite this, everyone knew him as he had always been around. No one seemed to know his age, but he looked ancient; the puzzling thing was that he never appeared to get any older, but this just went unnoticed. Except for Jake’s family, no one had ever had so much as a meal with him, or even a conversation that lasted more than just a few polite sentences.
Uncle Bert was down in his study reading an ancient book whose pages crackled as he turned them. At exactly 11:59, he carefully put it down, folded his arms, and studied a small electrical circuit that sat on his desk. In the middle of the circuit was a green LED that glowed brightly. At exactly 25 seconds past midnight, it stopped glowing. Two minutes later the LED again lit up. Uncle Bert smiled, picked up his book and bounded down the stairs to bed.
Next morning was grey and wet. Despite it being his birthday, Jake found it very hard to get out of bed, as he had hardly slept at all during the night. He heard his father calling out to him from the kitchen, so he hopped out of bed, wrapped his duvet around his shoulders and went downstairs to breakfast.
His parents sang happy birthday, and despite managing to force a smile, he felt angry and ripped off. Jake’s parents were broke, his father had been laid off from his job a few months ago, and the bank had made them put the house on the market. He knew that his present would only be a very inexpensive one, as that was all his family could afford, but that wasn’t why he was angry.
His mum put a parcel in front of him and kissed him on the forehead. “I know it’s not much,” she said, “but next year things will be better again!”His father was gazing down at his feet, looking slightly embarrassed; Jake pretended not to notice. He carefully unwrapped the parcel so the paper could be saved, revealing a comic and a packet of chips.
Just as he got up to give his parents a hug, the phone rang. While his father answered, Jake hugged his mum and then picked up the comic, flicking through the pages. After a few minutes, his dad hung up. “That was your Uncle Bert, he’s coming over tomorrow to wish you a happy birthday, and he wanted to know if you’d like to stay over at his place for the weekend?”
The mere mention of his name made Jake feel angry again.
“I don’t really want to stay with him,” he said turning to his father.
“That’s up to you mate, but you’ve never know, you might have a great time!”
“I just don’t feel like staying with him, and he’s not even a real uncle,” Now it was Jakes turn to stare at his feet. “
Oh well, “said his dad,” as picking up the phone” I’d better let him know.” After a very brief conversation, he hung up and said that Uncle Bert would still be coming and if Jake changed his mind, he was welcome to go and stay.
Jake had a miserable day at school. The teacher always announced everyone’s birthday and made the whole class sing happy birthday (some of them always added a few rhyming insults). However, that wasn’t what made him feel miserable. It was because he had told all his friends about the mysterious parcel, and now he had to tell them that it was nothing but a box with a stone in it. But much to his relief, his friends soon lost interest in teasing him about it, and soon he was charging around with them playing bull rush.
The school day went quickly, and when he arrived home, it was to an empty house. Dumping his bag on the kitchen floor, he walked over to the fridge to see if there was anything to eat. All he managed to find was a block of cheese, but Jake liked cheese. Taking it over to the bench, he cut off a chunk and was just in the process of devouring it when he noticed a package on the table. It was a courier pack addressed to him. Cheese all forgotten, Jake quickly ripped it open. Inside was a brown parcel. On it was written, “To Jake, from Uncle Bert, sorry – but well done.”
Jakes suspicion turned to delight when he opened the parcel as inside was Swiss multi tool complete with a leather case. It had a knife blade, screwdrivers, can opener, file, and several other attachments that looked very useful. Suddenly the idea of staying at his Uncle’s didn’t seem all that bad after all. Jake was always quick to forgive, and Uncle Bert’s present had made it even easier to do.
Next morning Uncle Bert arrived in his beautiful old 1940 Buick. The car was a convertible, which he usually drove with the top down. Pulling up outside Jake’s house, he quickly scanned the street, hopped out of the car, and strode up to the house with a walking stick tucked under his arm. Arriving at the front door, he grasped the walking stick in his right hand, stooped over it, and knocked.
Walking sticks are usually pretty boring, but not this one. On the very top of the stick was carved the head of a strange, but pleasant looking face. It had kind eyes that always seemed to be looking directly at you. His sister said it gave her the creeps, but Jake had always liked it.
Opening the door, Jake’s dad welcomed Uncle Bert in. Walking with small shuffling steps, Uncle Bert followed him into the kitchen and with some difficulty sat down at the kitchen table. Jake’s mum made a pot of tea and before long they were talking about the weather and the news as adults often did, though it was Jake’s father who did most of the talking, as Uncle Bert was always a bit awkward around other people. While they were talking, Jake came down and thanked him for his gift. Uncle Bert just smiled and wished him a belated happy birthday. After half an hour or so, Uncle Bert glanced down at his watch and said he’d better get going. He never stayed for long.
After a bit of a talk with his mum and dad the night before, Jake had decided that he would go and stay all. While Uncle Bert waited in the car, Jake mum went upstairs and brought his bag down, and after the usual “make sure you brush your teeth” and “be on your best behaviour”, he was soon on his way.
With the wind rushing through his hair, Jake felt like a king as they passed through town. He secretly hoped that some of his schoolmates might see him, but the only person that he saw was his woodwork teacher, Mr Knight. Once the town was behind them, Jake began to feel a little bit nervous. He had always liked Uncle Bert, but didn’t know him that well, and wasn’t sure how the next couple of days were going to turn out. Apart from the hum of the motor and the occasional graunch of the gearbox, they sat in silence as they travelled, both quite nervous, but for entirely different reasons.
After half an hour or so, the car began to slow, and they pulled into a long tree-lined driveway. It was badly potholed, causing the car to rattle and bang as it bounced its way along. It was covered in fallen leaves and led to an old stone cottage with a faded shingle roof. The house was surrounded by trees and looked very unkempt. Perched up in an old willow tree were several noisy crows; their eerie calls made Jake feel even lonelier.
Uncle Bert parked the car in the remains of an old barn that was leaning so badly it looked as if it would collapse any second. Lying on the ground were old rotting boards that had once been part of it walls; the remains of old rusty nails poked menacingly through most them. Stepping out of the car, Jake carefully manoeuvred around the boards and opened the boot. Picking up his bag, he closed the boot and then followed his Uncle Bert over to the house. As they walked towards it, the scent of the bush filled his nostrils. It smelt very earthy and was quite different to the way town smelled. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he liked it.
The first room they came to was the kitchen. It was warmed by a large green coal range. A large pot of soup simmered away on it, filling the air with a delicious aroma that made Jake realise he was hungry (though to be honest Jake was always hungry).
Uncle Bert signalled him to sit at an ancient looking table before filling two large enamel cups with soup.Passing one to Jake he sliced up a crusty loaf of that was cooling on the bench. Between the two of them they devoured the whole loaf plastered with lashings of butter, Jake had never tasted such delicious bread.
Because of the warm room and his full stomach Jake began to feel a little more relaxed than when they had first arrived, though things were still a bit strained.
“Thanks for lunch Uncle Bert.”
“No worries, my pleasure.”
While Jake fidgeted and Uncle Bert stared out the window, the grandfather clock clunked away in the hallway.
Finally, Uncle Bert broke the silence. “Jake, I’m very proud of you, you did well with the parcel, not many people would have waited as long as you did.”
“But how do you know I waited, and why did you trick me, Uncle Bert?”
“I’ll show you how I knew later. However, it wasn’t a trick; it was a test. I just, um, well, let’s just says for now that I know I can trust you, and that’s what’s important.
“Why do you need to know that you can trust me?”
“It’s because I have something I would like to tell you Jake, a secret. But I need you to promise you will never tell another living soul.”
Jake felt uneasy. “If it’s something weird or sleazy I don’t want to know about it Uncle Bert, not that I think you would ever tell me something like that.”
Uncle Bert smiled at him. “No, I would never do that, and if I did you would be right to tell your parents, but I promise you it’s nothing like that.”
“Well”, said Jake, feeling curious, “if you want, you can tell me, and I promise I won’t tell anyone else.”
“That’s great, but before I do, you need to understand a couple of things as it would be wrong of me not to warn you. You see, what I’m about to tell you could change the way you see the world forever. You’ll also find it very hard to believe, but trust me I can prove it to you, but only if you decide that is what you want.”
“Wow,” said Jake, feeling very excited, even though he had no idea what Uncle Bert was talking about.
“There is one other critical thing. If after I have told you everything, you decide not to go ahead, then I need your solemn word that you will never mention so much as a single word to anyone.”
“You have my promise Uncle Bert. But what will happen if I do go ahead with whatever it is?”
“Lets cross that bridge if and when we get to it. “
Uncle Bert walked over to the coal range and flicked an old yellow switch above it. To Jake’s amazement, the coal range slowly moved forward, revealing a spiral staircase that disappeared into a basement. Uncle Bert gently placed his hand on Jake’s shoulder, and in a gentle voice said “Follow me.”
The room at the bottom of the stairwell was huge. Its walls were plastered in maps, some ancient, others modern.. In front of tan open fire were two large stuffed armchairs.
Uncle Bert signalled Jake to sit down in one of the chairs, as he put some wood on the smouldering embers and jabbed it back into life with a poker. The light from the flames illuminated the far end of the room, revealing a bizarre looking machine that built around an old dentist’s chair. A steel helmet with a leather chinstrap hung from the contraption connected by hundreds of multi-coloured wires.
Uncle Bert picked up an old book and passed it to Jake. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes it is. Turn to the second page and tell me what you see.”
Jake opened the book, turning to a picture of someone that was not quite human, he was wearing old-fashioned clothes and had a lightly creased face, he looked ancient but not old. The most striking thing about him was his wonderfully kind looking face. His smile made Jake feel happy.
Jake looked up from the book “What is it I’m meant to see?”
“Does he remind you of anyone?”
He looked at the picture. It gave him a strange feeling.“I think I have seen him before, must have been in a fairy tale or something, I just can’t remember which one.”
“Does the name Gopin mean anything to you?”
Jake laughed. “That was the name of my imaginary friend when I was little, he ah was um…” stumbled Jake as his mind vainly tried to remember something. The effort caused his head to ache and he felt an unpleasant tightness on the back of his neck.
Uncle Bert looked concerned “Forget it for now Jake, that’s enough remembering for one day, you canforget about Gopin for now.”
“Sure thing,” replied Jake, feeling strangely relieved. The discomfort vanished as he closed the book.
Uncle Bert left him to enjoy the fire disappearing upstairs. While he was away, Jake lay back in his chair trying to make sense of the last couple of days. He felt excited, he loved to read adventure stories, and right now he felt like he was starting out on one; he just hoped it wasn’t another silly trick.
Uncle Bert came back with two large mugs of hot chocolate. Passing one to Jake, he sat down, took a sip from his, and began to talk.
“A long time ago now, two young boys were having the time of their lives playing with hand nets in a small stream not that far from your village. It was a sunny day to start with, but as the day wore on, dark clouds rolled in unnoticed by the boys. While they were playing, one of them spotted a large trout andchased it into a shallow pool. In all the excitement, they had left their nets up on the riverbank, so while one kept the trout penned up the other raced up the bank to get the nets. Just as he bent over to pick up the nets, a lightning bolt struck the river. Horrified he saw his best friend floating face down. Plunging into the river, he flipped him onto his back and somehow managed to drag him onto dry ground. Not knowing what else to do he shook his friend, pleading with him to wake up. Miraculously, his friend began to cough and splutter, and after a few minutes was able to sit up.”
“Wow, did he get burnt by the lightning?”
“No, but it affected him.”
“How did it do that?”
“He began to see things he had never seen before.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a very hard thing to explain. He tried to explain it to people but they all thought that the lightning had somehow damaged his brain.”
“Do you think it did?”
“No, he didn’t have brain damage, but the lightning had certainly done something to him. In a way, it had set him free and made him a slave at the same time.”
Jake looked up with a puzzled expression.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he began to see things that other people couldn’t see, terrible things and amazing things. People were less tolerant back then, and he made the mistake of telling them about everything he could now see.”
“What did they do?”
“Well at first they thought he would get better after a few days, and everything would be okay again.”
“What happened, did he get better?”
“There was nothing wrong with him; he just saw the world as it is.
“What did he see?”
“I’m not quite ready to tell you that part of the story yet; there is something else you must know first.”
Jake was both disappointed and curious. “Promise you’ll tell me what he saw!”
Uncle Bert asked Jake for the old leather book, he picked it up and passed it. Uncle Bert turned the pages to an old black and white photo. The photograph was of two small children standing in front of a man and woman, dressed in old-fashioned clothes. Under the photograph was written the date June 5th, 1897.
“That’s a picture of the boy, taken a short time before the lightning struck him,” said Uncle Bert passing the album to Jake.
As Jake studied the photograph, he could there was something vaguely familiar about the boy, but of course, that was crazy, as he would have died long ago. Then it dawned on him. “Hey, he looks quite a lot like you, is he your father or grandfather or something?”
“Close Jake, but not quite, it’s a photo of my family and me.”
Jake looked up in disbelief. “But how can it be you, I mean that would make you, ah, um…” He quickly tried to do the maths in his head, but maths had never been his strong point. Taking a quick guess, he said “Over a hundred years old.”
“Well it is me, and yes I am over 100, in fact, I’m 123.”
“You’re tricking me!”
“No, I promise you it’s no trick. I know it’s very hard to believe, but as I said before there is a way to prove it, but only after you’ve heard the full story.”
“Okay I’ll try to believe you, but it’s hard, and I’m not sure how you can prove it. But I do want to know the rest of the story!”
“Just remember your promise Jake, this is our secret.
“I promise to keep my promise.”
Uncle Bert got up, turned his back to the fire, and continued with the story.
“Well, one moment I was in the creek trying to catch a trout, and next thing I’m waking up on the river bank. I had no idea what happened until my friend Jimmy told me. My vision was a bit blurry, and I felt like someone had hit me over the head. But after a while, I managed to stand up. Jimmy saw my hat snagged on a stick in the stream, and ran down to get it. As he bent down to pick it up, I saw something on the back of his neck. It looked like a huge slug; I guess it was about the size of a sparrow. I screamed at Jimmy to keep still and raced down to get it off him. It felt disgusting and was very slimy almost slippingout of my hands, but I managed to get a grip on it and pulled as hard as I could.”
“Did you get it off him?”
“No, the moment I pulled, Jimmy screamed. It gave me such a fright I had let go. The thing retracted into his neck almost disappearing, only the very end of its tail still showed. Jimmy though I had stabbed him or something, and wouldn’t let me go near him for a few minutes. But we were best friends, and after touching his neck and not finding a cut or a gash, he believed me when I told him what I saw. He wasscared, so we rushed back to the village to tell my dad. Jimmy was always a bit quicker than me, andrunning behind him, I saw the slug start to ooze out of his neck again.”
Uncle Bert leant back in his chair both hands over his face, looking sorrowful, Jake could see tears in his eyes.
“We went straight to my house and got my father. I told him that something was on Jimmy and we couldn’t get it off. But father couldn’t see it. It was still there, though; I could see its ugly body pulsing away as it fed. Father got angry with me and told us not to play such silly tricks. I pleaded with him to look again, but he just got angrier and stormed back inside.”
Uncle Bert stopped speaking; his eyes wet with tears. Reaching into his pocket he took out a hanky and dried his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he continued.
“When my dad turned to go, I saw a huge slug on his neck, it was much bigger than Jimmy’s, I guess back then it was about half the size of a rabbit. It turned out everyone had them, my mum, my sister, everyone. I soon realised that the older a person was, the bigger the slugs were. On babies, you could hardly see them at all, but they are always there.”
Jake couldn’t help feeling the back of his neck; to his relief, he felt nothing.
“I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about the slugs, especially to my family, but it made them angrier and angrier, and they told me never to mention the subject again. It was horrible. My friends all thought I’d gone crazy.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well I couldn’t understand why I could see the slugs, but no one else could. I knew it had something to do with what happened that day in the stream, but that was all. The day after it happened, I checked my neck to see if I had one.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, there was nothing I could do. No one believed me. My parents were very worried and my friends avoided me. It was a terrible time, had one of these hideous creatures on their necks, yet no one would listen to me, so I just had to keep quiet. Then things got worse.
“It was about a week later, and my mother sent me into town to buy some flour. When I got to the town square, I saw a tiny old man wearing some strange clothes. He had a pack was intently studying a piece of yellowed paper. I walked over to him and said “Hello.” At first, he completely ignored me. So I tapped him on the shoulder. It gave him such a terrible fright that he dropped his piece of paper and shouted something that I couldn’t understand. When he turned to look at me it was then my turn to get a fright as he wasn’t a little old man at all; it was as if he had stepped right out of a storybook. We just stared at each other for nearly a minute, and then he spoke. First, it was in a language that I had never heard before. However, when he realised I didn’t understand him, he began to speak in English.
“Wow, what did he say?”
He looked up at me and said, “This can’t be, surely you cannot see me?”
I told him that of course, I could see him, and then he said the strangest thing.
“What did he say?”
“He said it is not possible, you’re much too old.” Then with a very puzzled look on his little face, he took this necklace off and asked me to hold it for him. It had an beautiful looking stone hanging from it,I can still remember how warm it felt. While I held it, he looked up at me with a bewildered expression on his face. After about thirty or so seconds he asked me to pass it back, which I did.”
“What happened next?”
“He just said to me that he had to go and tell the others, and then started to walk away. He’d forgotten his piece of paper, so I picked it up and yelled out to him that he had left it behind. He called back that it was no longer important, and kept walking down the road. Unbeknown to me, while all this had been happening some of the locals had gathered round behind me. I didn’t know they were there until I turned to go to the baker’s shop to get my mother’s flour. One of them asked me who I was talking to; I pointed to the little fellow as he was still close enough to see. They all looked blankly in his direction, not being able to see him. Then the butcher turned to me shaking his head. “I think I had better take you home to your folk’s lad.”
I told him that I needed to get my mother some flour first, but he said not to worry about it, as he would get the baker to send some home.
When we got home, he asked to speak to my father. I was sent to my room so didn’t hear what he said. After he had left, my parents had a terrible argument and even forgot to let me have my dinner.
Not long after dark, my parents came up to my room and said I needed to stop all this nonsense as it was bringing disrepute upon the whole family. When I tried to tell them that it wasn’t nonsense, my father got so angry that I thought he was going to hit me.
For the next few days, they wouldn’t let me out of the house, and life was pretty boring. After about five days, my parents asked me if I had seen any other pretend creatures. I told them I hadn’t, so they let me go back to school. Of course, I could still see those horrible slugs, but I knew there was no point in bringing them up again.
That morning when I arrived at school, I got another terrible fright. In the middle of the school yard was an enormous black creature with gleaming red eyes. It was crouched beside a group of kids playing marbles. I yelled at the kids to run away, as there was a hideous creature right next to them. They got a bit of a fright, but when I pointed to where it was, they just laughed at me. While they were laughing and jeering at me two of them rushed off to tell the headmaster. Then the creature turned and walked towards me. I wanted to run away, but couldn’t. As I stood fixed to the spot, it got so close to me that I could feel its icy cold breath. I felt sure it was going to kill me. Instead it began to speak.
“What did say?” asked Jake, completely engrossed in the story.
“Well, well,” it hissed, “what have we here?” But before it said another word, the headmaster came storming over, yelling at me that the school was no place for stupid tricks. I pointed to the wicked, leering creature.
“But sir, its right there.” He couldn’t see it and grabbing me by the ear walked straight past it as he marched me into his office. After giving me the cane, he sent someone home to fetch my father. I didn’t know it then but that was the very last time I would ever go to school.
Jake didn’t know what to think. He couldn’t decide whether Uncle Bert was slightly mad or was just playing another one of his tricks. However, the story was a good one and he wanted to hear the rest of it.
“So what happened next?”
“Well, after we got home, I was sent to my room while my parents had yet another argument. Next day my father packed his bags and disappeared for a couple of days. My mother was very upset and cried a lot. When he finally came home, they took me up to my room and had a big talk. They told me that the lightning had done something to my mind and that they had found someone who could help me. They said I would be going to the city to stay in a special place until they had me back to normal again. I begged them to let me stay home, but father said they had made up their minds and that was final. We were to leave the very next day.”
Uncle Bert looked so unhappy as he talked about his parents that Jake began to believe that just maybe his crazy story was true.
“That night was the longest night of my life and I didn’t sleep a wink. We walked to the train station early next morning. I’d never been on a train before but was too upset to enjoy it. It was a very long journey and we hardly spoke which made it worse. We got off the train in the middle of a huge city and travelled by coach to a huge red brick building on the city’s edge.
Written above the front door in large brass letters were the words ‘KRAYTON ASYLUM FOR THE MENTALLY INSANE.’ I didn’t even know what an asylum was back then; if I had, I would have run away. My father left mother and me in the coach and was gone for a long time. He returned with a man whose face I will never forget. He had a big red bulbous nose and cruel beady eyes. They didn’t contain an ounce of compassion and terrified me. Hanging from his neck was the biggest slug I had ever seen. That man plucked me from my mother’s arms and dragged me into a nightmare. Its name was Thaddeus Volt.”
Uncle Bert fell silent; lost in thought. Despite Jake’s intense curiosity, he felt it was best to keep quiet. After a few minutes, Uncle Bert stood up, his face drained of all colour. He gave Jake a very the sad smile.
“You know Jake, maybe it’s best that I don’t tell you the rest of the story. I’m just being selfish, it would be wrong of me to take you away from the people you love.”
Jake didn’t know what to say. He was both saddened and fascinated by the story and desperately wanted to know what happened next. They both fell into yet another awkward silence, neither quite knowing what to say.
It was Jake who eventually spoke.
“I think I believe you Uncle Bert, but I don’t know what you want me to do. I do want to know what happened next, but only if you want to tell me. And whether you do or not, I will always keep my promise.”
“That’s very kind of you Jake. But I’ve got to warn you, that this is more than just a story. If you hear the rest of it, you may end up making a choice that there is no turning back from.”
Jake didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.”What do you mean?”
“In two days’ time, you will be the same age I was when the lightning struck the creek. Not long after that, it will be too late, and you will have no option but to grow up to be a normal human being just like everyone else.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing at all, and maybe that’s the decision you should make. I’m giving you a choice. You can live a normal life, and experience all the good and bad things that come with it. On the other hand, you can take a huge chance with me, and if you do, your life might be over in the next couple of days. If you do survive you will enter into an adventure that you can hardly imagine. But with that experience will come loneliness, sadness and perhaps hopelessness. But if everything works out the way I pray it does, you may help to save an untouched world from terrible evil.”
All Jake was certain of was that he wanted to hear the rest of the story.