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Of The Bauble

Chapter One

    My torch turned itself off. I stumbled and fell forward into the darkness, stopped mid-tumble when forehead and timber collided, sending vibrations through my skull and down my spine.
    "Ow." Understatement.
    I staggered backwards, realising too late that the softness beneath my foot meant-
    "KIERAN JAMES O'SULLIVAN, IF YOU COME THROUGH THAT CEILING..."
    I tried to shift weight to my other foot. The floor- or ceiling, depending on your perspective- creaked. Was still creaking, quietly at first, but building...building...I expected the roof to come down on me any second now.
    With an epic bang, the nails fixing the plasterboard to the joist pinged free, and I- torch in one hand, box of baubles in the other- plummeted in a plume of plaster dust. The force of my crash landing rendered me incapable of speech; I may even have passed out briefly.
    Down below, I heard my sister shriek. "Key! What the hell?"
    The shower stopped running. A box fell on top of me, the contents spilling into my lap, a tuneless metal clanging like the 8-bit song of the damned, followed by the pale, ghastly form of a baby's arm, reaching out to grab me...
    I won't lie. I was screaming like a boy-band fangirl- inwardly, at least. Outwardly, I couldn't breathe, and, of course, my brilliantly dysfunctional torch, with its usual sense of perfectly brilliant timing, chose that exact moment to switch itself on again, illuminating my predicament. Brilliantly.
    Wet feet squelched across the tiles and stopped directly below. I peered down through the jagged triangular hole that was threatening to chop off my left leg at the knee. Cara- my sister- scowled up at me, mascara streaking her wet face, black hair dripping and bedraggled, a macabre bathroom banshee wrapped in a big pink fluffy towel.
    In that calm-but-angry tone she'd inherited from Mum, she demanded, "What are you doing?"
    I opened my mouth, all set with a comeback along the lines of dancing the Macarena, what do you think? instead choking on the dust and insulation material I'd kicked up in my downfall. That definitely couldn't be a good thing.
    "Is he in there?" Mum yelled through the bathroom door.
    "Um. Sort of," Cara responded with a snort. Within seconds, she was giggling helplessly.
    "Are you decent?" Mum asked. The bathroom door opened, catching the back of my leg. "Good God above! What a mess you've made. That's another small fortune to fork out. And in December as well. First the car, now this! Why is it always in December?"
    I was suffocating on fibreglass, so I didn't say it out loud, but if it hadn't been December, I wouldn't have been clambering around our cold, cluttered attic, flipping open box after box, hoping this one would contain the elusive Christmas decorations, and instead finding ghastly dollies twanging out spooky melodies on Fisher Price xylophones.
    "Well, are you going to stay there all night?" my mother asked ridiculously. Cara was still giggling. I heard her splutter an explanation that she was going to her room, followed by a further grunt of annoyance from Mum. I pushed the box of toys off me and attempted to lift my unstuck leg.
    "Agh-uh-ah-ugh-ugh-ugh," I yell-choked. The pain in my knee was horrific.
    "Come on, Kieran. Shift yourself."
    Funny, my mother. I'd have told her so, but, well...
    "Kieran? Are you all right up there?"
    Finally! Some concern for my well-being! I tried to move again, but it hurt far too much. I yelped. The bathroom door bashed my dangling foot, making me tense and sending another jolt of pain from my left hip. I swore inside my head, quite a lot. I should've told Mum to get the decorations down herself, but apparently, in this house of four females- two human, one feline, one leporine- and one male, being the minority didn't exclude me from becoming 'the man of the house' when the need arose.
    To my right, the stepladder creaked as Mum climbed and poked her head up through the attic hatch. I shone the torch in her face. She pushed it away, and as she did, the beam of light fell on my bent right leg.
    "Oh, God! Kieran!" Mum gasped.
    "Mum..." I was going to throw up.
    "I'll go get Uncle Jonny and call for an ambulance."
    I nodded dumbly and was overcome by dizziness. Mum clambered down the ladder, and continued downstairs, calling back to my sister, "Cara, go talk to your brother while I dial 999."
    My sister's door opened. "What?"
    "Kieran's really hurt up there. Make sure he doesn't lose consciousness."
    Lose consciousness? I hadn't banged my head that hard.
    I put the torch down in my lap so I could check out the bump. It wasn't so bad, but my leg...oh, my leg!
    My sister's door closed again. I heard her below me, slamming drawers open and shut, muttering under her breath as she attempted to get dressed in a hurry. I tried to focus on the noise to distract myself from the pain, because now I'd seen the way my leg was bent and all that blood, it hurt more than anything had ever hurt before. My head started spinning, and I reached out for a roof joist to steady myself.
    The box of decorations toppled, baubles spilling from it. They bounced off my legs and stopped dead wherever they landed in the plush-yet-prickly insulation material. One came to a rest between my thighs, and I stared down at it, trying to focus. I was seeing double and I couldn't get it to work, I was so tired. My eyes started to close, and I let them, drifting away on the waves of pain. Endorphins. What a drug, man...
    A growing warmness radiated outwards from my groin. Great. I'd wet myself, not that I cared. So what if I hadn't peed my pants since I was in Reception class that time when I really needed a wee but was too shy to tell Mrs. Jones? It had been embarrassing, sure, but now, really, what did it matter? There was a big splinter of rotten wood stuck in my calf, and my knee was bent in the same direction as my ankle. I'd probably get gangrene and they'd have to amputate. Wet pants were the least of my worries.
    I waited for the warmness to turn to coldness, as it does, but that didn't happen. If anything, it was getting warmer still. So warm, in fact, that it was...
    "Hot!"
    My eyes shot open. I looked down into my lap and couldn't quite believe what I saw there. The bauble was glowing! I tried to move my legs to flip it onto the floor, but I couldn't, although I also realised that I didn't want to. At first, I thought it was my imagination, as the blue swirling glow momentarily became brighter and then dimmed away to the tiniest speck. Nervously, I caught hold of the little hook and lifted the bauble to eye level. It was the strangest light, like the blue of a hot gas flame, and it seemed to swirl faster the longer I studied it. The heat travelled up the hook to my finger; I swapped hands, unable to put it down.
    It was nothing like the rest of the baubles. Lucy and Juniper- our rescued cat and rabbit, for whose names we could not be held accountable- had a great game they liked to play, whereby Lucy-cat would bat a bauble from the tree and Juniper-bunny would kick it back. Visitors thought it was cute, but coming home to find the tree stripped of its decorations and the carpet covered in bauble-fall got tired after the first fifty times or so.
    Anyway, it meant that all of the other baubles, for reasons of safety and keeping vet bills to a minimum, were made of plastic, whereas this one was too heavy to be plastic. Nor was it round; it was kind of like an upside-down pear on a spike, about fifteen centimetres in diameter at its widest, tapered off to a point at the bottom, the narrow top capped by a gold clasp. Ignoring the burn, I brought it a little closer to examine the metal clasp with its ornate claws, following them down into the gold-coloured strands encircling the frosted purple-blue glass.
    It was the most beautiful decoration I had ever seen, and the swirling light inside was enchanting, mysterious. I wondered whether it was filled with a noble gas of some sort, and the friction had caused it to ignite. I had no idea if that were even possible. After all, there was a reason I was studying English, not chemistry.
    By now, the bauble was only millimetres from my face, the heat so intense I could feel it burning the tip of my nose, but I was completely transfixed by the swirling blue inside the glass chamber, a tiny tornado spinning up from the spike, dispersing and scattering like exploding fireworks, before fluttering down and settling in a sapphire snowstorm, only to start over again. In the far-off distance, I was aware of Cara's bedroom door opening and slamming shut, the creak of the rungs as she climbed the ladder...
    I need to hide it.
    Where the thought had come from, I did not know, but I was overwhelmed by the urge to keep this magnificent find to myself. I stared into the glass, trying to think where I could put it so no one would find it.
    A face stared back at me.
    I blinked and looked again, watching in disbelief as the face spread over the inner surface of the glass, stretching grotesquely, a wide, fat, bulbous nose, evil eyes peering up, from left, to right, and back again, staring right at me. The mouth started to open.
    I jumped, and the bauble flew straight up into the air, where it seemed to hover for a split second before crashing down and exploding, a blinding mushroom of pure heat and light speeding upwards and outwards from the landing site, until it filled the entire attic. I staggered back into the gable end, my neck bent against the joists above. The light seemed to be shrinking back, imploding, reforming into another shape- the pear shape of the bauble, becoming taller, slimmer and for a moment looking freakily human- other than the spike where there should have been legs.
    It was at that point it dawned on me I was standing, and I glanced down at my own, uninjured, blood-free legs inside whole and untorn jeans. I looked up again.
    "What the..."
    I didn't get any further than that, because a gale-force blast of searing air slammed into me so hard I couldn't even shut my eyes. And it was more than air. It was light and sound, and pain and joy, and so much else besides. I couldn't stand it. It was too much. I was going to die. I...was...going...
    Just like that, the pressure eased, and I gulped and panted, but then was filled with horror as the reverse occurred, and a tremendous vacuum threatened to suck me right into the flames.
    OK. Maybe I'm actually dead. Or, at the very least, I'm in a coma. Am I still in the attic? Or are they in surgery now, trying to save me?
    I grabbed a passing joist and clung to it in desperation, my legs flaying behind me, the heat scorching the soles of my feet through my baseball boots. I could feel the rubber melting. If I hadn't been so utterly terrified, I'd have been having the ride of my life. But the walls were shaking, and I was burning, and my arms were aching, I was losing my grip...
    And then...it stopped. Or the suction did. The fire, not so much.
    I landed painfully and somehow scrabbled onto my hands and knees, crawling as fast as I could along a beam until I reached the closed hatch and tugged frantically at the loop of rope. The hatch wouldn't open. I tried and tried, but I was trapped, and the attic was on fire.
    The fire chortled.
    I slowly turned around, and stared up into the blue formation of flame towering above me. It wavered slightly, the top tilting in my direction as a sonic boom voice spoke a single word.
    "Greetings."

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