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Really Slowly. In the Right Order.

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It was a month after school started again before Tony was sick and Rory went back to Amelia's house. It seemed even quieter and spookier than usual, which was strange because he was way too big to be scared by things like that now, so usually he didn't think about it being spooky anymore.

He knocked on the door, and no-one answered.

He frowned. Maybe she was at the shrink in town. But today was Tuesday, and usually she went on Friday. Sometimes he saw her in the library on Saturday morning, drawing furiously.

She wasn't at the library now, so he found some Encyclopedia Brown books to reread instead.

*

When he got home, the neighbour's dog was tied up in Rory's own front yard. It was looking down the road with big eyes and howling miserably. It didn't look like it was going to bark at him or bite him, but he walked a wide path around it just in case. As soon as he stepped inside Bryce shouted, "Shut the door, Rory, can't you see I'm trying to study?"

"You could go upstairs," Rory muttered and asked aloud, "Why's the dog there?"

"I said I'm studying!"

"Rory, leave your brother alone," said Mum.

Rory poked his tongue out at Bryce and the books spread over the table as he went on into the kitchen. "Are there biscuits?" he asked her. "And why's the dog there?"

"No, and because Mr Jensen's in hospital."

"But I'm hungry."

"Good thing it's almost dinner time then."

He eyed the carrots she was starting to peel. It was going to take forever for dinner to be ready, but if he complained she'd just make him help. That gave him an idea: "Do you want me to set the table?" he asked innocently.

"Leave your brother alone," she repeated as if she was a mindreader. "He and Gareth have got a big year ahead."

He pulled a face. "Why's Mr Jensen in hospital?"

"Oh, have an apple then," she said in exasperation, which made no sense, but he grabbed one and made his escape before she changed her mind.

Hayley bounded out of her room and caught him at the bottom of the stairs. "You missed the ambulance," she said smugly.

"So?" he said, and thumped up the stairs. It wasn't fair, the one time something interesting happened he had to miss it because he was out looking for Amelia Pond and she wasn't even there.

"Rory!" his mother shouted, and he sighed and walked more quietly.

Hayley bounced happily up behind him. "They had to break in to get him out."

"What, they broke the door in?" he asked despite himself.

Gareth came out of his room upstairs, rolling his eyes. "No, Mum told them about the key under the mat. And afterwards she got some dogfood and made sure the gas and lights were all off and locked it again."

"We watched from up here," Hayley said, pointing at the bathroom window. "They had their lights and sirens on and everything."

"What's wrong with him?"

Gareth shrugged. "Dunno. Mum says the dog's got to go to a kennel tomorrow, so if you kids stop fighting then we might get some quiet around here." He stepped back into his room and shut the door again.

"Poophead," Rory muttered.

"He's just annoyed because Bryce got to use the dining room table," Hayley said, and went back downstairs.

*

He looked for Amelia at school next day. Carefully, so no-one knew he was looking, which meant it took a while. But when he found her he didn't have to try to get close enough to ask where she'd been yesterday: she was playing hopscotch with the new girl.

*

After school he wandered through town until he found himself at the hospital. He scuffed his shoes on the gravel for a minute, then went inside.

"Um," he said to the receptionist, "hello?"

"Hello, dear," she said. "Are you here to visit someone?"

"Yes, Mr Jensen." He didn't know his first name, he realised, and added quickly, "He came in yesterday."

"Oh yes. Are you a relative?"

If he said no she mightn't let him in. "Yes," he lied. "I'm Rory Jensen. Um, his sister's grandson. Um," he added, thinking that probably didn't match with the last name. The receptionist had half a smile on her lips, so he hurried on, "Is it okay if I see him just for a little bit?"

"I'll see if I can find a nurse to take you up," she said. "Just have a sit down while you wait."

He had to wait a while. He even picked up some of the magazines, but they were all five years old and all the crosswords were already filled in. Maybe the receptionist had forgotten about him, or maybe she was expecting him to get bored and go away again. He straightened up and stopped swinging his legs so she'd know he was serious.

It must have worked, because finally a nurse came and said, "You're the boy here to see Barney Jensen?"

He nodded, suddenly nervous again, and followed her down a corridor to the lift.

"How much do you know about Mr Jensen's condition?" she asked, pressing the button.

"Well, my Mum said he was in a coma, so I read about that in the encyclopaedia at the school library, but she didn't really say why."

"We think he had a stroke," she said. "That's when something happens in the brain so the blood can't travel around properly. So now his brain needs some time to get better, and the coma lets him rest while that happens."

"Okay," Rory said. "But— But it doesn't always work, does it? That's what the encyclopaedia said."

She blinked at him and admitted, "No, not always. But we're taking really good care of him." She led him out of the lift to a door, where she stopped and tried to look very casual. "So while he's asleep we've got some tubes attached to help him breathe and eat and so he doesn't have to go to the toilet, and there's some other wires that just make sure his heart's doing okay."

Like on TV, Rory thought, but she looked like he was meant to be afraid. He shifted his bag on his shoulders and took a breath. "Okay," he said, and followed her in.

It was like on TV, really. Mostly. Anyway, it wasn't scary, just weird to stand there looking at someone who was lying there unconscious. The nurse picked up the chart from the foot of his bed and made some notes in it.

The encyclopaedia said some people thought coma patients might be able to hear people around him. He licked his lips and stepped forward again. "Hello," he said. "It's Rory. Rory W— Um. We took your dog to the kennel and it's okay. I mean, it's a bit sad, but... Actually that's how Mum knew something was wrong, with you I mean, because it wasn't barking like it usually does whenever a car goes past, it was howling instead. And we had it at our place for a bit and it stopped howling and just lay on the ground all mopey, but at the kennel they said it'll be okay."

He wasn't used to talking for so long without being interrupted, but the nurse was looking busy with the chart.

He added, "When you're better you can go and get it back from the kennel and— and it'll be barking at cars again in no time." He tried to think of something to say, but he didn't really know anything else about Mr Jensen, except that Bryce and Gareth always joked that he looked like his dog, big and growly. He didn't look like that with tubes all over his face though, just... tired.

Rory shifted from one foot to the other, and was glad when the nurse finished with the clipboard and took him back downstairs.

*

"What's for afternoon tea?" he asked when he got home, and went to look in the kitchen.

Mum poked her head out of the laundry. "Where's Tony?"

Yum, squashed fly biscuits. "He's got chicken pox. Can I have three?"

"Oh, Rory," she sighed, "please tell me you're not going to get chicken pox. I don't think I can bear going through that again."

"I'm not going to get chicken pox," he said obediently, and took three squashed fly biscuits.

"Write 'baking soda' on the shopping list."

"The pen's not there," he said, and added in the hope of distracting her from his impending doom, "There's a new girl in my class. And she's got an older sister."

"Oh, that is nice," she said. "I always say it's strange how few girls there are in your year. And far too many only children in Hayley's year."

"And not enough babysitters," Rory finished by rote. And then Dad always said it was just a statistical anomaly and started teaching all the kids about probability again. He picked up an apple and said, "Can I cut a face on my apple?"

"Just eat it like normal," she said in exasperation.

The front door banged and Hayley called, "What's for afternoon tea?" and Rory took his cue to go upstairs.

"And don't leave the apple core on your floor!" Mum called after him.

*

As it turned out he didn't get chickenpox until next April, and that was only because Lloyd got it in late March. And it wasn't fair, because when Lloyd was sick Rory had played with him, even though it made Mum sigh, but now Rory was sick Lloyd was out playing football all the time. Even Hayley only popped into his room for a minute to give him her Operation box before running out again to meet her friends. He wasn't even any good at Operation, he was way too clumsy.

Maybe Tony would come and visit today, he thought hopefully. Or Jeff, or even Mike — except Mike hadn't had chicken pox yet. What was the point of making new friends if they hadn't had chicken pox?

He was trying to extract the wishbone when there was a knock on his window. He jumped and the light buzzed, again. Amelia Pond waved at him from the tree outside.

He dashed over to the window and opened it a crack. "What are you doing?"

"Your mum wouldn't let me in because she said I might get sick."

"So you climbed the tree instead?"

"That's right," she said with a grin.

"But— But what if you fall?"

"I won't fall," she said scornfully. "Open the window properly."

He started to, then stopped. "Why?"

"So I can climb in."

"You can't do that!"

"I won't fall," she repeated.

"Well, but— You might get sick."

"I've already had chicken pox, Aunt Sharon just doesn't remember. Actually, I think I can open it myself, if I just—"

"Don't!" he said in alarm, and hurried to push it right up and help her in so she wouldn't fall. Her backpack almost caught on the edge, and she did a kind of sideways somersault on Lloyd's bed.

Annoyed, he lied, "I can see your knickers."

"Can not."

"Can too." He scowled as she took her backpack off and pulled out an icecream container full of Fimo. "Why don't you go and play with Amanda?"

"Can't," she said matter-of-factly. "She's gone back to Manchester."

"What? When?"

"Yesterday, with their dad. Their mum's in a coma or something and he says he can't keep taking time off work so they're going back to live with him again."

"What kind of coma?"

She shrugged as if she didn't care and started rubbing a block of pale blue Fimo between her hands.

Rory studied the position of the wishbone, thinking about it. "That's really weird," he concluded.

"No, it's not," Amelia snapped.

"Well, it kind of is," he started apologetically, "because—"

"No, it's not. Sometimes people get sick, and— and sometimes people go places, there's nothing weird about it."

"I just meant about it being a coma, because—"

"It's not weird!" she shouted.

"Okay! Okay, shush, Mum'll hear you."

"It's not weird," she insisted in a fierce whisper.

"You're right," he agreed — he didn't like how upset she was getting — "it's probably just a statistical anomaly."

She looked at him warily. "What's that?" she asked, so he got out a coin and explained it the way Dad did, until she realised it was maths and made him put the coin away again. But she looked happier anyway, and went back to making a model of the Raggedy Doctor while Rory went back to being really bad at playing Operation.

*

A week after Rory was finally allowed out of the house, Amelia wasn't at school. As soon as they got out he made an excuse to Tony and Jeff (it was disappointing how few questions they asked) and went to visit her. Her aunt opened the door. "Sorry, Rory, but Amelia's got chicken pox."

"I just had them," he said, then realised he was probably the one who'd given them to her. "Um. Sorry.... She said she'd already had them."

Her aunt sighed and shut her eyes. "Rory," she said after a moment, "Amelia... has a very vivid imagination. Sometimes it's best not to believe everything she says."

She meant Amelia was crazy. That wasn't fair. Your own aunt wasn't supposed to go around telling people you were crazy. He nearly scowled before remembering he had to be polite. "Okay," he said meekly, and in case she'd seen the scowl he added another, "Sorry."

She gave him a smile. "No use crying over spilt milk. You can go up and play with her if you like."

"Thanks, Ms Pond," he said, and went on up the stairs.

"Try and keep her from scratching," she called after him.