Summary from Goodreads
Life isn’t going terribly well for Derrick; he’s become severely overweight, his only friend has turned on him, he’s hopelessly in love with a girl way out of his league, and it’s all because of his sister. Her depression, and its grip on his family, is tearing his life apart. When rumours start to circulate that a panther is roaming wild in his south London suburb, Derrick resolves to try and capture it. Surely if he can find a way to tame this beast, he’ll be able to stop everything at home from spiraling towards disaster?
Panther is a bold and emotionally powerful novel that deals candidly with the effects of depression on those who suffer from it, and those who suffer alongside them.
The cookie broke apart in his mouth like smashed concrete. It was so stale that his saliva turned it into glue and his teeth stuck together. It didn’t matter to Derrick. He forced his jaw to keep working the mouthful until it was soft enough to swallow. It wasn’t about the taste. Not after what had happened to him that afternoon. Not when the cookie was days old and scavenged from the dustbin.
He delved his hand back into the bin bag. Cold moisture tingled on his skin as something mushy swamped his fingers. Derrick didn’t even flinch. The first time he had ever done this the slightest touch of anything wet had made him whip his hand clear and wipe it frantically on the weeds that grew through the fence. Now he’d done it so many times that nothing would stop him.
Why do you do this? he asked himself. It was a question he could never answer. These eating sprees had only begun a few months back. Since then he’d watched the fat swell under his skin, his belly sag over his waistband. It had only taken a couple of months for him to completely lose control.
That was the funny thing. He ate because everything at home was out of control. He ate because it made him feel in control. Even Derrick couldn’t figure it out.
The cloying smell of rubbish filled his nose. His hand found another cookie that was too soggy to consider, then another, which just about made the grade. In the darkness it was little more than a disc of shadow between his fingers. Too dark to make out if anything nasty was stuck to it. Derrick shrugged and shoved it into his mouth whole.
It cracked between his teeth. Derrick tipped his head back to the night sky. With each chew he felt the tension ooze out of his body. It felt like his feet were sinking into the earth. The knot of anger in his stomach, pulled so tight that day that he thought it might snap, began to fall slack as the junk food slopped down into his gut.
These days junk food was the only thing that soothed the anger. Even if it was only for a few hours. It had been that way for three months now. Ever since the incident. Ever since Charlotte had tried to kill herself.
A high-pitched yelp echoed across the allotments and chased the memory from his mind. When he was little, he’d always thought that the fox cries were the screams of women in trouble. Back then he would never have gone to the alley at the bottom of the garden after midnight. It was the only way to make sure his family didn’t see him raiding the bins for days-old junk food, something he wasn’t exactly proud of.
Derrick looked down at the bulge of his stomach. The sight of it. This was her fault. It was the only way to cope with everything Charlotte was putting them through.
The fox screamed again, a strangled wail that snapped his thoughts in two. Derrick leaned back against the wooden fence that lined one side of the alley. It formed an uneven black barrier that cut him off from the segmented back gardens that ran the length of the street. The wood creaked under his weight. Just enough dim light filtered through from the surrounding houses for him to pick out the vegetable patches, sheds, wonky frameworks and mismatched garden furniture of the allotments opposite. Three months ago he’d learned the place like the back of his hand. There was no sign of the fox. The only sound now was the low vibration of a helicopter somewhere behind the roofs.
Derrick swallowed the last of the cookie. It wasn’t quite enough to push away his worries. Things were only going to get worse from here. Charlotte’s final exams were next week. The thought of how the stress might make her behave sent a shiver up his spine. There had already been crying and tantrums. The atmosphere in the house was already becoming too tense to bear.
She couldn’t just get on with things like everybody else. His exams were finished and he’d got through them fine. Ok, she was a couple of years ahead, hers were probably a bit harder. But that shouldn’t be an excuse. Charlotte always made such a big deal out of everything.
Depression – Derrick just didn’t get it.
He felt his jogging bottoms dig into his skin. They used to be loose. He deployed two fingers to tug his T-shirt (XXL, bought in a charity shop) away from his body.
He wiped crumbs from his mouth. When he had chucked the remains of this food away a couple of days ago, the idea had been to stop himself eating too much. The irony wasn’t lost on him. Just like with everything else, he should have known better.
He sighed. Why do you do this? On top of what they had caught him doing at school earlier that day, Derrick wondered if he had any pride left at all.
A little way up the alley the chain-link fence that cut him off from the allotments rattled. The sound made his skin prickle. The fence rattled harder, as if someone were shaking it, sending a metallic ripple all the way along to meet the garden gate with a loud slap-slap-slap. Somewhere in the thick darkness, something unseen scuffled on the soil.
‘Bugger off,’ blurted Derrick. He wasn’t sure why.
But the noise didn’t bugger off and the whole fence rattled like it was going to fall down.
Derrick was pretty sure he should run for it. His feet inched back. It would have taken him maybe fifteen seconds to clear the lawn and reach the back door of the house. That didn’t factor in the possibility of getting a stitch and falling over halfway.
Only a single thought made him stand his ground. What if they’re filming you again?
If they’d caught Derrick eating out of the dustbin, the video would be on YouTube within the hour. Maybe this was an extra part of the prank. Bonus footage. An extra freak-out to make it really humiliating. As if the video they’d made earlier that day hadn’t been humiliating enough.
When the smartphone had appeared over the top of the toilet stall, he’d known straight away who it was. There was no way to get his trousers up in time. The school meatheads had used Tamoor’s phone, while he himself hung back. As if that made it less of a betrayal. Tamoor and Derrick used to be best friends. The end of that friendship was something else that had slipped out of his control.
He forced himself forward. There was no way he could let them get away with it again. Not after everything they’d done to him in the last few months. It wasn’t as if Tamoor would stop them.
The helicopter was overhead now, the buzz of the blades joining in with the rattling of the fence.
Derrick took another step and felt his stomach turn over. Could projectile vomit be used as a weapon? He took his phone out of his pocket. Swiped the screen and thrust it out ahead of him. Sharp white light illuminated the alley and pushed thin, interweaving shadows through the fence onto the grass.
Suddenly the rattling stopped, leaving the thundering chopper, circling.
Derrick held up his phone to inspect a ragged hole, peeled open in the chain-link, just about big enough for a person to squeeze through. A person a little less wide than himself, anyway.
Derrick lowered himself down onto his knees and pressed the screen closer. The earth in front of the hole had been scuffed and churned. It was scarred with shallow grooves like claw marks. Derrick plucked something caught on a barb of metal. It was a clump of black fur. Thick but soft, like the coat of an animal.
Bugger. Three months ago he would have given anything to find this . . .
Derrick tucked his phone back into his pocket and heaved himself upright, clutching the tuft.
Blinding light flooded the alley. Derrick threw his arm across his eyes. Shit. He thought for a paranoid split-second it was Tamoor and the meatheads. Oh god. Everyone would laugh at him. Again. He was exposed. Slowly, as if accepting his fate, he opened his eyes and squinted up from under his arm.
The helicopter hovered directly above him, pinning him in a beam of brightness that cut him out of the night. They wouldn’t go this far. This would be a whole new level of trolling. The turbulence of the thundering blades plastered his T-shirt against his skin. Even in his fear he tried to pry it loose.
The light considered him for a few seconds before it seemed to grow bored. It swung lazily across the allotments, flooding the greenhouses with ghostly white and throwing strange, misshapen shadows across the ground. The helicopter turned and buzzed away, illuminating the empty warehouse in the far corner.
Derrick’s hair settled messily over his face. A high-pitched ringing tore at his ears. All he could do was stand and watch the helicopter drift away over the allotments. POLICE, Derrick read on its side. Eating from his dustbin wasn’t a crime, was it? Derrick had always thought of it more as a total moral disgrace.
After a few minutes the spotlight snapped off like a shrug, the helicopter coasted off over London, and the noise bounced and faded into the distance.
Derrick tried to hold his trembling hands steady. The quiet around him now was absolute. The black fur was gone, blown away into the darkness.