Category Archives: Children’s/YA

Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini – Extract

Trial by Fire

Chapter One

Lily Proctor ducked into the girl’s room, already yanking back her rebellious hair. Aiming for the toilet through a blur of tears, she vomited until her knees shook.

Lily had been symptomatic all day, but she knew she’d rather eat her own foot than get sent home. Tristan would never take her to the party that night if he knew she was having another one of her epic reactions, and Lily couldn’t afford to miss this party. Not now. Not when things between she and Tristan had so recently, and so wonderfully, changed.

Tristan Corey had been Lily’s best friend all her life. They’d grown up together, building tent cities out of his mother’s clean sheets and space stations out of sofa cushions. Most kids grow apart when they start to grow up—Lily knew that. Some figure out the trick of being cool, and others stay runny-nosed geeks for the rest of high school. But to Tristan’s credit, no matter how popular he got over the years, or how isolated Lily became as her allergies intensified and embarrassing rumors about her mother spread, he never once backed away from their pinky-swear promise to be best friends forever. He never tried to hide how close they were or pretended not to care about her because other kids thought she was strange. The only reason he rarely let her go to parties with him was because lots of kids smoked at them, and Lily’s lungs couldn’t handle smoke.

Or at least that’s what Tristan said. Since Lily had never been to one of these parties herself she couldn’t know for sure, but she had a sneaking suspicion that Tristan didn’t bring her with him because he was usually going to hook up with a girl. Or several girls.

Everyone in their graduating class knew that Tristan was the biggest player in Salem, Massachusetts. Sophomore year he’d come back from summer baseball camp a foot taller and achieved legendary status by dating a senior. Ever since then the girls— and women—of Salem had passed him around like a pair of traveling pants.

Unfortunately for Lily, she’d had a crush on Tristan since she first realized that there was a difference between boys and girls—way before he rode the testosterone rocket to studliness. And she’d suffered for it.

For years she’d had to pretend that she was okay with being his Girl Friday.

They’d run everyday errands together—Drivers Ed, shopping for cleats, studying—and then, inevitably, some girl would call and he’d leave. Lily never told him how much it killed her to see the excited flush grazing his cheekbones or the hungry shine in his blue eyes when he’d give her a distracted hug goodbye and dart off to meet his latest conquest. Tristan had never looked at Lily like that. And, as she heaved monstrously into the toilet, Lily had to admit she couldn’t blame him for taking so long to finally kiss her.

The kiss had come out of the blue. They’d been hanging out, watching TV, and Lily had fallen asleep on his leg like she’d done a thousand times before. When she opened her eyes he was staring down at her with a stunned look on his face. Then he’d kissed her.

That was three days ago. Even thinking about it still made Lily shake. One second she’d been asleep, and the next Tristan was on top of her– kissing her, touching her, and slowly moving against her. Then he’d suddenly pulled away and tried to apologize. But Lily wasn’t sorry at all, and she didn’t want him to be, either.

They hadn’t talked about it, but the next morning he’d held her hand in school. He’d even given her a sweet little kiss in front of his jock friends right before practice. Lily had never dated anyone and didn’t really know how these things worked, but she was pretty sure that by taking her to the party tonight he would be announcing to everyone that they were officially together. So Lily didn’t care if she coughed up her spleen or sneezed out an artery. She was going to that party if it killed her.

When she was finally done vomiting up the leaves, twigs, and roots that made up her vegan lunch, Lily staggered over to the sinks to mop up her face.

She moaned when she looked in the mirror. It was worse than she’d expected.

Her alabaster white skin was flushed such a bright red it looked like someone had slapped her across the face. Crimson hives were rising like whip marks across her wing-like collarbones and her green eyes were glassy with fever. Quickly recounting everything she’d eaten that day, she couldn’t think of what could have caused such a run-away reaction. Her allergy must have been caused by something she couldn’t see, like the chemicals they used to clean the school, but she couldn’t really be sure of that.

Lily twisted her slippery strawberry-colored curls up close to her scalp and stabbed the thick mass into a messy French twist with a pencil. She took off her “Save the Wales” t-shirt and bent over a sink in her bra, trying to coax colder water out of the lukewarm tap by batting it with her fingertips. She splashed the not-quite-cool-enough water over the angry rash that was rising like a hot tide up her hyper-reactive body.

The bell rang, signaling the end of her lunch period, and Lily had no choice but to reach into her bag for one of her many emergency kits. She dug past a bottle of quick-dissolve steroid pills and her inhaler, and went straight for the Epi Pen. She took the grey cap off the tube of sterile metal and jabbed the black tip through the jeans covering her thigh, gritting her teeth against the painful stab.

Technically, she wasn’t supposed to use her Epi Pen except in a life-threatening situation, but since she had no idea what was causing such a violent reaction, she figured it was better to be safe than sorry. As the medicine cocktail from the Epi Pen flooded her system, Lily’s symptoms began to diminish. Her eyes stopped watering and her vision cleared. She shivered violently as the adrenaline from the shot rushed through her system, and realized that her entire upper body was wet. Hands shaking with the jitters, she dabbed at herself with some paper towels and put on her t-shirt as the bell rang a second time, signaling the start of the next class.

Lily ran out of the girl’s room, up the stairs, and thundered down the nearly empty hallway to Mr. Carnello’s classroom just before he closed the door.

“Sorry Mr. Carn.” She panted as she ducked past him.

“Are you alright?” Mr. Carnello asked her, glancing down at Lily’s top and then quickly away.

“Sure. I just had a…thing,” she mumbled distractedly, and darted into the room.

Tristan looked up from his spot at their lab table and narrowed his eyes at her as she made her way over to him. She noticed a couple of people looking at her strangely as she sat down. She tried to smile back at them in friendly way, but they all looked away from her without making eye contact.

“Lily,” Tristan hissed at her.

“What?” she hissed back. “Why are your boobs wet?”

“My what?” Lily looked down at her t-shirt and saw that the white material was completely transparent where her soggy bra had soaked through. Mortified, she crossed her arms over her chest. She could hear a few guys snickering in the corner and saw Tristan’s head spin around, silencing them with a look.

“Do you need a moment to collect yourself, Miss Proctor?” Mr. Carnello asked kindly.

“No. We’re good,” Tristan answered for Lily as he quickly pulled his sweater over his head.

The shirt he was wearing underneath hiked up accidentally as he did so, and a few girls whispered excitedly at the glimpse of rippling muscles and velvety skin. Tristan helped Lily into his sweater like he didn’t even hear them, which considering the fact that he just had to walk past most girls to make them groan out loud, he probably didn’t. But Lily heard them, and felt herself flush with even more heat as she resisted the urge to strangle the two of them.

“Do you have a fever?” he asked.

“I always have a fever,” Lily replied grumpily, which they both knew was true.

Lily’s body ran hot—about 102° Fahrenheit on a normal day. On a bad day, her fever could shoot up to as high as 111°. The doctors had no idea how she’d survived some of her worst attacks, but then again, they had no idea about a lot of things where Lily was concerned.

“I’m serious,” replied Tristan, pointing accusingly at the spot of blood on her jeans where she’d impaled herself on the Epi Pen. “Do you need me to take you home? Or the hospital?”

“I’m fine,” she replied emphatically. “Really. I feel great.” She paused and smiled ruefully. “Well, apart from the whole wet boobs in class thing.”

Lily gave him a saucy look and nudged his arm, brushing the whole thing off.

After everything that people had said about her and her family, a wet t-shirt was the least of Lily’s problems. Tristan’s big blue eyes sparkled and his light brown hair fell across his forehead as he ducked his head with quiet laughter. He had a million little gestures like this that left her star struck. He was almost too pretty to look at sometimes, and Lily couldn’t believe how lucky she was that he was finally hers.

“Pay attention to Mr. Carn,” she chastised, like Tristan had been the one to disrupt class. He nudged her back and they focused on the lecture.

“If any symbol fits the universe better than this one,” Mr. Carnello spun to his projector and drew the sideways figure eight that represented infinity. “It would be this one.” He drew an equal sign. “Newton proved that if you hit a ball with a known amount of force, that force doesn’t disappear. It’s turned into kinetic energy and the balls flies a distance that you can measure with accuracy—why? Because energy in,” he tapped one side of the equal sign, “is equal to the energy out,” he finished, tapping the other side of the equal sign. “So. Energy changes. Matter can even change into energy—we’ll get to Einstein’s E=mc2 later—but you can’t make something out of nothing. This is the first law of Thermodynamics. Now! Thermo, which is Greek for heat, and dynamics, from the Greek dynamikos with means power. Heat and power are two halves of the same whole.”

Mr. Carnello began to scribble furiously as he mumbled to himself, Lily and Tristan looked at each other and grinned. They both loved science. In fact, Tristan had scored higher on his Biology Achievement Test than anyone else in the state that year, and he was seriously thinking about enrolling as a pre-med student in one of the Ivy League schools that he would apply to this winter. It was only early November, and the senior class still had another month or two to pick colleges, declare a major, and basically figure out the rest of their lives before they all turned eighteen. Lily was sure Tristan had already decided to be a doctor someday. After spending so much time visiting her at Mass General when she was having one of her more severe attacks, he certainly knew his way around a hospital.

Lily wasn’t particularly interested in being a doctor herself, but she studied all the sciences with a passion. She had always been able to understand physics intuitively, and on the days she was feeling particularly put upon, Lily believed this was because her body was a wacky science experiment gone wrong. Every year Lily’s ailments grew worse, and not even the cadre of specialists in Boston she went to see every month knew how to treat her. She’d always dreamed of chaining herself to an endangered redwood tree or participating in a days-long sit in to stop animal testing, but the truth was her body would never let her do those things. She probably wouldn’t even be able to live on campus when she went to college next year—if she was healthy enough to attend college at all.

A wave of anxiety overtook her at the thought of Tristan going far away to college. Harvard and Brown were close enough for him to commute easily, but what if he decided to go to Columbia—or worse, Cornell? Ithaca was a six-hour drive from Salem.

As Mr. Carnello delved into the finer points of thermodynamics, the adrenaline from the Epi Pen shot abandoned Lily all at once, leaving her with a killer headache and a raging case of paranoia about her changing status in Tristan’s life. She resisted the urge to rub her temples and beg Tristan to stay in Boston. Every time Tristan looked over at her to see if she was okay, Lily smiled brightly to prove how great she felt. What she really needed was about a gallon of water to wash away the bitter film that was coating the inside of her mouth, but she’d have to wait until after class to go to the bubbler or Tristan would know she felt sick. Lily nearly sighed with relief when the bell rang.

“Thanks for the loaner.” She pulled Tristan’s sweater off and handed it to him. “I think my boobs are sufficiently dry now.” She fanned her flushed face. “Actually, I think they’re cooked. I was roasting all period.”

“And I was freezing.” Tristan gratefully put his sweater back on with a shiver. “Mr. Carn always keeps his room so damn cold.”

“The half-dissected cats like it better that way.”

“You’re just lucky I love you.”

“Yeah, right. You just didn’t want me flashing the whole room!” Lily exclaimed a bit too loudly.

She watched Tristan grab his stuff and hurry out of the room, not even thinking twice about his choice of words. He said he loved her every now and again. It didn’t mean the same thing to him as is it did to her, and Lily knew it. But she also knew that he did care deeply about her, which made the situation all the more confusing. Since their steamy episode on the couch, Tristan hadn’t tried anything sexier than a few chaste kisses and a lot of handholding. He loved her—Lily had known that for years—he just didn’t seem to be all the crazy about her body.

Not that she had a bad body, Lily thought as she grabbed a sip from the bubbler and then followed Tristan to their side-by-side lockers. Sure, she had skin that was much too fair for the current style and she was painfully skinny, but even she was aware of the fact that she had a great face. Well, Lily conceded, she had a great face when it wasn’t leaking snot or covered in hives, which wasn’t very often. And the hair was a problem. Bright red, thicker than polar bear fur and curly as scissor-skinned ribbons on a birthday present, Lily’s hair was a force to be reckoned with. She wouldn’t be surprised if it could be seen from space, and she spent most of her time pinning it back, pulling it up, and generally trying to convince it not to eat her face.

Lily hated her hair, probably because it reminded her so much of her mother’s.

Her big sister, Juliet, had pin-straight locks in a perfectly respectable shade of brown, but not Lily. Oh no. On top of having to wear a battalion of medic alert bracelets that proclaimed her freakiness to the world, Lily also got saddled with their mom’s crazy hair.

Lily fervently hoped she hadn’t gotten her mom’s crazy mind to go with it. “Are you sure you want to go to your last class?” Tristan asked skeptically as he watched Lily pull her Spanish textbook out of her locker. “I could get a pass and drive you home right now,” he offered.

“What for?” Lily said brightly.

Tristan straightened to his full height of six foot two and turned toward her. He reached out with one of his long, supple arms and boxed her in against the wall of lockers. She went still and looked up at him. Tristan was one of those rare guys whose skin always managed to look dewy and fresh, like every inch of him was utterly kissable.

“No jokes. No acting tough,” he said, easing closer to her until his thighs rested on hers. Tristan brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “You don’t have to come with me to the party tonight.”

Lily frowned. If he thought she was so sick, why would he go the party without her? She was about to ask him when a shrill voice interrupted them.

“Are you serious?”

Lily and Tristan broke apart and turned to see Miranda Clark staring at them, her hands planted on her shapely hips and an exaggerated look of disgust on her spray-tanned face. Half the hallway full of students slowed to gawk.

“What, Miranda? You got something to say?” Tristan said rudely.

“Yeah, I got something to say,” Miranda retorted, her lower lip trembling.

Lily felt bad for her. Under all that lip gloss and chemically treated blonde hair, it was easy to see that she was hurt. Tristan didn’t talk about his love life with Lily, but she was pretty sure that Miranda and he had been involved a few weeks back. Lily wasn’t sure exactly when they’d stopped seeing each other, but from the stunned look on Miranda’s face, Lily guessed that it had been recently. Maybe too recently.

“This should be great,” Tristan said, crossing his arms and smirking. “Remember to use your big girl words, Miranda.”

Lily gaped at Tristan, surprised at how cruel he was being. True, Miranda Clark wasn’t the smartest girl in school, but she was two years younger than they were. Of course her vocabulary wouldn’t be on the same level as theirs. What was he doing hooking up with a fifteen-year-old to begin with? The whole episode was leaving a bad taste in Lily’s mouth.

“Miranda. I’m sorry you’re upset, but maybe we should talk about this later?” Lily said. Miranda didn’t appreciate Lily’s peace offering. In fact, she looked like she was just about to pounce on Lily and beat the crap out of her.

“This isn’t your mess, Lily,” Tristan said tiredly. “Go to Spanish. I’ll handle her.” “Mess?” Miranda said, focusing her rage on him. “You think I’m a mess?” she repeated, her tone sliding up an octave.

The bell rang, breaking up the knot of bystanders, but Miranda didn’t move. She waited, eyes glassy with furious tears, for Tristan to deal with her.

“Go,” Tristan repeated to Lily. “I got this.”

Lily turned and went to her class. Behind her she could hear the two of them arguing. The volume rose steadily until Lily could catch the last retort from all the way down the hall.

“Whatever Miranda,” Tristan said. “I honestly don’t care about what you think.” Then Lily, and half the student body, heard Miranda slap Tristan across the face.

Lily ducked into her classroom rather than go back and defend Tristan like she might have a few days ago. This wasn’t the first time a girl had slapped her best friend, but it was the first time Lily believed he’d really deserved it.

After school, Lily felt a bit strange getting a ride home from Tristan as she usually did. Having no other option, she waited in the parking lot by his car and grimaced when she saw the hassled look on his face as he crossed to her.

“I could have my mom…” Lily began halfheartedly.

“Your mom? Driving? Like I want innocent blood on my hands,” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“She’d never make it out of the driveway, anyways,” Lily said dryly. “The garage confuses her.”

Tristan unlocked the doors on the Chevy Volt that he kept immaculate for Lily and they both got in.

“Sorry about today,” he said sincerely. “I didn’t mean to drag you into it.”

“That was some slap. How’s your face?”

He sighed dramatically. “Unfortunately, the nurse said that slap was loaded with cooties.”

Lily sucked in a pained breath. “Cooties. You know what that means?”

“They’ll have to amputate.”

“Girls across the tri-state area will be inconsolable. A national day of mourning is sure to follow.”

He smiled at her lazily, his mouth inches away, eyes locked with hers. Lily desperately wanted to forget the whole thing and kiss his cootie-infested face, but something held her back.

“How’s Miranda?” Lily asked, looking down at her hands.

“How should I know?” Tristan turned back to the steering wheel and started the car. His coldness toward Miranda disturbed her. Was this how Tristan treated every girl he was finished with?

“Do you want me to talk to her?” Lily offered. “I can tell her it was unexpected. That she’s got the wrong idea about us and what happened.”

“Miranda has so many wrong ideas in her head I don’t see how setting her straight about one of them will make any difference. She’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, Lily.”

Tristan glanced at the look on Lily’s face while he drove out of the parking lot and knew what she was thinking.

“I know, I know,” he said with exasperation. “If I think she’s an idiot, I probably shouldn’t have fooled around with her in the first place, right?”

“She’s a lot younger than us, Tristan. Two years is a big deal,” Lily objected gently.

“I guess,” he sighed. “But trust me, Lily. Miranda’s not some innocent little girl. I didn’t, you know, ruin her or anything.”

“Ruin her? What century is this?” Lily chuckled. Tristan’s lips turned up in a tiny smile. Lily took a second to steel herself for the next question. “Were you still involved with Miranda the other night?”

He rolled his eyes. “She wasn’t my girlfriend. I never made any promises to her and it was idiotic of her to think we were going to be a couple.”

They drove in silence for a bit.

“Just out of curiosity, how would a girl know if you were going to be a couple?”

Lily was reaching—fishing for a commitment from him like she was one of his desperate admirers. She disliked herself for it, and as the silence stretched out, her question hanging like a bad smell in air, she started to dislike him for not answering her. They pulled into Lily’s driveway, Tristan’s face never even twitching to show that he’d registered what she’d said.

“I’ll pick you up at seven for the party,” he said, and drove off.

Lily stood outside in the cold sea air after Tristan left. She liked the cold. She especially liked the clean, salty air that blew in off the Atlantic Ocean, which was pounding away at the rocky shore just a few blocks from her house. Cold, damp air cleared her head and soothed her skin. Luckily for Lily, growing up in Salem meant that there had always been plenty of blustery winds off the water.

When she was comfortable and cool, Lily turned and went inside the ancient colonial-style house that had been in her family since the Pilgrims had landed. Literally. Both of Lily’s parents could trace their families back to the Mayflower, and both of them had family members who had either lived in Salem or the surrounding Essex County since there was such a thing as an Essex County on this continent. Sometimes Lily wondered if her raging allergies were from inbreeding, but her sister told her that was ridiculous. Tristan’s family, the Coreys, had been in Salem just as long as theirs had and there was certainly nothing inbred about Tristan.

Lily put her stuff down on the kitchen table and listened to the house for a moment. “Mom?” she called, when she decided it sounded empty.

“Is that you, Lillian?” Only Samantha, Lily’s mom, called her by her full name. “Yeah, it’s me. Where are you?” Lily wandered toward her mother’s voice, confused. It sounded like she was out in the garage.

“Ah, Mom. Look at this mess,” Lily exclaimed when she saw what her mother was up to out there.

Samantha sat at her old potter’s wheel, her curly red hair sticking out wildly, throwing clay in her pajamas and robe. She was in the spot where Lily’s dad parked his car, but she hadn’t put a tarp down underneath her. The floor was covered in drippings that were already beginning to harden. They’d have to be chipped off, but that was only half the problem. In the parking spot next to that, her mom’s old Jeep Grand Cherokee was splattered with clay. Lily dug her hands into her hair, surveying the disaster.

“There she is—no bumps or bruises! I almost came to get you at school,” Samantha said in chipper way. She only garbled her words a little, and that concerned Lily. The meds made her slur, and the slightly clearer speech could mean that she hadn’t taken all of them today. “But when I didn’t get the phone call from your principal, I knew that my Lillian wasn’t the one that trashy girl had attacked in the hallway. See? That’s how I knew the difference between what happened here and what happened elsewhere.”

Lily tried and failed to work out her mom’s logic.

“And then I saw my wheel!” Samantha continued happily. “And I wondered, why did I ever stop throwing pots?”

Lily looked at the watered down lump of poorly mixed clay in her mother’s shaky hands, and couldn’t think of a way to say the phrase “you lost your mind and the meds destroyed your talent so it didn’t sound cruel.

It didn’t escape Lily’s notice that before she went to Spanish, Miranda had looked like she’d wanted to attack her and had settled for Tristan instead. But, according to her mother, the fight had happened. Elsewhere. The new medication obviously wasn’t strong enough. If her mother was under-dosed, things could get ugly. She’d need help.

“Hey, Mom? Aren’t you cold?” she asked brightly. Samantha nodded, like it had just occurred to her that she was. “Why don’t you go inside and I’ll finish up out here for you.”

“Thank you, dear,” Samantha said placidly. She slid out of her dirty Crocs and took off her ruined robe, handing it to Lily.

“I’m going to take you upstairs, tuck you in, and then make a few phone calls, okay?” Lily said carefully. When her mom got confused like this Lily knew the best way to keep her calm was to be as clear as possible.

“Yes, call your sister and tell her exactly what happened,” Samantha said. Her face suddenly got serious and she grasped Lily’s hands with her clay-covered ones. “There isn’t a Juliet who doesn’t love you,” she said desperately. “Remember that.”

“Sure, Mom,” Lily said, smiling brightly as she pried her fingers free. “Let’s get cleaned up, okay?”

Samantha nodded and shuffled inside. Lily pulled out her cell phone and called her dad, just in case he decided to answer. When she was shunted to voice mail after two rings, Lily didn’t even bother to leave a message. He was obviously avoiding the call, and probably wouldn’t check his voicemail for hours. She speed-dialed her big sister, Juliet, instead.

“What’s wrong?” came Juliet’s immediate response.

“Mom’s having a bad day,” Lily said, not at all surprised that her sister already knew something was out of place. The two sisters often joked that their phones were so used to making emergency calls that they had somehow learned how to ring more urgently when there was trouble. Lily walked over to the refrigerator and checked her mom’s meds.

“Did she get loose again?” Juliet asked.

“No,” Lily replied thankfully as she counted her mom’s pills. “She just decided to make a few pots. But she neglected to take the car out of the garage first.”

“Fantastic.” Juliet paused. She and Lily started laughing at the same time. “How bad is it?”

“Oh, it’s pretty impressive, Jules.” Lily finished counting the pills. “I just checked and she took all her meds today, so we’ll have to talk to the doctors about her dosage again. I can clean up the mess myself, but I’m worried about leaving her alone tonight. And I have this thing.”

“A date?” Juliet practically screamed with excitement.

“Sort of.” Lily felt her cheeks heat with a blush. “Tristan’s taking me to a party.”

“A party.” Juliet sighed heavily. “Lily, are you sure about that? With all the hair products and perfume that the girls will be wearing, and the alcohol and smoke…”

“Can you come or not?” Lily asked quietly. “It would mean a lot to me.”

Juliet paused. “We’ll talk about the party when I get there,” she said, and ended the call.

Lily decided to start on the Jeep first. Her dad’s spot could wait. It wasn’t like he’d be coming home that night anyway.

Technically, Lily’s parents weren’t divorced, but her father, James, had pretty much abandoned the family about the time her mother started wandering around sleepy Salem, screaming at everyone to shut up. He’d hung in there for a few years. Lily was in eighth grade when her allergy symptoms started escalating exponentially and, as luck would have it, at around the same time Samantha began accosting people at the grocery store. She’d started walking right up to people, telling them she knew about the affair they were having, the bankruptcy they were hiding, or the Adderall they were stealing from their kids to lose weight.

Sometimes she was right, and sometimes she wasn’t. When she was wrong, she simply said that another “version” of the person she’d accused had done what she’d said. Samantha caused a lot of trouble for some good people, but she’d downright humiliated anyone with the last name Proctor. In a small community like Salem, having a crazy mother was not something that was easily overlooked. By the time Juliet went to college two years ago, it seemed like all of Salem had turned on the Proctor family and wanted to run them out of town.

That’s when James stopped coming home most nights. He couldn’t take the embarrassment of being married to the town kook, but he knew that if he filed for divorce he’d end up getting burdened with Lily. No court would grant Samantha custody of a minor with as many medical problems as Lily had, and James didn’t like sickness, either mental or physical. He didn’t file for divorce or involve the legal system in any way because he knew he would end up with more responsibility. Instead, he just stopped showing up.

Lily filled a bucket with soap and water and opened the garage door so she could let out the fumes of the cleaning goop while she scrubbed. Ten minutes later her eyes were watering from the chemicals so badly she could barely see. She ignored them. She had a party to go to, damn it, and after everything that had already happened that day, a couple of leaky eyes weren’t about to stop her. Another twenty minutes later she was mostly done with the Jeep, when she heard Juliet’s car pull into the driveway and park.

“You know what? The way the clay’s all flung out like that, it looks almost festive,” her sister said from the door.

“I’ll be your best friend if you check on Mom,” Lily said, wiping her hair off her damp forehead.

“Fever?” Juliet crossed to Lily. Her giant brown eyes were rounded with concern. Lily edged away from her sister’s smooth, cool hands before Juliet could touch her face.

“Just warm from all this exercise,” Lily said.

Juliet cocked her chin as she judged Lily’s health. The gesture accentuated the heart shape of her face and as she pursed her naturally red lips with worry, Lily thought, as she always did, that Juliet’s mouth looked like a heart inside a heart—a small red one inside a larger, pale one. Lily knew most people considered her sister a bit plain. Juliet dressed conservatively and never wore make-up or styled her straight, mousy-brown hair. But to Lily that stuff was irrelevant. She thought her sister was the prettiest girl she’d ever seen.

“Check on Mom. I’m awesome.” Lily turned Juliet by the shoulders and gave her a playful kick on the rump to get her to go inside.

When Lily finished she found her sister sitting in bed with their mom, taking her pulse. At twenty, Juliet was already a registered EMT and moonlighted at a hospital to pay her way through Boston University. Sometimes it seemed like everyone closest to Lily had decided at an early age that it would be a good idea to go into medicine— probably because at some point they’d seen paramedics fighting to keep Lily breathing. That kind of experience tends to leave a lasting impression on a kid.

“How is she?” Lily whispered when her sister looked up. Juliet tilted her head to the side in a non-committal gesture before easing herself out of bed and taking Lily out to the hall.

“Her pulse is racing. Which is kind of hard to do when you have 200 milligrams of Thorazine and an Ambien in you.”

“Is she alright alone?”

“She’s fine for now,” Juliet whispered, her big eyes downcast.

“Did she say what’s bothering her?” Lily asked. She took Juliet’s arm and led her down the hall to her room.

“She’s paranoid.” Juliet sighed as she sat on Lily’s bed. “She said another Lillian was thinking about taking her Lillian.”

“That’s…” Lily stopped, overwhelmed.

“…The way she explains her hallucinations to herself,” Juliet finished for her. “The hallucinations aren’t wrong if they really happen ‘somewhere’. She isn’t crazy if there are multiple versions of people and multiple worlds that only she knows about.”

“Yeah.” Lily agreed reluctantly. Something about this explanation bothered her. She knew her mom made stuff up, but how had she known about Miranda nearly starting a fight with her in the hallway? It hadn’t happened, but it almost had. It certainly could have happened if one or two things had worked out differently. “But it’s spooky how close to true her lies sound sometimes.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“And it keeps getting weirder.”

“Schizophrenia is a degenerative disease.”

Juliet said things like that sometimes. It wasn’t to edify Lily, who already knew the ins and outs of their mom’s condition. It was to remind herself that no matter how much of a nightmare all of this seemed, it was still considered normal in some textbook somewhere. Feigning normalcy didn’t help Lily much. Cracking a joke usually did, though.

“Ah, schizophrenia. The gift that keeps on giving.”

Neither of them laughed, but they both smiled sadly and nodded in unison. It helped to have someone to nod with. That’s how Lily and Juliet survived. A textbook answer, a bad joke, and a sister to lean on, and so far they’d managed to keep their dysfunctional little family from going completely down the drain.

“So what’s all this about a party?” Juliet asked. Lily sat down next to her sister. “It’s the only one I’ve been invited to since junior prom. Which I missed because I got sick,” Lily said quietly. Juliet wanted to interrupt. Lily took her hand and kept going before her sister could argue. “Look, I know what’s happening to me. I know that soon I won’t be able to go to school anymore. I’m out of time, Jules. And it’s okay. Well, no, it isn’t okay, but I’ve accepted it at least. I just want to go to one high school party before I’m stuck inside a plastic bubble for the rest of my life.”

“So. Tristan’s taking you,” Juliet began cautiously.

“Yeah.” Lily looked down, smiling softly. “And I’m pretty sure we’re going as a couple.”

“But he doesn’t care if you don’t go to parties. You know that.”

“I also know how long I waited for this. How long I waited for him. I can’t miss this party, Jules.”

Juliet tilted her head to the side and rested it on Lily’s shoulder. They sat together for a while, comforted just to be close to each other.

“Want me to blow out your hair?” Juliet asked after a long silence. She sat up and looked Lily in the eye, smiling.

“Would you?” Lily jumped off the bed and pulled her sister up with her, like the melancholy exchange they’d just had was miles away already. “I can never get the back.”


Excerpted from Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini. Copyright © 2014 by Josephine Angelini.
First published 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Book of Days by K.A. Barker – Extract

The Book of Days

CHAPTER ONE

Most people believe the best way to forget someone is to throw them down a well. Or lock them in a room with eight keys, or bury them at a crossroad in the thirteenth hour. But they’re wrong. The best way to forget someone is for them never to have existed in the first place.

Madame Marisol’s Unreality House was where you brought people to make that happen.

It was a harsh October evening when the strange young man showed up at Madame Marisol’s door. This wouldn’t have been strange in itself except that no one ever made the journey across the Whispering Plains after dark; and yet here he was, standing on her front landing with the nerve to drip on her welcome mat.

He was so tall that the top of his hat was cut off from her view as she peered through the peephole, while a blue woollen greatcoat swathed the rest of him, and so she was no better off at guessing his identity or purpose than she had been when his knock had first disturbed her.

The rain fell in diagonal sheets, splattering against the weathered timber of the House and half-soaking the stranger every time a vindictive flurry of wind found its way underneath the veranda.

Madame Marisol pulled back from the peephole and calmly reached for the loaded musket she kept propped up in the umbrella stand. Then, with equal poise, she put down the book she’d been reading to the occupants of the Unreality House, opened the door a crack, and aimed the musket at the strange young gentleman’s face.

‘You have sixty seconds, sir,’ she said, cocking the gun, ‘before you no longer have a head. Use them wisely.’

He took a step backwards, tilted his head to the side as though formulating the fastest way off her veranda, and raised a sodden arm in feeble defence. ‘You can’t be serious. I’m Lord of the Fifth Quarter, you know.’

‘And I’m the Lady Fortuna,’ she remarked, taking in the bare patches on his greatcoat. The Fifth Quarter. He might as well have said he was from north of the Seething Sea – both places were equally imaginary. ‘Did Sterling send you?’

The hat he wore quivered in what could have been a laugh. ‘Last I heard, he was chasing up recruits out in the provinces. Besides, do I look like a daybreaker to you?’

His sass didn’t impress her. Time was, someone who answered back to her in such a manner would find themselves seated in one of the deceptively innocent chairs in her drawing room – the one with the really big spike in the unfortunate position and the lovebird cushions – to be tested on The Little Blue Book of Basic Etiquette, and Days help them if they got an answer wrong. ‘Just for that,’ she said, ‘you’ve got ten seconds left.’

He looked from her face to the musket held steadily in her hands and then back again, and she could almost see the thoughts humming away in his head. Just how good is she with that musket? Could I make a dash for it? She met his eyes, silently daring him to try as her finger twitched against the trigger. The furthest anyone had gotten was the lightning-struck tree by the gate. That gentleman’s false teeth were still embedded in the bark. ‘You could be taking this time to compose some suitable last words, dearie. I’ve heard some corkers.’

‘No doubt.’ Despite her hopes, he paused for another second, and finally drew off his hat in a swift movement, revealing mismatched eyes of blue and brown, a strong brow, and white teeth set into his dark face in a conciliatory grin. ‘There. And may I say what a pleasure it is to meet such a beautiful hostess.’ He bowed, and then paused as though waiting for her reaction. She stubbornly refused to give him the satisfaction. With his wide-brimmed hat swept up just so, revealing his close-cropped hair, the greatcoat falling open at the chest to show just a hint of an embroidered waistcoat, and his handsome face smiling up at her, it was true that he cut a fine figure. But the entire effect reminded Madame Marisol of men she had seen in her youth, waiting in alleyways with cards or dice or cups-and-shells.

‘Oh, don’t try your tricks on me,’ she told him. ‘I’m too old to be charmed by the likes of you. What is your name, daybreaker?’ To his credit, the only hint of his disappointment was a slight twitching in one of his little fingers. ‘My name is Quintalion,’ he said. ‘And though I may own to being cunning, self-absorbed and rather too loose with the truth for some people’s comfort, I can’t yet add “murdering zealot” to my list of vices.’

She settled the musket into a more comfortable position against her shoulder and squinted at him. ‘How do I know that? Just because you say you’re not and you’ve got a nice smile? Daybreakers have teeth too, you know.’

‘True,’ he conceded, ‘but I doubt they have this.’ He reached into the innermost recesses of his coat and pulled out a piece of parchment, little larger than a calling card, which he held out to her between two fingers. His greatcoat had protected against the worst of the weather, but segments of the card were still damp, the green ink blotched and running.

‘Days preserve me,’ Madame Marisol said in the most sarcastic voice she could muster. ‘A piece of paper. Welcome to my humble abode, kind sir. Would you like tea and biscuits?’

The strange young gentlemen who called himself Quintalion huffed out a breath. ‘Take it,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ll at least look at it before depriving me of a head.’

With one hand still pointing the musket where it could do the most damage, she took the offered card and stared at it suspiciously.

‘It’s an invitation,’ he said, as though she didn’t see the very words in front of her. ‘Completely genuine, I think you’ll find.’ It was all there on the parchment: the green ink of the invitation, sealed with a charm that warded off copies and other tricks; the golden sigil of the Unreality House ingrained into the paper; the words she remembered as well as her own name. The bearer of this invitation is offered full rights of entry to my House according to the ancient codes of welcome. She’d written so many of them over the years: scraps of paper that she’d pressed into the hands of distraught family members who’d brought their loved ones to her House to forget about them rather than face the agony of grieving. Most people never found their way back to her door, having forgotten why they visited the moment they left, which was for the best. Precious few of her souls faced a life outside her walls that would be filled with anything other than pain and death. Better an eternal sleep than a life of torment.

‘Where did you get this?’ she asked him sharply, gesturing at him with the barrel of the musket.

He stared at her. ‘Where does one normally get them? It was delivered to me one morning and I assumed I had visited your House to drop off one of my . . .’ He paused. ‘Oh dear,’ he said in a deadpan tone, ‘I do hope it wasn’t Uncle Balthazar.’

It was true that she sometimes sent out invitations to the families she thought were ready to accept their loved one’s passing, or on rare occasions the miracle of having them back again, but she hadn’t sent one in years, not since before . . .

She turned the card over. There, written in handwriting she knew almost as well as her own, were five words: Wake me when it’s safe.

‘When was it delivered?’ Madame Marisol said, fear making her words harsh.

‘A year ago? Three? I don’t remember. A man can’t be running about after possibly dead relatives all the time. Why does it matter?’

‘You don’t understand.’ She tried to keep her voice calm, but she was afraid that the girls in her weekly whist club, were they to hear her now, would be gleefully reminding her to use her indoor voice. ‘The girl pertaining to this particular invitation, she . . .’

‘Oh, a girl, is it? I didn’t know I had a sister, but I suppose that’s the point.’ As Quintalion craned his head, trying to snatch a glance of the House beyond her shoulder, Madame Marisol began to have the sinking feeling that the musket was no longer providing effective dissuasion.

We ll see about that when he finds himself short a toe, she thought.

‘And I’m sure you’re well aware of the wording of that invitation: full rights of entry, and final decision to remove said possibly dead relative if I wish it. So lower the frankly intimidating musket, please, and I take my tea with two sugars and a dash of lemon.’

Madame Marisol reluctantly lowered the barrel. Think of page 63 of The Little Blue Book. It is the height of bad manners to kill someone simply for being unpleasant. ‘I suppose you’ll be wanting to come in then.’

His mouth opened into a grin. ‘Only if you’re offering.’

The musket went back into the umbrella stand, but she kept her eyes on the gentleman as he followed her in out of the rain. It paid to be careful. Not many travellers found their way to her House these days – magicians mostly, influential families that still kept to the old ways, and, of course, her weekly whist companions. Invitation or not, this man was still a stranger, and strangers were made to be distrusted.

At the moment, however, he seemed more interested in scraping the mud from his boots than in doing anything underhand.

‘You won’t believe the nonsense I went through to get here,’ he said, leaving a large chunk of mud and grass on the lintel of the door.

She shut it against the rain, pleased when he had to leap to one side to avoid catching his foot. ‘Oh, yes?’

‘Blockades everywhere. The daybreakers have been swarming around the borders for a month now. Don’t want a repeat of what happened up north, I’ll wager.’

‘I don’t blame them,’ she said, remembering how many extra guests she’d had during the horrible years of the Saturday Wars. She’d contemplated lining the keeping-houses up in the hallway. ‘How many died?’

He shot her a dark look. ‘Too many. They say war is never over, but some people are taking it too literally for my liking. It’s bad for business.’

‘Follow me, then,’ she said, and led him further into the House. She snuck a glance over her shoulder as she pattered over the stone floor. When people heard of a house that contained the souls of those caught between death and life, she doubted they imagined a modest little homestead with a fireplace that smoked, cheery wallpaper, and a pianola in the sitting room. And sure enough, her guest was so busy looking around him, one eyebrow raised in disbelief, that he tripped over a rug by the fire.

‘Be careful there, dear,’ she said, ‘that rug’s genuine chimera and you can’t get its like for love nor money these days.’

The House was arranged around the large, two-storeyed entrance hall, which was something of a nonsense since she kept little in it besides the stone fireplace to the left, rugs to warm her old bones, and paintings that the House switched over when it wanted a change. But she had lived here for so long that she wouldn’t have had the House any other way: the sitting room at the front and to the left, the dining room to the right, the kitchen at the back, and the bedrooms up the wooden staircase on the second floor. Everything was where it should be.

Including the room she was leading him to. They walked underneath the second floor landing and into a small passageway at the back of the House. The shadows choked the little light that made it through from the entrance hall, and all she got was a glimpse of white hair and the rose-pink fabric of her favourite dress as she passed a mirror on the wall, before turning away to face the door opposite it.

Madame Marisol felt it before she saw it. Even after all these years, the power of the room and its sleeping occupants still left her breathless. They were the heart of the House; their presence reminded her that, however much she might have felt at home here, she was still and would always be just the caretaker.

She hesitated, her hand hovering above the ruby handle. ‘Is it safe out there for her?’

‘Not my problem,’ he replied quickly. ‘I, Madame, make a point of avoiding situations that can get me killed. I’ll try my utmost to do the same for this girl, whoever she is.’

She could hardly trust the word of a man she’d just met. He wouldn’t be able to guarantee the girl’s safety, not with the daybreakers apparently growing in number. But she had no choice: as the bearer of the invitation, he had the House-given right to take the girl away, however much Madame Marisol herself protested. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t give him a run for his money.

‘Why are you here, really?’

He shrugged. ‘I had an invitation and an inclination to find out why. Besides,’ he pulled aside the bulk of his coat to reveal the ivory handle of a pistol peeking out above the holster at his hip, ‘I’m very much hoping this is worth the trouble.’

So he’s one of those types. Madame Marisol rested her hand against the door in a vain effort to quell the anger rising within her. ‘You do realise, my dear,’ she said, and it took all her concentration to keep her voice calm, ‘that if I hear that you hurt a single hair on that girl’s head, I will have to come after you with all I’ve got?’

Quintalion flicked the cuff of his greatcoat, spraying droplets of water everywhere. ‘Thank you for the warning,’ he said. ‘I would hate to face up against doilies, cat hair and the faint smell of regret.’

Madame Marisol dug her fingernails into the wood so hard that she felt splinters under her nails, but when she turned back to him, she wore a smile on her face. ‘Never underestimate a woman with knitting needles, dearie. Now,’ she added, and pulled the door open with a flourish, ‘would you like to come inside?’

*****

No matter how many times she set foot into the room, Madame Marisol always breathed in that first breath of air like a drowning soul. It tasted of wind and lightning, and seemed to fill her up right from the bottom of her toes to the top of her head. It was like waking up after a good night’s rest, and she automatically whispered, ‘Good morning, my loves.’

The hundreds of keeping-houses lit up all as one, throwing a soft light against the faces of their sleeping occupants. Some were young, barely yet alive, and some had beards that coiled around the bottom of their keeping-houses like blankets. There were peasants and kings, dairymaids and court ladies. Some looked merely asleep, and others as though they would never wake again, with gashes and limbs missing and the pale milky complexion of delayed death.

She knew all their stories. Most were sad. The Unreality House was a place to bring people to escape their fate, be that death or dishonour, and those with happy lives rarely graced her doorstep. Madame Marisol could remember when each of them had arrived at her House, carried on stretchers and funeral biers, or, in one particularly heart-breaking case, entwined in each other’s arms.

There was only one, in all the thousands of souls she had kept safe over the years, who had found her way to Madame Marisol’s House by herself.

Beside her, Quintalion drummed the fingers of one hand against his leg as his head moved from left to right to take in the room. ‘It’s not . . . it’s not possible. The room must be half a furlong from wall to wall, but it’s not possible. Have we gone underground?’

Smiling to herself, she shook her head. ‘Not at all, my dear. We’re still in the Unreality House, of course. Would you like me to define “unreality” for you?’

Without waiting for an answer, she set off past the first row of keeping-houses. Years of experience had left her with knowledge of the twisting paths, but folk had been known to get lost in the room. The House had a way of ridding itself of undesirables.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, the tap, tap, tap of Quintalion’s boots on the marble floor the only indication that he was following along behind her, and, since it felt wrong to cheapen the revered quiet of the room with small talk, Madame Marisol contented herself with humming a little ditty.

Another right, a left, and a complicated half-turn later and they’d almost reached the girl’s resting place. When the girl had first come here, Madame Marisol had placed her close to the back for two reasons: it meant less of a chance that unfriendly eyes would find her, and there was also a group of other young people of good families for her to associate with. Although they spent their time in the perpetual sleep of the Unreality House, Madame Marisol was the last person to claim herself an expert on what went on inside the keeping-houses, which is also why she insisted on reading proper literature to them all every night. ‘I really must remember to put a bookmark in The Tale of Amiens and Aemilia,’ she said absently. ‘Amiens is about to get stabbed with the poison dagger and I would hate for my duckies to miss it.’

‘That would be tragic.’ Quintalion had wandered over to one of the keeping-houses and was peering at the soul encased inside, his nose almost touching the glass.

‘I’ve heard the great heroes of the past are here,’ he said. ‘Sir Tristan the Valiant, the seven sisters, Alaric and his fool, Sylvain the Swordsinger. Of course,’ he added with a carefully timed cough, ‘that’s ridiculous.’

‘You’d be surprised, dearie,’ she said lightly. ‘I’ve met my share of heroes. They’re a strange breed – tramping in without wiping their boots, eating all the scones, insisting to their companions that they’re fine when they’ve got half a quiver lodged in their chests. I’ve never really cared for them. Now,’ she added, ‘I think you’ll find who you’re looking for just over here.’

The girl hung suspended in the pale glow of the keeping-house. She was an odd thing: a girl to forget, frozen halfway between childhood and womanhood, and as gawky as Madame Marisol herself had been at that age. She had a long straight nose set in an otherwise unremarkable thin face, hair the colour of bark that hung in shaggy tendrils to her knees, and a beanpole body. In her most generous mood, after a sherry or two, the most Madame Marisol could have said in her favour was that she was interesting looking.

‘This is the girl,’ she told Quintalion. ‘As she came to me with no name, I called her Tuesday.’

It wasn’t exactly the truth, but she wasn’t about to go spilling all her secrets of that night or the letter that she had hidden in her lanterloo table.

‘Let me guess . . . she arrived on a Tuesday?’ Quintalion raised his eyebrows.

‘You’re just full of insight, fine sir.’ She watched as he circled the girl’s keeping-house with a quick step, once, twice, and then a third time, his hands positioned behind his back. It was taller even than he was: a rectangular box, or coffin, she thought darkly, made out of rosewood on three sides and with a glass door on the fourth. ‘Do you know her?’

He looked down at his dark skin and then back up at Tuesday. ‘She’s certainly no sister of mine.’ He made one final lap and paused in front of the girl, saying softly to himself: ‘And yet he had the invitation . . .’

Madame Marisol had tucked it away up her right sleeve, but now she pulled it out and stared at it again, hoping that a second look would reveal some obvious sign of fraudulence, but it looked more and more authentic the closer she studied it. It even had the second watermark she’d hidden up in the right-hand corner to trick forgers. But something didn’t feel right about the man standing in front of her. She couldn’t decide what it was exactly – his restless fingers or his shark-like smile – but the very air around him smelled wrong, as though the House was trying to warn her about him.

She ran a thumb over the invitation. ‘The funny thing is,’ she said in a deliberately calm tone, ‘I never actually drew up an invitation for Tuesday.’

She had told herself many times over the last ten years that she really ought to get around to it, but every time she sat down to pen the invitation, something always seemed to come up, or she received news of more skirmishes in the borderlands or that Sterling and his daybreakers were on the prowl, and the invitation remained unwritten.

Quintalion didn’t even bother to look away from the girl’s keeping-house before replying: ‘And yet I have one. Surely that indicates one of two things: you’re growing forgetful in your old age, or I’m lying through my teeth. I’m going to go with the former . . . but of course I would say that.’

Or that she didn’t trust me as much as she claimed, Madame Marisol added silently.

‘So what will this Tuesday be like, anyway? I’m not going to have to teach her how to use the privy, am I? Because that doesn’t quite work to my schedule.’

Seven sisters, give me patience. Madame Marisol joined him next to the keeping-house and purposely refused to look at his face, for fear she might forget the rules of invitation and smack him about the ears for his impertinence, instead sweeping the frame of the keeping-house with her eyes: fir branches, splayed open in a delicate pattern, and a nameplate down the bottom, the name mostly hidden by grime. ‘Oh, she’ll be able to tell you what a cup of tea is and hold a decent conversation about the weather, but if you want much more, you’ll have to be patient.’

He snorted through his nose. ‘Not one of my many qualities.’

‘Tough,’ Madame Marisol said. ‘You’re the one trouncing up to my House in the middle of the night. If you’re claiming that invitation of yours is real, then it’s your responsibility to look after her. Which would include not selling her to the highest bidder.’

‘My dearest Madame Marisol, as if I would sell my beloved little sister.’

They were clearly no relation, so the fact that he was claiming kinship spoke more of mockery than any real feeling, and it set her teeth grinding.

He must have noticed, because he added, ‘Fine. If it will put your heart at ease, I promise not to sell her.’

Madame Marisol was sure she heard a right away dangling at the end of his sentence, but as she had no authority to refuse him, she let it slide, and gestured to Tuesday. ‘Then it’s time to wake her up. Be careful, dear, the lock sticks.’ And I know precisely where to stick it . . .

His eyes narrowed. ‘How do I do that, exactly?’

‘Some give a good old kiss, though that’s a little too forward in your case, I’m sure. Contact is the key. Go ahead. Press her hand and be done with it.’

Madame Marisol watched as he fiddled with the door, smirking when he let out a curse at the stubborn latch, before he finally wrestled the glass open, releasing a waft of musty air that smelled like mothballs.

The day that Madame Marisol had first come to the House, so long ago that she barely remembered when, there had been no keeping-houses, just an empty room waiting to be filled. The keeping-houses had gone through many different designs over the years, but she’d ordered the current model from a casket maker in Bittertongue, who had no concept of aeration, it not being a concern of his usual clients . . . or her duckies either, if she cared to think about it.

Quintalion paused with his hand hovering just above Tuesday’s skin and took one long look at her. ‘What was he doing with her?’ he muttered, softly enough that Madame Marisol had to lean in to hear him. ‘Ah well, there’s no accounting for taste.’

Not for the first time, she wished that she’d never introduced the invitations. The ancient codes of welcome were one thing, but they did make it far more difficult to stab someone without the House disapproving.

Quintalion reached out, not for her hand as Madame Marisol had suggested, but to brush his fingers lightly against her left cheek.

The nerve . . .

Golden light bloomed where his fingers touched her skin.

Quintalion let out a strangled hiss, and cradled his hand to his chest. ‘That . . . hurt,’ he said, his breath coming in gasps. He wavered for a moment, leaned over with his eyes screwed up, and then straightened again to look at the white marks he had left behind on the girl’s cheek. ‘I do believe my heart stopped beating for a second there.’

Ah, she thought, her suspicions confirmed, but all she said was: ‘Nothing to worry about, dearie. It happens to the best of us. Now off to the kitchen with you. I’ll not have you blabbering about daybreakers and hearts stopping when she wakes. There’s half a cold chicken in the larder. Help yourself to anything else, but I’d avoid the chocolate cake if I were you. The last gentleman to eat a slice grew an extra head.’

‘Thank you for the warning,’ he said dryly, and turned to leave.

Cursing her snap decision to tell him about the cake, Madame Marisol waited until she heard the door shut off in the distance before she turned her attention back to Tuesday.

The golden light had spread to cover her entire body. It pulsed through her veins and shone out behind her teeth to spill from her slightly opened mouth.

‘There now, my love,’ Madame Marisol told the girl, who was now beginning to vibrate with the throbbing energy and magic that filled her body, awakening every muscle and shooting fire through each nerve ending. ‘It’s just you and me. Show me those pretty eyes of yours.’

Tuesday glowed all over with golden warmth, nowhere brighter than the still visible fingerprints on her cheek.

Theyll leave a mark, Madame Marisol thought. I hope she doesnt mind.

The light surrounding the girl’s body fluttered faster and faster until she fairly hummed with unreleased energy, like the string of a plucked fiddle. Just when Madame Marisol thought she might have to give her a gentle tap with the paddle she kept for just such occasions, the girl’s eyes flew open.

She gasped, scrunched up her nose in confusion, said, ‘Wh . . . what . . . ?’

And then she fainted.

‘Welcome to existence, dear,’ said Madame Marisol with a slight smile. ‘You’ll get used to it.’


Excerpted from The Book of Days by K.A. Barker. Copyright © 2014 by K.A. Barker.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The 52-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths – Extract

 

01

Hi, my name is Andy.

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This is my friend Terry.

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We live in a tree.

Well, when I say ‘tree’, I mean treehouse. And when I say ‘treehouse’, I don’t just mean any old
treehouse—I mean a 52-storey treehouse! (It used to be a 39-storey treehouse, but we’ve added another 13 storeys.)

So what are you waiting for? 02Come on up!

03

We’ve added a watermelon-smashing room,

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a chainsaw-juggling level,

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a make-your-own-pizza parlour,

04

a rocket-powered carrot-launcher,

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a giant hairdryer that is so strong it practically blasts the hair right off your head,

05

a rocking horse racetrack, 06a haunted house,

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a wave machine,

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a life-size snakes and ladders game—with real ladders and real snakes,

07

a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, non-stop Punch and Judy puppet show,

08

a remembering booth to help us remember important stuff we might have forgotten,

09

a Ninja Snail Training Academy (Terry’s idea, not mine),

10

and a high-tech detective agency, which has all the latest high-tech detective technology, like a
complete set of magnifying glasses (including one so small that you need another magnifying glass to see it), a hot-donut vending machine …

11

and a Disguise-o-matic 5000, which has a disguise for every occasion!

12

As well as being our home, the treehouse is also where we make books together. I write the words and Terry draws the pictures.

13

As you can see, we’ve been doing this for quite a while now.

14

Life in the treehouse isn’t always easy, of course,

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but one thing is for sure …

Image_032

it’s never dull!

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Excerpted from The 52-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths. Copyright © 2014 by Andy Griffiths. Illustrations copyright Terry Denton.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Rain by Virginia Bergin – Extract

The Rain

If this was a proper story, like the kind you’d read for fun, it would have such a great beginning. Probably they’d want to make it into a film, it’d be that good. It would start in Mission Control – or maybe deep in space, where a massive hunk of rock, an asteroid, is whizzing through the stars on a collision course with planet Earth.

We cut to Earth: all over the world, everyone is terrified; they crowd around their TVs, weeping and praying. Probably there’s also a lot of hugging and kissing and hand-holding, that kind of thing. Lots of deep and meaningful conversations – but not too many; we don’t want to spoil the action.

The final countdown starts and back in Mission Control some old duffer in a uniform stands aside to let some hot young dude – a misunderstood rebel genius who’s masterminded the operation – press the button. His girlfriend is there – or maybe she’s at home, watching on TV, whispering, ‘I love you, Brad,’ as he launches the super-rocket that’s the Earth’s only hope.

Now all everyone can do is wait and hope and pray.

You’d have to speed up the next bit. Apparently in real life it took hours and hours, days, for the missile to reach the asteroid; in the film of the book it’d take just enough time to let the buff dude and his girl find each other, so they can be kissing when:

KA-BOOM!!!!

The asteroid is blown to smithereens. (It looks really pretty, too: a shimmering starburst in the sky. Everyone on Earth goes ooh and ahh and does some more hugging and kissing.)

The buff dude has saved the planet! The hot guy triumphed! Hurrah!

See?! What a great story!

Except, as I said, this is just the beginning . . . and in any case I was too young to remember the asteroid and all that. Me and my friends, we’d seen the stuff about it on the internet and, honestly, it was boring.

Simon, my stepdad, heard me say that once, and he went mental.

‘Are you telling me,’ he said. ‘Are you telling me –’

Here we go. You knew, you just knew, when he repeated stuff like that he was going to repeat a whole load of other stuff. On and on and on and –

‘– that you find the near-destruction of the planet Earth, on which you live, boring?’

I’ve got to say that when he got on his high horse like that, I couldn’t help it: I saddled up my own. Yee-haa!

‘Well, yeah,’ I said.

I was telling the truth. I hate it when you get into trouble for stuff like that, for just saying what’s true. It’s like THEY – the parental types and about 99.999 per cent of all known teachers – want you to lie about what you think. You get into trouble for lying about everything else – who you were with, what you were doing, whether you’ve done your homework or not – but they don’t care when you lie about what you think. They actually want you to do it. It’s called agreeing with them, and that’s what they want, all the time, even if they’re totally wrong. ‘Unbelievable. Did you hear that, Becky? Are you listening to this?’

That was another thing he did; he tried to drag my mum into everything.

‘Simon,’ she said. ‘Let it go. She’s just trying to wind you up.’

The truth about that was I didn’t know myself half the time whether I was trying to wind him up. I couldn’t help myself. He annoyed me. My mum said we were two peas in a pod, which made me really angry because he wasn’t even my dad. Like I would ever share a pod with Simon; being forced to share a house was bad enough.

‘I’m not,’ I said. ‘It is boring. Something really bad nearly happened. It’s, like, so what? There’s a lot of really bad things that are actually really happening.’

‘Ruby,’ said Simon, borderline total rage-out, ‘what you are failing to understand is that –’

I forget what else he said, what it was I was failing to understand. Same old, I expect – with same old results. He’d get madder and madder, I’d get madder and madder, and my mum would get drowned out. Or else we’d both end up having a go at her. It probably ended up with me getting grounded – that happened a lot – or made to go and tidy my room, or do the dishes even though we had a dishwasher, or clean out the stupid guinea pigs.

The thing is, I would give anything to be back there, in the kitchen, having that row. I would just agree with him, or say sorry or something . . . but there will never be another row in the kitchen. There will never be another row anywhere in this house. Pretty much everyone is dead – except, perhaps, the stupid guinea pigs.

My name is Ruby Morris, and this is my story. If you are reading it, you are very, very lucky to be alive . . . but you already know that, right?

CHAPTER ONE

There’s really no point going on about how things used to be. For one, I can’t bear to think about it – even though I do, a lot, and it makes me want to throw up with sadness. For two, it kind of doesn’t matter, does it? It’s over. And, for three, I’m not writing this because of how things used to be – I’m writing this because of what happened . . . so I’ll start right there. This is what happened:

I was sitting in a hot tub in my underwear snogging Caspar McCloud.

Ha! That also sounds like a great beginning, perhaps from some kind of kiss-fest romance, or maybe Caspar turns out to be a sexy vampire . . . but the truth is – and this is the one thing I will do, for sure: I will try to tell the truth, even if it hurts me to say it, even if it shocks you to hear it (and I doubt it will, because if you’re reading this you’ve probably had about a gazillion shocks already) – it wouldn’t be right to make out that snogging in a hot tub was the kind of thing I usually did on a Saturday night, because it wasn’t.

It soooooooooooooooooooooo wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I’d kissed boys before (two); I’d been to parties before (like, since I was five years old or something); I’d even sat in that hot tub in my underwear before (with Lee; that’s Lee as in Leonie, my best friend) . . . but that night, that party . . . it was the best, the most brilliant – scarily brilliant – time I had ever had in my life up until that point. (Not difficult.)

That night, that one, glorious, hot Saturday night, I was becoming a new me, one that was going to have a boyfriend called Caspar and do stuff like snog in hot tubs at wild parties all the time. Yes, from the nagging jaws of the THEY I was about to snatch complete amazing greatness and total brilliance. And a boyfriend.

What can I say? It happened. It really happened! Zak, who lived in this massively cool rambling old farmhouse, and whose parents were so laid back you could basically do whatever you liked, pulled the speakers outside the barn where we – that’s me and all my lovely friends (exception to be named shortly) – had been hanging out necking LETHAL cider punch, and a bunch of us stripped off – to our underwear – and climbed into their hot tub.

We sort of danced where we sat, doing so-slick-yeah- check-it mini arm moves. It was a total giggle but it was also totally cramped . . . until people started getting out again, moaning that the hot tub was too hot.

It was like some dreadful slow-motion countdown to LURVE; with every person that got out, the water in that tub got stiller and stiller. I kept wishing it was one of those jacuzzi tubs, with bubbles, but it wasn’t; unless you kept trailing your hands about on the surface you could see everything. So I sat there, casually fanning my hands around . . . because across that pool of steaming water sat Caspar-Swoon-McCloud.

And in between us sat Saskia, who wasn’t fanning her hands about at all.

I do just want to say that, even before that night, I wasn’t really sure how much I actually liked Saskia. Not that I really knew her; she’d just started hanging out with us lately – even more lately than Caspar, who’d been transferred to our school from the arty hippy school, and was cool and wild – and was in a band, and I’d told Simon and my mum I was babysitting with Lee so’s I could go see Caspar’s band play at The George. And it was there, while Caspar was onstage doing his guitar thing, that he’d looked up and looked at me and I’d looked at him and –

KA-CASPAR- BOOM! (PART ONE)

I realised I was in love with Caspar McCloud.

And this is too much information, isn’t it? This is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do, which is go on about how things were. I can’t stand it. I’ll shut up.

Back in the hot tub, Lee came to my rescue – or tried to. She came up and asked Saskia where the gin had gone (I told you that punch was lethal) and Saskia said she didn’t know and Lee said she thought she’d seen her with it and Saskia said she hadn’t had it and Lee said maybe she could just come and help her look for it and Saskia, who SO knew all along what Lee was trying to do, sighed this enormous bored sigh and stood up and climbed out of the tub with her chest practically in Caspar’s face and then turned to me and said –

‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’

Then there really was nothing but a steaming hot tub of water between me and Caspar McCloud.

I was so shy. I nearly died of shyness. Also I was slightly worried that I was going to cook to death or perish from an exploding bladder because I really, really needed to pee. I tried not to think about that and it wasn’t difficult not to think about that because I was in a state of pre-kiss terror. For sure, any second now, there was going to be a kiss. There HAD to be a kiss.

‘Hey, Rubybaby,’ said Caspar.

That’s what he called me: ‘Rubybaby’. From the lips of anyone other than a divine being, it would have sounded cringe-making and vomit-worthy. From the lips of Caspar McCloud it was utterly thrilling, as if an electric-lipped angel was kissing your soul. You know: hot and crackly.

‘Hey, Caspar,’ I said, crackling.

‘Why don’t you swim on around here and keep me company?’ he said.

I fixed him with this sultry model’s stare (deadpan, but pouty) that I’d been practising at home. ‘Well, why don’t you swim on around here?’ I said.

It was the pre-kiss terror that made me say that. Basically I would have swum the Atlantic to get to him. Genius, Ruby; all I’d done was prolong the agony.

Slowly and sexily, we both scooted towards each other. Actually, I’m not sure if you can scoot slowly and sexily, but that’s what it felt like. Also it felt like it took an eternity, when really it was probably about ten seconds or something.

I looked into his eyes. Then I had to look away because it was just too, too intense. I could see all my friends, dancing and messing around like loonies; behind them, this gorgeous red sunset blazing in the sky.

If I’d looked the other way, I would have seen something else. I would have seen clouds gobbling up the sky. Maybe I would even have seen that reflected in Caspar’s eyes, but when I got a grip enough to stare into them again I wasn’t there to admire the view.

BOMF! I practically head-butted him as my lips mashed into his. His lips sort of opened a bit and I kind of pushed my tongue into his mouth. I thought that was what you were supposed to do, to show how passionate you felt or something. Like I said, I’d kissed boys before, and that’s what we had done. It had been fairly disgusting. Kissing Caspar like that wasn’t disgusting; it was scary, and it felt all wrong. Until . . . I dunno: it just changed. One minute it was tongue-on-tongue combat, the next minute . . .

If this was my blockbuster movie, we would pause here. It would be worth a whole scene all by itself, that kiss. We would linger on it for as long as possible. That kiss. Those kisses. Where does one kiss end and another begin? We just kind of melted into one another. I do know that’s the kind of stupid thing they say in cheesy romances, but we did. That’s what happened! One minute I was my own clumsy me being, freaking out, and I could feel this divine Caspar being (was he freaking out too?), this Caspar being’s tongue, and the next minute . . . I dunno . . . it was total –

KA-CASPAR-BOOM! (PART TWO)

We didn’t hear the yelling.

Fingers dug into my arm. My lips disconnected from Caspar’s. I turned and –

‘GET OUT!’ Zak’s dad shouted into my face, hauling me from the tub.

And that is when it all began.

CHAPTER TWO

Like most people in the country, Zak’s parents had gone to a barbecue that night. That’s the thing about Britain, isn’t it? First glimmer of sunshine, first lick of heat and everyone goes nuts, strips off and has a barbecue. Doesn’t matter if it looks like rain; we go out and we stay out until the first drop falls. No – it’s worse than that: it actually has to start chucking it down before people give up and go inside. You add to that a bank-holiday weekend – a whole extra day for sunburnt people to lie around wishing they hadn’t drunk 10 zillion cans of lager and/or that they had cooked the sausages properly, in an oven – and you get . . . well, you get what happened, don’t you?

Zak’s parents weren’t supposed to be coming home, so it was obvious right away that something was wrong because they were back, but it was even more obvious that something was wrong because they were freaking out. Normally, they wouldn’t have been even slightly bothered about whatever it was we were doing. That was what was so cool about Zak’s; OK, he had the hot tub and the barn and woods and fields and everything to mess about in, but the really cool thing was that his parents were completely chilled. They smoked joints in front of us – hey, they even gave Zak weed! – that’s how chilled they were.

Tonight, they were not chilled. They basically went all Simon on us. They herded us all into the kitchen. The only thing that was most un-Simon was that Zak’s dad, Barnaby, kept swearing.

OK, so this is going to be the only other rule about this story: I will try to be honest; I will try to tell everything as it was, but I will not swear. My mum hated me swearing – the word ‘God’ included, despite the fact that 1) she said it herself all the time (but denied it) and 2) as far as I can tell everyone else on the planet says it all the time too. There’s no need for swearing, she’d tell me. Even with the whole world in the grip of a death-fest mega-crisis, she’d say, Ruby, there is absolutely no need to swear.

Actually, there is quite a lot of need for it in this story, and a lot of swearing did happen, but out of respect for my mum I will not write those words. If, like me, you curse all the time anyway, you can go ahead and add your own swear words, but I hope you’ll understand why I can’t.

I’ll write something beautiful instead. I’ll write ‘f’.

For my mum.

‘Oh f! Oh f! Oh f!’ Barnaby kept going.

(The thing is, Zak’s parents were always into some pagan-y religious thing or another, so it’s possible that Barnaby really was calling on some specific god and wasn’t just generally ranting.)

He locked the kitchen door.

‘You’re frightening them,’ said Zak’s mum, Sarah, but Barnaby wasn’t listening; he closed every window in the kitchen – and when he’d finished doing that he started closing all the other windows.

You could hear him, banging about all over the house. We weren’t frightened at all. It was a little weird, but the hardest thing was not to get the giggles – although in my case I had nothing to laugh about, now there wasn’t even any water to cover me. I did my best with tea towels.

All our stuff, everyone’s stuff, was in the barn. ‘Mum, what’s going on?’ said Zak.

‘We’re not really sure,’ said Sarah. ‘Someone Barnaby knows called him and –’

Thump, thump, thump – bang! – thump, thump, thump, went Barnaby upstairs.

‘Mum?’ said Zak.

Bang! Thump, thump, thump; Barnaby came back down the stairs.

‘You’d better ask your dad,’ said Sarah.

See now, that was kind of weird, wasn’t it? Zak didn’t normally call his mum ‘Mum’; Sarah didn’t normally call Barnaby ‘your dad’. If I didn’t know Zak was practically immune to a whole lot of stuff that really bothered other people – like being embarrassed by your parents – I would have thought he was freaking out too . . . but his parents did nutty stuff all the time, and everyone knew they did and usually no one laughed about it much because everyone understood what Zak had to deal with . . . and also because Sarah and Barnaby were so kind to us.

This latest nutty thing, whatever it was, it was just bad timing, party-wise.

‘Turn the radio on,’ Barnaby told Zak.

Dad?’ said Zak, but he turned it on anyway.

They didn’t have a TV. Zak’s parents didn’t even have a digital radio; they had the old-fashioned crackly kind. Guess what was on?

Gardeners’ Question Time.

They were discussing the best methods of tackling blight on roses.

Someone lost it, and giggled. The giggling, it spread. ‘This isn’t right,’ said Barnaby quietly. ‘It should be the news.’

I laughed too; it was impossible not to crack up with Mrs Fotheringay-Flytrap describing the spotty bits on her Rambling Rector . . . but you want to know something weird? While I certainly wouldn’t in a million years have thought, Oh no! This must mean the world as we know it is about to end, I kind of knew it wasn’t right too. I didn’t know what was supposed to be on, but I knew Gardeners’ Question Time shouldn’t have been. My mum LOVED that programme and listened to it every Sunday. Every Sunday; not on a Saturday night. Never on a Saturday night. Not exactly scary, though, was it?

‘Go and put your clothes on!’ Sarah snapped at us. She never snapped at us.

I shivered; Caspar hugged me close. Leonie grabbed my hand.

‘They’re in the barn,’ said Saskia – in a really horrible way, like Sarah was stupid.

‘Take ours, then,’ said Sarah. ‘Take whatever you want. Just get dressed.’

Someone muttered something and headed for the kitchen door.

‘Don’t go outside,’ said Barnaby. Loudly, angrily. ‘You do NOT go outside.’

We shuffled out of the room, the whole herd of us . . . On the stairs, someone cracked up and we all had to make a mad dash for Zak’s parents’ bedroom so’s we could laugh our heads off in private, without hurting their feelings.

‘What the f is up with your parents, man?’ said Caspar.

‘Search me, dude,’ said Zak . . . but he didn’t sound OK; he still didn’t sound OK. ‘C’mon,’ he said to Ronnie – my techie-est friend – and they dived off to Zak’s room.

The rest of us, we played fancy dress with Zak’s parents’ clothes. It was so funny you forgot all the weirdness. Caspar pulled on a kaftan.

‘Ohhm!’ he said, doing this prayer thing with his hands.

I laughed so hard I almost –

‘I need to pee,’ I remembered.

Lee followed me to the bathroom. I went first; I had to – I was bursting. Then Lee went while I surveyed myself in the mirror: f. So much for the model look. The big,

baggy hippy dress was the least of it. My lips, which felt puffy-bruised and tingling from the kissing, looked kind of normal, but I had mascara zombie eyes and where I’d had bright red lipstick on earlier it looked like it had sort of smeared itself all over my chin; even my nose had gone Rudolf. No hope Sarah would have make-up remover, so I wet a bit of toilet paper, dabbed it in the soap and wiped at my chin.

It wasn’t really lipstick at all; it was my first ever full- blown snogging rash and it stung. It really stung.

Nothing I could do about it, so I had a quick scrub at the mascara disaster. Their soap, which wasn’t like the soap we had at home but some organic, lentil-based, grey-green thing, was useless. It didn’t even foam up . . . so that was it, then: I was half black-eyed zombie, half human cherry. Mortifying. Seriously mortifying.

‘C’mon, get out!’ shouted Caspar through the bathroom door. ‘Molly wants to puke!’

Great. I had to face him knowing what the face I was facing him with looked like. We opened the door and Molly burst in, chundering. Under normal friendship circumstances, it would have been our duty to stay with her – but, honestly, just listening to her made my own stomach start to heave. It was bad enough looking like a mutant in front of Caspar – I definitely did not want him to witness me spewing my guts up, so I grabbed Lee’s hand and we went back downstairs.

We passed Zak’s room on the way; him and Ronnie bickering for control of the computer. (‘Why’s it so slow?! Just click there,’ Zak was saying, trying to grab hold of the mouse. ‘Just click on it!’)

In the kitchen, the radio people had moved on to discussing plants for dry shady borders – which is a serious problem, apparently, and was not nearly as funny. Barnaby looked as if he was in a trance, staring out of the kitchen window at . . . OK, so now the party had been well and truly spoilt; it was raining. None of us had noticed; why would we? We’d been too busy laughing our heads off.

‘I think you all need to sober up,’ said Sarah, handing out glass after glass of water. ‘Leonie, can you please put the kettle on?’

‘YesSarahYes,’ Lee slurred, glugging her water.

Barnaby grabbed his mobile phone and started jabbing at it, trying different numbers.

‘f. f. f,’ he said, having trouble getting through.

Then Gardeners’ Question Time stopped. It just stopped.

Then it started.

‘This is an emergency public service broadcast . . . ’

‘The rain’ – that’s all I remember hearing to begin with. ‘It’s in the rain’, and everyone staring at the radio as if it was a TV. That’s how hard we all stared at it . . . everyone except Barnaby, who dumped his mobile and went out to try the phone in the hall.

Lee shoved the kettle on the stove and came and held my hand, the one that wasn’t gripping Caspar’s.

‘Ru,’ whispered Lee. ‘Do you think we’re gonna die or something?’

‘No!’ I said.

Of course no one was gonna die!

My mum was out at the neighbours’ barbecue.

It’s in the rain.

I felt as if I was the last person to get it, what was going on. I stood in that kitchen, shivering – I leaned into Caspar’s body, but even that felt cold – and finally I sort of started to get it. See, for days there’d been stuff on the news about some new kind of epidemic. Outbreaks in Africa, in South America. Then reports from Russia. Some new kind of disease thing, deadly . . . but – well, it wasn’t here, was it? Not like the bird-flu thing when Simon (who was probably more worried about the birds) had got into a right sweat. So had a lot of people. (OK, so had I; it gave me nightmares.) But this? It was so . . . remote, that’s the word . . . we never paid it any attention. Ronnie had tried to go on about it, I remember that, and we had all rolled our eyes and told him to shut up, because it just seemed like another thing for Ronnie to go on about.

‘The rain,’ they kept saying on the radio. ‘It’s in the rain.’

‘I told you so,’ said Ronnie, stomping down the stairs into the kitchen.

He had. He had said: ‘There’s something wrong with the rain.’

And we’d all gone, ‘Yeah right! Shut up, Ronnie!’ because we knew just what kind of website he’d have read that on – probably the same one that claimed the Pope had been replaced by an alien (that’s why you never see his legs; they’re green and spindly) – and Ronnie had gone, ‘No! There is! There’s something in the rain. Look!’ and tried to show us this eye-witness video thing on the internet but it had been taken down, which Ronnie said proved it was true.

‘Shut up, Ronnie,’ someone said.

Lee stared at me. ‘Ru,’ she said. ‘I really am scared.’

She started crying. Other girls were too. I hugged her. I hugged my lovely best friend.

It’s in the rain.

Saskia swept downstairs wearing one of Barnaby’s shirts like a mini-dress. For a moment, she stared at the radio like we’d done; Sarah tried to hand her a glass of water, but Saskia shook her head.

‘I wanna go home,’ she announced.

She’s such a . . . not a drama queen, but a . . . she’s not even a spoilt brat . . . I suppose the best way to describe it is Saskia always finds a way to get what she wants. It’s not even because half the boys in school drool over her . . . OK: ALL the boys in school (because they fancy her or want to be like her), pretty much all the teachers (because she’s cunningly polite to them and makes a showy effort to understand whatever it is they’re going on about) and a seriously shocking number of the girls (because they also fancy her or want to be like her) drool over Saskia, and that should be enough to explain it, why Saskia always gets her way, but it’s not. It’s something weirder and darker. Seriously; she’s like a hypnotist or something, sending out invisible mind rays that zap her victims into doing whatever she wants. But not tonight, Sask! Seemed like no one else but me was even listening to her anyway because everyone was staring out of the windows at the rain.

It just looked like rain normally looks. You know, drippy.

You could hear Barnaby on the phone in the hall: dialling, slamming the handset down and redialling. He wasn’t calling on a god any more, he was just plain swearing his head off.

‘I said I wanna go home,’ Saskia re-announced.

‘Whatever,’ someone said.

She stormed into the hall to try to get the phone off Barnaby; Zak bounded down the stairs … Molly drifting down after him, looking sick as a dog.

‘The internet’s down!’ Zak said. ‘Like the WHOLE of the web just crashed.’

‘Told you so,’ murmured Ronnie.

‘It’s probably just a local thing,’ said Sarah.

Ronnie shook his head in that way that he had of implying he understood stuff no-one else did. Molly heaved again; Sarah looked at her in panic.

‘It’s the punch, Mum. She’s just had too much punch,’ said Zak.

People kind of nodded sheepishly, same way you would if someone else’s parents had caught us out.

‘Barnaby,’ Sarah called, rummaging in a cupboard, ‘have we got any coffee?’

Even then, even at that moment, I thought that was kind of random. Like that would solve everything. Barnaby wandered in from the hall. He looked . . . grim. That’d be the word. Grim.

‘I can’t get through,’ he said. ‘To anyone,’ he added, looking straight at Sarah like she’d know who that anyone was.

You could hear Saskia back out in the hall; she had the phone to herself then, was dialling and redialling and swearing her head off too.

‘HAVE. WE. GOT. ANY. COFFEE?’ Sarah asked Barnaby. That seemed to sort of snap him out of it – and a lot of other people too. Girls who’d been crying (because girls are allowed to under extreme circumstances) stopped; boys who’d looked like they were going to cry got a grip. For a moment, it was just all so normal. A bunch of late-night people getting late-night snacks and drinks. Barnaby found some ancient coffee beans in the freezer and was pulverising them in an electric grinder thing. Zak sawed into a loaf of their heavy-duty homemade bread. He handed the slices to Sarah, who put them into the wire thing, to toast them on the top of the stove. I got mugs out; Leonie got teaspoons; other people got other stuff . . . all the stuff you need: teapot, sugar, knives, jams, plates, butter, milk.

I saw Caspar . . . edging away from us all. I saw Caspar looking, forlornly, out of the kitchen window.

I went to him.

‘It’s OK, I whispered, hoping the darkness by the kitchen door would hide the hideous mess my face was in so we could share a romantic moment.

‘No it’s not,’ he said. ‘That’s my MP3 out there.’

He pointed at his jeans; out on the grass, getting rained on.

‘f this,’ he whispered.

‘Caspar!’

I was so stupid; I whispered it, so’s no one noticed.

‘Chill, Rubybaby,’ he whispered back, and kissed me.

I don’t know whether that kiss was meant to shut me up, but it did. Even with all the freaky horribleness of it all, I still had the hots for him and I still couldn’t believe that we’d actually snogged – and in front of everyone, which basically meant that as far as the glass mountain of being cool was concerned, I had now developed spider- sucker climbing powers and had effortlessly scaled to the top. Best not to blow it now by blurting, ‘Ooo! Caspar! No! Zak’s dad said we really shouldn’t!’ at the top of my voice.

He slipped the lock on the door. He grabbed a towel. He held it over his head. He dashed out. I saw him do that. I saw him go out, barefoot in the rain in Barnaby’s kaftan. He dashed back in again. Slipped the lock back shut. Dumped the towel.

No one else had noticed. And me? I dunno what I thought was going to happen, like he’d just go up in a puff of green smoke or something. He didn’t. He rummaged in his jeans, pulled out his phone and his MP3, wiped them on his kaftan and waved them at me, grinning.

I felt like an idiot.

‘Cool!’ I whispered. I didn’t know what else to say or do so I gave him this quick, casual peck on the lips and went back to the snack-making . . . so’s I’d look like I was cool (and hadn’t even thought about angsting about anything). Tea! I had to make tea! I had to make a whole lot of tea right now! But the tea was made! OK! I had to casually butter toast . . . that was good, that was better . . . casually buttering toast.

Barnaby switched the coffee grinder off. It made a racket, that thing. That was fine, because it meant you couldn’t hear the radio. It was also why no one had heard Caspar.

He was sort of groaning, but not like a Molly puky groan. It was some other kind of groan. He stepped out of the darkness by the kitchen door.

‘f,’ he said, scratching at his head . . . at his face.

He looked at his fingertips, at the blood and bits of torn-up skin that coated them. There was blood running down; not tons of it, but trickles and smears . . . from his scalp, from his face . . . where there were sores, red marks, like burns, but bleeding . . . He looked like one of those gory Jesus pictures, minus the crown of thorns. Wherever the rain had touched him, wherever it had seeped through the towel, there was blood . . . even his shoulders, even his chest. Soaking through the kaftan. His naked feet looked like he’d walked a mile on broken glass.

Saskia flounced back into the room and screamed.

Sarah rushed over to Caspar – ‘Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him!’ said Barnaby – and she hesitated.

It’s the first thing you do when someone is hurt, isn’t it? You go to help them. Even if they’re in a really disgusting mess and the sight of all that blood makes you feel like you’re going to throw up or pass out, you go to help them.

‘It might be contagious,’ said Barnaby.

So here’s the thing; I could say this later, or not say it at all. That’s how much difference it made. As I said, Barnaby and Sarah were very, very good to us: dream parents, totally chilled. (And nightmare parents, because of the being off the scale in terms of embarrassment.) Thing was, as Simon pointed out to me when I was going on about how brilliant they were one day, they could afford to be. I huffed on about it, but I knew – annoyingly – he was right. Zak’s parents never seemed to work; they never seemed to have to do anything but fiddle about in the garden or rock up to naked yoga classes (oh yes!) . . . and the reason Zak’s parents could spend all day growing weirdly-shaped organic cauliflowers and doing dog pose naked (DO NOT imagine this!) was because they were minted. They were Old Skool minted; probably they’d started stashing cash the day coins were invented. Zak’s godfather was some kind of Lord. His uncle was another kind of Lord and sat in the House of Lords. His grandma had been a Lady with a capital L, not a small one like everyone else’s grandma.

Barnaby and Sarah ‘knew people’. That’s what the other parents said, and like the whole grandma deal it didn’t mean they ‘knew people’ the same way everyone else did. It meant the kind of people they knew owned the country or ran it, or both. Someone Barnaby ‘knew’ had called him and warned him. How many other people got a warning?

But this is not a Hollywood film. The warning counted for zip.

‘Dad, they’re not saying that,’ said Zak. ‘They’re not saying it’s contagious.’

They weren’t. That word never got used.

But you know what? No one did go to help Caspar.

It’s the rain. It’s in the rain.

I’d kissed him. My lips, my chin . . . they tingled. They stung. They’d been stinging anyway. They were just stinging, normal stinging. It had to be normal stinging.

The smell of burning filled the room.

‘Oww!’ said Molly as she grabbed the wire thing to rescue the toast, dumping it onto the table. ‘Ow!’

Caspar groaned – louder and harder. It was horrible to hear.

‘I’m sorry,’ he moaned, one hand clawing the other raw; us all thinking, Don’t do that! Stop doing that! Please, stop doing that! ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said . . . and he sort of sank down, crouching against the door.

‘Right,’ said Sarah. She went into the hall to get her coat.

Sarah,’ Barnaby called after her – but wearily, almost, like they were having some regular kind of a row.

The effect on all of us, despite the circumstances – and apart from Caspar, who was groaning in agony – was we all sort of looked at the floor a bit, like you do when someone’s parents are having a bit of a tiff in front of you. ‘I’m taking him to the hospital,’ Sarah said, pulling on her raincoat, patting pockets for her keys; scanning the kitchen for them.

‘They say not to,’ said Barnaby.

They hadn’t said that either, actually. All they’d said was that victims should be given paracetamol. Ha.

‘I’m going,’ she said, reaching into Barnaby’s pocket for his keys.

He grabbed her wrist – and held it. ‘Sarah,’ said Barnaby. ‘There is no point.’

If he’d been Simon, the next thing he’d have said would have been, ‘Be reasonable’. But Barnaby didn’t say that; Barnaby didn’t say anything like that. Sarah extracted her hand and the keys –

‘It’s fatal,’ said Barnaby.

Whoa! There’s harsh and there’s . . . at that moment, everyone in that room hated Barnaby. You could feel it. They hadn’t said THAT on the radio. They DEFINITELY HADN’T said THAT.

Caspar groaned again. He was shaking quite a lot. I didn’t know what that was. Pain? Shock? Fear? I touched my lips; my chin . . . stinging, sore – but normal, right? Just normal. I didn’t – I couldn’t – have that thing.

For a moment, Sarah stared at Barnaby in a most un-kaftan-Mum-like way.

‘Get up!’ she said to Caspar.

Somehow Caspar stood. Everyone kind of pulled back a little.

‘Sarah!’ shouted Barnaby, sounding most un-kaftan- dad-like. ‘I am begging you!’ –but his voice had gone all wobbly, like he couldn’t choose between raging or pleading.

Or something else – that’s what I think now. Fear, probably. Maybe despair.

‘Come on,’ Sarah told Caspar, handing him the towel. They went out the back door; Sarah in front, Caspar shambling after her.

I let go of Leonie’s hand. ‘Wait,’ I said.

I ran out into the hall; I shoved my feet into any old wellies. I looked back at everyone in the kitchen. For a second, if you ignored the looks on everyone’s faces, it looked so cosy. Big pot of tea, mugs waiting. Even the burnt toast smelt good.

‘Ru! Don’t!’ sobbed Leonie.

(And I swear; if someone else had said a single other thing, I would have caved.)

‘See you later, hon,’ said Ronnie. ‘See you later, babes,’ I said.

Just like we always did.


Excerpted from The Rain by Virginia Bergin. Copyright © 2014 by Virginia Bergin.
First published 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Captain by Sam Angus – Extract

Captain

Alexandria
August 1915

It was in Egypt that I saw Captain for the first time. The others had gone out drinking at the Cap d’Or Café, determined to live it up on our last night. I wandered out, feeling very alone, with no friend to go to but the horses, the men’s mockery still pinching a raw nerve. I was the youngest of us all by a long chalk and I took their ragging and teasing the wrong way. I had no whiskers to shave and didn’t drink, so I’d toyed with my knife, wanting it to look as though I wasn’t going to the Cap d’Or because there was still jam and bread on my plate.

‘Come on, boy,’ Lieutenant Straker had called. The Strakers had the Manor House at Bredicot back home. All of us Bayliss boys and Mother were a little in awe of Lady Straker, so I wished I were not in his platoon and that he wasn’t so familiar and joshing with me. It made me uncomfortable, what with him being a Second Lieutenant and his family being neighbours and him probably knowing my age, and anyway, I’d never had a drink.

‘Have a beer, Billy,’ Firkins said, then Merrick and Robins and Tandy and all of them joined in too.

‘Have a beer, Billy, come on, have a beer.’

Until the Lieutenant said, ‘Leave the boy alone. What does it matter to us if he doesn’t drink?’

That morning too, when he was shaving, Robins laughed at me and called me ‘girlie’, and it had been just like the schoolroom at Bredicot again when I’d stood with Abel Rudge and the others, before Divinity, measuring our chests with wooden rulers to work out our chances of being recruited. None of us were old enough, not by a long way, but Rudge had said to pick cards to see who’d try for it. I’d turned up the knave of clubs, and Rudge had smirked and said, ‘It’s Billy, little Billy Bayliss’s going to have a try.’

So I did have a try, you see – none of us Bayliss boys likes to let a challenge go by – and in the end it’d all been easy, being recruited. I’d half-inched my brother Francis’s papers and left Bredicot. We’d lined up at the town hall, there’d been other boys there from school too in that queue, and we’d been stripped and examined, and I’d stood in line, standing up tall and wide as I could, trying to add two years to my chest to make me look Francis’s seventeen.

‘Put on your clothes. You’ll do.’

There were three of us Bayliss boys – Francis, Geordie and me – and no one could tell us apart.

Francis had the right number of years, but bad feet, so I was all right and I passed muster, but none of the other boys from school did.

A Sergeant-Major had formed us into fours and marched us to the race track and I spent that night on a cement floor, wedged between lines of fold-up seats, trousers wrapped round our boots for a pillow.

I felt guilty about leaving home but I thought more about Abel Rudge’s surprise when he knew I’d got through than I did about Mother. With Father gone, things were a bit tight at home and she’d find it easier with one less.

When the training was over and we boarded the Saturnia, the others had stowed their kit in the steerage quarters, then rushed up to the poop deck to wave goodbye to their families, but there’d been no one on the wharf to see me off. There had been a parcel, though, from Mother, just before we’d entrained for Avonmouth. In it was a pair of field glasses and a note.

Dear Billy,

I understand you are now 17 and for your unexpected coming of age I thought these field glasses might come in useful. They were your father’s.

Billy, I know there’s no point trying to stop you. I’ve always said there’s no point trying to stop a Bayliss. You are all just like your father – you more than any of them – and there was never any stopping him.

Good luck, Billy.

Love, Mother.

I’d stayed below deck watching through a tight and greasy window as England ebbed away. She was always practical and brisk, Mother, in her letters, in everything really, as unfussing a sort of person as you could find anywhere.

There’d been no peace on the Saturnia, the food vile, the hammocks cheek by jowl, the heat fierce. We’d passed the snow-tipped mountains of southern Spain and the Algerian coast. No one knew where we were headed. ‘Smyrna,’ Robins said, and I’d taken little notice, such whispers changing as they did with each wind. We heard we were stopping at Alexandria and Lieutenant Straker said, ‘It’ll be Gallipoli then.’ Firkins told me in front of all the men that Gallipoli was the rocky tail-end of Europe, a place of myth and legend. It was embarrassing in front of the men, the way Firkins always spoke to me as if I were in a History lesson. He could speak through a corner of his mouth without removing the pipe that was always clamped in there, even when he didn’t have any tobacco to put in it.

We’d waited a long time in Egypt. We’d marched in sand and eaten sand till I was sick of the stuff. I’d seen the men who came back from Gallipoli – they’d been Australians, mostly, big, well-made men. We’d unloaded them on the docks, the dead in the same tubs as the living, the green flies on their yellow-black wounds. But some of them joshed and asked for beers even as they lay there with their wounds all maggoty or their legs blown off.

Now I knew I was going to the place those men had come from and I was scared.

I was relieved, though, to be leaving Egypt, where I’d felt so alone. There were men in Egypt from all over the place: Indians, Gurkhas, Australians, Tommies, New Zealanders, Maoris, Sikhs, Frenchmen, and negroes from all our colonies, but I’d found no friend among them all. Somehow being in the army made me feel young and scared when I’d thought I’d feel manly and grown up. Living amongst men like Merriman and Merrick and all just made me more aware of the difference that the years make.

That last night in Egypt, as I walked towards the horse lines, the sun set and turned the sky to violet, and the sand to the pink of a Worcestershire apple. The sweetnesss of all that rosy light made me think of Bredicot. I’d write to Liza, I thought, because she’d keep a secret. I was the favourite of her brothers. She would’ve minded my going most, and I could remind her again how Trumpet was fond of apples and small wild strawberries and of being scratched behind the ears.

I stopped and turned. The lights of the camp were all twinkling and magical as fairyland, and I thought how I could tell Liza about our new issue of tropical kit: light shorts, shirts open at the throat, sleeves rolled up. I could tell her what fine men the Worcester Yeomanry were and that she’d read about us in the papers but I wouldn’t tell her that I was going to Gallipoli, nor that we were leaving our horses behind. I was worried, you see, that I wouldn’t look so good, to Liza or to Abel Rudge, now that I was going to fight on foot.

I don’t remember everything clearly, or the days, or the order in which things happened later, but what happened next I remember as if it were yesterday. I walked on through the balmy Egyptian night, over the moonlit sand, past where the Gurkhas liked to fish with string and bamboo canes, past the natives loading and unloading, past rows of khaki tents and towards the transport lines.

There were all sorts in the transport lines, mules and what have you, but I never so much as looked at them as I passed. A horse man is a horse man and won’t look at anything other than a horse, so I never gave the mules and suchlike a second thought.

I found the Yeomanry horse section and wandered idly from one horse to another. None of them stamped softly or snorted when I came to them in the way that Trumpet would, but I was glad Trumpet was at Bredicot with Liza and hadn’t crossed the sea in the stinking belly of a troopship, only to be abandoned here to the sand and flies.

I leaned against the neck of a tall bay horse that I liked the look of and blew into his nostrils. He lowered his head to me but didn’t close his eyes at the blowing, like Trumpet would. As I leaned there and heard the cosy snuffling of horses and looked up into the strangely close, swaying eastern stars, I breathed the peace of a desert night.

I stroked the bay, feeling sorry that there was no grass in all of Egypt for him, but he snatched his head from me and gazed ahead, over the top of the long- eared mules, surveying, in the far-sighted way of all horses, the distance. The horses – not one of them – so much as acknowledged the presence of the mules who were right in front of them, mules and suchlike being so far below their own dignity.

I waited for the bay to drop his head to my hand again.

There was a noise somewhere beneath the palm trees: a man’s voice raised in anger. Closer at hand, in the mule lines, there was a sudden darting shadow. The bay threw his head and whinnied. I glimpsed a slight figure, a boy, slim and naked to the waist, a pair of dark eyes, the whites of them bright as moons.

In the second that our eyes met, each assessed the other and knew, immediately and instinctively, that we were, there or thereabouts, the same age. He glanced towards the palms, then back to me. Eyes wide and imploring, he raised a finger to his lips. He dropped his hand to the neck of the animal immediately in front of me and whispered to it. I looked at it for the first time, saw how its silver ears were longer than those of the other mules, and beautifully marked with dark wavering edges, as wobbly as if the boy, in some lonely quiet moment, had once inked in those tips, because they had a sweet, uncertain line to them, as though put there by the hand of a child. It was smaller than the others, too; a donkey perhaps. It brayed: a smiling sort of bark, merry and loud for so small a creature. The boy flinched, shied, like a wild animal. He ducked under the neck of the silver donkey and into the shadow.

A breeze rustled the palm leaves and I heard the man’s voice again, still loud and angry. Two men stood beneath the flickering palms, one a Major, the other a Sergeant. The bay tensed and pricked his ears. He was like Trumpet, I thought: a horse who missed nothing, a horse full of heart; not at all the sort to eat while grown men argued and young boys hid. I scratched him. He nuzzled me then swung his head away.

The Major stretched out his arms and tore at the stripes on the Corporal’s arm. I heard a stifled whimper and turned: there was the boy – clutching at a young palm, a hand raised to his mouth.

‘Sir, I do what you say, I do – I do everything you say,’ said the Corporal in halting English. ‘It was not me who stole the grain, sir . . .’ He wore standard British service dress, the stripes of a Corporal on his arm, but his cap badge was a star within three circles and his voice was thick and foreign.

The boy dropped his head, fear outlined in the dark cringing curve of his shadow on the white sand.

‘Not me, sir . . .’

‘I trusted you.’

The boy recoiled. I could see his face and glistening eyes. He turned and made as if to intervene, just as the Major, in a surge of anger, lurched towards the Corporal. The boy shrank back.

‘Damn you, Thomas, damn you for your thieving, you . . . Damn you – after all I’ve done!’

The Major grabbed the Corporal’s arm and tore at the cloth of his sleeve. Explosive with rage and irritation at the stubborn cloth, the Major wrenched and pulled till he had what he wanted.

‘You’re lucky it’s just your stripes I’m taking . . .’ The Major hurled the torn stripes down and ground them into the muck of the horse lines with his heel.

The Corporal’s face was wide with shock, eyes rheumy, arms outstretched.

‘And you’re lucky it’s just this.’ The Major’s heels swivelled again, as if to murder the cloth. ‘The official punishment for larceny . . .’ He thought better of whatever he was going to threaten, said, ‘Damn you, Thomas!’ then turned and swung furiously away.

The Corporal bent and nodded his head: once, very slowly, twice, then a third time.

The bay tossed and neighed. A good horse dislikes argument between men and I put a hand to his cheek to soothe him. The Corporal’s head sank lower still. He remained bent and bowed for a long while, the boy and I waiting and watching, separately and secretly.

When the Corporal raised his head, he turned to the mule lines, paused, then went straight away to the silvery donkey in front of my horse, and stood at the creature’s side a while, the boy staying hidden only feet away.

‘Hey-Ho,’ the Corporal whispered. ‘Hey-Ho.’ And there was the sadness of all the centuries in his whispering. He raised one hand to his arm, to where the stripes had been, fingers trembling there.

‘My friend,’ he said. ‘The Major was once my friend.’ He bent his head to the donkey’s neck and said, ‘Hey-Ho, even for you I would not steal.’

Something caught the old man’s eye and dragged him from his reverie. He moved to the nosebag and checked it, surprise dawning on his wide face. He cast around, moved on to the next animal. Again he stopped, scratched his head, weighed the nosebag in his hand, and went to the next, and so on, checking the knot and weight of each. He turned and walked back again along the line, again touching each animal, each bag.

‘Strange . . . strange . . . all done.’ He puzzled. He stopped and shook his head at the mystery of things, then the old man, for old he seemed to me, turned and walked, still shaking his head, till he was lost in the frond shadow.

After a minute or two, the boy crept towards the patch of sand on which the men had stood. His father was in the Army, I thought, watching, but the boy wasn’t because he had no badge, no tunic. He crouched and picked up the torn cloth, shook off the dirt and sand, wiped it on his knees, wiped again, smoothed it and lifted it to his streaked cheeks.

‘Father . . .’ he whispered. ‘Father, Apa, it was me . . .’ His voice melted into the sigh of the wind and I didn’t catch any more.

After a little while, he rose and went to the donkey and laid his head on the grey back.

‘I will stay with you, Hey-Ho, with you and with Apa. I will look after you both, Hey-Ho. Better.’

I waited an instant, then stepped forward. ‘Hello.’

He started, for he must’ve forgotten I was there. ‘I’m Billy,’ I said, and stuck out my hand in a very English sort of manner. He flinched and shrank away. ‘You’re not in the Army, are you?’ I said.

He started, now doubly wary. I looked at his swollen eyes and the smears of dust and tears on his cheeks.

‘Because if you were in the Army, you wouldn’t cry. You never cry, however much you want to.’

At this he paused and searched my face, running his eyes over my uniform. He made an almost imperceptible movement with his head: difficult to say if it were a yes or a no.

‘You have Hey-Ho,’ I said. ‘I wish I had my horse.’

He looked up at me briefly, then dropped his eyes to Hey-Ho, his fingers tracing the black rim of an ear. ‘Hey-Ho’s bark is like a smile or a laugh,’ I said, because I could see the tenderness of the gesture and wanted to say something nice about Hey-Ho. ‘But his eyes are so sad . . .’

The boy looked up again then, and he was steady and serious when he said, ‘They have seen too many terrible things . . .’

His own eyes, too, I knew, must’ve seen those terrible things, but I didn’t ask then what they were.

‘I must look after him,’ he said. ‘After Hey-Ho and after Father.’ He put a hand on Hey-Ho, and the donkey answered loudly with that joyous laughter running in his hee-haw.

‘Hey-Ho? Why Hey-Ho?’ I asked, amused by the quaint Englishness of the name tongued in the boy’s foreign voice.

‘They told me . . . where I come from . . . that English donkeys go Hey-Ho.’ His voice hee-hawed up and down as he said it. ‘All other donkeys go Hee-haw.’ His face was so solemn that I had to laugh. He looked more puzzled at that, and I was still laughing when I asked, ‘Is he an English donkey?’

‘We will go to England, one day, Father says, so we called him Hey-Ho.’

I was still laughing but he was still puzzled, so I put on a straight face and asked, ‘What is your name?’

His limbs seemed to coil, as if he were readying himself to spring away. I caught him by the arm, wanting him to stay, this boy, with whom I didn’t have to pretend I was not scared, from whom I did not have to hide tears.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked again.

He studied me again, as if deciding whether to answer. When he spoke it was in his strange, faltering English.

‘Before . . . before . . . my name was Benjamin . . . Here, they call me Captain. The English Major, he used to call me Captain.’

As if regretting he’d said so much, he tugged his arm away, sprang to his feet and sped away, barefoot and silent on the sand.

Alexandria
14 August 1915

We Yeomen left the next morning while it was still dark, in silence but for the tramping of so many feet. By the time the sun was high we were in the seething stench and filth of Alexandria.

We halted to let a column of horses by, the men in files of threes, each man leading two mounts. I thought of Trumpet again as I watched them go by and felt glad he was not here in apple-less Egypt.

A troop of old soldiers pushed past us, laughing at the shine and polish of our kit, at the weight of it. We marched on through the quaint white streets and their pushing press of humanity and the jangle of foreign tongues. Arab hawkers swarmed round us, crying out their whining chants.

The dock was immense, forty quays or more, an Armada of vessels of all kinds in it – destroyers, troopships, cruisers, liners, hospital ships. Provisions stood in stacks on every quay: ammunition, water- cans, crates and tins. Everywhere were trains of horses, gun limbers, field kitchens; officers calling out, still recruiting men; lines of sick and wounded soldiers in blue hospital uniforms.

‘Gallipoli,’ Sparrow said, pointing to a row of wounded. ‘They’re from Gallipoli.’

I felt a tightening of the heart, the cold fingers of fear. Did no man leave Gallipoli standing? Was it only the dead or the near-dead that got out? There were only men with whiskers here, men who didn’t mind the yellow wounds and the burned flesh melded to khaki cloth. I was alone, very alone, among such men. What would Abel Rudge feel, I wondered if he’d seen those men from Gallipoli, would he be scared too? Yes, I was too young; if I told Lieutenant Straker my age, I could go home to Bredicot. That boy from last night, had he seen what men looked like when they came back from Gallipoli? How would he feel in my place? How would he feel if he were going to Gallipoli?

If only he were with us, there’d be at least someone else to talk to.

We halted beside two large ships: the Anglo-Egyptian and the Ascania. Behind us stood a great dock-shed, the side of it open to the harbour. I smelt the mules before I saw them – a mule makes an unholy stink compared to a horse, especially in the heat of Egypt. I looked into the dock-shed and glimpsed, behind the stores and equipment, three lines of pack-animals. Hey-Ho – was he in there?

‘Bayliss – into line!’

I stepped back and waited in file as steep gangways were placed to the lowest deck of the Anglo-Egyptian. Still we waited and while we waited, I wondered about the mules and wondered if the boy – Captain he’d said he was known as – if Captain were with them. Further down the quay, a bit of a palaver was going on, an officer trying to get sixty-odd stubborn transport horses up the gangway on to a battleship called the Pasha. A chestnut mare was walking peacefully up, neat as ninepence, her nose calmly in her nosebag but halfway up, she stopped dead. She raised her head and pulled at the rope, every line of her firm in the determination to go no further. I smiled, thinking how Trumpet would do just the same if I were to bring him to a filthy Egyptian dock and force him up a narrow gangplank. Behind the mare, horses were whinnying and pulling back. Two subalterns, red-faced and ruffled, were whipping the mare’s rump. We were all laughing then at the subalterns, but at the same time I knew I’d not want to be behind her on that plank if she kicked or reared.

We waited in the hot sun. I was standing near John Merriman, Ernest Sparrow, Archie Spade and Harry Beasley, half listening to their talk about the Turks and their fear of a bayonet, half thinking of the night before, of Captain’s secrecy and stealth, wondering what lay behind it, wondering about his attachment to Hey-Ho. What were the terrible things the donkey’s eyes had seen? I smiled to myself at the notion of all the English donkeys that said ‘Hey-ho, hey-ho’.

‘They say the Turk dislikes our bayonets.’ Merriman was grinning. ‘They say he’s scared of a hand-to-hand fight.’ Then Firkins started going on about how we were off to a great and tragic battlefield, a land of romance and myth, the land of Dionysius and Ariadne and Jason and all the others. Beasley and Spade groaned and rolled their eyes.

Old Colonel Colville ordered us into the dock- shed. The Colonel was from somewhere around Bredicot. He’d been a contemporary of Father’s, I think, maybe a friend too, the name being familiar to me. Both Lieutenant Straker and the Colonel made me uncomfortable, and there were times I wished I hadn’t joined a Worcestershire Regiment, it all being so sort of close to home if you were under-age. Dixies of sugary tea and greasy bacon from the Tommy cookhouse on the dock were handed round.

‘Lead out the mules!’ someone ordered.

I stood a little apart from the others, watching as each mule was led out, but they were all short-eared, run-of-the-mill-looking things.

‘They go below,’ Lieutenant Straker said, joining me. ‘In the stalls below the officers’ horses.’

The mules were tied in slings alongside the Ascania. ‘Lieutenant, sir, do you know . . .’ I began hesitantly.

‘Are the mules coming with us?’

All the usual shenanigans and kerfuffle were going on, the biting and the kicking and the whole palaver that you get when you tie an innocent, unsuspecting quadruped up in a sling and whisk it twenty foot off the ground into an ocean-bound ship.

The Lieutenant answered, grinning, ‘Looks as though they have their own view on the matter.’

I’d wanted to ask if he knew of Captain, but how could you ask after someone if you didn’t even know his surname and he wasn’t in the Army?

‘First Yeomanry, prepare to board!’ growled old Colonel Colville.

I smiled at Merrick’s reluctant, mocking salute, his teasing imitation of the accent of the commanding classes. I wouldn’t want to be the Turk that faced his bayonet, or Spade’s, or Beasley’s, or the Lieutenant’s, such a tight, strong-looking bunch they were, proud and fierce and caring only for their own. Lieutenant Straker seemed old to me then. He wasn’t older than the other men, but there was an angry kind of courage in him and a natural authority.

We emerged into the white light of the midday sun. ‘First Yeomanry, board the Ascania.’

She was the ship the mules had boarded, but I’d not seen Hey-Ho, so Captain would most likely not be on the Ascania either. I sighed, feeling tired of living up to men like Merriman and Beasley and Spade, tired of trying to be jolly about bayonets, tired of having no one around with whom I could be myself.

That first day aboard the Ascania we started training in the use of a bayonet. A bayonet is a different thing altogether to a rifle. I thought I could fire at a man with a rifle, but I didn’t know then if I could ever kill a man with a bayonet.

‘Go in with the point,’ Colonel Colville told us.

As I stood there on the hot deck, the bayonet in hand, I looked at Merrick’s face, and Beasley’s, and Sparrow’s but they, none of them, seemed to quail at the idea of going in with the point.

I’m fifteen, I thought as I fixed the bayonet. Only fifteen, and I will have to kill men. I have to go in with the point and I have to kill. I will kill or I will be killed.

The Colonel must’ve seen something on my face, because he marched up to me and barked, ‘Get this into your head! This is war, and the only thing that’ll count out there is that you win and that you stay alive. Make sure it’s the enemy that dies and not you.’

The days were hot and slow. A bugle woke us at six for breakfast, we drilled on deck from nine to eleven, then in the height of the day, struck senseless with the force of the sun, the boards of the Ascania blistering, the colour stolen from the sea, we were allowed to rest. Everyone else had a mucker, someone to play cards with or chat to. I would always be on my own then. No one said so, but they knew I was younger. Lieutenant Straker almost certainly had some idea, but I don’t think, now, looking back, that he ever breathed a word to anyone.

Onesuch afternoon, I lay on myown on theshadowy side of the deck and thought about the bayonets. Merrick had taken me aside after the training that day and told me the easy part was the pushing it in, that a bayonet sticks in a stomach and is hard to pull out, that you have to twist it and tug. Then the others had laughed when they’d seen my face – they’d all been laughing at me. I’d never thought of any of this in the Bredicot schoolroom – of bayonet wounds, nor of the twist of steel in a stomach – and wondered if Abel Rudge or Francis could kill a man in hand-to- hand combat. I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was easier to kill a man if you were older. My thoughts drifted then to Captain. I’d begun to wonder, you see, by then, if he’d been only the melting figment of my lonely mind, for there’d been no sign of him nor Hey-Ho since that night in the horse lines in Egypt.

I stretched my arms out, inspecting my tanned skin. We’d marched ten times around the first-class deck that morning, two and a half miles in all, to the beat of the band, the brassy thump of the sun on our backs and the ships from all the oceans of the world going about on either side.

At Bredicot, when I felt most alone, I’d always go to Trumpet and the other horses. That afternoon, too, I left the deck and crept below to the officers’ horses. They were all jammed together in restless lines – no air, no room to exercise or groom them. Somewhere one was thrashing, rearing and striking at the wood with his forelegs. Men were shouting, the horse smashing against his stall, a vet trying to calm him, then taking a needle to him. I crept away, nauseous with the heat, and the swell of the sea, and the stink. I longed for the companionship of Trumpet as there’s no finer friend than a horse when you’re lonely, but was glad really that I hadn’t brought him with me to the burning bowels of the Ascania, to be driven mad with the heat. I left and went down the steep gangways: two decks down was where the mules were kept. I searched the lines stall by stall, just in case I’d missed Hey-Ho before, but they were all ordinary-looking things, no long black-tipped ears.

The sunset was a melancholy thing, all purples and greens and chromes, and I felt lonelier for its loveliness. Hour after hour, I watched the wash of the water along the bow, gazed at all the tiny passing islands of the Greek Aegean, all strung out, till I was almost hypnotized by the hiss of the bow wave. It grew dark and I set to tramping up and down the deck with my tinful of thick, sugary tea. The boards were wet with dew beneath my bare feet, the touch of the breeze sweet and soft on my bare skin, those strange, eastern stars above. I heard Merrick and the others laughing like drains at something or other, and I wished Liza were with me, or Francis, or almost anyone.

A hospital ship passed, her green starboard light burning in the dark. Our own portholes were darkened, and we crossed her like a shadow, dark and silent, the captaincy wary, watching to the left and to the right for what might lie below.

The Ascania steered around two tiny islets, turned, and navigated a passage deep between two great hills into the harbour of Moudros. A grey destroyer drew up alongside, her sailors all waving their caps at us, her band playing us in. At anchor there were cruisers, destroyers, mine-sweepers, mine-layers, hospital ships, launches, submarines – a terrific spirit-stirring display of sea power. Francis would have liked to see this, I thought. He had a collection of lead ships in his room at Bredicot. On the hills above the bay, white tents seemed to have bloomed like desert roses, each one fluttering with an ensign or hospital cross or French tricolour.

There at Moudros, pinnaces and packet boats dashed around in all directions day and night. The right food or equipment was always on the wrong boat; there were no water carts on the shore, no kettles, cookers, or signalling equipment to be had anywhere. We Yeomanry were to sleep aboard the

Ascania, Colonel Colville told us, our departure for Gallipoli being so imminent, but we were kept there in the harbour for three days practising going up and down the rope ladders they dropped over the sides of the ship. On the third day the Lieutenant sent me ashore on some errand or other so I got a break from all the climbing up and climbing down.

After the errand I had time to spare and reckoned I wouldn’t be missed for a while, so, for the joy of being on solid land again, I walked over the sun-scorched grass between the hospital tents and on upwards. The heat was as fierce as the blast from a furnace but there was a village up there ahead, gleaming white in the hollow of a hill and it might’ve been that, or the fear of what might happen in the days to come, that made me want to climb that hill. At the top, I told myself, there’d be a view, perhaps, and I might see Gallipoli. I climbed past the village and on, then sat there at the top and caught my breath and wiped my streaming face and fought away the flies. The sheep bells echoed across the still water of the bay and all the great ships down there looked like tiny painted toys. Across the sea somewhere lay Gallipoli. I scanned the horizon. Far away, through a quivering violet haze, I saw what looked like a whale-backed hump in the silvery surface of the sea. The tail-end of Europe. Gallipoli. I raised Father’s field glasses to my eyes. I was rather proud of them, and took them everywhere, because in the Army only the officers are given glasses.

I caught, or thought I caught, a distant pulsing in the air. I started and tensed and wiped the glasses and looked again. My fingers trembled on the field glasses. That throbbing, that pulsing was the sound of guns: the guns of Gallipoli.

The heat fell away. The buzzing of the flies quieted and still I stared towards that blue-grey ridge; was still staring as the sun sank in a blaze, blood-red and pink. I thought wistfully how that sun would soon set too on the hills of Worcestershire. In two hours it would be sundown at home, and the throbbing of those guns, the fear of what lay ahead, made me long to hang on to the reins of the sun and be galloped westward on her rays, to Bredicot.

The end of the day was bugled, and the call taken up from camp to camp. Then the French trumpets began their wailing and the mournful cries echoed up to the tops of the hill and soon it seemed that the whole island was crying out the sad news of the sun’s setting once again. I watched the dusty mules nibble at scorched thistles, listened to the wailing of the trumpets and the ringing of the sheep bells, and felt lonelier then than I’d ever felt, and smaller. When the first campfire was lit I started on down, slipping on the loose stones that glowed rose-pink in the last of the sun’s rays.

Merrick and Firkins were there on the dock.

‘Young Bayliss, you’ll get it in the neck,’ hissed Merrick. ‘Where’ve you been? There’ll be the devil to pay – the Lieutenant’s been looking for you.’

‘We’re under orders to proceed to the peninsula. Tonight,’ said Firkins, very solemn and portentous. ‘History is in the making, young Bayliss.’ He removed his pipe to illustrate the importance of the moment. ‘The dawn of a new chapter.’ His cap was adrift, his tunic all wrongly buttoned and he didn’t look at all like the dawn of a new chapter, but I felt a tremor of fear. By morning I would be at Gallipoli. By morning I would see action for the first time.

We worked to breaking point on the dock, Firkins and Merrick and Beasley and I, loading stack after stack of provisions. The bay was all feverish commotion: forage, equipment, ammunition, mules, all being moved from jetties to barges, trawlers towing strings of rowboats to the ships. Hour after hour, boatload after boatload of troops were ferried to the ships, till there was moonshine on the water and the ships all twinkling with their strings of red and green lights and the bands all playing on the warships and the tom-toms beating from the Indian camps.

‘Embark at once. Board the Queen Victoria.’

The order was passed mouth to mouth, along the jetty. I lifted the last crate of many hundreds labelled ‘Medical Supplies’ on to a lighter, and looked up to watch a liner steam out of the bay, her band playing a rousing air and every vessel at anchor waving as she disappeared into the dark of the open sea.

Firkins and I squeezed ourselves on to a barge and found a place to sit between the crates of medical supplies. We crossed the flickering water in eerie silence, dark forms gliding to and fro in the balmy night.

As we rounded the stern of the Victoria, I saw a pair of mules being hustled into a sling. They were making their usual song and dance about the whole thing, protesting and kicking and yanking and biting and the whole shebang. They were suddenly whistled off their hoofs and hoisted, still and silent with shock, their four hoofs dangling, then swung and plunged on to the deck.

Merrick looked up at the moon and frowned, then Beasley and Sparrow did, and one by one, each man looked up at her. She was bright and full and her light would be no friend to us that night. A tot was passed hand to hand, from bow to stern.

‘Young Billy,’ said Merrick, passing it to me, and there was amusement and challenge in his eyes, so I, in a spurt of defiance, lifted it to my lips and swallowed, and the shock of the stuff in my throat was burning and violent.

As the tug that had held the mules prepared to pull away, a dark figure sprang from the stern of the last boat, leaped to the rope ladder and pulled swiftly up.

I leaped to my feet – the boy – Captain! A stowaway? I forced my way along the deck between the crates, through the Lovat Scouts, the Yeomanry, the Essex, and all the different sorts that were in the barge, to the front. When we were finally alongside, I was the first off the barge, the first to scale the ladder up the Victoria, climbing hastily and clumsily, my pack lurching and swinging. I searched the top deck, the deck below, the deck below that, then deeper still to the mule lines. I was quiet and went on tiptoe, keeping to the places where there was straw on the ground because Captain didn’t want to be seen, didn’t want to be found.

A shadow moved fleetingly on the ceiling somewhere, but when I stopped to listen there was only the familiar breathing and chomping and shuffling of the animals.

There was a loud hee-haw, and another. I heard the laugh running through those hee-haws, so I knew them straight away for Hey-Ho’s. I waited, and after a while picked out, amidst the shuffling hoofs, the wincing scrape of metal on metal. I moved along the line, past one mule after another – all run-of-the-mill things, short-eared and plain as pikestaffs. From tail to tail I went, all the way to the stern of the Victoria, and there – there it was again, louder, the clink of a shovel on an iron-clad floor: clink, scrape, scrape. Then silence. The steady, rhythmic work had stopped. I listened and peered into the dim light. A hand placed a bucket in the passage and a voice whispered, ‘Still, Hey-Ho, keep still.’

Hey-Ho barked again. ‘Shh, Hey-Ho!’

I tiptoed closer and saw him, head low and chomping, only the long black-tipped ears poking above the trough, and I smiled at the sweetness of that: one upright, the other lopsided and drooping.

Hey-Ho nosed Captain and brayed again.

‘Sssh . . .’ Captain whispered. ‘Not talk so much.’

He set the shovel down between the lines. I slipped behind the rump of a copper-coloured she-mule, hoping she was not a kicker. Captain was walking towards me, the bucket in his hands. I shrank back against the she-mule. With whip-crack speed, a hind leg lifted, crooked, and a hoof hit my shin. I yelped and doubled over. Captain dropped the bucket and ran. I tried to call out to him, but there was no answer except for the clanking of the bucket as it rolled lonesomely down the aisle. I sank to the ground, just out of reach of the she-mule and I was cursing her for a miserable, mincing, malevolent, malicious, murderous, monstrous molly, and I don’t know how long I went on like that but I was sitting there cursing and whimpering when it slowly dawned on me that someone was laughing – just like that: laughing – while I whimpered, and the sound of it was sort of tumbling and twinkling, like water running over stone. I looked up, and Captain was standing there, all shiny-eyed with mirth, so I scowled at him. Still laughing, he crouched and lifted my leg and ran his hands over the shinbone; small hands, but assured and competent.

‘All right, bone is all right,’ he said, pressing the skin just where it was turning the colour of one of Mother’s ripest aubergines. ‘Father is a doctor,’ he added.

‘I was looking for you,’ I said, still scowling at him. He made as if to stand and I clutched at his arm. He was as light on his feet as a bird, you see, always ready to take flight then; thin, too, as a sparrow.

‘Does anyone know – your father, does he know you’re here?’ I asked. He started a little at that, so I held his arm firmly,

‘You can trust me,’ I told him. ‘I won’t say anything to anyone.’

Still ready to fly, he watched me carefully, then said – and his gaze was frank and open as his eyes met mine: ‘Father always told me, trust nobody.’

‘I won’t say anything,’ I repeated. ‘You see, I’m not supposed to be here either.’ I waited an instant, then with my forefinger drew two numbers on the dusty surface of the floor:

15

Captain raised his eyes and a smile opened slowly across his face. He moved his hand to the ground. His forefinger hesitated an instant, then wrote:

14

‘Why’re you here?’ I asked.

Fear and regret flickered across his face but I went on clumsily, ‘Are you in the Army too?’

He was suddenly free, and on his feet, and running, silent and barefoot, down the aisle. I stayed there, cursing myself now for asking, because I already knew he wasn’t in the army.


Excerpted from Captain by Sam Angus. Copyright © 2014 by Sam Angus.
First published 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

As Stars Fall by Christie Nieman – Extract

As Stars Fall

disturbance

The light was strange. The darkness was a deep red, and there was a thickness between the stars. And the air was strange too. It had a bitter tang.

The curlew was waiting for her mate. Her hunger was growing. She smelled the air. She fluffed her feathers over the delicate eggs that lay on the ground beneath her, growing life from her warmth. Shifting her position, she smelled the air again.

The bush around the clearing had gone silent. The sounds of all the other animals had stopped soon after the bitter air came, except for one animal at the other side of the clearing. It made a slight whispering sound – movement, not voice. A daycreature. A human. Just one. It had made a nest out of sticks it carried with it, and a silk sheet-web over the top. It stayed inside its nest all the time. The curlew could hear it breathing. The air began to sting the curlew’s eyes. Her hunger increased. There was a new noise, a roar like a stormy sky but lower down, and there were other sounds in it: a snap, a creak, a groan. She put her head to the side to listen, and blinked her eyes over and over against the stinging air.

The human across the clearing moved inside its nest. She heard the rustling of the nest materials as it tossed and turned inside. She heard the voice of it, low and intense.

The roaring was getting louder. It was getting hard to see. She pushed her throat in and out to pump air over her tongue, prickly as the air was, to try to cool herself down. But the air was too hot. And her nest was too hot. Her eggs were overheating. She stood up from the nest to let the air over them, but the air could not cool them. She spread her wings, her feet still on the ground, touching the eggs.

Something was crawling up a tree – something orange and bright. The stick-nest across the clearing moved suddenly and an opening appeared. The human stumbled out and fell backwards looking at the tree. The bright orange climbed until it reached the leaves and exploded. The human’s web-and-stick nest gathered thick air around it, and then it roared and became bright orange air, sucked into the sky.

*

The woman watched her tent as it blazed and lifted up. She ran to her four-wheel drive, climbed inside, started the engine. From inside the car she saw flames behind her, and turned to see a wall of fire covering the track out of the clearing, blocking her escape.

And she knew that she would die.

The wind roared, shaking the car. Flames rippled sideways through the trees, trickling through the air like water, running up everything they touched. The heat was too much. There was not enough air. Her mind fought – her children still needed her; her son and her daughter, they were not old enough, they shouldn’t be without her yet. But it was a senseless resistance. She was caught in a hostile atmosphere, a strange new planet: a violent elemental world, not meant for her.

She looked away from the blazing world behind her, her futile hands still holding the wheel. She looked forward, helplessly – instinctively – looking for the bird she had been studying, the other sentient thing she knew to be there. And there it was, through all the burning light and smoke, still there, the Bush Stone-curlew, standing at the other side of the clearing on the ground over its nest, head up, eyes alert.

The woman stared at the bird, only at the bird. She would not look away. She would not look at the treetops as they exploded, one by one, over her head. She would not look at the billowing inferno behind her. She would think only of her children, and she would look at the beautiful bird.

The engine cut out, robbed of oxygen. The wall of fire closed in. The smoke loosened her mind from her body, and she held the bird’s gaze. And as the heat in the air drew her life irrevocably away from her, she suffered no pain. She felt nothing of her own. She sensed only the soft inward lifting of the bird as it prepared to fly; only the perfect ability of wings to reach the cool dark sky above. And then, when the curlew finally flapped its wings to escape, the woman went with it. The last spark of her gaze left her eyes. She was drawn up with the bird. Taken away. Brought forever to the stars.

*

The curlew rose from the clearing and circled once. She watched as the bright fire rushed in and the woman’s children lost their mother, and the curlew lost her own children, curled up helpless in their shells below. And then she turned and flew over the stripped and smoking trees, passing out of the bushland and into the open. She landed under trees at the edge of a paddock. There was smoke here too, but no fire. There were humans in the distance, and one nearby. She stood hidden from it against the rough grey of a fallen tree trunk. She called to her mate, her wailing cry growing louder and louder. And then, when there were no calls back, the curlew grew quiet and again spread her wings and flew up into the sky.

She drew a long straight line south.

IMPACT AND AFTERMATH

Monday

Robin

‘Robin? Robin Roberts?’

This is what I imagined was happening in my form room at that moment. I imagined some old-time bespectacled schoolmistress reading my name out over and over from her roll, and in the silence after each call the crickets chirping, the tumbleweed tumbling. I had to imagine it because I wasn’t there. I was lost.

‘Robin Roberts?’

Yes, that really is my name. You’d think that two parents with the surname Roberts would think twice before calling their only daughter Robin, wouldn’t you? You’d reckon. And when you heard that those two parents were Rodney Roberts and Roberta Roberts, you’d think they were just mean – like, if they’d had to suffer all those Rs, then they’d make their kid suffer too. But if you actually knew my parents, you’d get that giving me a Rolls-Royce name was just their cute way of including me in their club: the R&R club. Well, that was their thinking anyway. They were making sure I felt part of the family.

The family. It’s not like there’s much of a family to be part of anymore.

And as for the name itself, Robin, well I blame my dad for that, crazy bird-lover. Then again, I could blame my dad for a lot of things right now . . .

*

Lost, in the first minutes of the first day of my new posh school in the big ugly city. The bell had gone nearly ten minutes earlier, the noisy throng of girls that had crowded all available space had now completely disappeared; and F-block had clearly fallen off the face of the earth. There I was, alone in the echoing hallways, wearing the requisite below-the-knee-length tartan dress, an itchy blazer and – I was sure of it – the wrong shoes. If there is one thing I understand in this world, it is that you will never know the right shoes for a particular school until you’re in it.

I went outside, sat on a step, and put my head on my knees. This school was nothing like my old school. I’d come from a tiny, two-building country high school, only about one hundred and fifty kids in the whole school. And now here I was in a school where there were that many kids in one year level, where corridors disappeared into the distance, and where I was supposed to find my place among hundreds of girls. That’s right. Girls. Enrolling me in a girls’ school was Mum’s bright idea. I don’t know what she was thinking.

The thought of her made me long for her in a way I hadn’t since I was a little kid. She was here, somewhere. Back home in the country she’d taught at the private school in town while I went to the local secondary, but now, in the city, we’d ended up at the same school. It was a good school apparently, a state school with private-school pretensions. And great ‘outcomes’, Mum said. And good for her career.

I could try to find her. But what could she do? She was teaching. I couldn’t waltz into her class in front of all her students and say in my best little-kid voice, ‘Help me, Mummy.’ I lifted my head from my knees, and bloody hell – there, right in front of me, was F-block, squat and smug. Sprinting up two steps at a time, I found F-10 on the third floor, and burst into the room suddenly and loudly. Twenty pairs of eyes turned towards me. The words ‘Mr Krietcher’ were printed on the whiteboard, and from underneath them two small, dark eyes looked me over.

‘And you might be?’

Panting, out of breath, ‘Flame’, I wheezed.

This ‘Mr Krietcher’ just looked at me funny, and then was silent.

Oh God. What had I just done? Flame, short for Flame Robin, is my dad’s pet name for me. I stuttered and scrambled for more words.

‘Ah . . . Robin Roberts, sir.’

He picked up a clipboard from the desk, and scanned the roll. ‘“Flame”, did you say? Is that a nickname? Do you prefer that?’

‘No, no. Robin, please. Robin’s fine. Robin Roberts.’ And with a cheesy flourish of my hand, ‘At your service.’ Oh God.

There was giggling around the room. The teacher raised an eyebrow and the giggling stopped. He carefully marked the page, and placed the pen and the clipboard back onto the desk in front of him.

‘Robin Roberts, I don’t know what your last school was like, but at this school we value punctuality.’

‘I know, oh my God, I’m so sorry, but –’

He cut me off by raising his hand, which I thought was a bit rude, turned back around to the board and continued writing. The minute his back was to us, all the girls in the room turned towards me, getting a good look.

At my old school, where all the teachers knew all the students from the time they were little kids – knew their parents, knew the stupid things they had done when they were six (or sixteen) – there was room for a bit of conversational back and forth, some healthy sparring. The teachers even seemed to enjoy it. So I really didn’t know I was venturing into dangerous territory when I said, ‘But it’s my first day, sir, maybe you could go a bit easy.’

Mistake. I could tell instantly from the way his writing arm froze, and the way all the heads in the room snapped back to look at him, to see what he would do. Shit, was he one of these insecure teachers, the ones that never let their guard down, not for a second? Oh, come on, dude, cut me some slack. He slowly turned around.

‘Robin Roberts, I view it as part of my job to prepare you girls for success in the adult world. And the adult world does not smile upon disorganised and irresponsible people. Now please take a seat.’

So I’m usually a fairly cool and even-tempered person, but light the right fuse and I can go off a little bit. And for me, the right fuse was a sense of injustice. Here he was, on my first day, judging my actual character, based on what? On absolutely nothing.

‘But it wasn’t my fault!’

Mr Krietcher remained calm. ‘The rules are simple. If you are late to my class I will give you detention. Today you are lucky: because it is your first day you only have a warning. But for the future, know that tardiness – and backchat for that matter – is simply unacceptable.’

There’s this thing among teachers, I know about it from my mum. It’s a saying: Don’t smile until Easter. It’s about being a total hard-arse for the first weeks of the year so your students are totally cowed and under control before you get any sort of friendly vibe on. And it’s possible that this guy was doing that. It was possible that he would turn out to be a nice guy, a good teacher. Possible. But it was also possible that he was just an unreasonable jerk. Either way, it made no difference to my reaction. My face grew hot with the unfairness of it all.

‘Dude,’ I said – yes, I actually called him dude – ‘I think you’ve misjudged me, and I think you’re being a bit harsh.’ One girl actually slapped her hand over her mouth, as if she could shut me up by covering her own talking apparatus.

He lifted his chin and looked down his nose at me, truly down his nose. ‘Dude?’ he repeated. ‘Harsh?’ he also repeated. ‘I don’t think I was being harsh. But now, as you have already given me the descriptor, I might as well deserve it. You have worn out my patience and good humour and I would like to see you here, this afternoon, at three-thirty.’

Wow. Was this really happening? In a matter of moments my fi st day had gone from giving me a little bit of shit to becoming a very productive shit farm; it had produced a great quantity of the stuff and sent it very efficiently my way. And, in fact, this was a bit more shit than I was prepared to take. I was really pissed off. Hell, I’d had enough today. I’d tried my best, but now I was going to turn around and stomp out of there, bugger the consequences. But just as I was drawing myself up to a good stalking-off height, a fairly small and abrupt voice said, ‘Excuse me, sir.’

It was a tiny, pale-looking girl sitting up towards the front of the class.

‘Excuse me, Mr Krietcher, but I do think you are being harsh. I’m not entirely sure why you can’t see it for yourself, but I believe Robin Roberts is correct in pointing it out to you, and I believe it is also my duty to speak up, so that you may see and correct the error of your ways.’

There were embarrassed titters and whispers around the room, and also the odd gasp. Clearly this was all quite thrilling. Mr Krietcher slowly pushed his glasses back on his nose, fixing his gaze on the girl.

‘Delia Mann.’ He seemed to consider her for a long time as she sat there with her chin pointed straight at him. She looked fearless. It threw him. He seemed indecisive. Eventually he said, ‘Delia, I’m disappointed. But I suppose I’ll be seeing you at three-thirty as well. Quite the little party. Welcome to year eleven, everybody.’

He went back to writing on the board and, amid whispers and looks, I took the only empty seat in the room, next to Delia.

*

Lunchtime was a trial. Not bold enough yet to try to sit with any of the groups from my classes, I had to eat my lunch quickly and then hide out in the library, pretending I had some pressing research. I found a table in a corner and through the library window I watched the girls in the yard. The tiny year sevens, fresh from primary school, were still playing games, hiding and chasing. I envied them. It’s so much easier to be new all together, especially when you know you won’t get laughed at for suggesting a game. The year twelves were in the library with me, being given a special library induction, and looking stressed. I envied them too; they had an excuse not to be social. Outside the library windows, scattered about the yard, girls from the other year levels sat in their impenetrable social groups: all those relationships already bound tightly together, no gaps. I could see a largish group of girls from my form room. One girl was definitely at the centre of that group; you could tell by the way the other girls sat, slightly angled towards her – Natasha, that was her name. She had honey-streaked light brown hair that clearly did as it was told, falling obediently in an unwavering line down her back. She was obviously popular, but popularity here also seemed to follow strange lines – I couldn’t always pick it just by looking. Many different types of girls seemed popular, for different reasons. Some of the smartest girls in the classes I’d had so far, the ones who tried hard and took it seriously, seemed really popular. That just didn’t happen at my old school. Half the students at my old school didn’t even make it to year twelve. It was all quite disorienting.

Maybe that was what drew my eyes to this particular group of girls clustered around Natasha: there was something familiar about them. They seemed more like the girls from home. They all wore their skirts as short as they possibly could without attracting disciplinary attention, and in class they seemed to be less conscientious than their peers. I knew how to be friends with girls like that.

Maybe tomorrow I would take a breath and plunge in and talk to them, be friendly. But right then I was a big chicken.

And by the end of the day, I was a big, exhausted chicken. It’s tiring, being the new girl. So the last thing I wanted to do was to stay after school.

After everyone else had gone home, we sat in our form room, Delia and I. Mr Krietcher sat at the front of the room reading a newspaper. I was feeling a keen summer-afternoon lethargy, and if I had dared I would have put my head down on the table. Delia was actually doing homework. She was sitting neatly on her chair a few seats away from me, pulled in as close to the desk as she could get, with her maths books open, and she was writing a stream of tidy fives down the side of her page. She didn’t look at all like she was really in year eleven. She didn’t even look like she should be in year ten. She was small for a start. Her school dress was clearly too big – it was way beyond the below-the-knee stipulation; halfway down her calves, in fact. It was practically a frock. Her brown hair was in a primary-school ponytail, tied low at the back with a navy blue scrunchie that had been magically time-portalled onto her head from the 1980s. Her face was pointed and there was a slight rough boyishness around her mouth, but her forehead was baby-smooth, no furrows at all, despite her intense focus on the textbooks in front of her. She looked a lot like a little kid playing grown-ups.

I was leaning back in my chair and doodling with my pen over the front of the new pink exercise book Mum had bought for me the week before. She said there were other colours but she chose the pink because it was so ‘cheery’. I thanked her, but I don’t think I’m really a pink kind of person. My pen was working back and forth over the front of my new pink book, and I was thinking about how this Delia girl had stood up for me. I would never have done something like that for a new girl at my old school. She must be a bit nuts.

I looked up as Mr Krietcher finished the last page of his newspaper, clumsily folding it shut. He gave Delia a hard stare, and then stood up and walked out of the room. Delia looked up as the door slammed, but then went straight back to her work.

I leaned across to her. ‘Thanks for today,’ I said.

‘You’re welcome.’ She didn’t look up from her page, and the figures kept scratching out from her pen.

‘I really appreciate it. I mean, there’s no way –’ ‘Can you please stop talking? It’s quite distracting.’ ‘But he’s gone. You don’t have to –’

‘Shh.’

I sat back in my chair. ‘Jeez. We can hardly get into more trouble.’

She finally looked up – exasperated I think. The kids at this school certainly were conscientious, that was for sure. And then Delia suddenly stopped looking exasperatedly at me.

‘What are those?’ She was looking at the doodles on the front of my book. Only as I looked at them now, I saw they weren’t just doodles. I’d drawn two birds. Long, thin birds. The two of them stood there together, on the pink cover. Delia seemed transfixed.

I looked at them and laughed. Fancy my subconscious pulling them up and drawing them out through my hand.

‘Wow! Ha. I didn’t even mean to draw them.’

‘What are they?’

‘Well . . .’ I was always cautious when revealing my birdy side. ‘They’re these really cool birds from my old home in the country.’

‘What birds?’

How far to go? I assessed that Delia was risk-free: there was no way she could do social damage. ‘They’re called Bush Stone-curlews.’

And then she shot me such a look – God, I have no idea what that look was about. It was like she thought I was telling a lie, it was like, I don’t even know: like I’d lied to her about something important. The door opened. Mr Krietcher came back into the room with Ms Megalos, the vice-principal, in tow.

‘Well, that’s it then,’ he said. ‘Go on – go home.’

We stood and started closing up our folders and pushing them into our bags. Delia was quicker than me and was about to leave when Mr Krietcher said, ‘Delia, can you stay back for a moment? We’d like a word. Robin, when you go, close the door.’

Maybe I had misjudged Delia. Maybe she was a real rebel. Teachers don’t just bring in the vice-principal for nothing. Whatever else she had done, it must have been pretty bad.

*

On the train on the way home I looked out of the window to see if I could see any interesting birds.

So okay, yes, I’m a bird nerd too. I can’t just point at Dad and say ‘crazy bird-lover’ and not fess up to having a twitching eye myself. But when you grow up where I did in the country, it’s hard not to be. Birds are everywhere. And each species of bird has its own way of doing things – its own voice, its own way of flitting about, its own habits. It’s like each species has a personality, and if you’ve grown up with that personality right there, then it’s a kind of friend. I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true. Even when I was out doing stuff by myself, like taking the cows their dinner or locking up the goose shed, if there were birds around, I never felt alone. And there was always someone around: a Grey Fantail, or an Eastern Spinebill, or a Flame Robin.

The flame robins are cool. They’re small and anxious-looking and it’s as if someone has coloured in their chests with orange highlighter – it’s such a crazy fluro colour, only a little bit more crazy and fluro than my own crazy orange-red hair. So you can see where my dad got it from. Robin. Flame Robin. Flame.

But two months ago, when the fire came through, all the birds disappeared. Dad said it was worse than any fire anyone had seen in decades. He said we were lucky that we’d had all our sheep up in the top paddock: we hadn’t lost any, not like some of our neighbours. The fire was fast and hot, which is bad. It killed someone, some woman up in the hills, not a local, right on the fire track where Dad and I used to go to collect wood. It was in all the papers. And the fire stripped so much of the landscape that only days after it went through, there were absolutely no birds left.

I should have seen it as an omen, the birds all leaving like that. They left first, and then Mum and I left for the city a few weeks later. And I haven’t been back since. I don’t even know if any of them have returned.

Sparrows and pigeons, that’s all I saw from the window of the train on my way home from school. And when I got there, the tiny house was quiet as I slipped my key into the lock; no dog leaping about on the other side of the door to welcome me. Mum had got my house key cut from purple paisley metal to make it more fun. Hoping, I suppose, that a ‘fun’ key might stop me comparing this place to my old home, a farmhouse on the side of a hill, surrounded by acres of paddock and bush. We didn’t even lock the doors there.

I turned the key in the lock, and pushed the door inward. The hallway was narrow. As I walked down it my schoolbag scraped one wall and my shoulder the other. The door shut behind me, making the slide-click sound of a deadlock, and the traffic noise of nearby Punt Road became muffled. I dropped my bag on the lounge-room floor and sat on the beanbag next to it, leaning my back up against the wall. We didn’t have a couch yet. Our old one was far too big for this shoebox.

I rested my head against the wall and wished my mother would come home. I needed to talk to someone. Someone who actually knew me. Who knew me and loved me. There didn’t seem to be many of those around anymore. I swallowed the lump that rose in my throat.

The phone rang. Mum. Or Amber, my best friend from back home. I pulled myself up to answer it.

‘Is that Robin?’ It wasn’t my mother. The voice was small and sharp.

‘Yes. Hello?’

‘It’s Delia. Are you free tomorrow after school?’ ‘How did you get my –’

‘Tomorrow. Tuesday. Second day of term. Are you free?’

Of course I was free. Did I know a single person in this city? ‘Yes, but I’ll have to ask Mum. Why?’

‘I’ll show you the parklands.’ The phone clicked in my ear as she hung up abruptly.

The hallway was suddenly silent. It was darker than before. I stood there holding the dead receiver for a moment or two before slowly hanging up. I don’t even know why, but I started to cry.


Excerpted from As Stars Fall by Christie Nieman. Copyright © 2014 by Christie Nieman.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Smart by Kim Slater – Extract

Smart

1

Dead in the Water

It just looked like a pile of rags, floating on the water.

Jean sat on the bench with the brass plaque on. It said: In Memory of Norman Reeves, who spent many happy hours here.

The plaque means Norman Reeves is dead, but it doesn’t actually say that.

Jean held her head in her hands and her body was all jerky, like when you are laughing or crying. I guessed she was crying and I was right.

‘He was my friend,’ she sobbed.

I looked around but Jean was alone. People around here say Jean is ‘cuckoo’. That means mental. She used to be a nurse that delivered babies. She still knows loads of stuff she learned from medical books but no one believes her.

‘Who?’ I asked.

Jean pointed to the rags.

I went to the edge of the embankment to look. There was a stripy bag half in the water. I saw a face with a bushy beard in the middle of the rags, under the ripples. One eye was open, one was closed.

I freaked out. The sea sound started in my head and I ran right past the bridge and back again but there was nobody to help. I’m not supposed to run like mad because it can start my asthma off.

‘When the sea noise comes in your head,’ Miss Crane says, ‘it is important to stay calm and breathe.’

I stopped running. I tried to stay calm and breathe. I used my inhaler.

Jean was still crying when I got back.

‘He was my friend,’ she said again. I picked up a long stick and took it over to the riverbank. I poked at the face but not near the eyes.

‘What are you doing?’ Jean shouted from the bench. ‘I’m doing a test to see if it’s a balloon,’ I yelled back.

It felt puffy and hard at the same time, so I knew it was Jean’s friend’s head.

‘Is it a balloon?’ shouted Jean.

A woman with a dog was coming.

When she got near I said, ‘Jean’s friend is in the river.’

She gave me a funny look, like she might ignore me and carry on walking. Then she came a bit nearer and looked at the river. She started screaming.

I went for a walk up the embankment to stay calm and breathe. Some Canada geese flew down and skidded into the water. They didn’t care about the rags and the puffy face. They just got on with it.

When I got back, a policeman and a policewoman were talking to the lady with the dog. Jean was still sitting on the bench but nobody was talking to her.

‘That’s him,’ the woman said, and pointed at me. ‘What’s your name, son?’ The policeman asked.

‘I’m not your son,’ I said. ‘My dad is dead from a disease that made him drink cider, even in the morning.’

The policeman and the policewoman looked at each other.

‘Can you tell us what happened, love?’ The policewoman had a kind face, like Mum when she wasn’t rushing to go to work. She nodded her head towards the river. ‘Is that how you found him?’

‘It looked like rags,’ I said.

‘He was my friend,’ Jean shouted from the bench. The policewoman wrote down my name and address. ‘Was he just like this, when you got here?’ asked the policeman.

‘The head was a bit more turned towards the bridge,’ I said. ‘Before I poked it with the stick.’

‘Stick?’

‘I had to see if it was a balloon or a real head,’ I said.

The woman with the dog shrieked. She even made the policewoman jump.

‘It’s definitely a real head,’ I said.

‘Did you see anyone else around here but the tramp lady?’ asked the policeman.

‘Jean was a nurse,’ I said. ‘She’s not mental.’

A white van pulled up. It had the words Police Diving Unit on the side and a blue flashing light. Even when it stood still, the light kept flashing.

‘Kieran,’ said the policeman. ‘Did you see anyone else hanging around here?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘How many divers will go in?’

The side of the van slid back and two police divers got out. They had flippers on and everything.

‘They’ll need breathing apparatus on if they’re going to search the water for clues,’ I said.

‘No need for that,’ the policewoman said in a low voice, like she didn’t want me to hear. ‘Poor old bogger probably fell in after one too many.’

A man got out of the front of the police van and took some photographs of Jean’s friend in the water. Then the divers put up some screens while they pulled the body out of the river.

‘Why are they hiding it?’ I said. ‘I’ve already seen it.’

‘And poked it,’ said the policeman as they moved away. ‘Don’t go touching dead bodies in future.’

There were some people gathering on the far bank.

One man had binoculars.

The police emptied the dead man’s stripy bag and spread the things out on the concrete. There was a blanket, some socks and an empty packet of cheese straws.

Two older boys from my school walked up and stood watching.

‘What you been up to, Downs? You topped somebody?’ asked one of them.

‘I haven’t got Down’s,’ I said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my chromosomes.’

‘Are you sure about that, Downs?’ asked the other boy.

They fell about laughing.

2

The Letter

One day I’m going to be a reporter for the Evening Post. That’s why I started walking straight home, so I could write stuff down.

I don’t write in my notebook all the time. I used to only write in it when bad things happened, like when Grandma stopped coming round.

But now I write down all the interesting things that happen too, so the Editor of the Post will want me to work for him when I leave school. I can show him my notebook as evidence of my reporting skills.

The bad thing at the river was definitely interesting.

I can do the tiniest writing in the world; even I can’t read it sometimes. Nobody can tell other people what I’ve said, which is the best thing. You can’t trust people but you can trust your notebook.

I ripped out all the pages of my old Beano annual and I hide my notebook in there. Then I put the annual in the middle of a pile of other annuals under the bed. Nobody will ever find it.

See, this is why I like writing in my notebook. I can talk about anything that’s ever been invented and no one can tell me off.

I. Am. In. Charge.

You can write sentences with only one word in them, like that. It’s your choice.

I live in Nottingham. Not right in the middle, where the castle is, just at the edge of the middle.

‘Just outside the city centre,’ Miss Crane says.

I like saying ‘edge of the middle’ better. It feels more like a place.

Robin Hood came from Nottingham. He lived in Sherwood Forest and formed a merry band of men, including Little John, who was massive. Yorkshire tried to steal Robin Hood. They said he came from there but it’s been proven by scientists that he was from Nottingham.

I stopped walking for a minute and looked back at the embankment and the flashing blue lights of the police van.

Sometimes, when I look at the river I imagine it is a long, thin piece of sea. If you followed it for nearly a year, you could reach Australia. It’s been here as long as Robin Hood. He might have stood in some of the exact same places as I do, looking at the river. I said that once, to my older brother.

‘Course he did,’ he replied. ‘You daft prat.’

Ryan is my older brother but not a proper one. I’ve got a different mum and dad to him.

My dad died. I only know him because of the photographs that Mum kept to show me. I was just a baby then. Miss Crane says our brains store away everything that’s happened to us, but you can’t remember everything because some memories get locked up in a bit of your brain you don’t use, called the ‘subconscious’.

In my subconscious, there are pictures and films of my dad playing with me and tucking me into bed. Nobody can take them away and burn them. I wish I could get them out of my locked bit of brain to look at again.

When I got home I stopped at the living-room door on my way upstairs, but nobody turned round. Mum wasn’t back from work yet, so I couldn’t tell her about what had happened. Sometimes she leaves for work before I wake up and doesn’t come back till after I’m in bed, even on the weekends.

Tony was lying on the settee, smoking, with his eyes nearly closed, and Ryan was playing Call of Duty. The gunfire was very loud. Louder than Mum liked it.

Mum says I have to call Tony ‘Dad’, but secretly, in my head, I always say ‘Tony’ straight after, so it cancels it out.

Ryan was supposed to go to college to do Media Studies at the beginning of September. After two days he said he didn’t like it, so Tony said he could stop going. After that, he played soldier games all day long and nearly all night. When he went up each wave, he went barmy, like he was a real soldier in Afghanistan.

‘Yes! Who’s the daddy?’ he kept saying and punching my arm.

When you say that, it means you think you’re the best of anyone in the whole world at something. Ryan thought he was the best at Call of Duty.

‘Dean Shelton in my class is on the last wave,’ I told him.

‘Shut your mouth,’ he yelled. ‘Before I bleeping smack you one.’

Writing ‘bleep’ takes all the power out of swear words.

A long, long time ago, someone decided what word to use for every single thing there is. For a wooden thing you sit on, they decided that word would be CHAIR. But what if they had decided it would be called a B*****D? Then you would sit on a B*****D and call someone a CHAIR if you hated them.

‘That’s true,’ Miss Crane had said when I’d asked her about it at school. ‘It’s the meaning we attach to a word that’s important.’

When I’ve worked at the Evening Post for a bit, I want to go and work for Sky.

Sky is ‘First for Breaking News’. All the politicians want to talk to Sky first, even before the BBC.

I like Jeremy Thompson but I don’t want to present the news like him. I want to do a job like Martin Brunt.

He’s my favourite on the Sky News team.

Martin Brunt is the Crime Correspondent. He comes on when very bad stuff happens, like murders. If he lived around here, he would be down at the river now, reporting back to viewers about Jean’s friend, who was dead in the water.

The Sky News cameraman would zoom in on the rags and they’d bring criminal experts into the studio to say what kind of person might have killed the man. The experts are called ‘criminologists’. They even know what car the murderer drives and whether he still lives with his mum and dad.

In my room, I wrote down all the evidence I’d seen so far in my notebook. I did it in very small writing so I could fit it all in. ‘Evidence’ means every single thing that has happened. Sometimes on CSI, they don’t even realize something is evidence until later on. Then they look at their notes to check it out.

I wrote down all the people I’d seen that morning, even Jean. At this stage, everyone was a suspect. Really, I knew Jean hadn’t done anything because she used to be a nurse, but sometimes witnesses on Sky News said, ‘I can’t believe it – she was just an ordinary woman who lived next door.’

Jean doesn’t live anywhere. People don’t like the homeless; they say they stink and should get a job.

‘I’d like to see half of them get a job if they were starving hungry and freezing cold,’ Jean had said, when I’d told her.

Jean used to have a big house in Wollaton with her husband and her son Tim, who wanted to be a pilot. When Tim was killed in a motorbike accident, Jean started to drink so it wouldn’t hurt as much. Her husband left her and Jean lost her job.

‘I had a mental breakdown,’ she said, when we were sitting together on the embankment one day. ‘When I got better, I had no husband, no job and no house.’

That’s how Jean ended up homeless. It doesn’t mean she killed her friend.

 

The next day, I told Miss Crane all about the homeless man’s murder.

‘He might have just fallen into the water,’ Miss Crane said. ‘You mustn’t jump to conclusions.’

Falling into the water sounded boring. I felt sure Martin Brunt could find the killer.

I wrote him a letter in class.

Dear Martin Brunt,

There has been a death murder of a homeless person in our river.

The man was Jean’s friend. Can you come with your cameraman and bring the Criminology experts?

After I’ve worked at the Evening Post for a bit, I want to work with you at Sky News.

Yours sincerely, Kieran Woods Class 9

c/o Meadows Comprehensive School, Nottingham

Miss Crane was pleased I’d remembered that it’s ‘Yours sincerely’ when you know someone’s name and ‘Yours faithfully’ when you don’t. Before I put the letter in an envelope, I crossed out ‘death’ and wrote ‘murder’.

Miss Crane didn’t see me do it.

3

Evidence

When I got in from school Mum still wasn’t home, so I went straight to my room and read through my notes again to make sure that I hadn’t missed any important pieces of evidence. Then I got my sketchbook out.

I keep this hidden under the bed next to my notebook. It contains pictures I’ve drawn of stuff that some people might not want others to see.

‘Sensitive information’, Miss Crane calls it.

You can show sensitive information very well in pictures, if you are good at drawing. You don’t need words.

I’m the best at drawing in my class and the best in the whole school. I’m not even being big-headed. I can look at something once or twice, then draw it with my pencils so it looks like a photograph.

It’s easy-peasy.

I like my drawing pencils. I keep them in a special wooden box. There are twelve pencils but the matching sharpener is missing. The gold lettering on the box lid says: Graphite Pencil Sketching Set 5B–5H. I won them last year at school in a competition called ‘Best Young Artist’.

All the schools in Nottingham were in the competition.

Only the people who were good at drawing got to send a picture in.

The writer Julia Donaldson judged it. She works with an illustrator who draws awesome pictures so she knows what good drawings look like.

I won the bit of the competition for people my age and a bit older.

‘The under-sixteens category,’ said Miss Crane. There was a prize ceremony for the winners at the Council House. Mum said she’d try and get there but her and Tony had had a row and she didn’t want everyone to see her eye. When I went up on stage to get my certificate and pencil box, everyone clapped like they knew me. I pretended Mum was there and waved.

Afterwards, while the others were standing with their parents, Miss Crane stayed with me. We had a glass of pretend champagne and little bits of puffy pastry with this tasty filling in. It was brilliant.

When I got home after the ceremony, nobody was in. I sat at the kitchen table waiting for Mum, looking at my drawing and pencil box prize. I felt warm and calm inside. Then the back door opened and before I could hide my stuff, Ryan came in.

‘Let’s see,’ he said, and grabbed my picture. After a minute he asked, ‘Could you teach me to draw?’ His voice was small. I looked at him but he wasn’t grinning – he was serious.

The back door opened again and Tony stomped into the kitchen. He stopped dead in front of us.

Ryan looked at his feet. ‘I was just—’

‘Just what?’

‘Just telling him to get his stupid stuff off the table,’ Ryan said, and he swept my drawing and pencil box on to the floor.

I scrabbled to grab my stuff before Ryan could destroy it. The pencils were rolling everywhere but I managed to get them all.

When I got upstairs, I realized that the sharpener was missing. Mum helped me look for it when she got home and she even asked Tony and Ryan if they had seen it but they both said no. It was just gone.

My drawing pencils all look the same but they all have different sorts of lead to draw with. You use the really hard pencil leads for tiny detailed drawing, like eyes. The softer ones are good for filling in, like if you’re drawing the sky. The other thing that is really important when sketching is how much you push the pencil down on to your paper. Different pressures make for different shades on your drawing. It’s all very complex if you don’t know what you’re doing.

My favourite artist is a man called Laurence Stephen Lowry. People shortened it to L. S. Lowry. He was an even better drawer than me. Grandma was going to take me to see some of his real-life pictures at a gallery in Manchester. It was before she fell out with Mum and Tony.

People think Lowry just painted matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. There was even a song about it. But he didn’t. He painted all sorts of things and did fantastic sketches.

When I won the Best Young Artist competition, Miss Crane bought me a massive book called L. S. Lowry: The Art and the Artist, by T. G. Rosenthal. T. G. Rosenthal knows even more about Lowry than I do.

When Lowry’s mum died, he got very sad. He stopped painting people and dogs. He painted the sea but didn’t put any boats on the water. He painted houses that nobody lived in. They were falling to bits and sinking down into the ground.

When I look at Lowry’s An Island, it makes my tummy go all funny. In it is a big, old house that used to be grand, standing alone on a little island surrounded by water. Even though it is a house and not a person, it still looks sad and lost.

When I look at this painting, it feels like something is pressing down on my chest. I go all quiet inside, like when I’m curling up under my blanket, away from everyone.

That’s what Lowry can do to you without saying a single word.

I picked out a pencil and started to draw all the scenes of evidence from down at the river, like a comic strip, filling the page with little boxes. I drew Jean like one of Lowry’s matchstick characters. She got to be in every box.

Ryan’s video game was booming downstairs. I could tell if he had shot someone or detonated a bomb by the different noises. While I was drawing, I thought about Mrs Cartwright next door. She has ulcerated legs so can’t get upstairs. She even sleeps in her living room, which is joined on to ours, so she can never escape Ryan’s noise.

I wanted to draw some pictures of Tony and Ryan in the living room. Ryan would be playing on his game and Tony would be half asleep. Neither of them would see the pack of wild dogs sneaking in at the door. There would be Japanese Akitas, pit bulls and Dobermanns. The dogs would pounce on them both at the same time.

No one would be able to hear Tony and Ryan screaming because of the loud noise of the Xbox. Not even Mrs Cartwright.

The dogs would rip them both to shreds and eat them. Later, when the dogs were gone, I would sneak downstairs and clean up. When Mum came home, she’d be glad it was just me and her again, with no one to upset her. She wouldn’t even be bothered they’d both been eaten.

I saved the pictures in my head to draw another day, and concentrated on the murder instead.

I drew from when I first got down to the river and saw Jean crying on the bench, to the divers getting the body out of the water. It took up two full pages of my sketchpad.

When I was finished, I had very detailed notes and drawings.

I had remembered all the little bits of evidence. I packed matchstick people into the scenes, but I kept the background white like Lowry mostly did and just drew the river and close-ups of where the murder took place. This would make any clues much easier to spot.

Martin Brunt was going to be very pleased.


Excerpted from Smart by Kim Slater. Copyright © 2014 by Kim Slater.
First published 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.