The policeman bent down and scooped up the large, tattered book off the ground where it lay dismally next to the tiny, murky puddle. Rain shattered the distorted image in the water; however it had slowed considerably, now just a gentle patter against the cold, stone ground. The emaciated girl had swiftly disappeared around the corner; he had no hope of finding her now. So with nothing better to do, he flipped open the faded, crimson leather cover and began to read…
My name's Jennifer Isobel Hame. My friends call me Jenna. I'm 12 exactly; it's my birthday today.
Reluctantly waking up at about 7:00 am, I wriggled out from under my scarlet duvet and swung my legs on to the white carpeted floor. I love my room; white walls and floor, purple curtains, ruby bedding, turquoise chair, multi-coloured rug; plus all of the amazing retro pictures that filled the walls.
Scurrying out on to the cramped landing, I paused for a moment at the top of the stairs. Forced whispers echoed up to me.
"I'm going to give her the big presents. It's only fair. You can give her some of the little ones." My mum hissed.
"Not likely." My dad snapped back. "You always give her the main ones, why can't I?"
"I give her them because I buy them." I began to tip-toe inaudibly down the stairs.
"Yeah, using the money that I earn, all you do is go pick the stuff up from the shop. I would do that, only I work, unlike you." My dad retaliated, his voice cold as stone.
"I'm still giving her them."
"Why don't you both give me the presents?" I suggested, casually stepping through the shadowed doorway. They clearly hadn't seen me there, as my mum hastily grabbed my glass and pressed it into my hand, and my dad threw me the tin of biscuits and they both started wittering about how that was their intention all along.
I ripped the purple wrapping off the first present. It was a pretty bracelet- silver chain with pale blue, silver and lilac beads. Cute, but I wouldn't wear it. Next were 2 necklaces, then jeans, a t-shirt and a new bag. Hair bobbles, pencils, socks and a phone case, then the last one. I ripped off the paper. It was a cap, all black, with a thin purple band around the bottom and a plum coloured J inside a navy star. I loved it.
At school my friends gave me cards, presents and endless smiles. I accepted them courteously, but there was nothing I really wanted. There never was. Honestly, all I really wanted was for my family to be whole again, but that was never going to happen.
We drew a family tree in class today. Huge, stiff, sheets of paper, with special black pens that ran really smooth against the crisp paper; I guess some people's would have looked stunning. However mine was just a smirched scribble.
I was at the bottom of my tree, my mum and dad in the branches above me. On my mum's side, my grandma and granddad, whose warm house always smelt of baking, and a great aunt, who had a very narrow face with a long pointed noise and stern expression. Then there was a great uncle and another great aunt, as well as a great grandma who used to be a head teacher, author, historian and archaeologist all at once.
On my dad's side were his parents, who would always give me money when I saw them, alongside his sister and his brother, Joe, who was always laughing and joking. My great-grandparents, who I saw a couple of times in the nursing home, very frail, yet optimistic too. Also, I had a great uncle, who travelled all over the world, with his wife and son.
At that moment my tree was looking quite good, even though the writing was rushed and there was a large smudge down the right hand side. Then my teacher told us to put a neat line through everyone who had died. So I did.
This left me, mum and dad in our little triangle at the bottom of the page.
I wandered around the busy shopping precinct today, with some of the girls from my class. I'd have rather gone out on my tarnished bike, feel the frosty breeze biting at my face, see the towering, emerald and jade trees rush past me, hear nothing apart from the whirring of the wheels and the secluded call of a thrush as it pin wheeled across the sky. However I had promised Rhia I'd go last week, and I can't bear letting people down.
After a while I said I'd buy everyone a drink, so we headed back uptown. That's when I saw him. Slumped against the hard wall, with red rings under his eyes from sleep deprivation, there was a boy, about 15; his thin jacket was wrapped tightly around him to block the harsh, cutting wind. His fraught olive eyes met my own curious brown ones, and suddenly I wasn't outside shops on a spring day.
It was autumn; cold, dreary and wet. The forlorn sky gazed forebodingly down, and dense, charcoal clouds loomed over the horizon. I was 6 years old, following my aunt as she walked me back home. I jumped off the kerb, splashing in to a puddle, and my aunt sighed, grabbing my wrist as she strode across the road.
That was when the car came screaming round the corner. Long and black, it snarled forwards towards us, and it wasn't slowing. My aunt pushed me forwards, out of the way. The car swerved. She grabbed my shoulders. Then she yanked me backwards. The vehicle skidded left; left towards me. It slammed in to me. I flew backwards. The concrete was hard, but I barely noticed as I thudded on to the ground. My leg was on fire, my arm throbbed and my skull had been torn open.
A boy, only a few years older than me, was the first person I saw. He yelled at everyone to move back, to call the ambulance, then the police. Smiling, he reassured me that everything would be fine. But it wasn't. My eyes darted around frantically, his dark hair, warm eyes, and the scar that ripped down his right cheek.
The scar I was looking at again 6 years later.
A flash of recognition flashed in his own eyes as he took in my long red hair, which still spiralled frenetically down my back. I looked down at the crumpled note clutched in my hand. The money I was going to spend on myself, on something I didn't really need. Or want. The money that he clearly so desperately needed.
I pressed the money in to his rough hand.
Ella glanced at me, her ice blue eyes pierced with suspicion. "Wasn't that the money you were buying our drinks with?" She flicked her silky black hair impatiently, her tone spiteful, slicing through the air like a sugared knife through butter.
"He needs it more than we do." I state simply, annoyed by her egotism. Pulling another note out of my pocket I bought their drinks, still ruminating over the boy, whose name I don't know.
Today has been a disaster, to put it simply. But I think it will help to write it down, so here goes nothing.
The light flicked on in the downstairs window as I vaulted up the concrete steps to the vibrant cerulean door. My mum called me through to the sweeping, pale kitchen, where she was stood by the granite worktop below one of the low, mahogany beams on the curved ceiling.
She smiled as I strolled in, stepping elegantly on to the smooth black tiled floor. "Hey honey," she announced, smiling, "can you run down to the shop and grab me a few carrots for dinner? There's a bit of money on the table; take that." I nodded, and ambled through to the front room. Scooping the coins up and in to my pocket, I hollered a goodbye, making sure my dad, who I could hear clumping around upstairs, would hear too.
Slipping outside, I sauntered round the shop leisurely. Taking my time, I meandered back along hectic streets to my home… which was on fire.
Glowing, incandescent, ruby fingers clawed at the charred walls and spirals of thick, charcoal smoke surged up, clouding the crisp azure sky. A window crumpled as a brilliant flash of orange spun outwards; the blaze cackled as it burst out of the crumbling chimney. Sirens wailed in the distance. Crowds of people gawped up at the fierce flames ripping the building to shreds, nudging, muttering, pointing, gasping. Angrily, I stormed past them all, pausing faintly at the splintered gatepost, the ferocious heat beating against my face, the intense smell of burning acrid and bitter. Fire-fighters swarmed forwards, hoses armed to battle the violent inferno.
But they were too late.
With a disconsolate sigh, my beautiful home collapsed in a shower of fiery sparks; leaving me alone. "NO!" shrieked a voice. "NO!" It was my voice, cracking at the end as I crumpled to the hard floor. "No, leave it, leave it alone," I wailed miserably. A rubber hand was on my arm, lifting me up and away from the still burning house.
I began to kick at him. Why was he taking me away - who was he to decide where was best for me? "Leave me alone!" I reached down, and bit his wrist, my fists still pummelling against his chest. Clamping my jaw down hard on his hand, he finally released me. I tore forward, but found myself being thrust backwards. Urgently I tried to press on, but to no avail.
Police arrived, shunting the crowd away. They began to tape off the area, lead people in neighbouring houses away as they surveyed the house for any signs of danger. Somehow I found myself in a car, a police woman watching me concernedly out of the corner of her eye. After a while we stopped and I was ushered in to a room.
Then an arm circled around me, spinning me round. "Hello, Jennifer, I'm your new social worker. My name's Christina Hatria, I'm here to help you." My eyes darted this way and that anxiously, only taking in dyed blonde hair and tall, stiletto heels. "Come on, everything is going to be fine. We'll soon get you sorted in a nice new home and…"
New home. New family. New future. Same past.
Numbly, I let Christina lead me in to a car, away to the children's home. A stop for the night, she explained, until they sort something more permanent.
So now here I am, sat in a strange room with white walls and white bedding on a hard bed. Pink curtains are hung at the window, a blue rug on the floor. I can hear voices drifting from the room next to me, and also from downstairs.
And I feel more alone than I have ever been in my life.
My life has been a lie.
I don't think I even knew who my parents were, and know they're gone and it's too late to find out. I'll never know who they really were.
I awoke in the morning, and I was confused. Stiff sheets covered me, and light filtered through rosy curtains and bounced off a cracked mirror on an old, crooked wardrobe. Off-white walls were chipped and there was a patch of damp lazily crawling down near a crevice in the ceiling. A threadbare rug lay dismally on top of the notched floor.
Then it hit me. A wave of grief, crashing down over me and sweeping me away in a tide of wretchedness, as melancholy memories consumed me. The leering conflagration, gloating as it tore apart my home. My mum and dad, my entire family, lost as my house caved in; alongside everything I had ever known.
So I cried. Not quietly, no, these were great big racking sobs which shook my whole body. Tears flooded down my face, a waterfall, splashing against the wood, soaking in to the rigid cotton. I curled up in a ball, so tight, and when there were no more tears, I just moaned, whimpering as a hand stroked my back. But it offered no comfort, no love.
I uncoiled and found myself gazing at a middle aged man, dark hair, streaked with grey, thinning, pale blue eyes concerned. I coughed self-consciously, and he led me to the bathroom at the end of the corridor. Faces peered out at me, gaping as they watched the newbie stumble past.
In the bathroom, I waited until the patter of footsteps on the rickety stairs told me the man had gone, and then slumped on to the floor, leaning my cheek against the freezing porcelain. This time, the tears streamed silently down my face. I crouched there, arm around my knees, hand stroking the avocado tiles, eyes, red and puffy, squeezed tightly shut.
After a while, I arose carefully. Twisting the tap sharply, I splashed cold water on to my face, freezing, invigorating on my skin. The reflection in the mirror was appalling. Depressed auburn ringlets hung limply, the face was pale and drawn. Huge rings gathered underneath distant eyes, and the shoulders were hunched defensively. Thin lips tightened in a disapproving scowl, and then stretched in to an awkward grimace, a half-hearted attempt at a smile.
It looked nothing like me.
Sighing, I trudged down the stairs, hoping for some food. I paused at a heavy oak door, which was slightly ajar, listening to the voices that were drifting towards me.
"I still don't see what all the fuss is about," grumbled a low, male voice. "She's just a kid."
"It's because of her father." Another man answered. His tone was vaguely familiar - he was the man who had been with me when I cried. Were they talking about me?
"So?" The first person hissed back. "I'm sure a worldwide terrorist organisation has better things to do than chase after little girls."
"Well, MI5 thought he was safe, and they managed to kill him, didn't they?"
"That's different. He was a spy, wasn't he? They probably had reasons to kill him." A chair squeaked across the floor. "All I can say is that I'll be glad when she's gone. One night she's been here for, and the police have been in touch already. One bloody night."
I barely noticed the sounds of footsteps approaching the door, too intrigued by their bizarre conversation. The tug on the brass handle centimetres from my fingers alerted me to the fact that one of the men was coming out. Hurriedly, I darted in to the next door room, at the same time as he came out. Fortunately, he strolled past me, whistling a jerky tune. I slumped against the door, bewildered.
Could they have been talking about me? And if so, why were they mentioning the police? Or MI5? Also, what was that about the terrorist group? My dad wasn't a spy. Was he?
I have been allowed the whole week off school, my social worker says. Christina claims she understands how emotional I feel, how traumatic all of this must have been for me. I was actually beginning to believe her, think that she genuinely understood what I was going through.
Until she announced she had to go meet her family for lunch.
No one could possibly even begin to wonder at how I feel, until they have lost their entire family too; NO one. How dare she stand there, sugary smile on her face, babbling on about how it's okay, she knows it will be okay, that she's here to help, always there, and whatever problems I have, to come talk to her, because she'll know what to do. How can she possibly comprehend? How can she stand there and say she empathises with me…
…Because unless she's a mind reader, she can't.
I don't even know what to think of the situation myself. My whole life has vanished, disappeared in front of my eyes like a wisp of smoke scattered by the breeze. And underneath it all, the fact that perhaps there was something my parents weren't telling me, a little fact they were trying to hide.
My dad wasn't a spy. I knew where he worked- he was an office worker, employed by a small printing company called Rebound Printing. He said they published magazines. He said he was assistant manager in market research there. That the reason he was sometimes gone for a week or so every now and again was so that he could take part in meetings.
He never mentioned the names of the magazines they published. Neither did he inform me as to where the Rebound Printing Offices were. Or where he even went when he left for those important meetings, or why he had to go to them in the first place.
He also never mentioned the mysterious scar on his back.
They came today.
I was waiting patiently in my room, although what I was waiting for I don't know. I was just waiting. Then a bang on the front door; a heavy boot walloping against the old wood, as voices yelled, both inside and out, frantically. Someone had let them in, and they began to storm all over the place. They must have been armed, because I heard someone scream for them to drop the gun.
That was when they announced they were here for me.
A man began to proclaim in a bored, yet demanding, tone, who they were. "We are ARMY- an organisation Against Religious Mind-set in Youths. We think every child has a mind of their own, a right to what they believe."
There was a babble of uneasy chatter, including someone asking why they were here. "For Jennifer Hale; her father, John Hale has caused great damage to our group after breaking in to steal some confidential files."
"But you killed her dad. She has nothing to do with this."
"Unfortunately, my colleagues did kill John before he was able to tell us where the files were being kept. We believe the girl knows, so, if you'd excuse us…"
Footsteps sounded on the stairs. I turned and ran, to the only place I could think of: the loft. I had found it by accident; I had been wandering through the area that was out of bounds to us kids, when I scrambled up the stairs and through the creaky door to the loft, releasing a cascade of dust. Coughing, I had clambered up in to the tiny space, and pulled back a huge sheet to reveal a large cupboard shrouding a pile of old bedding. The loft was cold, but wrapped in stale blankets, I was warm, and peaceful, too. A good place to hide when it got too noisy or they were calling you for the dinner you never wanted.
But now it was my hiding place for a totally different reason.
Curled up in the cupboard (which I had carefully lain the canvas back over) I doubted they would find me here. Yes, they might look up in to the loft, but would they really expect anyone to be behind the canvas, which looked like it was covering the wall like a bare tapestry, as the cupboard was set into the plaster. Besides, you would have to wade through boxes to get here, and you could hardly see it through the practically non-existent light.
Nonetheless, I lay with my head in my knees, biting anxiously on my lip. The metallic taste of blood spread across my tongue, but I was too nervous to stop. Then I heard the resigning rasp as the door opened. My heart pounded hard in my chest, the once reassuring thump now too loud; a cause for concern.
A gruff voice swore as he tripped over a cardboard box. Stiff as a statue, I crouched, stationary, my eyes wide open. I didn't even breathe, for fear it would be heard by the man, who was presumably scanning the room. He moved forwards, through the boxes, but stopped on the squeaky floorboard in the centre, the loose one that tips precariously when someone stands on it.
"All right!" his booming voice resonated clearly in the motionless air. "There's no-one up here."
And they left. Just like that, they were gone.
With my dazed mind still struggling to comprehend exactly what had just happened, I made my way out of the cupboard. Numbly, I strolled down the corridor, but stopped dead when I heard the voices.
"I'm going to kill her. £1000 I paid them, and we've still got to find the blasted kid before tomorrow or they'll kill us anyway. I told you she was more trouble than she was bloody worth."
"You're not actually going to hand her over are you? I mean, it's not like she's done anything wrong."
"What else am I supposed to do? Dying a hero has never been a lifetime ambition of mine."
"You could go to the police." The second man suggested quietly.
"Yeah, great good that would do," he scoffed acerbically.
Once again I fled, back up the now familiar stairs, in to the musty cupboard, where I sat and waited, ignoring the shouts and chaotic hustle from below as they searched for me, long in to the dark and desolate night.
I've done something dreadful; something awful. Something that is so horribly, completely terrible, and that is so unspeakable and horrific.
Today I killed three people.
Three people are dead, because of me. Not one, not even two. Three people, whose families will be sat consoling one another as I speak; three people, who'll never smile or laugh again; three people, vanished from this world, forever. Never to walk home again in the rain, or watch the sun rise from behind the hill down the road. Never to amble down the muddy lanes in the cold winter, or stroll along the golden sand underneath the sparkling summer sun. Never to stumble along in the moonlight, or see their family's faces light up in delight.
It was pitch black still when I arose, padding lightly down to my room. There I grabbed my black leather jacket and slipped it on over my too big, borrowed cerise t-shirt. I was already wearing a pair of jeans but the only shoes I had were my school shoes. Whisking my hair up onto my head, I rammed my cap on over it, thus hiding my hair. Red was too vibrant a hair colour.
Shoving a hoodie in to my bag, I realised the only things that were really mine were my jacket, shoes and bag, and of course my black and purple cap, all of which I'd been wearing when I arrived. My school uniform was no use to me now.
Scooping up my purse, I trotted downstairs, to make a great find; some trainers, just one size too big, broken in just right but fairly new too. Even better was the scrumpled note I found in the toe. Adding that to the money I already had - a grand total of £32.76. Not much, but better than nothing. Swapping my shoes, I dumped my black pumps in to my backpack.
In the tiny kitchen, I bundled up fruit, bread, cheese, ham and biscuits. Stealing a pair of thick socks from the laundry basket, I slung my bag over my back and crept, silently, stealthily from the house and on to the streets. Road after road, slab after slab, stone after stone, I marched on, never looking back.
Eventually the inky black sky lightened, orange and cerise streaks highlighting dense lavender clouds. I found an alley, crouching behind a skip as I unfastened my rucksack and examined the contents. Scrabbling around, I made a mental list slowly in my mind, ordering the dancing thoughts in to a neat column. There was:
- Two apples
- An orange
- Three small bread rolls
- Half a pack of digestive biscuits
- Two packets of crisps
- A wedge of cheese
- A few slices of ham
- A pack of mints
- A bottle of water
- My purse (containing £32.76, and a picture of my parents that I stroked gently before placing back carefully.)
- A hoodie
- My school shoes
Then I also had the clothes I was wearing. That was it. But then again, all considering, I guess it was quite a lot. Peering in to the skip, I found an old fleece blanket that had a rip in it, which I wrapped around myself, leaned against the wall behind me, and, exhausted, I drifted off to sleep.
It was late evening when I awoke, rain drizzling, the world grey. But my head was clearer than it had been in the children's home, especially when that ARMY people had been there.
The ARMY people. I twisted up, and leapt to my feet. The man had said they would be back today, to get me or they would kill someone. That's what they had said. Ramming the blanket and the cap in to my bag, I yanked my hood up and jogged off down the road. My intention was to head back to the home myself, but that turned out to be a futile idea when I discovered that I was completely lost.
Staggering around the streets randomly, eventually I found myself in the town centre, the now heavy rain pounding against the concrete. Barging in to the police station, I told the receptionist everything. When I'd finished, she nodded politely, then indicated for me to take a seat, whilst she turned back to her computer and looked something up. The woman glanced up at me, her expression unreadable. She stood up and leaned through a door calling for someone.
A tall police officer peered through the doorway scanning my face. Instinctively I turned my gaze downwards, bewildered as to what was going on. It was only when the officer wandered through and tapped my shoulder gently when I realised.
"Jennifer Hame? This way please." He stepped away and held the door open for me.
I spun away and dashed out into the rain.
What was I thinking, going to a police station? I'd just run away! They were bound to be people out looking for me, and I'd walked slap bang into the middle of it. I was pounding down the street now, past my school, the park, the crumbling stone fountain with the neatly carved dolphins and lovingly swirled waves.
I was almost there. I could see it there, halfway down the street, the ugly bricks towering high, squat columns holding up the roof of the porch. I could smell the scent of tasteless food; feel the unnerving atmosphere; taste the sadness and melancholy that engulfed it. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a police car zooming behind me. But none of that mattered. I was here.
The sound of the bullet stopped me in dead in my tracks. Again, a sharp, cruel sound as the bullet was spat out of the gun, flew across the room, and embedded itself into someone, stealing their life, laughing at their pain. This was my fault.
Police charged the stairs, their own guns raised, and there was yelling, lots of yelling. Over the raucous I thought I heard a scream, a child's scream; a scream that only young girl who fears for their life could make. Then that scream was cut off short.
Numbly, I stumbled away, down random streets and alleyways. The night was creeping up on me, and I was shivering uncontrollably, but I continued on, not letting myself focus on what had just happened. The moon sat, a perfect circle, in the wide sky, taunting me, chuckling at my mistakes. His snide sneer spread crookedly across his face, his eyes hard and malicious. Shadows leapt up at me, dancing around on the walls, cackling and rejoicing at my failure. I tripped, and just lay there on the ground, wishing it would open and swallow me whole.
That was when I heard it, the radio in the car that drove past me and parked further down the street. It was a news bulletin. "So, our main story today is that the organization ARMY has broken in to a children's home and killed three people, one victim a girl of just 6." The news reporter announced. "ARMY are a group that protests against "religious mind-set in youths". They believe that a child has the right to choose what religion they want to follow. They are based in the Middle East, and march in vicious protests that sweep through cities, destroying homes. Whilst they have good beliefs, the way they present this is horrific.
So what were they doing here? Well details are being kept a secret at the moment, but surely this must be connected to Jennifer Hame, who was reported missing from this same care home late last night. The victim's names have not yet been released, but we have been told that two were workers at the home, whilst one, as I said earlier, was a girl who was being looked after there. She was just 6…"
My head spun. I remembered the younger kids, with their doe-eyed expressions, and little mouths that would spread into a huge grin when they were passed a sweet. One of them was dead. A concerned voice floated down to me. "Hello? Can you hear me?" I sensed a couple of people huddled on the street beside me. There was a shuffle, before someone stepped away, the silhouette illuminated by the scowling moon, clutching a phone to their ear.
"Ambulance is coming." They called over.
No. I had to go. A gentle hand tried to press me back down again, but I yanked away and was off, my feet pounding at the ground, legs a blur, head dizzy. But soon the world was morphing in to black claws at the edges of my vision, and I crumpled to the ground.
I honestly don't know what to do. And as I sit here, pondering over my next move, my provisions are rapidly disappearing. I've still got all my money though, I guess.
When I awoke, I found myself flaked out behind a cluster of bins. My hands and knees are grazed, but it is the large cut on my chin that worries me the most. I might have sliced it open when I fell in the street, but most probably when I dived behind here, as I spotted a shard of glass sprouting from the wall, whose tip flaunted a glimmer of dried blood.
Tearing a strip of fabric away from the lining of my bag, I wrapped it round as a sort of bandage, securing it tightly. Munching through a packet of crisps, I also scoffed a couple of mints and half of my water. However the water wasn't a big issue - there were several fountains in the park with drinkable water.
It turned out I didn't make it far last night, the alley I was in led off from the street I collapsed in. That street was just four roads down from the children's home.
Hoisting my backpack up on to my shoulders, I set off in search of a better hiding place. As the day wore on the rain grew stronger, lashing down from heavy clouds. Eventually, as I tottered down a back street, I found an abandoned warehouse. Climbing the frozen, metal steps around the back, I forced open a fire door and entered my new home.
I found myself on a wide balcony that surrounded the lower loading bay beneath me. A rusty forklift truck, that had clearly seen better days, sat, deserted, in the centre of the vast, void space. But it was warmer than out there, and it sheltered me from the wind and rain too, so it was good enough for me.
Lying down on top of a neat stack of flattened boxes, I wrenched the blanket from my bag, enveloped it snugly around me, and then deposited my bag on to the floor. It was the safest I had felt in what seemed like ages.
I need to find out more about my dad. Find out more about ARMY too. I need to find out what exactly I'm facing.
Hauling my large bag along with me too, I traipsed to the public library to research ARMY. There wasn't that much about them, except that they were based in Pakistan, led violent, armed protests involving smashing windows, throwing weapons and threatening those not wanting to support them. Also they were only a small group, but were rapidly growing.
Then I looked up Rebound Printing, the place where my dad worked. Again not much, the first thing I clicked on was a dull dreary website in monochromatic shades of grey. It was full of tiny writing, with no pictures at all. Not exactly what you would expect from something that's trying to advertise.
There were a couple of other sites, but most of them seemed to be encrypted files. Nowhere could I find out where they were based.
Aggravated, I stormed out of the building and trudged through the rain. Finally, soaked to the skin, I reached the warehouse and crawled back inside. Peeling off my coat, I switched my drenched t-shirt with the jumper from my bag, and then put on the woolly socks. I wrapped the blanket around me; lay my wet clothes out to dry, before curling up in a ball, soon to drift off to a light sleep.
I've never been afraid of lightning until now.
It's a colossal storm out there; titanic gusts of winds that scream like banshees; thick, pounding rain that beats the ground in a fast and ferocious dance; angry rolls of thunder, growling menacingly, that are accompanied by massive beams of lightening that illuminate the horizon and shower the sky with hot white light that grins malevolently.
Silently I watch this from behind my frail window, studying the sky for any signs that it's stopping. But it doesn't, it just keeps going, a never ending cycle of soft patters, broken by resonating booms; of perpetual grey, dotted by bright white. And slowly, slowly, my food stores get lower and lower, as I nibble almost constantly, my eyes on the weather, my hands on the snacks.
By nightfall, I just have a few biscuits left, an apple and some mints. But water, that was a different matter entirely. Forget having just a little left, there was no water in sight. Only a single drop, rolling around the bottom of the bottle, refused to come out. It merely sat there, taunting me, easily sliding down halfway only to stop just out of reach.
My mouth was dry, ever so dry, and the back of my tongue just wouldn't go moist. Twisting uncomfortably, I crouched, my hands over my ears to block out the storm, swallowing persistently, chewing desperately on the last of my mints.
The storm had cooled down today, however rain still slashed down and jumped off the concrete, twirling through the air to a furious beat. I had to venture out though, as I had no water and next to no food either. Drenched, I eventually reached the water fount in the park after sliding across slippy mud and soggy, dismal grass. After gulping down some of the icy liquid, I sighed in relief as it coursed down my throat, swilling round and coating everything in beautiful moistness.
Filling my bottle, I jogged towards a little café, where I squelched in noisily, stamping my feet on the dishevelled mat. It was empty, except for an old couple who glanced over in my direction, looking disapprovingly at my wet clothing. I shuffled over to the counter and, smiling politely, ordered a hot meal of eggs, beans and sausages, alongside a cup of hot chocolate. Handing over the money regretfully, I slumped at a table, fiddling with the salt sachets.
But when the meal came, it was more than worth the money. Whilst the egg wasn't perfect, the toast was slightly burnt on top, and the hot chocolate was the bitter-sweet sort, rich and creamy at first but getting more bitter as you went down (the dredges being so acrid that the scowl they put on your face is in fear of staying there permanently), it was one of my favourite meals ever.
Meals; I've never really thought about my favourite meals. I guess one would be my 8th birthday. I had invited everyone, and we ate at an extremely long table in a private room at this hotel. There was lots of laughter and chatting, and everyone was happy and had a great time. I would never have had such a huge birthday if it wasn't for my mum; I preferred smaller things, or, if I could, no party at all. But my friends and classmates all got along terrific, and they all had a fabulous time, which was the important part.
Another time would be once, when I was really small, just four or so, at my grandma's house. It was just before my granddad passed away and the food was amazing, especially the huge homemade trifle for pudding.
However my favourite meal has to be just last year. My parents had stopped rowing just a few days before, and now it was their anniversary. My mum had presented my dad with a massive pile of books that morning, and he had smiled secretively when she asked why he hadn't got her anything. But when she got home, a scattered trail of crimson rose petals led up to the bathroom, where a hot bath waited. A new black dress was laid out on her bed, and in the kitchen, amidst the giant bouquet of roses and the delicate, shimmering light from the candles, the table was set for two. My dad handed me a bowl of curry, and I scurried out in to the front room. Although the food was delicious, my favourite part was watching my mum and dad, seeing how happy they were together, and hoping that they could work things out for each other. They looked as though they were in heaven, and it was great to see them smile again. Even though things didn't work out that well- they started arguing again the next week- I was glad they got to taste that tiny piece of paradise. They deserved it.
I woke with a start. Down below, there was thuds and whirs, the sound of chatter and footsteps. I peered cautiously over the railings to see the forklift truck reversing with a huge stack of boxes. Another truck was being driven out, carrying the flattened boxes that adorned the balcony I was sat on. People scurried around, and a man clutching an expensive phone to his ear yelled orders over his shoulder.
It seemed my abandoned warehouse wasn't so abandoned.
Flinging my bag over my back, I ran behind a huge stack of boxes. Cramming everything in to my backpack, I peered around the cardboard to survey the scene. No way was I getting out of here unnoticed. Juggling between staying or going, I crouched, unnoticed for about 10 minutes, when the boxes were suddenly snatched from before me, and I found myself staring at the bewildered face of a worker.
In his surprise, he dropped the boxes, swore, and called his friend over. "What is it now, Joe?" A large, balding man stumbled over. Joe pointed at me, reaching for my arm. I ducked, hurdled over a bag, and darted through the fire escape door. Clattering noisily down the iron steps, I turned to see that Joe and his colleague had appeared at the top, and they were shouting for someone to call the police. Joe began to descend, so I turned tail and headed for the road.
My feet hammering hard against the ground, I sprinted down the first few streets, before slowing to a brisk stroll. The sun glistened off the rippled puddles, sparkling magnificently against the black tarmac. A chilly breeze swirled gently across the warm air. The sky was that pale, cornflower blue colour, the weak sun floating helplessly in the centre.
I wandered, aimlessly, around the town, stopping at lunch for a cheese and tomato sandwich from a small baker's off the high street. The warm scent of freshly baked bread and sweet pastries had clouded the air in the shop, making me feel slightly drowsy yet happy. Browsing the shop windows, I kept my cap rammed firmly over my hair, the peak pulled down to cover my eyes.
The bustling crowds surged this way and that, pouring in to shops, streaming out of doorways. Some hurried past impatiently, laden with bulging bags, strutting swiftly along, whilst others loitered about, gazing in to windows, hovering near doors. Cars zoomed past, splashing through deep puddles, showering the dismal kerb with mud and filth as they blasted their horns irascibly.
Birds swooped gracefully overhead, darting this way and that, their plaintive calls ringing through the air. The noise got quieter as the day wore on, and soon there was silence apart from an occasional rumble of a car's engine as it prowled along the road. With the moon a shining silver coin in the dark sky, I turned and began to pace down the streets, before finding an alley that would be my home for the night.
With food non-existent, and a new found reluctance to use warehouses as homes, I decided the next step was to buy some food. I needed it, not only to ease the grumblings of my stomach, but also because yesterday during my walk around the town I had to stop several times and sit down due to dizziness.
I needed all my strength if I was going to work out what really happened to my dad.
So I headed over to the supermarket just off the town centre. It was fairly quiet, and I breezed casually round the aisles, dented, rusty basket in my hand, cap pulled right down over my forehead. Hurriedly chucking various items in to the basket, and with my eyes on the neat lines of printed prices tucked beneath the food, I didn't see her until it was almost too late. Meandering round the corner came…
Startled, I froze, fingers clutching at crisps I had been about to scoop up. She dawdled along, pausing directly across the aisle from me. Ducking my head, I swiftly snagged the snacks, and strode briskly away, trying to be inconspicuous as I could.
Marching to the tills, I handed over the coins miserably. But at least I had food now. Feeling someone's presence behind me, I turned to find that my teacher was now stood behind me, chatting cheerfully to a young man next to her. I snatched the receipt from the startled till operator, grabbed my bags and raced for the exit. Skidding to a stop at the main road, I waited impatiently for a break in the cars.
Eventually I was able to dart across, just avoiding a clunky lime car that beeped reproachfully as it zoomed past. At the top of the street I turned, but she was nowhere to be seen. Thankful at not having been spotted I continued on until I reached the park.
Here I perched on a shabby bench whose paintwork (once upon a time) would probably have been a nice, bright green, but years of wear had caused the paint to crack, peel away and darken to blackened splatters that were dispersed across the brittle wood. I started to count my money, careful not to drop any of the precious coins. There was £19.82 left. A week's worth of food. What was I going to do when it was all gone? How was I going to survive? Would it be better just to go back to the police station? Or was I just going to have to find some other way of getting food?
Today was so scary.
It was dawn. The sun was beginning its long climb across the leaden sky, creating long, pale shadows that crawled eerily across the ashy landscape. The black of the night had been replaced by a gloomy grey; it smothered everything, vacuuming away all the colours.
I awoke to the sound of a gunshot.
The bullet bounced off the pile of chipped bricks that I was resting my head on. Alarmed, I leapt to my feet. There was a semi-circle of men blocking the alley. Their guns were pointed at me. I grabbed my bag and tossed it over my back.
"We don't want to hurt you," one man stated, his black jacket bulky, "but we will if we have too."
"Just come with us," the one on the far-right, with thick, floppy hair, wore a synthetically sweet smile. "We only want to talk." Despite the heat of the moment I started laughing. I honestly can't say why. This fake, hollow sound just erupted from my mouth, completely unlike my normal laugh.
"Of course you do," I replied sharply.
That was when I threw myself up the wall. My frozen fingers locked in to position, clutching the top. Pushing my feet off the wall - where they were dangling half-way up - I arduously heaved myself up. Straddling the top, I saw bulky jacket take aim. The bullet streaked towards me: before implanting itself in my leg.
The pain was overwhelming. Hot, white and ferocious, it shot up my body, arcing across my vision. Unfocused, I wobbled precariously. I was now even more unbalanced, my whole body tilting almost horizontally. Someone must have tried to grab me, because their fingertips brushed the rubber sole of my trainer. I jerked my foot back. I toppled over. I hit the ground… hard.
With a sickening thud, I banged against the ground, rolling over as I landed. Groaning, I peeled my face away from the mud, and looked up at someone's house. It was a simple two-storey, terraced brick house that had now been converted in to flats. There was a smashed window, boarded up with cardboard, in the ground floor flat, and a dying tulip was perched on the windowsill of the right hand side first floor window. A rickety shed stood by the patio that lay just a few centimetres away. On my other side lay an unkempt flowerbed that held the remains of a rose bush, thorns grinning at me.
I was lucky I had landed on the grass- the thorns would have scratched me, maybe even tearing my cut further open. And if I had landed on the concrete, I'd have a broken arm or leg…or worse.
A thump on the other side of the wall alerted me to the fact that the men were trying to get over. I had to move. Fast.
Jumping to my feet, I lurched forwards, blood dripping from my aching leg. My head spinning, I stumbled forwards, gazing queasily at the small pool of crimson blood from where I had been laid. I clambered on to a ripped trampoline, hauling myself over the fence. Here there was a side path around to the front of the house, where I clumsily unlatched the gate and staggered along the street.
Across a busy road, I found myself in the dense woodland at the edge of the park. Curling up at the base of a tree, I pulled the blanket out of my bag, wrapping it tightly around my leg. After knotting the fabric, I closed my eyes. The branches of a nearby, overgrown bush provided cover, so hopefully the men wouldn't find me here, tucked away awkwardly in this cramped corner.
I sit a wary distance from the flickering fire, my injured leg propped up on a shabby velvet stool. He holds his hands close to the flames, twisting them to catch the heat, his fingers fluttering softly, as delicate as a butterfly's wings. I watch him curiously, a thousand questions itching to escape, but I keep them locked away. His face is in shadow, but I know his piercing eyes are focused on me, watching me like I am watching him, like a hawk following its prey.
He had found me, curled up at the gnarly base of a tree, and carried me to the nearby housing estate where he was living in an abandoned council house. I had been lying by the tree for hours- it had been 7 o'clock yesterday evening when he had discovered me- and my hands had been turning blue with cold.
When we arrived at the house, I was still asleep. He cleaned my wound and dressed it with a new bandage made from cotton ripped off a spare sheet in the airing cupboard. Then he left me in the small bed, with its grubby sheet, thin duvet and broken mattress. I had slept right through the night, waking at midday, to find myself in a strange room, sunlight squeezing through a crack in the panels that covered the solitary window on the wall opposite.
I was lucky, he said, and smart too. If I hadn't had wrapped the blanket round my leg I would probably have bled to death, which is not exactly reassuring when the wound is still dripping now. That's forgetting the fact that it has swollen so now it's massive, and the skin around it has come out in a splotchy red rash.
But for the first time since fleeing the care home, I could spend the night in a warm house, with a working oven and a bathroom- much nicer than the public ones I had been using recently. Also I had found someone else, someone else like me, I think. I glanced over at the boy by the fire.
The boy who had saved my life twice.
Yet all I had given him in return was a measly £10 note. I still didn't know his name, although he knew mine, as he had called me by it after I had just woken up. I was puzzled as to where he had got my name from, until he smiled and said it was emblazoned on the front of the local newspaper.