She was running - great slapping steps thundering along the pavement. Her lungs were raw and heaving, scoured by ragged breaths that left the taste of blood lingering at the back of her throat. There were people in the street, but to them she was just a blur of sugar-brown hair, topping off the pink, white and green that made up her skin and dress, and at the bottom, two streaks of black-laced crimson.
No one tried to stop her.
A hairpin corner came up, so sharp, it bordered upon the impossible. She kept on running. It led onto a steep hill, crowded with neat, boxy houses, their fronts set right onto the pavement. Her arms came up to shield herself, and her eyes screwed up in fear, but her feet found their way around the corner regardless, plunging her down the hill at a speed one step away from flying.
When she realised she was still in one piece, her arms moved from in front of her face. One flew limp and wild beside her, but the other reached out to skim it's fingers along the pebble-dashed fronts of the houses. At a glance, it looked like nothing more than an aide to keep her balance, but a sharp eye would notice that her fingers were curling, or trying to, in a most peculiar way, as though seeking some hold or grip - a broken brake-pad trailing along behind a doomed vehicle.
This was supposed to be a good day.
It was all about the boots.
From the moment she first saw them in the Red Cross shop, she knew that she wanted them more than anything else in her whole twelve years of life. They looked as good as new, dark red leather smooth and unscuffed, taking on ruby highlights whenever the sun caught them through the window.
Her brother caught her staring at them.
"You're not thinking of getting those, are you Poppy?" he said. "They're far too big for you. They're shoes for blokes - not little girls."
For that moment, she hated him. Who was he to say what was and what wasn't for her?
Two days later, she went and asked to try them on. The little old lady behind the till brought them over to her, with a sweet smile somewhere between confused and amused.
To Poppy's annoyance, her brother was right. They were far too big. If she angled her feet just right, they could slide right into the middle of the shoe, and not even touch the sides.
When she admitted to the lady that they were a little too roomy, she clucked like a sympathetic hen.
"That's a shame, pet. Maybe give it a while and try again. You never know... one day, you might wake up with the right size feet."
The old dear meant nothing by it. It was a little bit of sweetness to counter the sourness of disappointment, so Poppy tried to put them out of mind. Yet whenever she passed the Red Cross shop and glimpsed the boots standing proud and unclaimed she bitterly wished for bigger feet.
However, she resisted the urge to try them on again, until the day she went into town with Jamie Golding from next door. It was something they tended to do during the school holidays, resparking a childhood acquaintance that would be discarded when they went back to school, because any kind of friendship between a second year boy and a first year girl wouldn't do. Not according to Jamie.
Once in town, a group of boys Poppy recognised from school hailed Jamie, though he had ducked behind the nearest car at the sight of them.
"Don't you like them?" she asked him, when he realised he'd been spotted, and waved to them with a strained smile.
"Of course I do," Jamie said. "They're my friends."
His friends came over, and in a small herd, they began to investigate the shops and streets, with Poppy tagging along. No one seemed to mind her being there, the only person who seemed on edge was Jamie.
No problems arose until they went into The Red Cross Shop, and one of the boys noticed the boots.
"Look at those things!" he cried, pointing at them in awe.
Jamie went and picked one of them up, giving it a tactile once over, before holding it against his foot.
"What do you think?" he said, with a grin. "My colour?"
Poppy felt a jealous tingling in her fingers and toes, and had to silently repeat to herself that Jamie was joking. He would never waste his money on shoes.
"What size are they?" said the biggest boy of the group. "My brother says Doc Martin's are well good shoes."
Jamie turned the boot over.
He held out the boot to his friend.
"They'll be too small!" Poppy blurted out. "I tried them on ages ago, and they nearly fit me."
She felt colour creep into her cheeks as the whole group stared at her.
Jamie looked to the boot, down to Poppy's feet, and then back again. Every line in his face told Poppy that he didn't buy it for a second.
"Fibber," he said. "These aren't girls shoes."
"Cross my heart!" Poppy's tongue seemed to have taken on a life of it's own, digging her into a hole that she knew she was going to have to climb out of sooner rather than later.
The big boy gave her look, his dark eyes narrowed.
"Well, if they fit her, they'll fit you, Jamie," he said, turning to his friend. "Let's see them on you."
To Poppy's horror, Jamie tried them on, and she saw the same disembodied looseness that she had seen with her own feet. Jamie walked from one side of the shop to the other, splaying his feet and shuffling like a penguin for laughs, to show just how impossible they were to walk in.
"You are such a liar," the big boy said, smirking at Poppy.
Poppy's hand reached out to Jamie for the boots, slipping her feet out of her sandals. She knew this would only make her fib worse, but she couldn't stop.
She pulled the laces loose, and slipped her feet inside.
The boots fit. They were still on the roomy side, but the leather fit around her feet like a shell. One pair of thick socks, and they'd be a perfect fit.
She twisted her foot for all to see.
"I told you," she said with a grin.
For a quiet second, there was only gawping, and then somebody sniggered.
"Jamie's got smaller feet than a girl!"
A bright pink tinge bloomed at the edges of Jamie's ears, causing them to clash with the fierce orange of his hair. His eyes slipped down to fix on Poppy's feet, and an unpleasant scrunch passed over his features. Perhaps Poppy would have paid closer attention to the sharp downward pull to his brow, the tight line of his mouth, or the flare of his freckled nostrils, had her mind not been occupied with one thought, and one thought alone.
'They fit! The boots fit!'
The next day, she knocked on Jamie's front door, only to find him right on the other side of it, looking like he was going somewhere.
When she asked him where, he wouldn't tell her, he only shrugged his shoulders, and moved past her, trying to out walk her as she trailed along behind him.
"Are you going to see your friends again?" Poppy asked.
"Can I come too? Yesterday was really fun, and-"
Jamie turned to cut her off in mid-sentence, his face puckered up into a sneer.
"No. You can't. You won't be welcome."
Poppy stared at him, open mouthed. Taking advantage of her shocked silence, Jamie straightened up in an attempt to make up for the extra inch she had on him, and pushed his face close to hers.
"We don't want stupid girls hanging around, okay?"
He spat the word 'girls' as though it were a foul tasting poison. When Poppy had no challenge for him, he turned on his heel, and strode off, leaving her behind.
As she watched him walk away, Poppy made a decision. Her feet led her back to Jamie's door.
When Jamie's mother answered, Poppy's anger put a sweet smile on her face and said,
"Hi Mrs Golding, Jamie forgot his jacket, so I said I'd run back to get it for him."
Jamie's mother let Poppy in with a smile, and a teasing order not to let Jamie treat her as his skivvy. When Poppy reached Jamie's room, she dropped onto her belly, and groped under his bed, a wide grin spreading over her face when her fingertips brushed cold metal.
Jamie's life-savings - bundled up and kept in an old biscuit tin. He'd shown it to her once, years ago, and it looked like old habits died hard. Her original plan had been to just take the tin, and hide it long enough for Jamie to panic, but now another plan formed in her mind, one that wouldn't really teach Jamie a lesson, but would certainly give her something to smile about.
She pulled the tin open, and leafed through the notes. One, two, three tens. She slipped them out of the collective roll, and into her dress pocket. Calling out a thanks to Mrs Golding as she ran down the stairs, she was out of Jamie's front door, and running towards town as fast as her feet could carry her.
By the time she made it to the Red Cross shop, her heart was riding a rollercoaster. As she took off her battered ballet pumps and stuffed them into the the bag meant for the boots, her heart was still pounding, and not from exertion, but she told herself it was worth it.
She felt different just walking in the boots. They gave her a hefty stride, her head held high. When she saw Jamie and his friends coming out from the newsagents, she didn't lower her head and skulk away - she squared her shoulders and strode over. Just like she'd imagined, the boots had made her a new person.
The boys greeted her, but Jamie stared at her in silence. The look of guilt and discomfort on his freckled face made Poppy's mouth turn up at the corners.
"Hi Jamie," she said, before pulling back her left foot, and kicking him in the shin.
A collective gasp came from the group, including Poppy. Jamie yelped, staggering backwards, and grabbing onto a friend to steady himself, his other hand going to his bruised shin.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he snarled.
"I don't know," Poppy said, as her other foot shot out to stamp on one of his.
"Cut that out," said the biggest boy, readying his fists, but looking hesitant to use them.
"I'm sorry!" Poppy said, trying to keep her feet planted on the ground. Her legs began to tingle, a burning sensation spreading from the ankles upwards, growing hotter and hotter, until with a scream, she relented. Her right foot struck out, like a snake going for it's prey, and buried one crimson toe right into Jamie's stomach.
Jamie doubled over, and buckled to the ground. Poppy's feet were itching, fidgeting on the ground. The burning sensation started again, and with a small whimper, Poppy let one leg rise up.
The reverberations from the tarmac shook her foot to the bone. She used it to launch her other leg forward, breaking out into a clumsy run. As her feet pounded the pavement, she heard a clatter of foot-falls behind her as the boys gave chase. She never knew she could run so fast.
"Stop!" she gasped, barely enough breath left in her lungs to make a sound.
She kept on running.