I remember walking with Toby in the hills back at home the day that everything really started. I'd been out for hours and should probably have called Mum to let her know I was okay – I should've called anyway, told her I loved her if we'd been that sort of family. We weren't. So I didn't. Besides, I was too angry for that. I was too upset. I was too scared. I was too much of everything. She probably didn't expect one, anyway, even if she'd have liked one. She used to yell at me for that.
"How am I supposed to know I you're all right if I don't know where you are?" she whined, and I'd ignore her. I'd just go back out and when she said "Take your phone!" I'd say "Yes, Mum!" knowing that my phone was upstairs. My other phone was usually firmly in my pocket, but I didn't have that anymore. Mum found it.
I felt sick when I got home and found her holding it. She was shaking, crying, which was really scary because Mum never used to cry – never, she thought it was undignified.
"We're going to the police station first thing in the morning."
"Why were you looking through my phone?"
"How old is he, huh? How long has he been doing this to you? Don't look over there, I won't drop it. What has that pervert been doing?" Her voice got louder with every word as she stood up. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why should I? It's none of your business!"
"I'm going to kill him. So help me, you are going to the police tomorrow, making a statement and if you don't I will and if he doesn't get locked up I'll track him down! He's a monster – He's a lunatic! Don't you understand?"
"It's not like that, we love each other!" I shouted, clenching the old receipts and wrappers in my pockets. How was I meant to explain to her? The kisses, the smiles, the nights under the stars, she didn't see them and she didn't care. She saw fourteen and twenty-nine, not me and Matt. I dragged my sleeve across my eyes. I was not going to cry.
The late sunset was gorgeous – completely worth the yelling I expected when I got home. Swirls of hazy, soft colours like magical smoke; pink, yellow, blue, lilac, white. The dying sun bled red light. I let Toby off the leash and sat down on a rock, watching the colours. I thought if I stared long enough and hard enough that I could send all my thoughts along a river of night air into the sunset – and then I could go home and deal with it. My mother was still going to be angry when I got home, I thought. She'd still be out for blood. She'd still hate that I wasn't her little innocent daughter anymore. She'd probably kill us both, if she ever met Matt. I bit the tip of my tongue.
It was hours before I was ready to go home. Time always stopped on the hills. I felt like I could see everything up there. It made me feel like I was an angel watching the earth below. When I left it would be for Heaven, not home. I would never go back there; I would never speak to my mother again. That would teach her.
"Toby," I called when I felt came enough to leave. "Toby! Toby? Where are you? Toby?" Where the hell had that dog got to now? It wasn't like he was hard to lose, a big black mongrel like him. He might as well have been a bear, the size of him. Shoving my hair out of my eyes, I stood up and stretched my neck. Nothing.
"Toby!" I shouted cautiously, wishing I'd wore my glasses for once. He'd never ran off. Thankfully, he'd left me a nice set of pawprints sank two inches into the mud. Daft dog. Relieved, I ran along his tracks, calling his name. His leash jangled in my fist. "Toby! Come on, you daft thing, come back. There you are," I smiled, catching sight of the big fur ball frolicking in the mud. Great, another thing for Mum to go mental over. "You're going to need a long bath when we get home," I joked, watching him as he stood up and shook, sending flecks of filth flying. "Ah, Toby! For fuck's sake." The smile knocked off my face, I hooked him onto the leash as he sniffed the dirt. "Come on then. Toby, come on," I ordered, pulling the leash. That turned out to be completely useless. "I said, come on. Toby? Toby? Toby!" Coiling the leash around my wrist I managed to pull him back about an inch. Something glittered in the dirt. "It's just a bottle cap, Tobes, come on. Please? Oh, what's the point." Folding my arms, I watched him step back for a second only to start dragging his front paws through the dirt. Slipping into daydreams, I turned my glance back to that beautiful sunset with its glaring red sun. Maybe this wasn't so bad. I could run away. Move in with Matt. She didn't know where he lived. And we'd been together for months now, he'd put me up for a bit if I asked him. I could say I was his niece or someone if he was scared about people finding out about us. We could tell people once I was sixteen. We could get married when I turned eighteen, once I didn't need my mother's permission. I watched the clouds darken as wisps of smoke slid into the dusky sunset.
"Come on, Toby, you've been sniffing that thing for –" It wasn't a bottlecap. Crouching for a better look at the glinting object, I noticed a sliver of gold in the dirt like a metallic worm. The medal was about the size of a penny in my hand, thick and bulky on a delicate string. A opal sat on the top in the shape of a flower; a black spider was carved in on top with a black pearl as the biggest bit of its body. The gold was tarnished, old but gorgeous. Something else glinted beneath it in the night. I brushed away the dirt with my fingertips, my knuckles brushing against something hard – three slim, white rocks in a line. No… I sprang up and backed away. It wasn't bone, that was stupid. I didn't believe it was bone. I'd come back and prove it in the morning when it was lighter, maybe, if I wasn't under house arrest.
"Come on, Toby. Come on." Eventually I dragged him down to the streets again, hauling him along until we got to our street. That was when I noticed my neighbours, all lined up along the street whispering to each other with frightened faces.
"What's going on?"
Mr James, the old bloke who lived next door, did something very weird when he turned around: after three years of complaining about my "damn racket" and telling me to "wash that slap off your face", he hugged me. His frail, bony arms pressed against me like I was being trapped in someone's ribcage.
"Oh, thank God, you're all right," he muttered into my hair. "We thought you might have died."
"What are you talking about?" I asked. "Why would I be dead?" Grappling free from his spindly arms, I caught sight of the fire truck outside of my house. That was when I saw the flames. "What happened?"
"We don't know, love," Mr James said gently. I was "love" now. Something really had gone wrong. "Someone smelt smoke and went to have a look, and – " His Adam's apple dropped and jumped in his skinny neck.
"Where's Mum?" I asked. Crap, had she left the cooker on and fell asleep or something? Not stubbed her cigarette out right? The fire cackled even as the hoses blasted it, feeding on my home. "Is she okay? She's all right, isn't she? She's going to kill me for staying out late. She's always angry about something. Where is she?"
That was when I saw the stretcher.