Authors: Gabrielle Kent
For Satish, for yesterday and tomorrow.
There were many things Nora Emmett disapproved of. These included whistling, tropical fruit, sandals, children who didn't hold doors open for her, children who assumed she
doors opening for her â in fact she pretty much disapproved of children altogether. However, at this moment as she sat up in bed listening to the darkness, the thing she disapproved of most of all was whatever had woken her at three o'clock in the morning.
She didn't have long to wait before the sheep started bleating again. Reaching out into the darkness, she struck a match and lit the oil lamp on the night stand with an uncanny accuracy that came from years of practice. Mrs Emmett didn't quite trust electricity yet.
The brass bedstead creaked as she got up, wriggled into her tartan slippers and shuffled downstairs to investigate.
Setting the oil lamp down next to the stove, she pulled the kitchen nets aside and peered out into the night. The bleating had died down to an occasional terrified
. Whatever had frightened the sheep was still out there. It was probably the same rustlers that had taken two cows from the Merryweather farm last month. Well, they weren't going to get any of
flock. She pulled on her overcoat and wellies, grabbed her shotgun from the pantry and filled her pockets with cartridges from the biscuit tin next to the teabags.
The kitchen door clicked shut behind her as she stepped outside. Tucking the shotgun under her arm, she hitched up her nightie and crept through the orchard, silently weaving between the twisted plum trees towards the sheep pen. The new moon cast only a little light on to the farm, which was shrouded in the kind of darkness that makes it impossible to see your own feet. The dark didn't bother her. She didn't approve of the kind of skies where the glow of street lights was always present and you couldn't see the stars. This was night as it should be.
The bleating had stopped and the sheep were eerily silent now. Nearing the pen, she could make out wet crunching noises punctuated with deep grunts. Something was in with the sheep and it wasn't human. Could it be wolves? She hadn't heard of wolves in Hexbridge, not for many years.
Her eyes adjusted to the blackness and she could just about make out a mass of sheep huddled together in one corner of the pen. The whole flock was constantly in motion as each animal clambered over the others, trying to get as far as possible from whatever was in there with them. Mrs Emmett crept forwards to investigate.
The crunching stopped and the frantic bleating started again as a huge, dark shape reared up between her and the pen. She had never heard sheep make noises like that before, not even in the slaughterhouse. Instinctively she raised the shotgun and fired two shots directly into the shadowy mass.
The recoil threw her to the ground and she was nearly deafened by a loud bellow, like an elephant and lion roaring at the same time. Tearing her nightie from the grip of the brambles, she clambered to her feet, only to reel back from the hot, stinking breath of the thing that towered above her.
She looked up.
Two pairs of yellow eyes as large as saucers glared down at her. The stench of sulphur filled her nostrils as the creatures began to hiss softly. As the noise became louder she took a long deep breath. With amazing speed she reloaded, snapped the barrel shut, jammed the butt to her shoulder and aimed right between the eyes of the closest creature. Squeezing the trigger, she shouted louder than she ever had in all her eighty-two years,
The hammer clicked feebly as the gun failed to fire. The eyes seemed to half close into a smile as her mighty roar dwindled into silence. The hiss was now like a pressure cooker at full steam. A scorching gust of wind hit her, blowing off her nightcap and sending her hair and nightie billowing. With eyes closed tight, Mrs Emmett shielded her face from the searing wind as a white-hot flash ended her worries about sheep for ever. As the gun dropped from her hands, she just had time for one final entry on the list of things she disapproved of.
As Alfie Bloom rocked back on his chair and enjoyed the lively chatter that filled the classroom, he had the strange sensation he was being watched.
It was the last day before the summer holidays. The sun streamed through the windows promising six weeks of glorious freedom, and Mrs Harris had declared a free afternoon. Most of the pupils had brought in board games and were arguing loudly over who was winning and who was cheating. The arty students were drawing and painting pictures or scribbling biro tattoos on to each other's arms.
Alfie had been happily daydreaming about nothing in particular when the feeling hit. It was beginning to irritate him. He glanced around the classroom suspiciously. Everyone seemed to be minding his or her own business, or each other's. He turned his attention to the playground, briefly catching his reflection in the window, a red-brown mop of hair falling across green eyes. Gazing beyond, he realized who was spying on him. It was a large raven on the school field.
The raven gave a little hop then strode from side to side, looking back at the classroom window over hunched shoulders. Alfie could swear that it was trying to act casual after being caught out. There wasn't another bird in sight and he began to feel a little sorry for the solitary creature. Alfie knew what it was like to feel alone. The last day of term always seemed so exciting, but tomorrow he would face being stuck on his own all summer while his best friend, Amy Sui, went on holiday with her gran. His dad was always so busy with his inventions and part-time jobs that Alfie knew he would hardly see him.
Forfeiting the staring contest, he stretched and turned to watch the card game at the next table. Amy seemed to be winning. Glancing back at the field, he froze. In place of the raven, a tall man in a Victorian suit and cape was looking directly at him through a small brass telescope. Alfie nearly fell off his chair.
“Amy! AMY!” he called, waving frantically at his friend. When he looked back at the field, the man had vanished and the raven was back.
“What's up, Al?” asked Amy, joining him. “This had better be good. I was just about to win Phil's pen â the one that writes in space.”
“There! See that raven?” Alfie eyed the bird warily as it pecked nonchalantly at the feathers under its wing. “Does it look â¦
“Let's see.” Amy leaned over his shoulder and gave the raven a good, hard squint. “Well, it's got all the usual bits â feathers, wings, beak â so yep, that's a normal bird all right. Is that all you called me for?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” Alfie started to feel a little embarrassed. “It's just that â¦ well, it looked
for a second.”
“O-kaaay.” Amy patted him on the head and went back to her game.
The classroom was still as noisy as ever. Mrs Harris was trying to get everyone to put away their paints and games. No one else seemed to have noticed anything peculiar happening outside.
Alfie was still staring at the raven, wondering if he had just imagined the strange man, when the school bell sounded. Everyone jumped to their feet as a resounding cheer went round the classroom. He looked back at the field just in time to see the raven run a few steps before taking flight.
“Settle down, everyone,” shouted Mrs Harris. “Well, your junior years have come to an end. I hope that you all work hard at Hillston High after the holidays and that
of you take the opportunity of starting a new school to turn over a new leaf.” Alfie noticed her glance at a couple of students in particular as she said this, but they were too busy inching closer to the door to take in the hint. “Please put your chairs on your tables QUIETLY andâ” The rest was drowned out under the roar of chairs being dragged across the floor and plonked on to tables, some of them falling off as everyone shoved to get out of the door first. Mrs Harris tried to shout a few more words of farewell over the din, then flopped into her chair with a sigh of relief that yet another year was over. Alfie pulled off his tie, slung his bag across his shoulders and threw himself into the midst of the wild, whooping mob flowing out of the school.
He passed Amy just as she was getting into her gran's car.
“Gran says to come over on Sunday for lunch, Al. WOO! No more school!”
Alfie dallied more than usual on the way home, enjoying the raven mystery and the warm weather.
His daydreams ended abruptly as an empty Coke can hit the back of his head.
Alfie groaned and mentally kicked himself. He had been too preoccupied to notice class troublemakers Vinnie and Weggis trailing along behind him.
“So, what you doing for the holidays?” asked Vinnie as they caught up. “Is your weirdo dad taking you to dig up dinosaurs or something?”
“He's an inventor, not an archaeologist.”
“Whatever, he's still a nut-job. Anyways, we thought we'd walk you home as we won't see you till September. Can't wait though. I hear the toilets at Hillston flush for ages. Your hair could use a wash.”
“Get lost,” Alfie muttered under his breath, walking faster to leave them behind. Their insults and taunts about his dad had been chipping away at him for months, but he hadn't dared say a word back to them for fear of making things worse.
“What was that, Bloomers? Did you really just tell us to get lost? Get his bag, Weggis!”
Alfie tried to yank his bag away as Weggis lunged for it, but he was too slow.
Vinnie began rummaging through it, throwing out Alfie's sports kit.
“Hmm, lame trainers.”
“They're OK.” Weggis let go of Alfie and joined in. “My dog'll 'ave 'em.” He pulled out an exercise book and flicked through it before tossing it aside and grabbing another.
Alfie sighed. He knew this routine â he'd seen it so many times in the playground. They would go through everything in his bag then throw it to each other if he tried to take it back. He sat down on a garden wall and tried his hardest to look bored despite the blood pounding through his veins.
“Don't you want yer bag?” spat Weggis, clearly annoyed that Alfie wasn't making any effort to get it.
“You seem to want it more than me,” said Alfie, hoping his voice wasn't shaking. He got up and began walking away. “Keep it.”
“Oi, we don't want your stinking stuff!” shouted Vinnie, running over and shoving him in the back. Alfie stumbled forwards then span around to face him. “At least we can afford decent trainers.” Vinnie slammed his palm into Alfie's shoulder this time. Alfie felt as though someone had lit a fire in his chest, and it was melting away his cold fear of Vinnie. “Bet your freak of a dad couldn't afford to buy another pair if you lost these.” Alfie curled his fingers into fists. Another push.
Alfie snapped. He shoulder-charged the two boys, catching them completely by surprise. The bag slipped out of Vinnie's hand as Weggis fell on top of him. It sailed over Alfie's head to land in the road. He raced to pick up his things before they untangled themselves to chase him.
His eyes felt hot and blurry as he grabbed his books and trainers. He shoved them quickly into his bag while checking over his shoulder for Vinnie. A woman's voice called out sharply from behind him.
He turned and froze on the spot. A car was speeding towards him. The driver spotted him and slammed on his brakes, but it was too late. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The woman stood helplessly on the kerb with her dog, her arm stretched out towards him. The car was so close Alfie could see the face of the driver in great detail â a middle-aged man with glasses and a moustache, his hands gripping the wheel as his mouth opened into a silent scream.
Unable to force his legs to move, Alfie closed his eyes and half crouched in terror, waiting for the impact as the car screeched towards him.
Then â¦ nothing.
There was an eerie stillness. After a few seconds, he realized that all sounds in the street had stopped. No voices, no birds, no traffic. The air felt different too: colder, with an earthy smell, like old leaves.
When he opened his eyes he was astonished to see that the street had gone, replaced by a cool greyish mist. The adrenaline flowed out of his veins as he uncurled. Why wasn't he hurting anywhere? His clothes were starting to feel damp. He held out his hand, and tiny droplets of rain splashed on to his palm.
Could you get wet if you were dead?
A pigeon cooed somewhere above, breaking the stillness. The ground squelched under his feet as he stepped back to look up into the ghostly trees that surrounded him. Another noise cut through the air â a distant axe chopping wood. As he strained to hear more clearly, it began to fade along with the earthy smell and the mist. The familiar shapes and colours of the street began to reappear like coloured paint spreading across wet paper.
Voices were shouting and a scream grew louder as if someone was turning up the volume.
“Where did he go?”
“Is he under the car?”
Alfie blinked and looked around in surprise. He was back in the street at the side of the road. The car had stopped over the exact spot where he had been moments before. The driver was sitting with his hands on the wheel, shaking with shock.
“There he is!” cried the woman who had tried to warn him. She was staring in amazement, her dog barking wildly as it strained against its lead.
Barely able to believe he hadn't been hurt, Alfie slowly picked up his bag and began walking away. He passed the two bullies who were frozen like statues and picked up speed as they began to call after him. He wanted to get as far away as possible from whatever had just happened.
The blood started to pound in his ears as he broke into a run. By the time he turned into Abernathy Terrace, his side hurt and his breath was coming in gasps. The row of grey Victorian terraced houses seemed to stretch out for miles in front of him. His side hurt but he kept running â past the house with the purple door, past gossipy Mrs O' Riley's, past the tree he had fallen out of and broken his arm four years ago, past the window with the yappy white dog that always leapt up to bark at him.
As he ran he noticed a raven flying above him. Was it the same one? It swooped down to glide alongside Alfie as he tore down the street, then flapped its wings and soared up and away over the rooftops.