She gave his hand another lick, almost sitting but not quite, eager to be off. Her eyes were bright in her sharp Jack Russell face, and she watched the whistle intently as he lifted it to his mouth.
He blew twice in quick succession, making a noise too high-pitched to hear himself. Immediately, Helga shot off across the wide expanse of grass. He let her run until he could only just see her, and then he blew again. He had no intention of letting her reach the hedge at the end of the park. If he did, she'd be through it in a flash, into the little woods beyond, exploring the undergrowth and paddling around in muddy ditches. And he'd have to spend hours cleaning her and getting the burrs out of her coat.
He blew long-short-longâ
saw her skid to a halt. But she didn't run back to him. She stood where she was, a small, dark shape in the mist, looking longingly toward the woods.
Oh no, you donât,
Tom thought. He lifted the whistle and blew again, long-short-long, watching to see what she did. If she came now, that was good enough. If he had to blow a third time, she was in for a scolding.
She turned and took a step toward himâand that was when he saw the two people coming out of the woods.
They were on the other side of the park, much farther off than Helga. Out of the corner of his eye, Tom saw them come around the far end of the hedge and start to walk along the opposite edge of the grass, on the path that led back to the main gate. In the mist and the dark, they could have been any two people. Two gray blobs, with nothing to identify them.
Then the tall one hunched its shoulders forward, running a hand through its hair, and the shorter one tossed its head and laughed. And Tom knew who they were.
Robbo. And The Hag.
As soon as he'd recognized them, they seemed unmistakable. Robert was loping along the path, leaning sideways as he listened to Emma. And Emma was nodding briskly, to emphasize what she was saying. Tom couldn't hear her voice, but he knew those sharp little nods, and the way she moved her arm, stabbing at the air with one finger.
Didn't she ever give up? Tom watched her through the mist, imagining the rise and fall of her voice, carping and criticizing. Jabbing away at Robert with every sentence.
Why did he let her get away with it? He was tall and smart and good at sports. He ought to have had everything going for him. But as soon as Emma started nagging, he seemed to collapse into a pathetic heap.
You've got that wrong, Rob.... That's a really stupid idea.... How can you be so clumsy? ...
Why didn't their parents tell her to shut up? Couldn't they see her always putting him down?
Tom had spent years trying to do a repair job. Robert was his best friendâever since they were fourâand he hated seeing him bullied.
You're just as good as she is. Tell her to shut up and get lost.
He'd actually thought he was having an effect, too. But since the summer, Robert had gone downhill. Tom had no idea what had happened to him during vacation, but it had made him ... strange. When he'd come back to school, he was like a zombie, going through the motions but not really connecting with anything. As if he was suffering from depression.
It was Emma's fault. It
to be, somehow or other. Looking at them through the mist, Tom couldn't bear to watch her jabbering away at Robert. He wanted to creep up behind her and give her a shock. Make her jump and look stupid. He liked getting Robbo to laugh at her.
He was about to set off when he suddenly realized that Helga hadn't come back. Where was she? He blew the whistle again and peered into the mist.
There was no sign of herâand it didn't take a genius to figure out what that meant.
You'll have to look after yourself for the time being.
Getting Helga out of the woods was the top priority.
It didn't take long to find her. She was investigating a deep ditch just behind the hedge, and she was wet and smelly and very, very happy. Tom pulled her out of the ditch and clipped on her leash, but he didn't have the heart to shout at her. He just dragged her out of the woods as fast as he could.
As they came through the hedge, he saw the two blurred figures again. They'd almost reached the main gate, but the short oneâEmmaâwas still nodding and waving her hands around. How could anyone have so much to say? Tom toyed with the idea of sneaking up, as he'd planned beforeâtaking smelly Helga with him for increased shock value. Could he make it before they crossed the road and reached home?
He was just about to try, when Emma stopped on the path and started to laugh. And the taller figure laughed, too. Robert's laugh. Tom could hear them quite clearly through the mist.
Then Robert reached out and touched Emma's head. Ruffling her hair.
At least, that was what it looked like. But it had to be the mist playing tricks. Robert would never do anything like that. It was impossible.
“WHAT WAS I DOING IN THE
YESTERDAY EVENING?” Robert looked startled for a second, and then his face went blank. “I don't think so, Tosh. Must have been someone else.” He pushed his gym bag into his locker and shut the door.
“It was you,” Tom said. “I was taking Helga for a walk and I saw you and Emma, coming out of the woods.”
Robert shook his head.
What stupid game was he playing? “It
you,” Tom said.
He tried to meet Robert's eyes because that was always a sure way of catching him. Robbo could never keep a lie going if you stared at him. Either he turned red, or he started laughing.
But he wouldn't meet Tom's eyes. He closed him out completely. One moment they were having a conversation, and the next ... nothing. Robert's face was cold and expressionless. He looked over Tom's shoulder and started talking to Joe, as if Tom weren't there.
OK. If that's how you want to be
Tom turned away and stamped off. But that didn't make him feel any better. Robert was getting more and more peculiar. What did it
? Was he in trouble? And if he was, why didn't he ask for help? What
happened over the summer? There seemed to be hundreds of questions and no answers.
But there was one thing Tom did know, for certain.
Robert he'd seen in the park.
“STAY,” TOM SAID. “I'LL BE BACK IN A MINUTE. STAY.” Helga sat down neatly beside the supermarket door, looking up at him with bright, sharp eyes, like the most obedient dog in the world. Tom wasn't taken in. He tied her leash to the loop in the wall and made sure it was secure.
Then he said, “Good girl,” and went through the automated door, feeling in his pocket for coins. He was expecting to be in and out in a couple of minutes. All he wanted was a Coke, and there was a cooler full of cold cans right by the checkout counters.
But it didn't work out like that, because as he walked in, he saw Robert up at the far end of the produce section. Looking weird. He was peering down at the brussels sprouts, sorting carefully through them. On both sides of him, other people were shoveling handfuls of sprouts into plastic bags, but Robert was choosing each one separately, as if it mattered which he picked.
Tom could hardly bear to watch. It was creepy, like seeing a tramp rummage through garbage.
For heaven's sake, Robbo! What's the big deal? They're only sprouts!
At last, Robert dropped a few sprouts into a bag and turned around to hand them to someone else. And that was when Tom saw Emma. He hadn't noticed her before because she'd been over by the fruit, but as soon as Robert turned, she was there, holding out a basket. Waiting for Robert to put in the sprouts.
Her long red hair gleamed as she tossed it back over her shoulders, and her finger stabbed the air. Without hesitating, Robert went where she pointed, crossing from the vegetables to the fruit and bending over the bunches of grapes.
What order was Emma giving him now? Tom wanted to yell down the length of the shop.
She's only your sister, not your boss!
Why did he always obey her? He didn't even try to argue. He just picked something out of the display of grapes and put it into a bag to drop in Emma's basket.
And she smiled that smug, superior smile of hers and turned to point at something else.
Tom couldn't just stand and watch. Robbo was his best friendâand he needed rescuing. Emma ran her fingers through her hair, and Tom glared as it fell back onto her shoulders in a great cascade of orange-gold.
Robert handed over the grapes, and the two of them walked past the rest of the fruit and around into the next aisle. Forgetting about his Coke, Tom was drawn after them, hurrying through the produce to put his head around the shelves at the end.
They were a little way down the next aisle. Emma was still talking, and this time Tom was close enough to catch the words. They took him by surprise. She wasn't using the chilly, domineering voice he'd expected.
“What do you want me to
she said. “We can't buy any less than that!” She sounded frazzled and exasperated, as if her patience was running out.
“OK,” Robert said mildly. “It's no big deal.”
Robert turned back, bending down to take something off a low shelf. As he stood up again, Tom waved from the end of the aisle and made the best hag face he could, crossing his eyes and wrenching his bottom jaw sideways.
It was an old game of theirs. The face meant,
Watch out! Watch out! There's a hag about!
And Robert was supposed to answer by blowing out his cheeks and pulling down the corners of his eyes.
But he didn't make the face.
“Hi, Tosher,” he said loudly.
Emma jumped and whipped around, as if she'd been caught shoplifting. Then she tried to look casual. “Oh,” she said. “It's you.”
“Your lucky day.” Tom took a few steps nearer, giving her his most annoying grin.
Emma looked at him warily, holding her basket behind her back. “What are you doing in here?”
“They called me in.” Tom smiled again, sarcastically. “To give advice about how to appeal to teenagers.”
funny.” Emma scowled at him.
Tom was getting into his stride now. Her scowl inspired him. “I'm getting them to install
Game Show Shopping.
So everything whizzes past on moving shelves, and you zap what you want with a remote control.” He stepped neatly around Emma and grabbed the edge of the basket. “Just think of it! No more walking up and down. Justâ
! And there's yourâ”
He looked into the basket, meaning to reel off a list of her shopping. But the sight of it startled him into silence.
All she had was a tiny bunch of grapesâfour of themâa little packet of mixed nuts, and three brussels sprouts in a plastic bag. There was nothing else, except the bag of colored cotton balls that Robert had just picked off the shelf.
Tom stopped in mid-sentence, staring.
“Finished making up stories, then?” Emma twitched the basket away from him and marched off down the aisle, heading for the checkout. “Come on, Rob,” she said over her shoulder.
“Come on, Rob!” Tom made a face and tossed his head affectedly, running his fingers through a mane of imaginary hair. He'd always been able to imitate her voice perfectly. It was the one thing that was guaranteed to make Robert laugh.
Not this time, though. It didn't even raise a smile. Robert frowned and shook his head impatiently. “I'm sick of all that stuff, Tosh. She's all right really, you know.”
“All right?” Tom stared. “The
“Don't call her that!” Robert said sharply. “She's OK.”
joking,” Tom said. “Aren't you?”
“No. I'm not.” Robert's eyes were steady. He turned away and went after Emma, leaving Tom speechless.
That was the last thing he'd expected. He'd never seen Robert like that before. It was like hearing one of the Three Little Pigs defending the Big Bad Wolf.
He's all right when you get to know him. He's even invited us over to dinner next week.
His brain was working overtime as he went back to grab his Coke. What was going on? He'd gone blundering in to cheer Robert up, to try to jolly him out of depressionâand he'd found himself facing a new, determined Robert who argued with everything and thought Emma was “OK.”
What did it mean?
He went to the nearest register and lined up to pay for his Coke. By the time he left the store, Robert and Emma were already walking out of the parking lot. He untied Helga and set off slowly, being careful not to catch up with them. He assumed they were going to turn right and take the direct route back to their house.