Authors: Sharon Jones
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Poppy lay with her head in Mum’s lap, and a big chenille blanket wrapped around her. The constant stroking of Mum’s hand against her hair was hypnotic and Mum had turned out most of the torches in the hope she would fall asleep. But she couldn’t. And so she drifted. Not really awake, not really asleep. Thoughts flitted through her head, some of them so quick she couldn’t grasp on to them. Others lingered and then were gone, forgotten like a dream.
Love is like fire, Poppy; unless it’s channelled it destroys everything.
Everything and everyone. Beth had lost her life to love. Tariq had abandoned his dreams for love of his family. And Kane...
‘Kane was a fool for love,’ said a voice she didn’t recognise. Someone laughed.
Poppy gasped and sat up. ‘Who said that?’
On the other side of the tipi, Jonathan, Mo and Bob were talking in hushed voices. All three of them stopped and turned to her.
‘Who said what, Poppy?’ Mum asked.
‘About Kane. Who was laughing?’
They all looked at her like she was mad.
‘No one was laughing.’ Mum pushed Poppy’s hair away from her face. ‘You must have been dreaming.’
Right...dreaming. She blinked and rubbed her eyes.
‘Err – excuse me. Can I come in?’ DS Grant’s face appeared through the flap.
‘Of course, Sergeant,’ Mum said, beckoning him in.
The detective settled himself on a cushion and took up what was becoming his familiar Buddha-like pose. He kneaded his hands together and stared at the ground. He looked whacked, like he’d been chased by a pack of dogs. He glanced up and their eyes met. He held Poppy’s gaze.
‘What is it?’ she asked, her stomach already tensing up.
‘I’m afraid Kane died on the way to the hospital.’
After hours of darkness, when it felt like the night would never end, Poppy stood at the edge of the lake and watched as the sun steadily crept into the sky, sending ribbons of pink and gold light weaving through the sharp peaks of the fir trees and hills in the distance. The rosy light danced on the rippling waters of the lake as if the water sprites were celebrating the return of the sun.
‘It’s a beautiful morning,’ Mo said, beside her.
Poppy nodded. It
beautiful – the sky, the lake, the trees. Postcard pretty.
But what was that old saying?
Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning
. A cold shudder worked its way up her spine. In a flash, where there had been beauty she could see only danger. The trees were too jagged and the lake too red...blood-red. Poppy tore her gaze away and looked instead at the mottled-grey pebbles beneath her feet.
‘Are they gone now?’ she asked, quietly.
‘Is who gone?’
Poppy turned to Mo.
The faintest of smiles carved a way through the medicine woman’s solemn features. Mo wasn’t even pretending not to know what she was talking about. But she was going to make her say it anyway.
‘Maya, Beth. Whoever it was in my head.’
Mo’s dark eyes reflected the glow of the sunrise, as if they could filter out the pure light of the morning from the blood and horror of last night. She nodded, considering Poppy’s question.
What did she need to consider? Kane was dead. The police had found a notebook in his pocket complete with mad rantings about Maya that had convinced them that he’d killed her and Beth. They were even going to begin the search for Maya’s body. Poppy had worked out what had happened to them. She’d done all she could do, hadn’t she? ‘Why the hell would they still be haunting me?’ she blurted.
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean, you don’t know?’ The panic she’d been so careful to keep under control broke free. ‘I can’t take them home with me, Mo. I can’t handle them screwing with me any more.’
‘Maybe they still have something to teach you.’
‘I don’t want any more lessons.’
haven’t let them go.’
‘Me? Are you saying it was all in my head?’ Poppy ran a hand through her hair and laughed. Just two days ago, if the roles had been reversed, she’d have told Mo to book herself in for a few sessions with Jonathan.
‘Doesn’t matter what I think,’ Mo said, gently. ‘Only matters what you think. Whether they’re spirits or memories, the best medicine is to let them go from your heart.’
Michael had said something about her needing to learn to let things go. It was true. If she’d have let go of Michael rather than chasing after him, maybe they’d still be friends. If she’d stopped searching for Beth’s killer, maybe the police would have found Kane before he ended up dead in the water.
‘How do I do it, Mo? How do I let them go?’
‘I’m sorry, no more questions today,’ Bob said, waving away the gaggle of journalists holding out Dictaphones and scribbling in notebooks. ‘Go and find yourself a nice celebrity scandal to fill your pages.’
As he stalked away from them, a couple of women police officers stopped the news hounds from following.
‘Got your own bodyguards now?’ Poppy asked, smiling.
Bob glanced over his shoulder. ‘Aye. Nice girls. One of them was telling me that her old gran used to read the tealeaves. Happen even the police aren’t immune to the Old Ways. Let’s go and make her a cuppa, hey? Put her to the test.’
Bob’s arm clamped firmly around Poppy’s shoulders and he led her to the caravan.
Once inside the darkened tobacco-smelling cave, Poppy slumped down at the fold-down table where the police had interviewed her after finding Beth. Was it really only a couple of days ago? It felt like weeks. On the table were the usual mountains of books as well as a couple of business cards with the phone numbers of various police officers. That had to be a first. Usually, Bob was trying to evade the police, not contact them.
‘New friends?’ Poppy asked, holding up one of the cards.
Bob chuckled. ‘Have to admit, they’ve been pretty decent,’ he said, pouring boiling water into a teapot. ‘We’ve even been allocated a family liaison officer to help handle the press. All part of their community relations programme, apparently.’ He snorted. ‘Could have done with some community relations the last time they hauled me off the bypass protest.’
Bob dumped two steaming mugs of builder’s brew on the table and slumped down opposite her.
‘Thought you were making tea for your bodyguards.’
‘In a minute. Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind first?’ He scratched his beard and raised an expectant eyebrow.
Poppy picked up one of the mugs of tea and wrapped her hands around it. ‘Mo says I need to let go of what’s happened.’
Bob nodded, but said nothing.
‘She said I could leave offerings to their spirits. Parting gifts. She said it’s normal, it’s what people are doing every time they leave flowers on a grave. I didn’t want to ask Mum and Jonathan, they’ll only want to make a big deal out of it and I don’t want to talk about it, or work out what I think happened, I just want to do it. Will you help me?’
Bob grabbed his pipe, shoved it in his mouth and reached for the matches. ‘What do you need?’
It took nearly an hour to select three gifts. It was worse than buying birthday presents for people she actually knew.
Bob stuffed everything into a cloth bag and handed it over to Poppy. She took it and hugged him. His arms encircled her and leaned down and kissed the top of her head.
‘I should be at yours before dark,’ Bob said, ‘so tell that mad dog of yours that I’ll be requiring my usual armchair, and there’s only room for one of us.’
‘I’ll do my best.’
Bob let her go and stepped back. ‘Are you going where I think you’re going?’
‘Could you do me a favour while you’re up there?’
Bob grabbed one of the books from the table, opened it up and took an envelope from between the pages. ‘Could you put that through the door of the farmhouse? It’s just a thank you. They got more than they bargained for this year.’
‘No problem.’ She grabbed the caravan door and yanked it open. Light flooded into the gloom.
She stepped down onto the wobbly metal step and turned back to Bob. ‘Yeah?’
He shoved his pipe into his mouth and chewed the end. ‘I meant what I said the other night. You’re a good soul, lass. None of this was your fault.’
People were starting to pack up. She wandered through the cars and VW vans that were being piled high with camping equipment, towards the food vans. She knew she didn’t have long to get up the bluff and back before Mum started looking for her, but there was someone else she needed to talk to first...if he hadn’t cleared off or been arrested.
Thankfully, the chipped white van was still there – open and doing some last-minute business. When she got to the hatch she was relieved to see Tariq in his clean white apron, putting away sauce bottles into the lockable cupboards.
‘Hi,’ she called.
Tariq stopped and stared. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Oh, that’s nice.’
He disappeared and she heard his quick footsteps clanging on the metal steps. He reappeared at her side. There were little worry lines around his dark eyes that made him look like a proper grown-up who’d always been too old for her. ‘I didn’t think your mum would let you out of her sight for the next ten years.’
‘So you were just going to disappear without saying goodbye?’
He smiled. ‘I thought that’s how you’d want it.’
‘That’s not how I wanted it. I wanted to say goodbye and, well, say sorry,’ she said. Her cheeks filled with heat, but she was determined to say it. ‘I think maybe you were right. I was using you. I didn’t mean to. But you were right – that stuff you said about Michael.’
He shrugged. ‘That’s OK. I was just trying to get you into bed – or at least a sleeping bag.’ He smiled, and it was such a sweet smile that she knew he was joking. Whatever he was, he wasn’t
guy. ‘Has he come to his senses yet?’
‘Who, Michael? I don’t know. Maybe it was a stupid idea. Maybe you can’t be...
...when you’ve been friends as long as we have.’
He squeezed her shoulder. ‘Don’t give up before you’ve even tried. But if you do – give me a call?’
He leaned down and kissed her. It was gentle and lovely and made her want to kiss him back, but that would be wrong on so many levels. She pulled away.
Tariq cleared his throat. ‘Yeah. Sorry – bad idea.’ He punched a fist into his other hand. ‘Thanks for coming to say goodbye. I’ll see you around, Poppy.’
‘Yeah, see ya.’ She gave him a last smile and started walking in the direction of the bluff. She stopped and spun around. ‘Hey, Tariq?’
He turned to look at her.
‘I think you should go back to Manchester. Finish your degree.’
He nodded. ‘You never know, maybe we’ll be there at the same time,’ he said with a faint smile.
The bluff seemed steeper than before. The sky over the lake was a sheer blue but the air was hot and sticky like it was about to storm. Poppy pushed herself up the slope, not daring to stop in case her feet wouldn’t start moving again. Every muscle in her body ached like she’d climbed a mountain already that morning and her head was clouded with tiredness.
By the time she reached the summit the ground seemed to be moving of its own accord and she honestly thought that Cumbria might be experiencing an earthquake.
After taking a moment to get her breath back, she wandered slowly towards the crumbling edge of the bluff. As she did she was bombarded by memories, so many that they made her dizzy – the desperation in Kane’s eyes before he stepped over the edge and slid from view; Beth’s too-red lips singing the name of her murdered love.
Poppy stopped, squeezed her eyes shut and pushed the images away. They were just memories. Surely she could choose not to see them. It was her brain, for heaven’s sake!
She opened her eyes, forced herself forward, as close to the edge as she dared, and dropped to her knees. When Mo had told her to say goodbye, she’d known it would have to be here. At the place where it started...and ended.
Below, the choppy grey waters sloshed up against the pebbles where Kane had fallen. The warm breeze pulled at the fine hairs around her face, tickling her nose and eyes. Poppy brushed them away, pulled the cloth bag off her shoulder and felt inside for the three gifts she’d managed to find from among Bob’s stuff.
The first was a Tarot card. It wasn’t from a normal deck, not the kind that Kane read; instead it was from a set of Druid cards that depicted animals rather than human figures. This one had a picture of a blackbird, its beak open in song. Bob had explained to her that the blackbird was the guardian of the forge – the entrance to the underworld, where people were transformed and made new. It seemed appropriate somehow.
Next to the card she placed a tealight. A candle to burn for them: Beth, Maya and Kane.
Poppy took a box of matches out of her pocket and lit one. The small flame was too weak and easily extinguished by the breeze. Poppy sighed, dropped the match and tried another. This time the flame took hold. She carefully cupped her hand around the tealight and held the match to the wick until it caught fire.
For a moment she watched the flame dance, felt its heat against her skin. As soon as she took her hand away the candle would be extinguished, but this was all meant to be symbolic, right?
Poppy removed her hand and let the breeze consume the flame, leaving only a wisp of smoke to rise into the atmosphere.
The last gift was a miniature bottle of whiskey. She took it out of the bag and smiled. ‘Have a drink on me, Beth,’ she whispered as she set the bottle on the grass.
Crystal clear, as if she’d known the girl her whole life, an image of Beth formed in her head. Her glossy hair, the fire in her eyes.
Poppy took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. She should have asked Mo how exactly she should do this. But it was too late now. She’d just have to wing it.
‘I’m leaving today, Beth.’ She felt stupid saying it out loud, but she preferred to think that even if there was some kind of afterlife, the dead couldn’t hear every thought that passed through her head. ‘I suppose you’ll know about Kane. And I’m sorry, I really am. You shouldn’t have died; it wasn’t fair. Life’s a bitch, hey? I just hope you found Maya and you’re happy.’ Poppy shook her head at her own lack of eloquence. If anyone heard her, they’d think she had cracked
...talking to dead people
. Maybe she had.
‘I guess I just wanted to say that I won’t forget you.’
Poppy ran her fingers over the small square bottle and in her head she saw Beth smile.
She was done. It was time to leave.
‘See ya,’ she whispered.
As she got to her feet her phone buzzed. She pulled it out to see who was texting her.
It was Michael.
All thoughts of gifts for dead people disappeared. Her heart thundered like the hooves of a runaway horse. She clutched the mobile tighter. It was just a text message. Nothing to be afraid of. Except it could say that he’d had enough of her, or that he and Julia had decided to leave school, get married and have lots of babies. Could she handle it if he was telling her that he never wanted to see her again? She went to shove the phone back in her pocket but stopped herself. She was being a wimp. She’d caused this situation: it was time to face up to the consequences.
She took a deep breath, opened the message and read the contents.
Sorry had 2 leave yesterday. Am arse. Do over?
An apology. She felt sick with relief, and then doubly sick at the thought of talking to him again, but she didn’t have much choice if they were ever going to get back to the way things were. She typed in:
I’ll text you when I get home.
. Almost immediately, her phone buzzed again.