Authors: Sharon Jones
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Agitated by the wind, Lake Windermere washed up against the sides of the yachts. Tackle clinked together like ghostly bells. On the far shore, wisps of grey cloud were rising up against the evening sky to join the heavy clouds that had collected over the hilltops.
The sky was working its way up to a storm, but Michael couldn’t be bothered to move. He grabbed the bottle from his side and slugged back another gulp. The vodka burnt his throat but it didn’t match the heat of the anger that burned in his stomach. He screwed the lid back onto the bottle and threw it onto the grass between him and the poodle.
He could just about pick out his yacht among the others that floated out on the lake, like a flock of seagulls taking refuge from the weather. He’d barely been out on it since the accident. If he were honest, he hadn’t been able to stomach it now he knew how quickly things could go wrong. Poppy kept asking to go out, but there was no way she was ever going back out on that lake – not if he could help it.
That day, he and Poppy had gone out to Belle Island – something they’d done loads of times before. The lake was choppy, but not bad enough to keep them away. They mucked about on the island for a bit and then the rain started and they’d headed back to shore.
They’d rushed to get the sail up and neither one of them had put on their lifejackets. Stupid thing to forget.
They pushed off and everything was fine. They were almost back to the landing dock when some idiot in a speedboat got too close, sending a swell across already choppy waters. He heard a clunk and looked up in time to see Poppy slipping overboard.
He’d almost laughed. He wasn’t worried. Poppy could swim like a fish – she was never out of the lake. He’d leaned over the side expecting to see her scowling back at him, annoyed, wet and cold – not injured. But when he looked overboard, all he saw was the constantly moving water.
‘Poppy!’ he’d called. No one had answered. He crossed to the other side of the hull – it would be just like her to swim to the other side to freak him out. Nothing.
His first instinct had been to go in after her, but he’d grabbed the radio and sent out a mayday message. Then he’d ignored the instructions of the coastguard and dived in.
Thankfully they’d been close enough in to shore that the lake wasn’t more than ten feet deep. It was dark at the bottom, but through stinging eyes he’d spotted her. Her eyes were open, but she was making no attempt to swim. He’d grabbed her and swum to the surface. Then, at last, some of his training had kicked in, and he’d started rescue breaths. It made no difference. She was a dead weight in his arms.
Eventually, he and Poppy were dragged onto the coastguard’s boat and they started resuscitation. For what seemed like forever there was no response. They cracked a rib trying to get her to breathe, but they were getting nowhere.
Her forehead was red with blood, but the rest of her face was blue with drowning. He’d felt like a part of himself was dying in front of him. He couldn’t remember life before Poppy and he couldn’t imagine navigating the rest of his life without her. She was like a sister to him. An infuriating, ridiculously bossy little sister.
And so he’d shouted at her. He’d promised her anything if she would just
He’d got so damned hysterical that one of the coastguards physically restrained him.
They returned to shore, to a waiting ambulance. And then, just like that, she was coughing up lake water. She wasn’t conscious, but she was trying to breathe again.
After a week in hospital, she was back to her old self. Except she wasn’t. Nearly dying had changed her, had changed both of them. She’d come back to life but she’d left a part of herself – or at least a part of their friendship – in the lake. He’d thought for a while that she blamed him, but she swore she didn’t.
And now this.
Another girl in another lake.
It was all too familiar.
His phone began to ring. He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the screen.
Bugger – he was supposed to have gone round there. Why hadn’t he?
He dropped the phone beside the bottle of vodka and squeezed his eyes shut against the pain that shot through his forehead.
Death. She was surrounded by it. No matter what she did or where she went – death was there, haunting her, pursuing her.
Death, Poppy. Your last card was Death.
She dumped the book she hadn’t been reading for the last hour and switched off the torch. A green glow shone through the nylon of the tent, marking the passage of the sinking sun.
Even if her last card had been Death, it didn’t mean actual death. Kane knew that. Everyone knew that. It meant change in circumstance. Death of an old way of life, beginning of a new. It didn’t mean actual physical death. Well, hardly ever. And even if it did mean death, it was all superstitious crap, right? But the way that he’d said it…
Poppy sat up, unzipped the tent flap and crawled out.
Jonathan was kneeling down, about to hit the peg holding the tipi’s guide rope with an enormous hammer. He looked up and smiled.
‘Hi Pops, how are you feeling?’
She’d always thought of Jonathan as harmless. Kind of like a hover fly – a bit annoying, but there was no sting in him. But the guy had clearly been talking about her to Kane, and she didn’t like the thought of that at all.
‘She’s gone to the organising committee meeting. They’re discussing whether in the circumstances the rest of the programme should go ahead.’ He looked at her strangely. ‘Are you sure you’re OK? Do you want to sit and talk?’
No, she didn’t want to sit and talk. He’d been doing quite enough talking about her to people who had no right to know the details of her life. On the other hand, there was stuff that she wanted to know.
Poppy folded her arms. ‘That guy, Kane – the guy that was here last night.’
‘What about him?’
‘How do you know him?’
‘Eventually you get to know everyone.’
She knew avoidance when she heard it. She was the mistress of avoidance. ‘I got the impression that he was seeing you professionally, as a patient.’
Jonathan frowned. He dropped the hammer to the ground and stood up. ‘Poppy, where is this coming from? Why do you want to know?’
‘So he’s a friend, then?’
‘And again, I ask: why do you want to know?’
‘I want to know why you would tell him stuff about me. I want to know if you’ve been gossiping about me and Mum to some mate over a beer, or if you’re using me as some kind of psychological case study with your clients.’
Jonathan’s brow tightened. ‘What?’
‘He knew stuff about me. It doesn’t take a genius to put it together!’
‘Poppy, why were you talking to Kane?’
If she told him why she’d been to see Kane, he’d tell Mum and then she would insist that they left. ‘It doesn’t matter. Just please don’t talk about me.’ Poppy turned to leave but in a second Jonathan was in front of her, blocking her path. She tried to step around him, but again he shifted to block her.
She looked up into his face and he stared steadily back.
‘Poppy, I haven’t told Kane anything about you. I wouldn’t do that. But I am concerned about why you were talking to him?’
‘He knew stuff. He
have got it from you.’
Jonathan shook his head, glanced away and rubbed the back of his neck. ‘What is it that you think I told him?’
‘You told him I was screwed up about what happened. And I’m not, OK? So will you stop telling people that?’
Jonathan swallowed and nodded, his eyes wide with understanding like she’d just revealed some big secret to him. ‘I didn’t tell him anything about you, Poppy.’
‘Then who did?’
‘Did you have your cards read? Is that what this is about? You know the cards most often reveal the things that are hidden in our own hearts. Maybe—’
She turned to run but he grabbed her arm before she could get away. ‘Poppy.’ His voice was quiet, sympathetic. ‘Why don’t we go and get a drink and talk?’
‘If you’re not going to tell me the truth, then there’s nothing to talk about.’
Poppy snatched her arm out of Jonathan’s grip and made a dash for it. She stumbled between tents, fighting back the panic rising in her chest. Thoughts and feelings were flooding her skull like someone had opened a dam. If Jonathan was telling the truth, then how did Kane know so much about her? If he wasn’t telling the truth, then why was her stepfather lying to her? It was too much.
She took a deep breath and tried to get a grip. She had to do something. Stop thinking. She needed distraction, now!
The scent of fried food carried on the breeze.
That was it.
She followed the smell of chips all the way to the warm glow of the burger van.
‘What can I get you?’ the guy behind the counter asked. He was about a hundred years old, bald, and definitely not Tariq.
‘Er – I—’
Poppy felt a hand on her arm. She turned to see Tariq. His hair had been mussed with wax, and it stuck out at odd angles. He wore a sleeveless black T-shirt that showed off the tattooed band circling his nicely formed bicep, which bulged because of the weight of the gym bag slung over his shoulder.
He smiled, and Poppy felt like a ridiculous teenybopper faced with her boy-band idol.
‘Are you OK?’ he asked, his wild eyebrows scrunched together in concern. ‘I was just coming to look for you, thought you might need your mind taking off – stuff. But I didn’t know whether that guy was gonna stay the night.’
Ah. She forced herself to say: ‘Michael’s just a friend.’ After all, it was the truth.
Tariq’s smile widened. ‘Won’t be a sec.’ He disappeared up the metal steps into the van, exchanged a few words with the hulk who was on serving duty, and reappeared without the bag. ‘Come on. Let’s go and check out the stalls. I’ll buy you an aubergine burger or something.’
The two of them wandered through the market that had sprung up some time that afternoon. There was a trend for hanging fairy lights and Moroccan lanterns from the awnings. The soft light from the coloured glass and the warmth of the evening made Poppy feel as if she’d somehow travelled to a distant land, and after half an hour or so, the thought of Beth’s lifeless body was receding.
Tariq darted between the stalls, never standing in one place for too long.
‘What d’you reckon?’ he asked, pulling on a red and blue jester’s hat.
‘Kind of suits you, actually.’
‘We need to find one for you.’
‘We really don’t.’
‘Got it!’ He spun around and in his hands he held a sparkly crown. He grinned and placed it on her head.
‘Tariq!’ she protested.
‘A crown for the prettiest girl at the fair.’ He leaned down and his lips brushed lightly against hers before he turned, dumped his own hat and paid the stallholder for hers.
Her breath caught. In her head there was so much noise that it sounded like a freight train was thundering through her brain. But she knew what she wanted to do.
As soon as Tariq turned back to her, she reached up a hand and slid it around his neck. His skin felt warm. And he smelled good, which surprised her. After he’d been working in the burger van all day she expected him to smell of chip fat. But no. He smelled of bergamot, jasmine and something else warm and inviting.
His arms looped around her waist. Warm breath tickled her ear as he leaned in. ‘Let’s go somewhere quieter.’
He grabbed her hand and led her away from the campfires and fairy lights. The lake was the obvious place to go. Quiet. Romantic. And, er...hello?
She was relieved when he led her in the opposite direction, down the track that led back onto the lane that counted as the main road in these parts.
For a second she hesitated. Was she really going to do this – snog some guy she’d just met when she was in love with somebody else? Yes, she told herself, that was exactly what she was going to do.
Michael has a girlfriend
. It was unfair to both of them for her to sit around moping over him. This was OK. This was what people did when they were single: they had fun and occasionally kissed gorgeous strangers at Pagan festivals.
Away from the fairy lights, the night was growing dark. Poppy looked up and saw the dim ghostly glow of the Milky Way: distant suns glinting away with nearer, brighter stars. To the north, Draco the dragon swooped across the sky. And one of those glinting tiny dots was the Cat’s Eye nebula – a dying star emitting its last pulses of hot energy. At least when it died it would give birth to new stars. Maybe even new worlds. What purpose had Beth’s death served?
Tariq pulled her off the track into the shadow of the fir trees and, before she could do or say anything, he kissed her.
Hands cupped her cheeks, fingers tickled behind her ears and down the sides of her neck, and the crown he’d bought her toppled from her head.
His body seemed to be radiating heat. And she wanted that warmth. She wanted him to carry on kissing her because it was nice, so much nicer than all those fumbled nothings at school discos. Her heart pounded in her chest. But it was good – she felt alive, not dead.
Death, Poppy. Your last card was Death.
She broke from his lips and laid her head against his chest. Images spun in her head like water being dragged down a plughole: Beth’s hands blue with cold; Michael’s face before he’d stormed off and left her; the way the light had glimmered above her on the surface of Lake Windermere as she’d sunk, down, down…down.
Tariq’s arms enclosed her.
‘Are you thinking about that girl?’ he asked, softly.
‘I’m not doing a very good job of distracting you, am I?
Tariq’s hand slipped down her arm. He took her hand and led her back in the direction of the festival, stopping only to retrieve her crown from the grass. He placed it back on her head and smiled. ‘So – where do you come from? I don’t know anything about you.’
Poppy snorted. ‘Blackpool?!’
‘Yeah – what’s wrong with that?’ he asked with mock haughtiness.
‘I just didn’t think anyone actually lived there. Thought it was all cheap B&B’s and tacky fairgrounds. Although it explains the funny hat obsession.’
‘It’s not where I want to be, believe me, but at the moment it’s where I need to be.’
Tariq glanced at her as if deciding what to tell her. ‘It’s a long story.’
‘We don’t seem to be doing anything else at the moment.’
He stopped abruptly, pulled her to him and whispered, ‘We could change that.’
Poppy laughed, put her hand on his chest and gently pushed him away. ‘No way. Not when it’s just getting interesting.’
‘Believe me, it’s not interesting.’
She smiled at him until he rolled his eyes and carried on walking.
‘Usual story: Dad did a runner, left us with no money so I had to get a job.’ He sighed, ran a hand through his hair. His gaze dropped to the ground. ‘I told myself it was just short term, y’know? But the problem is, you start to get ravelled up in things. I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to undo it all.’
What a strange thing to say. She was about to ask him what he meant when the wind picked up, bringing with it the sound of drums and bodhrans beating a strangely militaristic rhythm against the backdrop of rustling leaves. Whistles joined in just as the breeze switched direction. Suddenly it sounded like the music was coming from behind them. She glanced over her shoulder, half convinced that she’d see a ghostly fairy army marching towards them. Of course there was nothing there…except…
She could just make out the curve of a shoulder and the glint of moonlight in long copper hair. It was a woman, standing in the shadow of the fir trees, watching them.
Poppy’s feet stopped moving. She pulled her hand out of Tariq’s.
‘There’s someone there,’ she whispered.
Tariq glanced around. ‘What? I don’t see anyone.’
‘She’s right…’ Poppy pointed to the fir tree, but there was nothing but shadows where seconds ago there had been flesh and bone. She hadn’t imagined it. There had definitely been someone there.
‘Where are you going?’ Tariq shouted after her.
Poppy stumbled over the uneven ground to the place where she had seen the figure. There was a small gap between the swooping branches of the fir tree and a dense thorny bush. She pushed aside a branch and eased past, ignoring the sharp twigs that slashed at her arms.
Seconds later, Tariq burst through the bush, gasping and cursing. He stopped beside her.
‘If this was some elaborate plan to get me somewhere—’
‘—Shhh!’ Poppy hushed him.
The darkness was thick with the smells of rotting bark and the fresh green sap of the fir trees. The breeze that had carried the sounds of fiddles and drums switched directions once again and they were left listening to nothing but the rustle of the air through leaves and the sound of their own breathing. Nothing moved.
‘What exactly are we doing here?’ Tariq whispered.
A sudden gust ripped through the fir trees, with the roar of waves crashing against rocks. Poppy’s hair whipped into her face. She squeezed her eyes shut and for a second she thought she heard a girl’s laughter.
The wind died just as suddenly as it had risen. She brushed her hair away from her eyes and looked from shadow to shadow. Nothing.
‘I thought – I thought I saw...’
‘Come on.’ Tariq grabbed her hand and pulled her back the way they had come. He pressed his back against the bush to create a safe passage and helped her out onto the moonlit track.
Poppy turned on her heels, looking for any sign of the girl. But they were very much alone.
Tariq looked at her bemused. ‘So what exactly was that about?’
It was a very good question and he was looking at her like she’d lost it. ‘I thought I saw someone. Sorry.’ Her cheeks filled with heat.
Tariq frowned and glanced back towards the bush. ‘Who did you think it was?’
She ran a hand through her hair and realised she’d lost her crown. ‘No one. Sorry – I guess this whole thing has me more freaked out than I thought.’
Tariq pulled her closer. ‘Hey, it’s completely understandable.’ He hugged an arm around her while his other hand brushed down her back in long slow strokes, like she was a cat that needed taming.