Authors: Sharon Jones
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
‘You sure you’re going to be OK?’
Poppy nodded. ‘I’ll be fine.’ She wanted out of there. Away from that stupid sweat lodge and away from all the crazy. She hadn’t channelled the ancestors, for God’s sake! She’d freaked out…or fallen asleep…or daydreamed…or something. It was more likely that she’d had a flipping mental breakdown than she’d channelled Beth’s spirit!
‘You know we need to talk about this,’ Mo said.
‘I can’t. I need to see Mum,’ Poppy said, knowing full well that Mum and Jonathan had gone to a meeting about their handfasting.
Mo Little Wolf frowned. The medicine woman wasn’t stupid. She knew she was being given the brush-off. ‘Anything like that happens again, you come to me or Bob.’
‘Don’t worry. If I have another freak-out I’ll come and find you.’
‘Wasn’t a freak-out. It was a blessing.’
‘Yeah, well, it didn’t feel like it,’ she snapped back. She took a deep breath and tried to get herself together. ‘I’m sorry, Mo.’
‘OK. Later. But promise me you’ll keep the necklace on.’
She nodded, fingering the warm black stone that hung around her neck.
‘Do you mind if I talk to your mom about this?’
‘No!’ Poppy gasped. ‘You can’t. I don’t want you to. I’ve got to go. Thanks, Mo. I’ll be fine, honest.’
The morning sun was unusually warm as she headed back to her tent; either that or the heat from the lodge was lingering in her body. Maybe the heat explained the heaviness she felt; like she’d picked up a hundred-litre backpack filled with lava stones that were all whispering in her ear about Kane and Beth and Maya.
He’s on to you!
When Poppy reached her tent she flopped into one of the green canvas chairs Jonathan had set up outside the tipi. She didn’t even have the energy to go for a shower or get changed. Her head buzzed with images of Beth on the bluff and Kane staring at her like she was the one tormenting him.
Life seemed to have returned to normal at the festival. The music of laughter and chatter drifted through the canvas village. People were walking with places to go and people to meet. How quickly they were able to shake off the presence of death.
Not her, though. Why couldn’t she let it go?
Michael was right, she was treating Beth’s death like it was her responsibility and it wasn’t. She’d met the girl once. Yes, she should be sad that she died, and yes, she supposed it was natural to want to know why. But the way she was acting was crazy. She was letting her imagination get the better of her. And now Mo thought that she was some kind of sensitive! That was a joke. She was just stressed, over Beth…and Michael. She squeezed her eyes shut.
God, what an idiot she was being. She had to talk to him – apologise.
She grabbed her mobile out of her pocket and looked at the screen, watching the signal dropping in and out. Maybe if she hit the button at just the right time, she could reply to Michael’s text. She typed in:
Sorry I was such a cow. Put it down to hormones, or shock – whatever you like. I was a bitch and I’m sorry. Hope you and Dawkins are enjoyin
g your boys weekend. X
Best to keep it short and sweet. The truth would only hurt them both. She took a deep breath, waited until the signal reached three bars, and pressed send.
‘Are you wearing a skirt?’ she heard a familiar voice ask. Great, she was imagining his voice now. ‘Poppy?’
She looked up. Michael was standing there in a baggy white shirt and jeans. The sun cast a reddish tint on his dark hair and his eyes looked tired and sore. She sighed with relief. It was him. He was actually here.
She smiled. ‘That’s weird, I just texted you.’ She glanced around. ‘Where’s Dawkins?’
‘Caddying for my mother.’
‘She’s taken him to golf? Is that allowed?’
‘I think she’s pretending he’s a guide dog or something.’
That was exactly the kind of thing his mum would do. ‘I thought this festival had security – how come they keep letting you in?’
He held up his arm and pulled back his sleeve, revealing a wristband. ‘I’m a fully paid-up participant.’
‘Then you should probably go to a workshop. I think cleansing your chakras would be right up your street. Or how about—’ She picked up a programme from where it had been dumped by Jonathan. ‘—Yeah, here you go: The Shaman’s Way – discovering your inner animal. I’d say that you have a bit of a wombat vibe going on.’
‘Why don’t we just sit in your tent?’
Her tent was supposedly a two-man kind of thing, but actually was claustrophobic for one. She didn’t fancy being that close; too dangerous. And given the amount of sweat that had poured out of her in the last couple of hours, she didn’t think it would be pleasant for Michael either. ‘Why don’t we sit in the tipi? Mum and Jonathan have gone to sort out handfasting preparations, whatever that involves.’
‘So it’s going ahead then?’
‘Yeah, this afternoon. Stay if you want. You know they’d love it.’
Michael nodded, but said nothing. She didn’t like it when he was quiet – what followed was never fun. She pushed herself up out of the chair and slipped through the canvas flap of the tipi. Light flooded through the hole at the apex of the poles, shining a spotlight on the little altar of flowers and goddess and horned god statues Mum and Jonathan had set up. They were meant to be leading some kind of psychobabble workshop in there the next day and had gone to a lot of trouble to make the place cosy. There were enough rag rugs to almost cover the groundsheet. Large embroidered cushions were scattered around the edges. Mum had even bought some of those nice Moroccan lamps from the market.
Poppy slumped down onto a large faux velvet cushion, dreading what was coming. Michael chose another. He wrapped his arms around his knees and smiled.
‘This is appropriate.’
‘Y’know – passing around the peace pipe and all of that.’
For a moment she was back in the smoky darkness of the lodge, her lungs full of sage smoke. She forced herself to return his smile. ‘I’m sorry about yesterday. You were right, I was being arsey. As usual. My only defence is I had just found a dead body.’
‘It wasn’t just yesterday.’
Oh God! He hadn’t come to make up with her. He’d come to break it off. She sat up onto her knees. ‘Yeah, I know. And it’s me. And I’m sorry, Michael. I’ll be better. I’ll stop being such a bitch, I promise.’
Michael squeezed his eyes shut and laughed. ‘Don’t make promises you won’t keep.’
‘I will! I mean, I’ll even come back with you if you want. I’ll go to Julia’s flipping jelly and ice cream party. Whatever you want.’
‘I don’t want—’ Michael still had his eyes shut, like he couldn’t look at her. He swallowed. ‘You don’t have to do that. We don’t have to like the same people to be friends. But we do have to be friends, Poppy. I don’t want to lose you.’
‘You’re not dumping me?’
‘What?’ Michael’s eyes flew open. ‘Dumping you? You mean – no! I just don’t want us to fight all the time.’
‘Thought you liked it?’
. But recently it’s felt like you meant it. I know that you’re upset about your mum and Jonathan getting married—’
‘Come on. You hate it.’
‘I’m fine with it. Honestly. I mean, Jonathan’s a fruit loop, and I’m not that keen on some of his friends, but Mum loves him.’
He smiled, but she could see disappointment in his eyes. Great – she’d upset him again. She just wished she knew how.
Silence followed, and not the comfortable kind. She had to say something – make some kind of joke to get them past this. She opened her mouth to speak and stopped when she saw how he was looking at her, like he was desperate to say something but didn’t know how.
Eventually, he looked away and blew his fringe out of his eyes. ‘Have the police said anything more about what might have happened?’
She sighed with relief. Safer territory. ‘They’re convinced it was an accident.’
Michael nodded. He picked up an oblong cushion that had tiny mirrors sewn into its red satin. Reflected dancing lights flashed on his face, and, for a second in her head, they were the sprites from the lake, come to take him away from her. She stiffened.
‘I got to thinking about it last night. Maya’s a pretty unusual name, so I did a quick Google search.’
‘Did you find anything?’
Michael shrugged. ‘I’m not sure. I didn’t have a surname. But I did find a missing person called Maya Flynn.’ He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a folded square of paper. Carefully, he opened it out and handed it to her.
The image was only a couple of inches high. A girl with startling blue eyes and long strawberry blonde hair smiled mischievously out.
Poppy touched her own hair, still damp with sweat.
‘I thought she looked a bit like you. Not exactly, but the hair.’
Poppy remembered the girl watching her and Tariq from the shadow of the fir trees. The glint of moonlight on red hair.
In the photograph there was an arm around the girl’s shoulder, but whoever it belonged to had been cut off. The arm was sheathed in black leather, and the hand that was cupped around Maya’s shoulders bore long nails painted the colour of red wine.
Beth. Had to be.
‘It’s her,’ she whispered.
‘Are you sure? How do you know?’
‘Because I’ve seen her.’
‘We have to go to the police,’ Michael said, as they pushed through the crowds of folk who’d been let out of the various seminars and workshops. ‘Poppy!’
‘The minute we do that, she’ll be gone.’ She ran her fingers through her damp hair. She felt better now that she’d showered away the sweat and sage smoke, even if the water in the Portakabin showers had been freezing.
‘You honestly think this is a good idea?’ Michael asked.
Before she could answer, she spotted someone waving at her. Tariq.
No! Why now?
She stopped and waited for him to catch them up.
‘Hey, I was just coming to look for you.’ He leaned down and kissed her. Today he did smell of chip fat and ten-day-old burgers. She felt cold. And as if he’d caught the chill, Tariq backed away. He glanced over her shoulder. ‘Oh, it’s your friend. Michael, right? Hi.’
Michael nodded. His smile was lopsided and forced, like it had been painted on by Picasso.
‘Umm – Tariq, I’m kind of—’
‘Don’t mind me,’ Michael said. ‘Take your time. The longer the better, in fact.’
‘Are you working today?’ Poppy asked, forcing herself to touch Tariq’s arm.
‘Yeah. Yeah, I’m working.’
‘What time do you get off?’
Tariq shrugged. ‘I’m flexible.’
‘I’ll come and find you, if that’s OK. There’s just some stuff I’ve got to do.’
‘Great.’ Tariq’s gaze drifted briefly over her shoulder again, then he smiled. ‘I’ll look forward to it.’
She felt his hand on her hip as he leaned down and pressed his lips to hers.
Kiss him! Kiss him, damn it!
She placed a hand on his shoulder, all too aware of the toned muscle beneath her fingers, and quickly kissed him back.
It was enough. She felt his lips curve into a smile.
‘Later,’ he whispered. He nodded pleasantly at Michael, and took off.
Poppy sucked in a deep breath. Her heart was pounding so loud that it echoed in her skull. Michael’s arms were folded and there were wisps of storm clouds in his eyes.
They started walking again.
‘So, you and Burger Boy?’
‘Don’t call him Burger Boy like that’s some kind of crime.’
‘No, it’s good. I mean, great that you’ve hooked up with someone who’s got ambition and drive. I hear you can make a very good living from those kinds of small businesses. How old is he anyway?’
Poppy couldn’t stop herself glaring at him.
Michael grinned. ‘Oh, I see. You didn’t get into particulars before you snogged him. That is, of course, if you did just snog him.’
That was it. She swung round. ‘Don’t!’
‘What?’ Michael threw up his hands, his mouth hanging open, all innocent. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘Just stop it.’
‘That’s precious. You can say what you like about my girlfriend, but I can’t poke a little fun when you pick up the guy from the burger van?’
Poppy groaned and carried on walking.
‘So did you?’ Michael asked, his voice carefully casual, as he fell into step beside her.
‘Sleep with him.’
No!’ Poppy’s cheeks ignited. She glanced at him, expecting the full smirk treatment, but Michael wasn’t smiling, not even a little.
‘Good,’ he said, shortly.
mean? And what kind of person do you think I am?’ She shook her head. He knew she was practically a nun. So where was this coming from? ‘You’re supposed to be my best friend and yet you seem to be under the impression that I’m some kind of slapper!’
He bit his lip and looked away. ‘I don’t think that. But I do know you, Poppy. I know you’re either in or you’re out.’
It was just what Mum had said to her. She stopped. ‘Hold on a minute. Have you and Meg been conspiring again?’
‘You and my mother. Have you been talking to her?’
‘No. Why would I?’
It had started after the accident, when the two of them had tried smothering her in cotton wool. ‘Don’t come the innocent with me. I hear you, y’know, muttering in corners. Saying stuff you don’t want me to hear.’
Michael stopped and turned to her. ‘OK, yeah, I talked to Meg. Sue me.’
‘What about?’ She felt exposed, like they’d been picking through her drawers before she’d had time to tidy up. She folded her arms over her chest.
Michael swallowed. His gaze sank to the ground and he shrugged. ‘I’ve been worried about you.’
‘Look, I don’t want to fall out and anything I say you’re gonna twist until it sounds really bad.’
‘You always do.’
That was so unfair! She didn’t twist things. Yeah, OK, sometimes she kept stuff from him, but that was different. She did it to keep them friends. She did it to stop herself from losing him. But look where it had got her. She was going to lose him anyway. ‘Tell me. Come on, what’ve I done to make you so worried about me?’
Michael’s mouth set into a hard line. He stared over her head and sucked in a deep breath. ‘Do I really need to? Don’t you know? Don’t you see what you’re doing?’
‘You’re pushing me away.’
‘I’m not! Michael, I know I’ve been—’ Of course she’d pushed him away. Sometimes it hurt too much to be with him. Watching him with Julia near killed her.
He shook his head and turned his gaze on her. His blue eyes were hard and tension collected in the muscles in his neck, making them stick out. ‘You’re really gonna stand there and deny it?’
‘Hello! GCSEs! Might not have been an important year for you, but it was for me.’
‘During the summer?’
‘I’ve been busy with Meg and Jonathan’s wedding.’
Michael growled and glared at the sky. ‘Stop it!’
Poppy swallowed. There were tears scratching to get out of her eyes but she wouldn’t let herself cry. She didn’t like lying to him but what choice did she have?
‘For fuck’s sake, Poppy, why won’t you talk to me? It drives me mad that you won’t talk to me. You used to tell me everything and now—’
‘—We talk all the time!’
‘About school. University. Parents. We don’t
any more.’ He rubbed his hands through his hair, making it stand on end. ‘I miss you.’
She wanted to say that she missed him too, that she was sorry that she’d pushed him away, but if she let him get too close he was bound to see how she felt about him and then she’d lose him forever. She’d never felt less like smiling but she pulled out her cockiest grin and play-punched his arm. ‘Are you sure you’ve got a Y chromosome?’
‘I’m not kidding – you’re sounding more like a woman every day.’
‘Oh thanks, that’s nice.’
‘Seriously, this carries on and you’ll end up having periods.’
Michael snorted, shook his head and stared at the ground. ‘You’re the only person who can do this to me. Why is that?’
‘Because I know all your deepest, darkest secrets?’
She just hoped he’d never find out hers.
Poppy had no trouble guessing which tent was Kane’s. It was green and twice the size of all the tents around it – the kind of tent that people owned if they spent their lives hopping from one festival to the next. The flaps were fastened open with the thick gold-coloured ropes that grannies used to tie back chintz curtains, and there was a board with Kane’s book covers pinned to it and a price list for readings. She peered at the opening. It looked like there was no one at home.
‘You think she’s in there?’ Michael asked.
Poppy shrugged. ‘She’s got to be sleeping somewhere, and it’s big enough to hide out in.’
‘So what’s the plan? We just going to knock on the door?’
‘Unless you brought your invisibility cloak with you, I suppose we’ll have to.’
Michael smiled. ‘If I’m Harry, does that make you Hermione? Because I see a definite similarity in the hair.’
Poppy smoothed down her damp hair, sure to be drying into frizz. ‘
. Some of us didn’t have access to a hairdryer. Or the half a gallon of product you use on your hair,
‘Actually, I like the fresh from the shower look.’
She turned to him, hands on hips, waiting for the punch line. It never came and the look in his eye made her blink. He smiled and her stomach flipped like she’d just hit a speed bump at ninety miles an hour.
‘Well, come on then, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it,’ he said, wiggling his eyebrows. He grabbed her T-shirt and tugged her towards the open flap.
‘Hello?’ she called into the gloom. There was no reply. She glanced around. There were only a couple of guys chatting outside another tent, and neither of them seemed to have noticed her and Michael.
She looked at Michael, unsure.
He shrugged and strolled right in.
‘Okaaay. But if we get done for breaking and entering, I’m telling the police it was your idea,’ she said, following him in.
The main compartment was pretty sparse. In one corner there was a small fold-up table with two chairs tucked under it. In another, a red and blue striped blanket was spread over the grass. On it
An Introduction to Eastern Philosophy
lay open, face down, spine broken.
Michael was staring at something else.
On the back canvas wall there were three zipped-up doors, presumably leading to three different bedrooms. He went to the left-hand compartment and unzipped the flap. She followed him and peeped over his shoulder. Inside there was nothing but what looked like a few boxes of books.
She shook her head at him, and as he zipped up the flap, she unzipped the second flap and stepped inside. It was darker in this compartment, but in the dim light she could see that this was where the guy stored his junk. Michael followed her, in and looked around. There was a duffel bag open with clothes spilling out. A backpack filled with more clothes and a couple of CDs sticking out of the top. It was all guys’ stuff. There were no hairbrushes, or girls’ clothes – no sign at all that a girl was staying there.
Poppy nudged a few things and then sighed. ‘She’s not here.’
‘But we don’t know what’s behind door number three yet,’ Michael whispered.
Poppy winced. ‘Did you take a corny pill with breakfast this morning?’
She followed Michael out and as he zipped up that compartment, she unzipped the last door.
The flap fell back and she gasped.
Before her was a girl with a pale face and reddish-blonde hair. She stumbled back, and so did the other girl.
She blinked and realised that the girl in front of her was actually her own reflection.
The next second, Michael was at her side. ‘Jesus!’ he gasped.
A full-length mirror faced outwards, towards the door.
‘What the hell kind of a trick is that?’ he whispered.
She didn’t quite know, but she had a horrible feeling she could guess. Poppy stepped away from Michael and edged around the mirror.
The air inside smelled stale, like the boys’ changing room at school. In the centre of the compartment a sleeping bag lay flung over an air mattress. Beside it was an industrial-sized torch and surrounding everything was a circle of white powder.
Michael crouched down and touched the circle. He crunched the substance between his fingers and then licked his thumb. He winced. ‘Salt?’
A circle of salt. She tried to swallow, but her throat had run dry. A circle of salt – she knew what that meant. Salt keeps out spirits. The spirits of dead people.
She’s everywhere, she’s even here
, she remembered Kane whispering into the dark.
‘What’s going on? Why is the guy sleeping in a circle of salt?’ Michael asked.
No, it was crazy. This was crazy. But the air wasn’t just stale. It felt heavy as it settled in her lungs, like there was something dark here. Corrupt. Poppy felt the creeping sensation that someone was watching them. She spun around, half expecting to find Kane ready to charge at them, but there was no one there.
‘What’s wrong?’ Michael asked.
‘We need to get out of here,’ she whispered, urgently. And even to her it sounded like begging.
Michael grabbed her hand and dragged her out of the salt-circled room, out of the tent. They didn’t even stop to zip up the compartment. They headed to the nearby shelter of the woods.
Poppy leaned against an old oak tree and focused on the clean pine-scented air that was replacing the foul air from the tent.
Michael frowned. ‘Are you OK?’ he asked, keeping a tight hold on her arm.
She nodded, but she wasn’t. She was shaking and she was cold, like her insides had been scraped out, put in the freezer for a couple of hours, and then dumped back inside her. If she believed in ghosts or atmospheres, she’d say that there was something wrong in Kane’s tent. Very wrong. But she didn’t believe in that rubbish, did she? It was the sweat lodge. She was dehydrated.
‘We should go and find Meg,’ Michael said.
‘No. I’ll be fine in a minute. I think I got too hot this morning at the sweat lodge.’
‘Sweat lodge? I didn’t think you were into that kind of thing any more.’
,’ she said, angrily, then shook her head. That’s right, she
believe in all that crap. ‘Sorry. Long story. I was kind of strong-armed into it.’ She took a deep breath and forced a smile. ‘Didn’t look like she was there, did it? Guess I got that one wrong. Come on,’ she said, stepping away from the oak tree. ‘There’s someone we need to find.’