Rachael walked with her head held low, as the lights from the cars washed over her in the darkness. Far below her feet the trains thundered on, a low rumble reverberating upwards through her body. Empty cans and crisp packets crunched beneath her heels, and she heard shouted laughter in the distance.
London never slept. She had spent countless nights walking the city streets alone like this, and always there was the light, the movement and the thunderous sound. The heat of bodies pressed together, the sudden turn of laughter to violence, the smell of vomit, urine and beer. At night the pulse of the city seemed louder, more palpable. It was an animal thing that grunted and howled in the dark.
Her feet ached. It had been two days since the rooftop. Two days since she’d left Justin. She’d been wandering aimlessly, not really caring where she went, or where she ended up. Just the shape of the pavement beneath her heels and the sounds of the city enclosing her from every side. Even as night fell she kept moving, trying to outpace her thoughts as the sky blackened with heavy clouds.
When the park gates loomed out of the darkness, she was barely surprised at where her wandering feet had taken her. Though the streets and apartmentsof her old neighbourhood looked altogether the same, the park seemed worse for wear. Perhaps she simply imagined that it had not been so thoroughly strewn with glass and dog-leavings when she had been here last. Perhaps it was only her memory of the place that seemed brighter and cleaner than where she now stood. How much could it have changed, in a little more than a year?
She wandered across to the swings and sat down, hearing the familiar creak of the rubber, the groan of the metal frame as it shifted under her weight. She tilted her head back and looked up into a starless sky.
No, not starless. Not entirely. A single point of light hung suspended above her. For a moment it seemed as if her vision was swimming, until she realised that it was drifting from side to side, coming closer, growing brighter. She leaned forward as it fell, like a dandelion puff, but glowing like a firefly. It was a tiny thing with no discernible form. Just a ball of light. It came to rest in her cupped palms. She felt only a very slight warmth. It seemed to hover just over the skin. She looked up, and saw more lights begin to appear. Hundreds, thousands, all drifting down across the sky.
The memory came to her so suddenly that she felt an overwhelming sense of vertigo. Maybe five or six years old, she had come out into the very same park at night, only to see a thousand of the tiny drifting lights, like the one she held in her hands. When she’d caught one to bring home, her mother had told her how nice it was. It was only later that she’d really heard the way her mum had said the words; an adult playing along with a child’s game. She had never seen the little light.
That had been a long time ago. Before the drugs and the doctors. Before the nights spent curled inside a blanket, screaming into the darkness.
She stared at the little glowing light, feeling wave after wave of memory wash over her. It was like a river, deep and dark, and beneath that surface she knew there was something else lurking. Something she didn’t want to contemplate.
“It’s a ghostlight. They slip through, sometimes. From the other side.”
Startled, she pulled her hands away, letting the tiny light fall. She looked up, and saw him standing by the gate to the park. The hem of his coat brushed the grass. Her shoulders tensed.
“I’m sorry. I know you told me to stay away. It’s just… That’s not a choice I get to make,” Justin said.
“The hell do you mean?” she said, her voice coming out as little more than a hiss.
“Just what I said. Whether you want me here or not, this is where I have to be. I’m sorry.”
“You think… What… That if you just keep following me, I’ll give up and pretend nothing happened? You think you’re going to show me how much you care, just by not listening when I tell you to get lost?”
He shook his head.
“No. That’s not it at all. If you don’t want me around, I’ll respect that. If you tell me, right now, that you never want to see me again… You won’t. Not ever. But I’ll be watching. I’ll be there to keep you safe. Always.”
“Are you sick in the head? Why would anyone do that? What do you think you’re gonna prove?”
He shrugged, helplessly.
“I made a promise. To keep you safe, no matter what. Even if you hate me, even if you don’t want me.”
“Well, take your promise and stuff it. You don’t owe me nothing.”
He shook his head.
“It wasn’t a promise I made to you.”
Curious, she studied his eyes, trying to see some sign that he was leading her on. He seemed, as always, completely and entirely sincere.
“This is crazy,” she said, shaking her head. Then she looked up at the soft little lights, drifting down all around them. “I’m crazy.”
She heard his footsteps on the grass as he walked towards her, slowly, giving her time. Time to run. He held out a hand to catch one of the tiny lights, letting it rest in his palm. A ghostlight, he’d called it. When he was standing a few paces from the swings, he held out the ghostlight towards her.
“Rachael… I know what you’re dealing with. Believe me, I do. Because I took the pills, and I went to the sessions, and I learned how to pretend I was normal. Just like you did. Because for years I let them tell me that the world is dull, ugly and grey. That everything mad and impossible and beautiful could only be something I’d imagined. That I could only be crazy, to see a world that was more than just… Ordinary. It’s a lie, Rachael. It’s all a lie. There truly is magic in this world.”
He stepped closer and reached out to take her hand. Gently, he pressed the ghostlight into her open palm.
“I came here to take you away from this. To show you where ghostlights grow.”
She lowered her eyes, looking into the soft little light in her palm. Then she raised her hand, pressed her lips together and blew out a sharp puff of air. The tiny ball of light shot out of her hands, dancing off into the sky like a dandelion seed. Watching it go, she couldn’t help but smile, if only for a moment.
She turned away, unable to meet his eyes. The rusted metal frame of the swing groaned in protest as she sat down again. A moment later, he took a seat beside her. Together they listened to the sounds of the city, and the jumbled melody of chains and springs moving gently in the wind.
“I used to pretend I was flying,” she said, speaking to the open air. “There’s that moment, when you get to the top of the swing, just before you come down, when it feels like it. Like you’re flying.”
She looked over at Justin.
“But I suppose you don’t have to pretend.”
“Why didn’t you… You know… Show me that, before?”
“Because I was afraid you’d react…”
“Like I did?”
“So, what, you were waiting for me to be ready? I mean, as if I’d ever be ready for that.”
“It’s more than that. The things I can do… They can be followed, by people who know how. Like the men who are after you.”
“Who were those guys anyhow? And what do they want with me?”
“There’s a power in you, Rachael. In your mother’s blood. Those men want to control that power. Make you a prisoner. They’ve come from another world, from beyond the Veil, just to find you.”
“Beyond the veil? What’s that supposed to mean then?”
“It means… It means other worlds. Endless, impossible worlds that you couldn’t even imagine.”
“So these guys are, like, aliens or something?”
“No, they’re human, just like us. They’re people who left this world a very long time ago.”
“How’s that even possible? I mean, we’ve barely got, like, rocket ships and stuff now.”
“It’s not like that. I’m not talking about, y’know, other planets and stuff. I mean worlds, like… Worlds. Everything. Whole universes. Like, have you ever had a dream where you were someplace else, and everything was different? Even simple things like gravity?”
“Well, what if that was a real place? What if you could go there, just by stepping through a door? That’s the kind of place they come from.”
“Just by stepping through a door?”
“Sort of. It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
“Are they the only ones? These guys that are following us?”
“Maybe?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. There could be more.”
“So with the changing, you didn’t want to be too… Loud. I guess?”
“Right. And it’s difficult. Beyond the Veil, changing is easier. But here, in this world… It takes so much strength to reshape yourself like that, and all of that strength has to come from somewhere. This world is so dead to magic. It takes everything just to turn into a tiny little bird.”
“You can turn into other things? Bigger things?”
“If there’s power to draw on…” He turned his eyes upwards. “Much bigger.”
She looked out over the park, feeling the surreal emptiness of the place. Her eyes settled on an old merry-go-round, the paint peeling from the rusted metal.
“Come on,” she said, as she dropped down from the swing.
She grabbed the handle and began to push. For a moment he just stared at her with a vague look of bewilderment. Then, with a half-hearted shrug, he grabbed the other handle and they pushed together. The dry axle resisted at first, but soon they were moving, chasing each other around the circle as the merry-go-round emitted a metallic squeal. They went faster and faster, until the movement of the wheel was pulling her along. Barely able to keep up, she ran a few more steps and then pulled herself aboard. Justin ran with it for a little longer before jumping aboard. Huddled in the centre, they both held tight to the bars as the world spun around them. She leaned her head back and grinned at him. He smiled back, something utterly joyful bursting through from inside. For a moment it seemed as if the whole world just fell away and there was only that smile. Just for her.
The merry-go-round began to slow, and she loosened her grip. They sat back to back, resting their heads against the post at the centre of the wheel, feet spread out in front of them. The wind was picking up, rattling the chains on the swings and climbing frames as dead leaves skated across the grass, making little pirouettes as they danced in spirals. Every now and then the merry-go-round creaked beneath them.
“Did you really come to protect me?”
“To protect you. To bring you home.”
“And if I don’t want to go to wherever this home is?”
“Then I’ll be by your side, wherever you do want to go.”
Through the bars, her hand found his. His grip was firm and sure.
“Justin… Who are you, really?” she whispered.
“I told you who I am,” he said.
“My knight in shining armour. Right. Except you forgot your horse and all.”
For a while, he didn’t say a word. She could hear the sound of his breathing, feel the slight movement of his shoulder against hers.
She turned away, and pulled her hand back from his.
“Justin, I can’t do it. I can’t believe in all this like you want me to. This is crazy, and it don’t matter how much I try to tell myself it isn’t, because I know, I just know…”
She felt the platform wobble as he stepped off, and his feet crunched against the wood chips as he walked around to stand in front of her. Slowly, almost solemnly, he knelt in front of her and reached out to take her hand again, pressing it between his own. He leaned in close, his wide brown eyes locked on hers, and she found herself becoming all too aware of the sound of her heartbeat, thundering against her chest.
“Everyone believes in something, Rachael. This is what they taught you to believe in; this ugly, grey world that they called ‘Normal.’ Tell me, is it better there?”
A grey door filled her mind, still part-way open. A glimpse of a beige carpet, streaked with cigarette burns. The world they had made her live in.
She shook her head.
“No. No, it’s not.”
“Then come live in mine. If we’re wrong, at least we’re happy. And if we’re right, we’ll fly above them all.”
For a moment, all she could see was his eyes. He was close enough that she could feel his breath in the air, and she barely even noticed herself resting one hand, lightly, on his arm. Her lips were dry. Without really thinking about it, she stroked his hair back.
Then she heard the sound of footsteps on the grass.
They sat up together and looked around to see the men closing in from every side, a loose circle forming around them. Shapes in the darkness, beginning to take on definition as they emerged into the pools of light around the playground. Rough faces, rough clothes. She recognised the stocky, gravel voiced man. Korban, the others had called him. In one hand he still held the leash, stretched taut as the wild haired man pulled towards them, clawing at the grass with his gnarled hands. A little back from the group, the brothers in their red and gold coats. The older of them, hard faced and serious, a scowling mouth mostly hidden by his thick beard. The thin one wearing a satisfied smirk, his hand resting on the jewelled hilt of the sword at his waist.
“Well,” the younger brother said, obviously amused, “it’s a good thing we got here when we did. I do believe something rather unchivalrous might have been about to occur.”
Justin sprang to his feet, the motion surprisingly graceful. She took his hand, stepping off the merry-go-round to stand beside him. The four men closed in cautiously. She heard the clicking sound, as the blade appeared in Justin’s hand again.
“You’ll know when to run,” he whispered.
She gave the slightest of nods, just enough to show that she’d heard him. They stood together, as the circle closed in. She looked around for a weapon, but there was nothing to hand.
Justin turned and locked eyes with the nearest of the four, a looming figure with a scarred face and long, dark hair. Muscled rippled under her shirt as the woman stepped forward. Rachael saw Justin flex, moving on the balls of his feet. Glancing around she saw how the other three were hanging back just a little, ready to move in as soon as the fighting started.
“Now, now. If you’ll just put that knife down young man, there’s no need for this to get bloody,” the younger brother announced. “My name is Rakesh Bhandari. My brother Naveen and I are men of honour, sworn Knights of the Guild. I’m sure we can resolve all this without… Unpleasantness.”
Looking at the cold eyes of the four thugs surrounding them, Rachael could already see the violence lurking there. There was no question how this was going to end, no matter what anyone said.
The towering brute of a woman took another step forward. Her mouth slowly twisted into a smile.
“Listen, kid, Jocasta here’s got about twenty years experience and another hundred pounds of muscle on you,” Korban said, gesturing at the woman. “I admire your spirit, but you gotta know when to quit.”
Justin said nothing, but Rachael saw the smile that crept onto his lips. He held out his hand and let the knife fall, landing point down in the soft ground.
“Smart move kid,” Korban said, nodding to his men. The four goons began closing in, still cautious. As Jocasta loomed over the both of them, Justin looked up at the woman, still smiling. For a moment no one moved. The two of them seemed to be waiting to see what would happen next.
It was almost too fast for Rachael to follow. Jocasta lunged, reaching down to catch the younger man in a hold. In that same moment Justin slipped to one side, and somehow caught the woman’s arm, twisting it around behind her back. In the same motion, Justin kicked his fallen knife up into the air. He caught the knife in his free hand, flipped the blade point down, and stabbed it into the back of Jocasta’s neck. The woman roared in pain, staggering forward with her hands clamped over her neck, as blood poured down her shirt. Before the woman had even hit the ground, Justin was moving again. One hand flicked out towards the nearest of Korban’s goons as he danced past her. There was a flicker of silver in the air, and then the knife landed in the man’s shoulder. His other hand caught Rachael’s arm as he turned and pushed her towards the space where Jocasta had been standing.
She heard a cry behind her and glanced back just for a moment. Where Justin had been there was only a blur in the air, a feathered shape that lashed out with steely claws.
Korban reached into his jacket pocket and produced a heavy looking revolver. Before she could even shout a warning, Justin cut back on himself, turning over in the air to rake the man’s face with his claws. He was a hawk, she realised, sleek, fast and deadly. Korban staggered backwards, blood pouring into his eyes. As the gun fell from his hands, so too did the end of the leash. The wild man rolled to one side and came up on his haunches with a terrible howl.
Without another thought she turned and ran. Dimly, she saw the lights of the road approaching. The sound of her breathing was so loud in her ears that it blocked out everything else. She vaulted the fence and hit the pavement running. Glancing back, she saw a brief flash of light and heard the crack of a gunshot. Silhouetted, she saw a man reeling backwards, the outline of a large bird against his face. The flare of light faded, and the darkness flooded back in a hundred times deeper. In the moment of silence that followed she heard a sound like an animal panting heavily, growing louder and closer. As her eyes readjusted she made out the shape of the man, running with a lopsided, loping stride. Any thought of going back for Justin left her that instant.
She ran on through the narrow streets, lines of cars parked nose to tail on either side of her. She came to a junction and picked a direction at random. Too late, she saw that she had chosen wrong. Before her lay a small cul-de-sac, vehicles lining the street in front of towering grey apartment blocks. She doubled back but it was too late. The old man came shambling out into the middle of the junction, moving on all fours. His eyes were fixed on her.
He was only a man, she told herself. She did not have to run from one man, though everything inside her was screaming to do exactly that. He was only one man. She could fight him, beat him. Escape. But she knew that were many terrible things that one man could do to her. He was old, but he was taller and stronger, and the wildness in him terrified her. She could see it in his eyes, dark holes into nothingness. She could see that he was broken inside.
“Little girl? No. Not a little girl.”
She could smell the stink of him as he approached.
“Not a little girl at all. Not anything.”
He advanced another step, and his stench preceded him like a wave.
“You’re not here,” the man screamed, his mouth forming around a torrent of spittle as the words howled out. “Empty! Empty!” He lurched forward, with a sudden and violent energy. She darted back, his grubby nails barely missing her as she turned and ran deeper into the cul-de-sac, hoping against hope to find a some way through. The sound of his footsteps followed her, as he continued to howl and roar.
“Can’t find you. Smelled you out. Did what I was told. Good boy gets a treat. The little girl’s not here. She’s just an empty hole. I did what I was told.”
His ravings were nothing but noise in the air as she ran. For a moment she thought the distance was growing, her surer strides outpacing his drunken lurching. Then a ridge in the pavement caught at her toes and it seemed as though one leg was simply kicked out from under her. She crashed into the hard ground. Palms, elbows, chin, all exploded with fire. The breath was ripped from her lungs. Through the pain and the dizziness she could still hear him coming.
A van was parked by the side of the road. She rolled sideways, slipping underneath. She squirmed her way into the narrow space as quickly as she could, but a gnarled hand wrapped itself around her ankle, and she could move no further. Her body scraped across the pavement as he dragged her loose. Desperately, she grabbed at the underside of the van with bloodied hands, tears stinging her eyes, but he was too strong. Cold metal dug into her hands and her grip weakened. She was being pulled into his grasp, inch by inch.
The hand on her ankle jerked hard and her grip gave way entirely. Then he was on her, a mass of hair and bone and muscle and the overpowering stink of him. She felt the sweat of his palms as bony hands caught her wrists.
“Can feel you. Feel the little girl, but she isn’t real, can’t be real. Nothing inside there, nothing inside.”
Ravings spilled from his mouth, and she tasted his spit as it burst out into her face. A hand against her shoulder, pushing her down, pressing her into the unyielding tarmac. She kicked, felt something recoil, but he was oblivious to whatever pain she might have inflicted. He leaned in closer, his eyes locked on hers.
There was a sound, like paper rustling in a breeze, and then a grey blur streaked across her vision. The impact hurled him across the street, the sheer force rolling her to one side. Something dark splattered the ground beneath her hands, and Rachael felt a wet spray against her face. She heard a crunch, then a noise like damp cloth tearing and a gurgled scream that died almost as soon as it began.
Her hands were pressed to the tarmac, her face inches away from a slowly spreading pool of dark red liquid. She wondered if maybe it was hers. Arms shaking, she tried to stand, but her trembling legs would not take her weight. She moved until her knees were folded under herself, sat up, and forced herself to look around.
The old man lay unmoving, the pavement wet with blood around his body. The wolf stood over him, drawing great lungfuls of air, its flanks heaving, blood dripping from lips that curled back from yellow teeth. There was a constant sound in its throat, the low rattle of a growl. It turned to look at her, and she felt her heart seize in her chest. Her hands twitched, and sweat dripped from her brow, but she could not move. Her body felt cold.
Then, as the creature looked into her eyes, the growl softened, then ceased. A large pink tongue swiped across blood-splattered jowls. The wolf padded forward, eyes widening in an expression of sadness. Head close to hers, a soft snout rubbed gently against her cheek. Almost without thinking, she reached up to stroke the smooth fur behind one ear.
He sat down and pressed his head against the side of her neck, eyes closed. Her legs were damp, the denim of her jeans soaked through with blood. As much as the thought of it should have made her sick, it simply didn’t seem to matter. She was floating in a hollow space. The cold, the hurt, the damp, the smell and the feel of it all seemed distant and faint. The soft fur beneath her hand, the warmth of him, was the only thing she seemed truly aware of.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.