She awoke to the sound of screaming.
Or at least what she first thought was screaming but was actually the braying sound of the smoke alarm shrieking its irritation at being disturbed at this late hour.
Allison or Alli-saurus as her dad would joking call her, raised herself up on her arms and peered into the gloom of her hello-kitty themed bedroom. The air was thick with smoke and when she took a deep breath to call for her parents her lungs flooded with the toxic air. All at once she was doubled over coughing and retching at the sudden thickness in her throat.
At five years old Alli certainly had no idea what the thick cloying smoke signified, but the sound of the smoke alarm worried her, beyond the worry that she couldn’t seem to take a proper breath without choking on it. Earlier that year at school a fire officer had come to class, and she had been delighted, amongst the other children of course. Being the most confident and outspoken five-year-old in the class, it had been she who had boldly asked to try on the fire-fighters hat, and she had happily passed it on to the other kids to try once she had had her turn.
She remembered now, quite vividly, the seriousness with which both her teacher and the fire-fighter had told them about smoke alarms.
“Always make sure your parents test their smoke alarms regularly,” he said, and Alli had nodded seriously.
She came home that day and watched her mum change the batteries in their smoke alarm at the top of the stairs while Alli nibbled on a custard cream
Now, however, biscuits were the furthest thing from her mind.
Mummy the smoke alarm’s going off! She tried to yell, but her throat was just too raw and felt stuffed full of cotton wool. She couldn’t get a single word out.
Her bedroom door was open just a crack, to allow the light from the hallway to inch into her room just a little – like a night light. Alli was notoriously accident prone and if there was no light to guide her in the night if she needed to use the toilet then she was apt to knock something over, or bump into things. To save the morning bruises or mess her parents eventually conceded that the hallway light would remain on during the nights.
That hallway light was not on now.
This was perhaps the most alarming thing for Alli, because at five years old she had very little experience or knowledge about smoke besides the times Uncle Gary would visit and venture out into the garden for a ‘secret-ret’, cigarette, and she would catch the faint stale whiff of it. But that was nothing like the cloying putrid smoke infused air that she was breathing right now and even in the back of her mind she didn’t associate Uncle G’s secret-ret smell to this fetid stench on the back of her tongue now.
She retched again, and tears sprung to her eyes; the sting of the air burned the back of her lids and made them so itchy she wanted to rub them.
“Mummy…” she gasped.
Alli rolled out of bed and into a heap on the floor, the sheets still tangled around her legs. Her knees banged the hard floor and she cried out; the sound muffled by the cotton-wool air. She wondered if it was getting in her ears and blocking them up too, like in her throat and nose.
She kicked her legs free of the sheets, feeling more sluggish and sleepier with every passing second. Her head was throbbing in time with her pulse, which miraculously was slow and steady instead of fast and panicked, and the ache behind her eyes was only intensifying this new need for sleep within her.
Instead of standing, Alli crawled to the door, vaguely remembering what the fire-fighter had told them about smoke rising. He had crouched in front of them on his hands and knees making them giggle and said, “Remember kids, stay low like this in a fire, and head for the way out.”
So, Alli did.
She crawled across her bedroom floor, which was thankfully tidy and clear for the first time in a week after being threatened to have her toys thrown out, she had finally tidied it all up before bed this very night.
She opened the door all the way and was welcomed by another thick wave of that sickly smoke, making her turn her head and gag. She spat out a long stream of charcoal coloured spit, trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth.
Alli felt even groggier now, even sleepier. She crawled out into the hallway and was a little surprised to see her stuffed bear, Mike, still clutched in her fist like a talisman. She had had Mike for as long as she could remember; her parents had named him she thought because she didn’t remember picking the name.
Come on, Mike, let’s find mum and dad, she thought bravely and crossed the hall to the closed door. She had to reach up on her knees and turn the handle awkwardly, she didn’t have much strength left in her it seemed and turning the handle left her panting and sweating.
The sweating might have had something to do with the intense heat that seemed to be building within the house now. It was like a furnace, especially out here in the hallway, she’d been so concerned with trying to breathe that she’d hardly noticed it. The floor beneath her hands was warming rapidly and she found herself wondering for the first time where the fire was, for she could see no sign of it.
Shrugging that thought off for now, she pushed open the bedroom door. Smoke billowed past her, greedily snatching away any clean air that might have been preserved within and leaving only noxious, toxic air in its wake.
Alli was coughing again, her head was spinning, and her body was heaving with every rasp of air that she managed to take. Just when she thought she would probably go on coughing until she passed out, she managed to get a hold of herself. Her chest burned where the unclean air was clotting inside her, but she couldn’t help that now, nor did she even understand it.
It didn’t take Allie long to realise the bedroom was empty, mum and dad must have still been downstairs when the fire started. Wherever said fire may be.
At the foot of her parent’s bed, she felt the last of her strength diminish and she curled up on her side, hugging Mike as tightly as she could manage, which wasn’t very tight at all as a moment later he slipped through her fingers like water, and she found she didn’t have the energy nor the will to pick him back up again.
It’s ok, Mike, I can still see you, she thought sleepily.
She faded in and out of consciousness for the next few minutes. She barely even stirred when the floor in the hallway suddenly cracked and caved in, bright murderous flames leaping up and taking hold up here, too. The bright firelight danced behind her closed lids, and she smiled faintly, thinking it was perhaps the torchlight show her dad would sometimes put on for her making funny shapes and shadows on the wall.
Soon daddy would kiss her goodnight, ruffle her hair and call her Alli-saurus because she was a big, mean killing machine, and she would laugh then she would drift happily away into the land of dreams.
It wasn’t daddy who came to her. It was someone else.
He swept into the house, unseen and unheard, a spirit amongst the flames. Neither the smoke nor the sickly-sweet stench of death bothered him here while he was like this, a ghost. He found the parents first, collapsed and already dead in the lounge, what was left of their earthly remains was blackened and charred.
This newcomer felt the first stirrings of panic at the sight of them, wondering if perhaps he was too late to save the child. And save the child he must.
He rose up through the house, ignoring the stairs and instead moving through the air like a puff of smoke himself. The fire was still hungrily eating away at the house, fed not by air or natural means, but stoked by purest evil. The newcomer could smell the distinction. Smoke itself was pungent, but the stench of this fire, the stench within this whole house was of something much darker.
The newcomer only hoped that the thing that set this fire was already gone, and that the child was still alive.
He surged forward, seeking any sign of life or movement amongst the burning wreckage. He found her bedroom first, already consumed by the flames. He was encouraged by the sight of her empty bed and turned to the master bedroom. He soared forward and saw her at last. Lying as still as a corpse, her skin beneath the smudges of smoke was ashen and colourless. But the newcomer could tell that she was still alive, and he was relieved. He crossed the gaping hole of the hallway, even passing through the flames themselves as if they were nothing but air and arrived on the other side untouched. He was a ghost after all.
He materialised fully when he moved into the bedroom, and the smoke instantly invaded his lungs. He dropped to his knees, and gasped, “Christ!” His body automatically trying to cough up the foreign substance the air was bringing into his body.
The floor beneath him groaned alarmingly at his sudden weight and he worried for a second that it would fall through it. But the ground held firm for now and he edged forward, the creak of floorboards worrying him.
He reached the girl’s stuffed bear first, also dirtied by the smoke but perhaps the only thing he might be able to salvage for her to keep. He took it firmly in his hand before getting his arm under the small form of the child on the floor. She whimpered softly when he pulled her against his chest, and he frowned at the foreign twitch that occurred deep within his blackened heart. It had been a long time since he had pined for a child, he thought distractedly, but the feel of her slight form in his arms was enough to bring back just a little of what it felt like to hope, to dream. He held her tightly against him, the teddy still in his fist.
He would not be able to get her out through the front; the stairs were all but consumed by the flames and the whole of the downstairs was already reduced to ash. It wouldn’t be long before this floor came crashing down too, he had but minutes at most. And in this form, he was as vulnerable as the girl.
His chest ached from inhaling the smoke, but he ignored it. He edged over to the big window, very conscious of the floor bending beneath him with every step. It seemed he had less time than he first thought.
With his back against the wall, and the girl held tightly against his body, he peered out the window hoping for a conservatory or a back porch, just something to jump down onto would do. He, himself, would survive a fall from this height but his worry was for the girl who was after all, merely mortal.
There was nothing, however, so he would have to take his chances. He steeled himself for some pain and stretched the window open as far as he could. He held the girl with one arm and pulled himself up onto the sill with the other. The floor behind him finally gave away with an almightily crash and the heat was suddenly at his back, hungry and reaching. He tightened his arms around the girl protectively.
He half turned back to the fire, “Fuck you.” He muttered and leapt from the window.
Alli blinked and looked up, her best friend Martha was staring at her, looking piqued and a little disgruntled.
“You weren’t listening to a word I was saying, was you?” Martha asked her, definitely piqued.
Alli smiled as brightly as she could, “Was it about Connor?” She asked. “Cause if it was, I think we both know I don’t need to listen, I’ve heard that tirade about a thousand times and I could probably recite it in my sleep.”
Martha shot her a look of pure venom and crossed her arms. She looked a lot like a Greek Goddess, especially when she was angry. Her curly red hair seemed to crackle with angry fire and her big green eyes burned. But she wasn’t just angry; Alli could tell by the subtle set of her eyes that she was hurt too.
Alli felt instantly sorry; she shouldn’t have made fun of her best friend like that. Sure, she had had the same conversation with Martha about her on and off boyfriend for about a year but that didn’t mean she had to be so callused about it, “Sorry, Marth.” She said, “Connor’s an arse and don’t we both know it.” She shook her head, “I was just thinking about the weekend is all.”
Martha cooled instantly, knowing that boy trouble paled in comparison to Alli’s problem, her eyes softened with concern, “Are you ok?”
Alli shrugged, “I’m fine.” She said truthfully it had, after all, been twelve years. “It’s grandma that worries me. She always gets really subdued when the anniversary comes around, and this year she seems worse than ever.” She frowned. “I would have thought it would get easier; you know.”
Martha inclined one shoulder, “I have no idea.” And she genuinely didn’t; Alli’s best friend had never lost a relative or friend so far in her life. Even her great-grandparents were still alive and kicking, most notable great-grandpa Ray who liked to go line-dancing and even competed across the country. He hadn’t won in a number of years, but he still enjoyed the atmosphere, he said, and of course the frisky ladies. Alli smirked just thinking of him; she had been as much a part of Martha’s family over the years as Martha had been with Alli’s grandma. Alli herself only really had grandma left, and an aunt in France but they weren’t close at all.
“Anyway, she wants me to skip Friday night and stay home with her,” Alli said, and Martha’s face fell into a pout. “I know, I know, but I think you and Connor could use the time to work things out anyway. Maybe we can go to the movies Saturday instead?”
Martha considered this and picked at the hem of her skirt. They were sitting on a bench facing the big stone fountain in the school grounds, waiting for Alli’s grandma to pick them up. The day was still warm with a hint of autumn chill, the trees showing the steady darkening of their leaves now that the season was changing, and the sun was already low in the sky. Autumn always made Alli depressed, although she couldn’t tell exactly why. It probably had something to do with the short days and cold weather. Grandma might have said it was because it was the same time of year she lost her parents, but grandma was wrong. Not that Alli would ever say so out loud to grandma at least. The simple truth was that she barely even remembered her parents, and her childhood home. Grandma had been her parent for so long, and the fire was such a distant memory that it was hardly there at all these days. Except for her dreams, that is. Sometimes she would dream that a tall man with black hair and black eyes had scooped her up in his arms like a brave knight and saved her, but that was nonsense. Apparently, she had crawled across to her parent’s room and thrown herself out the bedroom window. She’d broken her ankle in the fall but that, and the smoke inhalation which nearly killed her, was the worst of it for her at least. Unfortunately, both of her parents had died in the house.
“Ok,” Martha said at last, “We’ll do the movies Saturday instead, I do have to talk to Connor, and Friday would be best for both of us.”
Alli smirked, “Your mum’s going to be at work at the hospital, isn’t she?” She asked.
Martha nodded curtly.
“Hmm house to yourselves I just bet you and Connor are going to talk!” She teased.
Martha stuck her tongue out at Alli and blushed, “As if you even know what that is!” Martha said with pretend scorn. “If you’re not careful people are going to start calling you frigid.”
Alli snorted, “Because that’s a bad thing.”
Martha shrugged, “You’re a seventeen-year-old virgin; it’s unheard of these days.” She pulled out a beaten pack of cigarettes, “Grandma’s not due for another ten minutes.” She said by way of explanation. She held the pack out, offering one to Alli who shook her head with disdain; she had never tried one of the ghastly things and didn’t plan too. They stunk to high heaven and just the smell of them made her throat tighten in reflex, they had done since she was young. Grandma said it was probably because of the smoke inhalation from the fire, but she also said it wasn’t a bad thing because at least Alli would never smoke. Grandma herself had given up the habit of a lifetime when Allie had come to live with her and had gagged every time she lit one up.
Martha, however, had no such aversion and had been smoking for the better part of three years, “You know those things will kill you.” Alli said, staring as she lit the little stick of death with her Zippo.
Martha let out a quick bark of laughter, “I’ll worry about that when I’m forty.”
Alli sighed, “What was is Professor Langston said? Teenagers have no sense of their own mortality.”
“I’ll regret it when I’m forty, no doubt.” Martha agreed. “We’re all going to die one day, why not on my own terms.” She raised one shoulder and took an exaggerated drag.
Alli turned up her nose, “You’re vile.” She said, and Martha laughed.
Grandma’s black beetle pulled up just on the other side of the fountain, she had the window all the way down and one arm sung casually out the side, “Ah ma fifille!” She exclaimed upon catching Martha smoking. “Those things will kill you!” she said disapprovingly, mimicking Alli.
“Ah shit…” Martha muttered under her breath, “I’m real sorry Elise.” She said loud enough for Alli’s Gran to hear.
“Aidez-moi!” Grandma said in exasperation. “Get in the car.” She said, not unkindly.
Alli shot Martha a quick grin, knowing her best friend would be squirming with guilt and fear that Grandma would tell her parents. As far as Alli was concerned, Martha should have thought of all of that before she started the habit.
Alli hopped in the front seat beside Grandma and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“How was school, ma petite?” Grandma asked her voice rich with her musical French accent. Alli knew that most of the accent was put on; having spent two thirds of her life in England now Elise Bonhomme had gradually lost most of her roots over the years, but when she was angry or excited her accent would flare back into life, and it made her sound more intimidating which is why Alli assumed that she put it on in the first place.
“It was fine,” She replied. “Same old.”
Grandma met Martha’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, “And you, ma fifille?” She asked her.
Martha squirmed uncomfortably in her seat, she shrugged but said nothing.
Grandma tutted and started the engine, “I will not tell your parents,” She promised. “You are seventeen after all, nearly an adult. But you should think about this filthy habit of yours. It is most unattractive to see a young lady sucking on a stick of cancer.”
Alli’s eyebrows shot up, but she didn’t dare say anything in response. Martha didn’t either, it seemed, for she remained quiet in the back seat. And if she objected to being called a ‘little girl’ she didn’t comment.
“How was your meeting grand-mère?” Alli asked.
Grandma’s mouth tightened at the corners and Alli could tell she was angry, “It was fine,” she said sweetly, offering Alli a small smile. “Some people in the group do not understand fine art, it seems.” She added dejectedly.
Alli’s Grandma was a retired art teacher; she lived off her retirement money from the teaching job, but still painted on the side. Her works had been less and less well received over the years until now when the last time she sold a painting for more than twenty pounds was a distant memory. Gran also got a bit of help from the state for being Alli’s carer but even that money would stop in a couple of years when Alli left college. It made Alli’s gut twinge uncomfortably when she thought about Grandma’s finances, even though Gran never said a word to her about how tight money was, she knew anyway. Thanks to her abilities.
Alli looked sombrely out the window, deep in thought. When she finished school in two years, she would probably get a job instead of going away to university, like Martha would. She could not imagine leaving Gran behind with nothing but her little nest of retirement money to live on. In her mind she had the idea that she would try and get work at the library or perhaps with the local newspaper; just something that would utilise some of her English literature and language A-level skills.
She looked back at Gran, frowning to herself as she did. The subtle waves of anger and disappointment at Martha were still rolling off her, but Alli could tell that there was some deeper emotion beneath those; something that was eating away at Gran and had been for days, perhaps even weeks. Alli also knew that she could find out exactly what was niggling at her grandmother if she just reached out and touched her mind. But Alli wouldn’t do that. Unless she really couldn’t help it, she tried not to listen in to other people’s private thoughts, she felt like and invader when she did and often found herself enveloped by unwanted images and ideas, she learned from a young age that there are some things that should definitely remain private.
Alli had been able to read minds for as long as she could remember, and Gran was well aware of her abilities. When she was about seven or eight, a few years after the fire when she was settled back in a new school and living with Grandma instead of that horrible care home, Grandma had sat her down and asked Alli to tell her where she had hidden a little tube of smarties. Alli had promptly replied that they were in Grandma’s left shoe in her bedroom; she had also known that Grandma had bought them especially for her to play this little game.
“Am I naughty?” She had asked her eyes round and tearful.
Grandma had hugged her tightly and Alli had smelled her clean cotton scent and a hint of liquorice, “Non, ma petite, you are not naughty. You are my gifted little flower, and you are blooming incredibly.”
Mind-reading was not the only petal that had unfurled from the bud that was Allison May-Bonhomme, she had a whole host of unusual talents. Grandma had first discovered the telekinesis when she scolded Allie for not tidying her bedroom, “You had better get these toys off of the floor, child!” Grandma had yelled, threatening to pack them up and send them off to the children’s hospital, where they would be taken proper care of.
Alli had responded with a sardonic smile, and everything scattered across the floor had suddenly floated up and hung suspended in mid-air at Gran’s eye level. “Oh, mon Dieu…” Grandma breathed, clutching her chest as if to still her racing heart.
In later years, Alli had mostly kept her abilities to herself. She didn’t want to end up in a lab with scientists probing and prodding her brain and end up as just a performing monkey. She even kept her abilities from Gran, not even using them around the house anymore. As a young girl she had had little control over her powers, but now as a young adult she was well trained, self-taught, in keeping a lid on her talents. The hardest had been the mind-reading, it seemed that stray thoughts always had a way of working their way into her head, and one was always followed by another and another until she was flicking through another person’s brain like an old magazine.
So good at controlling and concealing her powers, was Alli, that she and Gran had hardly spoken of them in four years or more. And Alli hardly ever used said powers anymore anyway; whatever use she might find in them had always been trivial or lazy, sometimes she couldn’t prevent the odd mind touch, some people seemed to broadcast their thoughts more than others, but in all she had put that set of skills to rest for now, maybe even for good.
It was times like these, however, when temptation arose. She knew that there was something wrong; Gran was worried and upset, she claimed it was because it was the anniversary of her daughter’s death coming up next week, but there was more to it than that, Alli was sure of it. However curious she may be, she told herself over and over that she would not breach that boundary with Grandma Elise, not ever.
Gran pulled up just outside Martha’s house and smiled in the rear-view mirror, “Here we are.”
Martha thanked Elise in a low voice, obviously still chagrined at being caught smoking. She bid goodbye to Alli and hurried up the path to her door.
“See you tomorrow!” Alli called out the window and Martha raised one hand in vague acknowledgment.
Elise pulled away from the curb, her driving skills as impeccable as they were ten years ago, and she took the next left turning to their street. Grandma owned a reasonably sized two-bedroom flat on the first floor, she was still spry for eighty-seven, but she had plans to sell up and move into a ground floor property, or a bungalow within the next five years or so. Alli grudgingly agreed that this was for the best, but she would hate to say goodbye to her home, she had lived with Gran for ten years now, and could not imagine having ever been happier.
“You have homework?” Gran asked her as they climbed the communal hallway stairs.
“Just the Shakespeare assignment.” Alli yawned, “And I can’t finish that yet until we finish watching the movie in class tomorrow.”
“You can make dinner then.”
Alli rolled her eyes but said nothing, she knew that Gran wanted to work on her most recent painting and try and get it sold at next week’s market.
Their footsteps echoed as they mounted the stairs, Alli couldn’t help but notice the way that Gran’s breathing sped up and her pace was considerably slower than it had been even just a few weeks ago. It worried Alli on a level she rarely spent time pondering on, and again she was tempted to use her special talents to find out what was really going on with her grandmother. But she didn’t.
Their door was on the right at the top of the stairs, there was only one other tenant on this floor, the other two apartments were unoccupied, both up for sale. Their neighbour was a twenty-something manager of the local supermarket, Dorothy Parks. She had risen the ladder quite quickly since leaving school and was now on the hunt for a man, claiming that her apartment was empty and the spare room gloomy and drab. Alli liked Dorothy, she was funny and sweet, average good looks and had a book collection that Alli would die for. Dorothy had a cat that often spent time lounging around in Gran’s apartment when Dorothy was at work; Allie supposed Gideon, the silver tabby, got lonely during the day.
Gideon was curled up on their welcome mat, snoozing happily as they trudged up the stairs, their echoing footsteps waking him. The cat looked up sleepily, his oval eyes alert despite his relaxed posture. Gran unlocked the door and stepped over him, giving his ear an affectionate scratch on the way in. Alli waited for the tabby to decide if he was coming inside with them, which it turned out he was, before closing the door behind her.
The apartment wasn’t small; they had a large family room with a TV and sofa, the usual things, but both Alli and Elise hardly spent much time in front of the box, both preoccupied with their various interests. Alli could always be found sprawled out on her bed with a battered paperback in one hand and packet of crisps in the other, where Elise had commandeered the family room for her art; the sofa was permanently covered with a cream, paint flecked throw so that she didn’t damage the fabric, and most of the floor space was dominated by a large easel and various pots, paints and boxes of supplies.
They had a large kitchen with space for an oak table in the centre, and fairly nice sized bathroom. Elise had the master bedroom, and it was neat and well kept, painted pink and floral in the ways of a true old lady. Alli’s bedroom was neat, too, she had a single bed a desk with a laptop and printer and a shelf above for her various schoolbooks and notepads. Along one wall was a bookshelf, packed with well-read novels ranging from Charles Dickens to Stephen King, genre didn’t matter to Alli who was as greedy for the written word as her Gran was for painting.
There were a few pictures of a younger Elise, with her arms around two identical twin girls, Alli’s mum Rose and her aunt Harriett dotted around the apartment, and only one picture of Alli with her parents, taken the year before the fire. Alli had very little by the way of mementos from her childhood; the only thing that had been untouched by the fire had been her stuffed bear Mike, who still sat as proud as a king on her bed even now, with decidedly thinner fluff filling and was balding in places.
Alli shut herself in her bedroom and changed out of her jeans and shirt into a set of pink flannel pyjamas and her red slippers. She left her hair clipped back for now and went back into the kitchen to start the supper, passing Gran in the family room. She was already mixing colours on her palette, with her stained and paint splotched apron tied around her waist.
“Spaghetti, Gran?” Ally asked her. “Or do you fancy Chili?”
Gran looked up distractedly, “Either, child.”
She nodded and turned on the radio in the kitchen to keep herself company while she cooked. While the mince was browning, she heard her cell phone ringing in the bedroom and quickly went to grab it.
She grinned, swiping her thumb across the screen to accept the call, “You sure got caught today.” She said instead of answering with ‘hello’.
Martha clucked her tongue with annoyance on the other end of the line, “Highlight of my day.” She said, “Is Gran going to call my parents?”
Alli stirred the mince, holding the phone between her shoulder and ear with her head cocked awkwardly, “No, she won’t.” She reassured her best friend. “She’s already working, she’s probably forgotten all about it.”
“I can only hope; my dad would have an aneurism if he found out.”
Alli made a sound of agreement and added the onion’s she had already diced. “Did you speak to Connor about Friday?” She asked.
Martha blew a raspberry, “He’s ignoring my messages.”
“I bet he’s with that tramp, Lana, just like last time.” Martha’s voice cracked and Alli wished she could strangle the boy for hurting her best friend.
“He might not be, it’s not like you broke up this time, is it?” She said soothingly.
Martha sniffed, “Nah it was just a fight.”
“I wouldn’t worry then.” Alli said, not really knowing whether she should be urging her friend to ditch the bloke or not. She had no experience with boys herself, besides making out with Charlie Bradbury at Prom four months ago; she hadn’t even had a boyfriend yet.
Gideon nudged open the kitchen door and nosed his way in, probably sniffing out the cooking meat. He rubbed himself against Allie’s legs and meowed up at her questioningly. “I have to go, Marth, I’m cooking dinner. I’ll probably be online later though.” She added.
Martha sighed, “Ok, I’ll speak to you later.”
Alli left her cell phone on the worktop and drained the mince over the sink. Gideon followed her across the kitchen with his almond shaped eyes, meowing again for good measure, “Yeah, yeah,” she said fondly. “I’ll get you a tin of tuna or something. Just don’t tell Dorothy.”
It didn’t take her long to get dinner prepared and, as promised, she spooned a tin of tuna into a dish for Gideon and left it on the kitchen floor for him. He was happily gobbling it up while she served up the spaghetti and called to Gran.
Gran washed her hands vigorously in the kitchen sink before settling down with Allie at the table.
“How’s it going?” Alli asked her.
“Oh, fine.” She replied. “I should have it finished tonight.”
“Yes,” She said distractedly, “I want to have it finished before… well.” She pursed her lips and her gaze wandered over to Gideon, “I see Dorothy’s man has come for dinner.” She said.
Alli inclined her head, “Yeah.” She said, wondering what Gran had been about to say. Before the weekend? Maybe, but something was really worrying Allie now, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “Is everything alright, Gran?” She asked, throwing caution to the wind. She’d rather ask than probe her grandmother’s brain.
Gran’s smile was false, “Yes, dear.” And then a moment later she sighed. “I can’t hide anything from you, can I cher?”
Grandma Elise suddenly looked very old, not just in body but in spirit too. The harsh lines under her eyes and across her forehead were so pronounced in that moment, her skin delicate and paper thin. Blue veins stood out sharply on her temples and her thin snow-white hair, normally so alive and frizzy was hanging limply about her ears. It was as though everything about Alli’s grandmother was drooping all of a sudden after a life if vivacity.
“What is it?” Alli asked, gently lowering her fork so as not to betray her shaking hand.
Elise considered for a moment and then turned her wise grey eyes to Alli again, “It’s difficult to say. Do you think you can wait just a few more days?”
Alli searched her grandmother’s eyes, her heart racing with fear. “Are you sick?” She asked, her voice thick.
Elise chuckled, “No, cher.”
“What is it then?” Alli asked with her heart in her throat.
Elise’s small cold hand folded over Alli’s, “Can you wait until Friday?”
Alli shook her head at first, her fear only heightening her young adult’s natural impatience, but then she registered the pleading in Elise’s eyes, the old woman’s own fear and she grudgingly conceded, “I guess.” She said stiffly.
Elise nodded with a small smile, “Merci, Alli, thank you. Is Martha’s mother dropping you home after school?”
Alli blinked, “No, she’s working. I was going to walk home.”
Elise nodded again, “Ok, I can’t pick you up I will be too busy,” She said, almost to herself, “Making preparations.”
Alli bit her lower lip, she reached out and gently touched her grandmother’s mind, only the edges to try and catch what she was talking about, but all she could see in the front of Elise’s mind was a flash of panic and urgency, and an image of lit candles and incense.
“Don’t.” Elise said sharply.
Alli pulled back as if she’d been caught doing something shameful, more confused than ever. She snatched her hand back from Gran’s unceremoniously and hurt flashed across Elise’s eyes, followed by a hot sympathy and guilt.
Alli pushed her chair back and got to her feet sharply and muttered something about losing her appetite. Gideon watched her cross and exit the kitchen, licking the tuna from his lips and furred chin. Alli could feel Gran’s eyes on her, too, but she refused to look back at her, she felt hot and itchy all over, almost claustrophobic in her grandmother’s presence. She was keeping something from Alli, something that scared her, and it was all Alli could do to keep herself from probing deeply into Elise’s mind and find out what it was.
She made her way blindly to her bedroom, hot tears stinging the backs of her eyes. Fear for Gran had her biting her lower lip so hard that she could taste the copper tang of her own blood. Elise had always been so calm, composed and beautiful in her aging grace. Now, though, Alli felt that she was looking upon a mere shadow of her grandmother, a frightened husk of someone who looked as though they had aged a great deal in a day. It terrified Alli. She knew that her Gran was pushing eighty, she also knew that in this day and age eighty was nothing to be worried about, was it? It was a thought that had kept her awake some nights for the past three years at least, once she had begun to really understand the concept of mortality. One day she would die. As would Gran, and everyone she cared about. She had always known this, but it wasn’t until she reached the age of about thirteen that she really became aware of the fact.
Alli closed her bedroom door gently behind her; she had too much respect for Gran to slam the door in anger, although she felt like doing so in that moment. She was angry at Gran for being so scared, and angry at herself for touching her Gran’s mind and seeing that fact. It was a constant inner argument she had with herself. But what was worse; the fact that Gran was keeping something from her, or the fact that she had breached Gran’s privacy to obtain said information.
She threw herself face down on the bed and folded her arms under the pillow, allowing the tears to flow now that she was alone.
She felt rather than heard movement beside her, and she raised her head from the pillow. She was not surprised to see the figure lounging back in her old reading armchair just beside her bed. He was watching her with his brows drawn and his eyes alight with concern. He was thin, lean one might say, with knobby elbows and the awkward gangly arms and shoulders of a teenager not quite grown into his own body yet. His pale complexion was dotted with angry red acne marks and his hair was a tuft of knots.
“It’s not that time of the month, is it?” He asked nervously, “I’ll come back in a week.”
Alli made a face at him, “Ha, ha, very funny, Luke.” She said, sitting slowly up on the bed.
His grin was boyish and charming, his bright blue eyes gleaming. “What else would you be crying about?” He asked her cheekily.
She rubbed her eyes with her knuckles and took a deep, calming breath, “Its Gran.” She admitted.
Luke sat forward abruptly, “She’s okay, isn’t she?”
Alli inclined her head, her heart lifting at the concern Luke held for her. Luke had come to her when she was in the care home, just after her parents died. She had been very alone and sad, desperate to go and live with Gran but having to wait for whatever reason that she could not comprehend. Gran had visited with her every day, and eventually she had even gone back to school, but the nights had been the worst. She had lain awake night after night in the shared dorm listening to the snores and breathing of the other girls, thinking only of the way her mother had cuddled her, of how she would never be Alli-saurus ever again. The pain had been too much to bear in those long, sleepless hours. That was until Luke came.
She had spotted the dancing balls of light before, sometimes outside, sometimes inside. She had even come to understand that she was the only person who could see them, and that they were the spirits of the dead. She spent many a night wondering if her mummy and daddy had become bright balls of white light, but then she would deny that hope that she might see them again upon remembering the image of their coffins being lowered into the ground.
The balls of light would pay her little or no attention; the most vibrant of them would sometimes approach her and dance around her like eager sprites, reminding her of playful children. They were beautiful in their own way but seeing them also made her incredibly sad at the same time.
Luke was the first proper ghost she encountered, and she had seen more since meeting him.
He wandered in through the closed door of the dormitory, his whole body moving through the heavy wood as though it were air. She watched him in awe, and it didn’t take her long to realise that it wasn’t the door that was air, it was him.
He stood at the foot of the bed with his hands in his pockets, looking much like the gawky, nervous teenager she had come to know him to be.
Alli had sat up in her bed, clutching the sheet to her tightly with Mike the Bear nestled safely in her lap, “Are you a ghost?” she asked him.
He nodded sheepishly, “Yeah I am.”
She swallowed against the dryness in her throat, “I’ve never seen a ghost before.” She said, almost reverently.
He chuckled awkwardly, “Well I’ve never met someone who can see me before, either.”
Alli blushed and shrugged.
As if sensing the sore subject, Luke came around the bed and sat on the edge by her feet, “What’s the matter, can’t you sleep?” He asked her, probably noting the dark circles under her eyes.
Alli lowered her gaze, “I miss my mummy.” She said quietly.
Luke held out his hand tentatively, unsure whether he would even be able to touch her or whether he would just pass through her. Alli laid her small chubby hand in his and smiled, “I can touch you!” she exclaimed. “I thought you were invisible.”
Luke laughed, as elated as Alli, “I am.” He breathed. He had, after all, just walked through a door without opening it. “I haven’t held anyone’s hand for a while.” He said, almost tearful in his relief.
Alli had smiled up at him brightly, her unusual grey-blue eyes glowing with happiness, “Will you be my friend?” She asked him.
And so began their life-long friendship. During her years at the care home Luke had been a source of comfort and friendship. On nights when she couldn’t sleep, he would sit by her and tell her stories that he had heard from other ghosts in the spirit world, and of the famous people he had met there. Alli came to see Luke as an older brother and loved him as such.
Now, though, Allison had grown up and she was nearing the same age Luke had been when he died; eighteen. In her heart he would always be her big brother, but in body she would outgrow him. It was a thought that had never crossed her mind until now, looking at him in her cosy chair in his baggy trousers and hoody. His face was permanently acne scarred and his hair long and shaggy around his ears, his had big boyish blue eyes and an open smile.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she said finally. “Only that she’s scared about something, and she’s acting very strangely.”
“Did you, you know?” He tapped his temple to ask her whether she had delved into her Gran’s mind.
She shrugged, “All I got was her fear.” She admitted. “I was too scared to go any deeper.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.” Luke said bracingly.
Alli shrugged again dejectedly, “she said she’ll talk to me about it Friday. She asked me to cancel on Martha.”
“A wiser request has never been made.” Luke said. He had made his view of Martha very clear over the years; he despised the girl, and that was putting it bluntly. Alli, however, pointed out on more than one occasion that seen as Martha could not see him and didn’t know he even existed that she would do nothing about it. If he didn’t want to be around Martha, he would just have to go away when Alli was hanging out with her.
Luke rarely came to school with her anymore, not like when she was younger and she could get away with talking to an imaginary friend, back then he was with her nearly every day. She told everyone about her ghostie friend Luke, and Gran would even go so far as to set a place for him at the table at dinner time to please Alli. She often wondered if Gran knew that Luke was real considering Alli’s other strange abilities or whether she drew a line at the existence of ghosts. It was a question that she had never asked Gran, and probably never would. They didn’t speak about her talents anymore.
“You don’t have to come to movie night.” She said to Luke.
He looked wounded, “I always escort you, fair maiden!” He declared. “Besides, who else would you have to talk to now that miss shit-face demands on dragging her obscene boyfriend to the cinema with you both?”
Alli had to admit he had a point, not that she would admit that to him, she grinned, “Just admit that you’re madly in love with me, and you insist on accompanying me out of your heart’s desire to be my date.”
Luke mock-vomited and fell to his knees on the worn rug, “Dear god that would be like incest!” He cried, still pretending to gag.
Alli laughed, grateful to him for cheering her up so easily, “You’re a nutter.” She said affectionately.
“I’m glad you think so.” He said, coolly, sliding back onto the chair.
“What am I going to do?” she asked him.
All hint of amusement and sarcasm were gone now, he gave her a lopsided reassuring smile, “Wait until Friday.” He said simply.
© Emma Stead
Merely Mortal, Chapter Two … https://emmaswritingthings.wordpress.com/2022/04/11/merely-mortal-chapter-two/