Mia knew the eye could play tricks on you. Just like the mind. She was only eleven years old, but she felt much older. She could have sworn she saw a boy the other evening. On the tracks, just beyond the railings at the bottom of the garden. A boy in a black hoodie, almost a shadow in the evening's twilight. Mia was standing at her bedroom window now, as the sky darkened, peering down at where she'd last seen the boy.
She knew it was dangerous beyond the edge of the garden. Mum kept telling her. All the houses on this side of the street faced the railway lines, and Mum didn't like it. Mia always loved watching the trains go by, roaring like metal thunder. So close. Almost close enough to touch. But she wasn't the kind of daughter who did dangerous things, or entertained dangerous thoughts. That's what people seemed to think anyway. A very smart, bookish girl. Wise beyond her years. Apparently.
But Mia couldn't stop thinking about the boy on the tracks. She pressed her forehead against the window pane, frowning. She wanted to meet him, to go out there beyond the railings and see if he would show himself again. But that was foolish, of course.
That was dangerous.
She hadn't told Mum about the crooked railing in the bushes behind the shed. She only discovered it a month ago. It was her little secret. Sometimes when she was feeling lonely and sad at school she thought about the crooked railing hidden in the bushes. It made her feel stronger somehow. Less lonely. The teachers wanted to help, but the kids at school could be so cold. Even when they didn’t really mean to be. It made Mia’s heart heavy just thinking about it. The looks the other kids gave her now, when they didn’t think she would notice. Like she was damaged. Too real and too dark. Like she didn't quite belong in their world anymore. They were right, she supposed.
Everything good went away in the end, but they would never understand that. It was safer here, in this between-place where the shadows were. A place that never changed.
A train was coming now. She could hear the intensity of it gathering in the dusk. Finally it roared past the bottom of the garden like a huge metal snake with lights inside its belly. She closed her eyes, her head pressed against the window, and thought about the black hole in the other room. She was still so afraid of it. Mia hated being afraid.
The next morning Mia sat in the garden, trying to enjoy the sunshine. The last week of school began tomorrow. She wasn't looking forward to it, or the summer. She sighed, peering down at the doll and the truck and the plastic teacups in the grass. She felt too old for these toys now, too far away from them, but she hated that feeling. Like something inside had been broken.
Mum was indoors, on the phone to Auntie Claire as usual. Whenever she was actually home from the office Mum seemed to spend all her time trying to distract herself from her own thoughts. Mia smiled sadly and glanced through the railings at the bottom of the garden.
She almost jumped in shock. The boy in the black hoodie was there. Just on the other side of the railings, peeking from behind the shed. A weird mix of nerves and excitement within her now.
"I can totally see you!" Mia called out to him, trying to sound firm but friendly.
She couldn't see his face properly with his hood up, but she sensed his embarrassment. "Sorry. I wasn't...I wasn't spying or anything..."
Mia stayed sitting in the grass, despite how intrigued she was. As much as she'd been thinking about him the last two nights she had no idea why he was here. She knew it was best to be cautious about these things.
"My Mum's in the house, you know," she said with a smile. "This is private property. So if you're trying to scare me it's totally not going to work."
The boy seemed awkward now, glancing down at the ground. "I wasn't...I didn't mean to scare you. I just...I saw you staring at me the other day. Seemed like you had a nice face."
Mia smiled, realising the boy's shyness. It warmed her a little.
"I didn't mean to be rude," she said quietly. "I was trying to be careful. My life is scary sometimes."
The boy nodded and Mia suddenly felt some of the deep sadness within him. "Mine too."
She climbed to her feet and cautiously approached the railings at the bottom of the garden. When she got close enough she realized he was roughly the same age as her. A boy with very sad eyes and messy hair beneath his hood.
Mia could feel her wariness softening. "How old are you?"
"You're a year older than me. Are you…lost?"
He peered down at the ground again and nodded silently, like he was trying to stop himself from crying. Mia's heart felt like it might break right there. "I'm so sorry."
He shrugged. "It's not your fault."
"What's your name?"
He laughed, glancing at her with tears in his eyes. "You know, I've been trying to remember, but I can't. It's kind of scary. That's why I came back here, I guess. You noticed me."
Mia felt for him. She grasped the railings and pressed her head between them. She stuck out her tongue and made a silly face. The boy laughed a little. It made her happy to make him laugh, even for just a moment. It seemed like he really needed it.
"I'm Mia. I go to school just down the road, but then after the summer I'm supposed to start big school in September."
"That's cool. I already started big school, but..." He couldn’t bring himself to finish his words.
Mia frowned. "It's ok."
He peered angrily at the train tracks, at the other houses. "It's not ok. Sometimes I get these bad headaches. I wander around all day but then I forget where I am. Sometimes there’s darkness all around me and I wanna cry."
Mia nodded. "I cry too, sometimes."
"I hate it."
"You're looking for something, right?" Mia asked, trying to soothe his anger.
He nodded again, frowning with concentration. "My silver bracelet, I think. It had a little heart on it. It was special to me."
Mia could feel his pain. It felt terrible. She took a careful breath and made a decision, reaching through the railings and offering her hand. He was hesitant to take it, like he was worried he might affect her somehow. She wiggled her fingers.
"It's ok," she told him softly.
He tried to smile and eventually took her hand, but only for a few moments. Mia felt his loneliness when they touched. His sadness and confusion. But she also felt the kindness that was still within him.
“I think it’s going to be all right,” she whispered. “Eventually.”
"I hope so, Mia."
She could tell that he wanted to leave now. The conversation had overwhelmed him despite their brief connection.
"Please come back," she said quietly. "We can talk more. I hope you find your bracelet."
He frowned. "I'll try. I hope I can find it. It was really special."
Mia wanted to say something else to comfort the boy in the black hoodie, but he’d already turned away. She watched him wander along the edge of the train tracks and out of sight. She waited at the railings until another train came thundering by less than a minute later.
She knew the boy needed help. Everybody needed help, really. Mia was only eleven years old but she knew that not everybody got the help they needed. Some people just suffered quietly without making a fuss. Until they couldn't bear it anymore. She thought of Dad, and Tessa. The black hole waiting for her in the house. Mia's heart was heavy now but she promised herself she wouldn’t cry.
Later that evening Mia was trying to read one of her mother’s grown-up books again. The teachers at school said she was a gifted reader for someone her age. She preferred books to people, that was for sure. Books weren’t cruel like people could be. Mum’s shelf in the front room was usually filled with romance or crime novels, but Mia preferred stories she could relate to. Sometimes she found a good one.
The story she was reading now was called Leaving Her, about a woman named Carrie who was trying to cope with the sudden death of her mother. Carrie was in a lot of pain, it seemed. Visions, voices and strange dreams. The hidden world behind the world. Mia felt like she could relate.
She took a breath and put down the novel, thinking again of the black hole in the other room. Mia knew about black holes. She had a dictionary and a thesaurus that she loved, plus the internet. These things helped her when she found unfamiliar words in Mum's books. She was a smart girl. With a bit of imagination and context she could get an idea of what most things meant.
The idea of a black hole scared her though. A singularity, they called it. A place that sucked in all light, crushing it into nothingness.
It had been calling to Mia. It had been calling for a while now.
The sound of another train rattled the porcelain ballerina on her dresser.
Mia forced herself to get up and leave the bedroom. She stepped into the darkened corridor. She could hear the television downstairs. Mum was watching something.
Mia’s steps seemed to slow as she approached the place that frightened her. Like in a dream, or a nightmare. She put her hand on the doorknob. She could feel the beating of her own heart. It was silly really, considering the things she’d seen in her young life. Almost a year had passed and she was still afraid of it. She swallowed, trying to summon the courage.
But she couldn't.
She couldn’t bring herself to give in to the black hole's gravity. It was just too upsetting. It had become so huge in her mind now. That horrible feeling in her belly. She supposed she wasn't as brave as storybook girls like Carrie, no matter how much she wanted to be. She turned away from the door. Defeated, ashamed. There were tears in her eyes as she hurried back to her bedroom.
Mum's eyes looked so lost tonight, even though she'd been trying to hide it. She asked for a cuddle on the sofa before bed, and Mia didn't have the heart to say no. Mum was running her hands through Mia's hair; a gesture that used to soothe her when she was little. But cuddles didn't really feel like much of a comfort anymore.
Mia hated that distant feeling.
"I just...you seem so lost in your own thoughts, Mia. Like you're still not coping very well. I hate that."
"Isn't that true for both of us though?"
Mum sighed. "You know what I mean. You used to talk to me. We used to talk."
"We're talking now, aren't we?"
"You're such a bright girl, but I can't make it better on my own. I need your help, princess. Lottie’s christening is in a few weeks. I think it would be good for you. Auntie Claire is desperate for you to meet the new baby."
Mia sat there in the awkward cuddle. “You know I hate parties and things like that.”
“But it’s not just a party, Mia, is it? It’s a chance to meet your baby cousin.”
"Mum, listen. Lottie’s christening isn’t going to fix anything. Dad's gone. Tessa's gone. It’s horrible and I hate it. But I go to school and do my homework. I do the dishes and the laundry. I stay here alone when you're working late. All the time. I make my own dinner. What more do you want from me?"
"Oh, sweetheart, that's not what I meant..."
Mia sighed, shaking her head. "I know exactly what you meant. You want me to magically be fine. You want me to stop missing them. But I can't. You miss them too. You just pretend to be coping. At least I don't pretend."
Mum was silent. Anger seemed to tighten the air around them.
Eventually she muttered, "I pretend for you, princess. You're the only daughter I have left. I need you to be strong, ok? Stronger than your sister. Like Dad was during his illness. I can't lose another child."
Mia immediately broke away from the cuddle, horrified at her mother's words. She glared, anger rising within her. "Stronger than your sister? How can you even say that? Can't you see how much pain Tess was in? How alone she must have felt? It makes me want to scream and scream and scream! She loved Dad as much as I did. Maybe she just didn’t have the strength to keep fighting."
Mum's expression was full of anguish now, and regret. Mia had to look away. "Everyone thinks it's my fault. Everyone. That if I was a better mother she'd still be here. Maybe they're right."
Mia regretted the words even as she spoke, but she couldn't help herself. "You’re just so bloody selfish, Mum."
"Don't talk to me like that."
Mia laughed, savagely wiping tears from her cheek. "Then stop making me the grown-up! I'm not even twelve yet!"
"I truly don’t mean to make you the grown-up, Mia. But I don’t have many options at the moment. With all the payments on the house I can’t even afford a sitter right now. Money is so tight without Dad. Please try to understand."
Mia nodded, and sighed. She felt bad, but still angry. Eventually she said, "I'm sorry, Mum. I know you work hard.”
“I need to rest for school tomorrow. I just want to be alone for a while."
Mum was silent, sadness in her eyes. “Ok, baby,” she said at last.
Mia spent the rest of the evening in bed, lying in the dark as she listened to the sound of passing trains – as she thought about broken families and black holes and mysterious hooded boys just beyond the edge of the garden.
There was a kind of buzz at school the next morning because the last week had started. Boys and girls talking about what they were planning to do over the summer, and what big school might be like. Most of them pretending to be more grown-up than they really were. Mia tried to avoid it, keeping her head down. She stayed in the library at break and lunchtime.
After school she walked quickly home, let herself in and called out to Mum in the hallway. No response. It was like this most days though. She felt bad about last night, but not bad enough. She was tired of the expectations, and the loneliness.
Mia made herself some tea, had some biscuits and then went out into the garden. She was hoping to see the boy in the black hoodie again. Their conversation had been so quick but it meant a great deal to her. It felt strange to miss someone after only meeting them once, but kind of special too.
There was nobody near the train tracks beyond the railings at the bottom of the garden. Mia felt her heart sink a little. She’d been hoping he would be waiting for her. She wasn’t sure if she ‘fancied’ him, like the girls at school would say. She couldn't even imagine what kissing a boy might be like. But she felt very warm in her heart when she remembered their conversation. It mattered to her, a lot.
Disappointed, she went back inside to fetch the book she'd been reading. She brought it out into the garden and sat with it in the grass while the sun was still out.
Mia had the feeling that the woman who wrote Leaving Her based it closely on her own life. It felt like there was too much truth in it. The sadness felt too real.
Mia instantly looked up from the pages of the book. The boy was there, just beyond the railings. Dressed in the same jeans, trainers and black hoodie. He gently kicked at the earth as he stood there, like he was nervous to meet her gaze.
Mia had to stop herself from grinning like an idiot. "Hey. You came back."
"You asked me to." Finally he looked at her. "Plus, you were so nice to me."
Mia smiled, looking away. "Cool."
"You seemed a bit sad when I got here. Are you sad?"
She frowned and nodded. "I guess. A little bit."
He had sweetness in his eyes and started gently kicking at the ground again. "Wanna tell me?"
Mia sighed. "It's just my Mum. I had kind of a fight with her. It's stupid, really."
Mia forced herself to hold the boy’s gaze. "A lot of bad stuff has happened to us. Now my Mum is really sad all the time, like me. She works a lot, and cries in her room. But she acts like I'm the weird one."
The boy nodded. "What was the bad stuff?"
Mia swallowed, trying to find the words. "Last year my Dad got very sick. He was in the hospital for months. Then one night he just passed away. It really messed up my big sister Tess. I knew she wasn’t coping, but...then she took a bunch of pills. The doctors tried to help her. Pumped her stomach and everything. But she died too."
The boy had tears in his eyes now. "Wow. That's awful. I'm sorry, Mia. I don't really know what to say…"
"So now it's just you and your mum?"
"Yeah. But it's really hard. Mum acts like I'm a teenager or something. Sometimes I act like that too. But I miss being a kid."
The boy gave her a saddened smile. Mia knew he was trying to make her feel better. She got up from where she was sitting in the grass and sat back down beside the railings. There was less than three feet between them now. He smiled again and finally sat down too, lowering his hood.
Mia saw that he was quite cute when he wasn't hiding. She could imagine some of the girls at school giggling over him.
"I bet your mum loves you, even though she's difficult sometimes."
Mia nodded. "She loves me very much. But she lost her husband and her oldest daughter all in the same year, so it's horrible for her. I shouldn't get so angry with her."
"I never met my Mum or Dad. My Gran raised me. She would take me out to the park with my bike. Let me listen to her old records. She always made my favourite dinners if I had a bad day at school."
"Your Gran sounds awesome."
The boy smiled. "Yeah, I miss her. I remember her roses. The flat always smelled of roses. It helped me to sleep." He looked away and added, "I couldn’t find my bracelet. The one with the silver heart on it. My Gran gave it to me. I guess it’s gone forever now. But I remembered my name because of you. You were so nice. It helped me to remember. Ethan. My name's Ethan."
Mia was warmed by the boy’s words. She had always known she was different, but she never felt like she’d helped anyone before. Eventually she forced herself to speak, realizing there was no other way to say it.
"Ethan, I know it's scary but do you realize what's happened to you?"
He frowned and nodded slowly, like he didn't want to admit it. "I must've fallen on the tracks. And then the train came. But I can't remember. I'm really scared."
Mia slipped a hand through one of the gaps in the railings, offering her palm. This time the boy took it straight away, their fingers interlocking. His skin felt almost normal. Warm, soft, but also strange somehow.
"It's ok," Mia said quietly as they held hands. "We can be proper friends now, can't we?"
He nodded quickly. "I hope so."
"We can find a way to help each other. Just make sure you keep coming back here, ok?"
But Ethan looked scared. "Mia, it's awful. I feel like I'm dreaming and I can't wake up. I'm forgetting stuff. I'm getting lost. At night I’m in this dark place and I can’t get out. I feel like...like I'm fading away."
Mia couldn't help the tears welling in her eyes. She gripped his hand even tighter. "We're not gonna let that happen."
It had been painful to watch the boy leave again. It was only the second time they’d spoken, but he didn't feel like a stranger anymore. He felt like an actual friend. The only friend she had. Mia knew Ethan was feeling it too. She wanted to believe there was something special between them. That all of this was happening for a reason.
She really wanted to help this boy in the black hoodie if she could. She had been unable to help her own sister, and the thought of it still hurt. Tess had been a lovely big sister. They argued sometimes but Tess always apologised if she was mean. She found little ways to let Mia know she really loved her. She would've been sixteen in February.
Mia sat on the bed, trying to read, occasionally glancing through the windows at the evening sky. It was starting to get dark outside. She loved watching the sky change colour, like a painting come to life. She tried to focus on the novel until she came to a paragraph that made her stop. It had piqued her curiosity in a strange way. She frowned with concentration as she went over it again, trying to follow the words even closer.
Her mother’s death had marked her, changed her. She knew that. The death was completely beyond her control. But Carrie had chosen every step of how to handle that death, and she knew in her heart she’d handled it poorly. No brothers or sisters. No boyfriend. There was no one around to blame for her poor choices, except herself. The truth in the mirror today was scarier than her fears of the past.
Mia looked up from the page and closed her eyes, trying to think clearly. She actually helped someone today. The boy beyond the edge of the garden had remembered his name. That mattered.
Mia knew in her heart that it mattered a lot.
Determined, she closed the book and left the bedroom. She had let all of this get far too big in her mind. Online it said the gravity of a black hole was inescapable, but Mia had been trying to escape it for almost a year now. It was ruining everything, and she knew those words in Leaving Her were true. She shouldn't run away just because she missed her sister. She should face it because she loved her sister.
“I can do this,” she muttered to herself. “You can do this, Mia…”
She moved through the corridor, trying to control her emotions. The sound of Mum on the phone downstairs. Mia was standing in front of the singularity now. She put her hand on the doorknob and imagined plunging into endless darkness.
She remembered Dad's heart-breaking smiles at the hospital. The warmth in them, even though he was in so much pain. She remembered the sweet way Tess would play-fight with her in the garden after school, or on the weekends.
“No more running away,” she told herself.
Mia took a final breath, opened the door and went inside.
Tessa's bedroom looked exactly like she remembered it. She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but now that she was inside everything felt horribly normal. Like Tess might be back at any moment. For a while Mia just sat on the edge of the bed and looked at things. Dad's camera resting on the bookshelf. The big cuddly bunny with the floppy ears that Mia always wanted when she was little. Her sister's incredible sketches pinned to the wall. Faces, hands and landscapes.
It had been so terrifying, the thought of walking in here. For the first month after Tessa's death Mum just locked the room. The black hole started to grow in Mia's head. When Mum finally unlocked it again she only tidied up a bit, it seemed. She hadn't removed anything. But it was too late. The singularity was too huge by then and Mia just kept away.
Now Mia went over to the shelf and carefully picked up Dad's camera. Tess had taken it after he died, but she never used it. She preferred sketching and painting. Mia tried to imagine taking beautiful photos with it like Dad used to do. She smiled sadly at the idea, tears in her eyes, and gently placed the camera back on the shelf.
Instead Mia picked up a framed photo from the bedside cabinet. She and Tess were play-fighting in the grass. Both of them were laughing. Dad had captured so much love in the image. It made her heart feel heavy.
Mia glanced at the sketches on the wall again, recalling a brief conversation that happened a few months before her sister had died.
“I really want to help people one day, Tess. Because I see things. Weird things. I just never talk about it. People would be too scared of that stuff. I can't make it pretty like you do with your sketches.”
“It's not always about pretty. Dad once told me the job of an artist isn't just making something beautiful. It's helping people to see things, to feel things. I’ve always known you're different, Mia. Like me. I’m so sorry I never spoke about it either. People are never really gone, are they? We need to talk about it, even if it’s scary. We’re sisters. I’m right here, ok?”
But Mia had let that chance slip through her fingers, because it was scary. And now it was too late. Tess was gone forever.
The next day school felt completely pointless and Mia couldn't wait till it was over. She hurried home, dumped her bag on the bedroom floor and quickly dressed into her normal clothes. On the way back downstairs she noticed Mum’s vase of plastic roses on the landing. She smiled and took one of them with her into the garden. To Mia's delight Ethan was already waiting for her; sitting on the other side of the railings, his hood lowered. He smiled when he saw her. His smile made her feel so happy. She hurried to the bottom of the garden. Ethan seemed to notice the plastic rose in her hand and quickly looked away.
She sat down and immediately offered it through the railings.
"I was thinking of what you said about your Gran. It's not real so it doesn't have a nice smell or anything, but I thought it might make you feel better."
She could see the boy was blushing a little, still looking away. Finally he forced himself to meet her gaze, and took the rose. "It's really cool. Thank you."
Mia shrugged, but inside she was so pleased with how he cupped the plastic flower and placed it gently in his lap.
"I went into my sister's room last night,” she told him. “For the first time since it happened. Mum hardly goes in there. When she does I hear her crying. I was really scared about it but you helped me to feel brave. Finally."
He tried to smile for her. "I'm not brave, Mia. Boys like to pretend they're brave and tough, but I'm not. I’m always the quiet one at school. Usually one of the last kids to get picked for sports."
"Me too!" Mia exclaimed, and they both laughed.
A gentle silence between them for a while.
"I think Tess used to see things too," she said quietly. "But we never properly spoke about it. It breaks my heart."
Ethan frowned. "Things like me, you mean?"
A less comfortable silence between them this time.
She watched Ethan trying to find the words. "I don't know what's happening, Mia. I'm really scared to accept all this death stuff. It’s like I made you up in my head and this is all a dream. Because if I really fell onto those tracks, and the train came, then..." He touched the plastic rose in his lap and shook his head. Mia felt awful as she watched him.
"I can help you, Ethan."
"How though?" His eyes were wet with tears now. "At night I get stuck in this dark place. It’s horrible. I don't know how I get out in the daytime. Nobody even notices me. I get so lonely. Time seems so weird to me now.” He clenched and unclenched his fists as he stared at them. “It’s like I don’t really exist, Mia. You’re the only person I can feel. So I think about you and somehow I end up back here. But I don't remember the way. It’s like I'm losing my mind..."
Mia couldn’t bear it. She wanted to hug him but there was no way to do that through the railings. She thought of the secret gap hidden behind the shed. The crooked railing. Mia knew it was dangerous. She knew Mum would never approve. Right now she didn't care. This was like staring at him through prison bars.
"Stay right there!" Mia ordered, and leapt to her feet.
Ethan jumped up too, looking confused. "Wait, Mia! Where are you going…?"
She rushed over to the back of the shed and squeezed into the narrow space, attempting to slide down until she was low enough to try making it through the gap made by the crooked railing. She could hardly breathe. A grown-up would never fit. But Mia emerged on the other side with a sense of triumph, less than five feet from the train tracks. Ethan was staring at her in shock, but then he grinned.
"You did it!" He rushed forward and threw his arms around her. "That was so cool!"
Mia could feel the connection as they hugged, like they had known each other since they were little.
Finally they pulled away, still grinning as they peered at each other. Mia realized that Ethan was squeezing her hand. Finally he let go, looking away. He was blushing again. She glanced away too. "Mum would kill me if she knew what I was doing!"
"Thanks, Mia. For caring."
She motioned for them to sit down again. It felt incredibly dangerous sitting this close to the railway line, but exciting too. Her day at school seemed like a faraway dream now. Ethan put the plastic rose in his lap again, staring down at it like it was precious.
"It's like you're holding me together. On the inside." He looked at her, sadness in his eyes again. "I'm really scared I'm gonna fade away without you."
Mia was unsettled by the sound of an approaching train in the distance. She could feel its intensity beginning to gather in the ground. Her mouth suddenly felt dry.
"You're not gonna fade away, Ethan. You have to believe it. We can’t let ourselves be afraid of the darkness anymore."
The train was quickly getting closer and closer. The ground was literally shaking now. Mia was scared, and thrilled. She tried to focus on her friend.
"You have to say it with me, ok?" She took his hands and held them tight. She tried to look into his eyes instead of at the oncoming train. Her heart was racing. The sound of the train swelled into a roar, all around them. Its horn was blaring repeatedly now. Perhaps the driver had spotted her. She knew it was now or never.
"Say 'I won't fade away!'" Mia cried.
Ethan was grinning as he repeated the words. "I won't fade away!"
The train blasted right beside them with unimaginable force. A wind that nearly blew them sideways. The shriek of metal thunder, way too close. Like they were suddenly hidden within a storm. They were still holding hands as the train finally screamed into the distance. Mia's heart was pounding as she peered wide-eyed at Ethan. She'd never felt more alive.
I won’t fade away...
Mia awoke with a jolt, blinking repeatedly. For a few moments she wasn't sure of her surroundings. But then she recognised her bedroom. She was lying on top of the covers in the half-light, still dressed. It was getting dark outside. Everything felt strange but she remembered the crooked railing from earlier.
The roar of the train right next to them.
It had felt so crazy. So alive. But she felt so drained afterwards. Like it had taken all her energy to be with him in that moment. She felt exhausted when she finally came back into the house. She was only planning to rest for a little while, but from the deepening twilight outside Mia realized she had slept for several hours. She made Ethan promise to come back after it got dark, so they could talk more. She told him to picture her face and the garden, no matter what. She would sneak out to meet him if she had to. She wouldn't let him fade away. He agreed to the plan, but it felt so painful to watch him leave this time. They didn't want to let go of each other’s hands after the train had gone.
But now something was wrong.
Mia couldn't explain it, but she could sense it. She sat up on the bed, looking down at the palms of her hands. They felt weird and tingly.
It felt like she hadn't properly woken up or something. Like she was still half asleep. As if her bedroom and her mind were both still dreaming. She clenched and unclenched her fists like Ethan had done earlier.
Everything around her felt heavier now.
Mia finally realized the experience with the train had somehow connected her to Ethan in a new way. A much deeper way, closer to the place in which he was so lost. She could feel the shadows all around her, the confusion. Mia thought she was familiar with the between-place, but this was so much darker than anything she’d felt before.
"Oh, Ethan," she murmured. "Is this what it's like for you?" A strange fear prickled the back of her neck.
Mia put her trainers on. In the corridor she saw that Mum's bedroom door was ajar. Only the lamp was lit. Mum was either reading or already asleep. Mia crept down the stairs, took her coat from the peg in the hall and sneaked into the garden. In the dark, without the roar of the passing trains, the garden felt eerie.
"Ethan...?" she called quietly. "Are you there?"
She reached the bottom of the garden but there was nobody waiting on the other side of the railings. Mia tried to stifle her disappointment. But it was more than that. She was almost certain now that something was wrong. Night-time had enhanced the sensation, but Mia felt like she was definitely between worlds now.
She pictured Ethan alone in the dark, or lost and confused somewhere along the train tracks. The thought brought tears to Mia's eyes. They had only met a few days ago but she felt closer to this boy than any of the kids at school. He was shy, but also kind and thoughtful. Mia pressed a hand to her chest, muttering, "Please, Lord, make me brave. Like Dad."
She took a deep breath and squeezed behind the shed. When she finally wriggled through the gap in the railings and onto the other side she didn't feel the same sense of triumph from earlier. The night made everything feel strange, and even more dangerous.
The railway lines were less than five feet away.
This close to the tracks and without Ethan to distract her Mia recognised the electrical charge in the air. The tracks were electrified. It was scary because she knew all it would take was a trip and a fall onto the live rail and she would be completely fried. She shook her head, horrified at the thought. She knew the longer she stood there the more afraid she would become. She could barely see anything in this darkness, but she had to get moving if she wanted to help Ethan.
He was lost out there somewhere. She could feel it.
Mia began moving quickly but carefully along the edge of the tracks. She saw neighbours gardens through the railings. Some were dark, some were lit with security lamps. Some had kids toys lying abandoned in the moonlight. She kept expecting a train to come roaring by at any moment, but they were less frequent at night.
Every few seconds she called out to Ethan in a desperate whisper, praying she would hear him answer back. But there were only bushes and railings with her on the narrow trail beside the tracks. It felt like she'd been walking through the darkness for ages, but Mia knew it couldn't have been more than ten minutes. The fear was making time feel weird.
Mia knew this was a crazy thing to do. Even for a grown-up this would be crazy. She wasn't even twelve years old yet, but she'd snuck out of the house at night and was risking death near a railway line for a boy she barely knew.
She clenched her jaw in determination. Not just a boy.
She remembered how touched he'd been by the plastic rose. That special feeling of closeness between them. Something was terribly wrong and Ethan had nobody else who cared. Mia was probably the only person in the whole world who even realised he still existed.
She knew she couldn't turn away from that fact, even if she was only just a kid.
Up ahead the gardens ended as the tracks began to curve in a new direction. Her eyes had finally adjusted to the darkness.
Mia saw there was something at the curve. A little stone hut with a low roof, no door and empty slots for windows. Mia remembered it from train rides when she was younger. She’d asked Dad about it. He called it a pillbox, a 'relic from the war'. He said British soldiers with rifles would hide inside to defend the railway in case of attack. It sounded horrible and scary to Mia, but she'd learnt in school that so much of history was like that. People being mean and crazy to each other. Strong ones picking on the weak. She still didn't understand why things had to be that way.
Mia saw there was something at the curve. A little stone hut with a low roof, no door and empty slots for windows. Mia remembered it from train rides when she was younger. She’d asked Dad about it. He called it a pillbox, a 'relic from the war'. He said British soldiers with rifles would hide inside to defend the railway in case of attack. It sounded horrible and scary to Mia, but she'd learnt in school that so much of history was like that. People being mean and crazy to each other. Strong ones picking on the weak. She still didn't understand why things had to be that way.
There was something powerful and frightening inside the pillbox up ahead. She could feel its gravity just like with the black hole, but this was even stronger. And so much darker. Mia’s pulse was climbing now. The sweat on her brow. But she knew she had to go in there.
"Ethan? Ethan, please talk to me if you're in there..."
She approached the empty doorway of the pillbox, took a quick breath and stepped through. There was a horrible smell inside. Immediately Mia wanted to turn and run away. But she didn't. She quickly realized the smell wasn't even in the air.
It was in the energy.
Mia’s chest tightened. Her stomach was quivering now. She knew that places like this existed. She'd sensed their edges before. Luckily she'd never been inside one, until now. This was a very bad place. A place that neither kids nor grown-ups should ever be. There were things crawling around inside the energies here. Things that existed but weren't quite visible. They were just above her, on the ceiling. They had been feeding, and now they were watching her instead. Mia trembled at the realisation.
A train was coming. The sound of it began to gather in the air.
"Don't run," she told herself. "Don't run, don't run, don't run..."
Lights from the approaching train began to fill the pillbox through the empty doorway, illuminating the damp interior. It was empty apart from a few things in the corner. Mia willed herself to be brave and crouched on the stone floor. The stubs of three old candles in the corner.
A bracelet of silver with a little heart attached.
Mia almost gasped. Ethan's bracelet. She snatched it up as the train roared by. The illumination from its passing windows were like lightning flashes just outside the pillbox. She felt Ethan smiling, offering his wrist. His grandmother fastening the bracelet, kissing his cheek. Then shadow and sickness found him. An older man in the dark, taking the bracelet away from him. Ethan screaming. Ethan struggling in terror, and pain. Later, Ethan sobbing as he’s lifted on the man’s shoulder and secretly thrown like garbage in front of the passing train.
"Oh God, no..."
Mia shuddered, blinking the images away. It was a nightmare. She had stumbled into a nightmare. She had to get out of there. Right now. She shoved the bracelet into her coat pocket and fled from the terrible place as the train disappeared beyond the curve in the tracks.
She hurried back the way she came along the narrow trail between the gardens and the railway lines. At points she was almost running despite the danger of tripping and falling onto the electrified rail. Mia couldn't help it. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, her heart slamming in her chest. When she finally wriggled through the crooked railing and back into her own garden Mia doubled over on her knees, pressing her face into the grass as she wept.
At breakfast the next morning Mia felt like the loneliest girl in the whole world. She couldn't finish her cereal. It had taken ages to fall asleep last night, and she still woke up every few hours. She wasn’t sure if she would ever see Ethan again.
Now she felt exhausted and horrified. Mum could see that something was wrong and checked her temperature. Told her that she might be coming down with something. Mia insisted she was fine and ready for school, but eventually Mum declared that Mia had to spend the day at home in bed, drinking ginger tea with honey. Mia knew it would be too much time alone with her thoughts but she didn't have the strength to argue. The thought of what Ethan had been through in that pillbox was weighing too heavy on her heart.
"I'm sorry I can't stay with you today."
"Mia, listen. I know you're alone too much for your age and I’m sorry. But Dad and Tess aren't here anymore. It’s just me, and you know how crazy work is. We really need the money, but soon I’ll be able to afford a sitter. I promise."
"Please drink the ginger & honey, and just rest."
"I truly love you, princess."
"Love you too."
Then Mum was gone and Mia was alone in the quiet house. She couldn't tell Mum anything about last night, or about Ethan in general. What would she say? That she wasn’t like other daughters, and Tess hadn’t been either? That there were horrifying monsters hiding in the world, and that she'd stumbled into the cave of one of those monsters? According to the teachers at school she was already a girl who was prone to make-believe, and her big sister's suicide had only isolated her even further from the other children. Which was true, Mia supposed, apart from the make-believe part. She sat alone at the breakfast table, staring at Dad’s photographs on the kitchen walls as she clutched Ethan's bracelet in her fist.
Mia spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon in bed just like Mum had ordered. She drank ginger & honey, trying not to think about last night. Eventually she couldn't bear it anymore. She made another cup of tea and took it with her into the garden. It wasn't as bright today but it was still warm enough to sit outside for a while. She sat in the grass right beside the railings.
For a while she just sipped her tea and tried to find comfort in it. No matter how much she wanted to she couldn't make Ethan just suddenly appear. She pictured his face, his sad eyes and messy hair hidden beneath the black hoodie.
Mia knew she had to talk out loud, even if it was to nobody.
"I'm scared, Ethan. I don’t want to go on the internet, because I think I might find you. And that would make it so real. The teachers at school worry about me, you know. Worry I might go crazy and do something awful, like Tess. But Tess was just really, really sad about Dad. Her heart was hurting too much." Mia sighed, pressing a hand to her chest. "I miss you, Ethan. I'm sorry if that seems weird, but...I don't have any other friends. Please don’t leave me…”
Birds were making noises in the trees. Mia finally closed her eyes and tried to listen.
Her eyes flew open instantly. Ethan was there, leaning against the railings, hunched over a little. He looked exhausted, and in pain. Mia leapt to her feet and shoved her arms through the railings in an effort to make contact, but Ethan backed away.
“I don’t think you should get too close,” he muttered.
But she was barely listening, so overwhelmed with relief to see him. “I was so scared!” she exclaimed. “I thought you were never coming back! But I found your bracelet!”
“Mia, listen. Something’s happening to me. I’m terrified.”
She stared at him, recognising the gravity of what he was saying. She remembered the pillbox from last night.
The terrible place.
Ethan showed her his hands. They were shimmering, fading in and out of visibility. Mia could see right through them. He suddenly shoved them into the pockets of his hoodie, like he was ashamed of them. He stared at the ground, a haunted look in his eyes.
"I was in the dark again, Mia. Dreaming of you. Then I heard your voice, and suddenly I'm not far from your garden, and it's daytime."
Mia was frightened. This felt so awful. She knew she had to tell him, but she had no idea where to begin. She wanted to run away from all of it. "Ethan, I have to tell you something."
"I'm losing my mind, aren’t I?" She grimaced at his words. She wanted to touch him. To comfort him, and he sensed it. "Don't, Mia. Stay right there. Don't come over here. I don't know what's happening to me. I must be getting sick."
"I don't care if you're getting sick! You're my friend!"
"I might infect you somehow. That’s the last thing I want…"
Mia gripped the railings with both hands, her face pressed between them.
"Ethan, please listen. When you didn't come back like we promised, I got really scared. I could feel that dark place you talked about. I went out there on the tracks looking for you."
“You did that? For me?”
"It's bad, isn't it?" he asked quietly.
She swallowed and nodded. "I found this place not far from here. It's called a pillbox. From the war. It felt like a cave. A monster's cave. Your bracelet was in there. Someone took it from you."
"A very bad man. He did things to you, Ethan. Really horrible things."
Ethan grimaced and shook his head. He tried to hold it all back, but tears were already spilling down his face. "I don't want to hear this. None of this is real, Mia. It's a dream. It has to be. You, the train, the dark place. All of it. My Gran is making me breakfast right now and I'm still asleep..."
Mia frowned, desperate to hug him. "No, Ethan. This man who hurt you, he's dead now. I’ve been holding your bracelet all day and I could feel his trace. He died of a heart attack, I think." Ethan turned his face away, trying to hide his crying. "He can't hurt anybody else. I promise. He can't hurt you anymore."
The boy in the black hoodie finally dropped into a sitting position on the ground beside the train tracks. Mia immediately did the same, reaching out for him again through the railings. He wouldn't take her hand.
"But the dark place," he said quietly, shakily. "I'm there every night, I think. But it feels like an awful dream. Oh God, Mia, please help me..."
"I want to help you!" she cried. "Just take my hand! Don't fade away! Please don't fade away, Ethan..."
His hand was still shimmering as he reached for her, but it solidified as their fingers interlocked. Mia tried to smile for both of them but Ethan quickly pulled his hand away.
“I don’t want you to get hurt,” he said quietly. “Not because of me.”
Mia swallowed and peered down at the grass. She had no idea how to save him from this nightmare.
"I...I really don't want to go back there, into that darkness. I don't even know if I'll come back this time. My head hurts…"
Mia glanced up again when she realized he’d stopped talking, but nobody was there. For a few moments she just stared in shock at the empty space in front of her. The boy was gone. The narrow path beside the tracks was empty. The garden was quiet now. It felt like something heavy had just closed tightly around her heart. She gripped the railings with both hands, feeling suddenly broken.
“Ethan…” she muttered in despair.
But it made no difference. Her friend had vanished without warning right in front of her.
Mia shut herself in her room for several hours after that, and cried. She cried so much. Eventually she couldn’t cry anymore. But she didn’t feel better afterwards. There was no sense of relief. She just felt hollow. Mum came home in the evening. She could tell Mia had been crying. She begged her to open up, to talk about everything that was troubling her.
But Mia was like a stone.
Night-time finally arrived, blackness beyond the windows. Now she just wanted to shut out the world for as long as humanly possible. She didn't want to exist anymore in this between-place of monsters and vanished friends. But at the same time she was so tired of running. She didn’t want to run from anything anymore.
She had been right all along, she supposed. Everything good went away in the end.
Ethan and Tess, and Dad.
After Mum had gone to bed Mia snuck downstairs and took a key from the rack in the hallway. The garage wasn’t a black hole like Tessa’s room had become, but it was still a sad place. Mia would sit in here sometimes when she wanted to feel close to her father. But it had been a while. The garage was filled with junk and she could smell the familiar dust in the air.
In the corner she sat among the open boxes filled with his things.
There were books on photography and painting. Old magazines about films. It was painful to look at. Mia knew he didn't really try to succeed as an artist, despite his talent. It was just a fun hobby, or so he said. But even when she was little Mia recognised the joy it brought him. She thought about his camera sitting on Tessa’s shelf upstairs. She began flicking through a book about famous photographers. Already she felt more connected, and it hurt.
It always hurt.
Mia closed her eyes as she thought about that night in the hospital. The last time she'd spoken with him. She remembered the smell of illness everywhere. Some of the dead still wandering the hallways, staring at her like they knew she could see them. She remembered how pale and weak her father seemed that night, like he had almost faded away. She knew he didn't have much time left at all.
He turned to look at her as she entered the dimly-lit room, and tried to smile despite the pain. "Hey, beautiful. This is a surprise. Am I dreaming?"
"No. I'm here."
"But it's late. Visiting hours ended ages ago. What time is it?"
"It's almost midnight, Dad."
He frowned as she sat down in the big chair beside the bed. The rhythmic sound of his heart monitor filled the room. "How did you get here?"
"I told Mum I wanted to spend the night at Auntie Claire's. Then I snuck out and just walked here. Only took fifteen minutes. I begged the nurse at the desk to let me see you for just a little while."
A half-smile on Dad's face. "You planned this?"
"My little genius. You get it from me, obviously."
Mia tried to smile. "Obviously. Don't worry though. They rang the house. Auntie Claire is on her way to pick me up."
Dad chuckled, even though the slightest movement seemed to hurt him. "Your mum is gonna be pissed."
Mia shrugged. "I needed to see you, before it's too late."
Dad smiled, such love in his eyes. "I’m not angry."
She took his hand and held it tightly. "This is so unfair."
"I know, baby."
"I see very bad people on television and in the street, and they get to be healthy. They have so much hatred inside them but they get to have real lives. I don't understand."
Dad frowned again, gently squeezing her hand. "It’s awful that my girls have to go through all this. You're right, it's not fair. But I’m not scared of the end."
“It’s not the end.”
“I’m not scared, Mia.”
There was no way to convince her father of anything real, no matter how lovely he was. There was no way to convince anyone, really. It was too late for that. She tried when she was little. Nobody believed her, so eventually she stopped trying. Mia felt the tears welling in her eyes as she sat there. "Daddy, please don't go..."
"I don't think I have a choice, baby."
"Tell them you won't go."
"The Bright Ones.” She squeezed his hand. “Listen to me, Dad. Later, when they come for you, you have to tell them you won't go with them..."
"Princess, I don't know if that stuff is even real."
"It is real. I know it is."
"Even if it’s real, my body is too weak now. Too much chemo, and the cancer is just so aggressive. We've talked about this. I don't get to choose. Mia, sometimes people leave. Whether we want them to or not. It's cruel and unfair, but we can't run from it. I know it hurts, baby, but I’m so tired now. I want to go."
"No, Daddy," Mia pleaded. "I need you here…"
"I'll always be with you in spirit, sweetheart. But you have to let me go."
Mia finally opened her eyes as she sat there on the cold cement floor of the garage, surrounded by Dad's art books.
Mum shouted at her that night, after Auntie Claire drove her home. A child wandering the streets alone at night. What if something terrible had happened? But then something terrible did happen. The next morning they got a phone call from the hospital saying Dad had died that night. Mum cried. Tess cried. Auntie Claire cried. Mia sat with them in the kitchen, and then in the garden. She was silent the whole time, her heart heavy as she watched trains pass by at the bottom of the garden. It was the loneliest day of her life.
In the darkened garage Mia hitched her knees up, pressed her face against them and sighed.
"I get it now," she muttered to herself.
But it felt like it was too late. The sadness of it felt so horrible in her chest. Ethan. Her sweet friend. Her only friend, and she'd lost her chance at helping him.
"I'm sorry, Ethan. I'm so sorry. I wasn't trying to be selfish. It just gets so lonely here by myself. Oh, please hear me..."
Silence and stillness in the darkened garage.
It hit her like a surge of adrenaline through her entire body. Her eyes went wide and she immediately scrambled to her feet. “Ethan…?”
Oh God, Mia, can you hear me...? At first it seemed like a faint echo from somewhere in the garage. But she quickly realised the voice was coming from inside her own head. Mia, I can't see anything. I'm scared.
Her hands became fists. "Ethan, I can hear you!"
Is that really you, Mia? Oh God, please help me. It's so dark. I can hear something awful. Something laughing at me...
She grimaced at the terror in his voice, glancing around the empty garage. "Where are you?"
I don't know! I can't...your voice is so far away!
Mia was gripped with sudden panic. "Ethan, listen to me! Picture my face, ok? And the garden, and the rose I gave you..."
"Ethan!" But the voice was gone and Mia was alone in the garage. Tears immediately welled in her eyes. She clenched her teeth, afraid. But there was an anger flooding her system now. She remembered the pillbox. The place where the monster did those awful things to her friend. The place where those dark, hidden things were now gathered and feeding. Mia suddenly realized what they had been feeding on. It wasn’t just the energies the bad man had left behind.
Mia had never felt so angry in her entire life.
It felt like pure rage was flowing through her veins now. She knew it would be incredibly dangerous to go back out there again, onto the train tracks. Into the darkness. And she didn’t care.
"Hang on, Ethan," she muttered. "I’m coming."
She took Ethan's silver bracelet from her jeans pocket. The bracelet with the little heart on it. She kissed the heart and fastened the bracelet around her wrist, even though her hands were shaking.
The darkness seemed even scarier this time, but Mia didn’t care. She had taken the little flashlight from the kitchen drawer. Now she hurried along the narrow trail between the gardens and the train tracks, as the flashlight cut a beam through the night.
Mia had noticed people like Ethan her entire life. The lost ones. She learned pretty quickly not to talk about any of it. Most people were terrified of things they couldn't see or understand. But now, with the flashlight in her grip like a sword of light, Mia felt braver than the night before. And furious. Her heart was beating so fast.
Mia? His voice again, like a faint echo in her mind.
"Ethan, can you still hear me…?" The pillbox was up ahead, near the curve in the tracks.
I'm really scared, Mia. I can barely hear you...
Mia pressed a hand flat against her chest as she moved. "Ethan, listen to me. Put your hand over your heart, ok? Remember my face. I’m almost there."
I can feel you, but...there’s things in here with me…
Mia fought the tears. She had to keep moving. She hurried towards the pillbox, getting closer and closer. The low roof, the slots for windows. The empty doorway like a gate of total darkness. She remembered the awful energies within it. The hidden things on the ceiling that watched her last night. Those dark, feeding things.
Mia swallowed, and stepped into the bad place. As she crossed the threshold she realised the old candles in the corner were alight somehow, but she hadn’t noticed their sickly glow from outside.
Ethan was on his knees in the candlelight, hunched over. Hands crossed behind his back. The plastic rose Mia had given him was stuffed in his mouth.
Mia inhaled sharply. “Oh, God, Ethan…”
The bulb of the flashlight in her hand suddenly cracked and went dark, but the candles still burned.
She dropped the useless flashlight and hurried to Ethan, crouching as she tried to lift his head and pull him to his feet. But she couldn’t. It was like he was frozen in place.
“Oh, Ethan, can you hear me…?”
There was no response. Mia's gaze went to the ceiling of the pillbox. She couldn't see them, but she could feel them right above her.
Coiling, writhing, laughing.
They were laughing at what they had done to her friend. She realized they had used some kind of magic to light the old candles in the corner. Mia clenched her teeth, her heart pounding. Then she screamed, "Leave him alone! I'm not scared of you!"
Even though she was.
She was very scared, but also full of rage. She sprang from the crouch and violently kicked the candles in the corner. They went scattering, bouncing off the walls, their flames going out instantly. She went back to Ethan and without thinking she tore the plastic rose from his mouth and tossed it into the corner with the overturned candles.
He gasped suddenly. A huge gasp, like he'd been underwater the whole time. Immediately he looked up at her, but his eyes were completely black.
"Mia…? Oh God, Mia, is that you?"
She knelt in front of him, grabbing his face with both hands and peering into his blackened eyes. "It's me, Ethan! It's me!"
"I can't see, Mia! I'm scared! I can't see anything!"
Mia's throat was dry with terror, but she tried to stay calm. "I'm getting you out of here, right now. These things can’t have you."
"I wanna go home!"
Mia held his face in her hands, staring into his blinded eyes as she tried to send her own energy deep into his spirit. "I love you, Ethan..."
"I love you too! But I'm scared, Mia! I can't move!"
"Yes, you can," she told him through clenched teeth. She could feel the anger inside. "It's a trick, Ethan. They're pushing things into your head. You can move. Get up."
"You can. I found your bracelet. I'm wearing it right now. There's no reason for you to stay here."
Tears were rolling down the boy's face. The blackness in his eyes was clearing. She could see his irises, and Mia knew he had a chance. "But...but what if I fade away?" His voice was shaking badly.
Tears in Mia's eyes, and she thought of her father. "It's ok, Ethan. It's ok to let yourself fade away. It's the Bright Ones, not these things. These things are trying to keep you here. But the Bright Ones have been trying to take you home."
Ethan's eyes were human again but he was still frozen on his knees, hands crossed behind his back. She could feel his trauma, his fear of the unknown, but also his rising hope that it could all be over soon.
"Bright Ones? You mean angels?"
She nodded, trying to smile. Suddenly something dropped down from the ceiling and landed right beside them. A dark, hidden thing. Mia could feel its sickness. Its hatred for both of them. It began to coil around them. It didn't want to let either of them out of the pillbox. But Ethan was staring into Mia's eyes now, like he'd never seen anything so beautiful. Suddenly his entire posture slumped with relief, like a weight had been lifted. He uncrossed his hands from behind his back and embraced Mia right there in the darkness.
They held each other, and it was the warmest hug Mia had ever felt. She wanted to say so many things to him, but she didn't. She said only the most important thing.
"Just let go," she murmured in his ear.
The hidden thing was still trying to coil its sickness around them, but Mia knew it had already lost. A train was coming. The sound of it began to gather in the air as she embraced the boy in the black hoodie.
“Thank you, Mia…”
She could feel him beginning to fade in her arms. A sense of great peace started flowing between them. The train finally roared by like thunder and lightning flashes outside. The hidden things knew there was nothing left for them now. They dropped from the ceiling one after the other, defeated, and fled through the doorway of the pillbox in the wake of the passing train. Mia remained on her knees in the darkened space, eyes closed, her arms still held in a gesture of compassion. But when she finally opened her eyes again Ethan was gone. Mia took a few moments to let the truth of it sink in. She inhaled and exhaled carefully, before pressing a hand gladly to her heart.
Tessa's bedroom felt different now. Mia felt different too. There was still a lot of work to do, but they had boxed up many things. Things to give away and things to keep. Auntie Claire had already taken some of it. Beyond the windows the skies were clear. Mia was looking forward to spending some time in the garden later. Reading, sitting and thinking. There was an entire summer ahead of her. She glanced at Mum as they sat on Tessa's bed together. An almost empty plate of biscuits lay on the bedsheets between them. Mum still had a biscuit poking from her mouth, a playful smile on her lips.
Mia tried to hide her amusement. "Shut up…"
Mum crunched the biscuit in her mouth. "I giggn't shay anyfing..."
"Shouldn't talk with your mouth full," Mia told her.
Mum shrugged. "I just think tomorrow’s going to be fun, that’s all. Lottie gets christened. I get to drink wine with my sister and her buddies. Mia gets to hang out with annoying kids her own age."
"Ha!" Mia declared sarcastically. She looked at Dad's camera sitting in her lap. She had taken it down from Tessa's shelf earlier.
Mum glanced at the camera, then noticed the silver bracelet on her daughter's wrist. She leaned forward and touched it, lifting the little heart with her fingertip.
"This is so pretty. Where did you get this?"
"From a friend."
Mum smiled and stroked Mia's cheek with the back of her hand. Mia leaned into it. Mum smiled even wider. "My baby's making friends?"
She pictured Ethan's eyes. His smile. His messy hair beneath the hood. "She's trying," Mia said quietly.
Mum stared at her with a thoughtful look. "I'm going to try too. Way more."
Mia held the camera gently in her lap, and nodded. “Deal.”
"Dinner soon, or did we spoil it with too many delicious biscuits?"
"You can never have too many biscuits. Everybody knows that."
"True. Come downstairs in an hour then, ok?"
Mum left Tessa's bedroom and shut the door behind her. Mia sat in silence for a while, just looking at all the changed things in the room. The several boxes they had packed. The cuddly bunny with the floppy ears that Mia wanted to give to Lottie tomorrow. Tessa's amazing sketches still pinned to the wall.
She recalled what Tess had mentioned about artists. How it wasn't just about creating something pretty. It was about trying to get people to see things. To feel things. Mia knew she wasn’t going to see the boy in the black hoodie again. Not while she was still alive. But that was ok. Mia could still feel him, in her heart. He was safe now. She imagined Tess and Dad and Ethan all sitting together on the grass somewhere in the bright place, talking and laughing. She smiled, glancing at the bracelet on her wrist. She lifted the camera from her lap and peered through the viewfinder. The weight and shape felt good. Like it might eventually fit perfectly in her hands. Mia smiled again, wondering how much a roll of film might cost.
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