Watch Me Burn – Chapter Three

Three –

What’s left of normality

Lara Matthews has been my friend since forever. It had been almost three months since Winter had hatched and we were going to visit her because they had just recently gotten back fromHarlowwhere they had been on holiday. Lucky bastards. Mr and Mrs Matthews had said I could go with if I’d wanted, but my parents wouldn’t let me. At the time I was livid, but now I’m A-okay with it.

Anyway, I was putting some stuff onto one of the quad-bikes to ride over. It was too far to walk and not far enough to warrant a family drive. Besides, they were coming over for dinner anyway. Winter stood at the front wheel of the bike. He was getting bigger fast now, but he still barely reached my waist. Still, it wasn’t like he ate all that much. Today I had some chicken with me for when he got hungry as he inevitably would. I also packed two bottles of water and a pair of left over sausages just in case. It was about ten-thirty in the morning, and leaving now would mean I could have half an hour of chilling before lunch. Winter hugged the front tyre and shook his head again.

“Come on, buddy,” I said for the umpteenth time that morning. “You’ll love it. Lara’s folks have a flitterwing.”

He opened one eye and I gave him my best ‘you’ll regret it if you don’t’ look. With a sigh, he began to clamber up the side of the bike. He plonked himself onto the seat and stretched, trying to reach the handle bars.

“Not so fast, speedy,” I said, picking him up. “You get front row seats though.” I placed him in the deep basket at the front of the bike. His lunch was in a bag tied to the back as a precaution. It wouldn’t do if he ate it all before we even got there. He slumped deep down into the basket, grumbling to himself. He wasn’t happy about having to come with. No, that’s a lie. He wanted to come with; he just didn’t want to go on the quad.

“Perk up, bud,” I said as I stepped over the bike and settled onto the seat. He looked up with accusing eyes as I reached into the basket. “Here, you need to put this on.” I proffered him a small, makeshift helmet fashioned out of an old kettle lid and some Velcro. “You have to wear it.”

He shook his head and crossed his arms.

“Winter,” I said in a tone that brooked no nonsense. I raised an eyebrow and handed it to him.

Sighing, he let me nestle the helmet amongst his feathers and strap it on. He glowered at me and slipped lower into the basket. I was slightly surprised he didn’t set it on fire, but I guess that would have landed him up shit creek without a paddle and he knew it.

I stuck the key in the ignition and gunned it. He squeaked as the quad roared to life, his little claws poking through the basket as he held on. The loathing in his eyes was gone, replaced by fear and apprehension. I gave him a reassuring smile and then let rip.

Dirt and stones flew out behind the bike as I spun it in a tight circle and raced down the driveway. We crossed the cattle grid and I watched his face as we bounced quickly across it. His eyes were the size of dinner plates.

Then I skidded around the corner as we reached the road, our long driveway behind us. The bike stopped with a cloud of dust as I looked down the long stretch of road that led into the small town at the head ofEchoValley(so named because of the echoes that reverberated along it during firesong mating season – when their cries were the loudest).EchoValleywas a smaller valley joined to theSingingValleyat almost right angles. It was also a lot closer to the rest of civilisation than we were. The town at the end of the valley shared the same name and was made up of a few shops, a mechanic, a post office, a wannabe Phantom nursery (a building that could look after strays, abandoned ones and the ill – like a Phantom hospital), a rundown old petrol station and about a million farms. Oh, and the school. In any given year, the school consisted of around twenty students, if that.

The farm closest to us was owned by the Kellers. Patrick, their son, was a year older than me but had been in the same grade at school. The next closet was Lara’s house and it would take roughly an hour and a half to get there. But on a quad I could cut across a few of the paddocks which would cut the trip down to about forty minutes. Not bad considering.

Winter poked his head out the top of the basket and glared first at me, then down the road. He lifted one slate brow as if to ask what I was doing.

“Just waiting for you, mate,” I said. “You’re going to want to see this.”

I revved the engine and it snarled in response before we roared down the road. Winter instinctively ducked his head into the basket as we picked up speed. But as we went a long, his head got progressively higher out until I was afraid he would fall out. We whipped across roads and bounced through the fields, we didn’t get many cars out this way, so we didn’t bother to fence the paddocks off from the road, so it was basically just a dirt track running through our property.

After about fifteen minutes, Winter turned around to look at me. A massive smile was plastered all over his face and his long pink tongue was lolling around in the wind. He clapped his forepaws to let me know he was enjoying himself, then he went back to surveying the landscape.

We bounced over a few more cattle grids and we had to stop a few times as we hit the boundary to our property to open some gates. Then we raced down what was suddenly a better kept road past the Keller property and on to Lara’s house. We drifted round the corner, jounced over another cattle grid, stopped to open and close a gate and sped down their driveway. Dirt flew out behind the quad, a wonderful signal to those at the house that we were coming. It took a few minutes to reach their house on the end of their driveway it was that long.

Standing on the front porch was Mrs Matthews. She looked amused by something. I pulled the quad over to the side of the drive and got off, the engine dying as I pulled the key out.

“Hey, Mrs Matthews,” I called.

“HelloKirin. Where have you been? I was expecting you two hours ago.” She called back.

“Sorry, I wasn’t out of bed yet. Mum wants to know if you’ll come over for dinner later.”

“Why don’t you come inside and we’ll talk about it. Lara’s still unpacking.” She turned and went inside with a wave of her hand.

I grabbed my bag from the back of the bike and slung it over my shoulder. Winter was hanging over the front of the basket, still grinning. I just laughed at him as I picked him up. He clawed his way to my shoulders where he wrapped his arms around my head, forcing my fringe further into my eyes. He rested his warm chin on top of my head and let his tail drape over my shoulder.

“Come on,” I said, walking towards the house.

Oh god, I forgot to tell you that in the month before Lara got back I got my stitches out. I can now walk on that leg easily. The wound healed nicely but it left an impressive scar. Nothing mangy though, just a nice thin pink line from my knee to my ankle. It’s really quite something.

Anyway, walking up the stairs and inside, out of the heat. It’s really terrible to be out during the middle of the day. It was a good thing I was driving home with Lara’s parents. I wandered down the entrance hall that I knew like the back of my hand and through their living room where Mr Matthews was watching television. He looked up as I walked through and raised a hand.

“HeyKirin,” he said. “How’s your holidays been?”

“Oh, you know,” I replied. “Not bad, could’ve been better. Same old, same old.”

He laughed. “Lara’s in her room.”

“Thanks.”

I hurried into the kitchen where Mrs Matthews was pouring tea.

“Would you like something to drink, love?” she asked me, pouring a cup anyway.

“No thanks,” I replied. “I’ve got water with me.”

“Right,” she said, pushing a cup over to me she indicated that I should sit. “So about dinner tonight. Should we bring anything?”

“Just yourselves,” I replied, picking up the cup. Winter rapped the top of my head so I passed it to him first.

“Okay, I’ll bring salad. Good tea?”

“Yes thank you,” I said, taking the cup off Winter who appeared to have buried his whole face in it to give it back. He complained a little, but he obviously wasn’t fussed enough to get off my head.

“Thanks for that, love. Lara’s in her room.”

“Thanks Mrs Matthews.”

Lovely, vague Mrs Matthews. That was a standard conversation for us. Whenever my parents asked them over for dinner she would ask what to bring, I’d tell her nothing and she’d bring something anyway. That was how she functioned; she’d never turn up to dinner without bringing something with her. She could also never go to dinner without doing the dishes. It didn’t even really surprise me that she hadn’t noticed Winter. I mean, I’d kind of hoped she or Mr Matthews would notice him, but I hadn’t expected them to. Lara would though, that I was positive of.

I wandered down the hall towards her bedroom; Winter was tapping a beat out on the top of my head, his chin resting on one elbow. I paused at the door and tapped his knee. He stopped tapping, but he didn’t get down. Sighing, I knocked three times.

“Come in,” she sang.

Carefully, I pushed the door inwards and poked my head through. She was facing away from me, tossing things over her shoulder onto a pile on the floor. No doubt she was pulling them from her suitcase. Her bay window had the curtains thrown open and Furzy, her florastormer was curled up on the ledge, basking in the sun. She opened one brown, green flecked eye and lifted her head. The little green Phantom bounced to her feet, plopped to the floor and trotted over to me. She rubbed her face against my leg much like a cat would. When I gave her my hand she licked it, the crest on the back of her head vibrating softly, happily.

“I thought you’d be expecting me,” I said to my friend.

Lara stiffened instantly, spun, shrieked and gave me the biggest hug I do believe anyone to date had given. In fact, she was so fierce about it that Winter squawked indignantly and dropped from my shoulders whereupon he stalked over to the window seat, climbed up and sat himself down. Meanwhile, I was struggling for breath.

“Lara,” I wheezed. “It’s wonderful to see you too, but if you don’t let go you’ll be lacking a best friend.”

She released me but held on to my shoulders. Lara’s straight blonde-brown hair hung to her shoulder blades and was wildly crazy. Not curly, just crazy, it would stick out in any direction it felt like if she didn’t brush it regularly. Her green eyes were as crazy as her hair, but right now I felt like she really had missed me. Maybe the holiday had been bad. She was taller than me, but that wasn’t really all that hard and had fair skin. Lara also had the enviable ability to stuff herself with as much food as she felt like and she never so much as gained a gram. Today she was wearing a red and white short sleeved shirt with an emblem of some kind sewn onto the left breast and a pair of daggy brown track pants. Clearly ‘sloth around the house’ material.

“How was your holiday,” I asked her, slumping into a reading chair by another window. Winter was still glaring at me and Lara from the window seat.

She growled. “Oh, don’t get me started.”

I raised an eyebrow, genuinely intrigued.

“I’ve decided that I thoroughly hate planes.”

Lara stopped, grabbed a fist full of clothing from her suitcase and threw them on the floor with the others. Then she collapsed on to her bed. I exchanged a glance with Furzy as she was the only other in the room who would look me in the eye without glaring at that time.

When Lara sat up again, she had her hands between her knees and her eyes were glazed. “Come on, Lara,” I said. “You’ve got to tell me. I won’t tell you about my holidays if you don’t.”

She gave me her best ‘are you serious?’ look and then sighed. “All right. The drive into Carissa was so boring, I was sick in the plane on the way down and the Interactive Nature Reserve inHarlowwas closed for development when we got there. What else are you supposed to do inHarlow? The first week we were down there I was still feeling so gross after the flight that all I wanted to do was sleep. Not jet lagged, I just felt sick.”

“You were there for two months,” I said, stunned. “What did you do?”

“Well, we met the defender there, she’s a real cow. We stood at the fence of the Reserve for the first few days; just watching the Phantoms, Furzy was rather impressed. We went to the Phantom nursery and the markets and the mall, mostly just for shiggles. After the first month, the Reserve was open so we went in, they gave us special consideration because we’d paid for the all access passes and we’d missed some of our time. So they gave us a guided tour, which wasn’t bad.”

“Did you catch anything?”

“No, they didn’t have anything I wanted. I was going to get an ashoof but dad said why bother when I could catch one here. And he said it’d be a nightmare to get home. I told him that’s why they invented atomisers but he wasn’t having any of that.”

“That’s a shame.”

“I know, I was pretty keen to get something, just so I could say I got a Phantom from the Harlow Reserve.”

“So that’s it?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Mum and dad let me train Furzy a bit, that was fun. Anyway, how was your holiday?”

I didn’t say anything to begin with, I just sat there, pondering how to get it all out. “Well,” I began. “A bit over two months ago, I was pottering through the forest. I encountered a herd of ashooves and got some good photos, then I got charged by a pair of stonehorn in the middle of their mating season clash. I got some good shots of them head butting one another, too. Then as I trotted on out I saw a light in just a bit further. I wandered on over, following it. It led me to the Tree of Exile. It was a young firesong, a girl. She was carrying something to the tree, she left it, I took it home. I put it in the green-room for two weeks and viola! A firesong chick.”

Lara’s mouth dropped. “You hatched a firesong?”

I raised a finger. “Not just any firesong. One that had been abandoned by the rest of its kind, left to die. A marked one.”

‘Marked,’ she mouthed. “Where is it?”

I pointed to the window seat where Winter was still glowering at me.

“Oh stop it,” I scolded him. He pouted, but stopped glaring. I motioned for him to come over and reluctantly, he stood and padded over. “Winter, this is my best friend Lara. Lara, meet Winter.”

Lara was, needless to say, gob smacked. Which for her took a lot of doing.

“Winter, stop being a sourpuss, say hello,” I said.

He sat with his little arms crossed looking like I was asking him to go swimming (they can swim, but as a fire class, prefer not to). After a long staring contest between the two of us he sighed and turned to Lara.

He waved and muttered something to himself. I raised an eyebrow and he showed his pointy teeth. “Hi,” he muttered a little louder.

I think Lara almost fainted.

Winter was just as surprised at her reaction as she was that he’d spoken.

“H-he spoke… Did he just say ‘hi’?” she asked, her face was pale.

“Yeah, Lara, I’ve been teaching him. I can say stuff in Phantom now too, how cool is that. There are some words that are easy for him to say and others that are more challenging. I figured we’d just keep to the basics,” I said.

“But… but it’s supposed to be impossible to teach Phantoms how to speak our languages,” she argued. “I bet he doesn’t know what the words mean.”

Winter huffed and crossed his arms again, his glare now turned on Lara.

“Do you have something to say Winter?” I asked him.

He nodded, his dark look still glowering at Lara from beneath his brows. Then he looked around quickly and went over to her desk. Climbing up onto the chair and then onto the desk itself, he wandered about till he found what he was looking for: a notebook and a pen. Then he jumped down, pen and pad in his mouth, and hurried back over. He stopped and scribbled in the book.

Lara’s mouth fell open as she watched him write. When he finished he held the notepad out to her. With a hand that shook just a little she took the notepad.

“What’d he write?” I asked.

“‘I don’t like the way you talk about me’,” she read, “‘I can hear you and I can understand your words.’ That’s very formal.”

“Most of the time there isn’t a direct translation from his language into ours so we have to make some things up,” I explained.

“Still, this is pretty amazing,” she said, now regaining colour in her face. I think she was getting over the initial shock of it. “You could write a book, publish an official scientific report or something. You have the evidence to prove everyone wrong; that Phantoms are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. You could host a talk show, or own a business teaching Phantoms to talk human languages. You could be famous.” She was babbling, it was a very Lara thing to do, especially when she got excited. I let her go for a little bit longer, but Winter was looking sick of her.

“Lara… Lara.” She stopped talking and looked up; her mouth was still open though which was very attractive. “I’m not going to be famous or start my own talk show. It was just to make communicating easier. And shut your mouth, you look like a dead fish.”

Her mouth clicked shut and her eyes, big from excitement or shock I don’t know, were boggling. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to be famous, or any of that.”

She gave me an ‘are-you-serious’ look that was highly convincing. Winter snorted. We both looked at him and he shrank a little.

“Winter, have you met Furzy,” I asked, snatching the opportunity to change the subject. The florastormer looked stunned. Winter’s ice blue eyes regarded her calmly and that seemed to make the poor creature even more terrified. “You know, buddy, it’s quite normal to act like a happy little Phantom every now and then. There’ll be plenty of time for you to be grown up when you’re an adult.” I left unspoken the ‘just have fun for a while’ part of that, but evidently he heard it in my voice.

He pounced. Furzy squealed.

“Girls! Lunch!” Mrs Matthews half called, half sang from the kitchen. It was amazing how that woman managed to make even a near bellow sound graceful and airy.

I hefted my pack back onto my shoulder and followed Lara out the door. Furzy raced out the door with Winter not far behind.

“Play nice, Winter, or you won’t get fed,” I said. He peered over his small shoulder and grinned. It wasn’t mischievous or sarcastic or anything like that, just a happy grin. Then he continued to chase Furzy.

From the living room came a shout.

“Mary, there’s a little grey lizard in our house!” yelled Mr Matthews.

“I’ll get the broom, dear,” she replied.

“Winter,” I called. “It’s okay Mr Matthews, he’s mine.”

I stepped through the kitchen to where Winter had crash tackled Furzy. Lara was calmly taking the broom off her mother while I explained about Winter to Mr Matthews. He took the whole thing only mildly better than Lara and I even gave him the same story I’d given my parents, with a pointed warning look at Lara of course. Furzy had apparently accepted Winter and his strange way of playing, but then he was a fire class and most of them played differently to other Phantoms, a little more contact than some earth classes.

Even Mrs Matthews took the news surprisingly well, but then most things barely fazed her. I sometimes wondered if it was because she was a strong woman or if it was because she genuinely didn’t get it.

Anyway, we ate lunch, watched some telly, and chatted about mostly inconsequential stuff. I got the rest of the holiday story from Mr Matthews while Mrs Matthews bustled about in the kitchen making a salad that she didn’t have to bother with. I knew from experience that my mum wouldn’t make salad because she knew Mrs Matthews was. You know, Mrs Matthews’ name is Mary and her husband’s name is Michael, just so I don’t have to keep calling them by their titles. Are you good? Have you got that? Wonderful.

Lara discussed the whole ‘you could be famous’ thing with herself because I wasn’t listening. Furzy and Winter had finally reached some sort of unspoken agreement when it came to playing and were having a ball rolling around in the living room. It was good to have them home again; I’d missed the mindless rituals we had and the fact that none of us needed to speak. Except Lara who was always talking.

When someone knocked at the door I went to get it. I was practically family with the Matthews and so was Lara with my parents so it wasn’t really like I was a guest there. It was like having two families which could be horrifying or amazing by turns. And it was a great escape from… well, my other life.

Anyhow, I opened the door and guess who was standing there? Well, you won’t know so I’ll just tell you. It was Patrick Keller from across the road. Uh, almost across the road. A tall guy, but I’m not an expert on height so much, with rough cut unruly brown hair and grey eyes that glint constantly with mischief. He was thin, but wide at the shoulders and well filled out; it was just easy to overlook the whole masculinity of him because he was so cavalier about everything. A real joker and easy to not take seriously.

“Hey Patty,” I said, stepping aside to let him in.

“Uh, hello Rin,” he said. He sounded so surprised to see me there.

I closed the door once he was through and we walked into the living room. Lara smiled when she saw him and Michael muttered a greeting without looking away from the TV. The two of us joined Lara and her dad on the couch while we waited for Mary to finish with the salad.

“Pat, my mum’s having a dinner tonight, do you want to come?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Sure, my parents are going out with Sally Parsons’ folks so I’ll be home alone. It won’t put her out will it?”

“I doubt it, we always cook enough for twenty people anyway,” I said.

“I’m done girls,” came Mary’s voice from the kitchen. “Are you ready?”

“Yup,” we chorused.

“Mr Matthews,” I began, “would you mind putting the quad on the trailer to take back to my place?”

“No worries,Kirin,” he said, flicking the telly off and standing.

“Mum,” Lara called, “if I take spare clothes can I stay atKirin’s tonight?”

“Not tonight, honey,” replied Mary. “You have to finish unpacking and I’d like to do a little bit of a clean. Tomorrow maybe. Not to mention tomorrow’s church and if you stay atKirin’s place you’ll never make it to service.”

Lara scowled, she hated going to church. Religious she might be, but she believed that if god loved you, he’d let you pray from home. I agreed.

“Right,” said Michael, picking the keys off the counter as Mary emerged from the kitchen balancing an impressive glass bowl of salad on one hand while the other was occupied with a bag of stuff. “Out the door and pile in.”

“Oh hello Patrick,” said Mary when she saw him. “Would you mind taking this bowl for me?”

“Not a problem,” he said. “What’s in the bag?”

“Gifts forKirin’s parents.” Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t do anything stupid now Mr Keller.”

He winced. The last time someone had brought gifts from a holiday, Pat had switched them for cheap chocolates and trick things like a box that had a fake snake in it and when you opened the lid the snake popped out. Scared the crap out of my mother that did.

“Furzy,” Lara yelled. The little green Phantom and her newly acquired friend had disappeared. “Where did they get to?” she asked.

Furzy appeared at the end of the hallway, her head crest vibrating happily, just before she was crash tackled by Winter. I scooped him off the floor as Furzy leapt into Lara’s arms to escape him. Both were grinning widely.

“I told you to play nice,” I told him, but there was no admonishment in my voice and he knew it. His tail wagged much like a dog’s does and he clambered onto my head again. He liked to be up high, must be one of those things. You know, one day he’ll learn to fly with his wings so he must like being up off the ground? Something like that, an evolutionary quirk let’s call it.

“Whoa,” breathed Patrick. “Is that a firesong?”

“Yeah,” I replied, nice and simple. It’s safe to say I was pretty much sick of people bugging me about him now. I was trying to get Winter off my head and into my arms so it was easier for me to keep my balance.

“He’s marked,” said Lara. “And¾” I shot her my most venomous look to shut her up. If everyone found out about our secret communication skills I really would end up plastered across televisions and newspapers. Just what I didn’t want.

“No kidding?” asked Patrick, turning to get a better look at Winter who was now curled up quite happily in my arms. “That’s quite something. Explains his colour anyway. Did you find him or what?”

“Yeah, I found his egg and hatched it,” I replied. It was far better to use fewer words to tell the tale, I’d decided, with any luck people would work out that I didn’t really want to talk much about it anymore and they’d stop. Changing subject works well too, though. “I haven’t seen you much these holidays, Patrick,” I said. “Where’ve you been?”

He shrugged as he trotted down the stairs. “Oh you know… about.” Patrick paused at the bottom as the rest of us joined him. “Mum and I went down to Carissa for a few days. That’s one hell of a drive. And Thomas and I went camping. It was only supposed to be for a few days but we ended up just wandering around for almost two weeks. I didn’t mind and he had a ball so I guess it worked out okay. It was better than it could have been, all things considered.”

Lara and I exchanged glances, wondering what that could mean.

Michael unlocked the car and we all got in, me last as I had to load the quad onto the trailer and hitch it to the car. Dad called the Matthews’ car a farm-truck because it was a four wheel drive that was actually made and used for farm stuff. Not one of those fancy-pants four wheel drives that yuppies drove around in the city. This one was even dirty, it had ‘clean me’ drawn into the dust on the back window.

Oh, Thomas was Patrick’s little brother. Patrick was a year older than Lara and me, but Tom was only twelve, that’s a huge gap in my opinion. Ten years is a long time, but whatever. Tom’s a lovely kid, age irrelevant.

I was sitting next to Lara in the car and we were psychically having a conversation about what Patrick meant when he said his holiday could have been worse ‘all things considered’. It was a skill that we had perfected in twenty years of friendship. Sometimes it scared our parents… and Patrick. Hell, sometimes it scared me.

“Patty,” began Lara slowly, twisting in her seat to look at him. “Patty…” It looked like she’d decided to broach the subject. “What did you mean your holiday could have been worse?”

He sighed. “Trust you guys to pick up on what I said.”

I leaned forward so I could see him past Lara. “Did you think we weren’t listening to you?”

“I hoped you weren’t. Too much to hope.” He fell silent and Lara and I swapped one of those psychic looks. Then we both stared at him with our eyes big, even Winter and Furzy joined in.

“Oh, fine,” he said. “Just stop looking at me like that.” We did, but he hesitated just a moment too long and Lara opened her mouth. “No,” he said. “Mum and I went down to Carissa to get a Phantom. I knew I wanted a water class and mum said she’d been in contact with a guy who was getting a couple of waters in for some kids. Waters are big in Carissa apparently. Anyway, mum and I went down to see what this guy had, she thought maybe I’d bond with one.

“Well this guy had a huge variety of Phantoms there. I was pretty hung up on getting a fangfish and the girl there was positively goggle eyed over the surfacetrotter. But the fangfish didn’t look at me twice, none of them did. So mum said something to the guy and he went to a big tank in the back of his truck, I suppose that was where he was keeping the Phantoms and when he came back he was carrying something. I tell you what, I couldn’t see what it was, but it didn’t want to be there, it was putting up one hell of a fight. The man came over to me and dumped it in my arms and it stopped writhing, just stared at me with big purple eyes. Then it hugged me¾”

“Hey,” Lara said, cutting him off. “Enough with the suspense. You bonded with the Phantom, what was it?”

“A wateroller.”

We both congratulated him on his success and asked where his new Phantom was and what he’d called it. Patrick being Patrick, it really shouldn’t have surprised either of us that he had his Phantom in a bracelet-like atomiser around his wrist. He released the wateroller into the car in a stream of aqua dust motes and the little armoured blue creature sat on his lap, looking for all the world like he ruled the backseat. Patrick had named him Canon; the implication of strength given by such a name explained the arrogance he showed.

So I’m going to skip the rest of the trip back to my house, nothing much happened. We chatted, Furzy and Winter were introduced to Canon and that’s about it. Michael pulled down our driveway which wasn’t quite as long as theirs and parked next to dad’s tray-back ute.

As we all got of the car Jeremy opened the front door. “Hey, guys, mum and dad are around the back on the patio. Do you want me to take me to take the salad, Mrs Matthews?”

“Why thank you, Jeremy,” Mary said as he trotted down the stairs to take it from her. I followed him as he went back inside, Lara and Patrick not far behind me, Winter was back on top of my head. “We’ll be on the deck with Harrison and Jane if you need us,” Mary said as we disappeared inside.

Jeremy noted the atomiser on Patrick’s wrist as he closed the fridge, salad now inside. “Did you get a Phantom these holidays too, Patrick?” he asked. The look on his face said his eighteenth birthday couldn’t come fast enough.

“Yeah, from a guy in Carissa,” Pat replied, one hand resting over the atomiser briefly like he thought it would disappear or something. I smiled inwardly at his over-protectiveness.

“Better be careful who you tell about it then,” warned Jeremy. “Apparently some guys in Carissa have been stealing Phantoms and then selling them to unsuspecting folks. Don’t tell people where you get him just in case. What is it?”

“A wateroller.”

“Oh? Do show us, I’ve always like water Phantoms, right behind steel earth-subclasses.” It was true; the only thing Jeremy would settle for in place of an ironbound would be a fangfish. He had a thing for Phantoms with teeth and spikes. The ones that could really wreak havoc on things.

Patrick let out Canon in a beam of aqua motes that pooled on the floor at his feet and coalesced into the form of a wateroller. The Phantoms started playing with each other again; Canon seemed less averse to Winter’s contact way of playing. In fact he served as a sort of intermediary in the whole affair.

So not much happened then. We watched TV while our Phantoms did other stuff. Lara and I went for a walk through the paddocks with Furzy and Winter, just talking, catching up with each other. That’s when we found it. Quite odd it was, especially how quiet it had been. No one had heard anything; dad obviously hadn’t seen it that afternoon. It was, safe to say, mysterious.

There was a great gaping hole in the paddock fence. Not something you see everyday either. It looked like a truck had run into it and knocked a few metres of fencing down. Just flattened it. Dad had put the cindersheep away earlier, so I wasn’t particularly bothered by it at the time. I just made a mental note to tell the parents about it later and we moved on.

We went back to the house; the sun was going down now. The table was set on the back deck and the food smelled really good. Lara, Mary and I helped mum bring out the food, then it was pretty much an all you can eat buffet. Whatever you could reach and then eat was all yours. Conversation was sparse to begin with because everyone had their mouths full. At one end of the table the four adults chatted about older people stuff, and then the four of us at the other end were talking about things we would like to do and probably would never be brave enough to.

Lara wanted to go into conservation at a park somewhere near Eburn in Loreth. Patrick wanted to be a soldier, also in Loreth, but he wanted to live either in Alondra or Sechur. He had apparently worked out the environments he could be working in, the pay he would get as well as leave and the over all atmosphere of the city and decided that they would be best. Not to mention the Alondra army depot pretty much supplied soldiers to the rest of Loreth. Except that Carice also had a large military outpost and they did a lot of that stuff too. I’ve already mentioned that I want to be a member of SPIRIT, but I specifically want to join the hit-squad there. They work in teams of four to take out strategic adversaries, people who would cause anarchy and mayhem and all that fun stuff if left unchecked. Basically it’s a branch of SPIRIT for assassins. It’s funny, SPIRIT claims to be a Phantom rights group (it stands for Specialised Phantom International Rescue and Infringement Tacticians after all). But everyone knows that they’re really an external establishment the government uses to keep certain antagonistic bodies from making too much of a ruckus. And they do it without alerting the whole continent. A specialised branch of the defence force for covert stuff.

And Jeremy wants to… stay on the farm for a while. He said that in the end, maybe he would join SPIRIT, but for now the farm was his best option. Just like I’d spent time on the farm after school, just to cool my head and think about my options, he wanted to do the same thing.

And that was the extent of the dinner conversation. After we ate mum, Mary and Jeremy washed the dishes. Michael and dad were looking at thing dad had bought online. Some gadget that’s purpose wasn’t readily apparent that he worshipped or something. Patrick, Lara and I sat on the front deck sucking on ice-cream, our Phantoms happily munching on something mum had whipped up for them. We were pretty much silent, occasionally probing into something one or the other had done on holidays, but nothing earth shattering.

Finally the time came that Michael and Mary were going home. We waved goodbye to them all and then went back inside. Altogether it was a pretty ordinary afternoon. But by the time the Matthews’ and Patrick were leaving it was pushingnine thirtywhich was well past bedtime for all of us.

“Hey, the side fence of the cindersheep paddock looked like it had been knocked down by a truck,” I said to mum as we stood in the bathroom cleaning our teeth. “Did dad check for any missing?”

“I don’t think he saw the hole, Rin,” she said. “You can check in the morning if you want, love.”

Then we went to bed. Just a boring, average family, going through boring, average rituals. We went to bed early so we could get an early start; there were always things that needed doing on a farm.

As I climbed into bed, Winter curled up at the foot end, his eyes watching me carefully, I thought about checking the paddocks. I wondered what we’d do if some really were missing. I wondered what would happen if there were tracks… car tracks, leading away from that hole. I hadn’t looked earlier, but if there was any sign that the cindersheep had been stolen that meant someone had been on our property. Someone with the equipment and manpower to steal our Phantoms without our noticing. That meant that there was the distinct possibility that other Phantoms in the area had been taken, which in turn meant there were poachers about. Yet, even if they’d taken the cindersheep an hour before I’d arrived back from the Matthews’, even if they’d been taken at around three in the afternoon, the people who’d taken them still would have had plenty of time to get to Carissa which would make them ridiculously hard to find. We would have one hell of a search on our hands, and I guarantee you, the officials aren’t going to help us find some missing cindersheep and some Phantoms that may have been poached from a National Park. No, we’d be in it on our own.

As I lay there staring at the ceiling, darkness surrounding me, I thought that if these people had wanted our cindersheep, they wanted them for a certain purpose. Nobody steals only a few cindersheep and not the whole herd so they definitely weren’t farmers. If they had the ability to take the Phantoms right out from under our noses they were well funded, possibly a company of successful Phantom poachers. If they were poachers stealing Phantoms for a specific purpose it’s pretty much certain that the purpose isn’t a nice one.

Thus, my weary, addled mind concluded, there was some kind of conspiracy going down in sleepy, friendly, farmlandEchoValley. Someone ¾ from outside no doubt ¾ was stealing our Phantoms and it wouldn’t stop at a few cindersheep. That is, providing cindersheep really had been stolen.

 

The next morning, straight after breakfast ¾ I don’t think I’ve ever moved so fast so soon after getting out of bed ¾ I headed for the cindersheep shed. Now we have one hundred and sixty-four cindersheep and I counted every single one as they left the shed in single file. I even left the doors closed so that only one could get out at a time. Very carefully I took that tally, very, very carefully. I had absolutely no desire to retake the tally. I concluded my counting and added up the little tally strokes on my notepad.

That morning, we had one hundred and sixty-one cindersheep.

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~ by reliquiaen on April 12, 2012.

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