Whispers in the night, the White Wraith will call,
Slicing through the air, they will come for us all,
Turbulent in mind, it claws at your soul,
Spirits taken away, bodies left to fall.
The Shadow in the Night
Betony stood motionless on the hard stone flagged floor, her bare feet cold despite the nearby steadily crackling open fire.
A soft evening breeze crept into the room through an open window, wrapping itself gently around her freckle sprinkled face. She shivered, but not for feeling cold. The tightly wrapped and silky smooth layers of inky midnight blue ribbon which she wore over her whole body, from neck to ankle, had been the traditional garb of all Stealth Vilmhied for countless hundreds of years, and was more than capable of keeping its wearer warm.
Betony’s white blonde hair was presently tied into a tight bun at the back of her head, only a few loose strands falling down onto her slight shoulders. The combined nearby lamp and firelight flickered on and off of Betony’s round and soft freckle scattered face, her wild and pale blue eyes like shiny crystal balls, seeming to soak in every bit of warm light which was emitted. Betony continued to stand silently still for what seemed like hours. She felt like a carved stone statue, not needing nor wanting to move … But she had to. Her mission was not nearly complete, and delaying for any longer would not only be unwise, but dangerous to the highest degree.
Betony’s sentinel, an animal guide like those which all Vilmhieds paired themselves with, was a sleek blackbird named Ronan. At that moment Ronan sat quietly on the sill of the nearby open window. The high window had been Betony’s means of entry into Perks House, the Queen’s residence, after the girl had scaled the mighty mansion’s formidable outer walls, and now served as Ronan’s perch from which to watch his companion’s every move.
There was a low clatter far away in another part of the enormous and palatial building and Betony’s attention sharpened – it was time to get moving, her presence here would not go unnoticed for long. She closed her eyes, stashed the stray strands of white blonde hair behind her elfin ears with sure fingertips, and took a deep steadying breath. ‘You can do this,’ she whispered gently to herself.
Betony opened her eyes and looked down at her bare feet, a voice from her past training flashing into her mind: ‘The only way to be sure your footfalls go undetected, is to be sure that it is only your feet, and your feet alone, which make them.’ Betony gazed at the small tattoo on the little toe of her left foot and it twitched involuntarily. She would need to be beyond just swift and spritely in order to avoid detection tonight.
Just then Ronan fluttered into the room proper, coming to rest on the handle of the door that led out of the chamber and into the corridor on the other side. His sharp amber eyes narrowed on Betony, serving as a final cajole to her that things needed to move along. She took his heed and crossed the room to the door, her footsteps inaudible. She edged the door open and immediately Ronan rushed out in a flap of feathers. He returned only seconds later and landed at her feet, signalling to Betony that the coast was clear.
The corridor floor was covered in a finely woven rug that felt soft and welcoming on Betony’s lithe soles, as she edged along like a shadow, making sure she kept as close to the wall as possible. Ronan soared off again noiselessly ahead of her, scanning Betony’s path for any possible obstacles or danger. The ribbon clad girl focused her eyes towards the end of the darkened corridor, and specifically on the edge of the corner which Ronan had just disappeared around. She inched slowly towards it until a faint chirp made her freeze and press her body firmly up against the wall, as if she were trying to melt into it. The chirping was Ronan’s warning to her that someone was approaching.
It felt like lightning was coursing through Betony’s veins and crackling under her skin, her heart thumping painfully against her ribcage. She held firmly in the shadows, as barely an arms length away from her passed two Royal Guards on a regular patrol through the royal abode. She held tightly to the wall, and after their swords had clanked away, the hems of their long coats swished out of sight, Betony’s chest heaved tall one last time and her pulse began to slow.
She edged her way around the corridor’s point, moving like a feather in the wind, softly and silent, all the while keeping her ears pricked for the sound of more Royal Guards’ boots.
Betony had learnt the layout of the royal residence to heart, and she knew the Queen’s chamber was close, just a few more turns and a scurry through the odd hidden passageway would find her there. Ronan was no longer flying, but now pottering along on his clawed feet on the floor just ahead of Betony, something he only did when the immediate area was deemed to be relatively safe.
Betony did not feel good about what she was doing, or more specifically, what she was about to do. Truth be told, it troubled her more deeply than she let on. But orders were orders, and being a Vilmhied meant working for the greater good. She had been given the perfect opportunity to prove herself. And even though she disagreed with the necessity of her required actions, deep in the lows of her stomach Betony knew that the Commander of the Vilmhied, he whom had given her her mission and orders, must have the wisdom to know what was needed to be done in order to see this greater good fulfilled.
As Betony inched further down the corridor, Ronan chirped impatiently, as if to suggest that Betony was not moving as quickly as she should be.
‘Oh, be quiet!’ Betony whispered with vigour. The bird gave her an indignant stare but chirped no more.
The thick ivory coloured marble walls of the corridor were cold under Betony’s fingertips as she ran them over the smooth surface while she crept, still encountering no other Royal Guards than the two she had already evaded. Betony knew that on this floor of the building there was a small armoury. And although procuring a weapon did not concern her, she would have no option but to pass it. And armouries, as she knew also, were always well guarded.
What would her mother think about what she was doing?
The question jumped suddenly into her head and buzzed around like an annoying fly. But the insect of thought quickly flew away, Betony swotting at it with the numbing realisation that she would never know the answer to that question anyway, even if she wanted to.
Betony made a few more turns on her way, and slowly but surely, she began to hear the low bubble and idle chatter of one Royal Guard speaking to another – she had made it to the armoury. Ronan flew high into one of the corners of the corridor where little light now reached, there being little he could do to help her with this situation. Betony primed herself, now mere feet from the two burly looking Guards as they stood just inside the doorway of the armoury. They were unable to see fully down the corridor where Betony stood, listening intently to the waves of sound in the men’s conversation, trying to predict the optimum moment when the talk was at its loudest.
The tallest Guard made a comment about his fellow Guard in jest, the other responding with an even ‘ha!’ of amusement, and Betony pounced like a big cat leaping from a tree. With her back to the wall she pushed all of her weight onto her left foot and sprang out sideways, her body twisting and twirling across the entrance to the armoury, her legs and arms splayed out like a sea star as she spun gracefully and swiftly through the air, gliding as effortlessly as her sentinel. Betony touched down softly on the floor, on the opposite side of the armoury doorway and out of sight, crouching down low to cushion her landing and reduce the noise of her small feet hitting the ground.
Betony held her position and listened hard. The Guard’s conversation continued on and she allowed herself to breathe, rising back to her full height and continuing on her way.
The stealthy girl stole a mite more along a particularly bare wall until her soft fingertips ran over an indentation in the stonework. The hawks head pattern in the pure white stone was supposedly for decoration, but as Betony felt along the bumpy surface she found what she was searching for and pressed down firmly against the marbled stone face. There was a dull click! and the wall separated to reveal a narrow opening. The opening extended from floor to ceiling and was barely wide enough to allow a small child passage through. However, as tight as the fit was, Betony managed to turn her slim figure and slipped through the opening into the cold darkness with ease. She felt around blindly for the latch on the other side and pulled it, the wall restoring back to its previous flat and smooth state behind her.
The chilled pitch black pushed in onto Betony’s eyes like heavy water, as she cautiously began to put one foot in font of the other and creep along the narrow secret passageway. The only sounds she could hear were those of her own beating heart behind her breast, and the faint clicking of Ronan’s claws on the hard ground as he scuttled along ahead of her.
The stone floor felt like ice under Betony’s bare feet, and although she desired to move along it as quickly as possible, she knew that carefulness was the only option when she could not see where she was stepping. She cast her arms out in front of her and felt along the rough sides as she went, her palms soon resting on the wall of a dead end. Another latch was found and she pulled it slowly, a fine slither of light growing into her exit.
Betony stepped out of the secret passageway and into the recess at the end of a completely different corridor than the one she had just left. She cast her eyes about and quickly regained her bearings. The Queen’s chamber was a few rooms away in the direction she now faced. Ronan took flight and glided here and there, returning soon to sit once again at Betony’s feet.
‘Well done, Ronan,’ she said softly, and bent down to give the bird a single gentle stroke with the tip of her finger along the silken feathers of his back.
Betony stayed crouching and edged stealthily towards the door of the Queen’s chamber. She rested her light hand on the shiny golden doorknob, ready to make her entry, when the sound of heightened tones of speech reached her ears and she recoiled, setting her ear closely against the door instead. One of the voices belonged to the Queen, Betony had heard her voice enough times before to recognise it. The other was that of a man, most likely one of her faithful aides who seemed to follow her everywhere that she roamed.
‘And what of this so called new threat?’ the Queen intoned upon her subject, ‘another bunch of xenophobic crackpots no doubt …’
‘I am assured by Commander Mangrove that it is much more serious than that, Your Majesty,’ said the dusty voice of her aide. ‘We have doubled the Guards at all of your residences.’
‘Come now, is that really quite necessary?’ the Queen pushed.
‘It is what has been recommended by the Vilmhied, Your Majesty.’ There was a pause, in which Betony could clearly hear the constant hiss of the fine brainic lamps set at intervals along the corridor walls.
The Queen then said: ‘Do we have enough Guards for that?’
‘Plenty, Your Majesty,’ the aide ventured with half conviction. ‘But we have made movements to recruit some extras, just as a precaution.’
‘Really, I think it is quite unnecessary,’ said the Queen in raised tones, suddenly agitated. She sighed before going on. ‘But I see I no longer have any say in the matter,’ she continued, her voice now returned to its usual steadied and regal nature.
‘As you wish, my Queen,’ the man simpered, ‘ah … we have one new Guard assigned on roving duty to both Perks House and Connolly Castle.’
‘Yes? What is his lineage?’
‘He hails from the Foreign Guard, Your Majesty, highly decorated. I will meet with him tomorrow.’
‘Very good. Is there anything else?’ There was the sound of papers being rustled within the room and someone shifting their weight nervously in their seat.
‘Your – your daughter, Your Highness,’ the aide said finally.
‘The Princess? What of her?’ said the Queen, sternness prickling her tone.
‘Perhaps you had better come with me, if you would, Your Majesty?’
The Queen sighed deeply.
‘Very well,’ she said with some effort. The sounds of movement from the pair met Betony’s ears and she leapt swiftly from her place by the door and into a darkened nook nearby.
The Queen and her aide left the room in a mild hurry. Betony felt Ronan’s pointy beak dig into the back of her neck irritably as he sat on her shoulder, and she bit her lip to stop from uttering a low breath of surprise. When the sharp footsteps of the aide and deep swish of the Queen’s gown had died away, Betony rounded on the feathered sentinel.
‘What was that for?’ she hissed at him. Ronan merely peered at her with his sharp yellowy orange eyes in reply, and then fluttered off of her shoulder and down the wide corridor.
Betony sighed to herself and then made to follow him when her head was suddenly rocked with an explosively splitting pain. She fell to the floor, dazed, her vision blurred. Betony blinked a trickle of warm blood out of her eyes and looked up from the floor to see a tall and smug looking Royal Guard standing over her, his cutlass drawn. A second was all Betony needed to regain her composure, twisting her legs sharply to trip the Guard’s own and bring him down. He fell hard, flailing at Betony with his sword. She narrowly ducked the swing of the blade and thrust the sole of her bare foot swiftly into the man’s windpipe. He let out a high pitched yell of pain and then fell silent.
Betony was shaken, her heart threatening to beat itself clean out of her chest as she sprang to her feet. Ronan then appeared in the air at her side, his dark wings flapping hysterically. It was deathly clear to them both. The small scuffle and anguished yelp of the now dead Royal Guard had been more than enough to raise the alarm. Betony needed to get out. She needed to get out now, or she would not get out at all.
A million thoughts ricochet off of each other in her mind, sloppily mingled with the stabbing pain of her bleeding head, as she sprinted down the corridor, Ronan flapping at her heels.
Betony was supposed to move through Perks House unseen and unheeded by all, both before and after she had completed her mission. Least of all was she to be seen by any Royal Guards – and she had just killed one! She had just reacted, her rationale tried to comfort her, there was not time to pause and discus, her instincts overruled. No one was to know that she had been there that night, not even the Royal Guard. There was nothing else she could have done. These were the facts Betony continued to tell herself as she streaked down another corridor and into a side room that she knew would not be occupied.
There was a singular and grandly large window at the end of the dark deserted room she stepped into. Ronan stayed watch at the door while Betony hurriedly attempted to prise the window open, but it was no use. She gazed madly around the room, finally grabbing a nearby chair and hurling it at the glass with success. The window shattered and Ronan chirped – they were coming! Betony cleared the window frame of loose shards of glass as best she could, thick rain now streaming in, and then slipped her slim body through the large gap left behind. In a moment she was clinging to the outside wall, her fingertips screaming out in pain, the balls of her feet pressed firmly against the smooth and slippery water soaked stone as she struggled to hold her grip in the teeming downpour.
Betony looked down and immediately wished she hadn’t, the drop to the ground at least fifty feet and dangerously close to the edge of a row of jagged looking trees. Ronan shot out through the window just as the sound of half a dozen or more Royal Guards entering the room rushed out of the open window too. There was nothing for it, she had to act. In a second or two a group of Royal Guards would be at the window, and under no circumstances was she to be seen. It had been the single most important mission directive. Betony released her finger and toenails grip and fell. She fell for what felt like minutes instead of the mere second that it took before she hit the ground.
Betony lay deathly still, as one then two and three heads popped out of the window now high above her, the figures blankly silhouetted against the stormy sky. The ground and the surrounding canopy were engulfed in a suffocating darkness. There was no chance for the Royal Guards to make out anything through the gloom below them as long as Betony kept still. And still she stayed, for a minute and then another until she was certain the Guards had disappeared from the room.
Betony wanted to lie there forever, let time heal her pain. But she knew that they would quickly be on her tail, so she lumbered her legs and arms to get up. But to Betony’s horror, she couldn’t move. She was then suddenly aware of a pain so immense that she was dumbfounded as to why it had only just become impetuously apparent in that instant. It felt like a huge and ghastly creature with massive jaws had just taken a large bite out of her stomach. Regaining some feeling in her hands, she reached her fingers gingerly towards her tummy; it felt like a pound of minced meat. Suddenly Betony was powerfully sick, rolling onto her side and vomiting into the long grass.
Betony still couldn’t move her legs and was now finding it hard to even breathe. Gasping for air she frantically cast her wild eyes around for Ronan, but before she could lay her gaze onto anything, she heard a rustling noise nearby. Betony froze and slowly laid her head back onto the ground, her skull now pounding worse than ever as it seemed intent on exploding, her whole body now beginning to shiver. Her consciousness began to ebb and flow like waves on the ocean shore as the rustling got closer and closer.
She had surely failed to a fatal end, this the stinging and only thought Betony could now hold onto. Not only had she not completed her mission, but at any second she would be discovered by the Royal Guard and brought before the Queen.
Betony’s wakefulness dipped again and her last vision was of a large dark figure bearing down upon her.
‘Betony?’ said a gravely voice. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’
Betony felt two powerful arms lift her gently into the air, and all else around her fell black and silent.
Another New Family
Ewan Pendle was affectionately known to his four older brothers as The Weird One.
However, affectionately probably wasn’t the most accurate word to use, for their affection usually tended to manifest itself in Ewan being tied up, tied down, sat on, pummelled, pushed, punched, pulled, chased, teased, locked in a cupboard or wardrobe or garden shed, or any other number of less than affectionate activities which his brothers saw fit to include him in.
Weird could even be said to be one of the the more kinder words Ewan’s siblings used to describe him too – others being less so. Much less so. For starters there was strange, odd, freaky, kooky, wacko, mental, crazy, and many other more colourful and less flattering adaptions and accentuations of these words. Ones which would never be uttered within the earshot of a teacher, unless the speaker wanted a years worth of detentions for being such a potty mouth.
Added to this verbal barrage, Ewan’s brothers were not only all older than him, but they were also all large enough to be mistaken for professional wrestlers in school uniforms. When not at school, they preferred to dress like jumbo sized sacks of potatoes. And looked a lot like them too. Arms like engorged drainpipes, chests like overflowing rubbish bins, they often put Ewan in the mind of what trolls might look like.
The only consolation Ewan had against having older brothers such as these was the knowledge that they weren’t his real brothers. And it somehow helped to think that his parents weren’t his real parents either.
Ewan lived in a foster home, and had done so in some shape or form for as far back as he could remember.
He was never able to recall living in any of these homes for much longer than about a year or so, this seemingly the average amount of time that it took for the average pair of foster parents to decide that maybe Ewan ‘wasn’t quite right for them’. This was when he would be promptly moved along to the next unsuspecting family. In fact, Ewan often halfheartedly joked to himself that every year, as an early birthday present, he got a new family.
So, as Ewan’s birthday on October the 31st loomed now only a month and a half away, the familiar feeling of jittery apprehension began to rise up in his chest like a swarm of butterflies taking flight. He was sure it would now not be long before he was whisked away to yet another family in yet another town, left to start life anew, again.
It had never been fully explained to Ewan exactly why he had been bandied about from home to home so often. He had never hurt anyone, nor was he at all overly rude or horrible to any of his foster parents or his foster brothers and sisters in the past (even though at times he was more than tempted to be). Ewan himself had come to the conclusion on his own that the main reason for his short stays with these temporary parents, temporary brothers and temporary sisters was because of a singular and tiny problem … Ewan could see monsters.
His first such ‘vision’, as they had long ago been dubbed, was on one fine spring morning at school when Ewan was five years old.
While eating a hastily prepared peanut butter sandwich alone in the playground, Ewan had seen something that made his spine prickle. A dragon, as big as a minibus, its scrubbed hide a darkened magenta, was foraging for food in a large blue skip that sat just outside the school’s tall green steel spoked fence, the creature’s pointy snout rummaging through the various debris on offer. As far as Ewan could see, the dragon wasn’t doing anyone any harm, and if anything it was helping out by making the skip a little lighter in its load. He had puzzled a little, though, at the monster’s choice of foodstuffs. The skip it was eating out of sat on the street in front of a house being renovated, nothing more than bits of twisted metal and discarded wood and plastic inside. Despite this, the dragon seemed to be content, happily nibbling on the gleaming metal pieces in particular.
Ewan stared without blinking as the beast chomped away, blissfully unbothered by the steady bustle of human traffic around it, all of whom clearly had no idea it was there. As Ewan finally chanced a blink of his eyes, he was further confused to see the dragon still in its place when his lids were reopened. Initially he had been expecting the whole thing to be nothing more than some twisted schoolyard daydream.
Further moments passed, until suddenly the dragon turned its eyes onto Ewan, and his stomach dove for cover. The mighty creature latched its gaze fast onto where it was aimed, right at Ewan, orb like eyes of sticky greenish blue holding Ewan’s own rusty hazel counterparts for a dribble of seconds. Without warning, the foraging beast then abruptly extended mammoth wings, twice as large as its own body, and took to the skies with remarkable speed, leaving Ewan to ponder his strange encounter.
Of course, Ewan had immediately rushed off to tell the nearest teacher all about the urban beast, as well as anyone else in the playground who cared to listen. But he met only sceptical ears, and thus began a long line of weird and wonderful sightings, these strange monsters somehow consistently attracted to Ewan from then on.
Ewan later learnt to keep his uncanny exchanges to himself, but by then the damage had already been done. He had lost count of the number of times he had been laughed out of his classroom at school, all the way up the corridor to the Headmaster’s office. Ewan had frequently gotten into trouble at school for ‘making things up’ that year.
Fearing he might be mad, or even dangerous, his school had sent him to see a psychiatrist. In the end the psychiatrist had declared that Ewan was mostly harmless, and only suffered from an ‘overactive imagination.’ As he had continued to move from school to school, Ewan decided it was much easier to just say nothing whenever he saw a werewolf by the woods, or a baby kraken in a canal. From that day to this, he kept to himself and away from others, too scared at what he might say after what he might see in order to venture towards making any real friends.
To look at, Ewan was rather normal. His face was fairly pale and freckled, his nose a bit too big for his own liking. His ears were long lobed and stuck out a tad. His hair was a stock standard fair brown, short, messy and stuck up oddly in various places. He wasn’t overly short, but a bit weedy in appearance, his muscles sparse, his awkward stride frequent.
The only single remarkable thing about him, or at least as Ewan saw it, were his eyes. They were a gleaming hazel and as sharp as razor blades. Eyes that would switch between mossy green and cocoa brown, or sometimes, to a metallic grey blue.
A full six years after his first encounter with a monster, Ewan sat waiting outside the front of his school, ready to be picked up. He was, once again, the last student to be collected.
The unusually cold September winds pushed through the trees along the lonely school facing street like a burly school bully, pummelling Ewan’s face and roughing up his hair. With his arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders, his bare legs going slowly numb in the cold, Ewan sat on the sodden muddy ground and awaited the approach of his foster mother’s rust riddled cobalt blue Ford Festiva.
And then he saw it.
Perched on a low and dusty grey stone wall that ran along the border of the graveyard across the street, and shaded in the deepening gloom of the approaching night, was a dark feathered bird. At least Ewan thought it was a bird, its pale yellowy eyes cutting clearly across the gloom and onto his face like the headlights of a car. Maybe it was some kind of sparrow, or blackbird, thought Ewan, except that it was different. The difference was not in the look of the bird, but in its feel. It didn’t feel like he was being watched by a bird, or even one of his monsters. It felt like he was being watched by a person.
Trying to ignore the cold ripple that now clawed its way across his already frigid skin, Ewan made a sudden movement, as if to try and scare the bird off. He waved his arms around in the air like pieces human spaghetti, but the bird gave no reaction to his threat. Instead the creature seemed to take a more keener interest in him, clipping a little further along the wall on its sharp claws and closer towards Ewan. He started to think that maybe the bird really was another one of his monster sightings, even though there wasn’t anything remotely monstrous about the feathered thing. Its presence certainly felt like all the others, an icy sensation gripping him, like a frozen spider had just crawled up his bare back. Ewan decided that the bird was not in fact black, even though its feathers were dark enough to be so, but was an inky midnight blue.
Another mad fist of wind ruffled up Ewan’s hair, and another peculiar observation formulated itself in his brain. Even though the wind continued to howl, the trees and his hair along with everything else dancing around in the air, the feathers on the midnight blue bird did not move an inch. It stood silent, as if it were a perfectly smooth and untouched shadow.
A mighty bang! suddenly ignited the chill air and Ewan simultaneously jumped and twisted his head to meet the sound’s maker. His eyes fell onto his foster parent’s lurid blue Ford and Jane Doe, his foster mother, behind the wheel. Ewan’s shoulders lowered in a combination of relief and resignation; his ride had finally arrived.
Ewan bent his gaze back across the street before the car had made it to him, but his winged watcher had disappeared.
The car came to a stop in front of Ewan and a weak hello was offered by both parties as Ewan stepped inside the car and buckled himself into his seat. He whiled away his journey home in careful thought, about the sentry bird that had kept him company and why its presence had felt so strange.
Ewan knew that he was his foster parent’s least favourite child, his four foster brothers being the Doe’s real children. He also knew that they received extra money from the government to keep him as their own, an extra bonus on top of the usual allowance which was paid to all carers who took in foster children. The higher income was paid because most other foster families wouldn’t have Ewan, on account of his so called pre-established peculiarities and abnormalities.
The usual stack of pamphlets and gas company bills was waiting on the floor inside the door when Ewan and Jane finally got back to the Doe’s small house. The tiny dwelling stood sandwiched between two other houses, those houses sandwiched by others, the same repeating itself for as far as the eye could see, so that the street looked like a badly made sponge cake that had toppled onto its side.
Ewan stepped over the mismatched pile of junk mail and swiftly advanced the stairs to his bedroom. When he had cleaned himself up a bit and thrown on some warmer clothes, his stomach groaning and complaining that he meet its needs, Ewan trudged back downstairs, hoping that dinner might soon be on the way. As his foot was leaving the bottom step, the fresh raised chatter of his foster parent’s voices ran along the hallway and bumped into him. Ewan pushed on through the kitchen door to see what all the fuss was about.
On the settee were Ewan’s foster brothers, the four of them deeply engrossed in a rugby match which was taking place on the television. None of them acknowledged Ewan’s presence, as usual, and he instead turned his attention towards the adults in the living space.
‘What’s all this then?’ said John Doe, Ewan’s foster father, before catching himself and adding: ‘Oh look Jane! the Department has finally replied to our letters!’
Ewan had always thought that John Doe looked a bit like a broomstick with clothes on. His was so thin that anything he wore looked at least three sizes too big for him. John also had broad dark eyebrows and pale, almost sickly looking skin. His arms and legs looked like those of a scarecrow, either sitting too slackly or too stiff, but never seeming to be quite his own.
‘Well it’s about blinking time,’ said Jane, ‘I only just mailed off the thirteenth letter last week! I was beginning to think they really were ignoring us.’
Jane Doe on the other hand was short and plump. Her hair was tall, bushy and looked like it had been made out of several discarded pieces of wire, all bunched and coiled together. Her cheeks were ever rosy, her face looking like a perpetually under-ripened apple.
Ewan’s foster parents were reading from an official looking letter, printed on fine white paper. Ewan watched the pudgy expression on his foster mother’s broad face as she read on. Gazing over his large wife’s shoulder, John Doe’s eyes began to widen like ripples from a raindrop on a pond, and he suddenly snatched the letter out of his wife’s hands.
‘Look here, Jane!’ he said with unrestrained excitement, ‘we’re to be paid remunerations!’
‘And,’ piped up Jane, her own face rivalling that of any six year old’s on Christmas morning as she snatched the letter back, ‘it says we still get our monthly payments six months thereafter – just like he was in the house all along!’
Ewan had never seen his foster parents so happy. But he, of course, had no idea what they were talking about.
‘Can I have a look at the letter?’ asked Ewan, trying to keep his voice innocent.
John and Jane were in such a good mood that they didn’t even throw Ewan a suspicious look, something they normally did when ever he said anything, usually fearing he was about to tell them that he had just seen an elve picking tomatoes in their back garden, or a vampire taking out Mrs Across The Street’s recycling. They handed him the letter without fuss and Ewan retreated to his room to read it.
John and Jane had shoved the letter roughly back into its large envelope, so it was the front of this which Ewan looked at first. It was addressed to his foster parents, the house address of 13 Blackstock Row, Bellshill, Scotland, having been printed across it by the mechanical hand of a computerised printer.
Ewan turned the envelope over, carefully extracting the letter from within, and something small and pale fluttered to the floor. He bent down and picked up what looked like a pure white feather. Ewan held the feather in between his thumb and forefinger, staring at it for a moment. It was of the purest white he had ever seen, not a blemish on it. Jane and John had obviously missed it, so excited were they to get their hands on the letter and see what it had to say.
Ewan sat the feather on his bedside table and brought the letter up to his eyes. The writing was in the same typed fashion as that on the envelope, only a mite smaller, and read:
Dear Mr and Mrs Doe,
After reviewing your several correspondences with us over the past months, we have come to the conclusion that the current child in your care, Ewan Pendle, should be moved onto another foster care situation. We realise that Ewan is a challenging child, and based on the information you have given us, we agree that you are not well enough equipped to deal with Ewan’s special needs and behaviours. It is therefore the decision of the Association that he be consentingly removed from your care and placed in the care of another foster family.
To cover any inconvenience that may have been caused in the interim, we will pay into your bank account a remuneration lump sum, as well as a further six months worth of carer payments over the next half year.
We apologise for the lateness of our reply to you, and wish you to contact us if you have any further questions or requirements.
Ethel A Widowoon
British Association for Adoption and Fostering
‘Challenging child? Special needs and behaviours?’ Ewan breathed aloud, his shoulders working their way down closer towards his hips as he spoke.
So this was the sort of letter that all of his previous foster parents had been sent? An apology for having had to put up with him? He set the letter down on his bed and now understood why his foster parents had been clutching it so feverishly in their hands, grappling the sheet of paper like it was a map to a gleaming chest of buried treasure.
‘But what if I don’t want to go?’ said Ewan, somewhat feebly when he had gotten back downstairs, his belly churning at the thought of moving to yet another home, somewhere different. What if the next place he went to was worse than the last?
John Doe screwed up his face into what he clearly thought was his most empathetic and endearing look. Instead, he only managed to look like he was in dire need of the toilet, his attempted smile more of a strained grimace.
‘We’re only thinking of what’s best for you, Ewan,’ said John, his thin lips pressed together tightly, as if he were trying to keep his true thoughts on the matter from spilling out in a great torrent of words.
‘Yes, Ewan dear,’ Jane chimed in, ‘this would be the best for everyone.’
Ewan said nothing, equally excited and apprehensive about where this new road might lead him. His foster parents looked expectant, teetering on the edge of elation, as if Ewan were that guy on the television who reads out the wining lottery numbers, and they only needed the last number to win the jackpot.
‘There’s a second letter that explains all your travel details,’ said John Doe, his eyes shining like polished spoons, ‘you’ll be taking the train down to London of all places, tomorrow. Won’t that be exciting?’
‘Ah – ’
‘Oh yes,’ said Jane, her broad face the picture of eagerness, cutting Ewan off and answering as if John had directed the falsely enthusiastic question at her. ‘I’m sure it will be wonderful!’
Ewan could do nothing but stand there, a short dishevelled statue, as Jane then rushed off to start packing Ewan’s suitcase. John continued to gaze at Ewan as if he were the goose with a penchant for laying golden eggs. Ewan decided it was pointless to argue further, knowing from experience that it clearly got him nowhere. When he had been moved off to another home in the past he had been moved off, that was that.
He clumped off back to his room to find it almost bare, his few possessions packed neatly for him in his old brown suitcase. Ewan took one look at it before his foster father called out from downstairs.
‘Don’t worry about cooking tonight, Jane,’ he sang like a stage actor, ‘we need to celebrate! Pizza tonight, eh boys?’ Ewan heard the reverberating grunt of his four foster brothers, as they all voiced approval towards their father’s dinner suggestion.
Nothing more was said about Ewan’s new moving plans until his foster brothers had devoured a whole large pizza each, and were set once again back in their deep bottom grooves on the settee, in front of the television.
‘So, Ewan,’ said John Doe, again attempting to speak with the air of a doting father, but sounding more like a solicitor highlighting the terms of a lawsuit, ‘I understand your mother –’
‘Foster mother,’ said Ewan automatically under his breath.
‘Yes, well, I understand your mother has already packed all of your things ready to leave tomorrow?’
He said it as if he were asking a question, even though he clearly knew the answer already. Ewan said nothing, instead choosing to look down at his half eaten slice of peperoni pizza; he wasn’t really sure how he was supposed to be feeling.
‘It will be sad to see you go, old chap,’ said John, without troubling to wait for an actual answer from Ewan. ‘But we have to look at the wider scope of things here, do what’s best for the whole family.’
Ewan had no idea where John was going with this, and he wasn’t sure he cared. He waited until it seemed like John had finished his spiel, all the time nodding whenever the thin man paused in his words. After Ewan’s leftover pizza had finally turned from cold to stone cold, he left the table and ascended to his bedroom, eager to get ready for bed and sleep.
After Ewan had changed into his dilapidated pyjamas and was sitting up in bed, he reached for the letter that had come along and changed his life in a day, or more like less than a day. His eyes scanned the perfunctory letter over and over again until he was sure we could recite it word for word.
‘Are you ready for bed, Ewan?’
Ewan looked up. Standing in the bedroom doorway was Jane. In all the time that he had lived with the Doe’s, Jane Doe had never once come to wish Ewan goodnight. She came over and sat on the edge of his bed, and then she smiled – also something she had never done before. Jane rested one pudgy hand on each of Ewan’s bony shoulders and paused, as if she were listening to see if anyone was eavesdropping, before looking Ewan straight in his hazel peepers.
‘Mind you keep your eyes open in this new life, Ewan,’ she said with wide pupils of her own, ‘you never know what you might see when you get to the big city.’ And then she winked.
Ewan felt puzzled, and he was about to say so when Jane Doe got back to her feet, turned her back on Ewan and left his bedroom, flicking the the light off as she went.