Seven

I've got quite a big family.
Ruby, Oli, Yas, Bella, Iona and Vicky. They're my six sisters.
And then there's me. I'm the seventh. My name is Jade.
I'm the middle child, the quietest, the one who doesn't really get her say much.
We seem like the average dysfunctional family, I guess, from first glance. Okay, maybe a few more kids than usual, but apart from that anyone would think we were normal.
Except, normal kids know where their Mum and Dad are.
Normal kids aren't looked after by their 18-year-old sister in a bedsit.
Normal kids go to school.
Normal kids have money in their pocket.
Normal kids don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from.
Normal kids aren't like me. Welcome to my world.

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1. Chapter 1

A.N~ Thank you for stumbling on this! I have no plan for it, I'll say that outright. It's just an idea that I've always had and wanted to pursue, but I don't expect it to go anywhere - it's an experiment, if you like. I'm sorry this is quite a long chapter and not very well planned, but I tried! Let me know what you think and your ideas. Lots of love xo

 

I could smell the faint  aroma of Bella's blueberry-muffin breath as she panted rapidly beside me; it drifted on the cool, night air, lingering like a reminder of how hungry I was - how we all were. How much we needed the bulk that was stuffed down the front of my aging, tattered hoodie. 

"Jade...how-" My hand shot to Bella's mouth as quickly as she had opened it. She stared at me, wide sea-coloured eyes shocked and scared out of their sockets. I shook my head slowly, placing a long, skinny finger to my lips to emphasise the urgency. She nodded. 

It would take me a long time to explain to someone why my younger sister and I were crouched behind a foul-smelling skip in an unknown alleyway. Why we were holding breath in our burning lungs. Why, in our pockets, we held food that had not been exchanged with the chink of a coin. All I would be able to tell them is that it was the last time. I was done. It was fearful enough for me, let alone the petrified, innocent 12-year-old beside me. No longer would I do it. 

My thin hand crept down to where I knew I would find small, clammy palms and squeezed, what I hoped, was reassuringly. After what seemed like an age, Bella squeezed back. 

We must have crouched there for at least 10 minutes, although it felt like 10 hours. Ru always said to 'follow the 10 minute rule' which meant that after staying there for that time, providing you couldn't hear anyone, you should emerge. I wasn't taking any chances though. 

'Wait here' I mouthed to Bella. I met her eyes and watched her wild blonde curls bounce as she gave a slight 'bob' of her head. She was so pretty, so sweet-looking. I wanted to hold her and comfort her. But instead, I began to stand. Heart ricocheting around my ribcage, I stepped out from behind the skip.

The freezing air turned me into a fire-breathing dragon. I flickered my eyes around the scene. There was nothing unusual, nothing unexpected. Shadows engulfed the vandalised walls and there was rubbish sown across the moonlit pavement. A sharp, bitter wind ruffled my hair pulled into a braid at my side. All was still. 

"Bella." I whispered, "It's safe."

I turned very slightly to see her crawl out from our desperate hiding place and stand slowly up. Her eyes were dead, sad. She met my gaze and then looked hurriedly away again. I frowned. 

"What's wrong, Bells?" 

Bella's small hands raised to her temple and she sighed.

"We're horrible people, aren't we? Someone made this food and we didn't even have the decency to buy it." 

I took a hesitant step towards her. 

"This is the only option right now, Bells. You know that. If we could do any different we would." 

"It's not the only option." She sobbed, "There has to be another way." 

I watched as her eyes changed, became more shiny, filling with teardrops. We couldn't deal with this now. There wasn't time.

"...We have to get back." I mumbled. My feet began to guide me away, but I could soon hear that she wasn't following. She was staring at me, begging with her eyes. Silence. 

"Bella. Please." 

Still she refused to reply as her gaze moved to the floor, delving a hand into her hoodie pocket. She produced a small loaf a bread, something that could have provided us with energy to keep us alive, and chucked it into a puddle. Then, before I could stop her, she followed suit with the biscuits I'd made her carry. I watched a good meal sink into the muddy water, angrily silent. We simply stared at one another before a yell snapped us out of it. 

"That's them!" 

My heart dived into the pits of my stomach as out of the corner of my eye I noticed two sickeningly familiar silhouettes plunging towards us. They'd found us. If we were caught, it was all over. Everything we'd lived a day to stay away from. Without hesitation, I gripped Bella's wrist and pulled her so that her legs were forced to run.

 "Come ON!" I hissed, practically dragging her along until she finally gave in and ran beside me, stumbling over the uneven paths. We dodged upturned dustbins, puddles of who knew what substances, overflowing drains and forgotten rubbish. Heavy raindrops began to fall.

My throat burned. 

I was still in unrecognisable territory, which was always dangerous - even if we did manage to get away it was going to take us a long time to find our way back. The shadowed walls loomed high above our shoulders, and the smell of smoke hit my nostrils at every turn.

"JADE!" A scream to my right forced me to slow, as I watched, horrified, my poor sister clutching her ankle and scrabbling for my hands, "Jade, HELP!" 

It didn't take me long to register that whatever Bella had done, she would not be able to run. The way her face was scrunched into pain and the desperate tone to her voice. I grasped her sweaty palms and, with great difficulty, pulled her slight frame onto my weak back. 

"Hold on." A grim murmur escaped me. Once again we started off, slower this time for I was nowhere near strong enough to take Bells' body weight properly. I could hear the footsteps coming around the corner; unless I acted fast, there was no getting out. We were simply playing a constant game of cat and mouse. 

Someone must have been on our side, because eventually to my left emerged a very small backstreet, only a place we'd simply be able to squeeze into - but it would do. Our pursuers were not yet round the corner and it was my only chance. Without a warning, I dived into the alley where I could see a large piece of corrugated plastic propped up against the wall. There was little space, but it was all I could work with. Hastily, I slid Bella onto the sodden paving stones and pulled us both into the gap between the plastic and the brick wall, scraping my elbow open in the process. A small shooting of pain tore up my arm and I had to bite my lip before it would go away.

I pulled my 12-year-old sister's skinny frame into my own. Stroked her hair softly as we waited for silence. Together we sobbed, soundlessly, clutching the other for all we were worth. Far too close, I heard a tin can being kicked. A rough voice swore.

"That's three times, the same two girls. And there's been others too. Reckon they're all in league." 

"You think..?"

"Certain."

"They can't be far. The small one fell, I saw her. The one in the green, she had to pick her up and carry." 

I felt Bella exhale sharply. I drew her in ever closer, trying to be reassuring. 

"Bloody kids. This is your fault. Every time they've taken it's been your shift." The voices were closer this time. The two were strikingly different - this one with a deeper tone, the other, more nervy and high pitched. A boss and a colleague. 

"I-I don't think that's e-entirely f-fair..." 

A shuffling of feet. I dared tilt my head slightly, so that I could see through a slit in the plastic. From my limited vision, I noticed a very lanky frame up against the opposite wall a few metres up the road, and a broader one very close, up to his face. 

"If you cannot find them and bring them to me by the end of this evening, your job will be claimed by someone else tomorrow morning. Am I clear?" 

"Y-yes... but..."

"Am I clear?" 

"Y-y-yes."

"I am going to call the police, while you go and look for them. Understood?"

"B-b-but Sir... there's n-no C-CCTV footage...we've got n-no proof.."

Eerie silence. It seemed as if cogs were turning in heads.

".. Just go and find them." A seemingly defeated boss growled, storming off the way that Bella and I had come. I caught Bella's eye quickly before looking to see what the worker would do. His thin ankles kicked against the wall - he seemed to be deciding what to do. After several minutes, he let out a great sigh before doing something I'd never fathomed would happen. 

"You can come out now. I know you're there." Another sigh, "I'm not going to hurt you. Or turn you in. Just come out." 

With lightning-quick speed every inch of me said no. Don't do it. It's a trap. He's testing you. But a small part of my heart told me that something about his tone displayed kindness. Something in him wasn't all that bad. I looked to Bella and she seemed to feel the same. But something wouldn't move me. I waited. 

"I saw the little one's foot. Out the side of the plastic." 

He definitely did know we were there. So whatever we did, we'd been caught. 

"Go on Bells." I whispered, coaxing her out of the space. She did as she was told and we squeezed ourselves back out into the way. 

The worker looked about Ru's age, about 18-ish - lanky, as I'd seen him before, but with a trusting, handsome face. His skin was bad, rubbed raw and erupting in spots, but his eyes, twinkling in the dark, made him look friendly, approachable, innocent.

"Jeeeesus." He whistled, "How old are you?" 

"14 and 12." I muttered, grabbing Bella's hand, "We are really sorry. Honestly, we are, we..." 

He shook his head, as if to say 'don't worry about it'. 

"Don't apologize. If you don't mind me saying, you both look like you could use some food anyway." 

I looked at Bella, at how, underneath her faded blue jumper, how thin she was, how her skin clung to her creamy bones, and I could only agree. I knew I looked the same. 

"Won't you lose your job?" My voice croaked into barely a whisper, "If you don't turn us in, that is..."

He cocked his head to the side, eyeing us up. A flicker of recognition fluttered across his gaze. 

"You wouldn't all be sisters, would you?"

"All?" I knew what he meant, but I wanted to test him. 

"There's five of you. You've been coming in and out all month. I notice things, y'know. Haven't told the boss though."

"Seven." I corrected, unsure of why I was giving away so much, "But the two youngest stay at home."

"Jeeeesus." He said again, "Seven. All girls?" 

I nodded, slowly. 

"My God..." The boy crouched down to Bella's height - despite being 12, she was reasonably small and delicate. "So, what's your name?" 

"Bella." 

"Hey Bella." He grinned, "I'm Alfie." 

"Hey." She blushed, shy as usual. Alfie laughed and turned to me. I didn't need him to ask. 

"Jade."  I muttered, attempting a smile. 

"Hi Jade. Uh... I don't suppose your eldest, that...that's Ruby?" 

I froze. How did he know my sister's name?

"Yes..." I began slowly, "But how...?" 

Alfie began to look nervously around him, standing up to his full height and producing a screwed piece of paper from his pocket. 

"There's no time to explain, but give this to her. Tell her what happened and that I'm sorry, and that she needs to call me on that number. Okay?" 

I smoothed the paper in my fingers. 

"Okay."

"We'll see each other soon." He murmured, "Take care."

There was hardly any time to say anything at all as he took off walking down the alley. I watched him, in the silence, paper in my hand, wondering what on Earth had just happened to us.

 

 

 

 

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