“Where the hell have you been?!” Emeli shrieked not even a few seconds after I had opened the front door. My whole body ached from the day’s events, and it probably didn’t help that I had been awake for nearly 24 hours straight. Her voice shot through me and made my ears ring.
Luke ushered me inside and shut the door. Standing in the draughty hallway of Emeli and Jakob's house, rainwater still soaked into my clothes and the injuries on my face stinging uncomfortably, I felt more exhausted than I ever had before.
Emeli was standing in the doorway leading to the front room with her signature hands-on-hips stance, but it took a few moments for Jakob to appear behind her; his eyes were puffy and half closed like he had just woken up, making his already lined face appear more strained than usual. I looked up at the two of them and felt no strength or desire to explain myself at all.
“Do you have any idea how worried we've been?” Emeli cried. “You've been in this house for- what is it now? Five weeks. And in that short time, we've done our best to make this feel like home to you. Now I know it was a big shift for you coming here, but we took you in and promised we'd look after you, and we can't very well do that if you go running off in the middle of the night like this!”
“Actually, I left before dinner.” I said quietly, finding my voice. Emeli opened her mouth again but her face just turned a deep red and no words came out.
“Kristina, that's not the point and you know it,” Jakob chimed in at last. His voice was soft but heavy. “We're your guardians now, and you have to respect that. We only want the best for you. What if something had happened to you?”
“What, like something happened to Brody?” I said through gritted teeth, tears filling my eyes. “It's my own damn fault, don't you think I know that? I was stubborn and reckless and because of that he died. Are you happy now? Are you happy that I've learnt my lesson?”
Emeli sighed and ran a hand through her hair.
“We understand that this has been a tragic event, for all of you. But you've got to realise there are consequences for your actions, and you must face up to them. You're lucky that Jakob is in the police and was able to help get you out of a lot of trouble; we've been up all night, on and off the phone, trying to find out where you were and talking to lots of officials.” She said.
“Mr Fenton's parents have been notified and while they are understandably grief-stricken, they wish to leave the whole incident in the past. You'll still have to be questioned of course, but the likelihood is charges won't be pressed. ” Jakob told me quietly. I merely nodded at this.
“It could've been you,” Emeli said in a strained voice. She took a few steps forward and took my hands in hers and shook them a little. “It could easily have been you.” A tear fell from my eye and I blinked to prevent more from doing the same but a few more stubbornly escaped. I just wanted this day to end.
“I don't mean to be rude, but it's 5:30am and I think Kristina could do with some sleep.” Luke said all of a sudden. Emeli blinked like she had forgotten he was there but stood motionless and blank-faced, her eyes fixed on me.
“Yes... yes, of course... dry off in the bathroom and get yourself to bed,” Jakob said wearily, stepping forward and patting me on the arm. His eyes shot to the marks on my face and the singed material on my sleeve and he gaped at me. “How did you-?”
“Don't worry about it, I'll get properly cleaned up and explain it all tomorrow.” I said shrugging it off. After Andrew had been lifted into the ambulance, I didn't want to be taken in as well and face all of their questions. Not straight away. I couldn't handle it.
“Luke, stay on the sofa tonight, I don't like the thought of you still wondering around town this early, even if it is just to get home.” Jakob said.
“Oh, are you sure? I don't want to be anymore of a hassle.” replied Luke.
“Nonsense. I'm sure I've got some clothes you could use for tonight that would fit- I'll fetch them and some blankets for you.”
Luke nodded in thanks to him and Jakob turned to Emeli, placing his hands gently on her shoulders; she jumped slightly at his touch but let go of her grip on my hands at last. She glanced at me one last time before turning and going upstairs. Jakob was looking at me with concern lining his tired face; it gave me a knot in my stomach that I didn't need. I looked up at Luke.
“Thank you, Luke... I don't know what I would have done if...” I broke off. He put his hand on my arm and gave it a squeeze.
“I know.” He murmured. I nodded and said no more for fear more tears would betray me.
“Go on, you. Off up to bed.” Jakob said walking forward and pushing me gently towards the stairs. I let him lead me there and compliantly trudged up to my room.
I didn't bother with a towel, I simply peeled off my damp clothing and shoved on my pyjamas. It was already growing steadily lighter outside and trickles of early morning light were seeping through my thin turquoise curtains and falling upon the room. I let myself collapse onto the bed and crawled under the covers, tiredness overcoming me more and more with each passing second. Had this all been real? Perhaps I would wake up and find it was all just a dream; I could open my eyes and find myself in my room back at the orphanage, with the sound of Mrs Hurst up at stupid-o'clock to mow the lawn... The smell of Henry's famous blueberry porridge wafting down the hallway... The familiar feel of ice-cold stone against my bare feet as I tip-toe as quickly as I can across the kitchen to sneak a packet of crisps... Maybe, just maybe...
A flash of gold. Quick and hazy, it breached the darkness around me and temporarily stunned me. What was it? There it was again, but brighter- I stretched out my hands, trying to reach it, but my fingers weren't quite long enough. It flashed in front of me again, lingering this time, spiralling and twirling like a firework and dazzling me with its lustre. I felt a strange sense of curiosity and wanted to capture this light, to hold it in my hands. But as I reached out again, the gold burned and burst into the deepest red, sending out ripples of blood throughout the blackness like veins of fire.
Fear shot through me like lightning. I tried covering my face but the red was swallowing everything around me, and with it the heat was rising rapidly, I opened my mouth to scream for help but the heat made my throat close in on itself; tears began streaming down my face but they immediately became boiling hot and scalded my skin. My limbs felt they were tied down with lead weights when I attempted to move them and it burned the fabric of my muscles just to try.
The entire room was now up in flames and I had no way of escape. It hurt so much, I just wanted it to end, to just slip into blackness forever. Brody's face flashed through the flames but it quickly became charred and burned, pulled into an expression of pure agony, his mouth open in a blood-curdling scream that seemed to pierce my soul. Black feathers fell from above, mingling with the flames and blurring my vision, suffocating me, drowning me...
I shot up, thrashing my arms and legs and crying out, sweat pouring down me. I felt someone's hands on my arms and looking up I saw Luke above me.
“Calm down, Kristina! You're okay, you're safe.” my breathing started to slow down and I felt my limbs relax a little as I realised I was sitting in my bed, and there was no fire. Had there been a fire? “You're safe.” I met his gaze again and nodded, my mouth hanging open still.
Once he was sure I'd calmed down, his arms dropped to his sides and he fell back into the desk chair a few feet away from the bed.
“Bloody hell, Krissy. What was all that about?” Luke said.
I ran my damp hands through my hair and closed my eyes, the image of Brody's burning face still filling my vision.
“Just...a bad dream...” I murmured.
“I'll say.” he paused. “Look, I don't mean to alarm you or anything, but the police are downstairs. They, er.. they want to talk to you.”
I opened my eyes and saw him looking at me with raised eyebrows. Well, they would have to be faced sooner or later... Still, I had hoped it would be later. Sighing, I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and tried to push myself up but wobbled halfway. Luke bolted up and helped steady me. I held up my hand.
“I'm good,” I said. “Thanks.”
I determinedly, if a little unsteadily, grabbed some jeans, my Hufflepuff t-shirt, and some underwear before half-stumbling through into the bathroom. I took my time getting dressed, not feeling over enthusiastic about talking to the police, and not wanting to fall flat on my face; I could just imagine Luke having to bust the door down to rescue me, consequently being confronted with the less-than-pleasant image of me flashing my underwear to the world. Avoiding catching a glance of myself in the mirror (which could either be very wise of very foolish), I mustered as much energy and dignity as I could before making my way downstairs.
Luke was waiting for me at the bottom; he looked up as I got to the last few steps, and inclined his head towards the kitchen.
“They're waiting in there,” he murmured. “Do you want me to wait for you?”
I shook my head at him and put my hand on his arm.
“No, you go. You've done enough, thanks.”
“I hope that wasn't said sarcastically,” he said, winking at me. I rolled my eyes at him, which hurt a little. “I'll catch you later then. I'll tell Andrew you'll be in soon.”
I stood next to the doorway watching him go, all complacency and style. How I envied him in that moment. The sound of mugs clinking and the low murmur of chatter in the next room brought me back to reality; I felt the sudden urgent need for a nice hot cup of tea.
Entering the room, I saw two police officers sitting at the table with matching pug-mugs sitting in front of them; Jakob was at the counter by the kettle, probably pouring out his usual decaf coffee. He looked round when he realised I was in the room and nodded briefly at me.
“Ah Kristina, there you are. Please, sit down.” he said over his shoulder as he was pouring milk into his mug. “Tea?”
“Please.” I replied, my voice coming out stronger than it felt. I fell into the chair nearest to me and furthest away from the police officers, who were looking at me like I was suspected of stealing the crown jewels. The one on the left was an older man with thick sideburns and a rough face riddled with craters, and the other was younger with thick burly blond hair and thin-framed glasses: they looked so fragile, I was worried one touch would shatter them. A few moments later, Jakob pushed a cup of tea in front of me and sat down opposite me with a grave expression on his face.
“Now, Kristina; we understand that this has been a very stressful ordeal for you, but we need to ask you a few questions, alright?” he said gently. I nodded but struggled to meet his gaze. I looked into my tea instead.
“I'm Wilson and this is Dack.” without looking up I could already tell this was the older man speaking. “Please be honest and as accurate as you can be with all your answers. Serious investigations such as this don't tolerate half-truths.” at this I looked up to him and was met with his squinting suspicious stare. I glared back at him.
“I understand.” I said, trying not to snap. He sniffed and looked down at his notes in the notebook in his hand.
“Now then... When exactly did you arrive at the Linton estate?” said Wilson.
“About half eleven, I think. In the evening, that is.” I told him. Jakob frowned at me.
“But you told us you left after dinner? What were you doing in between then?” he asked.
“Probably not what you're thinking, Jakob.” I said, sighing. “I wandered through town for a bit deciding what to do, and then I bumped into him and he said I could hang with him if I wanted as he was going camping for the night. I haven't been camping in years, so I went with him.”
“And by him, you mean Mr Fenton?” said Wilson, his eyebrow raised. I gulped and nodded, perhaps a bit too quickly.
“But it wasn't camping that really happened?” Dack suddenly spoke up. He had a lower voice than I had imagined.
“No.” I whispered. “I don't know what he was planning really... When I went with him, I felt excited, exhilarated almost. But as we got further and further to the edge of town, I realised I didn't know what I was doing.” I swallowed hard. “I didn't want to question him; I thought he might push me away too. So I went along with it. But then it went too far...”
“And that's when the fire started?” Wilson said gruffly. I nodded again.
“My friend came in with an oil lamp; they'd had a disagreement over something or other and one thing lead to another, then the lamp smashed. The fire spread faster than we could handle.” Wilson said nothing but looked down as he scribbled into his notebook.
“And that's how Mr Reynolds obtained his injuries?” Dack said.
“No, he came in later. I told him that... that Brody was trapped and he rushed to try and save him.” Jakob was the only one of them looking at me with anything other than distrust. I wondered briefly why I had disliked him so much when I had first come to live here.
“So who was the one who got into the fight with Mr Fenton?”
“Luke. Luke Canton.”
Wilson frowned and looked down as he began to flick back through the pages of his notebook.
“Canton... yes, just as I thought; he was the lad we convicted a few months back of consistent truanting. It says here he lives at The Grange orphanage.” he looked back up at me. “Isn't that where you were living until recently?”
“Yes. Emeli and Jakob adopted me five weeks ago. I knew both Luke and Andrew through The Grange- we're best friends.” I told them. Wilson grunted and Dack frowned at me before looking away.
“And what was this dispute that Mr Fenton and Mr Canton had that supposedly led to the start of the fire?” asked Wilson. I sighed and pushed my tea away, not feeling particularly thirsty anymore.
“Look, I'm not entirely sure what is was about. It was raining outside so I couldn't hear them properly, and I wasn't apart of their conversation anyway so I couldn't just butt in.” I looked to Jakob. “Please, I don't know anything about it. Can I go? I promised Andrew I'd visit him today and visiting hours don't go on forever.”
The other officers looked like they wanted to object but Jakob stood up and pushed his chair out.
“I should think that would be alright. You've been very helpful, thank you Kristina.” he said. I began to get up when Dack held up his hand.
“Mr and Mrs Fenton may not want to press charges, but that isn't to say you've got off scot-free. No matter the reason, you were still trespassing on private property, and not to mention the accounts of arson.” the lines on his forehead softened. “However, as you don't seem to have been directly involved with that, you may not be punished as harshly.” he turned to Jakob and shook his hand. “Thanks for the tea. See you bright and early monday morning.”
Jakob shook his hand and nodded. Dack picked up his hat and started to leave the room as Wilson merely inclined his head to Jakob silently, his eyes briefly meeting with mine in a cold stare before he too left the room.
After Jakob had shown them out, I slid back into the chair and covered my face with my hands. Trespassing. Arson. What the hell am I going to do.
“Someone will be along shortly to redress his bandages. You have twenty minutes before visiting hours are over.” I nodded in acknowledgement to the squat nurse and she moved away, expressionless.
I walked further into his little cubicle and saw in the cruel light of day the full extent of his injuries. The burn that he had received on the side of his face was red raw and shiny, the bandages that had covered it lay on the bedside table and were dark with sticky half-dried blood. He had also managed to obtain several burns along his arms, but thankfully these didn't seem as severe. The newspaper on the table next to the bandages caught my eye and I saw the front page was plastered with the story of the Linton house fire. My stomach turned over and I quickly looked away again.
Andrew's eyes fluttered open and slowly his gaze found its way to mine and he gave a sloped smile. I gulped, my grip tightening around the strap of my handbag, and I stepped forward to pull up a chair next to him. As soon as I sat down tears began pricking behind my eyes.
“Oh Andrew, I'm so sorry, I-”
“Don't,” he croaked. My speech was halted and a lump formed in my throat. He lifted a heavy arm from the bed and took my hand in his. “Don't.” he said again.
Our eyes met and a tear fell from my eye before I could stop it. I wiped it's trace away with my other hand but another fell in its place. Before I knew it tears were streaming down my face and I couldn't look at anything; the newspaper, the bandages, Andrew himself... everything was just another stab to the heart.
I was now issuing great gross sobs that were surely attracting attention from the other visitors and patients on the ward, which just made me want to sink into the ground even more. Shame washed over me like a tidal wave, pulling me under and throwing my into an abyss of darkness and solitude. My throat felt tight like it was trying to stop me from breathing. In a way I hoped it did; at least then the pain would stop.
I felt something graze my hand and I realised he was trying to push a tissue into my clenched fist. I forced my eyes open and took it gratefully, wiping my eyes and blowing my nose in a most unladylike fashion.
“How... How could I let you do that...” I choked out.
“No you listen,” I said louder. “I put everyone in danger last night. I was reckless and stupid. It should never have happened. Because of my actions you're in here. I mean, look at you!” I cried. He stared intently at me with sadness in his bloodshot eyes. “I let you get like this. I let Brody die...” my throat closed in on itself.
“Kristina, no one said I had to go back for him. I did what most people in my situation would have done.”
“But that's my point, I didn't! I left him to die and-”
“You did not leave him to die. You were scared, in shock, injured... Luke did the sensible thing by trying to get you out.” he lowered his voice. “Don't blame him for that.”
Tears blurred my vision but I refused to let them fall. I turned to the TV in the corner to avoid his intense gaze. A cartoon was playing that I vaguely recognised but couldn't place the name of; a bald boy with a blue arrow on his head was floating in the air and grinning, and a girl in thick winter clothes with tanned skin and dark hair was standing next to him and laughing. I couldn't remember the last time I laughed properly.
“You know...” I said quietly. “I felt scared of Charles, but... I felt sorry for him more than anything. What he went through... he was just young and sad and in love. When has anyone not been a combination of those? I just... I felt sorry for him.”
Andrew's gaze dropped to my hand, which he took in his. He gave it a weak squeeze.
“You're a human being with compassion. Big shocker. What he did wasn't right, but I think most people can see the sadness in his tale. You're not alone in that.” he said sleepily. I managed a small smile.
“Look at you, listening to my problems when you're lying here like this. And you call me compassionate?”
Andrew started to chuckle but it dissolved into a cough. When his choking had ceased, he lay his head back onto his pillow and closed his eyes.
“I'll be fine, me. Tough as old boots.” he murmured.
“At least you get a little longer before you have to go back to school. I hate the first day of term, it always goes badly. And now I'll have to face everyone's questions and constant staring...”
“Maybe you should have thought twice about going then.”
I felt another stab of guilt. How did he always manage to make my conscience rear its stubborn head?
Looking back to the TV, an urgent news report was flashing on the screen. I frowned as I read that a man had been found dead inside his flat in London, apparently burned from the inside out; the female newsreader spoke solemnly into the camera from outside a block of flats, the subtitles on the screen in front of her explaining the bafflement of medical authorities and police alike at how this cause of death was possible. It went on to say he was virtually unrecognisable, his features charred and distorted far beyond normality, his eyes melted into a putrid pool in their sockets. But there didn't seem to be any sign of a struggle.
Horrified, I spun my head back round to Andrew, but he was fast asleep.