His Grandi stood stock still in the middle of the path, her groceries rolling around at her feet. Tommy watched as an orange picked up speed and raced down the hill, before exploding as his brother’s car drove right over it.
He heard a car door slam as his mother got out, hoisting Vivvy on her hip, and gaped down at him. She looked from him to the shattered glass then to his grandmother, who looked like she had seen a ghost.
“Tommy, what did you do?” she asked slowly, drawing out the words in the way that meant she was very angry and trying to calm down. Tommy gulped.
“Nothing?” his father repeated, red faced. “Nothing? Your hand is bleeding and you’re surrounded by broke glass. The window is smashed to pieces. Tommy…”
Tommy glanced down at his hand. The strange cut had started to puss and bleed again. Tommy looked at the glass that carpeted the porch, then to the dirt and muck that covered his top, and decided that he wouldn’t be getting out of this one.
“I didn’t do anything. It was like that when I got here, I promise.”
It never hurt to try though.
“How did you get here, twerp?” Neddy asked, glancing up from the screen of his phone long enough to give him an inquisitive look.
Tommy cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. “I climbed the gate.”
“You climbed the gate?” Tommy hadn’t known his father’s voice could go that high. His face was the colour of tomatoes, matching his red hair, and a vein in his neck pulsed. It would have been funny, if the anger wasn’t directed at him.
“You climbed the gate?” repeated Misha. He had tried to clean his face and only succeeded in spreading the ink further.
“Dude! Way to go!” shouted Lochie, coming up to pat Tommy on the back. His pat was more like a whack, the force making Tommy groan with pain and cough. A small dribble of blood landed on his forearm as he covered his mouth.
“Lochie,” his mother said, “don’t encourage him. He just broke into your grandmother’s property, for goodness sakes.”
“Have you seen that gate, Mum?” asked Lochie in disbelief. “It takes skill to climb that and then get down. You have to jump down and land properly, otherwise you twist your ankle and that hurts like a –”
“Lochie, have you climbed the gate before?”
Lochie gave her a very sweet smile. “Of course I haven’t, Mum. But just by looking at the gate and using pre-existing knowledge, it isn’t so hard to guess.”
Tommy rolled his eyes and tried to stand up on wobbly legs. His mother was pinching the bridge of her nose and taking deep breaths. His father had moved on to the veranda and started poking around the broken window. His siblings watched with riveted interest.
Brushing his hands on his jeans, his dad stood up. “I think he’s telling the truth, Thea. If he had broken the window, the glass would be on the inside of the house, not along the deck.” He scratched his head, bending down to pick up the hat stand the goblin had used to break through the window. “This must have fallen and broken through.”
Tommy was pretty sure his father didn’t believe his own explanation, but it was enough to calm his mother down. Sort of.
“That isn’t the point!” his mother snapped, putting Vivvy down. “He climbed over the fence and practically broke in.”
“Breaking in is a strong way of putting it…” Tommy trailed off at his mother’s venomous glare. “Never mind.” He shoved his hands into his pockets, trying to hide is injured hand.
His mother started speaking to his father in hushed tones, gesturing with her hand at Tommy, then to the house. He sighed and looked away, meeting his grandmother’s frightened emerald eyes. Tommy had to take a step back.
His Grandi wasn’t an imposing woman. She was average height, a little on the skinny side, and had long pale grey hair still streaked with its natural red. But her eyes were like green fire, burning with whatever emotion she was feeling.
And the current emotion was fear.
Tommy looked right back, not breaking eye contact. His skin prickled and his hand itched. He didn’t know why he felt so uncomfortable until he looked closely. His grandmother wasn’t looking at him, but through him. It was almost like she was trying to look at a ghost.
He didn’t understand her. She hated him most of the time. She hadn’t said his name in years, and she usually avoided him like a rabid, grumpy bear. If she did have to acknowledge his existence, she usually did it in the nastiest way possible. Telling him off for the length of his hair, his clothes or his (apparently) non-existent manners were her favourites.
“Barney!” Tommy jumped at his grandmother’s snappish tone, spinning around to see his Uncle standing in the doorway looking dazed and very confused.
Tommy chanced a look at his Grandi. Her eyes were narrowed as she marched forwards, pushing through Tommy’s brothers like long grass. She stopped in front of Barney with her hands on her hips.
“Your brother is here,” she said.
Barney blinked, looking up and smiling at Tommy’s father. “Hi Dickie.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? It’s Rich. Not Dickie. Rich.”
Uncle Barney shrugged, sniffing once. “You’ll always be Dickie, little brother.”
Tommy’s grandmother did not look amused. “You were supposed to open the gate for them.”
“I reminded you to open the gate at ten o’clock when I left to get the last few things from the shops. How on earth could you forget that small thing in the hour between when I left and now?” Throwing her hands up in the air, she shook her head. “I don’t want to hear any of your two-bit excuses, either. Help Rich unpack his car. I’m going inside to put the kettle on.”
Barney moved aside and Tommy watched as his Grandi stomped into the house, muttering under her breath. The silence that followed was beyond awkward. His brothers refused to look at each other, while Tommy’s parents would only look at him.
He knew that his mum was trying to figure out whether to punish him or not. His dad was glancing at the broken window, trying to figure out what had actually happened.
Suddenly Lochie clapped his hands. “Well that was fun. Let’s not do it again some time.” He started walking to the car. “I’m going to go get the best room. If someone gets in my way, be prepared for a world of pain never before witnessed on Earth.”
The spell was broken. Tommy’s mother broke eye contact and started telling off Lochie for being rude. Misha played with Vivvy as Ria made faces just over his shoulder. His father still watched him, his gaze steady. Tommy felt sweat trickle down his neck.
His father opened his mouth just as Neddy called out for help with the bags. He gave Tommy one last curious look, before moving away. Tommy rubbed his wrist and pulled out his hand. The mark was still oozing.
Tommy had forgotten how much Misselthwaite creeped him out. It was three storeys tall, not counting the basement or the attic, and only a third of all the rooms were still used. The ground floor hosted the livings areas – kitchen, dining room, lounge room, family room, rumpus room, bathroom. The next floor held the five bedrooms. Grandi had the master bedroom and his Uncle Barney had the next largest. His parents took the third, Vivvy the fourth, Don the fifth. Misha, Lochie, Neddy, Ria, Peri and Tommy were usually shoved in the remaining bedrooms on the third floor.
It was the only place where only the twins shared rooms. Tommy always felt like he and Peri got the short end of the stick, because they were forced into the smallest bedroom, in the draftiest part of the house.
His grandfather old study was on the first floor. Tommy hadn’t been back there since his accident. He didn’t understand why they couldn’t just outright say that he had gone missing. It was always the Accident. The Accident this, the Accident that. Tommy hated it.
He angrily unpacked before going back down stairs. A yawning and grumbling Misha and Lochie followed him. Lochie still didn’t have eyebrows. Tommy laughed outright at him. His brother narrowed his eyes, long black hair sticking up every which way, and forcefully pushed him down the last few steps.
“Lochie!” their mother scowled.
“Idiot,” Misha mumbled.
“I’m so tired,” said Don as he stumbled into the kitchen, rubbing at his eyes with a hand covered in blue ink. “I think I’ll go to sleep after I’ve had something to eat –”
“You will do no such thing,” his mother said at once. “You’re grandmother expects us to have a family dinner together. I told you that before leaving.”
Tommy’s stomach knotted with dread.
“Sorry. Must’ve forgot.”
“You’d forget your head if it wasn’t screwed on to your shoulders.”
Don didn’t try to deny it.
“Grandi needs someone to mow the back yard before lunch. The weeds look like they’re trying to take over.”
“We did it last time,” Lochie and Misha chorused, grinning smugly at Tommy. “And Don did it the time before.”
Tommy scowled at his brothers. “No, you two haven’t done it in –”
“Just do it for me, please?” his mother said tiredly.
Tommy was still scowling as he mowed the lawn an hour later.
Tommy wished the earth would open up and swallow him whole like it had when he had been seven. He couldn’t deal with his Grandi for another minute.
Whenever he walked into the room, she had stare at him like he was contagious, or like Tommy had killed her cat. Tommy knew for a fact that his grandmother hated cats with a passion rivalled only for her hatred of him.
He and Peri had wanted to kick the football before dinner and she had nearly had a conniption. It probably hadn’t helped when Tommy had tried to kick the football away. The ball hit the wrong side of his foot and broke another window. Tommy had been banished to his tiny bedroom and told not to expect any dinner.
He didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.
And it was only Day One.
Tommy sighed, letting his head fall forward as it pressed against the glass of the bedroom window. Peri, hearing his skull smashing into the window, looked up from his book.
“What are you doing?”
Tommy pulled away from the window and banged his head again. “Entertaining myself. Wanna join?”
He heard Peri snort. “Looks fun, but I’m fine with my book.”
Tommy banged his head again. “You’re always fine with your books.”
“Books are safe. They don’t try to kill you. Unless you throw them with lots of force, they don’t hurt, either.”
“Books are boring.”
“This conversation is boring.”
Tommy pushed off, climbing down from the window seat, and sat on the edge of Peri’s bed. His brother looked thin and worn, with light shadows under his eyes. Tommy could see blue veins, like spider webs, across his pale skin.
For as long as Tommy could remember, his brother had been sick. It was asthma or the flu or some rare type of mad cow disease. The doctors couldn’t explain it, no matter how many tests they did or needles they shoved into his arms.
Tommy hated being helpless, sitting on the sidelines while Peri suffered.
“How are you feeling?” Tommy asked, picking up his cricket ball and tossing it into the air.
Peri smiled softly, shrugging his shoulders. You know exactly how I feel.
“Come on Peri, it’s me. You can tell me. I’m not going to wrap you up in bubble wrap like Mum does. I won’t send you to another hospital.”
“I feel like an elephant had a party across my chest.”
“What type of elephant are we talking? A full sized bull with anger management issues and a drinking problem, or, like, the little elephant babies we see in the zoo?”
“More like a small mama elephant with anxiety problems.”
Tommy nodded. “No wonder you look like one of the vampire from Skyrim.”
Peri started laughing, but soon it turned into strained coughing. It sounded like a wheezing goanna and Tommy felt worry clawing at his stomach. Peri sat up, his whole body shaking with effort.
“Peri.” Tommy scooted across the bed to Peri’s side, rubbing a hand over his brothers back. Peri gave him a watery smile, his eyes squinting, and continued coughing. Tommy stayed by his side the whole time, rubbing his back and sweating bullets. Eventually, the coughing slowed down and stopped. The only sound left in their small, drafty room was Peri’s panting.
“I’m fine,” Peri said, his voice tired and strained. “I’m fine.”
No you’re not, Tommy wanted to say, but didn’t. It would only make Peri shut him out. Instead he said, “do you want me to leave you be to get some rest?”
Peri hesitated before nodding, sliding back down and pulling the covers up to his chin. “Just for a little bit.”
Tommy nodded, standing up slowly. He really didn’t want to leave his brother alone, but staying and worrying over him like a love-sick girl wasn’t going to help. He looked at Peri, prepared to say something goofy, but he was already asleep.
Tommy scrubbed at his face and ran a hand through his hair, moving to the windows to shut the curtains. He grabbed a handful of the puce coloured material and yanked. They moved an inch. Gritting his teeth, Tommy jumped on the window seat and stood on his toes. He over balanced on his next tug and fell, landing on his feet with his arms flapping about like a dazed chicken.
“Oh come on,” he hissed.
Tommy turned around and checked on his brother. His battle with the curtains hadn’t woken Peri and he continued sleeping like the dead.
Bad, bad thought.
No more thinking of Peri and the dead in the same sentence.
A gold blur zipping across the backyard stopped Tommy’s efforts to close the curtains.
The glass was murky, covered in a century’s worth of dust and grim, and no matter how hard he looked, everything seemed to be a fuzzy blur. It looked like a massive, over grown cat with an afro. He leant forward, pressing against the glass, and was smacked in the face by something heavy and plastic. Tommy frowned, jumping down and tugging on the hanging hazard. The curtains slid shut with a smug hiss.
He stepped away, wiping his hands on his jeans, and picked up his beat-up old canvas runners. Sliding them on, he shoved his head through his hoodie. Checking on Peri one last time, he closed the door quietly and started down the stairs, minding his step. Every single stair creaked beneath his weight, almost like it was trying to get him caught.
The door to Misha and Lochie’s room was shut tight. Through the door, Tommy could hear hushed voices and a banging that sounded suspiciously like a hammer on something hard. He heard someone swear loudly as the banging abruptly cut off. Neddy and Don had gone into the nearby town. Ria was playing some game on Don’s laptop. Tommy used one of the windows that looked out on to the front yard to check on the position of his mum. She was in the front yard with Vivvy, feeding the little ducks that swam in the dirty pond.
Tommy crouched and sped down the remaining steps, heading to the kitchen and the back door. He froze when he reached the breakfast nook.
“He’s just a kid, Mum,” his father said.
“He’s eleven, Rich. Hardly a child,” replied Grandi.
“Dickie is right. You’re way too hard on the boy. So what if he accidently broke a window? How many did Fred and I smash when we were his age? He didn’t mean it, and he was only kicking the ball away like you asked him to,” pointed out Uncle Barney.
Barney was a quiet sort of bloke. Not shy, but he didn’t seem to have all that much to say. That thought briefly took centre stage in Tommy’s mind, before another thought shoved it off to the sidelines.
They were talking about him.
“Don’t call me Dickie,” grumbled his dad half-heartedly. “Barney’s right. You can’t tell me that you sent every one of my brothers to their room without food every time they broke a bloody window.”
“Sorry.” His dad didn’t sound sorry.
“Don’t give me that attitude.”
“Stop avoiding the topic, mother.”
Tommy heard something scrape against the wooden floor and heavy footsteps heading his way. He ducked, taking cover behind a large indoor plant. His father moved around the kitchen, dumping what was left of his coffee into the sink and running the water. Turning off the tap, he grabbed the edge of the counter and leant forward.
Tommy heard more movement right before a shadow appeared in his line of sight.
“Don’t let her get to you,” Barney said.
“I just don’t get it, Barn. She was never like this with us. Well not as hard, anyway. But with Tommy…”
“Like I said; she’s just getting on a bit, is all.”
“She’s seventy, not ninety-six.”
Tommy saw his Uncle shrug. “So? Dad’s death was hard on her.”
“I don’t think it’s that, though.” Tommy moved forward, pressing against the wall and bobbing down to look around the corner. His dad was staring out of the window over the sink. “When Tommy disappeared, she was… I can’t even describe it. Hysterical. She looked so scared. I’ve never seen her that frightened, not even when we pulled her out of the fire that killed Dad.”
Uncle Barney raised both his eyebrows. He was a tall man, with a beer gut and short cropped red hair, like most of his dad’s side of the family. He had been married with two children before Tommy was born, and they had all died in the same accident four years ago. He had never really gotten over it.
“She was that terrified?”
His father nodded gravely. “It didn’t make sense. It hadn’t even been six hours and she had absolutely lost it. She wouldn’t tell us why she was so scared; she just claimed to have a feeling about it. And when he came home she wasn’t the same.” His dad turned away from the window and looked Barney sadly. “The police searched the bush from top to bottom at least three times. But she went out again with Peri and…”
“Rich?” Barney said uneasily, when Tommy’s dad remained silent.
“She went out again and found him.”