Keeping theories about the flowers to myself was harder than I imagined. I told Otter and Nathan everything but there was no sharing this. I wasn’t about to ruin it now. Not when things were returning to the way they’d always been.
By Friday, the dust seemed to be settling. It’d been four days since I’d seen the flowers and three days since I’d mentioned them aloud. Otter had altogether forgotten about them and Nathan’s concern had dried up now there was a more popular topic of conversation.
Exams. We had the next two weeks off as study leave, though it was more like exam leave because my first exam was on Monday. I didn’t complain like most people. We’d had plenty of time to prepare and they knew it. I knew my courses inside and out and was to the point where I was sick of all my text books. I’d spent more of my Easter holiday back in April revising than doing anything else.
Nathan walked back to Willow Street with me on Friday after school, taking Auntie Kate’s advice that I might be of some help to him. We may have been taking different maths A’ levels but we both had the same core exam on Wednesday. I didn’t know how much help I would be, considering Nathan insisted he both knew and didn’t know everything about maths all at once.
“I don’t even know why I took maths!” He said to me as we walked, hitching his shoulder bag closer to his neck. “What do I need it for?”
“You’re stuck with it now. You wanted to drop IT like the rest of us.”
“It’s not going to help me advance in life.”
“You don’t know. You don’t know what you want to do.”
“I want to study philosophy and English.”
“And then . . . ?”
He waved it away. “Details, details. I’ll figure it out.”
I laughed. “You hope.”
“Come on, Abz, that’s what everyone does.”
“Not true. Dad knew what he was doing when he went to uni.”
“You Angels and your specific career paths.”
“You’ll end up a teacher you know. You’ll despise all their little dreams and crush them as often as possible as revenge for your poor life choices.”
He groaned. “The little shits will drive me to despair.”
“Oh cripes we have Mr Walters, hide anything you love.” I laughed. “They’ll probably give you a nickname and everything.”
“Cripes?” He pulled the exact face Mum had the week before. “What is that?”
“You can’t swear in front of Grace.” I poked my finger at him. “She’s very impressionable.”
“And who doesn’t want to be like me, let’s face it.”
I shoved him to the side and he chuckled.
When we reached the house and I opened the door without Grace’s head appearing, I crinkled my nose up in concern. I felt the need to announce my arrival, so I shouted hello but to no avail.
“Weird,” I said as I shut the door behind me. “Grace’s usually tackled me by now.”
“Perhaps she knows I’m coming and is too star struck to join us.”
I ignored him as we sat down at the dining room table, spreading our books around us. Angela wasn’t in the kitchen either. She’d been doing something or other in there every day this week when I got home. If not, she was still working at the library. But her car was here. Her and Grace were here somewhere.
“Let me go get some test papers,” I said, standing up.
“Do you want help or not?”
“Yes,” he moaned as I left the room.
The house was quiet. Too quiet. It was only when I got to the top of the stairs that I heard Angela talking from the direction of Grace’s room. I stood for a moment, unable to hear words, just the rising and falling of her voice. I couldn’t hear Grace at all.
I retrieved the test papers and stood at the top of the stairs, clutching them to my chest. I wanted to check everything was alright but I didn’t want it to seem like I’d been eavesdropping.
I took a deep breath and trotted downstairs, dropping the papers on the table from a height for effect. They made a louder sound than when I’d dropped Otter’s book the other night.
Nathan raised his eyebrows. “We’re not doing them all, are we?”
I took my seat. “I wasn’t planning on it but I guess you can stay as long as you want.”
“Not on your life.”
“So what am I helping you with?”
“All of it.”
I scowled at him. “You told me the other week that maths was easy because there was only one answer.”
“Well . . . now I’m doubting myself. You know, as it turns out, there being a thousand answers is easier because you can blag your way out of anything. If you don’t know the answer in maths you’re screwed.”
“Right.” I swept my fringe further to the side. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
We’d been working for maybe fifteen minutes when Angela appeared, twirling a piece of hair around her finger. “Oh,” she said as she saw us, dropping the strand. “Hello, Nathan.”
“I’ll be with you in a second,” he said without looking up. “But right now I’m up to my balls in maths.”
“Nay!” I punched him on the arm. Hard.
“Ow!” He dropped his pencil and rubbed the spot I’d just hit him.
“What did I tell you before we got here?”
“I didn’t realise that you were the danger.” He glared at me. “Hello, Angela.” He nodded in her direction. “Lovely step-daughter you’ve found yourself with here.”
Angela took no notice as she made her way into the kitchen and turned on the oven. I jumped up and followed her, sitting myself on one of the breakfast bar stools separating the kitchen and the dining room.
“I was going to tell you about him.” I pointed to Nathan who was chewing and destroying the metal part of his pencil where the rubber used to be. “But I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“That’s alright.” She said, searching through the cupboards.
“Is everything okay?”
“What’s wrong with Grace?”
She sighed and looked at me at last. “She hasn’t been doing too well at school since they’ve been back after Easter.”
“What? I thought she was loving it.”
She nodded. “So did I but her teacher called me in after school to tell me she was worried. Apparently she hasn’t been playing as much at lunch time and she’s not been participating so much in class. They asked me if everything was alright at home.”
I felt my eyebrows come together. “Nothing’s going on here that I don’t know about, is it?”
“No. Everything’s the same as it’s always been.”
“What about Poppy? Has she had a fight with Poppy?”
Angela shook her head. “Not that she’s told me about. She won’t tell me what’s wrong. Something is though because she’s not talking.”
“She was fine when I came home on Monday. Is she being bullied?”
“Mrs Coleman doesn’t think so. She hasn’t seen Grace interacting with any children at all. She sits by herself.”
I chewed on my lip. It wasn’t like Grace to alienate herself. “Do you think she’ll talk to me?”
Angela shrugged and sniffed.
I jumped up, sensing tears. “I’m going to tell her Nathan wants to see her. Maybe then she’ll come down and talk.” I darted up the stairs before Angela started to cry.
I knocked on Grace’s door but there was no reply. I eased it open and found her sitting on her pink flower rug doing a princess puzzle. I tried not to let the appearance of flowers everywhere sidetrack me.
“Gracie? Wouldn’t that be easier at the table?”
She didn’t react or look up at me.
I tiptoed my way into her lavender pink room and sat myself on her bright hot pink desk chair.
I took a moment deciding how I was going to start. “Hey, Grace, do you remember my best friend Otter?”
“When did you last see her?”
“What colour hair did she have?”
I smiled. Any response was better than nothing. “Guess what hair colour she has now?” I waited for an answer that never came. “Pink.”
She looked up, face blank but curious. “Really?”
“Yeah, wanna see a picture?”
She nodded and pushed herself up. I pulled out my phone and showed her a picture of Otter, Nathan, and I at a theme park we’d visited during the Easter holidays.
“Do you know who that is?”
“Nathan. He’s your . . . cousin?”
“That’s right. He’s downstairs. He wants to see you.”
She buried her face into my shoulder.
“You’re not shy.” I chuckled. “You’re a big girl. Come and say hello.”
“Will you hold my hand?” she asked into my shirt.
The request tugged at my heart. “Of course. If you want. Though I don’t think you need it.”
She slid her hand into mine and we made our way downstairs. Her fingers squeezed tight when we got to the bottom.
Nathan looked up as we entered and I mouthed, be good.
“Grace!” He beamed his biggest dorkiest grin. “You look taller.”
She blushed and leant her face on my side.
“No I’m serious. You’re going to be a giant.”
I laughed. “And that’s coming from an actual giant, Gracie.” I tugged her over to the table. She sat next to me and opposite Nathan.
“I’m not a giant.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’m a prince.”
“Princes have to be handsome. You’re more like an ogre.”
Grace’s voice sounded as small as she was. “I think you could be a prince, Nathan.”
“Would you trust me to rescue you from a dragon, Princess Grace?”
She nodded and smiled.
I caught Nathan’s eye and he winked at me. “There you go, conclusive proof from a real live princess. Tell me, Princess Grace, are you any good at maths.”
“Then I think I need your help.”
I’m not sure how much work Nathan got done but it didn’t matter, he was putting a smile on Grace’s face. She seemed to open up and by the time Dad was home and dinner was served, she was giggling like her usual self. She even told Nathan about the tadpoles.
“Thanks, Nay,” I said as we stood in the door frame. “I really owe you one.”
“I know. You also owe me more help.”
I rolled my eyes. “I think you know more than you think but fine.”
“I’m totally justified if I feel like ringing you at three in the morning because I need help.”
I hugged him tight and watched until he turned the corner and out of sight. I made my way into the living room and dropped onto the smaller of the two grey sofas. Grace was lying on the floor in her pyjamas, colouring in a picture she’d drawn. I peered at it. It seemed to be of a bunch of flowers. I shuddered and pulled my legs up onto the sofa with me.
I cleared my throat. “What’cha drawing?”
“Some flowers,” she said.
“They’re pretty,” I forced out.
“That’s good. They’re for you.”
A drop of fear fell into my stomach. I swallowed. “Thanks.”
“You can put them up in your room.”
“Maybe,” I said, though there was no way I was going to. “Maybe they’ll look good on the fridge.”
She just nodded, sticking her tongue out as she concentrated on the small bits.
“Grace? Is everything okay at school?”
She sighed and turned to me. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“Because we’re worried about you.”
“Nothing’s wrong at school.”
“Are you sure? Is anyone being mean to you? You know you could tell me if they were?”
“I know. It’s fine. Nothing’s wrong, Abi, I already told Mum that.”
“Then what is it?”
She sat up, crossing her legs and folding her hands into her lap. “You won’t tell anyone?”
I shook my head. “I promise I won’t.”
“Not even Mum?”
“Not even her.”
She held out her little finger of her right hand and I slipped off the sofa and onto the floor to hook mine around it. Her eyes darted around everywhere as though her brain was searching for words she didn’t know to articulate her problem to me. I just waited, knowing she always knew more words than I expected.
“I’m scared.” It came out quiet, but clear.
“Okay.” I shuffled forward so our knees were touching. “What’re you scared about?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Are you scared of a person or a monster?”
“Erm . . . I don’t know. I’ve just been feeling things.”
“Emotions and things.”
“I heard you crying the other night.”
I grimaced. “I’m sorry. I thought you were asleep.”
She shook her head. “You’re sad.”
The straightforward way that she said it made the emotion blossom in my chest and squeeze hard. I took her hand and grasped it tight, trying to smile.
“I know you’re sad.” Her eyes sucked my soul straight out my body.
I took a few seconds to answer. “I’m not that sad. I’ll be okay. And anyway, it’s okay to be sad sometimes.”
“You shouldn’t be sad for no reason. You can be happy for no reason if you like.”
“You think I’m sad for no reason?”
“Nothing’s changed. It must be no reason.”
I nodded. “Okay. I’ll stop being sad, will that make you happy? Is that what you were scared about?”
“I think so.”
“That’s sweet, Gracie. You don’t have to feel what I’m feeling.”
“I always feel what you’re feeling, Abi.”
My eyebrows came together. “What do you mean?”
“You’re spirit’s close to the surface.”
“I thought grownups knew this stuff.”
“Grace.” I tucked my hair behind my ear and stared at her. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You’ll be fine. You’re good.”
I started to shake but I pressed my hands in the carpet to hide it. I took a shuddery breath. “Is this something from one of your books?”
She shrugged and turned back to her picture all at once, leaving me stunned, gawking at her back.
She didn’t reply, only grabbed for a new colour.
After a few minutes, I stood up and went to leave, but Grace tugged at the bottom of my shirt.
“Will you be coming back down?”
“Yes.” I found it harder than I expected to speak.
“Can I give you the picture then?”
“Yes, if you like.”
“I wanted to give you it now. Not later.”
“You can give it to me now. I can wait a minute.”
“No, silly.” She laughed. “I meant before.”
She didn’t answer, already concentrating on her drawing again.
“Before what, Grace?”
My heart was beating so fast and strong that I couldn’t fathom its movement. My entire body was trembling and breaths were not easy.
“Grace? Before what?”
She put the lid on her pen and examined her picture with pursed lips.
She looked at me at last, eyes big, face innocent and open.
“Before what, Grace?”
“I dunno,” was all she could say.