I walk to the stones, but don’t start counting yet. I have to start in the right place: where some of the stones reach into the circle. We start here so we don’t lose track.
Close up some of the stones are huge, but not so much as in my memory when they were giants; now, some are even shorter than me. I reach the first one, press my hands against it, then lean into the cold stone: hands extended, face turned so my cheek is against it as well. I close my eyes. Number one.
All I have been and all I have been through these last years seems to fade away, leaving just Lucy. A little girl with her dad. I open my eyes again. Is it this place, these ancient stones? Thousands of years old, do they do something to time, make seven years seem of no consequence? I feel myself stepping back as I was then, and start running between the stones, tagging each one with my hand and counting as I go.
It’s getting darker, and colder, and all at once there are fingers of mist wrapping around the stones. The sun vanishes. Lake District weather: blink and it changes. The words are in my mind, unbidden. Who used to say that? Eyes closed again, I lean back against another stone, and feel like I’m sinking into it, getting colder but not caring: reaching back for something else, without knowing what.
Some sense of disquiet takes hold: this wasn’t always a good place. I push the thought away, wanting to stay Lucy, but she is slipping away.
How long have I been here? I’m shaking with chill, and the light is starting to fade. I should go back, catch the bus with Madison when the cafe closes at five. I squint at my watch: almost four. I should have enough time to get there by then, but I’m disoriented. Which stone was I up to, and which way is the gate? I don’t know. I peer at the mist, but it holds its secrets: I can’t see beyond a few metres of frozen field. A shiver runs down my back. What if I had followed my first impulse, and kept climbing up, up, up? I shudder to think of being on the top of a ridge and unable to see the way.
Fine park ranger I’d make.
I step out across the frozen ground in my best pick of the right direction, hoping the mist will lift. Long after I expect to, I hit fence: no gate. No problem: follow the fence around. I start out, keeping the fence close and in sight, but then walk for so long I know I’ve gone the wrong way. Turn around? No. Keep going, it’s the only way to make sure I don’t end up going back and forth. I reach a gate, but it looks different from the one I came through: ah. I’m on the opposite side, the one with the car park. Now the gate I want is just as far again around the other way.
Finally I reach it, go through and follow the footpath down. The lights of town start to penetrate the mist; it is lifting as I reach the first houses, so I run full speed up the streets, back to the centre.
As I round the final corner, the bus is pulling away. I wave; it stops. I step on, breathing hard. Flustered, I have a moment of panic when I can’t find my ID, but it is in my other pocket. I scan in and start down the aisle. A hand waves: Madison. She scoots across so I can sit next to her in the aisle seat.
‘Riley? I thought the intake seminar ended hours ago! How was it?’
The morning seems ages ago. ‘Good, I guess. I’m thinking of Parks. Maybe Education.’
She looks at me curiously. ‘What happened to you this afternoon?’
I shrug. ‘Nothing much. I went for a walk.’
‘You’re going to catch it when we get back.’
She shrugs. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. You should have written that in the stupid book when we left; Stella’s probably ticked off cos she hasn’t known where you are every second of the day.’
‘Don’t worry, you didn’t know, did you?’
Because I didn’t read the rules.
Stella stands by her desk in the reception area, arms crossed, rigid with tension. Her head turns when we come in, and her eyes fix on me. Something changes, relaxes on her face when her eyes reach mine, and I try to say sorry without saying anything. She smiles, then looks to my side at Madison, and her smiles vanishes.
‘Hi, Mrs C,’ Madison says. Her arm hooked in mine starts to pull me across the room.
‘Not so fast,’ Stella says. ‘Riley? I’d like a word. This way.’
She turns and walks towards another door behind her.
‘Uh oh,’ Madison says. ‘A chat in her private study. Good luck.’
I follow behind Stella, go through the door and it swings shut behind me.
‘I’m sorry about the book, I didn’t realise…’ I start to say, but then Stella steps up to me and sweeps me against her in an awkward hug, a tight one, and she is all bones and angles, thin and desperate.
She lets go. ‘I was so worried. Don’t do that to me again!’ she snaps, sits at her desk, face cross once again.
‘Why do you get everyone to account for all of their days like that? If you didn’t, you wouldn’t worry when someone forgets to write something in the book. You should trust us. Can’t we be allowed out in daylight hours? We’re all over eighteen. Or are supposed to be,’ I add, since I’m not, but I’m sure the rest of them are.
She shakes her head. ‘I’m responsible for every girl in this house, and I take that very seriously.’
‘Oh. Do you have to do that, as part of this being a supervised house for under-twenty-ones?’
‘You don’t, do you. It’s just you who makes them do that; makes us do that.’
She shakes her head. ‘You’re the one who has broken the rules here; don’t argue.’ She softens. ‘I can’t have different rules for you than the other girls.’
‘Of course not.’
She sighs, shakes her head. ‘I was so scared something happened to you, that they worked out you weren’t Riley Kain, and took you away from me all over again.’
Then I’m contrite. ‘Really, I’m sorry. I haven’t read all the rules yet,’ I admit. ‘I didn’t know I needed to write down what I was doing for the afternoon.’
She opens a desk drawer, hands me another copy of the rules. ‘Then you shall sit there and read them before dinner, before you can break any more of them accidentally.’
And it’s not so bad. I sit in an armchair in the corner of her study, a little cold but before long Pounce finds me and curls up warmly on my lap like my own hot water bottle. Stella brings me a cup of tea, and I start at the top. Rule one I’ve already covered: be nice to Pounce. I scratch behind her ears and she purrs. The rest of them are mostly easy, logical stuff, like not wearing outdoor boots on the carpets, keeping doors locked at night.
About halfway through, I pause, look up. Is this study the same one as in my dream? There are long curtains that cover the windows and also curve into the room, cover part of the adjacent wall. I ease Pounce off my knees, walk to the curtains, and pull them to one side: there is a door! Just like in my dream. Unable to stop myself, I reach a hand to push the door open, but then hear voices outside the study.
I scoot back to the chair, and pick up the rules again just before Stella comes back in. She gets something from her desk, leaves again.
I better finish reading these before dinner: concentrate. There is also quite a bit on curfews, random room checks, and keeping track of where we are and what we’re doing. ‘She’s a bit of a control freak, isn’t she?’ I say to Pounce in a low voice.
An uncomfortable feeling inside wonders: was she always like that, or was it me being taken away from her that made her so?
That night, soon after lights out – which I know now is 11 pm – there is a soft knock on my door, and it opens. Stella peeks in. ‘Are you awake?’ she asks.
‘Yes,’ I say, and she seems to be hesitating. ‘Come in.’
She walks across the room, pulls a chair in next to my bed like she did last night.
‘But you do realise it’s lights out now,’ I say. ‘And I’m supposed to be sleeping.’
‘Don’t be cheeky. I know you’ve got an early start again tomorrow, so I won’t stay long.’
‘It’s okay. I’m not much of a sleeper.’ Just now my mind has been full of mountains; ridge walking on high fells.
‘You never were. You kept me up half the night until you were four. And then later with nightmares.’
‘What did I have nightmares about?’
‘All sorts of things. Monsters under the bed. Something happening to—’ and she stops. ‘Usual kid stuff, I guess.’
So was I always like that: with vivid dreams and nightmares? I thought it was just my fragmented memories that haunted my sleep.
‘Can we look at more photo albums?’ I ask.
‘Not tonight. I want to talk to you about something. How’d CAS go today?’
I shrug. ‘All right.’
‘You do know if you sign up tomorrow that it is five years, and you may not get one you want.’
‘They explained it; I know. But—’
‘I’ve got another idea. Why don’t you work here, instead?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Here, at the house. I’ve usually got two girls working for me, but one was twenty-one a few months ago and left.’
‘You know: looking after the house. The garden in the summer. Helping with cooking.’ She looks at my face. ‘I know it doesn’t sound very exciting. But we could spend more time together, get to know each other again. And it would be safer. There’d be less chance of anyone finding out you’re not who you say you are.’
‘I don’t know. I’m interested in apprenticing with National Parks.’
‘That might be hard to get into.’
‘Did I used to like walking?’
‘And running: you were never still for a minute.’
‘No, I mean on the mountains, the fells. Up in high places.’
She hesitates. ‘I think you were born part mountain goat. You loved it.’
I read her face. ‘But you didn’t.’
She sighs. ‘No. I haven’t got a head for heights. And I worried you’d slip and hurt yourself.’
‘If you don’t like heights, who did I go walking with? Was it my dad?’
She nods, finally admitting he existed. ‘That was the other reason I didn’t like it.’
‘What do you mean?’ She hesitates again, and I jump in. ‘I kind of get the feeling you and he didn’t get along. But he is part of my past, part of where I come from. I need to find out about him, too.’
She stares back, finally nods. ‘Of course. I’m sorry. Yes, your dad took you ridge walking.’ She pauses and I stay silent, looking at her, saying give me more with my eyes, and I can see something relent in hers. She takes my hand. ‘All right. Your dad: what can I tell you about him? He was always a dreamer, off in some other place in his head. He had a way of taking you along to lands of make-believe, where anything was possible. That was what drew me to him, but it wasn’t enough. Not once you came along. Danny wasn’t the most reliable person in the world; as quick to anger as he was to joy, and easily distracted. I was always scared he’d forget you were following along, and lose you somewhere along the way.’
‘But he didn’t, so you were wrong.’
She stiffens. Something shutters in her eyes, and I wish I could take the words back. She lets go of my hand. ‘That is enough talking for tonight.’
She stands, walks to the door. Turns, face softer again. ‘Please, just think about CAS: do you really want to sign your life away for five years? You could end up doing anything, not what you think you want. Wouldn’t it be better to work here than end up in Sanitation? And you could always leave it for now, and sign up for the next intake in six months, if you still want to.’