Paper Starlings: a scene about missing things

Boxer was the scariest man I’d ever met in my life. I’d bet an arm that he had twice as many teeth as a normal person.

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series. They follow the life of Violet who, after a childhood in care, figures out that her birth family’s heritage is more complicated than she believed possible.

The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.

***

I spent an awkward couple of hours on a hilltop with Daniel, Sean, Amethyst and an axe-wielding giant. We met on the clumps in a little clearing. I’d been sitting on the mossy ground, my arms wrapped around my knees, for ten minutes before I spotted the man sitting in the tree. It was the scruffy guy, Old Bones, looking less scruffy than usual. He was still a mess. A tropical mess in a Hawaiian shirt with muscle-split sleeves, cargo shorts and muddy, brown builder’s boots. He watched me like I was an equation, giving no thought to how I might feel about being stared at.

Boxer was the scariest man I’d ever met in my life. I’d bet an arm that he had twice as many teeth as a normal person, and he was easily as wide as Magnus, though not as tall. His blue tinted goggles were pushed up into his hair, and every time the sun shone through the trees even a little, Boxer’s pupils practically disappeared. He glared at Daniel like he was his mortal enemy, but he barely spared me a glance, for which I thanked a god I didn’t really believe in and the sweet baby Jesus for good measure. Amethyst spoke to him like he was her favourite pet. They sat as far away from Daniel as Amethyst could manage without being rude enough that Sean would notice.

Daniel and Sean talked about werewolves and gargoyles and demons, but it was easier to hear all the things they weren’t saying to each other. Amy wasn’t even a whisper. Sean said that Albert sent his apologies for not being with us, but I knew he hadn’t. Albert was somewhere in the trees; I felt his eyes on me. OB knew he was there too. He kept staring into the trees behind Sean. I refused to look.

I wasn’t even sure why I’d come. Daniel had arranged to meet Sean, and Amethyst said I might not get another chance to talk to him once Mara returned, so there I was, being ignored. I thought about heading into the trees to confront Albert, and snorted at myself. Why would I even want to do that? I did not need the approval of that grumpy-faced, misery-inducing, socially incompetent geriatric. He was almost enough to put me off oranges.

I shrieked and jumped when OB leapt out of the tree like a predator, landing in a crouch. He sat by me, smelling of moss and pine trees and rain.

“You have seen me in your dreams, yes?”

I nodded. “Aren’t I lucky?”

His laugh roared out of him. “Amethyst didn’t say you were funny girl. I think you are good for her. She needs female influence that is … healthy.”

“Sean said you’re not Mara’s greatest fan.”

“He talks too much. He has Irish mouth.” He made sockless sock-puppet hands. “Always flapping.”

“Heard that,” said Sean.

“Ears like elephant.” OB side-eyed Sean, to see if he’d interrupt again. “Ah, and now he pretends not to listen.”

“What do we need the mirror for?” I said.

OB choked. Sean laughed. Somewhere behind us, a twig snapped itself in half.

“Didn’t I say she’d ask you about that?” said Sean.

I shrugged. “Well?”

“Mirrors show us more than ourselves, and sometimes less,” said OB. “Not everyone knows what they’re looking for, but you will figure out what you’re supposed to see in mirror.” He ran his hand over his face. “Don’t worry about mirror. You will need it. You will use it. End of story.”

“That’s not much of a story.”

You will provide story,” he said. “I provide beginning and end.”

“Thanks for paying your respects at the cemetery.”

OB nodded. “You’re welcome.”

“What did you and Albert argue about the day of the Blackmore picnic?”

Sean made a garbled hissing sound, that turned into a full belly laugh when Daniel joined in.

“Brazen trumpet,” said OB.

“Brazen as a trumpet,” Sean corrected. “It makes no sense if you miss out half the words.”

“A?” said OB, making a short A sound. “That is just noise old people make when they try to move, and their bodies try to stay still. As sounds like insect.”

“We all know you don’t use articles out of spite for the English language.”

OB huffed. “It has more stupid rules than all world’s governments combined.”

“This is the worst distraction tactic ever,” I said. “Will you tell me what the argument was about?” A flurry of nuts hit the ground behind us, but I saw nothing when I turned. I smirked anyway. If Albert was there, I wanted him to know that I knew it.

“I’m not going to tell you what argument was about. It was private.”

“I knew you’d say that.”

“But you asked anyway.”

“You expected me to, didn’t you?”

“Yes. You are nosey, like your sister.” Before Amethyst could open her mouth, OB said, “Yes, I know you heard that. You are master eavesdropper. You forget I taught you how to be spy. You forget this when you creep around house saying I look like gnome.”

Boxer laughed, all guttural noise and teeth. Amethyst grinned sheepishly.

“Worst dressed gnome in history,” said Sean.

As the conversation got lighter, Albert’s presence felt heavier. We all felt it, and we all ignored it. It was like I’d had a Sean dream, like something was creeping beneath my skin. It disappeared so suddenly, leaving me cold and hot at the same time. It was loss, which was kind of sickening, and relief.

***

The source image above is from jplenio on Pixabay

Meet Si Moore

“Do you ever feel like … life is just waiting there, behind a curtain or something, waiting for you to earn it? Sometimes I feel like there’s this whole tribe waiting. My people. But I don’t know what I need to be to make the curtain fall, you know? I’m stuck.”

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Context: Violet’s crush becomes a hero when he stands up to the biology teacher. Violet’s best friend is moving to Cornwall. From Paper Starlings (book 1).

***

Si did return to school a week after his escapade, and Nicholls upgraded his disdain-o-meter to a hate-o-meter purely for his benefit. But Si smiled through every loathe-encrusted look and hateful comment because he was untouchable. He cared about Nicholls’ opinion like he cared about algae.

Leia’s last day was messy and wet. She had rarely seen me cry before, and though it didn’t happen until we got to her house, it brought out her maternal side so that she became all warm and gushy like Eden. We promised each other we’d talk or text every day. She’d made me a photo album, and I’d painted a picture of the two of us in our Stitch onesies as a going-away present. On Friday morning, my brain checked out while my class watched Life of Pi. I might as well have been in double maths.

By the end of the day, I’d solidified my plan to speak to Si. My plan was this: get changed into my art overalls so that when he invited me to the scrubs, I could say yes. It was a good plan, if I didn’t factor in the probability that he wouldn’t invite me anywhere ever again, considering I’d said no last time. Leia sent me mileage updates, accompanied by crossed boxes because my crappy phone couldn’t deal with emojis. It didn’t matter; I knew they were turds. Turds were her favourite. Leia had travelled three hundred miles away from me in the five hours it took for me to formulate a half-plan. Maths felt like my enemy.

As much as Leia would’ve hated to miss it, I geared myself up for some loitering with intent. I looked ridiculous. At art club, I forced myself to wear a chronically beige boilersuit which did an admirable job of protecting everything but my hair, and made me look like a ghostbuster that had been mugged by Jackson Pollock. I stood beneath the bald tree that had offered Si anonymity before it lost its leaves, but offered me nothing. I looked ridiculous for twenty minutes while the crowd thinned. It was much harder trying to spot Si on a non-uniform day. When everyone wore navy, his hair was a beacon. When they didn’t, his hair was just another slash of orange, because apparently people who weren’t me wore orange.

By the time Si wandered out of the foyer, I’d counted to twenty another dozen or so times, twenty being the number at which I’d give up and go home. My heartbeat slowly climbed up my oesophagus, pulsing like a beast. I watched Si’s eyebrows climb, then a slight hitch catch the corners of his mouth, but no smile. He looked around like he thought I might be waiting for someone else, so I raised my hand in a half-wave. Then he smiled.

A million useless bits of sentence fell over each other in my brain while I waited for him to get to me. Then he was standing where I had stood the day he reminded me where his face was. He was looking at my overalls, and it was on the tip of my tongue to say, I’m up here, when he spoke.

“You’re in the mood to paint a masterpiece?” He sucked on his bottom lip.

I tried to avoid a full-body spasm. “No. I just didn’t want to get dirty.”

He moved closer. There was no canopy now, just spiky fingers. But it wasn’t the leaves that had made the air beneath the tree dangerous.

“Where are you going that’ll get you dirty?”

“The scrubs.”

He grinned. “Me too.”

His feet were two pairs of shoes away from mine. With each breath, I released less air, until I got to the point where breathing in became impossible. I lowered my head, then let it all go in an embarrassed gush. I didn’t know whether he heard or saw or not, but I vowed to use whatever time we spent together proving that I did actually know how to breathe.

He half-turned to the gate, waiting for me to step in beside him. The dull winter light did nothing for his complexion, but I didn’t mind his bleached face. He wasn’t cold enough yet for his cheeks and nose to turn rosy. His knuckles were pink though, and shredded.

“What happened to your hands?” I said, while we walked side by side towards the gate.

“I don’t get on with my mum’s arsehole boyfriend.”

“Shit, sorry.”

“What are you apologising for?”

“I shouldn’t have asked. It’s none of my business.”

He shrugged. “It’s nice to be worried about.”

We ate up the pavement at twice the speed I walked with Leia, who could dawdle for Britain. We were quiet for a few minutes, the only sounds our shuffling breaths and synchronised footsteps.

“Leia moved today, right?” he said, side-eyeing me cautiously.

“Yeah. How’s Lewis?”

Luckily, Si knew how to take a hint. “He’s okay. He’s been making the most of his five minutes of fame.”

“How about you? Il a un point, Jeff has become a meme. You’re a legend.”

“Today, a meme. Tomorrow, a movie.”

“Exactly. You can’t buy that sort of notoriety.”

We were laughing when an obnoxiously toxic car pulled up alongside us, something dangerously black seeping from its rear-end. The window hummed down, and the driver leant across a huge plant taking up most of the passenger seat. Si groaned.

“Hey, boy. This your wifey? She’s fi-iii-ine.” I wasn’t sure where this London boy thought he was from, or why he thought fine had eighteen syllables.

“She also has ears, and class, and she isn’t my wifey.”

“Bet she knows her way around a car.”

That was an inexplicable sentence. Was it a euphemism? What the hell was he talking about? And also, Si thought I had class.

“What the hell are you talking about?” said Si.

“She’s a mechanic, right?” I laughed at his earnest expression, until it gave way to sleaze. “You can fondle my gearstick whenever you like, baby.”

“No, she’s not a fucking mechanic.” Si was no longer winter-white.

“I’m a ghostbuster,” I shouted.

Si laughed, then dropped all humour. “What do you want, Ryan?”

“Just checking in, bruv. You want a ride someplace?”

“No. And stay away from the flat. The new one’s huge.”

Ryan tipped his head dismissively, then roared away leaving a black fog behind.

“The new one’s huge?” I said, flapping my arm across my face to avoid choking.

“My mum’s boyfriend.”

My eyes were in danger of drying out, they’d gone so wide. “He’ll hurt you.”

He smiled gently. “He’s not that big. I just said that so Ryan wouldn’t turn up at the flat.”

“Right.” I laughed. “Did he really have a seatbelt on a marijuana plant?”

Si didn’t laugh. “There’s probably worse in his glove box.”

“So, how do you know him?”

“I don’t. Not really. He’s just a twat my mum knows. I’m sorry he said those things about you.”

“It’s not your fault. I’ve heard worse, and I definitely do not know my way around a car.”

By the time we got to the scrubs, I remembered the other reason I didn’t go there. An eight-foot chicken wire fence.

“Shit,” I said.

“I can give you a leg-up.”

“Your hands are already broken.”

“I can take your weight.” He leant close to my ear, and said, “I already did, remember?”

I shuddered. “You mean I didn’t dream that particular humiliation?”

He shook his head. “Totally real.”

“So you give me a leg-up, then what? I face-plant into the chicken wire, and go home looking like I’ve been griddled?”

He laughed. “Fine. There’s a weaker spot in the fence we can crawl through, but it’s around the other side.”

“You just wanted to see me get scuffed up. That’s evil.”

***

Paper Starlings: a vampire in Oxford

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series. The books follow the life of Violet who, after a childhood in care, figures out that her birth family’s heritage is more complicated than she believed possible.

The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.

Context: Violet’s family reluctantly agree to let her meet Sean Morrigan, the vampire who raised her twin sister.

***

We’d arranged to meet Sean in Oxford, in a pub by the river. He and Amethyst were already there, watching the punts and pedaloes drifting beneath the willows. Patches of blue sky were reflected in the murky, green tree water, glittering like gemstones trapped under water. Amethyst and Sean sat at a picnic bench protected from the sun by a garden parasol. Eden sat several tables away on the shady side of the deck and, like she promised, she directed a scowl at Sean that could strip paint.

“Did Amethyst tell you about the mass grave at the river?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Now I know what you’re thinking, what with Mara waffling on about her queen and the resurrection, but she has no interest in any mass grave. And like Amethyst explained to you, we don’t leave skeletons. Besides, Mara hates it here. In fact, she’s left for a while with her … entourage.”

That explained the carefree Sean.

“How long will she be gone?”

“She didn’t say, but at least a week, I should think. She’s had one of her steroid junkies stationed at every exit for the last few weeks. For our protection, she says. Our protection, my arse.”

“Amethyst said she’s not obedient because you didn’t turn her yourself,” I said.

“Aye, now that was a mistake. I should’ve done the deed myself, but OB was adamant that she couldn’t be trusted. He’s never wrong, Old Bones. He said she’d destroy us, but he thought if I didn’t turn her myself, and if I ordered everyone else to leave her alone, she’d lead a normal mortal life.” He sighed. “I should’ve realised that would never be enough for Mara.”

“So how did she …” I looked around. I couldn’t say vampire out loud. Not in Oxford.

“She found her own way. She seduced an old comrade, got him drunk and that was that. The deed was done, and I was furious. The best I could do was put her under my protection, feed her myself, but it’s not the same as being master and servant. She would never obey me, but I could at least keep an eye on her. Now she keeps an eye on me.” His eyebrows arched briefly.

“Did she take Albert with her?”

“No,” he said, biting his lip. “Which is unusual for her.”

“Shame,” I muttered.

“Albert said he spoke to you at the picnic.”

“He didn’t speak to me. He barked at me like a little angry dog.”

He laughed and shook his head. “That’s really not like Albert at all. I won’t make excuses for his behaviour, but he’s been very unsettled by the changes in the coven and he had a row with Old Bones before we left which, again, is not like Albert.”

“Amethyst said some of your people have gone missing.”

“Far too many. And not just from my coven. Some of my old friends are missing too, their houses looted. In fact, one of them was Albert’s sire. They were very close.”

“Disappeared doesn’t necessarily mean dead though, does it?”

“We’d expect to have heard something by now. Either a ransom or a message to say he’s alright. But we’ve heard nothing. Besides, a painting went missing from his house that he’d never have moved voluntarily.”

“What’s the tapestry at your house?” I said.

Sean raised his eyebrows and looked at Amethyst.

“Don’t look at me. I didn’t invite her,” said Amethyst. “They came looking for me after Archer saw us at the fair last year.”

“It’s a horrible bloody thing, that tapestry. It’s called The Calling of the Mother Tree. Mara’s had one half of it for a hundred years, but the other half, she only located recently. She’s obsessed with the damn thing. She thinks it’s a message.”

“You said it reminded you of the cull.”

He leaned forward, arms folded on the table, and lowered his voice. “Years ago, lots of religious artefacts were collected by the churches as a means to torture and kill vampires. Guilds, they called themselves. The walls of these torture chambers were covered with religious tapestries. Family heirlooms were stolen, and the churches amassed a wealth of powerful objects. It’s how I found the jasper mirror.”

“You mean Gabriel’s mirror?” I said. “The green one?”

“I expect it has many names,” he said. “These things usually do.”

“Do you know what it does?”

“No, but if Old Bones says your family needs it more than I do, so be it.”

“Old Bones? So he must’ve seen us using it,” I said. “Did he say what for?”

Sean chuckled. “No, he didn’t say what for and he wouldn’t tell me a thing about it. I guess he must think you’re smart enough to figure it out for yourselves. Let’s hope so, shall we?”

“So this cull then? What happened?”

“Well, I was new to this life then. We were being rounded up and tortured to death. The Austrian army invaded the village where I’d lived the last of my human days. They desecrated every grave, exhumed every last body, except mine. I was a respected doctor and they left me to rest in peace. They staked the bodies they’d exhumed and tossed them back into their graves, leaving them in the open to rot, while the villagers looked on. Those who had seen their loved ones dug up and didn’t support the army’s tactics were accused of being in sympathy with vampires. There were several unlawful hangings and more public brawls than the village had seen in a hundred years. Old Bones put the cemetery back how it should’ve been. Day after day he worked to give the dead the dignity they deserved. When I turned him, he went after those soldiers. If there’s one thing Old Bones insists on, it’s respect for the dead. He’d love to tend cemeteries, even now.”

“Why doesn’t he?”

“He can’t set foot on consecrated ground. Neither can I. It’s why I couldn’t come and see you in your old place, that church you lived in,” he said. “OB paid his respects from outside the church grounds though, as did I.”

“You and Old Bones were at the funeral?”

He nodded. I didn’t really want to talk about that, or think about it, so I dug my nail into a softened crack in the table while I tried to think of something to say, to figure out my next question.

Sean carried on to save me the bother. “OB wasn’t a vampire back then, not at the height of the cull.”

“So it wasn’t just about digging up dead bodies in the hope that some might be vampires?”

“Not quite. That was just a small misguided part of it. A way to keep people in fear. Only bloodborn vampires have graves. The rest don’t die.”

***

The source image above is from SJPrice on Pixabay

Paper Starlings: a Christmas scene

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series.

Context: Violet gets to know her family better when she spends her first Christmas at the priory.

***

Christmas Eve flew by in a haze of board games, cheesy Christmas films and more food than I’d eaten all week. Adam taught me how to tango, which would’ve been much more fun if Seth hadn’t kept interfering. I was inducted into the family tradition of listening to Charles Aznavour records, while learning the rules of a card game called Up-Two from Magnus, who insisted he didn’t cheat while everyone else insisted he did.

I sat in my room that night, waiting for Christmas, the buzzing in my ears louder than the landscape. The shadows around me dissolved in the dark, and I fell into my dreams. I dreamed about counting seeds and scattered stars. I dreamed about Sean, who watched a blonde woman, who watched a man with silver eyes like she expected him to burst into flames. I dreamed I was a bird, my feet bound in clay, buried in the hardened ground, swaying in the wind like a seahorse in a current, wings aching with their attempts to fly. I dreamed of flowers that bloomed in the dark. Christmas morning was loud and bright, dissolving my dreams. My arms ached like wings.

There was a message waiting on my phone.

Leia: They suit me.

Beneath the message was a photo of the stupid slippers I bought her wedged onto her feet. They were furry, banana yellow boots with smiley turd emojis on.

Me: I knew they would.

Leia: Luke keeps calling me poo feet.

She sent a cascade of turd and footprint emojis after that. I was halfway down the stairs, but I went back up to clean my teeth after my phone showed me a toothpaste advert, like it could smell my Christmas morning breath.

Everyone was in the drawing room, dressed in proper clothes, except Seth, who was still in pyjamas like me.

“Do I need to get changed?” I said.

“Nope,” Magnus boomed, waving me into the room. “Come as you are.”

That was when I realised he was dressed as Father Christmas. “I see you’ve gone with traditional attire,” I said, raising an eyebrow.

“Tried to get me to dress as a poxy elf,” said Adam. “He just wants to see my fabulous legs in tights.”

Everyone was laughing when Glenda brought a trolley filled with tea and cake and Buck’s Fizz.

“Presents first, breakfast after,” she said, holding up a champagne flute. “Want some? It’s mostly orange juice.”

“Yeah, alright then.”

I watched everyone open their presents. I watched the twins get super-excited over a box of tiny electronic things, then deny being anything like their dad. I watched Magnus fix a bracelet round Eden’s wrist, and had to look away because the love between them was so intense, I felt like I was violating it. I watched Seth open each of his presents like he expected explosives, but the twins were paying no attention to him. Then Archer looked up, grinning while Seth cautiously waded through a box of polystyrene peanuts. Finally, a smug grin sprawled across his face and he pulled his hand out of the box. He was holding an egg. Everyone laughed, and Seth rolled his eyes.

“It’s tradition,” said Archer. “Seth thinks the only acceptable use for an egg is a cake.”

“You don’t like eggs?”

Seth made a gagging noise, then threw the egg at Archer. I gasped. The egg bounced.

Eden sighed. “For god’s sake, Seth. Not indoors.”

The package from Magnus’ dad contained exactly what they thought it would: an eight-page letter and a board game with a zillion rules.

Magnus read out the highlights. “He’s got a job.”

“A job?” said Eden.

“Are you really surprised by anything he does?” said Adam.

Eden shook her head. “Not really.”

“He said it was calling him home,” said Magnus.

Eden gave herself whiplash. “He’s in Cornwall?”

“Apparently so. He’s been on the road with a band. And Jem.”

“Who’s Jem?” I said.

“One of his brothers.”

“How many brothers has he got?”

Magnus looked at the ceiling. “I lose track. Many. And he’s sent something for you, Violet.” Magnus handed me a tiny package with my name scribbled on it, and everyone stared when I took it.

“Why would he send me something?” I pressed the top of the packet to pop it open, and tipped its tissue paper contents into my palm.

“It’ll be a stone, I should think,” said Eden. “Let’s see what he chose for you.”

I carefully peeled off the layers of tissue paper to find a small, deep purplish-red stone in a chunky, faceted teardrop shape attached to a small amount of silver chain with a loop at the top. It was pretty, but I didn’t really get what it was. “How do I …” I held it up to show Eden.

“You thread the loop onto your chain. It’ll hang behind your amethyst. It’s a garnet,” she said, holding her hand beneath it so it dragged across her palm. “To go forth in life, open to love and self-healing, shedding all shame, and empowering oneself with clarity and self-worth.”

“You believe that?” I said.

“It doesn’t matter whether I believe it or not,” said Eden. “It’s a thoughtful choice.”

“Mine’s malachite,” said Seth, pulling a chain with a swirly green stone from beneath his top.

“You’ve all got one?” I said.

Archer snorted when the twins held theirs away from their necks. Ben’s was a smooth lump of jade threaded onto leather, Ezra’s looked like a reddish wooden bead.

“It’s jasper,” he said. “Archer doesn’t wear his.”

“It’s ugly, that’s why. I wanted one like Dad’s, all black and shiny, and instead I got one that looks like it’s been carved from one of Grandad’s hideous tables.”

“You’re going to inherit those hideous tables one day, young man,” said Adam. “I’ll make sure of it.”

“As long as Seth gets the lamp,” said Archer, grinning at Adam.

“Can we have Gertie back?” said Ben.

“Can we not talk about Grandad’s will?” said Eden.

“Who’s Gertie?” I said.

Glenda started laughing like a maniac, which set Adam off.

“I have a doll,” he said, swallowing his laughter. “One of those china things that looks like it’s always staring at you, with the flouncy bonnet and what-have-you.” He waved his hands around, indicating frilly clothes. “I thought it must’ve been Eden’s, but she doesn’t remember it at all. Anyway, these two got hold of it a couple of years ago, combined it with some voice boxes from various toys, gave it legs and arms from a robot dinosaur, and flashing red eyes.”

“The one in your study?” I said, waiting for Adam’s nod. “I thought she had chicken feet.”

He shook his head. “She says some choice phrases now, while she struts around the house like a velociraptor.”

Seth put on a 1950s BBC voice, and said, “Calling all cars.”

Glenda deepened her voice and said, “Yo’ ass is mine.”

I laughed. “Oh, god.”

“You should see the scarecrows down at the orchard for more of their handiwork,” said Eden. “They’re perfectly ghastly.”

“And unscientific,” said Seth.

Everybody sighed dramatically.

“Dad’s a bad influence,” said Ben.

“And yet,” said Magnus, dipping some kind of Indian snack into his tea, “the fruit yields are up.” He tossed what looked like a tea-soaked bhaji into his mouth, and I tried not to gag.

When everyone went back to opening presents, I was so caught up in watching, that I forgot I still had some to open. I would be here for Christmas every year from now on. Maybe Leia would be able to stay for some of the holidays. It had only been a couple of months since I met everyone, and already I was home. I quietly took off my necklace and threaded the garnet on. Eden took the necklace from me and put it back around my neck. She gave my hand a squeeze and shot me an emotional look. I smiled and looked away quickly.

Glenda nodded at the pile of presents on my lap and gave me a wink. She’d knitted me a jumper. It was mostly black, but had a multicoloured stripe down the sides and on the inside of the arms which was only visible if I lifted my arms up. I put it on over my PJs because the fire hadn’t quite warmed my bones yet. I got some clothes and sketchbooks. Jess must’ve told Eden how fast I was getting through them. It was Si’s fault. Leia made me a baby Stitch cuddly toy, and I felt myself getting teary-eyed.

“Cute,” said Eden. “From Leia?”

“Yeah, it’s from a film we used to watch together.”

“Lilo and Stitch,” said Eden.

“Ohana means family,” said Ben, his tone serious when he nodded at my doll.

“Yeah,” I said, wishing I’d taken my hair out of its pineapple so I could hide beneath it.

Leia had made me something Stitch related for the last five years for the exact reason Ben said. This was the sixth. I had a cushion, a headband, a coin purse, a pencil case, and a felt badge. Now I had a cuddly toy.

When Ezra picked up one of my framed drawings, turning it in his hands, Ben looked at me quickly and said, “Maybe not yet.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “There’s one each, but you need to open them at the same time.”

Ezra dug into the pile then, passing the presents around. I sat nervously while they tore into the wrapping. All of them were impatient. They all looked up at me at the same time, laughter in their eyes.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” said Adam. I’d drawn him in his smoking jacket, talking to his ugly lamp with a stack of cups and saucers piled in his hand.

They all laughed some more when they passed them around. Glenda in her wellies with a goat under her arm. Magnus sitting grasshopper style in a small chair with coils and springs in his hair and dead electronics in his hands. Archer juggling vegetables while he cooked. Seth weighed down by all the junk he won at the fair. Eden peering out from behind a pile of books wearing her weird owl glasses. I’d gone for something different for the twins. I drew a Rube Goldberg machine with the twins at either end of it. Ezra had a stack of glasses and a purple pout, and Ben had a stack of bowls. Then I’d cut it in half to make two pictures.

“I think you’ve started a new family tradition, Violet,” said Magnus.

A few days later, back at Pandora’s, I planned next year’s drawings in my head, knowing that by then, I’d never have to leave the priory again.

***

The source photo above is from PhotoMIX-Company on Pixabay

Paper Starlings: a scene

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series.

The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.

This is part of a scene in chapter ten.

Context: After a childhood in care, Violet meets her dead mother’s sister who had been told that Violet was stillborn. Aunt Eden is driving them to her home in Oxfordshire for the first time.

***

When Eden pulled out of my street and onto the main road, it was already dark. Rows of houses flashed by, punctuated by lit windows displaying homely tableaus, like a gallery of yellow paintings. Trying to get out of London on a Friday night was slow. There were so many lights, it was painful to look at: dazzling white headlights like the ethereal glow in paintings of angels, and fiery red taillights like the eyes of demons retreating in the darkness. I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me.

“What is it?” I said, turning my head against the headrest.

Eden grinned. “I thought you’d dozed off.”

“Just listening,” I said.

“One of my students sent it to me.” The music was melodic and ploddy, with pretty highs, like life in the summer. “You like it?”

“Yeah, it’s … mellow. I don’t like tinny music. It irritates my ears. And I don’t like singers that whine or scream or bellow. Or sing in fake accents with fake feelings about inconsequential crap. Or when they sing all the notes just to prove they can. Or worse, when they warble a million notes to a one-syllabled word. There should be penalties for that.”

Eden smirked. “So what do you like?”

I shrugged. “I don’t really go out of my way to listen, you know? I mean, I hear it, I’m exposed to it, but it’s just background. Noisy wallpaper. I think maybe I skipped the music-loving gene when I was born … silent.”

“You were born unable to see too,” Eden said softly. “But that didn’t stop you breaking out the paints, did it?”

“That was years later.”

I’d never been able to describe the way my sight came to me without sounding like I was taking hallucinogenics. I was five when it happened, and my understanding of the visual world was limited. Everything I saw was too much, all of it imagined, rendered with the incomplete knowledge of how colour and form combined. Like a child’s drawing. Things just didn’t look that way anymore.

This is what happened: Colours exploded behind my closed eyelids, swirling like petrol in a puddle, polluting the dark-light reality inside my head. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was worse colour. Formless and toxic. Its boldness frightened me, and I squeezed my eyes shut against it, hoping it would go away. It never did. Then came form, shapes and patterns. They moved. Some drifted, some sped, some spun. All made me nauseous. If I’d had access to a camera back then, I could’ve slowed down the world one frame at a time. Nothing stayed still long enough for me to catch it, to really see it. It took only moments to realise what my sight had cost me. The shadow girl. Amethyst.

“They said you painted though, even before you could see. That’s amazing.”

When my brain registered her comment, I said, “What? I didn’t.”

Her gaze flicked from the road to my face. “You don’t remember?” I shook my head. “The occupational therapist sent the paintings to a specialist. He said the only explanation was that the staff must’ve coached you after you got your hearing, but before you got your sight, because the pictures were too realistic. That’s professional speak for, I don’t have a clue how to deal with it because my brain is a wasteland consisting only of outdated information and tick boxes.”

I laughed. “Ouch! What do you have against so-called professionals?”

“Trust me, that is not a topic you want to get me started on.”

“So what were the paintings of? Do you know?”

“Birds,” she said. “Well, the same bird over and over.”

“A starling?” I said.

“Yes. You remember?”

“No. Not the paintings. Just the sound. The first sound I heard was a starling. I mean, I do remember painting and drawing starlings, but it was later. When I could see.”

I didn’t remember closing my eyes the second time, but when I opened them again, London was far behind us. The tightly packed houses had given way to tightly packed trees and hedgerows, and the car lights were sparse. The music had been turned down and Eden hummed gently to herself. Every so often, a break in the hedgerow gave us far-reaching views across darkened patchwork fields, where light trails in the distance showed another road carved into the landscape.

“Where are we?” I said, stretching out my back muscles.

“About twenty minutes from home, maybe less.”

“What’s that?” I asked, nodding at a huge cluster of lights ahead in the distance.

“Oxford. We’ll be turning off in a minute, so we won’t go through it, but I can take you in the week if you like.”

“Yeah, alright. I suppose it’s much nicer than where I live.”

“All places have their charms. Besides, being with the right people can make the dullest of places brighter.”

“Leia’s moving to Cornwall. School will suck without her.”

“Oh, Violet, I am sorry.”

“S’alright. We’ll still be able to talk. It won’t be the same but …”

I stared blindly out the side window, shortening my focus to track the droplets of rain that raced down the glass. I listened to the sound of the engine, soft and puttery, with a slurred rumble beneath it. It sounded like a bored fish lounging on the back of a sleep-drunk bear. The backs of my thighs had gone to sleep.

“Listen, we’re nearly home. If there’s anything you need to know, I’d ask now. Seth and Archer have taken the twins camping for the night to give you some breathing space. It’ll just be Dad, Magnus and Glenda, but even so, we might not get to chat later.”

“Who’s Glenda?”

“That depends who you ask.” She shook her head. “She’s my best friend. But if you asked her, she’d say she was the housekeeper.”

“So, she isn’t the housekeeper?”

“Oh, she is. It was the only way she’d agree to stay with us. She’s not happy unless she’s earning her keep.”

“Right. So, there is something I wanted to ask … about my mum.”

“Shoot.”

“Do you know why she ran away from home?”

“Yes, but it’s not a pretty story.”

“My life’s not a pretty story.”

“Alright. But tell me if I get a bit TMI. I’m a very blurt it all out sort of parent. I don’t believe in coddling when it comes to the truth.” I nodded, warming a little at her use of parent, and she continued. “As I said before, Dad didn’t know if Amy was his or not and my mother kept us away for a long time. The purple eyes are a genetic trait from Dad’s family, so the moment I met her, I knew she must be his child. Amy’s step-father, I only met a few times, but he seemed a nice man. He committed suicide when Amy was fifteen. My mother blamed Amy and she ran away.”

“Why did she blame Amy?”

“When I confronted my mother, she told me that her husband was in love with Amy, that he felt guilty about his feelings for her and killed himself. I don’t know how true it is, but I don’t think Amy did anything to encourage it. She was just a kind person, everything my mother wasn’t.”

“And you don’t know what happened after she left? You don’t know where she went?”

“There were rumours. I checked them out myself, but they never led to anything. I even hired someone to look for her, but every lead turned up cold.”

The roads were so quiet and dark now that only the dipped beam of the headlights lit the way. Up ahead, the glow of a fox’s eyes reflected back at us before it dashed out of our way. We turned left into a road full of little cottages, some with B&B signs outside. A post office, a butcher, a corner shop and, at the end of this rare cluster of life, a village pub stood, muffling the voices within its ancient walls.

“This is us,” said Eden, pushing the indicator stick up.

The car swung to the right into a barely noticeable gap between the trees. A statue stood on each side of the narrow road, partially covered by greenery and glowing eerily in the darkness. A long drive stretched out ahead but there were no lights, no house. We drove past several fields, and down an avenue of trees. The road was so bumpy there, that Eden and I bounced in our seats. Eventually we turned onto a small wooden bridge. I looked down into a stream that glittered in the moonlight. The car slowed again when Eden turned onto a gravel parking area surrounded by a high hedgerow on three sides.

A stone building towered above us on the fourth side. Most of it was covered by some kind of plant, but it was too dark to tell what it was. A downstairs window held a faint glow but there was otherwise no sign of life.

When I stepped onto the gravel, the chilly air wrapped around me, but instead of feeling cold, I felt comforted. The rain had sent the ancient pulse of the earth to the surface. I felt it beneath my feet. The air was tangy and charged with the scent of storms and well-fed trees. I felt them stretching towards me, to welcome me home.

***

The source image is from makamuki0 on Pixabay.

Paper Starlings: the prologue

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series. They follow the life of Violet who, after a childhood in care, figures out that her birth family’s heritage is more complicated than she believed possible.

The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.

***

Her name is Violet. It was all I could give her.

That’s what it said in the note that severed me from my roots. The note that was carefully tucked beside me in the equally abandoned car seat when I was freshly born.

I had a paper-thin life. It began on a day that was heavier than all others. It began the day I was born. It began at zero. There were no parents to know. No heritage to learn. No clue who the I in the note was. My narrative existed nowhere but in my own head. Shameful and unsharable. Untruths and un-lies. There was nothing to know and it weighed a lot.

At first, there was nothing to see or hear either. I had no experience of sound to help me decipher the noiseless chaos of other people’s feelings, but I felt the frequency of them; I felt their pulse. The darkness that was my normal was made entirely of light and movement. Before I’d ever seen a human face, I was visited by eyes and noses and lips, all of them inside my head, detached and devouring.

Before I’d ever seen a bird, I knew a bird. Then I heard it: the first starling. It was the first real, outside-of-myself noise I ever heard, and its soundwave bent like it had passed through a thousand raindrops. Even starlings didn’t sound like that anymore. It flew away from me like everything else had, in the space of four wingbeats, like the wind had carried it away with my shadow. The shadow girl had been my substantial truth, but even she was stolen by the light. When the colours came, I still had a paper-thin life.
I wasn’t like the starlings I committed to paper. They had nests to build. They had purpose. They could fly. Golden wings, star-speckled bellies and worm-pink legs. They were an unlikely conduit for my envy. I was nestless and restless.

The unbearable truth of my beginning was a tide hitting a distant shore. It was the beat of a bird’s wing. It was a whisper along a wire. Its weight was with me, and its weight was elsewhere. My absence left a hole. That was the truth that would outplay the lies I told myself.

Because truth, as my great-grandfather would one day tell me, has feet. It doesn’t care whether we believe it or not. It can sing at the surface, begging to be heard. It can be patient as death. Sometimes it can be a language we don’t speak. It can give us wings or lock us tight as bones. It can weave itself into layers of possibility, waiting to be unpicked. It can be written into life, scratched into being or dreamed beneath the stars. Sometimes the truth can fall into the palm of our hand. Only lies care whether we believe them or not.

I waited for my truth. I waited for paper-thin to expand into belonging. I waited for the padding of my familial narrative. When it came, I learned all the ways I could know the truth. I could bury it. Speak it. Dream it. Paint it. Fight it. Twist it. Draw it. Carve it into my skin. Scream it. Subvert it. Deny it. Own it. Live it.

The truth of it was this: lies could be easier than truth, paper-thin could be easier than truth, empty narratives could be easier than truth.

If nobody had believed a lie, they might’ve looked for the truth sooner. They might’ve seen it when a woman killed two nurses, and was caught standing over my cot with a dripping knife in her hand.

But nobody looked. It was fifteen years before I began to know the truth, and even that was before all the other things wanted me dead.

***

The source image above is from JCLeroi on Pixabay