All the Little Children – Jo Furniss

Crouched in the lea of an ancient oak tree, the safest place I could find on the sparse margins of the forest, I hid from my own children. Hunkered down like prey, I ferreted out my mobile phone; I just needed five minutes to take a work call, that’s all. Then the little terrors could have me. But Billy came crashing through the undergrowth, forcing me to flick the ringer to silent. Late-summer foliage shrouded me. “Mum-may?” His voice was close. I imagined his kissy lips pursed in confusion. Maybe he could smell me, like baby birds do? His footsteps faltered and he called, “Marlene?” The realization that he thought I would answer to my adult name more readily than “Mummy” sent me into a swoon of guilt. I knew I should jump out and gather him up. Play the role of fun mummy—surprise! But the phone vibrated in my hand. Billy’s footsteps moved away; he trotted toward our campsite, still calling. His aunt’s voice sang out in reply, as I knew it would if I waited long enough, and Billy whooped as he was swept into one of her hugs. Their entwined laughter tumbled through the trees to taunt me. If only I could stack up my life like one of Billy’s wooden towers, into an edifice of compartmentalized blocks. If only I could turn my back for five minutes without those pretty boxes tumbling down.

Oopsy-daisy, as Billy might say. I tapped the screen to answer the call. The line connected to a hollow wind tunnel and cut off. Return call. Line engaged. I tried again, but a voice said the number was not available. And finally, the connection cut altogether. “Sod China.” I hoped the sentiment would reach my unreachable Chinese employee who was screwing up my day. “And Shropshire,” I said to this remote hole in the forest where I’d dragged us for a long weekend in order to bond with my kids.

“Sod them all,” I said to a rare patch of blue sky visible through the canopy. It was hard enough raising three children without my staff regressing the moment I went off-line. One of those sudden forest breezes caused the oak to shudder around me. A lilt of Billy’s laughter wafted by. Amid the green of the forest, it sounded magical, like fairy music. I pushed myself to my feet, too big and too cumbersome for this realm. Too adult. It was Saturday. Still morning. Cloudy with a high risk of tantrums.

The kids had spent the whole summer bugging us—my sister-in-law, Joni, and me, that is—to go camping. The trip was a consolation prize for Joni, something to look forward to after she’d had to cancel plans to visit her mother back home in Pennsylvania. But as the school holidays ticked by, I had so much work, so much travel, that we left it to the last weekend. I booked a rare day off work so we could get away early on the Friday, but a crisis broke out at my factory in China. My business partner assured me she would handle it; I should go. And when I wavered, my husband got his knickers in a knot. I’d promised Julian that I would keep our progeny out of his preened hair for the weekend while he packed up and moved out, in order to, in his words, “give you some head space.” As I sneaked out of my hiding place and followed the path out of the forest, the trees swelled and roiled in the breeze, their leaves like thousands of tiny hands applauding in sarcasm. My car door opened with an echoing creak. It really was dead quiet in the forest.

I stepped up onto the running board of the Beast, breathing in the new-leather smell of the SUV’s boat-like cabin. Don’t know why we’d even bothered packing tents; we’d be more comfortable sleeping inside this cocoon. My father always said you had to run in a new vehicle, but the long drive into the countryside had done the Beast good. Its gleaming flanks had been blooded with a go-faster stripe of authentic offroad muck. It was in its element. Shame it had to be demoted back to the school run on Monday morning. I plugged my phone into the car’s charger, skimming past e-mails and texts that Julian had sent before I’d even been gone a day: he probably couldn’t find something in the house. But then again, he couldn’t find his arse with his own two hands, and I’d had enough of mollycoddling him. He wanted time on his own; let him find out what that entails. The man was an oversized Alice in Wonderland, just as rigid and self-righteous, whose world had shrunk when it should have grown.

It held no job, no childcare duties, not even one of his pie-in-the-sky business schemes or, since his knees had given out, a vague plan to train for a triathlon. His life had grown so small that the tiniest detail now loomed large. Minor changes to the household routine—the cleaner putting the breakfast cereal in the wrong cupboard, for example—would rile him. Heaven forbid he should have to locate one of his innumerable gadgets. I deleted his pleas for a return call; let him go it alone—see if he could survive one weekend without me. After Julian’s messages, I’d received nothing else—no e-mails or calls—which was the point of coming away, but still. When I tried to call Aurora, my business partner, an electronic voice told me the network was busy. “So I can get a connection when I’m in China, but not in bloody Shropshire?” I muttered. Something standing right behind me gave a gruff of assent. Adrenaline flashed up my spine.

The phone slipped out of my hand and bounced once on the seat. I should jump into the car and lock the door, I thought. I should scream for help. Go on, scream—scream! Warn the children. I tried to arrange my throat, but when nothing came out, I twisted round and saw a dog, some kind of giant mastiff. A starburst of relief prickled my limbs. “Hello,” I said, only for the dog to advance a pace and press the side of its head against my abdomen. I laid a palm across its skull, which was a good couple of inches broader than my hand. “You’re a big fellow,” I told him. “I’ve ridden ponies smaller than you.

” His tail swatted the ground once. I looked up the path for his owner, but the track twisted away and ran across a field to the road. I scratched the dog’s ears and, when he gave a gruff of pleasure, built up into a massage over the folds of his face down to his meaty chops. And then I was a teenager again: the yeasty smell of his damp hair, the muscles knotting under my fingertips, the earthquake rumble in his throat; this could have been my dog, my Horatio, from all those years ago in Africa. If I closed my eyes, I was there again, leaning against his back under the shade tree in the yard while Dad loaded up the overland truck, my skin glowing like baked earth. But my eyes opened on a dank English forest with a dog’s hot breath on my legs. He gazed at me like I was an angel. I took a moment to shake off the feeling that he was one too. “So who are you, anyway?” I ventured into his pleated neck to retrieve his name tag. Chap.

“Chap?” He looked down at the ground. “Doesn’t do you justice, my ginormous friend.” As I moved toward the camp, I saw that the dog’s back legs were streaked with blood. When I tried to touch them, he stepped away, so I let him be. The blood was fresh, from small cuts under his hindquarters, as though he’d scrambled over something sharp. “Did you get hurt and run away? Come on, I know some people who’d like to meet you.” And when I headed up the short slope to the tents, he followed. The kids tripped over each other to get to him. “Everybody,” I announced with a theatrical wave, which the dog recognized as his cue to step forward and draw up his chops, “this is Horatio von Drool, guardian of the camp.” “Horatio!” said Billy.

“Horatio von Drool,” I corrected him, “likes to be addressed by his full name.” The dog swatted his tail on the ground and walked to a spot in front of Joni’s cooking pot, where he lay down to rest. “But there aren’t any houses round here,” said Charlie, my eldest and—at the grand age of nine —the wisest. He stared at the dog while twisting his trousers into tight buds. “So where did he come from?” asked Peter, a classmate who was tagging along for the weekend. Before I could answer, Charlie’s attention skipped away like a needle over scratched vinyl and Peter followed. They were fretting over the campfire. Charlie’s Survival Skills for Girls and Boys book said we needed to stockpile fuel. I knelt down in the dirt between Charlie and Peter. “This is great, isn’t it?” I grabbed Charlie round the shoulders and crushed him into my side.

“Being outdoors.” He glanced up at me. “Are you okay, Mummy?” The lack of phone service was forcing me to go cold turkey. But I was okay. A little giddy at being cut off from my usual responsibilities, but then a swell of contentment hit me like the head rush from a first slug of wine. “Let’s build a big, cozy fire,” I said. “To keep away the bears.” “There aren’t any bears. And we mustn’t start a forest fire.” Charlie read aloud the safety instructions from the book in ponderous detail.

I knew he wouldn’t settle until he’d created a pile of tinder that exactly resembled the one in the book, so I said we should take a walk into the forest to gather some firewood. Hopefully, we’d also find someone who might know where Horatio—Chap— came from. Joni was pulling Tupperware containers out of my cooler, getting ready to cook dinner as soon as the fire was going. As I came over to explain my catering system, she was already pointing at the sticker on one of the lids, grinning up at me from where she squatted in the dirt. “Color-coded tubs,” she said. “The ingredients for each meal are packed in labeled containers so they don’t get mixed up.” “Does it come with an Excel spreadsheet?” I made a face like that was ridiculous, but of course there had been an Excel spreadsheet. As soon as everyone was ready, we set off. Joni tramped away in one direction with my seven-year-old, Maggie, whose foghorn voice sent birds skittering into the sky as she harangued her aunt to hurry so they could get back first. “It’s not a race,” Joni said, fading into the tree line.

“I want to get the biggest log,” Maggie bellowed. Joni’s own kid, Lola, refused to leave the camp. With the infinite disdain of a teenager, she said there was no need to fatigue ourselves. Fatigue ourselves. Lola went gliding in her slow-motion gait to pluck dead twigs from the trees, like a nymph picking enchanted fruit for a heartsick knight. She high-stepped off into the undergrowth and, for all I knew, changed into a deer, such was the inscrutable nature of my niece, the Lady Lola. By contrast, the all too scrutable Billy was screaming to go with the big boys, who I knew would abandon him up a tree given half a chance. “Carry me,” he said no more than five feet from the camp. So he scrambled onto my shoulders, his arms clamped in a fierce little grip around my forehead. Charlie ran to catch up with Tagalong Peter.

I could hear the boy farther up the path, whacking a stick against trees and singing some awful ditty about piranhas eating his nether regions: “Dumb Ways to Die” it was called. Surprisingly, the list of dumb ways to die didn’t include pushing your best friend’s mother to the end of her perilously short tether. The path turned uphill, so I swung Billy down onto my hip as I wheezed along after the boys. I was wondering how it was possible that I could run for ten miles and yet a few steep steps left me sweating and speechless, when we rounded the corner and emerged on the summit. If fairies existed anywhere, they would set up home here. The woodland gave way to a stage set with oaks, their trunks bright with moss and their lower limbs strung with ferns. The uppermost branches, though dead and bald, protruded from the canopy as proud as antlers. Charlie was capering about at the foot of one tree that was as wide as my car. My eyes followed his gaze up and up, and I performed my own little dance of consternation as I realized that Peter was already far above us in the branches, making his way, with a methodical coolness, ever higher. “Peter, come down! That’s high enough,” I shouted, and he stopped.

Somehow, looking up at him looking down at me gave me vertigo. He cupped his hand round his mouth and shouted, “I’m going to the top so I can see out.” “No, absolutely not. You need to come down right now.” “It’s fine, the branches are really thick,” he said and climbed up another one, like it was nothing more than the rung of a ladder. “They’re slippy,” I warned his retreating backside. “Peter’s really good at climbing,” said Charlie. “His mum lets him climb trees all the time.” “Well, bully for her.” So there we stood, watching a nine-year-old perched several stories high, with nothing to break his fall but a few leaves—and me.

I’d read once that it’s nigh on impossible to catch a falling child, but I could hardly stand back and let the kid plummet to his death. It would make the next PTA meeting most awkward. So I moved around the trunk, shadowing him from below, unclear of the correct heroic procedure should he actually slip. “Peter!” I tried again. “Come down right now. Do you hear? Peter?” But the boy had stopped and was staring into the distance at something visible only from his vantage point. He put his hand above his eyes, lookout-style. He glanced down as though he was going to say something, and then scanned from side to side again. “What can you see? What is it?” yelled Charlie, tugging at my arm and adding, “Can I go up, too?” I gave him a hard stare and carried on prowling the base, while Peter kept searching the horizon. “Peter?” I shouted, curiosity killing me.

“What can you see?” He shouted something. “What did he say?” Charlie and I asked each other. Then we kept calling, “Peter? What is it? Peter! ” The boy wended his way back down until he reached one of the lower branches, where he hung by his arms, milking it. “Fires.” He dropped twice his own body length into the leaves below. “Fires and smoke all over the place.” Chapter Two We found Joni and Maggie in a clearing, where the skeletal remains of foxgloves stood in groups like crucified corn-husk dolls. A haze clouded the dell. It was only dampness—I flipped a log with my toe and it flaked apart, its core furred with mold—but the white mist made me sniff the air, thinking of the smoke Peter had seen. After we told Joni about the fires, she had asked all the same questions as Charlie and I.

Peter’s answers were no less obscure the second time around: it looked like lots of volcanoes going off. As I had done ten minutes previously, Joni patiently explained that there were no volcanoes in this country. “Not actual volcanoes,” Peter insisted. “Like volcanoes. In the distance. Plumes.” He wobbled his hand upward to indicate smoke rising. Joni and I shrugged at each other. Whatever the truth of it, it sounded far away. Nevertheless, Peter’s story had given us all the willies.

We agreed the clearing was creepy and followed a barely discernible path out of the trees. The long grass was sopping wet despite the warm air; we couldn’t hope for many more days as mild as this. Even the crickets sang about the end of summer. Maggie had light-fingered a Tupperware container that she called her “happy box” and was busy filling it with things she found lovely, such as scabs of lichen and knuckle-shaped twigs. When she snatched a pine cone from Billy, he stood his ground and screamed at her, “You little bucker!” “Shush, you two,” said Joni with a hand on Maggie’s shoulder. “Listen to these locusts mating.” She started fishing about in the undergrowth, hunkering down to press her ear to the grass. “I want to see a locust.” Maggie jostled closer. Joni beckoned her into the undergrowth.

“Come and listen to the grass.” Maggie got on her knees. “What’s it saying?” Joni nudged her down farther. “Can you hear it drinking?” “Yes!” When Joni sat up, she held a cricket in her cupped hands. Maggie peeped between her aunt’s fingers and let out a cry of triumph. “I got a grasshopper.” She scrabbled it into her own fist, shouldering Billy out of the way to show the others. Once we’d negotiated the release of the grasshopper, we followed the path to some pastureland. I’d expected to arrive back at the camp, but instead we reached a post-and-rail fence, so new it was green and sappy. “Are we lost?” said Maggie.

“It is not possible to establish our precise coordinates at the current location,” I said. “We’re lost,” said Maggie. She pulled herself up to her full four-feet-nothing, made a great show of inspecting the sky for directions, and strode out into the field. Joni looked up from rooting in her bag and chuckled. Charlie and Peter chomped on apples. Peter asked what Maggie was doing. “Showing me what’s what.” Charlie kept his eyes on his sister long after the rest of us lost interest. Joni finally found what she was looking for amid the chaos of her bag: a compass and an Ordnance Survey map. She and Peter crouched over it, pointing out the contours of hills and landmarks, and even Charlie was divided in his loyalty.

“Aren’t you going after her, Mum?” he asked as he got down on his knees beside the map. Maggie strode, up-tiddly-up-up, to the crest of the field and disappeared, downtiddly-down-down, without looking back once. I heaved myself off the fence and set out into the long grass, which sopped through my canvas shoes in an instant. I ploughed along until I heard Maggie calling. She was pointing across the valley at an eyesore of a farm, where a Georgian house that could once have been prettified to have a degree of curb appeal was now dwarfed by an industrial behemoth of a shed. The function of the hulking unit was clear even to a seven-year-old: “Cows,” said Maggie. Their noise floated like a cloud of methane, a fat lowing punctuated by screams that sounded more like trumpeting elephants. Even from this distance, we could see the movement of the herd, with most of the black-and-white shapes in a mosh pit around the gate to the dairy shed, while a few stragglers made mad dashes—most un-bovine—around the edges. “Are the cows hurt?” Maggie’s hand slipped into mine, and I held her cool fingers between my warm palms. A pulse ran through her thumb, rapid from the walk across the field or maybe the unsettling sight of the cows.

Neither of us took another step toward the farm. “I guess they haven’t been milked today,” I said. “But I thought the farmer milked his cows?” “I thought so, too.” “Should we ask the farmer about Horatio?” This is what we’d set out to find: a place where someone might know the dog. But there was no one to be seen. And the cows were screaming. Maggie’s hand clenched. “I don’t want to go down there,” she said. My shoulders convulsed in a shiver, and I heard my mother’s voice: Someone just walked on your grave. I came to as though I’d been hypnotized.

What was I thinking? We couldn’t go down to the farm; the kids couldn’t see animals suffering like that. The cows’ pain was as palpable as their smell. I pulled Maggie away from the sight, but I couldn’t block out the noise. The wind had shifted and the screaming swelled, washing across the land like surge waves, swiping at our ankles as we waded through the grass back to where the others were waiting, listening. By the time we reached the camp, dusk was leaching out of the trees, and we raced to get bedded down. We’d spent the first night squeezed into my family tent, after Joni’s yurt proved too difficult to erect without its missing instructions. Now that she’d unearthed them from her copious luggage, she wanted to put the thing up. Easier said than done. “Your tent is a total B-A-S-T-A-R-D,” I said. “It’s fine,” Joni answered as methodically as she worked.

“What does B-A-S-buh-buh-buh spell?” Maggie called out from inside our pop-up tent. I sat on a log by the entrance, struggling to snap Joni’s poles together. “Mind your own beeswax, hawk ears,” I replied. Billy wandered over and asked to play with my phone. When I refused, he asked Lola for hers instead. She gave the canvas a shake to unfold the fabric and said she’d left her phone at home. “You didn’t bring your phone?” I said. “Mom said we have to unplug. I brought a book.” “But—” I stared at her narrow back, the canvas enveloping her legs like a crinoline.

“What kind of teenager are you?” “I’m reading Sylvia Plath.” “Jesus, Lola, you’ve got your whole life to be miserable. You should be on Snapchat.” Her delicate fingers unraveled the guy ropes, but her smile remained beatific, like a nun remembering something pleasant. Our camp was contained in a corral of trees that gave the reassuring illusion of walls. We had three tents—mine, Joni’s yurt, and a mini marquee-style shelter that I’d thrown in the car at the last minute so we’d have somewhere to prepare food when it rained. We reached our little settlement from the car park up a short but steep path that was flanked by granite slabs. When we’d first arrived, I’d told the boys that the camp was remote, but its elevation meant we could better defend it in the event of attack, which pleased them to no end. Billy asked me what remote meant. It meant he mustn’t fall out of a bloody tree.

“You’re sure these poles go on the outside of the tent?” I asked Joni. “I’m sure. And it’s a yurt.” “Goodness, I do hope we don’t run out of fermented mare’s milk.” I turned to see Billy unsnapping the pole I’d already built. “So a yurt. Why?” “It’s circular,” said Joni. “You know, sacred, creates good energy.” “The Native American thing?” She stopped to tie her thick hair into a knot that held itself together by magic. The sheen from damp air and hard work threw her rounded cheekbones into high relief.

“It’s like day and night, life and death, the sun and the earth—all circular,” she said. “Shouldn’t you have a wigwam?” I asked. Joni snapped her poles together. My antipathy toward Auntie Joni and her easy bond with my children could never be aired. Too much depended on it. She kept our family ship afloat with all the babysitting and school runs and sleepovers. But I could never let her go unpunished, either. If she had only ever passed one judgmental comment, let slip one sneer about “having it all”—if she’d just given me a little ammunition, I could shoot her down like I did the holier-than-thou mums at school drop-off. They never skipped a chance to harp on about how I’d missed Sports Day, and then exchanged smirks when I said I’d been at my factory in China, as though I was making it up and was actually getting botoxed or whatever it is they imagine I do while they’re posting pictures of cupcakes on Pinterest. Unlike the SAHMs and MILFs, though, Joni never criticized.

It was as though she genuinely relished the thankless task of co-raising three extra children alongside her own turbulent teen. I was indebted up to the eyeballs to my sister-in-law, and I had no currency with which to pay her back. Sometimes, it made me so sharp I got this sensation in my fingers like I was pressing a scalpel into flesh: the resistance of skin and a sickening release as it burst open. I massaged my fingertips together to push out the feeling. Once the poles were in place, we hoisted the canvas and stood back. Naturally, all the kids wanted to sleep in the novelty yurt with Joni, so I left them to soak in the sacred energy and started blowing up my air mattress now that I had enough space for it in our profane but practical tent. After a while, Joni joined me. “Hello, neighbor.” She opened up a side flap to let in what was left of the daylight. “You got yourself a giant window here.

” “All the better to see the wolves with. And I just found a built-in wardrobe at the back.” “You are kidding me. A tent with a closet!” “One of Julian’s many purchases.” I switched on the million-candle integrated ceiling lamp. It burnt yellow squares into my retinas. “He researched it on the Internet for a solid week. He was all giddy. And when I got the bill, so was I. Of course, he never took the kids camping.

First time the bloody thing’s been unpacked.” Joni looked over her shoulder to check the kids were occupied in the yurt. “So is he really going to move out?” I nodded without looking at her. If she wanted me to go through the motions of talking about my problems, I’d prefer to do it later, when there was darkness and gin. “So where’s he going?” she asked. I shrugged. “What’s he going to do?” She pressed together the studs that fixed the flap, making out like we were just chatting. “He could start by getting a job,” I said. “Doing what?” “Sucking cocks for loose change.” “Marlene!” “What do you want me to do, throw myself on a funeral pyre? He’s the one who’s leaving his wife and three children.

” Joni rolled her shoulders as though she could shrug off that unpalatable truth. “Anyway, he won’t suffer,” I said. “If he divorces me, he’ll get half of everything.” “You’ve spoken to a lawyer?” “First person I called.” “The way he’s let you down, that’s got to hurt. But I guess he’s entitled—” “Entitled is exactly how I’d describe him.” “—because he’s your husband, even if he doesn’t act like one most of the time. But, then, you could say the same for me. I haven’t brought home a paycheck in years.” “It’s not the same at all.

I’m talking about partnership. David can put in the long hours because you keep the household running—you and he are two cogs in the same machine. But Julian? You know what he’s like. A spanner in the works.” Joni nodded her acknowledgment at the ground. “I can forgive the fact that he doesn’t work—never has, never will—what I can’t forgive is that he doesn’t contribute anything. Never cooks. He won’t attend school meetings or help with homework. He refuses to collect our dry cleaning even though he walks past the place every day. You do little things like that for David, right? But Julian .

he acts like it’s beneath him.” I rolled out the flaccid air mattress. “Believe me, having a husband is not the same as having a wife.” Just looking at the foot pump lying next to the mattress filled me with exhaustion. Joni placed one hand on my shoulder blade like a warm compress. “And it costs me,” I said. “That detour on the way home, the time it takes to pick up my shirts or buy a pint of milk or whatever—something he could easily do during the day—that costs me the chance to read the kids a bedtime story.” My voice started to thicken, so I bent down to screw the nozzle into the pump, but the thread spun and wouldn’t catch. “Fuck’s sake!” “Go easy on yourself, Marlene.” Joni took hold of the nozzle and twisted it into place.

She started pumping, slow and deliberate. “For the record, David and I won’t be taking sides, even though they’re brothers.” I was about to point out that Julian avoided his brother whenever possible, but one of the kids fell over in the yurt, and Joni ducked off to see to it. “Sorry, later—” she said. I wasn’t sure if her wave indicated me or the mattress. The forest was poised in anticipation of the night, like a playground in the moments before the school bell rings for break. The kids had accepted the crushing news that it was bedtime. Even Lola disappeared into the yurt with her book, and Horatio was snoring beside the fire. I had my hand in the cooler, hoping to chance upon a ready-mixed can of gin and tonic, when Joni whistled from down by the cars. I grabbed two cans and picked my way down the slope, the granite slabs black as sleeping dogs in the darkness.

“Look at the stars,” Joni said as she accepted the drink. I tipped my head back, gazing up through the canopy, waiting for my eyes to adjust. Joni grunted as she lay down on her back. I did the same. Layer upon layer of stars revealed themselves, shyly at first and then—as though veils were being drawn aside—in droves: some twinkling, some shooting, some strobing through colors, some that weren’t stars at all but satellites, some so tiny and numerous they formed shadowy dust-cloud galaxies. “That must be north,” said Joni, “because there’re the two bears, Ursa Minor and Major, dancing around the polestar.” She pointed out planets and a galaxy where baby stars are formed. “How do you know this stuff?” I asked. “There wasn’t a lot to do, growing up in rural Pennsylvania.” “There wasn’t a lot to do in rural Kenya, either,” I said, “and even less in bloody Burma.

” Although, come to think of it, I had spent some time stargazing as a kid. My father bought a telescope once on a camping trip to the Ngorongoro, and we had seen stars like this then. I remembered how he’d told me that we could see so many stars—a picture book of stars like the ones we could see now —because there was no light pollution for miles around. “Is there still no phone signal?” Joni asked. “I’ve had a couple of messages, but nothing since this morning. A call came through from China earlier, but the connection was so bad we couldn’t speak. We’re a long way out here and the signal seems to come and go—” “You know what I saw on the map earlier? Up on that ridge?” The dark shape of Joni’s arm pointed toward the skulking hills that surrounded our campsite. “A phone tower. The signal should be fine.” The abyss of space daunted me into silence.

Chattering bats skirted our orbit. Sighing wind. Shallow breath in my chest. Joni sat up to loom over me in the dark. “We’re only fifteen miles from Church Stretton—that’s a big enough town—and thirty miles from Shrewsbury, and that’s a city. We should be able to see lights, even if it’s just a glow behind the hills.” We got up and went to the Beast to get my phone and check the signal. Joni was right: there was coverage, but when I tried to call a couple of numbers—her phone, my home—the line was permanently busy. I left the handset on charge, just in case. The glow from the car’s interior light made the darkness all the more intense, as though it had taken a step closer.

I flicked on the headlights and they shot out into the night, a pure white lance whose tip faded before it could pierce the heavens. Joni and I stood in the streams of light while long shadows of ourselves strained to get away. Common moths glinted through the beam, shining briefly before blanching to nothing. We stood there for a long time, drinking our gin, each finding her own silent reasons for why there was no electricity as far as the eye could see.

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