Freya and the Darkness Outside

In her dreams she had felt them waiting. They’d always been waiting. She didn’t know what they waited for, but it made her skin prickle and her stomach turn. She felt their interest swell the day Jessie arrived, and in her dreams she hurled defiance, swearing that she would protect her sister from anything and everything. But dreams flip a fin and dive down deep when we wake, and she never remembered anything; except a shadow over her sister that hovered and swooped and frightened her more than anything ever had before.

 

Chapter 1

 

The ache in Freya’s neck woke her from a light sleep, and she wriggled uncomfortably against the seatbelt. The growl from the car’s engine had woven through her dreams, and in them she interpreted the rumble as a menacing warning. It left her with a lingering feeling of unease that took a while to fade away.

 

She yawned and grimaced, rolling her head back and forth in an attempt to loosen the knotted muscles in her shoulders, and looked over at her sleeping sister. Jessie had managed to squirrel away all the cushions their parents had provided for the journey and was curled up under both the blankets. Freya stretched out one of her feet, clad in a brightly striped sock, and gently poked her sister’s face with her big toe. Jessie muttered something in her sleep and swiped at her nose. Freya paused for a heartbeat and then resumed the prodding.

 

“Freya…” a voice from the front seat warned. Freya’s leg froze in mid-air, her toe still outstretched, stripy and obvious. The voice said nothing further, so after a moment she tucked her leg back underneath her body and gazed innocently out of the window again. It was only supposed to be a two hour journey from the old flat in London down to the new house in Kent, but they’d been unlucky with traffic and the two hour journey had slowly snaked out into a car-bound ordeal. They’d been on the road for five hours, and now Freya had no idea where they were.

 

She was a pretty girl, though she didn’t yet know what pretty was. She wasn’t beautiful, nor was she striking, but sometimes when she smiled, people would find themselves thinking of someone they had once loved. But she didn’t yet know the effect a simple smile could have and so she smiled rarely, and rarer still in company. At twelve years old she was leaving behind her town, her friends, and the flat she grew up in, and she had not quite decided how she felt about that.

 

“Are we nearly there?”

 

Freya rolled her eyes. Jessie spent the first hour in the car asking that same question over and over again, until she finally fell asleep. Freya regretted the toe poke now, as it was certainly the cause of Jessie’s sudden awakening. She turned, intending to say something sarcastic, but instead received a toe to the eye. Yelping and cuffing the offending foot out of the way Freya looked around for something to throw. Jessie grinned, her dark eyes still drowsy and her hair staticky from sleep.

With a sigh their mum turned and eyed them both, her eyebrows arched and her tone no-nonsense. “Don’t start, girls. Yes, Jessie, we’re nearly there; it’s just round this next corner.”

 

Instantly forgetting their battle they leant forward, pulling their seatbelts taut. Jessie regarded each house they drove past with a serious eye; Freya could barely contain her excitement. It wasn’t, as it turned out, just around this corner, or round the next, but seemed to be around a number of corners. Jessie began to lose interest; at the age of five she was already well used to the white lies parents tell to keep their children quiet for a moment or two. Freya remained alert, even when they stopped to pick up fish and chips from a shop nestled at the end of a quiet high street. They finally turned off a busy main road into a narrow country lane, and Freya assessed each house they passed, only moving on to the next when the car failed to stop. She didn’t say a word until the car began to slow outside a vast grey stone house.

 

“Is it this one?” asked Jessie, pushing her nose against the back window, her breath steaming up the glass. She muttered in irritation and used the sleeve of her jumper to clear it, then stared suspiciously at the house before turning back to Freya.

 

“I don’t like it.” Putting her thumb in her mouth as used to when much younger, Jessie frowned. Freya took the other hand to reassure her sister. She also felt a bit scared; the house was somehow more than just a house. How would their little family fill it? It seemed, for a moment, to be regarding them, registering their presence, wondering about them just as she herself wondered, but to her relief her mother shook her head.

 

“It’s not this one I’m afraid, girls. We’ll be living next door.”

 

Jessie perked up visibly and removed the thumb, and they both watched intently as the next house came into view.  It was made of red brick, unlike the looming grey house they had just passed, and had large latticed windows set into the walls at regular intervals. It stood at the end of a short drive, hidden partially by tall leafless trees that stood silhouetted blackly against the grey sky and swayed in the slight breeze to an otherworldly rhythm. As they got closer Freya realised it was big; bigger even than the block of flats they’d left behind in London. It had three stories and stretched up almost as high as the uppermost branches of the bare trees concealing it. The roof was black slate, and at the highest point, just under the eaves and above one of the upstairs windows, there glinted a circular stained glass window that caught the rays of the setting sun and sent them down towards the occupants of the car. It gave Freya the odd feeling that the house was winking at her, and she suddenly felt at home.

 

The car rolled to a halt, its engine purring.

 

“Can you hop out and open the gate, Anna love?” asked Harry, Freya and Jessie’s dad.

 

Their mother got out and ran to open the gate, her breath crystallising in the air as Jessie’s had done on the car window. The gate had dull, rusted hinges that shrieked in protest as she pushed the rotted wood, and a blood red mould that left ugly stains on her gloves. She waited as the car drove into the leaf-strewn drive and then swung the gate shut behind it. Jogging down to the house she wrestled with the key in the large wooden front door.

 

Whilst Anna fought to gain entry into the new house Freya bundled her younger sister into her duffle coat and pulled on her pink mittens and bobble hat.

 

“Why do I need all this on?” Jessie complained. “We’re going to be inside soon.”

“Because no one’s in the house yet. It might take a while to heat up.” Freya gave the hat a final tug and grinned. “And you look really funny dressed like this.”

Jessie stuck her tongue out.

 

“It looks like your mum’s got the door open, girls.”  Harry unfolded his long legs from the cramped driving seat and got out, stretching his arms up towards the low clouds and yawning. “Come on, everyone out.”

 

Locking the car after Freya and Jessie clambered out, he herded his family towards the front door. They trooped through and stood in the dimness of the hall, unconsciously huddling together like mice who had run out into a wide open space without meaning to and weren’t sure where to run next.

 

The hall was cavernous and smelt old, like a dusty wardrobe Freya had once hidden in at their grandparents’ house. She had not hidden there again, and standing now in the echoing entrance hall she had the same heavy sense of claustrophobia.

 

The floor felt gritty underneath her trainers. Looking down she noticed that a few tiles were missing and those left were cracked and broken. There were several closed doors leading off from the hall and an open doorway just ahead, beside the staircase; a bright rectangle back into normality. The kitchen, Freya supposed, as from inside she heard her mother clattering around beginning to plate up the fish and chips they’d just bought. Jessie clung to Freya’s hand, her eyes wide, and tugged at her arm.

 

“I don’t like it, Fey. It’s too cold and it smells funny, and I want to go home.” She gazed at Freya, waiting for her to sort things out. Instead Freya patted her hand.

 

“We live here now, Jess. It’ll heat up in no time, and it will soon smell like home, you’ll see.”

 

Jessie’s lower lip trembled, and Freya knelt down in front of her, smoothing back the strands of tousled dark hair that escaped the pink bobble hat.

 

“Shall we go and explore? Maybe the fairies haven’t moved out yet.”

 

Jessie looked up sceptically. “Fairies don’t live here,” she said. “They live in gardens near rivers and in flowers and stuff. They don’t live in dark old houses.”

 

Freya shrugged. “I just thought they might have come in here for the winter. Mum says there’s a stream in the back garden, and I expect they live there in the summer. What do you think, Jess? If you were a fairy, would you live outside in winter, or inside?”

 

Jessie mulled it over. “I think I’d want to live inside.”

 

“I think I would too. So shall we go and have a look?”

 

Jessie nodded, wiping her nose with the same unfortunate sleeve that wiped the back window of the car earlier and Freya straightened up. Their mother had left the kitchen in time to hear the discussion, and she smiled down at her daughters.

 

“Not yet, girls – dinner first.” She held her hand out to Jessie. “You can explore later.”

 

The kitchen was already warmer than the hallway. After a couple of attempts Anna set a fire going in the old fireplace and the damp logs were fizzing and popping. Freya took her coat off and sat down at the large wooden table, staring absent-mindedly into the flames. They were nibbling at the logs, enthusiastically pulling each stray twig down into the hot embers, growing larger by the second. As she watched, a small face with sooty candlewick eyes and a long nose pushed aside a flame, as someone might peer around a curtain, and caught her eye. It winked and pointed with a flickering hand at a small shard of dry wood lying just out of reach on the hearth, then motioned meaningfully to its mouth. Freya blinked, and turned to see if anyone else had seen, but no one was paying attention and when she looked again the face had vanished.

 

“Is that your first successful log fire, Anna?” Freya’s dad commented affectionately to his wife, before pressing his still cold fingers to the back of her neck. She shrieked and flicked the tea-towel she was holding at him.

 

“Harry! Behave and sit down, for goodness sake.”

 

Jessie smiled happily to herself and began trying to balance her fork upright on its prongs, her legs swinging to and fro off the ground under the table. Anna finished setting out the plates and grabbed a ketchup bottle from a box on one of the worktops. It distracted Jessie from her reverie and she started to bounce up and down in the chair.

 

“Ketchup, ketchup, ketchup!” She poked her sister repeatedly on the arm before lapsing into a contented hum when Anna placed a small plate of fish and chips on to the table in front of her. “Mmmmmmm…. Ketchup ketchup ketchup.”

 

“What do you think so far?” Harry asked Freya. “It’s a shame we didn’t manage to get here earlier, when it was still light.”

 

Freya shrugged, and pulled Jessie’s plate over to cut up her fish. She hadn’t wanted to move house when her parents first sat down to talk about it with her and Jessie, but she had seen her dad’s hopeful, excited expression. He had always wanted to live out in the country, to have an adventure, and when they found out that they’d inherited the house from Harry’s great aunt it was all he had been able to talk about for weeks. Here they would be able to garden and grow vegetables, and she and Jessie would be able to grow up outside rather than inside playing computer games or watching TV. It suited her mum, an artist, and her dad managed to find a job at the local dentist’s surgery fairly easily. Freya herself had only completed three months at her secondary school, and she hadn’t liked it much there anyway. She wasn’t unpopular, but even at primary school she had never made close friendships; she didn’t need to when she had Jessie. The move to Kent made sense, she could see that; but part of her still felt resentful that she had been uprooted from everything she’d known before, and as she was tired from the journey she didn’t feel like making it easy for her dad. But he persisted.

 

“This kitchen has barely changed in a hundred years, did you know that?” he asked her, gesturing at their surroundings with his fork.

 

Freya glanced meaningfully over at the new Aga stove and the tall American style fridge that dispensed ice from the door. Harry waved his hand dismissively.

 

“Alright, so we spruced it up a bit – you can’t expect your mum to have cooked dinner over the old stove that was here before; and we can’t have fish and chips every night. But this table” he rapped on the solid wood “this table here is the same table that your great grandparents ate from, and your great great grandparents, and probably their parents too. Don’t you think that’s amazing?”

 

“It’s a table,” Freya said with the shrug in her voice. “It’s difficult to get excited about a table.” But it caught her attention and she ran her hands lightly over the polished surface, wondering about the people who preceded her.

 

Harry leant back and eyed her, his characteristic half smile on his face. He knew she was interested, but he also knew how to wait for his daughter to come to terms with things that bothered her. He turned to Jessie.

 

“What about you, miss? What do you think?”

 

But Jessie had heard Freya shrug.

 

“S’just a table, Dad,” she echoed and looked sidelong to Freya for approval.

 

Harry sighed in resignation and checked his watch.

 

“I better get on with unpacking the car before it gets late. It’s already dark outside. As if winter wasn’t bad enough without the nights arriving at…” he checked his watch again ”…4:45pm.” He shivered theatrically and ruffled Freya’s hair as he walked past. “Come and find me when you decide you’d like to know more about the house.”

 

Freya finished the last of her chips and took it along with her dad’s plate to the new dishwasher. She had to admit that although the kitchen was full of new gadgets it managed to retain the look of a long ago kitchen well. Their parents had come down several times already in order to get the house habitable before the big move, and although the flags under her feet were newly scrubbed, they had not been replaced. The beams that ran across the high ceilings were still embedded with hooks for hanging herbs and hops and there was a little room that had been used for storing food just off from the kitchen that was somehow colder than everywhere else.

 

Jessie handed her empty plate to Freya for her to deal with and slid off her chair.

 

“Can we explore now?” she asked hopefully.

 

Anna nodded and began to unpack another box.

 

“Don’t go far, girls. It’s a much bigger house than the one we had in London, and your dad and I haven’t even explored all of it yet. I want you both back here in fifteen minutes, okay?”

 

Jessie nodded impatiently and skipped back through to the hallway, calling back over her shoulder to Freya. “Come on! Quick, before the fairies realise that we live here now and move out!”

 

Freya ran after her, stopping only to pick up the piece of wood that lay just out of reach of the fire. She turned it over in her fingers thoughtfully for a second before tossing it gently into the embers. Nothing happened, but then she didn’t really expect it to.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Freya ran after Jessie and together they peered into the first room. Freya guessed it was the new lounge, given that their three piece suite was already arranged around their battered old television. The furniture looked sad and small in this new big room, whereas it had suited the flat. Freya felt a twinge of melancholy, and pulled Jessie’s hand.

 

“There won’t be fairies in here, will there?” she asked.

 

Jessie shook her head in intellectual agreement and closed the door.

 

They quietly carried on with the exploration, their feet rustling and scuffling over dusty paving slabs and grimy floorboards. They quickly discovered that each room on the ground floor already had their furniture in; which, as Jessie pointed out, would probably have scared any fairies away, and so they returned to the entrance hall.

 

An imposing wooden staircase rose up from the middle of the floor and curved upwards, the supportive struts of its banister bent, snapped or missing. Standing at the foot of the stairs and peering up Freya could see a thin sliver of moon shining through a tall window at the top. The window reached the entire height of the wall, from carpet to ceiling, and Freya guessed that she wouldn’t be able to touch both sides of the pane at the same time, even with her arms outstretched as far as they could go.

 

The moon’s light tumbled down the stairs in slow waves and Freya rubbed her hands over her cold arms in an attempt to shake the feeling that she was being watched – no, not watched, but assessed; as the big grey house next door had seemed to do when they drove past. Displaying no such worry, Jessie hesitantly put her foot on the first step, testing her weight, and when it didn’t protest with the ominous creak Freya had expected, she too started to climb. They walked up slowly and carefully, until they stood in front of the window. It looked over the garden, but in the darkness outside they saw nothing but themselves reflected; even the thin slice of moon had disappeared. Freya shuddered, and sensed rather than saw a similar tremor run through Jessie.

 

“I don’t like that,” Jessie said, turning and running with thudding little girl steps into a room a few doors away on their left. Freya stood for a second or two longer, uncomfortable in front of the blank glass but unwilling to let it intimidate her. She shook her head, unable to work out how a window could give her the creeps, and walked after her sister. Stopping at the entrance to the room Jessie had run into she glanced back over her shoulder at the window. The moon shone clearly through it now; she supposed it must have been behind a cloud before. She felt her spine chill again and turned away, stepping through the door into the shadowy room. Inside bulky, sheet covered monsters stared blindly back at her, jutting out from the inky pools of black gloom enveloping them and hiding their secrets.

 

Jessie’s small footprints were etched in the layer of dust coating the floorboards, but Jessie herself was nowhere to be seen.

 

“Jessie?!”

 

Even as she shouted Jessie’s name Freya knew the panic was unreasonable, that she had added an exclamation mark the situation didn’t quite call for. Still, the relief she felt when Jessie poked her head out of a small cupboard Freya hadn’t noticed and looked quizzically at her was very welcome.

 

“I’m only here, Fey,” she said, chidingly. “I found the fairies.”

 

There was a small door inside the cupboard and Jessie was tugging at the handle. Freya knelt next to her.

 

“Jess, don’t you think that’s a little big for fairies? I could fit in there, and I’m much bigger than a fairy.”

 

Jessie regarded the door.

 

“I suppose so.”

 

She allowed Freya to lead her away, but stopped at the doorway of the room and tugged Freya’s elbow so the taller girl would bend down to listen to her whisper. “I don’t want to walk past the big window, Fey. I don’t know who’s looking in.”

 

Freya felt the hair on her arms prickle. That was the feeling she’d had at the window – the feeling that someone was watching.

 

“I don’t like it either, Jess,” she whispered back. ”Let’s go find another way; I remember Mum talking about a back staircase that should take us down to the kitchen.”

 

They found the back staircase after opening a few wrong doors; as it happened it wasn’t behind a door at all, just tucked away in a corner. Again Freya expected the stairs to creak, but they silently bore the weight of two small girls without protest.

 

Their dad was back in the kitchen, having unpacked the car as quickly as he could in the cold. Freya slid back into the seat she had before and Jessie did the same.

 

“Did you have a look round, Fey?” Freya smiled at her dad’s use of Jessie’s pet name for her. “What did you think?”

 

Freya hesitated, unsure whether to tell him about the window. Reaching a decision she grinned and nodded.

 

“We didn’t get to see much, it’s pretty big.”

 

“It’s much bigger than the flat in London, isn’t it?” he agreed, leaning his arms on the table. “We’ll have to go shopping for some more stuff just to fill it.”

 

Freya pulled a face, well used to the unpleasant experience of having to trail around shops after her parents. Her dad laughed and rubbed her hair.

 

“You don’t appreciate shopping yet, eh? It’ll come, don’t you worry.”

 

*

 

That night Freya awoke with a jolt, her eyes flying open. She lay still in the darkness, trying to decide what had woken her. She and Jessie were sleeping on camp beds on the floor of their parents’ room. The central heating was playing up, so Anna had insisted all four sleep in the master bedroom with the heater on full. Freya stretched, and tried to get comfortable. Now she was awake she knew it wouldn’t be easy to get back to sleep; it had taken her ages to drop off the first time. Jessie had fallen asleep almost the moment her head hit the pillow and had snored surprisingly loudly for a girl so small. Instead being kept awake by the snores, Freya had felt comforted by the familiarity; now that everything had calmed and quieted down she realised how much she missed the settling noises the old flat had made.

 

She rolled over underneath her duvet to check on Jessie, trying not to let the camp bed creak. Jessie was sleeping deeply, her cheeks flushed and her hair sticking up at various angles, her arms thrown up over her head. Freya tutted to herself, conscious of how cold the room was even with the heater. Gathering her duvet around her she sleepily walked the short distance to Jessie’s bed to fold her chilly arms back under the covers and tuck her in. Jessie muttered something and wriggled down further into her warm cocoon.

 

Straightening up, Freya looked around the silent room, thirsty but reluctant to go down to the kitchen in this strange, cold house. In the moonlight she noticed a glass of water her dad had left on the windowsill. Stepping around her sleeping sister Freya shuffled over to it, and as she reached the window she gasped. The moon shone so brightly over the back garden that she could make out every bare branch, every blade of frozen grass. The garden was huge and overgrown, and stretched on and on into the distance ahead and to the right. On the left their land apparently stopped at a tall, crumbling wall that she could just make out through the trees, but even so the garden seemed as big as Hyde Park. Back in London all they’d known was a small communal area at the back of their flat. Freya smiled, already thinking of games she and Jessie could play in the morning.

 

She yawned and was about to turn back to her bed when something caught her eye. A dark shape was flowing through the undergrowth near the wall. She squinted at it for a second and gasped. It looked like a large black wolf. But it couldn’t be a wolf, she told herself. This was the south coast of England! It must just be a dog. Just a big shaggy dog; a really big shaggy dog. She shivered, and debated waking her parents for a moment before deciding not to say anything until she at least had some idea of what the strange creature was. It kept to the shadows for a minute or two and at intervals stayed so still that she wondered whether it was a trick her tired eyes were playing. Just when she had almost decided she was being silly, it turned and leapt gracefully over a low branch and into the middle of the garden. Now she could see it properly, and she knew it was a wolf. She could see its matted coat and ragged ears, and she could see its teeth.

 

Frozen to the spot she watched, unable now to call for her parents. The wolf sniffed the ground and began to pad away. Then it stopped, its body alert and its ears pricked up intently. Freya wanted to duck down, to hide, but she couldn’t move. It bared its yellowing teeth in a low growl Freya couldn’t hear but felt resonating in her bones. It swung its large head round, with narrowed amber eyes searching, searching… searching for her! Freya drew in her breath. As she did so the wolf looked up and made eye contact with her, and for the second time that day she felt a chill go through her body. It raised its top lip higher and took a step forward towards the house.

 

“Freya, sweetheart? What are you doing?”

 

Freya jumped and spun round with a start.

 

“Mum, there’s a …” she paused, suddenly aware of how it would sound. “There’s a wolf in the garden, Mum.”

 

Anna swung her legs out of the bed and walked over, shivering.

 

“There’s nothing there, sweetie. Just an empty garden.”

 

Freya looked out, unsurprised. She knew the garden would be empty; something inside her had sensed the wolf leave.

 

“It was there,” she insisted feebly.

 

“I thought we’d got rid of this nightmare about the wolf. It’s just the new house, making you feel, I don’t know … uncertain, let’s say. We’ll have a proper explore tomorrow, in the garden as well, and you’ll see that there aren’t any silly wolves.”

 

Freya nodded. She’d forgotten the nightmares about the wolves. She allowed her mother to guide her back to bed and tuck the duvet around her.

 

“Sleep well, baby.” Anna kissed her older daughter on the forehead and smoothed her hair, trying to not show the worry she felt about the reappearance of the nightmare that had tormented Freya only a few short years ago.

 

Freya lay in the dark for a while, until she heard her mother’s breathing return to the heavy inhalation, exhalation of the sleeper. Her own breathing unconsciously fell into the same easy rhythm and she felt a contented sense of calm steal over her. She felt her own eyelids begin to close and surrendered to sleep, but just as she was on the cusp between being awake and being asleep, she heard a long drawn out howl resonate through the still night air.

 

Chapter 3

 

The smell of toast slowly making its way up to the bedroom the next morning woke Freya and she opened her eyes blearily. She pushed herself up and swung her legs over the side of the camp bed, her toes questing for her slippers. Finding one she shuffled her foot into it, then reached an exploratory hand underneath the bed in search of the other. She yawned and pushed her hair back off her forehead before the events of the night barged back into her memory.

 

Jumping up she ran to the window and gazed out. The garden looked the same as it had the night before, except there was no wolf making its way casually through the trees. She frowned. Reassuring as it was that the garden was empty, she now knew it hadn’t been a dream; she couldn’t have dreamt a whole garden she’d never seen before now. It looked just as it had done last night; a lush, unkempt lawn in front of rows of trees stretching away as far as she could see and a grey wall, twisting like a giant snake off into the distance. Freya wiped away the forming condensation and leaned closer, holding her breath, searching for a misshapen tree or anything her sleepy eyes could have turned into a wolf in the deceptive moonlight. A noise from behind startled her and she swung round to see Jessie standing on tiptoe behind her, engaged in creeping up. Her attempt foiled, Jessie’s face broke into a mischievous grin.

 

“You always know when I’m there,” she complained light-heartedly. “Mum says breakfast is ready.”

 

As they walked out of the bedroom they were faced with the window that had been so eerie last night. In the morning sunshine it was less intimidating, but Freya still felt uncomfortable standing in front of it. The view was similar to the one she’d just seen out of her parents’ window but set further back, and looking down she could see a small walled patio area directly beneath, adjacent to the house. But a moment was all she was prepared to stop for, and she hurried Jessie past the window and down the stairs. They reached the kitchen and slid into the same places at the table that they had sat in the night before.

 

“Morning Fey. Are you feeling better this morning?” Her dad said, ruffling her hair. “Mum says you had a bit of a bad dream last night.”

 

Freya hesitated, aware of Jessie’s impressionable nature and reluctant to scare her.

 

“Yes, that’s all it was. I feel a bit silly now.” In truth she did feel a bit silly. In the reassuring light of day things were different; now she knew there were no wolves running wild in England. It must have been a dog, or a large fox. Maybe country foxes were bigger here than the scraggly ones she had glimpsed foraging through bins on the streets of London. Bigger and blacker, and meaner. Or maybe she just fell asleep at the window and dreamt the whole thing. She decided to change the subject.

 

“Can we get a curtain for the window at the top of the stairs?”

 

Her mum nodded her head, busily putting toast and jam on the table. “We were just talking about that. It’s a bit scary at night time, isn’t it? Not very cosy. We were thinking of getting one today.”

 

Jessie pulled a face at Freya, the same thing going through their minds – that spending the day looking for curtains was not their idea of a fun afternoon.

 

A knock echoed through the hallway and the family looked at each other in surprise, wondering who would want to see them in this unknown neighbourhood. Anna wiped her hands down her jeans and walked to the front door, struggling with the lock again before pulling it open. Freya heard a greeting, then the strains of a conversation and her curiosity quickly got the better of her. Grabbing a piece of buttered toast she wandered towards her mother, craning her neck to look past her to the visitor. Outside stood an old woman with a large black dog on a tartan lead. Freya felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. It looked like the same creature she’d seen in the back garden. She inched closer and peered around her mother. Anna, sensing her older daughter’s presence, moved out of the way to introduce her.

 

“Freya, this is Miss Pendlebury. She lives in the big house next door.”

 

Freya smiled uncertainly, watching the dog. Miss Pendlebury laughed.

 

“Don’t be frightened of her, sweetheart. She won’t bite.”

 

The dog wagged her tail slowly, looking up at Freya with brown eyes the same colour as Jessie’s.

 

“Freya just had a bit of a bad dream last night,” her mother explained, stroking Freya’s hair. Freya felt annoyed at her mother’s willingness to spill personal information to all and sundry, but she bit her lip and said nothing. Instead she looked doubtfully at the dog. Now she was closer to it she realised it couldn’t be the creature she’d seen last night; its coat was shinier and the thing last had looked at her out of eyes the colour of old coins. It was a lot smaller too. In the middle of her scrutiny she noticed Miss Pendlebury staring at her, and she self-consciously pushed her fringe out of her eyes.

 

“Nightmares, eh?” The old woman said knowingly. “I shouldn’t worry child, it’s probably the new house making you feel… uncertain.”

 

Freya looked up. It was the phrase her mother had used the night before, but she didn’t seem to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. Instead she just laughed and nodded her head in agreement.

 

“That’s more or less what I said last night. The little one slept fine; perhaps because Freya’s a bit older the move has upset her more.”

 

Miss Pendlebury looked at Anna with interest then, her dark eyes glimmering. She struck Freya suddenly as a great bird, and not just because of her beaky nose, although it helped. It was in the way she held herself, the way that she tipped her head, the way that her black eyes missed nothing. When she spoke Freya flinched, expecting a harsh caw or croak, but her voice was as it had been before and if she was speaking slightly faster then Freya didn’t notice.

 

“You’ve got two then? How old are they?”

 

“Freya’s twelve, and Jessie has just gone five.”

 

“Twelve and five are nice ages to be, as I recall.” Miss Pendlebury replied, the intense expression in her eyes at odds with the small talk she was making.

 

“They’re good girls,” Anna said proudly. “Anyway, what can we do for you? Or is this a social call?”

 

Miss Pendlebury smiled.

 

“A bit of both; I came round to welcome you, but also to check that madam here” (she gestured at the dog) “hadn’t damaged your garden. She got out last night somehow, and I found her apologetically scratching at the door this morning, covered in various bits of trees and plants.”

 

Anna turned to Freya.

 

“There you go, Fey! Just Mrs Pendlebury’s doggy.”

 

Freya screwed her nose up at the childish language. Her mum continued, “She woke in the night and saw her in the back garden. It gave her a bit of a shock.”

 

The old lady shook her head with a curiously jerky motion.

 

“Ah, she wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

 

The dog put her head to one side and whined, as though sensing Freya’s hostility. Freya still felt uneasy, and was relieved when Jessie called her from the kitchen. She turned away and headed down the hall where Jessie was hopping from foot to foot.

 

“Can we go and play? Outside? Daddy says I can but you have to come too.”

 

Freya smiled.

 

“Go put your wellies on, and bring mine too.”

 

Jessie ran off in the direction of the shoe cupboard and Freya considered taking the last piece of toast.

 

“Have the last piece of toast, Fey.”

 

Freya glanced up at her dad, unsurprised that he had read her mind. She ate the buttery middle and offered her dad the crust. He shook his head.

 

“Go give it to the doggy outside.”

 

Freya wrinkled her nose again and smiled, realising he was laughing at her mother’s choice of wording with her. He paused before asking seriously,

 

“Was that what you saw in the garden last night?”

 

She considered the question before answering.

 

“I don’t think it was. But there’s something odd about it. I don’t know.” She searched her father’s face for his opinion, but as ever nothing gave away his thoughts. He smiled and fluffed her hair with his hand.

 

“I know what you mean, kiddo. Ah! Here comes Miss Jessie.”

 

Jessie was tripping along the corridor, awkwardly carrying Freya’s boots as well as her own. She placed them in front of Freya and solemnly held her foot out to be booted. Her dad knelt and gently pushed her feet into the green frog wellies.

 

“Jess, this would be much easier if you wouldn’t wiggle your toes.” He stood and held open the back door. “Now look after each other, don’t go too far, and don’t climb any trees. Do you want to take the map I made for you?”

 

He had drawn Freya a quick map of the garden back in London when she had grumbled about having to move to a place she’d never even seen. Jessie could have done a better job, Freya had thought privately. She rolled her eyes and ran outside after her sister.

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