The first I knew was the heavy knock at the door. Rusty’s bark booming as he barrelled down the stairs. My room was dark, but I couldn’t tell the time, the red numbers on my Spiderman clock not there. Still, I could tell it was very late, the music from downstairs had stopped, my parents friends gone as the wine ran out. Outside was an eerie brightness, but with no street lights until you got near town, I climbed from under the covers to investigate. Standing on my old toy box under the window, I saw a long white coach, the headlights marking out the lane stretching past the house.
We were the only house for a quarter of a mile.
The coach was full of people staring back as I peered out the window. Their eyes glazed, half asleep. Maybe they’d just got woken too?
The second I knew was mum bursting through the door, her hand reaching to the switch. It clicked, but the room stayed dark. Still, I could see she had my school bag, told me to pack essentials, then repeated as I glared back.
“Pants and socks, warm clothes,” she explained. “No toys,” she said, adding, “Don’t be scared,” as she left.
Scared? I didn’t understand what she meant. The last five minutes had been the most interesting thing to have ever happened. I grabbed the top three comics from the shelf, pushed them to the bottom of bag, then emptied my draw of pants and socks, throwing in two t-shirts, stuffing a pair of jeans after. Apparently I was supposed to know I had to get dressed too. Adults need to say what they mean!
I was only half dressed when my mum was back again, practically dragging me down the stairs to where Dad was half asleep with my sister, Tish, in his arms, his breath sweet and sickly. At the front door was a solider, dressed just like Action Man Paratrooper, but his gun was smaller and strapped to his waist. The first time I’d seen one in real life. The night was getting better. He smiled as I stepped past, ruffling my hair. If that was my mum I would have given her such a hard time.
We nearly took the last of the spaces and it looked like it was mostly families on board. The kids were asleep, the dads staring through the misting windows, the mums were either crying or trying not too. There were grandparents too, one granddad was pale white and with every other breath he rattled the windows with a cough. The only free seats were at the back, we took the furthest row, leaving the last two seats empty in front of us. As we sat, I was desperate to get moving, desperate to see where the surprise would end up.
Mum made us sit either side of her, Dad to her left, his lap piled high with filled carrier bags. The inside lights turned off as we pulled away, it was nearly pitch blank, but it didn’t stop mum rearranging. She was a constant sorter, could rearrange an empty room. I watched as she took my bag, could just see her looking down her nose as she saw how I’d loaded my bag. She pulled the comics and threw them on my lap, pushing in bottles of water and cans of something. She’d obviously forgotten to make a picnic.
The lights were back on as we stopped, the solider out. We were at the neighbour’s, they’d only just moved in, Mum was saying to Dad, their house bright with candles flickering in the windows. I took the chance to read my comic, a classic Wacky Racers my granddad left me when he’d died, with a little note to make sure I kept them in the plastic sleeve. I would be thankful when I was older. I don’t know why.
Outside there was loads of noise. A woman with a cigarette in her mouth and a small dog in her arms. It didn’t look like they’d been woken from their beds, she was arguing with the solider, arms waving back and forth. Why she wanted to bring a dog on a trip, I don’t know. Unless it was the seaside, of course.
“Mum,” I said, but didn’t wait for her to turn my way. “When are we going home?”
“Don’t worry dear,” mum replied, her hands still diving in and out of bags. She always used that tone when I wouldn’t like the answer.
“Rusty?” I said and she shot a look to my sister, forcing her finger to her mouth as she looked back. She didn’t know.
Stuffing back the tears, I didn’t want to start Tish off and turned to watch the woman still shaking her head. She would freeze if she didn’t get on soon, just dressed in a short top with thin straps, it was the middle of winter. In the end the dog was returned to the house and she came back with her friend who had more sense and was wearing a coat.
The old man was coughing again, but it sounded like he was getting better, the coughs more gentle, quieter, but whoever he was with, another old woman but not as much, stood and asked if there was a doctor on the bus. Everyone seemed to ignore the question.
The neighbours were soon swaying down the aisle, filling the air with the smell of garlic bread and strawberries, it was a strange mix, but made me a little hungry. The woman whose dad, or husband, shouted to the driver as he closed the door. He looked kind of sad in reply, shook his head and said there would be doctors where they were going. Lots of them.
The lights were left on at her insistence and I tried to block out her sobs, but was thankful she didn’t do it as loud as my sister. When the tears weren’t getting in the way of my concentration, it was the neighbour talking like she was alone with her friend, or if everyone else was joining in the conversation. They woke Tish with their laughter.
I stared at my sister, looking to see if when she finished rubbing her eyes she was going to spit the dummy and make us all miserable with her own shrieks of pain, but instead she just kept pointing at the woman shouting Mickey. That’s when I saw the tattoo on the woman’s neck. Mickey Mouse as the apprentice from Fantasia. Right on cue the woman erupted in a chesty laugh, just like that of Mutely from the comic in my lap.
I was still smiling at the coincidence when a scream ripped through the coach and we shot forward, the solider slamming on the brakes. It was that woman again, she was screaming her dad was dead. I felt sorry for her, but I don’t know why we had to run off the coach.
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One