MARIKKA - Life begins somewhere between the fish and the stars...
Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: Hammer & Tong (2015)
Kindle edition: ASIN: B0128O1WXY
YA fiction - Set in Lincolnshire UK
Chapter One: A Dog’s Dinner
Marikka woke suddenly. It was a warm night, the air unusually thick and cloying. The house was eerily quiet. She found she’d kicked the blankets off the bed, looked down for Deacon, puzzled he wasn’t sprawled on the floor as usual. With a sudden sense of guilt she remembered why.
She’d gone to bed early with a headache. Deacon had been tied up beside the stables as punishment for biting her little stepbrother’s football. He’d only wanted to play, but the dog had very sharp teeth. Her stepfather had beaten him and tied him up, telling them he wasn’t to have food or water for two whole days. That was her stepfather all over. Always making rules, always beating something or someone. She never understood why her mother had married him. If he wasn’t shouting at Marikka, he was yelling at anyone who came to the house. He seemed to be a perpetually angry man.
This airless night was part of a late summer heatwave. The local farmers had all been frantic to get the harvest in before the rains came back. That was the other thing. Her stepfather lived in a big old crumbling farmhouse in the country. Imagined himself gentry and often went out shooting pheasants or anything that moved. His family had lived here for generations he claimed, but someone in Brigstock told her that ten years back he got lucky in an auction when the landowner died suddenly and the family were desperate for cash. Business was bad though, the taxman was breathing down his neck and she knew he had mounting debts.
Her mother wasn’t good at facing reality, but clearly he wasn’t the rich man he’d led her to believe he was and she took it out on Marikka. ‘Everything started to go wrong when you came back,’ was the usual accusation she flung at her and her mother always took her stepfather’s side in any arguments. Little love was won or lost in this house.
Marikka pulled on her jeans and a light sweater, slipping on old and comfortable purple Converse sneakers. She checked her phone – 1.30am. She felt safe enough. Everyone would be asleep. Deacon needed to be fed and he’d be really thirsty. You can’t tie up a Ridgeback and just ignore its piteous whining. The dog was absolutely dedicated to Marikka and she felt personally responsible for his fate since she’d been kicking the stupid ball to him in the first place.
The stairs creaked. She paused to listen. No one stirred.
She made it past their bedroom. The door was open slightly, she glanced in. Her mother was asleep, mouth open, flat on her back – but her stepfather wasn’t there!
Her heart began to beat wildly. Where was he? He normally lay there snoring so loudly that she always thought of him like a pig in a blanket beside her mother. And now he wasn’t there! Where was he? In the loo? She listened, but heard nothing. Downstairs in the kitchen? She had to help Deacon, she felt so guilty. Where was her stepfather? Of course he may have gone drinking with his friends at The Green Dragon. He often came home late, wrecked, then woke with a mean temper in the morning. That was it. He must have gone drinking… or ...?
In the kitchen she scooped up dog biscuits into a bowl, filled an empty two-litre milk carton with fresh water and then snuck out, careful to leave the back door ajar.
She looked up, happy to see stars. That was the most amazing thing about living in the country. She’d never seen many stars in London skies and remained in awe of them, wishing she knew their names.
Deacon heard her approaching of course. He was already wagging his tail, his whole body shaking from side to side with happiness, although it had to hurt with the beating he’d had earlier.
‘Hey boy, brought you dinner and water. Go easy now. OK?’
Deacon ignored her and stuck his head into the bowl and speedily chomped away. He wasn’t going to risk the food being taken away again. When he drank he practically drowned himself he swallowed so much. It must have been a very hot day behind the stables.
Marikka squatted down on the dirt next to him, reluctant to go back to the house. The air was cooler out here and she’d missed her dog. He always slept in her room. The only protection she had against the world. ‘I’m sorry he’s so mean,’ she told him, stroking his soft ears. Deacon nuzzled her as she untied him. The dog would need a walk; he’d been tethered on a tight leash to the wall. ‘Come on.’
They were in the woods when they heard a vehicle approaching. Nothing too strange about that, except it being nearly two in the morning. Normally Deacon would have barked, woken the whole house up. But she kept him quiet.
Headlights briefly illuminated the trees. Marikka realised they were coming towards the house. If they were coming to the house, they’d be bringing her stepfather back, and if he discovered she was out of bed and feeding Deacon there would be hell to pay.
‘We stay here.’ She told him, worried now. The dog pressed up against her. He was anxious. Late visitors always meant trouble for him.
Hopefully they’d drop her stepfather off and go. With luck he’d never know she wasn’t in the house. It wasn’t unusual for strange men to come visiting the house at night. She had no idea what her stepfather was up to, but she sensed it wasn’t legal. She waited with Deacon. Would wait all night if necessary. About ten minutes later a Landrover came driving out of the grounds at speed, careering along the bumpy track through the woods, heading for the back road. Only a local or someone who knew the farmhouse well could possibly know that the track was there.
Deacon and Marikka shrank back into the trees as the Landrover bounced past them on the uneven track. Why were they leaving in such a hurry? She shrank back further, but someone was looking out of the side window, and just for one brief second, their eyes met. Marikka had a shock. She dismissed it the moment it happened. Perhaps he hadn’t seen her, but why was her stepfather still in the back of the Landrover with them? Couldn’t be. She had to have imagined it. Yet, for that snatched moment, their eyes had definitely met. Could he have known it was her? Impossible in the darkness surely, but she’d know his terrible brooding eyes anywhere.
Deacon sensed trouble first, wanting to break free of her grip. She could suddenly smell smoke, heady with a stink of petrol. Heard the crackling fire. They ran in panic for the house, all fear of being discovered gone. Deacon’s ears were pricked back as he ran ahead barking.
They swung around the stables and standing before them the whole house was burning. The stench of petrol was overpowering. Whoever they were, they had deliberately set this fire and meant it to take quickly. ‘Mother?’ She screamed. Her window was open. She had to be able to hear her. Marikka ran for the front door, but that was already burning too fiercely for her to get close. She ran to the rear of the house, but found the backdoor she had carefully left ajar was now locked. The old house was burning fast. They had made sure of it.
‘Ma? Steven!’ She screamed again. The roar of the flames was building in strength. She shouted for them again, but got no reply.
Why couldn’t they hear her? She threw a brick through the kitchen window. It bounced off. Double-glazing is hard to break with just one brick. She threw it again with more force. This time it shattered. There was an explosion somewhere in the house. Flames shot through the living room consuming everything in its path. No way her mother could have slept through that. She climbed up to the window and kicked the glass in. Deacon howled outside, doing his best to wake everyone.
She was in the kitchen running the taps but no water came out. They’d shut the water off.
She ran for the door even though she could see flames licking under it. She tried the metal handle but it was too hot to touch already. ‘Mum! Steven! Wake up. Get out.’
She remembered the old back stairs that would have been used by kitchen staff in years gone by. She opened the door and a ton of old books fell out. She found the light switch, nothing happened. They’d cut the power as well. These people had known exactly what to do and where everything was.
There was a phone on the wall, but even as she lifted it she knew it would be dead. She realised her precious mobile was upstairs by her bed. Useless now. Smoke engulfed the kitchen. But she had to try to get up those stairs. She had to wake her mother. It was impossible that she could still be sleeping.
She clamboured over the books, made her way through the smoke and darkness to the door up ahead. But when she got there and tried to open it, dense acrid smoke filled the stairwell and she began to choke. She had to get out onto the landing and pulled her sweater over her head to stop her hair from burning. Blue flames rapidly spread like a poured liquid across the landing carpets as everything ignited around her. ‘Ma! Steven! Wake up!’ She screamed again, rushing into her mother’s bedroom. To her astonishment the room was empty, the bedclothes heaped on the floor. She heard a car horn blast outside and rushed to the window.
Her mother was sitting in her Mini Countryman wearing her dressing gown, little Steven beside her. Their eyes connected and her mother lowered her window as Marikka pushed up the sash window. Bad idea. Flames were sucked into the room as if starved of oxygen before and Marikka realised there was no way back.
Her mother’s face was twisted in anger. ‘You wicked, wicked girl. You did this. After all we did for you and this is how you repay us? May you burn in hell, Marikka. May you burn in hell!’
Marikka was astonished. She was about to protest her innocence, but flames seemed to leap across the room towards her and with a shriek she had to run into the bathroom. Her mother had already driven off.
She was shaking now. How could anyone think she had done this? She slammed the bathroom door behind her. There was an interconnecting door to the guest room, but no escape beyond that. She ran into the guest room and shut that door too, aware that flames were already in the corridor behind it.
She still couldn’t believe her mother had driven off and blamed her for this. Sure there was that stupid incident when she was nine and she’d accidentally burned the garden shed down the night before Guy Fawkes, but surely…
She struggled with the sash window. It had to be opened. It had to be. It finally slid up and stuck fast. She looked out. Deacon was looking for her, whimpering with anxiety.
‘Deacon!’ He was there below her and she realised that if she jumped she’d break both their necks for sure.
She discovered that there was a drainpipe close enough to grab. It was that or nothing. She turned around and squeezed out of the window backwards, leaning over to get a handle on the pipe. She hoped it would hold her weight. Deacon barked encouragement as she slid her legs out and began to shimmy down the rusted metal pipe. There was a suddenly cracking noise below her and flames shot out of the window below. Deacon yelped and backed off. Marikka had no choice but to keep climbing down, struggling with grip and where to put her feet.
As she passed the lower window she could see into the house and was astonished by the immense heat as the inferno grew in strength.
The pipe suddenly broke away from the wall and she fell the last six feet to the ground, hurting her back. She swore loudly, wincing with pain, as she gasped for breath.
Deacon was beside her in a flash, tugging at her jacket, trying to get her away. She rolled over, pains in her chest and back, but knew she had to get away from the building fast. The house was already shedding masonry and shards of hot shattered glass, which fell all around them. She dragged herself away, almost doubled up with the struggle to breathe.
She still couldn’t believe her mother had just automatically assumed it was her who’d done this and driven off. Left her to perish in the fire. What kind of mother would do that? Hers, of course. Always ready to blame her for anything and everything that went wrong in life.
‘Run, Deacon.’ He needed no telling, but looked back to make sure she was following. Marikka realised her hands and fingers were scraped and sore, but she didn’t care. She was sorry she’d gone back for her mother. Sorry she and Deacon hadn’t run away like they’d planned to a hundred times or more in the last few months. Now she didn’t know whether to stay or go. Her mother would soon be telling the police that she’d started the fire, that Marikka was a firebug. Just because of what she did aged nine. All she’d wanted was to get the sparklers to work, but somehow all the fireworks had caught and next thing she knew was that the whole shed was on fire.
From that moment on everything had changed in her life. Her father was dead, killed in a road accident. She wasn’t even allowed to keep her old surname, her mother hated her father so much. Her mother told the social workers she was unable to cope with her, and she was sent away. Besides, she’d met this man, Mr Stander, and Marikka was suddenly an inconvenience. She was only allowed home three years later, long after her mother had married Stander and moved to his big house. ‘He will discipline you,’ her mother had told her. ‘Keep you in check’.
‘We’re bloody well going this time, Deacon,’ she declared. ‘I’m never going to another foster home ever again.’ The whole house was burning behind her, flames belching from every window. Every few seconds something exploded or shattered and the roar of the flames was almost deafening. Who knew a house could make so much noise when it died?
She saw headlights coming towards her. Perhaps the farmer from across the way? She waved to them. Too late she saw that it was the same Landrover that had been there before. A shot rang out. Hit the barn wall behind her with a loud smack. Shot gun. Marikka couldn’t believe she was being shot at. She began to run in a zig-zag fashion. Deacon running besides her, not understanding, his ears flat, panic in his paws. ‘Run, Deacon. Run!’
The second shot grazed her shoulder and she stumbled a little, but she darted behind the garden wall and didn’t stop, crouching as she ran as fast as she could to the far end of the garden and then into the ditch.
‘Back to the woods, boy. Back to the woods.’ Deacon needed no encouragement, but he stuck close beside her. She glanced back. A man with a powerful flashlight was moving quickly towards the ditch. Who were these people chasing her? Another shot rang out. She heard Deacon yelp and turn to bite his back. They had shot Deacon!
She stopped a moment, felt his back. It was sticky with blood, but it was just a graze, he’d live. She made him get up and together they crawled out of the ditch. They were near the stables again. Luckily her horse had been sold off six months before. These buildings would be next to burn.
‘Can you see her?’ Someone shouted.
‘The bitch is out here somewhere, and she’s got the dog.’
‘Come on, we have to go.’
‘Can’t leave her as a witness.’
‘Police will be coming. Leave her, we’ll get her later. We’ll ditch the Landrover in Brigstock.’
‘We can’t leave her. She’s a bloody witness. She saw your vehicle. She was supposed to be in bed.’
Marikka froze. She knew that voice. It was the voice that haunted her at night, made her life a misery. None other than her stepfather. So it had been him in the Landrover. And she knew he had a sawn off shotgun.
‘We’re leaving.’ The other man repeated, gunning the engine.
She saw the flashlight retreating. A trick? She lay flat in the long grass, holding her breath.
Distant sirens could be heard. Yes, he’d want to get away all right.
‘I can see you, Marikka.’ His voice was suddenly close. Too close. She looked up momentarily. Saw that he had his shotgun raised.
Deacon suddenly broke away from her. He’d seen him too. Silent and deadly, he ran like lightning towards him, launching himself at her stepfather. The shotgun went off loudly, both barrels. She heard the dog yelp in agony, heard her stepfather fall backwards into the ditch.
The others didn’t wait. They drove off back through the woods, spinning wheels. They didn’t want to explain anything to the cops. Marikka ran forward, keeping to the darkest shadows.
Deacon looked up at her, unable to move. He’d gone for gun. It had blasted the two of them as the full weight of a ninety pound Ridgeback forced the short barrel upwards. She couldn’t see clearly, but there was a bloody hole where one leg had been. He whined as she bent down to caress his head. Tears welling in Marikka’s eyes.
‘Brave boy, my brave, brave, brave boy. Thank you, Deacon.’
Deacon licked her hand, leaving it covered in blood. Then his head abruptly flopped. He was dead. Her heart practically broke in two. Tears flowed now and her throat felt constricted. Her stepfather lay there inches away. Half his face blown off. The flames from the burning house were reflected in his one remaining glassy eye. His body twitched. He was not quite yet dead. But soon would be. No point in asking why he’d done this. Why he wanted her dead so badly? Her tears weren’t for him, that was for sure.
She could see the blue flashing lights on the canal bridge in the distance. The police and fire engines would be here in a few minutes. How could she explain this? Any sensible girl would stay, right? Face the police, and the consequences. But any sensible girl didn’t have her firebug record. Or a crazy mother who’d prefer they locked her up and threw away the key. She’d blame her and could be really convincing. Probably say she shot her stepfather too.
Well, the only man who could admit guilt for the fire was dead now and so was Deacon. Deacon had saved her life. She’d never forget what he did for her. Never. She glanced back at the house, burning brightly, the flames spreading to nearby trees. They’d never get it put out in time to save anything. That must have been his intention. Probably an insurance scam. Maybe they planned to have her burn with it to make it look like an accident. Maybe that’s why her mother had driven off. She was supposed to be dead now. How convenient that would have been for her mother. She could pretend to cry to a whole new audience about the tragic loss of her teen daughter who had so much promise. Yeah right.
She turned on her heels and walked towards the trees. No, she would not be talking to the police. She remembered what those men with her stepfather had said ‘We’ll get her later.’ She wasn’t going back to any foster home or ‘institution’. She was going to disappear. Change her name back to Stillwater. Set herself free so they couldn’t ever find her.
She was already deep into the woods when the first police car finally arrived. She had reached the canal when she saw the flashing lights of the fire engines on the bridge, called in from Brigstock five miles away. They’d save nothing. Find only death and destruction.
She’d stick to the canal. The roads were fraught with danger. She had no doubts about running. She was the type of person who always got blamed for everything. Her head was filled with the last look Deacon had given her. He’d trusted her, loved her, died for her. She felt so sorry. Her heart heavy. Poor Deacon. She wondered how long he’d waited to bite her stepfather. At least he’d had that one opportunity to get his revenge. Her shoulder was giving her pain and felt strangely hot. Only now did she remember she’d been shot. There was some blood she realised, but it wasn’t too serious. It was giving her pain now as her adrenaline subsided. There was nothing she could do about it. It would have to wait till morning. Behind her the sky was bright with the house still burning. It would probably burn for hours. Marikka saw a barge moored by the bridge. She walked by, aware that a man lay snoring on the barge deck, many beer bottles lined up beside him. A banner was loosely hung on the side of the barge reading ‘Meet Anya – Discover hidden secrets.’
Marikka tread softly, she didn’t want to wake him, suffer any abuse from a drunk. She didn’t notice another pair of sleepless young eyes watching her go by from inside that barge. Curious eyes, who sensed that this girl going by was in big trouble. Vividly she could see traces of her sadness following in her wake, a snake of light that dissolved into the darkness. She would have called out to her, if she could. Told her she was headed the wrong way – that misfortune would certainly find her.
Marikka continued on, unsure where she would go or how she would live. She was sure of only one thing: the canal ended at the sea and that was where she’d make a choice of which way to go. Left or right. Either choice was likely to be wrong, but she was going there anyway. A shooting star kissed the sky. That’s where she was going, she told herself. Wherever it had landed up ahead, that was where she’d go.
© Sam Hawksmoor November 2016
www.samhawksmoor.com + Kindle version avilable here
‘Long after my tears dried, my heart stayed with Marikka, Starfish Boy and strange Anya who reads objects’ CT
'A great page turner. I liked the relationship between the two main characters and the atmosphere too.'
Johanna Darmendrail - Paris
'You will smile, you will gasp with shock, and you will struggle to read the words through your tears'.
Gemma Williams - Amazon.co.uk