The City of Silver Light
The City of Silver Light
Copyright © 2012 by Ruth Fox
All rights reserved.
In the Park
ON a clear night of frost and ice she falls from the sky.
I see the brilliant flash of her descent from my bedroom window. I've been spying on Dad, who has been sitting in the car for three hours, chain-smoking. From here I can see the entire street block, and the dark shapes of the trees in the park across the road. I can also see straight through the frost-rimmed windscreen, where Dad's sadness glows in the streetlight.
Daniel's small huffing exhalations are setting the rhythm of the night, but I can't sleep when it's like this. Too silent: a tense silence, like somebody died. I'm thinking that the ice-covered world outside might actually be warmer than inside our house, even though they're calling this the coldest winter on record.
'It's global warming, Jake,' Sharna Devon enlightened me the other morning.
The primary school Daniel goes to is down the road from Cassidy Heights Secondary College, so we catch the same bus to school on most days. My friend Keira used to save us seats but when she started going out with Andrew Dempsey she dropped that habit pretty quickly. Just like she stopped coming round to our house to muck around after school, even though she'd been doing that since we were six.
Andrew is the jealous type - and not without cause. I've been in love with Keira for years.
I usually try to avoid Sharna Devon, but that day the bus was full and all the other seats were taken. I tried to tune her out, drawing snowflakes on the fogged-up bus window. 'All the climates are messed up, and the currents in the ocean are changing.' she droned. 'It's the end of the world. We'll have more earthquakes and volcano eruptions. Everyone who lives on the coast is going to get swamped when the ice caps melt.'
'Really?' I said, putting a finger to my chin and pursing my lips. 'But that would be good for the fish, right?'
She gave me a disappointed look. 'How old are you, Jake Miles?'
Later, I'd tried explaining the ozone layer and gas emissions to Daniel. My younger brother is still grappling with the idea that the world doesn't change just because you want it to. He furrowed his brow in consternation. 'Why don't we just make it stop, then? If it's such a bad thing, why don't we fix it?'
'If we're ever going to stop the effects, we'd have to stop driving cars. We'd have to stop making things in factories - that means books and Play Stations and DVDs - and we'd have to stop cutting down trees to make space for houses. Because everything we're doing just by living our everyday lives makes all this bad stuff. It'd be changing the way we live. It'd be like a different world.'
He'd pursed his lips, still confused. 'What about Dad's smoking?' he said at last. 'Is that making the hole in the ozone layer bigger?'
I told him yeah, and thought it was pretty funny when Nina yelled at him for burying Dad's Winfield Golds in the garden in the interests of environmental conservation.
But I'm wondering now if Sharna is right and this is the beginning of the end of the world - meteor showers, comets, space-junk falling in Phoenix Park. This flash - it traces a fiery path down below the canopies of the trees. I blink the bright blue afterimage from my eyes, and though Daniel's breathing continues uninterrupted, I know I haven't imagined it.
I throw the blanket off my shoulders and pull on my jacket over my t-shirt. Outside it is so cold that it drenches me like water. My breath clouds the air. The world has frozen in the chill of the night, and it is beautiful. Ice clings to the shrubs by the door, and the grass glitters with jewels under the streetlights.
I pull on my runners by the door, shivering and tucking my hands in my pockets, and sprint across the lawn, which crunches under my feet. The cars parked on the road all wear shrouds of white. The shadows of the pink flamingos in number forty-seven's front yard stretch sharply across the road. It's silent. The world is mine alone.
I cross the road in seven steps. If anything, it seems darker under the trees of the park. The silver moonlight dapples the frozen grass. I make my way past the playground, geometric shapes against the sky, eerily still. There is a bike path winding its way through flower beds towards the lake, and I jog along this until I can see the water. Large chunks of ice float on the still surface, reflecting the moonlight. And something else - a faint orange glow. The flickering of a dying ember. I suck in a breath, amazed. It is real.
I wade through the stiff reeds towards the spot. The light of the moon gives me a crisp, clear view.
A figure lies there, curled against the spiky reeds, eyes closed, her hair tumbling over her face, wearing a white dress and covered in frost. She's dead. She must be. Her skin is so pale, whiter than it should be even in the bleached moonlight.
The embers scattered around her hiss and crackle.
I kneel beside her and touch her shoulder. 'Wake up,' I say softly. School lectures about drug overdoses nag at the back of my mind.
But as I touch her, she seems to warm. Under my fingers, the frost on her dress is melting. The ice in her hair beads to water and runs in rivulets across her face, and her skin blushes with a dull pink. I stare at the transformation in wonder.
A strange feeling washes through me. I can almost feel a sudden lurching in my stomach, as if I've missed a step and I'm falling, but it's cut short as her eyelids flutter and snap open. With a sudden jerk, she rears upwards and away from me, but stumbles and crashes back to the ground.
'No!' I call. 'Hey! Stop -'
She cries out as I grab at her shoulder again, and I draw back. She stares at me, wide-eyed, terrified.
The cuffs and knees of my tracksuit pants are wet through now, and moisture is seeping in through the rips in my runners. I haven't even noticed until now how cold I am, but I unbutton my jacket, forcing myself to move slowly, not to startle her. My fingers refuse to move independently, numbed by the cold, but I shrug it off and hold it out to her.
She doesn't move, just stares at me. Those eyes! They are as blue as midnight, with the shimmering depth of water. I've never seen anything so unnervingly beautiful.
'Here,' I say, my voice constricted. 'Put this on.'
She continues to stare.
'I'm not going to hurt you,' I assure her. 'I'm a friend.'
I can't tell if she even understands me. A full minute passes before she moves, and it isn't to take the jacket. She leaps up and runs. I can't move fast enough to stop her. By the time I've gotten to my feet she has vanished. The night is empty.
At my feet, the last of the embers flicker and die.
ANGEL girl. That's what I call her in my mind. Our family isn't religious, but back when I was a little kid and I couldn't sleep, Mum would tell me stories about angels. About how we each had a guardian angel, and even if we couldn't see them, they were always there watching over us. It made me feel safe.
Later, when Daniel was born, she'd tell him the same stories and I would listen and pretend I wasn't. 'Sometimes,' he'd murmured once, sleepily, 'Sometimes when the light is right it looks like I've got two shadows. One of them must be my guardian angel.'
Later, when she started to get sick, Daniel, only six years old, tearfully asked why Mum's guardian angel wasn't looking after her.
'She is!' Mum had said. 'She's here by my side, every second of the day.'
She said this so Daniel wouldn't worry. Me, I had a hard time imagining how much use Mum's angel was, seeing as how she died three weeks after that, Leaving nothing but memories and empty spaces and boxes of clothes stacked in the garage.
But if there really are such things as angels, I think they would look just like this girl.
When I climb back into bed, shivering, after having shoved my soaking tracksuit pants into the laundry basket, everything seems normal. How can it be real? Girls do not actually fall from the sky in a ball of flame. It's just a vivid dream, I tell myself.
Dad is unshaven at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper over a cup of coffee, his tie askew. Nina is bustling, a sure sign that she's in a bad mood.
'The water heater is on the blink again so I can't even wash the dishes properly. I'll have to go out and fiddle with the temperature again. Did you put your clothes out for the Salvos?'
I nod. We've all gotten used to Nina wanting to give things away to charity. 'Throwing things in the bin is such a waste,' she always says. You can't walk with her past a council bin without having her click her tongue and mutter something about the evils of throwing away food. 'They're in the plastic bags in the laundry. Daniel's, too.'
'I was thinking I could clean out the garage today, Alex. There's probably plenty of stuff in there the charities could use.'
Dad abruptly puts his coffee down, folds his newspaper and stands up. 'Not today.'
'But you can hardly get in the door,' Nina protests. 'Why don't you let me neaten it up, at least?'
I make my lunch and Daniel's, then bully him out of the door.
'Why are you walking so fast, Jake?' he complains. 'The bus doesn't come for twenty minutes!'
'You won't die because you missed the last few minutes of Ben Ten,' I snap. 'It's like a fridge in there, anyway. I don't want to hang around while they glare at each other behind our backs. I hate it.'
'Do you think she'll really clean out the garage?' Daniel says in a small voice. I know what he's thinking. The boxes of Mum's clothes are in the garage. Neither of us has dared to touch them since Dad carefully taped them shut three years ago.
'No,' I reply. 'Dad won't let her.'
The cold has eased a little with the rising of the sun, but I'm wearing gloves and a beanie as well as my jacket. I'm walking fast to warm up and to put a bit of distance between myself and the house, but as we pass the park I slow down. Most of the trees are European and have lost their leaves, leaving crooked branches bare, like claws. I peer between their trunks, searching for any sign that what I saw last night was real.
'Number forty-seven's watching us again.'
I whirl, just in time to see the lace curtain swing back into place. The back of my neck prickles.
'What's Mrs Henders' problem? Does she think we're going to steal her horrible pink flamingos or something? What are you looking at, anyway - is there something in the park?'
'No.' I reply. 'There's nothing there.'
But even though that's exactly what my eyes tell me, I don't really believe it. And how can I know for sure that it's a dream unless ...
'Walk to the bus stop by yourself,' I say. 'I've got to do something.'
'What? What are you doing?'
'None of your business. I'll meet you there.'
'Okay.' He shrugs, already a couple of steps ahead of me. I pull out my phone and fiddle with it until he is out of sight, then glance back at our house to make sure Dad or Nina aren't watching. Then I sprint across the road and into the park.
In the morning light things look so different. I spot two people walking along the bike path, but there is no one else around. I walk quickly across to the lake.
When I can't see anything, I tell myself I'm an idiot for thinking I would. And that's when my foot sinks through a piece of charred something. The area in which I stand is bare of grass, and the pieces around the edges are blackened and crushed. Around my feet are black burn-marks, partially frozen over but still visible. These marks have been left by something hot enough to melt through the ice and scorch the mud underneath.
These marks are proof that something happened last night. But what in the world could have made them - and leave behind a living, breathing girl?
And if she does exist, where is she now?
I look around. There are several pieces of flattened grass nearby, frozen in place, but that could have been done by anything in the past few days.
Right, I think. If I was as scared as angel girl was last night, where would I go? I wouldn't want to stay around here. It's too open. But across the lake, on the far bank, the pine plantation extends down to the shore. It is dark and thick, and I know it's a good place to hide.
I jog the distance to keep warm, rounding the lake and ducking through the gap in the two-metre chain-link fence. The pines smell damp, and the clay of the hillside draws the temperature down another five degrees. Pine needles slip under my feet. I climb the hill, heading for a high point where I can see a wider area. Daniel and I built a treehouse here a few years ago, in the tallest pine tree, on the recommendation of Keira, who said you'd be able to see the entire area from up there; down to the park on one side and over the hill to the Garter Street bridge on the other. The treehouse is falling to pieces now; it's just a few rotting wooden boards held in place by rusting nails.
They used to mine sandstone here and the hillside is riddled with caves and tunnels. Daniel and I know them like the back of my hand, even though we've been warned time and time again that such places aren't safe. Would the angel girl have sought shelter in one of them?
I pause. Was that a noise I heard, or just my imagination? The pines creak softly. I am breathing hard from exertion, and I try to calm myself and listen. I keep climbing, but more quietly now, stopping every now and then - and I hear it again, a soft rustling of footsteps.
I don't turn towards the sound. If she is watching me, she would be startled if I did that, and I don't want her to run away again. So I keep climbing, then sidestep behind the thick trunk of a tree and slide back down a little way as quietly as I can. I crouch there, listening.
There is another rustling, then the sound of someone creeping towards where I last stood. I wait until they are closer ... closer ... slowly, I peep over the edge of the wall. A figure in a red jacket stares back at me.
'You little shit!' I growl, grabbing Daniel by the collar. 'You followed me.'
'You wouldn't tell me what you were doing!' Daniel protests, yanking himself free. 'What are you doing?'
'I'm looking for insects. It's a science project. You'll miss the bus!'
'So will you,' he reasons. 'And why are you looking for insects here? For starters, it's winter -'
'It's none of your business.' I grind my teeth, resisting the urge to punch him. Instead I grab him by the shirt and drag him back down the hill. We miss the bus, and Nina is silent as she drives us to school.
'You kids have a good day,' she says as we get out of the car. She sounds like a robot.
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