by Stephen Walker
Rubber on concrete, echo on walls, Billy Morten chases his footsteps up an alleyway. Always chasing, always running. Things have to be hidden, things have to be found - everyone knows.
This afternoon, he knows it more than most.
Catching up his footsteps then overtaking them, the twelve year old kicks shut behind him a battered door. And he stands alone.
But is he alone?
He checks the lower floor of the abandoned house he's found himself in, one of a row of terraces on the outskirts of town. He finds only cobwebs, silent memories and gouges where wiring's been torn out and plumbing stripped out by gangs. All the residents have gone to new developments on new estates with new names and old problems. Now this is a place shielded from the eyes of kids who'd want what he's found, without appreciating what it is he's found.
He crosses to the stairs and glances up.
At the top is a darkness too brooding for investigation. If someone is up there, more fool them; he won't be joining them.
So, he assumes he's alone and, content with that assumption, claims a seat on the bottom step.
Here he can check a precious bundle found in the unlikeliest of places.
But the most precious of things are always in the unlikeliest of places, or they'd have been found long ago and they'd no longer be precious.
Eager fingers start to peel back a muddy blanket wrapped to shield the object from unwelcome gazes.
Then they stop.
From the stair top, behind him, a scuffling of something on floorboards.
And a voice that says, 'What you got there, Billy? Found yourself a miracle?'
Billy Morten scrambles to his feet and, clutching his prize to his chest, he backs away from the stairs. A wall halts his slow retreat.
Not that he's scared of her.
She's just a girl, no more than sixteen.
But there's something wrong about her. She's too confident. To cocky. She doesn't move like a girl. In her manner is a hint of the straggling weeds that surround this building and clutch it with their tendrils as though trying to hold it captive.
She calmly descends the stairs.
Her feet are bare.
She arrives at the middle step, claims a seat, then, not looking at him, lights a cigarette. The tip glows red before dying down. A shake extinguishes the match. A flick discards it. It hits the floor and dulls to a shrivel. She says, 'How you doing, Billy?' The cigarette flaps between her lips as she speaks.
'How do you know my name?' He eyes her, suspiciously.
'Seen you around, in the park, the school, the old rec. Seen you in the woods, the ones with the den you think no one else knows about though half the kids in town use it. I see plenty. You'd be amazed. That bundle you're hugging, I've not seen you with that before. Know what it is?'
He hugs it closer, hands checking that it's completely wrapped, with nothing showing. 'It doesn't belong to anyone. I found it in a skip.'
'Never said it did belong to anyone. You found it, it's yours; fundamental law of life. And, trust me, I know more about those than most. But that's not what I asked. I asked, do you know what it is?'
He glances down at it, clueless.
Her gaze climbs the wall nearest her then settles on a point on the ceiling.
And, following a suitable pause, she says, 'I could tell you what it is.'