A few days later I was toiling up the hill to the Simonic’s again, for bread. The red and white striped shopping bag trailed in the mud behind me, and I was wearing one of Mani’s old jumpers on top of two of mine. It was bitter, and I was surprised to see Mani at the bridge as I approached the house, apparently talking to one of the peacekeepers. I dawdled, watching: he hadn’t seen me yet.
They were deep in talk, their heads close together, obviously speaking softly. The peacekeeper smoked a roll-up, the same as Mani’s and they laughed quietly to each other, often. Mani noticed me first and I saw him nudge his friend. His friend the peacekeeper. I stopped short, voiceless.
“What’re you doing up here?”
He nodded, once. “Well go on then.”
I turned sharply and strode to the Simonic house and knocked loudly on the door, staring straight ahead of me. Their four eyes bored into the back of my neck as I waited and I flushed red. Pinpricks of sweat darted under my armpits, itchy and unpleasant. At last the door opened and Brena told me to come in. I was in her kitchen before she’d finished speaking.
“What’s the matter with you? Cold is it?”
“Mm, it’s winter for sure any day now. No coat?”
“One of Teren’s old ones is here somewhere – it would probably fit you.” She appraised me for a few seconds, “you’ve grown a lot this year, you know.”
“I know.” I was pleased to hear it though. It meant I was growing up. I didn’t feel like a kid and I was sick of looking like one. Maybe I was going to be as strong as Mani was. I was his brother, after all, we couldn’t be that different.
“Sit down and I’ll look for it – I know I saw it a few weeks ago somewhere.”
Brena opened a cupboard door next to the stairs and rummaged through the darkness inside. She stood back up straight, her hands on her hips.
“Where was it? It might have been upstairs now I think about it. I won’t be a minute.” She climbed the stairs and I heard the floorboards creaking above me and the sound of more cupboards being opened. I sat on a chair, happy to wait in the warm with my loaf of bread in my bag.
I’d been sitting there for only a few minutes when I became aware of a subtle odour underneath that of the constantly baking bread. It was a pleasant smell, sweet like treacle but with a bitter top note, like salt. It reminded me of nothing. Again, a spark lit up in my mind, showing me nothing but making me uneasy.
Brena came heavily down the stairs – she’d found the coat.
“Here. It’s warm – he hardly wore it before he grew out of it.” Brena’s son Teren had been three years older than me when he was still alive. I had once made a den with him behind the doctor’s place, where we swapped passwords, made unnecessary and obscure rules and pretended we were in hiding from supernatural powers. That was six lifetimes ago.
“Thank you.” I put the coat on. I remembered Teren wearing it, sitting on a log in the den, sharpening his penknife. I was glad I had his coat.
“Well I’d better get on then,” Brena tied her apron on.
“Yeah.” I started toward the front door, turned around on impulse. “Brena?”
“What are you cooking apart from the bread?”
Unexpectedly Brena laughed, loud and harsh. She paused, eyeing me with a cold glint that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
“Someone’s been talking, have they?” she nodded to herself. “Well that’s no surprise around here. You’re a clever one aren’t you? You’ll work it out for yourself some day, and probably long before you should do. But you won’t hear it from me – now get out of here and tell your brother to come in if he’s still out there.”
I was shocked and stepped out of the house quickly, relieved to be gone.
“Mani, Brena says to go and see her.”
Mani was still by the bridge, but his peacekeeper friend had gone. He ground out his roll-up under his shoe, and walked past me without a word, opening Brena’s door without knocking and closing it firmly behind him.