Chapter 1: Red Cards and Blue Wolves
Wolves make the best imaginary friends.
They’re loyal, fierce, and just a bit scary. They’re fast and strong, have long teeth and sharp claws. They can tear you to shreds. You don’t mess with a wolf.
Aurora’s was massive and blue, and, like all good imaginary friends, only she could see it.
It had always been like this. Her first words were “blue doggie,” and as soon as she could hold a crayon, she worked her way through scores of blue ones drawing it. She never realised it wasn’t meant to exist; it was always nearby, but it only turned up when no one else was there.
When she was three, she disappeared for an entire afternoon as her parents watched football. It was only when the doorbell rang that they realised she had been gone. Upon asking where she had been, the happy toddler offered her favourite phrase: blue doggie.
When she turned five, her parents grew concerned. She was too old to have an imaginary friend; it wasn’t normal. This prompted the first of an ever-increasing series of visits to doctors, child psychiatrists, and even opticians, but the results were always the same: “Mr and Mrs Card, there’s nothing wrong with your daughter. She’s very smart, she’s very imaginative; she just claims to see a blue wolf from time to time. She’ll grow out of it. Not every child is into football.”
This was unacceptable, they said. Everyone should be into football.
Around her seventh birthday, it dawned on Aurora that perhaps having an imaginary friend was an inconvenience. She had grown tired of the constant questions, worried looks and the complaints from her parents that she wasn’t growing up. Frustrated by their failure to understand, she decided it would be best if she stopped mentioning the wolf. It seemed to work; her relieved parents never brought up the subject again and the questions stopped.
But pretending she couldn’t see the wolf wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. Being the only one who ever saw it and never being able to talk about it gradually made her blue wolf feel less real, and she found herself beginning to ignore her lifelong friend. The unfortunate consequence was that, over time, the visits from the wolf reduced, making it even harder to believe in.
By the time she was twelve, the blue wolf had become something strange, infrequently glimpsed out of the corner of her eye, but far as her parents were concerned, everything was as it was meant to be and life could go on as normal.
For the Card family, normal meant an obsessive amount of football. Aurora didn’t mind it, but even she had her limits. Watching it at home, in the pub, going to premiership matches, and – worst of all – watching her brothers play in the local team was deathly boring, especially when this meant they had time for little else, and actively discouraged anything that wasn’t football.
This was a problem, as Aurora’s passion was for stories. Yes, she liked hanging out with her friends like any normal twelve year old. She liked sport and going out. She watched a lot of movies. But more than anything else, she loved reading books. They were her escape into another world, and one that only she could control. Her parents might hold sway over what was on the TV, but were powerless to stop her reading. They could never understand where this passion came from, and they didn’t particularly care.
Perhaps it was because of the wolf that she had such an active imagination. She was always on the lookout for extraordinary and unusual things, seeking them out, hunting for an alternative to the relentlessly dull existence her family lived. That the visits from the wolf diminished only made her read more, to compensate for the absence it left in her life. Her imagination was strong, and often she would find herself drawn into the stories she read; wandering the ocean floor, escaping from forbidden castles, roaming underground labyrinths and exploring all manner of alien worlds.
And so it was that she found herself standing in the pouring rain on the sidelines of a football pitch on a cold October evening, and not minding one bit. She was immersed in an adventure story; a thrilling escapade in the jungle, and she swung on a vine across a raging river, with natives hot on her heels as she neared a ruined temple. The sun beat down, the winds whipped at her face as she swung.
It was all she needed. She was content.
And none of this meant a thing, she realised, in the very instant that the football nearly broke her nose.
Its impact knocked her off her feet, yet she was too stunned to feel its sting. She flopped to the ground like a dead fish, her auburn hair flailing and her hazel eyes blank.
As Aurora remembered who she was, the world realigned itself, blurring and shifting piece by piece from an otherworldly sunset to a grey autumn evening.
Looking up from the puddle she lay in, she saw her brothers, Eric and Ryan, howling with laughter as if this was the funniest thing they had ever seen. Eric was responsible for sending the ball in her direction, but it wasn’t skill that had made the ball hit her, only luck.
The ground of the football pitch was slushy and freezing cold, made only worse by rain that refused to let up, and Aurora got to her feet as quickly as she could, relieved the downpour would hide the tears that rushed to her eyes. Wiping the mud from her swollen cheek proved little help; her hand was as dirty as her face. Never mind, she told herself. Adventurers didn’t mind a bit of mud.
It’s war paint, she thought, trying to work her way back into the jungle. I’m wearing war paint; I never left the jungle. The worst tropical storm in history has just hit, and the natives are closing in. They know I stole their jade idol, and are about to sacrifice me to their heathen god, unless I can perform the most daredevil…
It was no use. It was too cold and her knees ached. Her fingers were numb, so she buried them deep in the armpits of her large coat. The real world was here to stay and she had better get used to it, no matter how miserable it made her.
Speaking of the real world, a six-foot reminder of it was headed her way in the shape of a man everyone, including his children, called ‘Red.’
Roger Card, professional referee, part time coach and full on football obsessive, was renowned for his lack of humour.
“What was that?” he barked, oblivious to any pain his daughter might be in.
“Apparently the boys think I’m better as a target than a linesman,” she deadpanned, dusting herself off with a forced air of casualness. The rain meant this was more like spreading cold, muddy paste.
“Don’t blame them,” he scolded. “You weren’t paying attention.”
“I’m bored!” she moaned. “It’s freezing and I’m soaked. I’ve got homework to do. Why can’t I just go?”
“Because this team needs a linesman,” Red told her, “and none of the others we’ve had have been any good. So you’re it.” Aurora knew exactly what this meant; Red had been so unbearable that anyone else who had tried it out, child or adult, had quit before long. Being part of the family, Aurora didn’t have that luxury.
“I’m really the best you could find?” she asked, trying to get a rise from her father.
“Just keep your head in the game,” he snapped, having none of it. He took the ball and marched off. “The sooner you grow up and stop daydreaming, the better.”
“I’ll stop pretending when you do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Eric and Ryan: they’re rubbish. Hitting me was the first shot they made tonight.”
Either Red chose not to hear, or the comment was lost on him. Aurora sighed. Talking to her dad was like talking to a wall: a wall that turned everything into a conversation about football.
The game resumed.
Before long, Aurora’s mind began to drift. It was too cold to return to her fantasy world, but the game was too boring to watch. Despite Red’s best efforts to install the principle of teamwork, the players embraced an ‘every man for himself’ policy, which meant trying to score as soon as possession was achieved.
The result was not pretty: a mass of talentless, sweaty teenagers huddled round the ball, aggressively hacking away at one another while Red bellowed ignored instructions. The only break from this monotony was the occasional stray kick that sent the ball off, redeploying the mob of players further up or down the pitch in the exact same formation.
Aurora longed for distraction; she longed for summer, when it was dry and light and (without Red knowing) she could discreetly read while the team punted the ball around with all the skill of a three-legged cow. Reading was her favourite thing, and being forced to endure the game with nothing else to do seemed like a torture her father had concocted specifically for her.
Her vision drifted to the edge of the pitch where woods bordered the school field and dense gorse prevented entry to the trees beyond. The more she stared, the deeper the woods became and the more was revealed to her.
In a gap in the gorse was something that should not have been there.
Apparently oblivious to the wet, rain dripping from its nose and ears, was her blue wolf. It was sat utterly still and watched her patiently, more like a stone statue than a living being. Under the rain, its fur was almost grey blue, yet it remained dignified and poised. Not even its tail moved as it watched her.
Aurora wondered why she kept seeing this one peculiar thing, and why it seemed so real. Usually she would ignore it, as she had taught herself to do, but boredom and the frustration she felt at her father made her want to rebel. Besides, she felt fond of the wolf, her constant companion and first friend: so what if it wasn’t really there?
In the only movement Aurora noticed, the wolf tipped its massive head in a kind of nod, directing her attention towards the pitch. She followed its gaze and –
Just managed to catch the football in her hands. She held it in front of her for a moment, trembling under the force of the shot but amazed at what she had done, her palms stinging from the contact.
Eric kicked at the ground with frustration, angry at failing to catch his sister out once again. His foot struck an especially soft patch and was enveloped, causing him to trip as he tried to pull it out. Despite his best efforts to regain his balance, he quickly found himself face down in the mud. Karma. Aurora smiled and Ryan must have agreed with her on some level, snorting at his brother’s misfortune.
The wolf had gone, but Aurora dwelled on how it had warned her. As much as the idea appealed, the logic her parents had drummed into her since birth prevailed. She must have heard Eric kick the ball, sensed it flying towards her, or caught it in the corner of her eye, she concluded.
Aurora looked over at Red who gave her what at first she took to be a nod of approval. She felt proud until she realised what the nod really meant. The previous shot hadn’t been a fluke; Eric had hit her deliberately, and had nearly done so again. Red’s thuggish star player had proved her wrong, and they both knew it.
Rather than let this get her down, Aurora took the opportunity to channel all her frustrations, kicking the ball to centre field with precision. It arced through the air towards Ryan, who, still laughing, was caught unprepared when it struck him on the head.
His moment of triumph spoiled, Red rubbed his temples in despair, then looked over at Aurora. She gave him such a look of defiance that he realised for the briefest and most fleeting of moments that he didn’t know his daughter at all, and maybe, just maybe, that was his loss.