FIVE MONTHS AGO
It was six o’clock when my alarm sounded and I got out of bed like I normally would every morning, with sleep in my eyes and a groggy mist in my head. I dressed into a pair of jeans, took a shirt from my bedroom drawer and pulled a knitted sweater over my head the same as every morning. I tucked my great-great-great-grandmother’s golden locket under my jumper. I ate my toast and drank my tea, strong with three sugars, like I would habitually do every day. I brushed my teeth over the bathroom sink, I opened the front door as usual, called a brief goodbye to my mother and I walked to the school bus like I did every morning.
Even though I had worked through my normal morning ritual as I had done ever since I was thirteen, that particular day felt different and I didn’t know why. A strange feeling had followed me through the house and out of the door and was still lingering as I stepped onto the pavement, put in my earphones and made my way over to Phoenix’s house.
My name was Ivy Taylor then and I was normal. The kind of girl that wasn’t popular but wasn’t unpopular either. I wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous but I wouldn’t describe myself as ugly. I had long, brown hair that I had neatly pulled back into a practical ponytail for school, scraggly bits of fringe that I hadn’t manage to capture in the clip flopped over on my forehead. I had emerald green eyes that shone with a constant excitement behind the whips of my fringe and above faint freckles which sat, strategically placed, on my creamy white skin while my lips flushed pink. Everything about me was average, not too much and not too little.
The weather this morning was dull and grey, reflecting my mood. I thought about the day ahead, like every normal teenager, school was not how I would prefer to spend my day. I would much rather be at home with my older brother, Benjamin, and his guitar, my keyboard and voice, sprawled out across my bedroom floor surrounded by sheets of paper, writing songs and trying desperately to get a record deal. We went by the name Anything Human, and the thought of it being Friday brought a great relief to me.
I trudged along the uneven concrete with my weary feet splashing absent-mindedly into puddles, causing the cuffs of my jeans to become damp and rub against my ankles. I looked up at the ominous clouds rolling across the gloomy sky and felt the early drizzle of rain across my skin. I watched as the still morning dew resting upon blades of grass was disturbed by the angry and hard fall of rain droplets.
To my left a mother was corralling two screaming children across their garden lawn towards her family-sized SUV. The kids were protesting about having to go to school, the way kids do, but their complaints were silenced with the slam of the car door as their mother started the engine. The SUV passed me causing a wind to blow up through my hair and I jumped to the side to avoid stale water as one of the tires splashed through an old puddle in the road.
I turned into a quaint garden and made my way up the cobbled garden path. The rose bushes beneath the front windows of the house were still in full bloom, to my surprise, and brown leaves skittered over the fading grass, getting caught in withered stalks and wilted flowers. I reached up and knocked on the door, removing my headphones from my ears and hearing the howling wind for the first time that morning.
A girl, with olive skin and beautiful brunette hair, answered the door. Phoenix was wearing a pair of black jeans and a thick jumper, with a picture of a superhero on the front, “Come in.” She groaned, Phoenix had never been a morning person.
“Morning,” I grinned at her, stepping over the threshold and shutting the door behind me, “Get up to much last night?”
“No,” She grumbled, “We had an essay for History due in today, about Nazi Germany.”
My face fell, “That was due in today?” I asked, I knew I’d forgotten something.
“We both have a free period after morning break, I’ll help you write it then.” Phoenix said.
“Thanks,” I replied, as we made our way up the stairs.
I walked into Phoenix’s room and was greeted with the familiar smell of tobacco and sage. Her room was one of a kind. On the skirting board around the ceiling she had fairy lights, her bedroom curtains were made of lace and fake ivy was entwined around her black metal headboard. As you walked further into the room the smell changed, became indescribable; a mixture between cinnamon, hairspray, blown out birthday candles, herbs, old books.
You either loved it or you hated it, and I loved it. Her walls were filled with paintings of imps and unicorns, trees and astronomy maps. And she had an old, musty oak dressing table, the surface was filled with precious stones of every colour, candles of all shape and size, a box of incense, a jewellery hamper over filled with strange amulets and a packet of cigarettes.
Phoenix was something along the lines of a pagan, I think she called it. As in, the religion Paganism, so magic wasn’t exactly a foreign country to her as Wicca was one of the most influential traditions of modern Paganism and Phoenix believed it was a path of magic, love and of a sharing and understanding with nature and the “Old Gods”. I thought it was a load of old hogwash, but I wouldn’t tell her that.
Phoenix was by the window, lighting a red candle – presumably where the cinnamon smell was coming from – humming as she did so and then grumbled, “I need more sage.”
I joined her by the window and glanced up at the blackening clouds, another kiss of dampness hung ready to meet the tender earth. “What a miserable day.” I stated.
Phoenix followed my gaze, “I like it.”
I sat down on her bed and picked up an amethyst crystal ball from her busy side table, rolling it around between my palms. “I can’t stand it. I hate having soggy, numb fingers and wet socks.”
Phoenix continued, “You get to wear comfy, woolly jumpers and drink tea. You can sit by the fire, all wrapped up in a snugly blanket, and eat soup. I love the colour the leaves turn, the trees look like they should be featured in a famous painting this time of year and don’t forget, Halloween!”
Phoenix loved Halloween, she always had and I think she always will.
“What’s so great about Halloween?” I mumbled.
“What isn’t?” Phoenix gushed her voice similar to a chirping songbird, “You get to dress up and get free sweets! Not to mention the chocolate! There’s apple bobbing and pumpkin pie and cake! Cake, Ivy! It’s meant to be fun!”
I stopped rolling the ball in my palms and shrugged, “Yeah, I guess.”
“Can you please stop doing that,” Phoenix grimaced, taking the orb from my hand, “You know it makes me uncomfortable.” She shuddered, as if she were a wet dog trying to dry its fur.
“Sorry,” I muttered in apology.
At that moment Phoenix’s cat Daisy padded in, mewing softly in greeting. Daisy was a ginger tabby, the colour of her fur was the kind of orange you’d see entwined into a bright sunset. Her coat was soft to the touch as she snuggled down next to me, looking up at me with her big green eyes.
I had always loved cats, especially Daisy as she had a playful heart and always managed to wriggle herself onto my lap every morning. My mum was always too busy to own a pet, I enjoyed coming over to spend time with Phoenix but sometimes I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a disguise and the real reason was so I could play with Daisy.
I was tickling behind her fuzzy ears and listening to her purring for what seemed like hours, but I know was only a few minutes. When suddenly...
“Ow!” I exclaimed.
Phoenix wheeled around, “What?”
“She scratched me,” I said in disbelief. Daisy had never scratched me before.
“Let me see,” Phoenix took my forearm and examined the scratch. “I can make you a remedy for that.”
“It’s just a cat scratch.” I brushed off her offer.
Phoenix eyed me doubtfully, “You have no idea where her claws have been. She could have stepped in anything. It could get infected.”
I sighed, “Fine,” I complained and sat back, letting Phoenix bustle around her room in search of the required ingredients. “I wonder why she scratched me, it’s not like her at all.”
“Don’t think too much into it,” Phoenix said as she crushed some dried herbs in the palm of her hand, “She’s only marginally more intelligent than a brick, Ivy.”
“Don’t be so cruel,” I came to the cat's defense, “I must have scared her or something.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Phoenix admitted. She had been my friend for as long as I can remember. We used to make mud pies in her back garden and collect garden creatures. I can recall a time when we used to capture snails and name every single one Fred, I still don’t know why.
“Who taught you how to do all this stuff?” I asked, bewildered.
Phoenix looked up from her mortar and pestle with her wrist still rolling in a twisting motion and she ground the herbs together. “I taught myself.”
“Yourself?” I echoed, stunned.
“If you know where to look there’s all sorts of things you can learn,” Phoenix set down the mortar on her window ledge before wiping her hands clean on a nearby cloth, “You know that little bookshop in town, on the corner before Starbucks?”
I raised an eyebrow, “The creepy one?”
“Yes, the creepy one.” She laughed softly, “Well, the gentlemen in there sells all sorts of weird books about this kind of thing.” Phoenix shrugged, “A long, long time ago herbalism was the only source of medicine people had because there weren’t any doctors back then. It’s traditional medicine, or that’s what people are calling in these days.”
“Why don’t you just use an anti-septic cream?” I frowned.
She screwed up her face in response, “I don’t like the current medical practices, I like to use a more natural method of healing.”
Phoenix applied her paste to the wound with gentle hands before binding my forearm with a bandage. I felt completely ridiculous, all this fuss for a little cat scratch. However, I had always admired Phoenix and her love for all things mystical.
“Come on,” I got up, grabbing my back pack, “The bus will be here in five minutes.”
We ventured downstairs and Phoenix pulled on a grey scarf, with matching hat and gloves, before opening the front door.
The weather hadn’t changed, the rain was still pouring from the sky and the wind still was blowing seriously. How anybody could enjoy this was beyond me, let alone doing it the dark and begging for sweets.
It was only Phoenix and I stood at the bus stop that morning, I watched as it drove round the corner and stopped in front of us with a back fire from its exhaust. The doors opened and, like every morning, all hell broke loose. The children were shrieking and throwing food at one another, they were bouncing up and down on the already torn leather seats. It resembled the monkey pen at the zoo more than a school bus.
The vehicle was a bright blue and stood out like a sore thumb in the muggy surroundings. There were rust sores on the corners of its frame from old age and a very uneven bumper that seemed to be clinging on for dear life. Its tires were mismatched and the side was covered in scratches and dents.
I stepped onto the bus, which was crowded, and spotted our friend Elle squashed somewhere in the middle. I glanced at Phoenix and then at the spare seat beside Elle, “You take it.” I offered, “I’ll find somewhere else.”
Phoenix smiled in gratitude and squeezed her way through the blockade of screaming school children towards Elle who, at the sight of us, had beamed. Soon, Phoenix had disappeared amongst the rampaging kids.
I reluctantly pushed my way through the array of students and bags towards the rear of the bus. I tried to avoid the paper airplanes being tossed across the walkway and stepped in something that resembled gum as my trainer stuck to the floor.
I brushed the crumbs off my seat, slumped my school bag on the ripped and worn seat beside me, so no one could sit there, and once again put in my earphones to drown out the shouting. I already wished this day was over.