The clock on the classroom wall was ticking so slowly that I thought detention would never end. I tried to write about Stephen in my journal, but each time the pen in my hand shook and the words just stopped. Instead, I wrote about the book ‘My Friend Flicka’. I had started reading it when I was eleven years old and became completely absorbed in it and the other two books in the series. I still remember the way I felt when I read about Ken sitting on a horse, high on a hill and greeting the sunrise with a sense of freedom. It was just the way I felt when I was on my bike. Every page I turned drew me deeper and deeper into the story until I was living on the pages with Ken. At night when I lay in bed with my book I would get lost in the hills of Wyoming to escape the sadness wrapped around me.
As that year had progressed and autumn became winter, the bitterly cold days kept me inside, safe and warm in my bedroom where I could devour every word of my books while the wind blew outside. Life was hollow and empty, constantly changing under grey clouds as I was caught up in my thoughts, seeing nothing of the real world. During the day I would struggle through school, unsettled and uncertain, writing stories in my head, longing for the evenings and weekends when I could get back to those wild hills.
That year had gone by slowly until the sun eventually came peeking out from behind the clouds, getting stronger every day until it finally shone brightly on me as I lay in the long grass with the smell of spring in the air filling my lungs. By the time those first hints of spring came, I had reached the final page of the last book in the series. Closing my eyes and turning my face towards the warm sun, I felt like I was ready to be more adventurous and face the real world on my own terms.
But that seemed years ago now. Here I was on my sixteenth birthday sitting through lunchtime detention and still hiding from the outside world. I looked at the list I had made of all the books I wanted to read and wished I could get them for my birthday, but I had never told Mum about it so how would she know?
I picked up my pen and started writing again.
On the weekend my brother pushed me around the backyard in his billy cart. Stephen was fourteen years old while I was only four, but he let me play with him without getting annoyed like the big girls did. None of his friends from school lived near us so he was happy to drag me around all day like a teddy bear. He was very gentle and kept an eye on me to make sure I came to no harm. That didn’t stop him from tickling me though, sometimes pinning me to the ground and making me laugh until I cried. Then Mum came out and yelled at him to leave me alone.
‘Aw Mum, we’re just having fun,’ he yelled back.
‘Just leave Molly alone, she’s only a baby you know.’ But I wasn’t a baby; I wanted to do all the things the big kids did.
‘Hey Molly, let’s climb the mulberry tree,’ Stephen said as he slung me over his shoulder and marched down the yard. ‘See if you can reach the branch.’ He laughed and put me down on the ground. ‘Molly, you’re so small! You just sit there and watch me climb.’ Then up he went like a monkey, swinging his legs over and reaching for the higher branches. I sat at the bottom and watched him climbing away up into the sky. It looked like the tree was going to fall over as the clouds moved past so fast. I started picking flowers out of the grass; making little bunches of daisies in my lap and getting dirt on my dress.
‘Here, catch this Molly,’ Stephen yelled down at me. I screamed as something fell from the tree and landed in my hair.
‘What is it? Get if off, get if off!’ I cried.
‘Oh don’t be such a baby. It’s only a cicada shell.’ Stephen climbed down and rescued the cicada from my hair and gave me a hug. He smelled like leaves and bark. ‘Have some mulberries instead,’ he said, trying to make me happy again. I was still whimpering, but took one of the mulberries and put it in my mouth, squealing as the purple juice exploded on my tongue. I had some more and juice ran down my chin and dripped onto my dress.
Then we were in Africa and Stephen was an elephant. ‘Climb on my back Molly, let’s go for a ride,’ he said and lumbered through the jungle down the side of the house. I was the queen of the jungle, swaying from side to side and hanging on tight. There were lots of elephant’s ears and tree ferns and I was a bit worried about spiders, but suddenly we were in a desert and I was riding on a camel, searching for a lost water hole in the sand and finding it at the garden tap.
‘Camels can last for weeks without water,’ Stephen explained, ‘But you had better have a drink Molly, because people need water all the time.’ He turned the tap on as I climbed off my camel and we took turns drinking from the hose, splashing water all over our faces and giggling as my dress got wet and a little bit muddy. We stood in the shade of the mango tree and the afternoon breeze blew cool against my wet legs.
Later we found ourselves on a deserted island, lying on the beach and wriggling our toes in the sand under the shining sun. ‘You know Molly, when I grow up I want to join the army,’ Stephen said with his hands behind his head. He already seemed grown up to me and I liked things just the way they were when there was still so much unexplored backyard.
‘I don’t want you getting shot,’ I replied, suddenly scared at the thought of him going away. I sat up and looked at his face to see if he was joking.
‘I won’t get shot,’ he said, ‘I’ll be too good for that. I’ll be a commando and sneak through the jungle so nobody knows I’m there.’ His voice had turned husky, as though he was stalking an unseen enemy.
‘You could be a bus driver,’ I said helpfully.
‘Nah, who would want to be a bus driver?’ he replied scornfully.
I watched twists of cloud drift high in the sky and slowly change shape. A dark cloud floated across the sun and threw a shadow over my face as we fell silent. I closed my eyes and could hear Stephen breathing.
After a while I got bored and sat up again and asked him about school. ‘What’s it like at school?’ I was looking forward to going to school next year but it worried me a bit.
‘Some of it is fun Molly, but other bits are just boring. I like lunchtime the best because we get to play outside. There are all sorts of games going on; most of the boys play Red Rover or British Bulldog, but you won’t be able to do that because you’re just a girl. There’s also this little hill that you can roll down and that’s a lot of fun!’
I sat with my legs crossed and watched his face and the way his expressions changed as he talked. It was the playground part of school that was really worrying me. I didn’t like the idea of all those rough boys running around. ‘At least I can play with you at lunch time, can’t I?’
‘Oh no, Molly,’ Stephen laughed, ‘You’ll be in the infants and I’m in high school, so we won’t even see each other during the day.’
We fell quiet again and I looked down at my knees. They were all bony and dirty as they stuck out from under my dress. I broke up little bits of twig that were lying around on the ground and tried to balance them on my knees. If I kept really still they stayed where they were, but if I moved they fell off and I had to start all over again. Stephen was still lying on his back with his eyes closed and we stayed like that until it started to get dark and then we headed inside.
‘Where have you two been?’ called Mum from the kitchen as we walked through the back door. The screen door slammed shut behind us.
‘Just playing,’ Stephen replied as he got a biscuit out of the tin.
‘Oh Molly!’ said Mum with a frown, ‘Look at how dirty your dress is! Those mulberry stains will never come out, you naughty girl. Off to the bath with you before dinner.’
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