My brother’s asleep on the couch and I have a pen in my hand. At first I was going to draw on his face, but that would wake him up. So I turn the pen upside down and dangle the orange feather at the end just above his nose.
“What are you doing, Allie?” he asks without opening his eyes. I sweep the feather across his nose. His face wrinkles up and he opens one eye. “Ew, orange!”
“It’s just a colour,” I say. “I’m looking after you. Mum told me to.”
He pushes me off the couch with one hand, and I slump onto the floor. “You’re too little to look after me, Allie.”
“But you’re sick, and you can’t look after me, so . . .” I chew my lips.
“Sure, I can,” he says. “And I’m not sick, just tired.”
“You’ve been tired a lot. That might mean you’re sick.”
“Allie. There’s nothing – underline that – nothing wrong with me.”
He wipes his face with his hand, but he’s still not smiling. So I say our joke.
“Then play with me, for Pete’s sake!”
It’s funny, because Pete is my brother’s name.
“Fine,” he says (with the smallest smile). “Hide and seek. I’ll count.”
I jump to my feet. “Really? For real? You’re going to find me, and not go back to sleep?”
“For real,” he says. “But there are three rules. Don’t disturb Dad – he needs to sleep for his night shift. Don’t go in the garden – you can only hide in the house. And don’t go into my room. Okay?”
“Now hide good.”
* * *
I go into my brother’s room. It smells like armpits. I meander my way around his dirty clothes, careful not to touch them and look under his bed. It’s jam-packed with junk – not enough space for me. Maybe if the wardrobe isn’t stinky, I can . . .
I stop and sniff the air. There’s a smell that is not teenage boy. It’s sweet. It doesn’t belong here. I follow my nose to Pete’s desk. The top drawer has a keyhole, and the smell is coming from inside.
It’s one thing to break a hide and seek rule. It’s quite another to open Pete’s forbidden locked drawer.
For a few moments, I listen for Pete downstairs. There’s no sound. Maybe he did go back to sleep. That should upset me, but . . .
I open Pete’s sock drawer, and after mustering up my courage, I pick up his pair of smelly grey socks and take the key he hid there. Then I go back, unlock the forbidden drawer and open it. A waft of sweetness blows into my face. After the socks, this is great.
The smell comes from a handful of orange flowers. They’re beautiful, with big petals and curly styles. I have no idea where Pete found these, or why he has them. He’s not a fan of flowers, and he hates orange.
I, on the other hand, love orange and like flowers. So I take them and put them in my pocket.
* * *
When you’re being naughty you should stay away from the scene of the crime. I hide in my room until I hear the garden door open and close, at which point I get out of my toy box and grab my spy binoculars from the window sill.
It seems Pete is breaking his own rules. I see him through my binoculars, walking to the end of the garden. He’s walking funny. He’s walking like it hurts. I chew my lips and knock on the window.
“Pete,” I say. “Look at me!”
It takes his whole body to sway one leg in front of the other, until that stops working and Pete falls onto the ground.
He crawls . . . then drags himself on.
“Are you . . . are playing a game? Pete?” I don’t think he is, but I want him to say yes and sorry.
He reaches the lemon tree, touches the bark and disappears.
* * *
I run to him, but he’s not there.
“Pete? Are you hiding?” He’s not. He’s sick, not tired. For the first time in my life, I’m right and someone big is wrong. But that’s not important, because he’s disappeared and I don’t know where he is. I’ve imagined hide and seek games this bad, but only in the dark.
Pete is in danger. I’m afraid I’ll be right about that too.
I crouch down and look at the base of the lemon tree – the bit Pete touched. There’s a word that looks like it was scratched in with something sharp. It says ‘BEAK.’
I touch it, and I’m gone.
* * *
It’s sweet here. It smells so sweet I’m feeling dizzy. And it’s orange.
My brother kneels down and holds me tight.
“Allie, I told you to hide.” He sounds half asleep.
“I didn’t want to be alone.”
He shakes his head, and I’m sorry I upset him but I’m smiling. The lemon tree took us to another world. It looks like a fairy court in orange and gold, but there are no happy fairies like the one in my picture book. This place is mostly empty, except for us . . . and Beak.
I know his name is Beak because his body is covered in white feathers and his head is a bird skull. I think he’s looking at us.
“My dad’s the police,” I say.
Beak twitches his head to the side, and looks at me with one empty eye hole. “Your dad is a factory worker in a car company,” he says. And it’s true. “Lying is bad. Lying is very bad.”
“Allie, go home. Go back,” Pete says.
“I don’t know how. Take me home.”
Pete mumbles something.
He becomes heavy, and I’m too little. It’s good he’s already on his knees. I guide his fall onto the floor and he isn’t hurt. He’s asleep.
“What’s happening to him? Why’s he sick?”
Beak twitched his head to the other side. “He liked my flowers too much. He sniffed them too much. Now he’s mine.”
“No, he’s not. He’s mine.”
Beak cawed laughter. It sounds like a flock of bad birds – the kind that steal your food right out of your hand.
“What do you want with him? He’s smelly. He’s really only good for me,” I say, “ and that’s because he’s my brother.” I make my voice firm on those last words so Beak gets the hint.
The feathers on Beak’s arm grow until they become wings. He opens them in a display. It’s both beautiful and scary.
“Why do you want him?” I ask again. Quieter.
He brings his wings down and I breathe better. “I need a new person suit. That’s all,” he says. “My last one finished.”
That is the opposite of healthy.
“There’s nothing you can do,” Beak says. “I’m an Other, you know, and an Other is much worse than an adult. Especially here.”
“But you’re not dangerous . . . there? In my house?” Where my father is sleeping and doesn’t know a monster is on its way.
“Oh, I’m dangerous there too, thanks to my friend, Pete. He’s left my flowers there. My precious, special flowers. I look forward to having them again.”
“O-oh,” I say. “And they’re important?”
Beak twitches and he’s looking at me face on. “Why do you ask, little one? Why do you ask?”
He spreads out his wings and he takes high to the air. “Were you naughty?” he asks. “Naughty, naughty.” He swoops down and his sharp beak shines.
I grab the orange flowers from my pocket and shove them into my mouth and chew them into a honey-tasting mush. Beak screeches. He explodes into a rain of white feathers. The bird skull smashes onto the floor.
* * *
Pete wakes up and I jump on him.
“Oof,” he says. “Allie?”
“You’re alive and I love you. Take me home.”
He gets up and looks at the white flowers all across the floor.
“They used to be feathers,” I say and I tell him what happened. He hugs me again, and thanks me.
“We’ll go home soon, Allie. But first take out the flowers from your pocket.”
“I already did. I ate them.”
“The white flowers.”
I take them out and let them fall to the ground. Pete checks I haven’t sneaked any.
“Good,” he says. “Jeez. All this from trying to cast a good luck spell. I’m never going to trust one of those things again.”
“It was called an Other. Did you say spell? You did a spell?”
“Yep. I’m a witch. Not a good one yet, but you know . . . practice.”
He takes my hand and leads me to the wall. At the bottom is a carving that says: PETE.
“If you teach me a spell, I’ll stop calling you smelly,” I say.
“When do you call me smelly?”
I shrug. “Almost all the time."
"I think you're damaging my reputation.”
He touches the carving, and we’re gone.