Authors: Beth Chambers
For Jack, Ben and Daniel
who I love even more than chocolate.
âMummeeee!' Amy screamed.
Max winced. His little sister had the ability to reach a glass-shattering decibel level.
Amy stood in the doorway, her mouth open, her eyes wide.
There were bits of doll everywhere. A severed head swung gently from the light shade.
Max snapped his fingers at their dog Toby, who was playing catch with a plastic leg. Toby ignored Max completely and trotted over to Amy. Saliva drooled from his mouth as he proudly spat out the torso of a well-chewed doll.
Max covered his ears as Amy gave another scream. This one wouldn't stop at shattering glass â it could probably bring down entire buildings.
âI'm telling Mum!' Amy stamped hard on Max's foot and marched out of the door. Max didn't bother going after her. He knew without fail that he
would get the blame for Toby sneaking into Amy's room and decimating her dolls. Whatever he said, his mother would take Amy's side.
Max was more wound up about it than usual because so far he'd babysat every day of the Christmas holidays.
A door banged somewhere downstairs.
âMaximus, you get down these stairs right now.' His mother sounded beyond annoyed. âI've only got a half-hour lunch break. I'm going to be late back to work. The last thing I need is you winding up your sister!'
Max ran his fingers through his short black hair to flatten the spikes that had a mind of their own. He had a quick peek in the mirror to check that he was wearing his most innocent expression. He had a range of them â this one was called,
Who me? Never!
Twenty minutes later Max headed down the street with Amy in tow. His sister had refused to go anywhere near Toby since the doll incident, so he'd had to leave the dog at home. He walked quickly, knowing that Amy's little legs would have to jog to keep up.
âWhat's the matter, Max?' Amy called.
âEverything,' he said shortly.
Angry thoughts zoomed around his head. He could pinpoint exactly when everything had started to go wrong. It had been seven years ago, when his dad had walked out.
No, slunk out
, Max thought, kicking a stone,
and not just down the road. Ooh nooo. Dad's got to head off to New Zealand on my fifth birthday. While I'm at Nan's blowing out candles, he's at home, packing his bags and blowing out his family
Max had only ever seen his mother cry once, and that was when she had read the note his dad had left on the kitchen table. After that she had put on a brave, although frequently stressed, face, and they had got along just fine.
That was before she had met David.
âWhere we going, Max?' Amy tugged on his coat.
âThe woods,' he muttered.
âCan I go piggy bank?' she continued, undaunted by his mood.
âI told you before, it's called a piggy back,' snapped Max.
âCan I go piggy back then?'
âNo.' But he slowed down so that she no longer had to jog to keep up.
He had been seven when David had barged into their lives. By the time he was nine his mother had married David and, if that wasn't bad enough, delivered Amy as a small, mewling rug-rat.
Reaching the end of the street Max squeezed through a hole in some old fencing and scrambled down an overgrown bank into the forest. He turned to wait while Amy slowly inched her way through the gap.
âHurry up,' he urged as she caught her pink jacket on a splinter.
âMax, it's torn!' she wailed.
âNo it's not. Look, if I just snap the thread like thisâ¦' he began. What had been a small snag in the sleeve suddenly became a hole large enough to wiggle his finger in.
Max hid a grin. âWhoops!'
âI want to go to the den.' Amy sniffed.
Max pretended not to hear. He turned and crunched along the pine needle strewn path. The den was his private place. He'd built it deep in the forest where no one else would find it. Recently he had taken a plastic milk crate down there to use as a table. Surprise, surprise, it had been another babysitting day, and he had made the fatal mistake
of taking Amy with him. Since then all she had done was nag him to take her back.
âI'm not taking you. We're going to the lake instead,' Max told her.
âI'm going to get myself one of the trees planted there.'
âBecause this Christmas I'm having my own tree in my own room.'
âBecause this Christmas,' Max said, rubbing his hands up and down his arms to keep warm, âI'm spending on my own. No Mum, no Davidâ¦'
âNo Amy?' Amy said in a small voice.
âAnd no Amy,' Max said firmly. âThis Christmas is going to be family-free.'
âWill you still get presents from Father Christmas?' Amy pouted, looking upset.
Max stared at her. âWhat?' he snapped. Not looking where he was going, his foot suddenly sank into something mushy, steaming and very smelly. âShhhâ¦ugar!'
He did his best to scrape his trainer clean while ignoring Amy's giggles. By the time they had reached the lake, Max could cheerfully have thrown her in. Knowing that he might have a question or two to answer at home if he did, instead he picked up a pebble and skimmed it across the black expanse of water. His real dad had taught him how to snap back his wrist and send the pebble scudding across the surface. He'd taught him other things too, like how to make bows and arrows, how to belch the national anthem and how to produce the most awesome farting sounds from under his
armpit. He'd been a great dad. Not like David with his, âTidy your room, Max,' and âLet's work out a payment plan for this broken window, Max.'
Deep down, Max
that his real dad was going to come back.
He would have come back aeons ago if Mum hadn't been so quick to remarry
, he fumed, kicking some loose pebbles into the water.
âMax?' Amy tugged at his sleeve. âI'm getting cold.'
Max glued a vacant smile to his face. âYou can help me look for a tree. That will warm you up.'
âOK.' Amy pushed her hair out of her eyes and gazed around at the towering pines that dominated the landscape like giant forest guardians. She tugged off her gloves.
âYou'd best keep them on,' Max told her, âyou'll freeze without them. Your fingers will turn into icicles and they'll snap off.'
Amy tramped off towards the nearest line of trees while Max headed off in the opposite direction. Moments later he heard his sister shriek.
âMax, Max, I found the best tree ever!'
Max hurried around the mouth of the lake and found Amy standing with her arms wrapped around a tree at least three times her size. âThat's not a
tree, that's a forest! Look, Amy, they've planted the smaller trees closer to the lake. Look there, OK?'
âIs it bad to take them?' Amy whispered. âDad says stealing is wrong.'
if we get caught.' Max winked.
âYou'll be in big trouble.'
âNo, I won't.'
Max blew out a long breath, sending a column of hot steam into the freezing air. âNo I
, because I've been looking after you all holiday and the forest fairies have decided I deserve a reward.'
âForest fairies!' Amy's eyes widened.
âYep. They're all over the place, watching everything you do. If you're good they give you a present, but if you're bad they punish you.'
âHow?' Amy was hanging on his every word.
âThey play mean tricks on you. Sometimes they'll follow you home and wait until it's dark and you're asleep. Then they creep into your bedroom and steal all of your teeth.'
âI don't believe you,' Amy said flatly.
Max was impressed. Perhaps his baby sister was finally starting to grow up.
But she went on, âFairies wouldn't play nasty tricks on you. Everyone knows fairies are kind.
They only take your teeth if you leave them under the pillow an' then they put money out for you.'
Max shook his head and rolled his eyes. âForget it!' He stamped his feet on the ground to warm them up before returning his attention to tree hunting. He stomped off into the forest, breathing in the sweet smell of pine.
Suddenly he saw just the one. It was a little taller than he was and bushy without sprouting untidily all over the place. Bingo!
Max flipped open his pocket knife and pulled out the largest of the blades. Carefully he began to saw.
Ten minutes later he was still sawing and his arm was burning like it was about to spontaneously combust. He kicked the tree in frustration.
Infuriatingly, it barely trembled.
At that moment, he became aware of a strange stillness in the forest. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled.
âAmy?' he called.
The glade suddenly didn't feel safe. There was something creepy lurking in the air.
âAmy, is that you?' he called again, peering through the trees.
She didn't reply. Where was she?
Max pocketed his knife and hurried back towards the lake. The lake! What if Amy had fallen in? She was only five. She couldn't swim without her armbands. Max broke into a sprint, twisting and turning to avoid crashing into trees.
Bursting through the bushes at the lakeside, Max imagined Amy's pink jacket swollen with water and her small body face down in the water, her blonde hair streaming around her.
He stared up and down the length of the lake.
She wasn't there.
Max took deep gasps of relief before yelling out her name in a long-drawn-out cry.
Flapping their wings, a flock of birds flew up into the air, startled from where they had been roosting in the treetops.
But there was no responding shout from his sister.
Max had to face it.
Amy was missing.
While Max pounded along the path toward his house, horrible thoughts forced their way into his head. What if Amy had fallen into the lake and had got all tangled up in the weeds?
Why did I leave her on her own?
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a bright flash appear through the trees. A moment later there was a second brilliant gleam of light. Something was lurking in the forest, keeping pace with him.
âWho's there?' he yelled.