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Authors: Ruth Hatfield

The Color of Darkness

BOOK: The Color of Darkness
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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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In memory of C, an inspiration

 

 

I haven't brought a spade.

He stands in the moonlit woods, a thousand miles from anywhere. How can you make a hole in the earth when you've nothing to dig it with?

Perhaps I should go home.

Perhaps I should call my dad and ask him to come and fetch me.

Perhaps I should go back to bed, where the rest of the world thinks I am.

Perhaps I should—

Keep it?

It is burning a hole in his pocket, trying to break through the material and cling to him like a limpet.

I am yours, it says.

Danny shudders, and a breeze picks up through the thinning leaves of the autumn treetops. There's rain on the air, soft and damp. Rain that might fall lightly or lash down from the growling clouds of a storm.

Storms, he thinks. If a storm comes—

And he is on his knees, tearing at the earth with his fingers, gouging shallow scoops from the soft patch at the base of a tree. The leaf mold is sticky and grainy, and smells of bitter coffee. The soil underneath is more compact, but his fingernails cut through the layers, scrape by scrape, until his hands are sunk up to the wrists in loose soil.

Not deep enough. Not nearly deep enough.

He drags the loose soil away and keeps digging. His nails pack with grit. Tiny thorns drive themselves into his fingertips. Twice he catches his thumb on something so sharp it makes him gasp with pain, but the hole needs to be deeper and he knows that the next time he stops he'll feel it there in his pocket, talking to him, and it will say, Please don't bury me. Keep me. I'm yours. You're mine. We belong together.

He closes his eyes and shuts it all out. The wind whispers away to stillness, the hooting owl closes its beak. Even the scraping of fingers through soil is without sound, as though the soil has begun to move itself silently out of the hole it knows must be dug.

*   *   *

At last it's done.

It is so deep he can put his arm in it up to the elbow. It must be deep enough.

He stands back, puts his muddy hand into his pocket, and pulls the thing out. And without looking at it, he pushes it down into the earth at the bottom of the hole.

He fills the hole quickly, his head turned away, looking into the shadows lurking around the silver trees. When the hole is full, he kicks dry leaves over it and smooths them down with his shoe.

The thing has gone. It's out of his pocket. It's out of his world. It's at the bottom of a deep hole and it'll never see daylight again.

He widens his eyes to look for the path home, and it's a clear path, bright with moonlight, welcoming him toward it.

Out of the woods. One step, and another, and another, and each step takes him farther away from this place.

He goes as quickly as he can, and the forest watches him leave.

*   *   *

Under the earth, a call begins. The days and weeks pass. Autumn falls prey to winter's claws; spring's green teeth gnaw away at the frozen armor of winter, and then summer sweeps yellow over the land.

And still it calls. Only one person hears it, but to him, it roars as loud as thunder.

Danny, it says.

Danny.

Danny.

Danny.

 

CHAPTER 1

TOM

“Get down! They're coming!”

Johnny White barely whispered the warning, but Tom Fletcher instantly ducked his head behind a tree root and pressed himself flat to the forest floor. A flapping of wings beat up into the treetops, and a few leaves rustled as a creature crashed against a branch, then the dark woodland inhaled all sound with one giant breath and held it, leaving only the light air of a summer night, the gentle gray of a thin moon, and silence.

Next to Tom, hidden away in the moon shadows, Johnny pressed his pale face down into the leaf mold. No one would see his black hair against the night and the shadows of the birch trees. They had better not see it. If Tom and Johnny were seen … if Johnny was recognized …

Tom pulled his woolly hat farther down over his ears and waited. Stupid blond hair. He should have put camouflage paint on his face, but there hadn't been time to get any.

His keen ears scanned the woodland again. An owl let out the faintest whisper of a hoot, telling its chicks to be quiet. From the bank across the clearing, a few short grunts let Tom know that the badgers were shuffling around just inside the entrance of their sett, thinking about venturing out. Two of them tonight: the old boar and the heavily pregnant sow. His favorites.

And then the tiny
crack
of a dry holly leaf snapped halfway down the hill. Footsteps kicked leaves, and the damp scent of decay floated up on the breeze.

“Is the shotgun loaded?” Johnny barely breathed out the words.

Tom nodded. “Yeah. But there's loads of them. One warning shot won't—”

“Sssh!”

Tom was silent for long enough to hear the pounding of his own heart. Why had the forest gone so quiet? Once the men got up here, they'd hear his heartbeat and they'd find him. Why couldn't something squawk or cry out or flap around? Why had everything become so
unnatural
?

Three sets of footsteps tramped up the slope toward the clearing. The tiny pattering dots of a terrier's paws jogged beside them. And then the sliding, scraping rakes of bigger paws, straining at collars, scrabbling toward their prey.

They came into the clearing. Seven shadowy shapes.

Three men armed with spades and shovels, a terrier small enough to scramble down a badger sett, two squat fighting dogs ready to set upon whatever poor badgers the terrier flushed out, and a much bigger dog—a Rottweiler, or something like it—with a chain for a collar.

Johnny tugged at Tom's jacket. They had to get out of here. Those dogs would smell them, and they wouldn't care what kind of animal they were sinking their teeth into, as long as it had flesh.

But Tom shook his head. He couldn't go now, not when he knew what was about to happen. He had to at least try and stop it—that was the point of bringing the shotgun.

If he fired a shot …

He reached around to get hold of the shotgun. Small twigs snapped off a bush, crackling out into the still air.

The dogs' heads shot up.

“What's that?” one of the men hissed.

They listened for a couple of seconds.

“Nothing. An animal. Let's get Julie down to work.”

The tallest man leaned down to unclip the terrier.

Tom cursed himself for not having got the gun to his shoulder before the men had arrived. Now he'd have to wait until the dogs were distracted, which meant he'd have to wait until they'd flushed out a badger and started fighting it.

Johnny trembled beside him. When he'd found Tom at school and told him that some of the men from the Sawtry buildings were baiting badgers, he'd been boasting like crazy about how he was going to hunt them down and “give 'em as good as they gave.” “It's sick!” he'd said. “Sending them dogs in, tearing animals apart just for fun. It's sick. Someone's gotta stop 'em.”

But out here, he seemed hardly able to move.

For a second, the moon flashed out from a thinning gap in the clouds. The terrier shot forward as the leash came away. It scrambled down into the earthy entrance of the badger sett and disappeared.

Tom heard the growls of the badgers. If it has to be one, he prayed, please let it be the old boar. He was a fearsome creature, and he'd at least have a chance of fighting for long enough that Tom could get a shot fired in time to save him.

But it was the snarling of the pregnant sow that he heard loudest, as the terrier's hindquarters came powering backward up the tunnel and out into the clearing. The dog was dragging the badger by the scruff of her neck, and the badger was roaring in anger. As soon as they broke out into the open air the badger began to swing her head around, snapping her jaws around the terrier's legs, biting at its sides. But she was heavy, her pregnant belly holding her down.

“Get some light on 'em!”

One of the men switched on a bright light, directing the beam toward the fight. A laugh rang out as the terrier began shaking its head, trying to force the breath out of the badger.

“Go on, let Tyson go!”

Another leash unclipped. A bigger dog hurled itself into the fight.

Tom could stand no more. He grabbed the shotgun and yanked it up to his shoulder, not caring how much noise he made.

Johnny leapt up and pelted away into the darkness, crashing through the bushes.

Tom let loose both barrels of the gun.

His aim was wild against the glare of the light and the shots thumped into trees, but the deafening
crack
of the gun made the men yell startled curses. One of them ran forward to grab the terrier, kicking away, pounding his foot into the snarling fight until the animals broke apart and the barks of the terrier rose shrieking over the echoes of the gunshots.

BOOK: The Color of Darkness
12.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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