‘We have to go now.’
I blinked, my eyes still sticky with sleep.
Anna was already stuffing a bag full of clothes. I wanted to point out I hadn’t worn that t-shirt since I was five, but she didn’t look ready to listen. Her blonde hair was hanging in tangles around her face. Even in the half light of the darkened room I could see streaks of tears on her cheeks
‘Come on, Micah,’ she whisper-yelled at me.
With one angry motion she whipped the duvet from my bed.
‘Go where?’ I repeated, feeling stubborn.
I just wanted to go back to sleep. My bare arms were cold without the snug duvet. Anna looked at me. Her wild expression eased and she seemed to see me properly. She knelt by my bed and took my hands in hers. She was seventeen. Basically an adult. Anna was always telling my when I was an adult I would be bigger than her. That’s why she protected me now. She owed it from the future. At ten years old it was hard to believe I’d ever be bigger than her. She always said it though. I hated being small the most.
I looked up at her face. There was a fresh bruise forming near her eye. Her tears were already drying. Anna didn’t cry for long.
‘Micah, we had a problem downstairs. Mum’s down there. I’ve called an ambulance, but we can’t be here when it arrives. You understand that? We have to go now.’
‘When are we coming back?’
Anna sighed. When she did that sort of sigh she looked exactly like Mum. When I first told her that, she told me to shut up. I never said it again. But I thought about it a lot. I wondered if Mum looked like Anna at seventeen. Did she have the same donkey laugh? Did she sneak her little brother Coco Pops when he’d been sent to bed without dinner?
Anna sighed again and I snapped back to attention.
‘We aren’t coming back, Micah.’
I pulled my hands away as if she’d burned them.
‘We aren’t coming back,’ she was calm and terrifyingly certain, ‘They’d split us up. That’s why we have to go. It will be great though. We’ll have our own place, I’ll work and you can have your own room.’
‘I don’t want to go if we’re not coming back,’ I said, pulling my duvet back up.
Now she was the one who looked burned. She bit her lip, just like Mum did when she was anxious.
‘Micah, you won’t stay here again after tonight. You can come with me now or you can go into care on your own.’
‘I don’t want to go anywhere,’ I shouted, instantly regretting it. Anna was always reminding me I needed to stay as quiet as possible.
She shook her head, getting up to leave. She grabbed her own bag.
‘Anna,’ I called as quietly as I could, ‘You can’t go.’
She turned back, ‘I told you, Micah, I have to.’
I jumped out of bed and grabbed my own rucksack and Monkey Micah. I was too old for stuffed toys, but forever was an awfully long time to not have your monkey. Anna smiled a little at that. She popped Monkey Micah in her own bag and took my hand.
‘Follow me, Micah, nice and quiet now. And when I tell you to close your eyes. You close ‘em tight, you hear me?’
I nodded. She led me down the stairs. When we were just about to enter the kitchen, she gave my hand another squeeze and told me to shut my eyes. I did as I was told. Anna was older than me. She knew what to do and when to do it. She always had.
I remember the first time I saw her get hit. She barely staggered, just lowered her eyes and made herself small. She told me to go to my room. I wouldn’t though. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. I ran over to her. I can still feel the air moving as the fist came towards me. It never hit though. Anna got in the way. She always did that. Soon she had got me trained to go as soon as she gave me the signal. She could feel the bad nights coming in a way I never could.
I heard a whimper coming from the kitchen. Anna squeezed my hand and I knew what she meant. Keep your eyes closed. I trusted Anna. Of course I did. But that noise. Sort of like a balloon losing air.
I opened my eyes.
The first thing I saw was the kitchen floor. The light brown wood was splattered with bright red blood. I’d never seen that much blood before. I didn’t want to see where all that blood was coming from. Yet my eyes were being tugged, tugged up to the moaning bundle.
It was Mum, her white blouse drenched. Her hand pressing tightly over her stomach. Her eyelids fluttered as if she were trying to stay awake. Next to her lay a kitchen knife. Anna would never let me near that knife. ‘It’s too sharp for messing’, she would say. I looked again at the messy heap on the floor. Mum.
‘She’s only wearing one shoe,’ I said.
Anna turned to me. She was white as a sheet and her hand was trembling even as it held my own.
‘She went for me, Micah. I didn’t mean…I just I thought she’d back off. You know what she’s like. What she does.’
‘But you hurt her.’
‘Are you kidding me? She hurt me all the time!’
Anna panted as if trying to hold back some sort of angry dog. As if it were almost breaking free. I looked away. I didn’t want to see her like that. Not all scary. Not like Mum. She was supposed to be the one who fixed things.
Anna tightened her grip on my hand. I gasped.
‘We have to go now,’ she said, tugging my arm. I tried not to notice the blood sticking to my trainers as she dragged me to the kitchen door. The whimpering grew louder.
‘Sorry, Mum’ I whispered as I skidded past her.
‘Don’t you apologise to her,’ Anna nearly shrieked, ‘After everything… Don’t you dare.’
She fumbled the door open, still holding onto me and her bag.
‘Get in the car,’ she ordered. What else was I going to do? She hadn’t been lying. I couldn’t go back in that house. Not ever. I sat in the back seat, though. I didn’t want to look at Anna while she was like this.
It had been one of the first things Anna taught me. Don’t look at Mum. It only makes her angrier. Just wait. She always cools down. Just wait.
So, I sat in the back and waited. After what seemed like forever Anna spoke again. Her voice was quiet, calm, friendly.
‘I’m sorry, Micah. That must have been awful for you. I didn’t want you to see that. I really didn’t.’
I didn’t answer.
‘I packed your library books. You don’t even have to return them. How awesome is that?’
I didn’t have any words.
‘They’re in the bag. I bet you can’t read a whole one before we stop for food. Betcha a unicorn?’
It was an old game. We’d always have bets like that.
‘I bet you can’t get into your school uniform without making a sound, betcha a dragon!’
‘I bet I can, betcha the moon.’
‘I bet you can’t finish your dinner before Mum gets back, betcha the pyramids!’
‘I bet I can, betcha a rhinocerous.’
But I didn’t feel like playing tonight. I picked out the first book.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
I’d been so excited when I’d seen it. It was a really old book. Not with the stupid movie covers but with a real dragon painted on the front. And there was a little guy, standing next to a wizard. If you squinted, he looked a bit like me. I shook my head and put it down on the seat. I didn’t think I was gonna like unexpected journeys. Without moving her head, Anna reached into her own bag and pulled out Monkey Micah. She passed him back, without saying a word. I hugged him tight and sucked his ear. Just like when I was little. Except I didn’t feel little anymore.
Ivona Coghlan is a library assistant with Queen’s University Belfast. She studied Creative Writing with the Open University. She is currently trying to battle ‘imposter syndrome’ and share her writing with more people.