Living under the same roof as a predator was something sixteen-year-old Ember Riley thought she’d never have to endure. Losing her parents three years before, Ember’s life and sanity hangs in the balance as she struggles to find some form of normality to a world that holds mysteries, strange fire issues and stranger still, heat is beginning to build inside her.
Ember is prompted to dig deeper into her past, re-living painful memories and discovering shocking truths about what she is and who she must become. Ember Riley is the first of the Elementars. She is …The FlameMaker.
I know The Creeper is coming even before I hear his heavy footsteps on the landing. Call it an aura, if you will. My mother used to say she could feel a migraine coming an hour before it struck.
I hold my breath and squeeze my eyes tight.
Please, please, I’ll do anything.
Treacherous tears spill onto my cheeks, and I brush them away, the same way I brush away love … quickly and without too much thought. Fear lives here now, running freely between the cracks of my once perfect life.
I hear a footstep. Then another.
Silence bounces off the walls. Blood whirring in my ears. Heart ready to burst out of my chest.
The footsteps stop.
I feel sick.
One breath away, one more squeak of the floorboards.
‘Please, don’t let it be him. Please! I’ll do anything you want … anything,’ I mouth into my pillow, finally taking a breath.
The sound of the doorknob twisting sends me further under the covers. Each breath in, hurts, each breath out quivers against my tongue. I feel my hair slide across my face, hiding the panic only a camera can capture.
I hear voices.
I hear his soft and gentle voice complaining that he’s hungry and wants his Frostie Flakes in his special tiger bowl.
My heart soars.
From outside my door, I hear the whispered, guttural growl of The Creeper. ‘I said, back to bed, boy, before I slap you this side of Tuesday.’
Aaron’s soft footsteps pad back along the landing until they fade to nothing. That dreaded nothing again.
Aaron’s door clicks shut, sealing my fate.
My door opens. And closes quickly. The Creeper’s presence fills the room, the air violated with the stench of his unwashed body, the residual smell of camel cigarettes and faint aroma of Blue Stratos.
I don’t want to look at him.
I hate looking at him.
I hold my breath to punish those damn heightened senses. Why can’t they be numb like the rest of me?
My throat begins to burn.
With teeth clenched, jaw fighting to relax, I struggle one measly swallow. My eyes sting, fighting off tears.
But, my time for begging has run out. I sense he is standing right behind me.
‘Close your eyes,’ he hums into my ear.
They’re already closed but I force them tighter, lids aching, eyelashes flickering, squeezing like I never want to open them again.
The top sheet pulls tauter, imprisoning me as he sits down. The bed sags beneath his unrepentant weight.
My body mimics death plus ten hours.
I gasp as his fat, moist fingers snake their way across my cheek and through my hair. He is getting bolder by the week. Never before has he crossed that line of touch. Every molecule and cell in my body is desperate to move away, except I can’t. I am skewered to the mattress by fear.
Please, please, I’m scared. Can’t you see that? I don’t want you to be near me.
I bite down hard against my lip. An old wound opens and rusty old blood seeps into my mouth.
‘Em’s,’ he coos.
I pray harder than I have ever done in my life.
Eighteen seconds later, the smoke alarms go off.
Celeste storms into the kitchen that morning and kicks at the leg of my chair.
‘Where’s my hairbrush, you stupid bitch?’
Celeste is a year older than me, and loves to remind me of that crucial fact. According to her, this seniority makes her more beautiful, more intelligent, and more knowledgeable about boys than I. Maybe she does know more about boys, because she’s certainly dated a heap of them. I don’t care for boys.
I glance up from my breakfast bowl. ‘I haven’t seen your brush,’ I mutter, eyeing my comb tangled around her not-so-natural, honey-blond hair.
Her eyes bulge. ‘You’re a frigging liar, Ember Riley. You always have been, ever since you came here. Can’t you tell by the look on the little cow’s face, Mum? Tell her she’s lying.’
The scene beyond the soiled net-curtain, hanging over an equally dirty kitchen window, is hardly one to be enthralled by, and yet Rose Burberry simply skols the last of her cold tea and continues to stare out at it. ‘Mum,’ screams Celeste again. Her lips now tighter than her school shirt. ‘The bitch has got my brush and won’t give it back. Make her … NOW.’
Without warning, Celeste cuffs him around the back of the head, sending her g-zillion bangles into a melody of jingles. ‘And you, you little snot. I don’t care if you’re hungry. Learn to get your own breakfast.’
From under my lashes, I send a pleading look in Rose Burberry’s direction.
‘Leave him be,’ Rose murmurs in her usual aloof manner. She lights up a cigarette and sits down next to Aaron, exhaling lethargically. Smoke hangs over his head and begins to drift all around him as though he’s hitched a ride to heaven on a cloud.
Celeste stomps her foot hard and backhands Aaron’s plastic bowl off the table, sending it clattering to the floor. I risk another glimpse at Rose Burberry, who is now staring vacantly at her son as milk trickles from the corner of his cheeky smile.
Celeste scowls. ‘Well …aren’t you going to search her room?’
Rose Burberry draws deeply and longingly on her cigarette and says nothing. Her dark brown hair flickers with silver streaks when it’s freshly washed. Today, it trails untidily down her back in oily threads.
‘God! I can’t believe this bullshit,’ huffs Celeste. ‘You wait till daddy gets up.’
The room breathes out the second she leaves.
I force down the last mouthful of cereal, rinse my bowl and spoon, and leave them on the drainer to dry.
‘You’d better get a wriggle on, Aaron.’ I say, picking up a wet cloth. The splash of milk and soggy Frosties are still sliding down the cupboard door.
A grateful smile breaks through the emptiness on Rose Burberry’s face for a full second, before returning to its normal, expressionless state. I want Aaron to hurry for my own reasons. I want to be out before The Creeper is up.
‘I’ll pick him up today, if you want,’ I add. I stare at her back, ribs poking through her thin cotton t-shirt.
Rose Burberry turns and nods. Her lips look like they want to smile yet the vagueness that hangs over her eyes prevents it.
From under my hair, I glance up at the clock and clap my hands softly behind Aaron’s back to get him moving. ‘Hurry up, T-Rex, or we’re gonna be late.’
Aaron’s pointy, freckled nose scrunches up as he grins. ‘I’m a Triceratops today,’ he informs me and lets out a fierce growl. He slips down from the table and disappears around the door.
He’s the little brother I didn’t have. His innocence and laughter is what holds me together.
The sound of The Creeper’s voice severs the breath from my lungs in mid-inhale. Instinctively, I wedge myself up against the corner of the chipped, laminate cupboards.
‘Morning,’ he says chirpily. I hate his jovial moods.
I hate him.
I steady my breath and lace my fingers behind my back, searching out the cupboard door handle. When the round, wooden knob nestles perfectly into my palm, I tighten my grip and squeeze the life out of it to ease the tremble in my legs.
As though he’s read my mind, The Creeper leans in closer and inhales deeply, his nose almost brushing the collar of my shirt. I slide sideways along the cupboards away from him, snagging my skirt pocket on the handle. I wonder if it’s payback for the way I’d seized it moments ago. It restrains me, holding me prisoner. The Creeper rests his hand on the fake stone worktop, blocking my only exit. His index finger inches towards me, mimicking a lonely caterpillar, and I draw my hand away and hold it to my chest. He chuckles to himself and reaches up to pluck a mug from the rack behind me. The quiver moves from my legs to my stomach. I fight back the urge to pee.
Rose Burberry hasn’t moved in the slightest since he came in, even after his chuckle turns into a guffaw of childish giggling. The Creeper backs away slowly and plops himself down into the chair with a groan and a huff.
I unhook my skirt.
‘I’m going to be late tonight, cupcake,’ The Creeper says, addressing his wife and patting down the sides of his thinning hair, previously slicked back with gel from “Everything’s A Pound”. Wide comb marks run down the length of his hair. He unbuttons the jacket of his pinstripe navy suit, exposing the usual white shirt and dark blue tie and even though I can’t see under the table, I know his bulbous stomach will be resting heavily on his thighs.
‘It’s Phil Caruthers’ retirement party. You remember me telling you about him, darling, don’t you?’ He gives his wife no chance to answer and carries on stirring his coffee with avid interest. ‘The party’s tonight and knowing Phil, and the kind of parties he’s used to …’ he pauses to give me two quick winks, ‘anything goes.’ His bulldog head rotates on his equally fat neck to face his wife and turns back to me, jowls swaying above his tightly collared shirt.
‘Can you leave the key under the milk crate, petal? I’ll be back late.’ He gives me another wink.
Hurry up, Aaron.
Fear grips its vicious claws around my throat, freezing the blood inside my veins. A sense of déjà vu creeps up my spine as I peek at Rose Burberry from the corner of my eye and then back at the dirty window. I immediately see the attraction the window holds for her now, and by some chance, it has come to my rescue too. My gaze disappears through the filthy curtains so he can’t revel in the terror he’s put there.
Aaron returns and boisterously swings his school bag over his shoulder. ‘Can I have some dinner money please, Dad?’ His hand stretched out, his fingers wiggling. Aaron’s tie is crooked and his shirt untucked. I will see to it before he enters the school gates and ensure he has his jumper.
The Creeper extend his leg and reaches deep into his trouser pocket. ‘There … now quit bugging me, boy.’ He dumps a handful of silver on to the table, and Aaron sifts through the coins and slides the money into his pocket. No smiles or hugs. No “have a great day at school”. Nor are there enough words in the English language to describe how much I hate The Creeper.
I hate him.
I feel him staring at me. ‘Ems, do you need some money, love?’ I cringe, keeping my eyes on the mosaic-patterned lino.
‘No, thanks, Mr Burberry,’ I mutter, straining against gravity to keep the fake smile on my face. I raise my head, allowing my eyes to devour the hob that hasn’t seen a clean cloth in a month. ‘I’ve already made my lunch.’
I hate the name Ems. In seventeen years, nobody has ever called me Ems, except him. My cornflakes shift slightly, remembering the first time he called me that. I raise my hand to my mouth, grind my teeth together until my jaw aches to help purge the memory. He is a wound that will never heal.
He chuckles again, sending his baggy pelican throat into a ripple of jiggles. ‘I should think after three years, Ems, you could refer to me as Dad or at least Darryl. Don’t you think, dear?’
There is nothing in this world that will ever make me say his first name. To me, he is just … him or The Creeper. He doesn’t deserve a name. He has haunted my footsteps for too long.
This time Rose Burberry does look up. Dark crescent moons shadow beneath her eyes and offers hum of acknowledgement.
‘Well. I think it’s time,’ he says, running the tip of his middle finger along the length of his moustache. He smiles at me, as though removing my clothes, layer by layer, slow blink by slow blink.
Aaron bounds over and threads his fingers into my hand. He pulls me towards the kitchen door. ‘C’mon, Ember, we’re gonna be late.’
I am thankful, if for nothing else this morning, for the swift exit and the opportunity not to respond.