“It did break.”
Eddy Stone looked down at the upturned face of his cousin Millie. Wide eyes gazed back at him through a tangle of curls that tumbled past her dimpled cheeks and over the shoulders of her pink princess dress. She made a very sweet picture – apart from the twisted handlebars that she held in one hand, and the oily chain that dangled from the other.
“What do you mean, it did break?” said Eddy. “How could it just break? It’s a bicycle.”
“I did not break it.” She bit her bottom lip. “But what would happen if somebody did?”
“Somebody,” said Eddy, “would be in a lot of trouble.”
The bottom lip began to tremble.
No, thought Eddy, not more crying. He had had quite enough of Millie’s crying – a noise that was as loud as a police siren and as sharp as a lemon. In fact, he had had quite enough of Millie.
“So,” Eddy added quickly, “it’s a good job that you had nothing to do with it and aren’t in trouble at all.” He hoped that would be enough to stop the tears from coming.
The lip stiffened. It was going to be okay.
Or as okay as it could ever be with Millie around. Which was not very okay at all.
This was the first Christmas holiday that Eddy had spent in the little seaside town of Tidemark Bay, in the cottage that his parents had bought during the summer. He had been looking forward to playing outside in the snow and relaxing inside with the TV and his video games. The weather had ruined the first part with a week of grey skies and every kind of rain you could imagine, from drifting drizzle to torrential drenchings – so much that even the local ducks had taken shelter. And as for relaxing – Millie had soon put paid to that.
Eddy’s Aunt Maureen and Uncle Ken had brought Millie with them to stay for the holidays, and the grown-ups had all agreed that what a four-and-three-quarter-year-old bundle of mischief really needed was her sensible eleven-and-a-half-year-old cousin Eddy to keep an eye on her and set her a good example.
Eddy had not agreed. Eddy had not even been asked.
Tonight, the grown-ups had decided that the best way of getting ready for Christmas was to practise having a good time, and they’d gone out for the evening.
“We’re only down the road in the pub,” said his dad. “You’ve got your phone if there’s any problem.”
So here he was, stuck with Millie and the job of entertaining and restraining her. Less than half his age, less than half his height, and more than twice as much menace as he could handle.
She was already losing interest in the bike. She dropped the chain onto the floor of the hall where they were standing, leaving an oily smudge on the carpet, then tossed the broken handlebars over her shoulder.
They looped through the air and smacked into the ceiling light, cracking the glass shade, before clattering down onto the hall table and sending a stack of Christmas cards flying.
Eddy tried to be patient with her. But Millie used up every scrap of patience he had, and then came back for more.
“Let’s get these bits out of the way,” said Eddy with a sigh, as he stooped to pick up the bicycle chain. “And then I’d better find the rest of the bike. Can you remember where you left it?”
“I know it was in your bedroom,” said Millie helpfully.
“My bedroom?” said Eddy. “Why was it in my bedroom?”
“It looked tired,” said Millie. “I thought it needed a rest. It was very hard work getting it up all your stairs.”
Eddy set off to bring it back down. He noticed the long scratch on the wallpaper by the staircase.
“It is not there any more,” said Millie. “Not after it fell out of the window.”
“And how did it do that?” said Eddy, trying to sound calm.
“I don’t know,” said Millie. “It’s just a big mystery.”
“I see,” said Eddy, struggling to scrape up a last bit of patience. “So it must have landed in the front garden.”
He grabbed a torch from the hall stand. He could do without this. It was a filthy night outside. A fierce wind was howling in off the sea, lashing the pouring rain against the windows, and rattling through the letter box. He slipped the latch on the front door. The wind tugged it from his grasp and slammed it open.
“Why is wind?” asked Millie, perched on the stairs.
“Not now,” said Eddy. He shielded his eyes with his hand and peered out into the murky evening.
He could see his bike splayed out on the front lawn. One of the wheels was at a worrying angle, and the seat was stuck in the hole where the handlebars usually sat, but apart from that the damage didn’t look too bad.
He pulled on a raincoat that was hanging by the front door and ran out into the garden. The wind saw its opportunity and with a sudden swirl blew water down his neck, up his sleeves, into his face, and over the sides of his shoes, soaking his socks in an instant.
“I hate rain,” he said, getting a good mouthful of it in the process.
He grabbed the bike and turned to haul it back towards the house.
As he did so, he spotted something lying on the ground, halfway up the garden path. Something brown. Or brownish. It was hard to tell in the dark and wet. It looked like a soggy bit of cloth. Maybe one of the grown-ups had dropped a jumper or a scarf on their way out? It was soaked through, its surface matted together. He had better get it out of the rain.
He bent down to pick it up.
“Mew!” The sound was a hoarse whisper.
It jerked wearily away from him with a squelch.
“A cat!” said Eddy. It was only because of the mew that he knew what it was. There was nothing furry or purry about it. With its hair slicked down by the rain, its tail trailing limply and water dripping from its drooping whiskers, it looked sodden and shivery and very sorry for itself.
“You can’t stay out here. Let’s get you inside – oh.”
It was ahead of him, already staggering through the open doorway and into the light and warmth of the hallway.
“What is it?” Millie’s voice piped up. “And is it allowed in here? It’s dripping puddles on the carpet.”
“It’s okay. It’s just a cat. And it’s only a bit of water. That’s not the end of the world,” was Eddy’s reply.
He was about to find out that every part of that reply was wrong. Terribly wrong.
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