‘Oi, death girl!’ a familiar voice shouted. My heart was in my throat. What were they doing here? A couple of lads from my year at school rounded the corner beside the church and up the pathway near where I was kneeling. I kept my head down and pretended they weren’t there, just like I did at school. They didn’t know anything about me. No idea about what I had gone through. What I had lost. I was just this week’s fresh meat to them. ‘Do you think she’s dead?’ said one of the boys. ‘Looks like it, she’s already in her grave.’ They laughed, loud and harsh, ruining the peace and calm of my normally quiet hideaway. ‘Do it, I dare you!’ One of them goaded. Something rushed past my ear. They were chucking clumps of dirt in my direction. I wished they would go away. I swallowed, my throat was dry and scratchy. ‘Go away,’ I mumbled, willing them to just disappear, scared of what might happen if things got out of control. This was my place; how dare they think they could come at me here. ‘Woooh, it’s a ghost!’ They laughed again as a lump of dirt hit me on my side. I turned to face them, ready to do something that’s I’d probably regret, when I spotted someone else heading in my direction between the graves. ‘Get out of it, you silly little boys!’ They ran off then, but not before giving me the middle finger. ‘You still down there, petal?’ My cheeks flushed at Mrs Owusu’s words. ‘You’ll catch your death of cold sat out here.’ ‘I’m good, thanks.’ I pulled my coat a little tighter to show that I was prepared for the crisp October afternoon, and grateful that she didn’t mention the boys from school. The sun was already low in the sky and creating long shadows that stretched out like bony fingers. ‘You sorting your dad’s plot again?’ She tilted her head towards the gravestone I was sat next to. Mrs Owusu was my neighbour, but she saw me regularly in the graveyard. She’d been there tidying up her late husband’s grave. She came every week, like clockwork. I always thought that an odd phrase, how can people be like a device that’s used to measure time. I was pulled out of my thoughts as Mrs Owusu shuffled from one foot to the other, adjusting her balance slightly. She reached out for the railing that ran the length of the main path and steps in the graveyard. ‘Well, don’t stay out here too long. And don’t give those boys another thought, you’re worth ten of them.’ Heat rushed to my cheeks. I wonder what she thinks of them calling me death girl, I guess everyone probably thinks of death when they see me. Mrs Owusu shivered as a cold breeze whipped at her silk scarf. ‘Give my love to your mum, won’t you, Wren?’ ‘Sure thing.’ I smiled. Mrs Owusu slowly made her way up the staircase. There were twenty-seven steps, I’d counted them, it irritated me that it wasn’t a nice even number. Mrs Owusu’s knee must have been playing up again, she was slower than usual and leaned more on her good leg. I watched as she neared the top then disappeared from view, leaving me alone. The steps led straight into the heart of a housing estate. Sometimes I felt like I could be the only person left on the Earth when I was here alone. Except when other kids from school came to hang out here, but that was usually late in the evening when they sat drinking cheap cider and smoking cigarettes they’d stolen from the newsagent. Standing up, I stretched, it was getting cold. I wandered the little paths between gravestones, it was always weird to think of how many people were actually there, even if they were already dead. I wandered deeper into the older part of the graveyard. Some of the stones were crumbling or fallen over. In loving memory of Samuel Grimshaw Died 21st October 1831 Aged 107 years old, was inscribed on a huge stone, the edges were green with moss, and small chunks of concrete were peeling away where it met the soil. A twinge of envy curled in the pit of my stomach that he’d lived so much longer than my dad. How stupid, being envious of someone that’s dead. People thought I was weird for my interests, and spending so much time at the graveyard, but I didn’t care. I liked looking up random information about people and finding out what sort of lives they’d led, it almost felt like I knew most of these people dead in the ground around me. I jumped, then guilt gnawed at my insides as my phone buzzed and the word Mum lit up the screen. I swiped to ignore call, then shoved my phone back into my pocket. I knew what Mum was going to say, she wanted to leave. She’d decided we were going to leave Shadow Hill and go and stay with family far away from here. She didn’t even ask me what I thought. But leaving this place was the last thing I wanted to do. This was where dad was. The sound of bird song interrupted my thoughts as the trees around me were full. I listened carefully trying to make out the call of each one. Starlings whistled and chattered, shrill twitters of sparrows and a whole range of other birds in full flow with their evening songs. Clouds passed over the sun plunging everything into shade. Wind stung my cheeks, and my eyes watered. The birdsong had stopped abruptly. An eerie, heavy silence pressed in from all sides. I swallowed hard, barely daring to breathe as I listened for the cheerful tweets and calls of the birds from just moments before. Silence. ‘Death girl’s still here!’ Urgh, they were back. ‘Haven’t got your little old lady bestie to save you this time, have you?’ A crow landed on the headstone beside me, cocking its head one way then the other, watching the boys with interest. Was it dad? ‘What makes you think I was the one that ever needed saving?’ The boys looked uncertain for a heartbeat then broke into harsh, rasping laughter. I’ll show them. They can feel what happens when I lose control. The crow next to me knew what to do, like we shared the same subconscious, intertwined and as one. It cawed loudly, summoning the rest. A whole murder burst from the branches nearby and took to the air above me. My skin itched like feathers and hollow bones were brushing against me. The boys staggered backwards, eyes wide as moons with fear. The crows surged, swamping them in a dark mass of feathers, beaks, and claws. I ran. Leaving them behind. Their screams muted against the shrieks of the birds attacking and scratching at skin, pecking at eyes. My heart pounded as I raced through the graveyard, up the steps, and burst onto a street on the estate. A motorbike roared by, and the busy chatter of people and life made it seem like I’d just stepped into a whole new world. It was like nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. I took a deep breath, and decided it was time to head home and face my mum. I took a last glance behind me as the houses swallowed up the view of the graves and the boys from school. If they insisted on calling me it, maybe I should live up to the name, Death Girl.
About the Author
Emma Finlayson-Palmer is a working class, autistic writer who lives in the West Midlands with her husband and a multitude of children, cats and chickens. A writer of children’s fiction, represented by Veronique Baxter of the David Higham agency. Her debut chapter book, Autumn Moonbeam: Dance Magic, will be released by UCLan in July 2022. Emma runs #ukteenchat, a writing themed chat on Twitter, and edits, mentors and reads competition entries for #WriteMentor and reads flash fiction entries for Retreat West. She’s also one half of Word Witches, as a children’s fiction editor.