8.17

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“Mum? Dad? I’m home!”

I felt terrible. At the very least I could have sent them a text message to let them know I was all right. I hadn’t had a signal in the forest, but we’d left that three hours ago. I’d had plenty of time to tell my parents where I was, that I was fine and at Ana’s.

“Poppy?” Mum stuck her head around the corner, and ran when she saw me. “My baby is home!”

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“Are you all right?” Dad asked when he joined us. People really needed to stop asking me that. I had no idea what to say.

“I’m fine,” I said, hoping they’d buy it.

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“Where have you been? Your father and I were worried sick!”

I felt awful. “I was over at Ana’s. Bee came over before she moves to Bridgeport, I lost track of time.”

I hated how easily the lie came to me. I’d never lied to my parents before. It shouldn’t have been so easy.

“And you were there all day?”

“Yeah. Sorry, I should have called.”

Mum pulled me into another hug, but I didn’t miss that her eyes were brimmed red and I hated it. I’d done this to them. This was my fault.

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“You don’t need to call, just send us a message.”

“We were going to call the police, Poppy,” said Dad. “We thought something had happened to you.” Berry, if only they knew the half of it! But I couldn’t tell them. They’d ground me eternally otherwise, and I’d never be able to help Ana and Mara.

“I’m sorry.”

It seemed like days since I had last been home, even though I had only sneaked out this morning. It was warm, familiar, and comfortable. Had everything in the forest really happened? The chat at Ana’s? It all seemed like a bad dream now that I was home.

Dad hugged me, and I held on. Was I really considering joining Ana and the others in that prison break-out-heist-thing? Bee had said that people would die. What if I died? What if all of us died, and my parents never found out why I didn’t come home? I’d only just put them through a huge scare. I couldn’t keep doing this to them.

“Am I grounded?”

“No, honey, you’re not,” said Mum, and hugged me again. “We’re just so glad to see you well and home. Just text us next time, okay?”

I nodded, and pulled myself free. I needed to be alone. I needed to think. All of this had made so much sense at Ana’s, odd as that was. Now that I was home…

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I took a long, hot shower and changed into my PJs.

I’d wanted to find the voice and help her, I’d just never thought I’d get imprisoned in some underground facility or that the voice belonged to some alien prostitute.

A sob escaped my throat, and I sank to the ground. I couldn’t make this fudge up if I wanted to. No one would believe it even if I turned it into a sci-fi novel.

Eventually, I fell asleep on my bedroom floor. When I woke up again the sun was just starting to rise, and all of me was sore.

I was terrified of what was going to happen. I couldn’t be going to war against some secret military division, but I felt like I was. Scared as I was, turning back now just wasn’t an option. I’d never done anything important in my life, and my attempts at being an author had failed miserably. But if I helped Ana free some aliens from torture and experiments, then my life would have meant something. I knew I was in over my head, but at the same time it felt right. My instincts knew that Ana had been telling the truth.

This was where I wanted to be.

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“Last night after you left I got in touch with some contacts of mine,” she said when our little war council assembled in her dining room. “They are all willing to help and on their way now.”

“And then what?” I asked. “Do we have a plan?”

Ana nodded. “Yes. The aliens and Mara are our top priority. We need to keep them save. Mara will stay here, with Poppy and Bee, and–”

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“You mean we won’t help?”

“Staying here with Mara is important, Poppy. Nothing can happen to her. We can’t leave her alone in case someone comes looking for her.”

“I know, but–”

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“Absolutely not, Poppy. You have no combat experience, it’s too dangerous for you to go.” Mel nodded to Bee. “You, too.”

“And I suppose you do?” Just coming here had elevated my adrenaline levels. I wanted to help, not sit here and watch TV! Not that Ana had one. The fudge were we supposed to do while we waited for the fatality report to come in?

“Yes, actually, I do,” said Mel. “How do you think I broke into that facility and got you out?”

I blushed. He had a point.

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“We need to protect Mara, Pop. Otherwise what you did in that facility will have been for nothing.”

She referred to the man I killed. Low blow.

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“I don’t want any of you to risk your lives,” said Mara. Ana had gotten her some white clothes, and Bee’s wig still lay abandoned somewhere, hopefully the bottom of a bin.

“And what will you do?” I asked as I turned to Ana. Fairies weren’t the most vicious of fighters in my mind, I couldn’t see how a small group of them sprinkling fairy dust everywhere was going to make a difference.

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“I’ve got some magic of my own, and my friends know what they’re doing. We’ll get in, disable the defences, and get the prisoners out.”

“That simple, huh?” Berry, I had a bad feeling about this.

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“Just stay put, Poppy. Please? We’ll be back before you know it.”

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“It’s better this way, Pop. Trust me, we’d only get in their way.”

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“Then it’s settled,” said Ana. “Mel, we leave in an hour. Be ready.”

“Already am.”

My stomach tightened. This wasn’t right. What if Ana died? Or Mel? I owed him big time for getting me out of that facility. Not lifting a finger while he did all the dangerous work wasn’t how I wanted to pay him back.

But there was no point arguing now. I’d killed a man once in self-defence, and I didn’t want to do it again. I definitely didn’t want to be the one who fired the first shot.

So waiting was all I could do. And I hated it.

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