Since that fateful evening she is gaining a string of solid reviews for her edgy YA fantasy novels. By day she continues to be the corporate executive, by night she’s Alex Dunn – the writer.
Based loosely on the Jewish folk law Alphabet of Sirach, Samael incorporates my love of the occult, classic horror films and TV series such as The Chilling Adventures of Sabina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer that promotes diversity, strong female leads and the power of friendship, regardless of gender, generation and race.
I’ve also drawn on my own personal experiences living in Hong Kong and plan to set the next instalment there to showcase the amazing people who have helped me grow tremendously as a person.
Nothing ever happens in Oakley Woods, population 873. The village is dull every day and even more boring during the holidays. Paula stays with her dad in Southampton, so here I am on the first day of the holiday, sitting in our attic, searching through dusty cardboard boxes for Mum’s nutmeg grinder.
I’m hot and sleepy, with the afternoon sun streaming in through a small leaded-glass window, I open an old biscuit tin and stare at some at a black candlestick holder with a half melted red candle and a bunch of dog-eared guardian-angel cards.
“Katie. Have you found it?”
“What are you doing? I’ve got to get this order out by five.”
“I’m going as fast as I can,”
Mum calls some more from the bottom of the stepladder. I can’t be bothered to answer her. I flick through the cards. Each depicts an angel, with different superpowers. The artwork is beautiful, and the collection is unblemished and in pristine condition. They make me even more depressed. I read about the angel Raphael, who according to the author of the cards, can heal ailments, unbreak broken relationships and gives you a burst of creative powers whenever you need it.
“Katie. You said you’d help.”
She stomps over, her face and T-shirt streaked in green powder and what I hope is beet juice and not blood.
I put the cards in the tin, but Mum stops me.
“They were your Nan’s. We used to give thanks to the angels when I was small. She was convinced it was Chumuel who found her lost engagement ring.”
Sitting next to me, she picks up the green Raphael card. I roll my eyes and sigh. I’ve heard this story a hundred times.
“Me and your Nan looked everywhere, we searched every room in the house. But as soon as we called for Chumuel’s help, he visited Mum in a dream and—”
“And Nan found it in the drain outside.”
“It doesn’t change the fact he told her where to find it.”
“So why don’t we call on the angels to help you get better?”
Mum’s grin is fixed and false as she forces me to remember last bonfire night. “A firework hit me on the arm, and Noah dumped me. You can’t dream that better, Mum.”
“No, but you can learn to love yourself again.”
My stomach tenses. I want to lock myself in my room, but if I do, I’ll have more of Mum’s psychobabble and another ten guilt trips about how I’m ‘lucky to be alive,’ and ‘you should be grateful it wasn’t your face’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’
I’d rather go back to being weak and pathetic than have half a body that looks like a melted candle.
“Mum, you don’t have a disfigurement that grosses people out, and if it was so easy to wish yourself better, why are all the hospitals busy and I’m on an eighteen-month waiting list for skin grafts?”
Staring at my reflection, I peel off my shirt. I never liked bits of myself. I wanted to be shorter so that Noah was taller than me. I wanted bigger boobs so that dresses don’t hang off me, and I longed for hair that curls and doesn’t need dye to turn it honey blond. In year nine, I convinced myself my nose was too long, and my eyes were the wrong shade of blue. Now, my left arm and half of my chest looks like Freddy Krueger’s face, I’d give anything to be how I was before. No wonder Noah dumped me.
A beep on my phone alerts me to a text from Paula: “Heard about Noah?”
I fire up my feed and see a half-naked photo of Noah slumped facedown across a messed-up bed with the caption ”4 out of 10.”
‘Read the comments, Katie.’
I know I’m not going to like it. I just didn’t realise how much I wasn’t going to like it. “Karma. Bet you’re regretting the way you treated Katie now.”
Great, now everybody knows I was dumped by the guy trending on social media for being rated on his lame performance in bed by some random girl he hooked up with.
I raid the fridge for anything resembling chocolate, but it is devoid of anything good. The kitchen table is sprouting seeds, nuts, and fruit in various stages of drying. The wooden table has been transformed into a witch’s grotto.
Sitting on a square of red felt, the candle burns among a scattering of rose petals and angel cards, a scroll of paper tucked into a holder sticks out of the elaborate iron candlestick. It’s a note that reads,
To the greatest angel of them all, please give my daughter
Katie the strength to love herself again, and I will pay it
forward by volunteering one day a week to help the
senior citizens of Oakley Woods.
I roll the note up and put it into the flame and watch it burn. Mum is as nuts as her butter if she believes in this stuff. As the fire takes hold of the paper, I walk to the sink and let it drop, and it turns from a soft pink to black and then to grey ashes. I wash Mum’s wish away.
“You’re going to have to be one hell of a kick-ass angel if you’re going to make me happy. And while you’re at it, can you do my history and English assignments because I’m miles behind with my course work.”
I blow out the candle and realise I haven’t given anything in return. “All right,” I say aloud. “If by some miracle you do exist and make me accept that I look like a hideous monster and not care, I’ll do whatever you want. It can be anything you like. You name it. I’ll do it.”
I blow out the candle and watch a line of greying smoke wind upward. There’s no more anger and frustration. I feel numb because I don’t believe in Mum’s retro hippie rubbish, but a tiny part of me hopes some miracles come true. But This is Oakley Woods, the most boring place in the world and miracles don’t happen.
When a kick-ass angel with the ability to hypnotise and do A-level course work doesn’t turn up, I help Paula decide what dress to buy for her dad’s engagement party.
‘Like?’ Paula texts me a selfie in a yellow dress that’s modern sixties.
I text her a thumbs-up. I can’t stop my stomach sinking because I can’t wear dresses like that anymore. I know I’m shallow and vain and millions of people are worse off than me, but part of my old life was being pretty and carefree, and I miss it.
‘Buying it,’ Paula texts back and she sends me a photo of matching yellow stilettoes with a daisy on the front.
I’m about to text her back that I love them when I lose my signal. Weird. I flick through the settings because as corpselike as Oakley Woods is, my connection to the outside world is always buzzing.
I reboot again.
I try my iPad.
Great. This summer holiday is the worst on record, and I’m cut off from the outside world and the only friend I have left. I need something sweet, but before I get the lid off the biscuit tin, the strangled sound of wind chimes makes me jump, and the biscuits go everywhere. It’s the doorbell.
The silence reminds me that she and Dad have gone into town to get Mum a bigger dehydrator. I hope it’s not Mrs Cooper. I don’t think I can handle any more of her pity. Worse than Mrs Cooper would be a visit from Noah. I clench my fists, and if it’s Noah, I’ll slam the door in his face. Mentally prepared, I open it to find myself face-to-face with the most beautiful lady I’ve ever seen in my life. She’s dressed in a jewelled midnight-blue sari, her long black hair is woven into a plait interlaced with pearls, and her gold-and-purple makeup is as exotic as her amber eyes, which are framed by the thickest lashes ever.
“Hello, are you Linda?”
“Linda’s my mum. She’s out.”
“That is most unfortunate. I have rented the cottage next door. Mr. Holland said your mother has a spare key.”
When I pull away from the hypnotic power of her eyes, I see a black four-by-four Jeep with blacked-out windows and armour, parked along the road outside. It’s the sort of Jeep paranoid celebrities drive, and something is getting out of a back door—a cat, but it’s not like any cat I’ve seen outside of a wildlife film.
It moves forward in zigzags and circles, sniffing the air and searching for danger. With ginger fur, black spots, and round stuck-up ears, it moves alongside the lady to sit beside her, its suspicious orange eyes are level with the woman’s tiny waist.
“This is Sanvi. Do you like cats?”
“She’s as big as my dog, Bronte.” I speak my thoughts aloud because they look as if they’ve stepped from the pages of an exotic fantasy novel.
“I am sure they will be good friends. May I take the key? It has been a long journey, and we are very tired.”
I nod and run back into the kitchen to get the key that Mum keeps in the drawer with string and everything else that doesn’t have a proper home.
When I return, the lady’s talking to the weird cat.
I’m, not sure if interrupting a conversation with pets is rude. “Here you go.”
“Thank you. You have been most kind.”
I watch her and her cat walk across the gravel path that links our cottages and they disappear next door.
Their cottage has been a holiday home for a year. Last summer, some Canadian geologists rented it. I wonder how long the lady and her weird cat will stay when they realise how boring it is around here.
I must tell Paula. I get out my mobile, but the internet’s still dead. I go into the kitchen and sweep the broken biscuits, scooping them up with a kitchen towel, and let the birds enjoy them. I stop when I see the cat doing its strange zigzag secret-agent movement through the jungle that is our combined back gardens.
Feeling more vulnerable outside with our weird new neighbours, I go upstairs to see if I can get a signal on Mum’s laptop. I turn it on, and while I’m waiting for it to boot up, I gaze out the small window where I have a good view of our new neighbour’s black Jeep.
Hiding behind the net curtains, I see there’s a second lady there. She’s of Indian descent too but she’s wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. Her hair’s shorter and loose, and it has a wave to it, but in every other way, she looks identical to the first woman.
They stop talking and in unison look at the window. Realising I’m not as hidden as I thought, I duck down, with my heart pounding in my chest. I should go to my room, but the lure of the window is too great, and unable to stay away, I take another peek to see them dragging a semiconscious guy from the Jeep.
I can’t move as my brain struggles to understand what I’m seeing. Taking an arm each, they drag him along the path toward their house. Still unsure what to do, I call Mum and remember there’s no signal. I check the laptop. No signal. My thoughts race and I wonder if I am witnessing a kidnapping before sanity returns and I realise the guy must be sick.
My uncertainty takes me back to bonfire night when the firework stuck me in the shoulder. I remember falling and screaming as the skin melted from my bones, and I remember how much I appreciated Paula holding my hand. If it wasn’t for her, I’m not sure I would have made it. Knowing one person cared more about me than their own fear and revulsion helped me fight the pain.
I run down the stairs and head back outside. “Can I help?”
They stop and look at me. Despite the different clothes, hair, and makeup, the resemblance is too strong to hide the fact they must be twins.
“He is sleeping,” says the one in the jeans. “He does not travel well.”
I’m not so sure, especially when I take a step nearer and see he can’t be related to them. He’s my age, Chinese and he’s tall and fit, with short black hair and a perfect, sculptured face showing signs of distress as he tries to wake.
“Do you want me to call a doctor?”
The lady in the sari speaks. “There is nothing wrong with him. He is just exhausted from the travel.”
She tries to convince me he’s travel sick but she’s lying – I can tell.
“He is our ward. I know how this must look, but I can assure you it is just the effects of travel.”
The boy groans and, raising his head, stares at me through half-closed eyes, which I tumble right into. If they ever remake Sleeping Beauty with a prince instead of a princess, it would be him.
Crazy as it sounds, I feel in that second as if he knows me and I know him and everything about him even though he’s not like any guy I’ve ever seen. He’s dressed in faded jeans and a bright-red silk shirt that’s embroidered with dragons and is more unbuttoned than buttoned. He’s like something out of a manga movie, and the connection grows in intensity. His eyelids flutter, and the invisible thread joining us snaps. His chin rests on his chest, and once again, he is just a beautiful stranger.
“We must get him inside,” says sari lady. “We are all tired and need our rest. I bid you good day.”
They drag him inside and close the door behind them. I don’t know I’ve seen, probably a kidnapping, but things like that don’t happen in Oakley Woods.