After leaving home together, Apple and her brother Skye discuss what to do with their lives.
He comes over and ruffles my hair with his big, calloused hand, staring off into the distance as if thinking hard. After a few moments of this I have had enough and punch his arm. He looks down and gives me a grin as he pulls out a coin from his pocket.
“Heads, we try and find our way back. Tails, I’m stuck with you. Deal?”
I nod, slowly.
“You understand, though,” he continues, suddenly serious. “You understand what it will be like? You might have to sleep out in the rain, or go hungry for days. That’s really want you want? To be cold and dirty and hungry?”
I nod again, harder this time. “Yes,” I tell him firmly. “That’s what I want.”
Skye flips the coin and it goes sailing up above our heads, spinning over and over, changing our fate with every turn. It flashes as it rotates, catching the sun, then begins to fall, still turning, heading towards the mulch of the forest floor. Skye snatches it back before it gets close, slaps it on the back of his left hand and clamps the right over it. He turns his face away from me.
“I can’t look!” he announces theatrically to the forest. “Will I be trapped with the wormy Apple for the rest of my days?”
Ignoring his jibes I pry his fingers up and look at the coin that will decide my destiny.
“It’s tails!” I declare, grabbing the penny and putting it in my pocket.
“Is it? Well, I guess we’re stuck with each other then.” He doesn’t sound angry or upset now. In fact, I think he sounds happy. I think that was the option he was hoping for, too. “Do I get my money back?”
“Nope. This one’s special, so I’m going to hang on to it for a while.”
“Is that so?” He raises an eyebrow. “Oh well, better get moving.” He takes my hand and we start walking down the road. “So, what sort of work shall we look for? Head to the sea and enlist on a ship?”
I shake my head. “No, I bet you’ll get sea-sick! And neither of us can swim,” I point out. Neither of us has seen the sea. In fact the largest body of water we have experienced personally is the duck pond in town.
“No boats then. What about joining the circus?”
“That’s a better idea. I could be an acrobat, one of those ones that rides on the back of a horse and does back-flips and things.”
A circus came to town a when I was ten and I can remember it vividly. The whole tent smelled like burnt sugar and paraffin. The ring master wore a scarlet coat with bright brass buttons that shone in the light. He cracked his whip and made a great big bear dance a jig around the ring. There were acrobats and jugglers and a man who walked across a rope suspended high above the ground. Clowns with painted-on faces and shoes three times the size of a normal foot pranced around, playing pranks on each other and unsuspecting members of the audience.
I liked the woman who rode the horse best, though. She was wearing this beautiful flowing dress with skirts of blue gossamer, and her horse was a pale gold colour with a blond mane that matched the rider’s own hair. Her feet were bare and there were little bells around her ankles that jingled every time she moved. As the horse cantered around the ring she turned and flipped and jumped, never once losing her balance.
Skye looks sceptical. “Really? You on a horse? You can’t ride any more than you can swim and besides, you wouldn’t go near Dorothy-Mae until you were ten.”
“Dorothy-Mae is really big and she doesn’t watch where she’s putting her feet,” I protest, scowling as I think of the farm’s great dun work-horse. More than once I’ve had to snatch my toes away from the clumsy animal’s path. “And she’s really, really big. I know: you could be a clown, Skye. Since you’re so funny.”
Skye confessed to me after the circus that he found the clowns really creepy, which is strange because Pa’s most terrifying ghost stories do nothing to scare him.
He doesn’t seem to like that idea, funnily enough. “I could be a knife thrower. I could throw them and skewer apples on your head,” he suggests as an alternative, miming throwing invisible blades at me.
“No!” I shake my head emphatically. “I don’t trust you with sharp objects. In fact, I don’t trust you at all!”
“That’s a bit stupid, given that you’re stuck with me,” he points out. He’s quiet for a moment. “Apple?”
“Love you, sis,” he mutters.
“I love you too, Cheese-for-brains! What are you being all soppy for?”
“Cheese-for-brains?” he retorts, pretending to be insulted. “I try to be nice and what do I get in return? I ought to tie you to a tree and leave you for the wolves.”
“Wolves are meat-eaters, Skye,” I explain patiently. “They don’t eat Apples.”
He groans. “One more joke like that and I’ll gag you with your own pigtails,” he threatens. “Maybe then I’ll have some peace.”
“You’ll have to catch me first,” I call, skipping ahead down the road.