When I regain consciousness I am lying on the ground at the park. Someone is crouching beside me and they’re saying something, but I can’t understand it.
‘Gran,’ I try to say but my voice is a mere wheeze and my lungs and my throat hurt, just for trying.
Then the voice again. It isn’t Gran. I open my eyes and immediately blink them shut again. The pain is excruciating. I feel as if I have a thousand flecks of dust in them.
‘Hello?’ the voice says again. I must be more ‘here’ than ‘there’ now. As I can understand it now. ‘Hello? Are you OK? Can I help?’ I open my eyes just the smallest amount. There’s a girl there. She’s not Gran and she’s not June. June! I try to push myself up onto my elbows. I need to find out what happened to June! The girl puts her hand on my shoulder, steadying me and holding me back, I think. ‘Easy now,’ she says. ‘You look like you’ve been in the wars.’ In spite of everything, this prompts a small smile from me. If only she knew! ‘That’s a bit better,’ she says. ‘Look, I don’t know what happened to you, but you were lying on the floor and I saw you as I walked past.’
‘There was a fire,’ I croak out. ‘I got out, but my friend-‘
‘A fire?’ the girl sounds shocked. I find I can open my eyes a little more now, so I take a good look. She’s a bit older than me. She has died black hair, with purple streaks in it. Her clothing is black, despite the warm weather, and she wears a black choker and dark red lipstick. She looks kind of cool and edgy, I think, whereas I look…a state. ‘A fire?’ she asks again. ‘Where?’ She looks around, as if trying to detect a mysteriously hidden inferno. I decide to change the subject; this could get awkward.
‘I need my Gran,’ I tell her.
‘Do you know where she is?’
‘Home,’ I’m not coming over too well here, I know, but you try talking to someone when you’ve just fallen out of a burning barn and the past. I’d like to see you try! Just as I’m trying to think of a way to sound less like doofus, I hear the gate squeak and in comes Gran, almost at a run. As much at a run as Gran can do, anyway.
‘Ellie!’ she calls.
‘I found here like this,’ says the other girl. ‘She’s been asking for her Gran. Are you…?’
‘Yes,’ Gran replies. ‘Thank you so much for keeping an eye on her. I got here as quickly as I could.’
How on earth did she know, I wonder?
‘You’re welcome,’ says the girl. ‘Is there anything more I can do for you?’
‘No, I think we’re – actually, could you help me get her to her feet? If you wouldn’t mind?’
The girl nods and drags me upwards. This is neither comfortable nor dignified. I have to hope we never meet again. Then again, she is kind and didn’t even flinch at touching dirty old me.
‘Thank you,’ says Gran to the girl. ‘Thank you, I can manage from here.’
The girl nods, gives me a smile and a wave, and leaves the park. Gran helps me to walk, fussing over me an awful lot. She suggests calling an ambulance but I shake my head. I’m not burned. I have sore eyes, a dry mouth, stiff limbs and I look a sight, but I’m pretty certain I’m OK. Gran fusses for most of the way home. Then she sits me carefully in a chair and brings me a cold drink of water. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life!
‘Now sip that – no gulping!’ she instructs, and watches me carefully to make sure I comply. When the last of the water is drained, Gran throws her arms around me and sobs. I will not get used to this, I think: Gran crying. ‘Oh Ellie,’ I can’t believe the danger I put you in! There must have been another way! How are you? Are you all right? What happened? Tell me everything! No – don’t rush – go carefully. Tell me exactly what happened.’
I manage a smile at Gran’s eagerness mixed up with her concern. Then I tell her everything. I tell her about how pushing June out of the way didn’t work. How it just brought us back – or forward – to the park. I told her how Lilian came with me one time. Gran nods, as if she remembers that. Perhaps she does, I think. After all, it happened. Then I tell her how I forgot her the second time, so she’s still in the henhouse. She touches my arm, by way of reassuring me that this is alright, that she doesn’t mind being left behind. In the henhouse was where she remembered being, anyway. I tell her about my solving the mystery of her telling me to be, ‘back in time for tea,’ and she looks surprised.
‘Why did you say that, Gran? Why didn’t you just tell me what to do?’
‘I didn’t know,’ is her reply. ‘I just thought maybe…maybe we needed more help, you and I. Maybe it would work if we could get the adults in on it, but you were gone too fast for me to elaborate. It wasn’t really a plan, Ellie, just an idea – half an idea, really. You were brilliant to work it out like that.’
I smile, feeling kind of brilliant for a moment, but then my story turns to June, the matches and the barn. I think she got out OK, I tell Gran. I think Billy saved her. I want to go back and check now, but Gran is adamant that this won’t be happening – not today, at any rate. Then, for the first time since I arrived at Gran’s, I burst into tears. I sob and sob. I’m crying for exhaustion, for June, for not being able to tell Gran for sure if I did the one things she’s been waiting for all these years. Eventually, between sobs I manage, ‘I don’t know if Billy did save her, Gran. I don’t know for sure.’
‘He didn’t,’ says Gran. ‘Billy didn’t save June, Ellie: you did.’