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Super Hero

When Poppy crept down the stairs of the home and stepped outside, the world slept. It was early, that was true; earlier than she’d ever been up before. Of course she was often awake at this time, such was the plight of life in the home; clinging to the occasional hour of sleep which floated past in her normal tumultuous nights thrashing around under suffocatingly thin sheets. But this was different. She was up, dressed, alert and ready to start her mission. Yes, Poppy True had a mission. Poppy True had been especially requested; chosen. Somewhere, today, for once in this big, pointless world Poppy True was needed. The feeling hung about her shoulders like a majestic cloak, an invisible shield of beautiful, empowering strength. Of course she’d help. Of course she’d take it – they needed her – she could do anything in the world. But now, faced with the heavy breath of night still sleeping in the shadows, she hesitated. Did she really know the way?
Hearing a slamming door and the rumbling of an engine from a car somewhere up the street she quickly pressed herself flat against the wall, her heart beat thumping in her chest. Entirely unaware of Poppy, oblivious to her mission it moved away from the kerb advancing slowly in the other direction. She sighed with relief feeling, for the first time, the soft whisperings of day time coming to life around her. She pulled her hood over her head, a further layer of protection from this unfamiliar outsideness, and stepped into the street.
Two days she’d estimated. Two days she’d boasted, when they’d asked her how fast she could make it; a new power coursing through her narrow, underfed bones as they’d looked her up and down. She was Supergirl, one of the X Men, Spiderman all rolled into one. How hard could it be to carry such a small thing for sixty miles? The old man had smiled, had nodded, had believed in Poppy with all of his might, with his seventy three years of wrinkled, stooped hope that this girl could do it, that she could deliver this thing and make things right. The younger man was different. He’d stared at her, stared into her, stared through her, an unbending face like cold steel but for a twitch beneath his left eye. Did he think she could do it? Poppy wasn’t sure, but she didn’t care. A memory in soft focus had sang in her head, golden edged and smelling of summer, of cut grass and of a granddad putting a warm, steady hand around her shoulders. She’d do it for the old man.
Her orders were to hug the coast line, to stay away from the major roads, from any roads at all where a twelve year old girl wandering on her own might arouse suspicion, arouse temptation. No, she was to follow the frills of rock and foam, the sands and hills and smaller villages all the way from Edinburgh in the hope that, at some point within the next 48 hours she’d arrive at a house somewhere in the North East of England, a big house, a house rooted into a cliff top, firm against the salty retaliation of the North Sea; a house that ‘she’d know was the one when she saw it,’ where she was to deliver her package. And then what? Melt into insignificance once more, dissolve into the sands she was about to tread, go back to how it was?
She pushed all thoughts of ‘afterwards’ from her head, and headed towards the sea, an unassuming secret agent in second hand jeans. An unsung super hero carrying the future in a purple rucksack with a fraying strap.
The body is an amazing thing. It knows how to act, how to react, how to intuitively take care of itself, often without our conscious input. When it feels threatened, exhilarated, ready for a challenge, a battalion of extra adrenalin is shipped in pulsating through the limbs providing almost cartoon Popeye strength. Maybe this is what made Poppy walk so quickly. Maybe this is how a child of twelve could march, relentlessly along the coast; sharp, wet rain cutting into her face, rocks slippery under foot, at such a tempo; such determination to complete her mission, to prove that she had been a wise choice.
Maybe this is why, in the soft yawning of dusk, when a white car broke all of the normal boundaries and drove slowly across the beach towards her, a tired young girl who had been walking all day found enough new energy sizzling in her legs to run, to head in land, to fight against the gluey pull of the sand dunes as she made her escape. Through a shrill, deafening heart beat she ran, the echoes of slamming doors, of masculine swearing and arguing like a warped, underwater cry swimming towards her. She wove through the dunes, tearing her legs on splinters of dried grass, running for the safety of the gorse bushes, tunnelling through their inconvenient pathways to find a dark, secret place that could embrace her for a couple of hours, to stroke her hair and tell her everything would be ok. ‘I am a super hero’ she repeated her sacred mantra to the beat of a frightened pulse, ‘I am Miss Invisible. Miss Invisible the Super Hero. No one can see me. The good guys always win. We always win. Always. In the end.’ Such had been the mantra of Poppy True throughout her entire life. Today, if only for today, she prayed that it was so.
How long Poppy sat, crouched in the gorse bushes, she wasn’t sure; long enough to feel the groan of walking in the soles of her feet; long enough to feel a pang of hunger in her belly; long enough for the two men chasing her to grow tired and even more angry, spitting shards of blame at one another as they trampled the dunes. But the sand had been kind to Poppy, pouring itself into her footsteps, masking her tracks, helping Miss Invisible to truly disappear.
‘I thought you said she was scrawny, wouldn’t make it past Aberlady! That’s what you said!’
‘Trust me. She is. We’ll find her. It’s just a matter of time.’
‘Well, time we don’t have my stupid friend. Time we don’t have. One more day, that’s all. Just one more fucking day. If she gets there, well – you’re history, I’m history, we’re both history.’
‘I’ll find her. Don’t worry. I’ll get it.’
That voice! It snapped against Poppy’s skin like a rough leather strap. It was him. The man with the twitch. The one who’d chosen her. But why? A sickening confusion whirred in Poppy’s head. And the other man? Who was that? It wasn’t the old man, that was certain; his grand father stature remained in tact, his sunny aura as yet unclouded. But the other one!
The icy realisation engulfed her. She was never meant to succeed. The man with the steely gaze had never intended her to make it, had never wanted her to make it. She was a pawn, a scapegoat he’d be able to throw away like an empty crisp packet. He’d tricked her, as he’d presumably tricked the old man. ‘Oh please, don’t let the old man be a bad guy,’ Poppy urged to herself, to whoever was out there, listening, penning the script to her super hero story; her fantastical escape from the cold, blunt reality which awaited her outside the gorse bushes.
There was nothing for it. She’d need to keep walking; to fight off the need for sleep and to keep going, through the night with only the waves to talk to and the stringent light of a half clouded crescent moon to intermittently guide her. Indeed, the foreboding darkness was not a tempting prospect, but the vulnerable exposure of daylight now seemed so much worse. Added to that the risk of being caught, as now she knew she could be caught; hunted and caught like a wild animal at the mercy of its hunters; the stealth of darkness offered a welcoming hand – an even bigger opportunity to be invisible. Miss Invisible would do it. Miss Invisible would succeed. Her thoughts clung again to the old man, to his pleading eyes. Surely he wanted her too. If not him, surely somewhere somebody did. Surely, after her mission was complete, there would be someone to look at her with pride and say ‘Well done Poppy – you’ve made it!’
Opening up her rucksack Poppy fumbled for the little food she’d been able to bring with her. As she searched, her hand stroked the surface of ‘the package’, sending butterflies fluttering into her hungry stomach. Had they even told her what was in it? No. They’d said it was better that way – just to carry it, not to ask questions, and not to look, just to do it. As quickly as she could. She pulled out her food parcel; a cold baked potato wrapped in kitchen roll, shrunken and less hearty than it had appeared on her plate last night. Enough to sustain her until sunrise? Until she could find a hiding place to sleep through some of the day, when she knew the search for her would begin again? More than enough – she was certain.
All through the night Poppy walked. Through the dark, ominous, twenty first century night; paying no heed to shadows, to cracking twigs, to imagined murmurings and stretching, twitching fingers trying to pull her into the darkness. Only when she neared a road, when the threatening dazzle of headlights filled the sky did her unyielding pace falter; only then did she look about her and call on her imaginary super powers to protect her from the potential danger behind the blinding light.
Blistered feet in broken shoes walked, marched, trampled, stumbled, over 40 miles – although she didn’t know it – before the screech of seagulls welcomed in the day time and the first rays of sun climbed out of the sea. With the sound of passing cars reassuringly distant, and the lure of an upside down rowing boat, swollen, and lichen covered before her, Poppy True knew, at last, it was time to rest. She crawled beneath the hull, wood worm and bugs seeming like welcome comfort, and slept.
So deep was her slumber, so surprisingly void of haunting dreams and restless movements, that it was only the sound of the waves lapping ever closer to her resting place that stirred Poppy. ‘Am I dead?’ she asked herself as she opened her eyes to the thick, damp darkness of her tomb, but as she moved her legs and felt the sudden ache of her exhausted muscles, she remembered. Whatever time it was, however long she had rested had to be enough – she had to finish her mission. Fumbling for her rucksack, and feeling reassured by the weight of the package still inside, she crawled from beneath the boat. The tide was in, the carpet of foam reaching almost to the boat wreck, and in the distance she could see the distant twinkle of street lights in some of the fishing villages she’d passed. She must have about 10 hours left to get to the house on the cliff. She didn’t have a moment to lose. With leaden limbs she started to walk, calling upon the energy she had earlier to come back and help her to complete her journey.
The familiar face of darkness was soon back to accompany her, as slowly her muscles warmed up, her stride regained its strength and fluidity of the night before and she began, slowly but surely to pull the house on the cliff towards her, inch by determined inch. Although walking in the right direction, she was lost in a sea of time and space, not knowing where she was, how far she had to travel and how long she had left. The only consolation was that the car had not re-found her, and had little chance of doing so along the route she took. It was only when she realised she’d reached Berwick upon Tweed that she knew she really could make it. Desperately sifting through her memory for things the old man had said, she remembered the house was only another few hours walk from there. Hope bolstered her step once more, ‘Poppy True, super hero – makes it’, she congratulated herself. ‘Poppy True saves the day’. Little did she realise that she was not the only one with such determination. That somewhere, closer than she could have feared, someone else was still looking for her.
Poppy recognised the house as soon as she saw it. It was just as she’d imagined it; to the point where she began to question whether it really was the first time she’d seen this place; the grey whiteness of the walls, the heavy slates of the roof, the old tree, sculpted into stooped submission by the wind which bullied it day after day. Her heart lunged forward, both with the pang of familiarity and with the final roar of achievement. She’d made it. She’d beaten everything – the distance, the darkness, the men in the car, not having any food. Her stomach was cavernously empty, her limbs were screaming in pain, her blisters burned the soles of her feet like white hot embers, but still, for those last 200 metres, she broke into a run. ‘Poppy True – you’ve done it’, she panted to herself, the package in her rucksack bouncing up and down against the notches of her spine.
She could only have been a mere 50 metres from the door when she caught a glimpse of whiteness out of the corner of her eye; when she heard a door slam and the yell of a man, like the howl of a wolf who hasn’t eaten for days. She dared to turn, to see him running towards her – the man with the twitch, his face twisted with hate, his body, undoubtedly fresher than Poppy’s, contorted into a vicious, lung bursting sprint, his hand clasped around something small and dark. She couldn’t quite make out what it was, until he pointed it at her, with clenched teeth, taking a desperate, uncalculated aim.
The thunderous echo of the shot reverberated across the cliff top as it ricocheted off the wall of the house, followed by another and another. Poppy froze, midway between the house and her predator, her legs shaking uncontrollably, suddenly unable to push them forward as she had for the last sixty miles. Was this it? Had she come so far only to be killed on the door step of safety?
‘Come on Poppy True,’ she whispered to herself, ‘You can do it Poppy True. You can win. The good guys always win.’ The man was fast approaching, his gun still pointed at Poppy as she turned her back on him for one last time and gathering every last ounce of energy in her tiny body, pushed herself towards the sanctity of the house. A final shot exploded into the air, and then there was silence; a slow motion silence where all Poppy felt was a bursting pressure at her back, as her body was thrown face forward into the grass at the steps of the house; a soothing, melting silence filled with white light as she felt herself float above it all to watch the man with the gun stop deadly still, and a woman – a woman she’d never seen before - standing on the steps of the house, over Poppy’s limp body, the glowing light emanating from her, and from the thing she was holding. A sea shell - a shiny, silver seashell, just the right size for a package in a rucksack. Poppy looked at what was now left of her rucksack – a heap of frayed purple fabric torn apart by the bullet? Torn apart by something.
The man with the gun stared helplessly at the woman, at the glowing sea shell she held out towards him, and sank to his knees, his body convulsing in sobs.
‘Please no,’ he wailed, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.’
The glow of the sea shell in her hand stretch forward in one solid beam of light until it covered the man too, wrapping his sobbing body in brilliance. It stretched beyond the man to the car, to the cowering figure of his accomplice hiding behind it, until both were wailing again, this time in pain, writhing on the ground, convulsing as their shape started to change, to mutate, to shrink until the only thing remaining were two fat, black slugs; one crawling across the cold steel trigger of a gun, the other crawling beneath the tyre of a car.
The woman on the steps turned to Poppy’s body, her serene expression unchanged as she placed the glowing shell back into Poppy’s rucksack, and Poppy felt herself sinking, the cool, salty air pulling her down from the sky and back into her earthly body, with tired limbs and aching stomach. A flash of blinding light from the sea shell was the last vision she had of her own body. Opening her eyes again, the vision that greeted her was far lovelier than she could ever have imagined – a woman’s face, almost identical to the one she’d seen from above, but warmer, not bathed in white light, more homely somehow. Poppy’s head was in her lap and she was stroking her matted hair away from her brow. The rucksack, which appeared to be completely in tact, had been unstrapped from Poppy and was on the step.
‘Did I do it?’ Poppy asked in a delirious voice.
‘Well done Poppy’, the woman smiled, ‘You’ve made it. Welcome home.’
‘I knew I would,’ Poppy muttered before falling into the deepest sleep of her young, turbulent life. ’The good guys always win.

Fiona Dixon

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