- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9780143775720
- Imprint: Puffin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 256
- RRP: $19.99
The Memory Thief
Follow the voice.
‘Maximilian? Stop playing games. I know you’re out here.’
What am I doing? Come on, Seth. Don’t just stand here. Do something.
But my feet won’t move.
Instead I’m staring at a giant fence, black iron curling above me like fists punching the air. No way I can get past those iron bars, burning whenever I move close. Glancing upwards, I notice the sky’s
turning the colour of a fresh bruise, not a good sign. Must be almost dawn and I should be heading for my bridge, getting ready for the change. But no, I’m standing by the park’s gates, trying to find a way out. Talk about stupid. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t fenced in, but . . . there must be a way.
I can’t just give up. I won’t.
Looking at those bars makes everything inside me grow large, as if I could split my skin, turn into a giant and charge the gates . . .
‘Max?’ Again, a girl’s voice calls, ‘Where are you?’My stomach growls, either at me or her. Probably both.
Forcing myself to turn around, I stare back at the empty park. There’s nothing to see except plastic playground swings throwing broken-fingered shadows across the grass and birds flying overhead, disappearing into the trees. Still, I heard someone. Hunger digs tunnels through my stomach, chewing at my insides. I need to eat. The gates can wait. Other things . . . not so much.
‘Max?’ Who is Max? Are there two people here? Come on, feet.
Taking a deep breath, I pull myself away from the gates and walk past the playground, over the mulched bark garden, towards a wall of twisted ivy growing along the park’s iron fence. Keeping one eye on the sky, I shake my head. If I change into stone now, I’m in serious trouble. But . . . there are still a few minutes left.
Just a quick look, that’s all. I think the voice came from here but . . . she sounds young, roughly my age. Not much of a meal, then. Maybe I won’t take anything from her, maybe I’ll just . . . what?
I’ll take a look, that’s all. That can’t hurt anyone, can it? If only I wasn’t so hungry. I’ll need to be careful.
I inch closer. Wild creepers cover the bars, splashing purple flowers into every gap and digging their fingers into clumps of lilies. I take another step, one foot sinking into the damp grass, as I push back the branches —
‘Excuse me.’ A girl stares at me through the iron gates, her eyes the colour of stone, grey and flecked with moss. ‘You’re blocking my view.’
Her breath feels warm against my face and I jump back, almost tripping over roots. She’s dark-haired and wearing a long puffer coat with — are those jellyfish printed on her pyjama pants? I didn’t expect her to see me straight away and, for a second, I can’t think. ‘Uh, what . . .?’
Pulling herself onto the fence, she peers over my shoulder. ‘I’m looking for my cat.’ Every syllable floats in a white cloud and her fingers twist around the bars, knuckles red with cold. ‘Did you see a black one White paws with a slightly crooked tail?’
I shrug, looking back at the dark garden and trying to think of something that won’t make me sound like an idiot. ‘Uh no, I didn’t see a cat.’
‘Well, he doesn’t like strangers.’ There’s a slight rasp in her voice, making every sentence into a small scrape on the air. Looking past her, I catch a glimpse of a house through trees. She must live next to the gardens. The girl notices me looking and frowns, nodding back at the park. ‘What’re you doing in there?’
‘Sorry?’ Her eyebrows slide from under a dark fringe, crushing into a frown. ‘It’s early, the park gates should be locked.’
‘Um, should they?’ I glance around. ‘I didn’t know that . . . do you want me to help you look for the cat?’
She bites her lip. ‘That’s not really an answer.’
I’m staring. I’ve not seen anyone for . . . how long? I’m not sure. But it feels like forever and I’d like a real conversation, just for five minutes. So I say, ‘Um, my family’s staying nearby. I went for a walk and I got bored, so I jumped the fence. My name’s Seth, by the way.’ She stares at me, not speaking.
‘And you are . . .?’
The girl doesn’t answer straight away. She glances at the fence as if checking it’s still between us, then mutters, ‘Stella.’
‘Right.’ Stella, Stella, Stella . . . remember that name. ‘As in the stars?’
‘I guess.’ She shrugs and steps back, blurring behind thorn branches and her thick hair. Where’s she going? Her shadow moves left, wandering along the fenceline. Is she looking for the cat?
She says, half to the bushes, ‘We don’t get that many tourists, not at this time of year; didn’t you see the signs? The park’s closed from dusk until dawn. You’re not supposed to be here.’
Something in Stella’s voice suggests the park matters to her, or maybe she’s just keen on following rules. I can’t tell. But I want to keep the conversation going, just a little longer, so I keep up with her shadow, and hurry along the bushes, asking, ‘Why do you think I’m a tourist?’
Her face reappears over a second gate, framed by leaves and dying petals. Leaning against the iron poles she shrugs again, one hand pulling on the sleeve of her oversized puffer jacket. ‘Well, you’ve got an accent and uh . . .’ she glances down at my clothes. ‘Well, you dress differently.’
Her hands seem small, wrapped around the bars and shivering with cold. There’s an awkward shifting in my stomach that I don’t understand. Maybe I should walk away, I’m so hungry . . . but can’t I have one conversation?
‘What’s wrong with my clothes?
’Stella stares, looking at my tunic and trousers torn off below the knee. ‘Aren’t you freezing? It gets cold around here.’
Again, her words sound rough like fistfuls of gravel, falling through the air and flicking my ears. But her words don’t match her tone; they’re kinder. She rests her head against the bars and her eyes look worried. Something about this girl reminds me of winter fruit from the glasshouse; fresh juice under a rough orange peel. I’ve got a feeling humans mightn’t like being spoken to this way but they judge everything on appearances, unlike me.
Biting my lip, I look her up and down. Stella’s not fully grown. She’s round-faced and aged about twelve, similar to how old I must look — though I can’t be sure. I glance behind me. ‘You mean these gardens get cold?’
She shakes her head, glancing at my bare feet. ‘No, the whole city. Winter’s almost here. You’ll need to buy warmer clothes or you’ll end up losing some toes.’
‘I don’t feel the cold. It’s nothing compared to . . .’ I stop, just in time. I’m not supposed to talk about myself. It’s one of the rules for trolls. What am I thinking? And dawn can’t be far off . . .
‘Compared to what?’‘I’ve been to colder places, that’s all.’
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