She woke up dead and stayed that way for a week. It was her sister’s fault. If she hadn’t been in the tree house with the silvery pail in the first place, then she never would have gone looking for the frog spawn. It wasn’t the right time of year for frog spawn.
The pail had a big cut in it, but was good for holding leaves. They gathered as many of them as they could fit into it. And then they poured them out from a height to see if they would fly. Some did.
Her sister took the butterfly net to catch the flying ones. She caught the more purpler ones and set alight the others. Her sister had been given the singing name of Joanna. Her own name of Olivia, she rarely said aloud. Unless the teacher made her. When others said it out loud, sometimes she heard it and sometimes she didn’t.
She couldn’t keep up with Joanna, so she sat by her tree. She swept up leaves with her feet and put them in a circle around it, to make a crown for the tree’s roots. She sang while she did this. And that’s when it happened. Not the falling dead part, that came later, but the meeting with the Root Creatures.
At first, she couldn’t tell them apart from the leaves, but once they started giving out to her she could see they had mouths. They were bigger too. And shinier. They wanted to know why she had woken them up. She didn’t want to say that she hadn’t meant to, so instead she told them she had heard they were wise and that she was seeking advice. This made them swirl. What did she want to know, they swooshed.
‘Well’ Olivia paused, ‘I’d like to know what to do with an annoying sister. Oh, and what makes dead people go dead.’
The leaves bunched together and rustled.
‘We will help with both dilemmas’ they said the word dilemma with six extra ‘m’s , ‘but you must help us with something.’
She sighed. Why was it people, and now these Root Creatures, always wanted something back. Why couldn’t they just give. Like a dog.
‘Fine. I’ll help.’
The leaves flew up high, together, like starlings and fell back down all around Olivia. Some got into her hair.
‘Stop that!’ she shouted at them.
‘Who are you talking to?’ Olivia was flicking her hair out of her eyes and kicking leaves when she heard Joanna’s voice.
‘Why were you talking to yourself? Have you turned into our aunt?’
Olivia stuck out her tongue at Joanna’s back and took a glance at her tree. It looked busy.
When she awoke the next morning. Joanna was not in her bed. She was not under her bed either. Or under the stairs where they hid on Tuesdays. She put on her mystery-solving clothes and went into the woods. She heard bird song, then wind and rain drops. She walked to her tree. She kicked the leaves into a circle around it. Nothing happened. She was late for school, so she ran back to the house and put on her school-going clothes. She took two steps at a time on the stairs and tripped at the top.
‘Oww!’ she cried. It echoed around the landing and up to the attic.
At school, the teacher was learning them about re-incarnation. The word didn’t sound like what it was supposed to do. It ought to have more ‘u’s. And wasn’t a carnation a flower? Nobody asked where her sister was. She rubbed her knee where she had fallen. During the break, she went to find the nurse. But the nurse was away. The sign on the door said so.
By the time she got home, the woods were blue-dark. She went inside and took out her pencil collection. She picked out the darkest writing one and made a map of all the places that Joanna could be.
At first light, Olivia left the house and went to the tree house. There was Joanna’s silver hair clip. She took it and climbed back down. She sang. She gently hugged the leaves into a crown around her tree. All the way up it this time. She heard rustling.
‘Welcome back.’ the Root Creatures said.
‘Thank you. I was wondering if you have seen my sister Joanna?’ she asked.
‘Why, of course we have. We took her away. According to your wishes.’
‘Oh no. I think you are mistaken. Please return her.’
‘We are not mistaken and we cannot return her. We will now take care of your other request.’
The leaves laughed harshly, raised Olivia up and knocked her head against the bark of the tree. With the first knock, her head throbbed, with the second, her brain hurt and with the third, her forehead bled. She fell to the base and lay there not moving.
‘Am I dead?’ she asked when she awoke.
‘You’ve been out for a week.’ Olivia opened her eyes to the voice. The lights were too bright.
‘Where am I?’ she asked.
A different voice said, ‘In your room. You fell and hit your head. But everything’s going to be okay.’
‘Where is Joanna? It was my fault. They took her, because of me.’
‘Shush now. We’ve been over this. Joanna died last year. It was an accident. Please rest. We’ll give you something to make you feel better.’
Olivia turned towards the wall and stayed quiet until the voices went away. Later that night, she heard the leaves against the window and opened it.
She heard them say, ‘We took care of your requests.’
Her voice was weak, ‘They were only questions. I didn’t want you to do anything.’
‘Enough!’ the leaves sounded wild now.
‘You promised us something.’
She balanced herself on the window sill, stepped onto the ledge outside. She jumped.
The leaves did not catch her.