We clamber up to the dirt road, where troughs cut by lorry wheels have filled with muddy water. There are no signs of life on this side of the river. The small hydro on the eastern slope produces barely enough electricity to light the school, and kerosene’s not so plentiful it can be squandered where it’s not needed. We jump the fence and scurry across the dirt yard to the doorway of the old farmhouse.
Orion tests the handle. ‘Locked.’
‘No surprise there.’ I peer through one of the windows. It’s bolted from the inside. A vein pulses under my jaw. I didn’t come all this way to leave empty-handed.
Across the driveway and perpendicular to the house is a large shed. I run to it and pull at the door. It slides easily to the side, and I slip through. The boys follow. The bulk of the shed is filled by the old lorry the school uses for dogsbody work – a Ford Model TT, nearer its end than the recent coat of paint would suggest. The air smells of old hay and benzine, but at least it’s dry.
‘What good does it do us to hide in here?’ Eel says.
‘Keeps me from drowning while I figure out how to get inside.’
Maybe I could warm my hands by wrapping them round Eel’s neck and squeezing till he shuts up. Two birds, as they say. There’s a small window high on the north wall of the house, which looks ever so slightly ajar. I’m certain I’ll fit through if I can reach it.
‘Make yourself useful, Eel.’
I dart out into the rain again, and Eel stamps through the mud behind me. I peer up at the window. Was it not closed properly, or is it askew in its frame?
‘Lift me,’ I say.
For a moment, I’m sure he’s going to punch me. Can I take him if he does? He’s stronger, but I have speed to my advantage, among other things. I’ve been so good lately. I’ve kept my rage in check. It’s still there though, pumping through my veins. I flex my right hand.
But he follows my gaze to the window and nods. He crouches, and I climb onto his shoulders, my muddy boots resting against the breast of his shirt. He flinches at my touch, and I wonder what I’ve done to earn his hatred. The list of possible answers is longer than I care to dwell on.
Eel stands, and I steady my weight against the wall. I pry at the jutting edge of the window with my fingers. I’m beginning to lose feeling at the tips. It’s no good – either the window’s clasped, or it’s jammed.
‘What’s keeping you?’ Eel grunts.
‘Keep your hair on – and don’t move.’
Gingerly, I lift one leg till my foot’s on the boy’s shoulder. I grip the window as hard as I can and shift my weight, then lift the other leg, and straighten till I stand upright on his shoulders.
‘I’m not a bloody stepladder.’
‘Hold still,’ I say. ‘I think I see the clasp.’
I poke my knife into the crack between the frame and the lower windowsill, and slide it along the length of the frame. There – the clasp! A little more wiggling, and it gives. I use my blade as a lever, and the window pops open.
‘Get yourself through, then,’ Eel says, ‘and off my aching shoulders.’
‘Orion,’ I say.
‘I need you to take off my boots.’
‘You couldn’t have done that before you climbed all over me?’ Eel says.
I’m glad I have the window frame to hold onto. Eel has forgotten about keeping still. Orion fiddles with my bootlaces.
‘Lift your right foot,’ he calls, and tugs away the boot.
‘Just like a bloody circus act,’ Eel says.
‘I can picture that.’ Orion’s fingers flutter across the laces of the other boot. ‘The beauty and the beast.’
Eel snarls and lurches, and it’s only my hold on the frame that keeps me from falling. There’s a whack of fist against flesh, and Orion groans.
‘Eel!’ I hiss. ‘Stay still.’
‘Get her off me!’
Orion pulls off the other boot. I push both arms through the opening, bend my knees, and launch off Eel’s shoulders. My upper body slides through the window and dangles upside down in the room beyond. I reach down till my hands find what I guess to be a desk. I wriggle my legs free and drop into a graceless forward roll over the desk and onto the floor. My shoulder and legs sting. Maybe there’s still a chance that part of me will come out of tonight unbruised, but it looks less and less likely.
In here, the rain retreats to a sharp rapping on the corrugated iron roof. The sound sends an electric thrill through my body, heightened by the knowledge of trespassing on forbidden ground. I peel off my sodden socks. The bare floorboards are smooth beneath my rain-wrinkled feet.
I freeze as a shadow passes across the leadlight window of the front door.