‘Gail fought to make her legs move faster but the shadow was always ahead of her.’
Extract taken from The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow
By Emily Ilett
Published by Floris Books
Gail’s stomach twisted as she heard the bed creak upstairs. Kay’s shadow hadn’t just run away. It was Gail’s fault. If she hadn’t kicked it… The hurt in Kay’s brown eyes bubbled in front of her. “I chased her shadow away,” Gail said to the empty kitchen. She grabbed a photo of Kay from the fridge, stuffing it into her bag. “And now I’ll get it back.”
When she opened the door, the wind tugged at her hair. Gail squeezed her eyes against the rain, peering forward. Behind her house, the ground rose steeply towards Ben Fiadhaich, the wild hill. There it was: she could just make out the dark blur of Kay’s shadow pouring over the damp grass at the end of their garden. Gail saw it flow over the wall towards the river, which tumbled icy-cold and fierce down the hillside. “Wait,” she cried out, but the word was tugged from her lips by the wind and undone.
Rain soaked through her leggings as she ran down the garden and clambered over the wall. Here, a footpath curled along the river and out of the village for a mile, before forking into two: one beginning long-legged zigzags up the hillside, the other dipping to wind along the jagged cliff edge towards the south of the island. The shadow was metres in front of her, its shape shifting and swirling as it rolled over pebbles and through puddles.
Gail’s legs burned as she tried to keep up, blinking rain out of her eyes. At least now she was out of the house she could breathe again. Her head didn’t feel so squashed. And once she brought Kay’s shadow home, maybe everything would go back to how it was before. Before their dad walked out. Before Kay got sick. Before she stopped swimming.
It had to.
She was out of the village now. Ben Fiadhaich loomed on her left, its slope scattered with straggles of trees and ledges of rock where shallow caves pitted the hillside like eyes. Gail crossed her fingers, hoping that Kay’s shadow would turn right towards the cliffs where kittiwakes wheeled and cried. But the dark shape slipped left at the fork, and Gail groaned and pressed her hands against her legs to push against the rise. No one climbed this side of Ben Fiadhaich. The slope was jagged and crumbling and there were too many whispered stories about the caves. Lynx Cave, Oyster Cave, Cave of Thieves.
The shadow slid in and out of her sight, slippery as a fish. It was moving further away. Now it left the path, darting over rocks and between tall pines.
Gail plunged through the grass, hands lurching to steady herself against the uneven ground. As she slalomed between trees, the rain petered to a fine drizzle. Here, the ground felt alive with shadows, stretching and reaching towards her. Which one was Kay’s? How would she know? But as she saw a dark shape sweeping over the grass, her mouth twitched in relief. Of course she’d know Kay’s shadow. It was like recognising her sister’s handwriting, or hearing the sound of her footsteps on the stairs.
Gail fought to make her legs move faster but the shadow was always ahead of her. Her chest heaving in waves, she tried to sprint but a stitch pierced her side and she folded over, clutching her stomach. “I can’t,” she gasped, and she crumpled to the ground. And she lay, panting for breath, her legs stuck out in front of her, as the shadow moved steadily up the hillside, closer and closer to the caves.
Gail had short legs, big feet and seal-dark eyes that were fond of staring. Her brown cheeks were dotted with so many freckles it looked like a bowl of Coco Pops had been tipped onto them. Beneath her coat and jumper, she wore a tawny-orange T-shirt which almost reached her knees, and her sodden leggings were zigzagged blue and green. When she talked, her whole face moved, and when she ran she jumped high in the air so as not to trip over her feet. But she tried not to run if she could help it. She was a swimmer, not a runner. Gail winced. And not much of a swimmer either, without Kay.
Gail was higher and further from the village than she’d thought. Below, the island rolled down from Ben Fiadhaich, speckled with villages and towns and silver beaches. She could see the harbour to her right, reaching out towards the mainland, where her mum worked at the hospital. Fishing boats and ferries dotted the sea. Fiorport, the harbour town, was where Gail went to her new high school. She’d been looking forward to starting for months, looking forward to Kay showing her around. But then Kay hadn’t started back after summer and Gail caught the bus alone each morning, her mouth a thin silent line. Her friends had tried to understand, for a bit. But now they’d given up. Even Rin had stopped sitting next to her at lunch.
“You don’t seem like you any more,” she’d said. “You’ve changed, Gail.”
Gail grimaced. She had changed. Just like Kay had. It began when they stopped swimming together. Her edges felt wobbly and uncertain. No wonder her shadow had run away.
As a bubble of anger grew inside her, the stitch in Gail’s side prickled and she pushed her hands against it, below her ribs. It felt like a pufferfish. The spikes made her fists tighten and a flood of scarlet blotched her throat and ears. Gail took a deep breath. It had been two weeks after their dad left that she’d first felt the pufferfish inside her stomach.
On that evening, when the light had already begun to seep from her sister’s eyes, she’d found a crab shell speckled like a starry night sky and had taken it to show Kay. It was beautiful, covered in hundreds of tiny galaxies, and inside it was the purple of blackberry stains and twilight. Kay wouldn’t even look at it, her back curved against Gail, eyes half-closed. So Gail had pressed it into Kay’s hand, but she’d pressed too hard and the shell had crumbled like dust between their fingers. Kay had turned around then, flicking at the broken pieces of shell on her duvet, her eyes cold. She’d said that real marine biologists didn’t break stuff.
It was then that Gail had first felt a sharp blossom of spikes in her stomach and a flare of anger that made her crush the last of the starry shell in her own fist. Since then, the pufferfish inside her stomach kept her awake at night. Anger bubbled through her all the time and she couldn’t make it stop.
Gail took a deep gulp of air. Kay would make it stop. Once Gail got her shadow back, everything would return to normal.
The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow by Emily Ilett is published by Floris Books, priced £6.99