‘Birthday Secrets’ – Free Short Story
[This post was originally published on the ‘News & Book Reviews’ page on 10th July 2018. Having had to remove it due to an excess of spam comments, I have re-posted it here instead. Enjoy!]
So I agreed to take part in the blog tour for the new Catholic Teen Books anthology, SECRETS: Visible & Invisible without thinking much about what I would actually blog about. Then my fellow authors started posting wildly interesting and innovative blog posts (such as this one about the inspiration behind each story)—and I know there are more to come!
So I thought I’d better try and do something a little bit different and interesting myself! That in mind, I came up with the idea of letting Margo, Bane, and Kyle introduce you to the anthology instead of me. So here is an intro/review/taster all combined: a short story about a short story anthology!
“Oh come on, Kyle! Just whack it! No, really whack it! Like you hate it…” Bane dumped his rucksack on the floor, watching my brother’s attempts to activate the gel heat cube with rising frustration.
“I don’t hate it.” Kyle smacked the squidgy thing against the wall yet again, far too considerately. “If it will just come to life, I will the opposite of hate it.” The mid-October day was mild enough, but the heat cube would make the little forest den toasty warm for my birthday picnic.
“Just pretend… Argh, but you don’t hate anything, that’s your problem.” Bane snatched the cube from my older brother and smashed it into the wall as though it had done him an immense personal injury. “Hah, see!” He jumped back and dropped it hastily into its holder. “I just pretend it’s Eliot. Works every time.”
“Not hating anyone is the opposite of a problem.” Kyle simply moved to the table and shrugged off his own rucksack.
“Unless you’re trying to activate a very old heat cube,” I teased, pausing to unhook my braid from a twig.
Kyle grinned. “Probably the only exception, but yes. Never mind. Bane’s vented his wrath on poor Eliot.”
“You don’t really like my brother, do you, Kyle?” Bane opened his own bag and started pulling out packages. “I mean, you are just pretending, because no one who could be friends with someone as straight-laced and in love with the system as Eliot could possibly be suspected of being a dangerous, seditious, superstitious Underground member? Right?”
Kyle took a carton of milk and another of juice out of his bag and set them on the crooked table Bane and I had made out of a piece of discarded garden fencing. He rootled in his bag some more before finally speaking. “I can’t honestly say I like Eliot very much. But…he is my best mate. And I s’pose I do…love him. If that makes any sort of sense.”
“Nope.” Bane turned his bag upside down over the table and shook the last few items out, making Kyle wince. “Uh-oh, are those the cream cakes…”
Kyle shook his head to himself. “Now he remembers.”
“Well, it makes sense to me.” I sat down on my log seat and let them get on with it. So far they hadn’t allowed me to help pack or carry the picnic, so it was too much to hope that they’d let me help them unpack. “I mean, loving someone even if you don’t like them all that much. Love and liking aren’t the same thing, right?”
“Oh, you’re both crazy.” Bane opened a paper bag and peered cautiously inside, then relaxed. “They’re okay,” he assured Kyle.
“Hang on, hang on,” I said, as Bane made as though to start opening other bags and packages. “It’s not actually lunchtime yet, right? Hadn’t we better wait?”
“Good point.” Bane put down what he was holding, dragged his own log seat closer to mine and sat down. “Well, in that case, why doesn’t Kyle get that thing out?”
Thing… Yes, when Mum and Dad and Bane gave me a couple of gifts before we set off for the forest, Kyle had said he wanted to give me mine later. I’d assumed he meant tonight, when I was having a birthday tea with a few friends from school. I felt bad letting Mum and Dad get everything ready, especially when they seemed so stressed this morning, but they’d insisted I go with Kyle. The picnic was his idea, though he’d brought Bane in on it. Not that you could involve Bane in something like this and expect to retain full control, but that wouldn’t bother Kyle. He was no control freak and goodness knows he’d known Bane long enough to know what he was like.
Apparently Kyle had meant now, because he was easing a small package from the bottom of his rucksack.
“What is it?” I asked Bane.
Bane shrugged. “It’s such a huge secret, he wouldn’t tell me. Something very special. He thinks you’ll really like it. But dangerous.”
“If Bane will allow me to speak for myself,” put in Kyle. “But he’s right. You can’t bring this back to the house, Margo. And don’t leave it in here, either. Too easy for someone to figure out who made this den. You’ll need to hide it in the forest. But it’s in a waterproof pouch, so that’s okay. Here. Happy fifteenth, little sis.” He held the package out to me.
Small, rectangular, slightly flexible… “Is it a book? A real physical book?”
Kyle just smiled.
“Open it!” Bane’s fingers twitched as he fought the urge to snatch it and satisfy his curiosity at once.
He didn’t need to worry. I was curious enough myself! I untied the ribbon, catching a glimpse of grey and a flash of yellow as I unfolded the scrap of pretty, re-usable wrapping cloth to reveal…yes, a physical book.
An old book. A paperback, the spine mended and reinforced by a thick strip of card and a lot of glue, with the original front and back cover still in place, scuffed around the edges, reinforced with cardboard behind. On the front, a boy stared out through a grey-blue slit at a beautiful sunset. Or was it dawn?
SECRETS, said the title. And then: Visible & Invisible.
All things, visible and invisible… The phrase immediately leapt to mind and I caught my breath. “Kyle, has this book got faith in?”
Kyle smiled in such a pleased and self-satisfied way I knew at once I was right. Eagerly, I turned it over and scanned the back, quickly gleaning that it was a collection of short stories on the subject of ‘Secrets’. Quite a mix of genres. And several important-sounding people had said nice things about it. And…yes, at the bottom was an actual Bible verse, printed in plain view on the back cover! Dangerous. Bane was right. I couldn’t help glancing around nervously.
Bane, his eyes reaching the verse, got right up, scowling slightly, and took a nervy peep out of the door. Satisfied we were still alone in acres of empty forest, he came and sat down again. “Just how old is that thing?”
I opened the front and found the right page. “First published in two thousand and eighteen,” I read. “That was in the last decade or so before the suppression of Religious Freedom, right?”
“This looks so cool, Kyle!” I scanned the back cover again. “It’s got everything in here! Action, romance… Hey, there’s even lost treasure!”
“Really?” Bane peered over my shoulder, clearly torn between the thrill of the deadly, forbidden object, and a level of prudent caution he only ever employed in my defence—never his own. “All the same, Kyle, why on earth did you have to get this for Margo? I mean, seriously? Are you trying to get her killed?”
“Of course I’m not,” said Kyle impatiently. “But if she always wipes it after reading it—or wears gloves—and always leaves it hidden out here in the trees, the risk is very low indeed. Far lower than attending Mass.”
The reminder of my regular risk-taking in that area just made non-believing Bane scowl even harder.
“Don’t get in a tizz, Bane.” I opened the book again. “Who’s going to find it out here? Oh, this is so awesome!” I looked at Kyle. “They are stories about back then, right? When faith was legal? And no one executed you for it?”
Kyle nodded. “Yep. Well, one was a historical even when it was written, and one a futuristic story—a dystopian, and a rather accurate prediction, actually. But the other five stories are all contemporary to the authors. It’s seven different authors, you know.”
I glanced at the cover again. “Oh, yeah. That’s cool. See their world through more than one author’s eyes.” I flicked quickly to the first story: ‘The Underappreciated Virtues of Rusty Old Bicycles.’ Hmm, interesting title… No… I placed the book on the table and rose to give Kyle a tight hug. “Thank you, Kyle. It’s an awesome present!”
Kyle beamed. I sat down and grabbed the book again—carefully. Flicked back to page one.
“Oh great.” Bane rolled his eyes. “Margo’s going to have her nose in that all day now. Want to kick a ball around, Kyle?”
“Ask a stupid question.” Kyle bounced up, hooked the old football that lay beside the door and dribbled it straight outside.
Bane followed him, shooting over his shoulder at me, “Though I’m going to lose.”
Bane and I usually played Kyle two against one, what with Kyle being two years older and rather good, but I ignored Bane’s grumble. It was my birthday and I had a fascinating new book to read!
Dragging my seat over to the doorway to at least suggest a sociable interest in their game, I opened the book yet again, and finally managed to start reading.
“Wow, this first story is so like what happened to us last spring, Bane,” I called to them after a while. “Soldiers and helicopter and all that running around and being scared and everything. Do you think the author had the gift of prophecy? The characters are even called Margo and Bane. That’s just weird.”
Kyle made an obliging, ‘I’m listening’ noise, eyes on Bane and the ball, both of which were hurtling towards him. I was quite sure he couldn’t have told me what I’d just said, and Bane barely even grunted acknowledgement, so I went back to the story.
I was just reading the last paragraph when a sweaty fourteen-year-old boy and only marginally less sweaty seventeen-year-old boy jogged up to the hut.
“I say it’s time for lunch.” Bane ducked inside. “No, stay there, Margo, I’m going to make the table look nice.”
“Bane didn’t cook any of this food, did he?” I asked Kyle.
Kyle snorted. “Er, no. It’s supposed to be a nice, tasty picnic. Mum did most of it. I helped. Er…Bane’s mum sent a pudding over for you.” He said the last in an undertone.
Yes, less said about that the better. Mrs. Marsden never cooked Bane a special pudding, let alone a birthday cake.
“So, who won your little match?” I asked quickly.
“I scored!” crowed Bane, from inside the hide-out.
“But you won, I take it, Kyle?”
“I did get a couple more goals than Bane, yes.”
Bane’s turn to snort. “Mr. Modesty here scored a mere nine more goals than me. However, I consider it a win, since I did actually score one.”
Bane was a good player, for his age, but Kyle could have moved from school team to regional team years ago, if it wasn’t for the minor matter of having to make the Divine denial to play in so official a capacity. Since Kyle would rather die than deny his faith, he affected only minor enthusiasm for the sport at school, to the immense frustration of his coach.
“Yep, Bane won.” Kyle gave an easy smile. His competitive streak only showed itself on the pitch, withering the instant he stepped off. “Are you enjoying the book?”
“Yeah, it’s awesome. I’m really excited about the second story because it’s contemporary to the author. The early twenty-first century is such a fascinating period. The freedom…it’s like reading about a fairy tale world!”
“Yeah, tell me about it.”
There was a soberness in Kyle’s soft reply that made me shoot him a look. Kyle had wanted to be priest when we were little, a priest just like Uncle Peter. I hadn’t been able to understand why he stopped talking about the idea when he got to about ten or eleven…until I’d got a bit older myself and realised what it really meant to be a priest or religious in the world we lived in. But the last year or so…some of the things he’d said made me think he was considering it again. Seriously considering it, these last few months. Perhaps…close to making a decision?
“Are you ready in there?” I asked Bane, trying to distract myself from the gut-clenching thought.
“No! Wait till I call you in.”
“We’ll drop dead with hunger, but at least the table will look pretty,” teased Kyle.
“Why don’t you read one of the stories, Margo?” called Bane. “Keep Kyle’s mind off his stomach!”
Kyle brightened. “Yeah, why don’t you read one?”
Clearly it would prove to him how much I genuinely liked his gift, so I opened the book again and launched straight into ‘Recreation’. It was about a young man who could have been Bane or Kyle—well, he was probably more like Kyle, character-wise—who started helping out an old lady, only to have her disappear on him one day…
“Awesome!” Bane stood in the doorway, listening to the conclusion. “That’s a good ending. Oh, the lunch is ready now.”
“You know what struck me about that story?” said Kyle, once we were tucking into a tasty and beautifully set out picnic. “It was like it was an unusual thing for Elijah to help that old lady. I mean, you can understand why things are like that now. Faith’s utterly forbidden, most people don’t know even the basic tenants of traditional morality, and ‘help yourself and your own’ is the only logical conclusion of atheism. But faith was legal then, so how come helping someone like that was so odd?”
“Let’s see, two thousand and eighteen…” History was one of Bane’s best subjects and he’d a good memory, so Kyle and I both listened closely. “Faith was legal, right, but it wasn’t common any more, was it? There was a serious decline going on. Extreme individualism didn’t mix well with the altruism you lot practise. A mix of complacency, compromise, and cowardice on the part of those who were still Believers led only shortly afterwards to the complete suppression of Religious Freedom. So you can’t call twenty-eighteen the golden age of faith. It was really the start of the rule of Atheism, right?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” said Kyle. “I wasn’t thinking specifically enough about the period. Things shifted so much during those critical few decades.”
We turned our attention to the food, and eventually the table was picked pretty bare—and no longer at all nicely laid out—and we were sitting with our backs to the bumpy branch walls of the den, legs stretched out, stuffed and happy.
“That was delicious. Thanks, you two.”
Bane shrugged, Kyle smiled.
“How did you get that book, by the way?” I asked Kyle. “Please tell me you didn’t do anything dangerous.”
“No, no, relax. Father Mark got it for me.”
“Well, I hope he didn’t do anything dangerous!”
Kyle frowned, as though this unpleasant thought hadn’t occurred to him before.
“I’m quite sure Father Mark’s more than capable of acquiring a book safely.” Bane rubbed a hand through his hair rather impatiently. “I mean, is there anyone here who isn’t convinced he was a spy or something with the Resistance before he went off to the seminary?”
A spy…or worse.
“Hmm, good point,” I said, more to stop Kyle from looking so worried than anything.
“What about another story?” Bane raised an enquiring eyebrow.
“I’ll go hoarse if I try and read the whole book out loud!”
“I’ll read one.” Kyle picked up the book—carefully—and flicked through it.
“You missed the third story…”
“Number four is my favourite. I vote the person reading gets to pick!”
Bane sniggered. “So you read Margo’s present before giving it to her, eh?”
Kyle’s cheeks went slightly red. “It’s not like it’s a brand-new book. Hundreds of people must have read it already, what’s one more? Anyway, I wanted to check it really was good.”
“Well, I don’t mind.” I shot Bane a ‘be nice’ look—he smirked slightly.
“So this is the historical,” said Kyle. “You know, the one that was written as a historical at the time. It’s called ‘On the Brink of Hell’.”
“Uh-oh, here we go,” muttered Bane, always happy to debate faith, but less tolerant of any too-blatant attempt to convert him—something Kyle was rather prone to.
“Relax, I think you’ll like it. It’s about a soldier. There’re even some gory wounds.”
“Hmm.” But Bane looked more interested, in spite of himself.
Kyle began to read, and Bane was almost at once ensnared, I could see it by the way his eyes remained fixed on Kyle as he read, occasionally fastening on the book in his hands, but never moving further away. I was hooked myself, listening, my heart in my mouth, as I waited to learn Dario’s fate.
“Phew, that was tense,” I said, when Kyle had finished.
“Umm,” agreed Bane, grudgingly. “Oh, hey, my turn…” He took the book from Kyle and flipped back to the third story. “I’ll take pot luck and do number three. ‘The Portrait of the Fire Starters’. Promising title.”
“This one is a mystery,” said Kyle.
“Shhh,” said Bane. “No spoilers.”
He began to read. By the time he’d finished a couple of tears had escaped and were running down my cheeks.
“Are you okay, Margo?” Kyle looked dismayed.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” I held myself firmly in check. “Seriously. Just…that young man in the story, the one with the disability. He’s like Sarah in my class at school, but he’s got a job. I mean, he’s an adult and he’s alive! There’s no way he would have passed Sorting… Just think what we’re missing, who we’re missing…and…who…who we will be missing, after Sorting…”
Sarah…and maybe me…
Watch it, Margo… I’d been very careful not to let Bane figure out that I was in danger of failing Sorting. And since Kyle had started thinking about his vocation again, I’d made a point of being extremely positive about the matter whenever it came up in his presence. Because I didn’t want him talking me into making a run for Vatican Free State with him. I looked too young; I would put him in danger. More danger. And Bane would insist on coming, and then he’d be in danger too. And how could I make my parents lose both their children at once, when I might even pass?
The two boys were looking at me… “Sorry. It just…it really…it went right to my heart. Because of Sarah, you know.”
Bane’s lip twisted sourly, but he couldn’t seem to find any words. Poor Sarah. Kyle looked incredibly sad. And…worried? No, don’t let him be thinking about me and Sorting…
“My turn,” I said brightly, taking the book from Bane. “Which one do you suggest, Kyle? Number five?”
Is it cheerful? hung in the air unasked. Kyle glanced at the contents page as I held it out to him. “Uh… Why don’t you do six or seven?”
“Right.” I checked the back cover. “Well, seven’s the one with treasure. I’ll do that one. It’s called ‘More Precious than Gold’.”
I started reading, and soon we were transported to another country, another time, as a group of teens tried to solve the puzzle of a long lost treasure. There was a bit of romance, too, and I could see Bane’s fists clench, he was so gripped by the courage and self-sacrifice of one of the lovers.
“Yes!” cheered Bane, at the end.
“They found the real treasure,” said Kyle meaningfully. “How good is that?”
“Hey, don’t spoil a great story by moralising at me,” snapped Bane. “These things don’t need to be spelled out, you know.”
“Sometimes I wonder, with you,” retorted Kyle.
For a moment I thought Bane would throw a punch at him, but he settled for a glower.
“Kyle, that was kind of rude.” I was used to my brother coming out with overly-frank utterances now and then, but he usually only did it when he was really stressed about something. But what would he be that stressed about, today?
“Honesty’s rudeness now, is it?” muttered Kyle. But his cheeks had gone a little red and he avoided our eyes.
“Sticks and stones, Kyle. Give me the book, Margo, it’s my turn.” Bane took Secrets from me. “I’ll do number six. ‘Behind the Wheel.’”
“Oh, I bet you’ll like this one.” Kyle grinned, his usual good humour popping back to the surface like a cork in the ocean.
“Hope so.” Bane might have a much hotter temper, but he wasn’t one to hold a grudge over a silly little thing. He began to read.
I could soon see why Kyle thought Bane would like it.
“D’you think Sean’s an ancestor of yours, Bane?” I couldn’t help sniggering, when he’d finished.
Bane drew his shoulders back and shot me a dignified look. “You say that because of what he did in the end, right?”
“I’m guessing she says that because of the rash stupid thing he did at the beginning,” snorted Kyle.
“Or both,” I said hastily, seeing another tiff looming. “You could’ve quite easily done both things, Bane, the good and the bad, and you know it.”
Bane was prepared to take this remark from me, and merely shrugged. “Yeah, well, I think what he did at the beginning was cool.”
“Or possibly you’re missing the point of the story,” said Kyle. “Which is whether or not we do the right thing when it matters.”
“Am not! I get that, okay? The rest was still cool. Honestly, Kyle, you’re as subtle as a mallet. I don’t know how you’re still alive.”
“You think I talk to most people like this? I’m subtle with people I can be subtle with. You just aren’t one of them.”
“Not one of them? You think I don’t know when you’re being subtle at me? I do, I just ignore you!”
Kyle scoffed. “Yeah, like the innocent little field mouse sitting cleaning its whiskers ignores the hawk dropping on it from above!”
“Did you just call me a… Right!”
Too late. Bane had flung himself on Kyle, sending the two of them tumbling through the open doorway, their log seats rolling away into the far wall.
“Seriously?” I leapt through the doorway myself. They were scuffling on the ground, and bigger, stronger Kyle was already pinning Bane down. “Are you two really going to do this, today?”
Bane did something that made Kyle yelp and haul his fist back for a proper punch.
“Hey! What happened to turn the other cheek?” I yelled.
Kyle’s fist remained drawn back, his face scrunching up like one suffering a severe internal battle. Bane promptly hit him in the stomach and reversed their positions, coming out on top.
But Kyle spread his arms, his hands lying open on the ground. “Fine, you win, Bane.”
Bane’s face darkened. He’d rather get thrashed a hundred times than be given a victory. “No! Fight!” He slapped Kyle’s face, hard.
Kyle scowled, but pressed the backs of his open hands more firmly to the earth. If he’d made up his mind, wild horses couldn’t change it.
Bane raised his hand again… I lunged and grabbed his wrist. “Stop it! He doesn’t want to fight!”
“Because you stopped him!” Bane yanked his hand free but got to his feet. “You are such a blasted kill-joy sometimes, you know that? Surely a bit of play-fighting’s okay?”
“Play-fighting? You weren’t play-fighting, Bane. You don’t know how to play-fight.”
Kyle rose gingerly to his feet, still panting slightly from the stomach blow. The side of his face was red.
“Are you okay, Kyle?” I asked, as Bane stormed back into the hut and started righting log seats.
Kyle dismissed my concern with a flap of his hand. “Perfectly alright, Margo. Oh, I’ve got some chocolate in my bag. I almost forgot. Shall we get that out and listen to the last story? My turn to read.”
Bane clearly approved of the plan, in that he sat himself down again and accepted some chocolate, albeit all without speaking, and soon Kyle was reading the final title. “So it’s called ‘Sister Francesca’. Okay, here we go. ‘My name’s Francesca. I’m going to be a nun, so don’t fall in love with me…’”
Wow, this story was about vocation. Vocation to the religious life? Back when that was safe. I caught the panicked look Bane shot at me and the scowl he turned on Kyle. Worried I’d get ideas? My heart swelled and beat harder. No religious vocation for me, I didn’t think!
This story was very different from the others. It perhaps had something slightly in common with the historical one, but not much. It was kind of sad and beautiful, all at once. Kyle read it very well, too—and when we reached the ending, that fact scared me slightly. No, I didn’t think any girl would ever manage to distract him from God, however beautiful, or holy, or kind she might be.
“Wow,” I said, as he closed the book. “I think maybe that’s my second favourite. After ‘On the Brink of Hell’, you know, the historical. Or maybe it’s my favourite. I’m not sure.”
“They’re my favourite two as well.” There was something very serious in Kyle’s eyes as he looked at me. Unusually serious. Adult. Like he’d grown up some recently, when I wasn’t looking, taking a silent, secret, significant step towards adulthood…
“Oh, but then there’s the Fire Starters one…” I went on, hastily. “I loved that too!”
“I prefer ‘Behind the Wheel’!” Bane waved his hands enthusiastically as he spoke, ticking stories off on his fingers. “And ‘More Precious Than Gold’. Oh, and number two was cool. “Recreation’, that’s it. Though I wish there’d been dragons. And a few maidens getting rescued. You just don’t get enough of that sort of thing.”
“Bane’s actually a real sucker for happy endings, you know,” I told Kyle. Who was still looking at me in that disturbing way. “Well, I’m going to read this like, ten times, and then I’m going to try and write some early twenty-first century stories of my own!”
“With dragons?” said Bane hopefully.
“Margo.” Kyle’s voice was soft.
My stomach twisted in dread. “Kyle?”
“I’ve got…something to tell you.”
I met his eyes, green like my own, and couldn’t think of a reply. Lord, please don’t take him from us…
“Well, spit it out, then,” said Bane.
Kyle ignored him, his eyes still fixed on me. “I’ve been…well, I think you know I’ve been thinking a lot recently about…about, er, career paths. And…and praying even more. And…the thing is…”
No, no, no…
“The thing is, Margo, I really think I may have a vocation. To the priesthood. I’m…I’m sure enough that I’ll simply have to…you know, go and find out.”
Go. To Vatican Free State. Nothing simple about it. Across the entire EuroBloc. And the only way he could go—the only way safe for Mum and Dad and me—was if he faked his death. So whether or not he did have a vocation, it was a one-way trip. He could never come back. We’d never know his fate. So whenever and wherever and however he actually died, for us, to all practical intents and purposes, his leaving would be the same as his death.
And if he did have a vocation? I shuddered. I didn’t even want to think about his likely fate when he came back to minister in the EuroBloc.
“Have you told Mum and Dad? You have, haven’t you?” Yes, no way was Mum’s earlier tension and Dad’s distraction mere stress over a few birthday tea preparations. No, they were trying to come to terms with that long expected but no less devastating news—that their beloved son would die young, and die horribly.
Lord, why does it have to be Kyle?
But I knew why. Because my brother would make a fantastic priest. Because although he could be a verbal and emotional klutz at times, his love was so strong and pure, and his heart so brave and true. Why the Lord wanted him was no mystery at all.
“I told them last night,” said Kyle. “They were…they were happy for me.”
Yes, in this whirl of heart-crushing emotions, I was happy for him too. If this was right for him—and how right for him it was—how could he be happy doing anything else?
Smothering my intense, primary, selfish, desire—which was to cling to him and beg him to forget the whole thing immediately and forever—I managed to unlock my limbs at last, and wrap my arms around him in a mere hug. “I’m happy for you too, Kyle. And…and proud. So proud of you.”
That was certainly true. I’d once heard that as many as one in three people had the call to priesthood or religious life, but even in the old days most of them had ignored it. To act on it nowadays, to accept the almost inevitable death meted out by the EuroGov—that ghastly, nightmarish, agonising death—required exceptional courage—and a very large dose of the Holy Spirit.
“Wait…” I pulled away slightly, panicking. “You’re not…”
“I’m not going right now, Margo,” he said quickly. “I haven’t quite finished planning everything yet.”
Hadn’t quite finished planning? How long had he been planning this for already? Planning even while discerning…
“I’ve got to get it right.” Determination covered Kyle’s face; filled his voice. “I’m not putting any of you in the tiniest bit more danger than I can possibly help. But…well, I doubt I’ll still be around next year. Uh, you know, around here.”
Maybe not around at all, if his plan went wrong… I tightened my arms around him again, unable to keep the sobs in any longer.
“I don’t understand you, Kyle.” Bane finally broke out of his subdued silence. “You go to all this trouble getting Margo a lovely present, arranging this nice picnic, and then you drop that on her. Today? Why today, numpty?”
Making a great effort to quell my sniffs, I drew away again so I could see Kyle’s face. Which was reddening slightly.
“I just…it…I had to. It felt like…almost like lying, to go through today and…not tell…”
“It’s okay, Bane.” My voice still wobbled, but I managed to speak. “I’m glad Kyle told me. Otherwise…otherwise I wouldn’t appreciate today properly.”
My last birthday with my brother. My heart constricted even more. No. I mustn’t spend today crying. Time enough for that when he was actually leaving.
“Kyle?” Bane’s voice was low, now. Intense. Almost…pleading. “Are you…are you absolutely certain about this, mate?”
Kyle laughed wildly. “Trust me, Bane, you have no idea how hard and how long I have been trying not to be certain about this. But I am. As far as I can tell, He wants me. So He can have me.”
My heart swelled with love and pride at my brother’s simple words. And with awe. The sacrifice that was being asked of him was beyond anything ever likely to be asked of me. But he was prepared to step up and make it.
“I love you, Kyle.” I gave him one more big hug—“I love you, Margo,” he whispered—then I went back to my own seat. We still had an hour or two of this special day before we had to start for home.
It was with very bittersweet happiness that we enjoyed some silly games, another football match, and re-reading a few favourite scenes from my wonderful birthday present. It was hard to escape the nagging knowledge that, some time in the next twelve months, my cheerful charismatic big brother would be gone for good.
Finally, we packed up. Dad had dropped us off on the edge of the forest since Kyle had recently sold his bicycle in order to put the money towards the car he was saving up for. Since we planned to walk all the way back we’d have to step out briskly.
Carefully, almost reverently, I sealed Secrets up in its waterproof pouch and placed it in a crack high up a tree a good distance from the hut. Antique or not, I’d got Kyle to write me a birthday message inside the book—though of course he couldn’t write any names, and he’d even disguised his handwriting as he wrote, Something to inspire you when I cannot. I’d got rather cross, actually, and told him that he would always inspire me, whether he was here or not, but he’d just smirked and said, “What I have written, I have written”, making me want to slap him myself.
“Kyle,” Bane said, as we set off through the trees, “I’m, uh, really sorry I hit you earlier. You know I do actually like you, right? And…well, I really don’t want you to die.”
“I really don’t want me to die either.” Kyle smiled would-be light-heartedly. “So that makes two of us.”
“Three of us,” I said.
“Yeah, Margo, why on earth didn’t you sob all over him and beg him not to do it?” demanded Bane. “What was all that ‘I’m so proud of you’ nonsense?”
“It’s not nonsense. And…and nor is his vocation.”
A shining smile lit Kyle’s face at this affirmation, but Bane just snorted. “You’ll never see him again, and he’s going to die in agony!”
“Doesn’t make it nonsense. Isn’t there anything you’d die for?”
His eyes shot to me and he looked away quickly. “Of course. But… Oh, well it’s his life, I suppose.”
Knowing better than to assume that Bane was actually abandoning the argument, I changed the subject quickly. “It must’ve been so wonderful to live back then. Can you imagine?”
“Yeah,” sighed Kyle. “Just think, you could simply walk into a building—an actual church building—for Adoration whenever you wanted. Wonderful!”
Bane snorted. “Never mind that, how about going to sleep at night without worrying that the authorities are breaking Margo’s door down right that moment, and dragging you lot off to be executed? Now that would be wonderful.”
“They both sound wonderful to me.” I linked arms with the two of them. “I just wish we could bring religious freedom back.”
“My little sis dreams big, you know,” Kyle said to Bane.
“Tell me about it.”
I ignored their banter. Complacence, compromise, and cowardice, Bane had said. That’s what lost our freedom. So in theory, couldn’t we bring it back by being clued-up, true, and brave? But our grandparents and parents had never managed it. Soon it would be our turn to try.
How did we change a world where faith was the most deadly secret of all?
As you’ve probably guessed, the first story in Secrets: Visible and Invisible is about Margo and Bane (and I certainly claim no Gift of Prophecy!). To read ‘The Underappreciated Virtues of Rusty Old Bicycles’ or any of the other awesome stories in the anthology, get a copy of Secrets today!
[To find out what happens when Margo and Bane take on the system, dive into the novel I Am Margaret.
Or to find out what happens when Kyle sets off for Vatican State, grab the short novella Brothers.]