1 THE CRUMBLE GAMEAaron Gray was trying to paint a picture of his dream, but he couldn't get the dragon right. He made the wings bigger, then the head. No good. Not scary enough. He tore at the paper, ripping it in two.Don't worry about it too much, Aaron. It doesn't have to be perfect." Mrs Seeger smiled at Aaron from a sofa on the other side of the room. Her smile showed all her crooked teeth and the sofa made rude noises every time she moved. Aaron ignored the smile and screwed up both pieces of paper, throwing them at Mrs Seeger. One piece bounced off a small wart on her nose, landing in her lap. The other piece landed on her blouse, leaving a small stain of yellow paint.
"It does have to be perfect," Aaron moaned. “I’ve been dreaming about the same cruddy dragon for my whole cruddy life, and I can’t even get his cruddy head right.”
Although he was still angry, Aaron was pleased at how many times he said the word “cruddy”. Swear words weren’t allowed at the Autumn Grove Children’s Home, but “cruddy” was just about okay, so he used it often. Mrs Seeger calmly unscrewed the picture and laid it down on the couch next to her, carefully placing the two halves back together.
"It's lovely. Look at the castle. It looks so real!"
“Don’t be stupid. It’s the same castle I always draw.”
“Not quite. There are more cracks on the towers and the vines are longer.”
“Yeah, well that’s how it looks in my dream now.”
The cracks in the towers had appeared in his dreams just after the dragons had started fighting, smashing each other against the castle until their guts fell out of their underbellies. It was strange. They’d never fought each other before. At least it gave him something interesting to draw when Mrs Seeger came to visit.
Aaron hated it when Mrs Seeger visited. It was just one more reminder that he was different from most other kids his age. He looked like a normal eleven year old, with blond hair, green eyes and freckles, but normal kids lived at home with their parents, not in a children’s home. Aaron was officially looked after by his local council. He had no idea where his mum was and his dad lived on the other side of town. His social worker, Mrs Seeger, visited him every few weeks. She wasn’t supposed to have come for another week. Aaron guessed there was something she needed to talk to him about.
“Aaron, your dad’s been in touch,” said Mrs Seeger, still smiling the same crooked smile. “He says he’d really like to see you.”
Aaron pretended he hadn’t heard. Seeger knew the rules. Aaron let her talk about all kinds of things, but his dad was definitely off limits. If she kept talking then he’d have to get himself a new social worker. Again. He ignored her and picked up a fresh piece of paper, ready to paint another picture. He hummed to himself to fill the awkward silence, humming music that he usually heard in his sleep.
A dragon flew through the ceiling, roaring at an invisible enemy.
Crud. That was stupid.
Whenever Aaron had the dragon dream there was always the same music. It hung around after he woke up, echoing around his brain like the music at the end of a film. When he hummed the same tune he could see the dragons as if they were right in front of him.
Aaron stopped humming and the dragon disappeared. Seeger hadn’t noticed anything wrong. Nobody ever saw the dragons apart from Aaron.
“Aaron, it might be good for you to see him, and if you like I can be there too.”
It took Aaron a few seconds to remember what Seeger was talking about. The appearance of the dragon had made him forget about his dad wanting to see him. Not that it mattered, there was no way he was seeing his dad.
Aaron sighed. He’d grown to like Mrs Seeger, but she’d broken the rule by mentioning his dad. It was time for her to go.
Aaron started to paint another picture. He dipped his paintbrush in the black paint and painted a wide brimmed hat. With his other hand he gripped the cold jar of water which he’d been using to clean his paintbrushes. He’d have to get this just right if he was going to get a new social worker, but he knew what he had to do.
It was time to play The Crumble Game.
He took the green paint and painted the outline of a face, adding a hideous wart to the end of the nose. Then he added crooked, decaying teeth.
“I’ve just remembered someone else in my dream,” said Aaron, opening his eyes wide and making his bottom lip tremble. “She’s new and she’s giving me nightmares.”
Mrs Seeger got up to have a closer look at Aaron’s new painting. Aaron saw the look of concern in her eyes, and felt a twinge of regret for what he was about to do.
“She’s absolutely terrifying, and hideously ugly. I call her the interfering witch.”
Mrs Seeger looked at the picture. “Aaron?”
“Yes, Mrs Seeger?”
“That’s me, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Like I said. The interfering witch.”
Before Mrs Seeger had a chance to respond, Aaron threw the jar of water all over her perfectly ironed, white blouse.
As he expected, Mrs Seeger crumbled. Her knees buckled. Her hands reached for her blouse and she staggered back to the sofa as if she’d been shot. Aaron wanted to apologise but now wasn’t the time to back down. Instead he forced himself to laugh cruelly, shouted "We don't talk about my dad!” and stormed out of the room.
Aaron only had about ten seconds to get away before the staff at the home found out what he'd done. He headed for the front door as quickly as he could without drawing attention to himself and sprinted down the driveway into the street. It was cold and drizzly. Hopefully the staff would be slow to come looking for him in the rain. He'd get the bus into town and be back by nightfall. By that time, Seeger would have spoken to her manager, got herself transferred from being his social worker, and everyone would have calmed down a bit.
The bus stop smelt of beer and something else, like a drunk person hadn’t made it to the toilet on time. Aaron realised that he’d left his phone at the children’s home. To pass the time he read the graffiti on the bus stop seats and smiled at the rude drawings that somebody had drawn on the windows. Three crane flies flew around Aaron’s head, avoiding his swipes as he tried to swat them away. A small hand shot past his face, grabbing all three flies in one go.
Aaron turned and was surprised to see that the hand belonged to a small girl, about the same age as him, with shoulder length brown hair and large blue eyes. She laughed.
"You're impressed aren't you! My parents let me go to martial arts classes because I'm so tiny. Apparently they're worried I can't look after myself. By the way, do you remember me? You sat next to me in science until you were kicked out for exploding the thermometer."
Aaron laughed nervously. He did remember her. The girl who wouldn’t stop talking.
"Erm… Yeah… Hi… Turns out I shouldn’t have stuck a thermometer on a gas flame."
The girl released the flies and watched as they flew towards a nearby tree. "I'm Julia by the way. I know you're Aaron. You're kind of infamous at our school now."
Julia had managed to say "infamous" with exactly the same measure of disapproval and respect. Aaron wasn't sure what the word meant, but he decided he was going to ask the staff at the children’s home after the whole incident with the wet social worker was forgotten. For now he just nodded.
“So what happened to you?” Julia continued to talk. “Are you still living in that children’s home? Is it nice there or are the staff really horrible?”
“It’s alright,” murmured Aaron. The problem with being in a children’s home was that everyone wanted to hear his life story. He never shared more than he had to.
The bus was in sight and Julia began to count her bus fare, the jingling of the coins matching the rattling sound of the bus as it headed down the street towards them. A car swerved at the lights, beeping its horn in harmony with the bus rattle. From an open window of a nearby house came the haunting sounds of a violin. The different sounds reminded Aaron of his dream. It wasn’t the same music, but it was close. He hummed a few notes, and ducked as a dragon appeared just a few metres above his head, flying through the bus shelter like a strange reptilian ghost. He stopped humming and the dragon vanished as the bus arrived at the bus stop.
Aaron sat down at the back of the bus and Julia sat on the seat in front of him. The bus had just begun to move when Julia started talking again.
“Aaron, why was there a dragon flying around that bus stop?”