Most of the day had gone before Mehrak decided they were far enough from the crabmen to be safe. Only then did he allow Louis a rest.
       Sammy used the opportunity to stretch her legs. She needed a break from Mehrak. He’d moped around for ages after she’d mentioned his wife. And only after they’d played some more Chaturanga did he cheer up. She needed a break from that game, too. How many games had they played now? Somewhere around the fifth match, the cottage walls seemed to be squeezing in, creating a pressure build-up behind her eyes. Mehrak’s smug face feigning modesty after each win was the icing on the cake.
       Mehrak held the hatch open for Sammy and helped her down.
       “Don’t wander too far,” he said.
       Sammy said nothing as she watched him skulk off in search of some disgusting creepy-crawlies. He’d kitted himself out with a fine-mesh insect net, wire traps and canvas bags. She considered following him to see how he was going to catch their dinner, but at the same time she figured she didn’t want to know what slithering vermin she’d be attempting to force past her gag reflex later.
       She turned and walked off in the opposite direction.
       Mehrak was annoying, but she decided she liked him. He was genuinely interested in her; probably the first person other than her mum that was. While they’d been cooped up, he’d asked her all about her home, her parents. He’d even offered to play football


with her. If she couldn’t get back to the Mother World then would it be so bad hanging out with Mehrak in his golden cottage?
       A pang of guilt plucked a heartstring. No, she wouldn’t abandon her mother. She’d make sure she got home. There was no question of that, and it would be a good opportunity to prove to her dad that she was self-reliant.
       She walked on through the clouds of glittering mushroom dust, running her fingers over the smooth trunks of the biggest mushrooms. When she was sure Mehrak couldn’t see her, she planted a side kick into one, making a hollow thud.
       She dug a stone out of the dirt at her feet. Rolling it in her palm, she observed its curve and texture, seeing the years that had elapsed as it had been shaped by erosion. She tossed it into the air, then volleyed it into the forest.
       She felt alive out in the Fungi Forest; far more than she had done back in Sheffield. It was like a heightened sense of clarity, as if she’d been viewing the world through a layer of Vaseline, and now, in Perseopia, smells were richer, colours more vibrant. Even sound had a weight, a kind of resonance like a crystal goblet. The stories Mehrak had told her about the smog and those crabmen didn’t seem so bad out here. Like he’d said, the smog wouldn’t bother them for hundreds of years. And the crabmen? How bad could they be? She wouldn’t let some freaky crustaceans scare her. She ran at a short mushroom and used it to springboard herself into the air, where she pulled a flying kick and scattered a flock of white birds from a patch of brown creepers. She landed, fell into a forward roll and then leapt up with a roundhouse kick followed by a flurry of rapid punches to the trunk of a mushroom. She’d have those crabmen!
       Birds returned to the creepers, insects buzzed under the canopies and funny looking mammals dug holes in the dirt. She felt connected to them all, a part of their ecosystem. She would’ve been fine if Mehrak hadn’t appeared. She’d managed to find water. She could have braved the forest, too.


       She was glad he’d turned up, though. He was annoying and a bit on the pudgy side, but he was kind and had pretty eyes. She was getting side-tracked. Find a way home to Mama. That was what she needed to concentrate on.
       Sammy gulped down the thick lump of anxiety that rose in her throat. She pictured her mum in the police station waiting room, head in hands. Did her dad know yet? She figured he’d be pretty disappointed with her, imagining that she’d run away like a coward. Would he be expecting her to look after herself? All the classic action heroes could survive in the wilderness. Rambo defeated those deputies in the forest. Arnie took out the Predator by himself.
       Then she cringed as she recalled how she’d dealt with the waster. Not her finest moment. She liked to imagine that next time she found herself in that situation she’d choose fight over flight. Perhaps a sucker punch to the solar plexus to double him over, followed by a reverse roundhouse kick to the face. Perhaps, but probably not. She knew in her heart that if it happened again, she’d probably do the same thing and run like a baby. Or not a baby, as babies can’t run.
       Sammy planted a side kick into the trunk of a parasol-sized mushroom. Her foot rebounded off the rubbery stalk at a funny angle and she fell over. She got up quickly and brushed the dirt off. A side kick shouldn’t have resulted in her sprawled on the floor. She’d had eleven whole Karate lessons. Unless the training montages she’d watched in Kung Fu movies had been wildly misleading, she should virtually be a ninja by now. Perhaps she’d practise her fighting skills a bit more before she took on another waster.
       Reclining in bed that evening with a full belly, she was beginning to feel better about her situation – partly due to Mehrak not divulging the contents of the casserole they’d eaten, but also because Golden Egg Cottage was beginning to feel like a second home. Mehrak was good company when they weren’t playing


Chaturanga. He’d carved a ball from a lump of mushroom and they’d set up a goal between two mushroom trunks, using creepers to build a net. Then they’d played football all afternoon while Louis rested.
       Mehrak was asleep on the floor at the foot of the four-poster in a makeshift bed he’d thrown together from blankets and cushions. He’d fallen asleep reading a book that was still propped on his stomach like a mouse’s tent. She watched his eyes moving under their lids and his lip pouting as he dreamed. She wondered what the crabmen had done to his wife and how long he’d been travelling alone.
       Soon, thoughts of Mehrak’s loss turned to those of her own. Bedtime was when she missed Mama the most. It had always been that way, even when she was downstairs at her dad’s house alone on the futon. She’d stopped asking to climb into bed with him for a hug years ago. Even at ten, she’d been ‘too old’ and he didn’t see the point of hugging anyway. He’d grown up an orphan, beaten every day by his foster father. He’d never been hugged and it hadn’t done him any harm. Hugging made you weak, made you reliant on others.
       Mama survived on hugs. Did that make her weak? They seemed to make her stronger. Like superman recharging himself from the sun. A jagged knot formed in her chest. She pictured her mum alone in bed, crying herself to sleep. Sammy pulled the covers over her head and, for the first time since her dad had left them, she cried.


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