Rebecca was the sixth reader at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

Her appearance was on Thu 20th August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.

Rebecca is studying for an MSc in Creative Writing at Edinburgh University. Story Shop is Rebecca’s first public outing with her work, and she has been using this year to focus on a set of interconnecting short stories and a novel that is largely inspired by them. You can follow her on Twitter @rebeccaraeburn.

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

Emilia
a short story by Rebecca Raeburn

    When I was a child I stole my sister’s heart. Then, she stole it back. It was made of pink, see-through plastic, the size of a thumbnail. I was so young I didn’t know we were stealing it in turns. I didn’t really know we were stealing it at all. It had become a game, and eventually it didn’t seem to matter whose it was in the first place.
    It isn’t a game anymore, however. I recently tried to steal the most important thing I’ve ever stolen in my life.
    It started in the midst of a fever, when I rolled down and under my covers, hiding from the room that wriggled around me. The walls shifted and shed their usual colours, unfolding into longer lengths so that the door sat like a mousetrap at the foot of my room. Mum rested on the edge of my bed, reading from a worn book of fairytales, and I couldn’t help but shrink away from her voice as it tumbled nauseously through tales of toads, boggarts and witches.
    The sound of the book closing reverberated around the room.
    ‘You need to get some sleep sweetheart, it will help you get better.’
    She tried to unwrap me from the covers to let in some fresh air, but I held onto them tightly until I eventually gave in to the burning weight of my eyelids, sliding from one reality into another.
    The fever followed me into my dreams. It crawled in limb by limb, marring the perfect composition of pastel colours that gave life to the trees and hills that were mine alone.
    I made the first of my many mistakes in this dream.

    In the clouds of my fever I walk along blurry hills. I pass rows of uneven houses melting under the growing heat of an over-sized sun.
    ‘We have to find the others!’ My sister spits the words into the heavy air. Only she doesn’t resemble my sister in the slightest. Maybe her eyes—
    She grabs me by the thumb and pulls me through the brittle grass and around a deformed shed that mimics the one in our back garden, only it’s wrapped in wrinkles of mold and fettered by rotten wood. Behind it there is a path leading to a stream. The water moves in gloopy currents, and when we approach I notice that it isn’t clear blue like most running water, but a dark rusted red.
    ‘You need to have a drink— then we’ll get the others!’ She orders, standing on her toes at the edge of the water. She isn’t wearing any shoes.
    ‘I’m not drinking that, Emilia!’ I refuse, pointing towards the congealed stream. In the distance, I can hear frogs croaking.
    ‘You don’t have any other option. You’re boiling up! You need to drink it to cool down.’
    She is covered in dirt and grass stains and I begin to wonder how long she has been here. Messy tufts of hair protrude from her scalp. Nothing at all like her enviable golden curls. And where we always matched in height, she is now much taller.
    But she is right. My throat grates the air as I inhale and the palms of my hands are spotted with beads of salt water. I reach down and cup my hands into the stream. The moment it touches my lips I spit it out, but the taste laces between my teeth like coppery venom.
    ‘What is that?’ I turn to Emilia in horror but she only laughs madly, the gaps in her yellow teeth bound by braces that she doesn’t even wear.

    I could still taste the blood that coated the lining of my mouth when I woke up. Mum decided that I must have bitten my tongue in my sleep. But I wasn’t convinced.
    ‘I wouldn’t be able to eat these,’ I pointed out as I sat at the breakfast table, scooping spoonfuls of cereal into my mouth.
    ‘What do you mean?’ She was raking through the cupboards quickly, trying to find Emilia’s special bowl. It was lavender with pink stripes and multi-colored stars. Years later I would find it in one of my better dreams, buried within a forest of dahlias.
    ‘Well, you said that I bit my tongue. If I did, it would hurt to eat these,’ I looked at the cereal then checked my mouth again. ‘And it isn’t sore, not one bit,’ I stuck my tongue out to prove it.
    ‘You’ve been ill, it’s just the fever,’ she gave up looking for the bowl and walked over to me, leaning down on the counter she smiled broadly. ‘Although you already look much better this morning, maybe you’re super-human,’ she winked conspiringly.
    ‘That’s not it,’ I frowned as Mum reached over to hug me.
    ‘Well, who knows then,’ she squeezed me tight before shouting Emilia in from her cross-legged pose in front of the television.

    That wasn’t the end of it. When I returned to school a few days later, having escaped the grasp of the fever, my schoolteacher and I found ourselves at a stalemate in class.
    ‘What’s wrong with the red crayon?’ She asked for the second time, her calming voice trying to coax the truth from me.
    ‘I’m really sorry Miss, I can’t use it,’ I winced at the scarlet leech that lay on my table. At this point I couldn’t even read anything written in red, or sit on any of the red chairs in the classroom.
    The teacher shook her head, mystified by my disobedience, ‘Just for today will somebody please swap with her? Then we can begin the lesson.’ She walked back to her desk in resignation and sat down, tapping her finger softly on the wood as her attention lingered on me for a few moments more. The boy to my right swapped his Electric Lime for my Red Orange. I couldn’t stomach the thought of passing it to him. He looked at me oddly, wisps of his chestnut-coloured hair sitting neatly above his eyebrows.

    It got to the point where I was constantly bringing these kind of things back with me; ridiculous phobias that I couldn’t explain or understand. My young mind did, however, realise something. If I could bring things back from the bad dreams, why couldn’t I take from the good as well? And so, on the rarest of occasions, I managed to steal things that were lasting, like a song, a doll or a flower. These were always the hardest to return with because they never wanted to leave, even though it was here that they really belonged.
    My favorite flowers were dahlias. Mum used to think that I stole them from the garden, but these were different, the flowers from my dreams never died. Their petals never fell. The more I brought back to my room, the more suspicious Mum grew, so much so she got dad to build a row of fencing around her flowerbed in the back garden. She even made a sign for it out of cardboard, with red paint that read: ‘BEWARE! GARDEN TROLLS!’.
    ‘This is all because you’ve got all of those flowers in your room,’ Emilia’s round cheeks were flushed from the summer’s sun, and the hours we’d spent running about our garden. I wanted to tell them both that Mum’s dahlias would still be easier to steal than the ones from my dreams, even if there had been trolls behind our fence. I had to dig deep into the mud to find their roots, and steal them that way. There was something sad about that. I had thought that I was saving them.
    One night I dreamt of my grandfather. He was singing. I hadn’t heard the song before, but I wanted to take it back with me. It reminded me of Christmas mornings, when he used to sing to Emilia and I. We were in the kitchen of his old house, the one mum sold when he was gone. I took a china jar from the counter and held it towards his face, hoping it would catch the song. I could tell that some of the words were escaping out of the jar. They didn’t want to be stolen.
    ‘Why do you always sing that song?’ Emilia asked weeks later before swimming class, infuriated at the persistent melody that blew from my lips.
    ‘I don’t,’ I answered, ‘I took it from Grandfather’s house’
    ‘What do you mean? We haven’t been there in ages,’ a sadness passed over her features, soon eclipsed by a new flush of indignance, ‘It’s all you’ve been singing for weeks. You don’t even know all of the words. What’s it called?’ She crossed her arms challengingly.
    ‘I don’t know!’ I shrugged my shoulders. I hadn’t even been aware I was singing. But the song had now wound itself around my vocal chords. Mum asked me one day if Grandfather had ever sang it to me. I told her that I couldn’t remember.
    Emilia tutted disapprovingly at me (something she had learnt from Mum) then walked across the tiled floors towards the swimming pool, her bare feet slapping against the small puddles of water. I had given up swimming months before. Instead, I would watch her races from the side of the pool, marveling at how easy she found it to cut though the water even though she was so insignificantly small in its depths.

    Not long after our conversation about Grandfather’s song, Emilia won her first race of the season whilst I had been making progress in my dreams.
    ‘Where did you get that?’ Emilia’s voice was suspicious as she picked up an old doll that we’d given up fighting over years ago.
    ‘I found it,’ I smiled proudly.
    ‘We haven’t played with this in ages,’ She confirmed, touching its matted auburn plaits. ‘You’re always finding things. Mummy doesn’t know where you get this stuff. You even found my favorite bowl, where was it? I bet you stole it first,’ she kneeled down on the floor, forcing the doll to move awkwardly through the pink grass of our carpet.
    ‘I didn’t steal it, I promise,’ I muttered, joining her on the floor, ‘I get them from my dreams.’
    ‘Mhmmm…’ She responded.
    ‘No Emilia, it’s true! I can steal things from my dreams,’ I repeated.
    She smiled thoughtfully at the doll, twirling its hair around her finger.
    This doll had been one of the finer things I had stolen, though she hadn’t wanted to leave my dream at first. She was making tea and baking scones with her doll friends when I fell asleep and entered their home. I recognized her immediately and asked her to come with me. I told her that Emilia and I had been looking for her. She said no. Eventually I had to prise her from the grips of the other dolls’ hands. I tried to be gentle because I didn’t want to hurt them. I imagine this is why it would be impossible to steal a person. But is it really stealing if they’ve been stolen from you in the first place? Back then; I’d never really given thought to what I was doing, but perhaps I should have. Especially since the fever always returned at some point.
    Emilia was nine when I got ill again.
    ‘It’s ok to cross here,’ my sister assures me, bundling her now short blonde hair into a pointy ponytail. The sky darkens around us and I cringe away from the crimson droplets that plummet from the fathomless mass of clouds above us.
    ‘But I can’t cross it. You know I can’t swim like you,’ I look at her, disoriented as the sloppy rain coats the dry grass around us. ‘I’ll sink and drown,’ I grab her hand to stop her moving forwards.
    ‘Don’t be silly! Follow me!’
    I dig my heels into the grainy sand at the edge of the stream, sliding closer as she pulls me forwards. For the first time, I notice a glimmer of pink on her chest. The heart rests in the hollow of her throat, tied by a frayed piece string.
    ‘Come on, just a bit closer.’ She complains.
    ‘Stop, Emilia! You have to stop,’ my voice sounds frantic as I struggle against her.
    ‘You’re being ridiculous, we have to swim across otherwise we’ll be trapped here,’ she sounds angrier now than I’ve ever heard her before. She finally manages to pull as both into the stream, and I begin to panic as my arms refuse to move in the syrupy water.
    It pulls us under like glue.

    I knew as soon as the light of my room flooded into my eyes that I had made the biggest mistake I would ever make in this dream. The water followed me back again, only this time it poured heartlessly onto the brittle pages of the town newspapers. Strands of golden hair mirror the glint of the sun, framing a frozen smile. The happiness in this square snippet doesn’t match the stern, abrupt print that blackens to its side. A printed message of my terrible failure, my inability to play by the rules.
    Mum rocked me back and forth endlessly for days, never letting me leave her side. I sat in silence, scared to think scared to dream, because I hadn’t been able to hold on.
    ‘It’s my fault,’ I told mum, ‘If I hadn’t have gone in the water—’
    ‘But you weren’t even there,’ Mum whispered into my hair, dampened by the salt from her tears.
    Only I was there. I was always there. Even now.
    The water has thickened between us. My body slides down through its depths and eventually my feet brush against something solid below. A glass window sits at the bottom of the water and I turn around so I can look through it. I can see Emilia and I in our bedroom, surrounded by neglected dolls as we fight over a small piece of plastic.
    The window opens to the room and I climb in. When my feet hit the pink carpet the image of us disappears and I am left alone, surrounded by myself, translucent against the mirrored walls. I hear the aching sound of a beating heart, slowing through the current of colours that eddy around the room. I feel time wrap itself around the fused limbs and hybrid beats that ripple in my awareness, and I want to hold on because I feel it testing the elastic between our hearts.
    I see a glimpse of red. I hear the song. The doll. The water. Her smile. All fleeting.
    In my hand I hold the small, pink-plastic heart.

    It was the most important thing I had ever stolen in my life.

(c) Rebecca Raeburn, 2015