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18 What came out of the bucket

curlyShe was in the main hall at school, just after assembly finished, waiting for everyone to leave. On her way out, she realised she’d dropped her charm bracelet somewhere. Her great-aunt had given it to her when she was small and used to give her a new charm to add to it each birthday. It was real gold and she wasn’t supposed to wear it to school. She was sure she’d put it on that morning but, with the crowd of children leaving, there’d been no hope of spotting it on the floor. Crouching down and peering through their legs, once or twice she caught a flash of something reflecting in the sunlight – but then lost sight of it again.

‘Have you lost something, Ellie?’ Steph crouched down behind her, following her gaze.

‘I think so, Steph. You go on though or we’ll both be in trouble for being late.’

‘Are you sure I can’t help you look?’

‘No, it’s okay. I just have to wait till the hall is empty.’

Detached from the children’s thunderous collective noise, the racket slowly became alien and overwhelming and she wondered to herself how she could stand it every day. When she was a part of it, she never even noticed it.

Finally, the hall was empty and Elisha studied the expanse of rather scuffed parquet flooring. It boasted a few souvenirs of the assembly – a green v-necked jumper, sleeves across itself, one of those multicolour biro pens – you could choose which colour to use and press that one down. The trouble with them was that the more legible colours ran out quickly, so you’d only have light blue and bright pink left, which didn’t show up on anything. There was also a hymn book, open face down and some bits of ratty tissue from a pocket. But no sign of the bracelet. The glinting she’d seen came from the rather more prosaic source of a crumpled piece of tinfoil from someone’s sandwich. Had someone picked the bracelet up? She supposed they might hand it in to lost property. That’s what she would do if she found something like that.

She now thought she knew how it must have come off – when she was pulling her sweater over her head and then her arms out of the sleeves. She thought she remembered there being a slight clatter. It was always very hot when they all crowded into the hall, even on the coldest days. Very annoyed with herself, first for wearing the bracelet to begin with and second for being so careless as to lose it, she sighed and turned to the doors at the back to leave.

Suddenly, from behind her she heard a commotion and a girl’s voice crying ‘Help! Help!’ And Veronica Atkins ran out onto the stage from the wings. Intrigued, Elisha waited to see what was happening.

But it wasn’t long before she wished she hadn’t. First off, there was just a shadow … but she didn’t like the look of it at all. It seemed to be a very big shadow, compared to Veronica’s; and it was a rather weird shape. Nor was she reassured by Veronica’s face, which was contorted into a petrified mask-like grimace. And Elisha could see that she was shaking even from where she stood, in the main body of the hall. The girl seemed to be frozen to the spot, staring up at the thing whose shadow darkened the wooden boards near her.

Her heart beginning to beat very fast, Elisha ran to the side of the hall and stooped to hide behind a few stacks of black plastic chairs. She put her head out and saw the thing emerge onto the stage. It was huge, monstrous, a black shiny carapace, massive, deadly-looking pincers … It stretched a claw out, knocking Veronica over and pinning her to the floor.

It was a giant stag beetle. That was what had been coming out of the bucket in her dream the other night.

Elisha gasped, stared, blinked a couple of times, then pinched her left upper arm hard with her right thumb and forefinger. Veronica wasn’t exactly screaming, more whimpering and moaning, trapped and helpless.

This must be a dream, Elisha thought, at the same time wondering why she didn’t act, instead of just hiding. But she was genuinely puzzled as to what to do. Should she rescue Veronica (and how) or should she give the beetle a round of applause? It was a real dilemma.

The creature that had seemed so cute when it was little was terrifying in these proportions. But, although it was holding Veronica, it didn’t really seem to be hurting her. What did stag beetles eat? Maybe she could tempt it away with something from her snack box?

‘Elisha!’ Veronica had seen her. She ducked back behind the chairs guiltily. ‘Elisha, help me, for God’s sake.’ So she could get her name right when she wanted.

Now she supposed she had to do something. Putting her satchel on the floor, she bent down and rummaged through it, prising the top off the Tupperware lunchbox. Was it more likely to go for an apple or a bar of chocolate?

While doing this, she heard activity from the stage. The beetle had released Veronica, but was pushing her along with its head, its pincers near her shoulders. Veronica had her hands over her eyes but still managed to call out desperately, ‘Elisha!’

She sprang into action, a Curlywurly in one hand and a Granny Smith in the other, running towards the stage. Waving them in front of her, she tried to get the beetle’s attention. ‘Here, here,’ she cried, briefly dangling them over Veronica, trying not to look at it in case it scared her too much, then moving to the side of the beetle, watching its head follow her. It took a couple of attempts before she really got it hooked, turning away from its victim towards her. At that second, Luke appeared from nowhere and dragged Veronica off into the wings. Veronica yelped when she first felt him touch her but then relaxed when she realised he wasn’t an enormous insect.

Elisha dropped the apple and Curlywurly on the stage, then thought again, bent down and took the wrapper off the chocolate for the beetle. All of a sudden someone was shaking her by the shoulder. Angrily, she turned her head.

‘You dozed off,’ Steph was saying in a whisper, ‘and Miss C. saw you.’

Elisha was back in the hall in the middle of assembly, cross-legged on the floor between her friends, one hand fingering the charms on her bracelet. ‘Huh?’ she thought and stared at Steph in confusion.

‘Don’t worry, she only smiled.’ Steph nudged her with her elbow.

Elisha looked round for Veronica Atkins to check she was all right. The dream had seemed so real. But she couldn’t see much from down on the ground, despite craning her neck upwards.

‘Have you seen Veronica?’

‘Yes. Why?’ Steph was engaged in writing a memory jogger on the back of her hand in black biro. It said ‘watch TOTP’. She turned back to Elisha. ‘You missed it all. She had some weird kind of turn or something. Maybe she fell asleep too because she started screaming and moaning. They took her to the sick room.’

Elisha sighed with relief. ‘But she’s okay?’

‘As far as I know.’ Steph clipped the lid back on her biro and hooked it onto the v-neckline of her sweater. ‘I thought we didn’t like her anyway?’

Assembly was finishing for real (or she thought it was real this time) – the teachers were making the kids stand up row by row from the back and file out. Luke hung back from his row to join them.

‘Wow. What was all that about with Veronica?’ He shook his head expressively. ‘It was like she went mental.’ His eyes searched Elisha’s face – she wasn’t sure what for. ‘Don’t you think, Elisha?’

She frowned at him thoughtfully but said nothing.

‘It was almost as if she thought some giant insect was chasing her,’ Luke said.

Luckily, Steph had moved further away from them and hadn’t heard him. Eyes widening, Elisha looked at Luke sharply and pulled him aside by tugging his shirtsleeve. ‘Are we having the same dreams again?’ she demanded, not sure why this made her annoyed with him.

‘I don’t know,’ he shrugged. ‘Are we? You tell me.’

‘You know we are. But what about Veronica Atkins? Is she having the same ones too? And why?’

‘Hurry it up there.’ Mr Saunders was holding the door open and beckoning them through. The hall was almost deserted. Looking back at it, Elisha shuddered slightly, remembering the giant beetle.

‘I think it’s you,’ Luke confided, making Elisha raise her eyebrows. ‘It’s your dream,’ he continued. ‘But if you dream one of us into it, it becomes our dream too.’

He could be right. After a moment’s indignation that everyone else was invading her private subconscious, she began to think about the positives. She started to wish she could control her dreams more. Then perhaps she could dream that she met her favourite popstar and he fell in love with her …

‘Is it the well giving you the power, d’you think?’ Luke meditated, as they pushed through the heavy green door into the classroom.

It was her turn to shrug. ‘Don’t ask me.’