The driver wrinkled his nose but had the good manners to keep his opinion to himself, as Corey lead the scruffy group on to the bus. As the bus pulled away from the kerb, everyone started speaking at once. They were delighted when Corey told them they would have a house all to themselves.
“Is there a kitchen?” Annie asked. “Cause I’m a good cook.”
“It has a kitchen and four bedrooms, though Jamie, Stew and Rasher will have to share,” Corey told them.
“Are you pulling our leg, boy?” Tom asked.
“Have I ever lied to you,” Corey asked, and without waiting for an answer, he continued. “It’s a fine old house with an acre of garden. It’s been locked up for a long time, but we’ll soon have it in order.”
“And no one can throw us out?” Jamie asked in wonder.
“No, it’s going to be our home from now on, and it will be our job to take care of it.”
That last bit of news stunned them into silence. It was hard to imagine there was a place where they were safe from the street predators, and no one could tell them to move along. Their silence gave Corey a chance to get his thoughts together. Tapping his rucksack, he heard the comforting ping of the tin box. In it were the three things he held most dear. Pulling out the rusty box, he opened the lid and stared down at his treasures. The will, in which his parents left him the house, the old brown key for the front door, and the silver pendant that had lost none of its shine over the years. He did not dare wear it before as it would attract the street predators, but now he placed the chain around his neck and closed the clasp. The metal was cool against his skin as his fingers traced the outline of the phoenix. He had thought about going home before, but something held him back. He turned and looked out at the fields and bushes as the memories came flooding back. It was the day of his fifth birthday, when the policemen came into the classroom. He remembered the thrill of seeing the uniforms, as he thought of them as superheroes who caught the bad guys. Later, they would explain that there had been an accident and his parents had gone to heaven. There was no relative to take on the care of a young boy, and what followed was a nightmarish assortment of foster homes. Some were ok, but as he got older, things got worse. His body still retained the scars of beating at the hands of those who were supposed to care for him.
The bus came to a shuddering stop and he tucked the box back in the rucksack.
“It’s a bit of a walk from here,” Corey said, as they watched the bus drive away. “You can lean on me, Tom.”
“There’s no need for that,” Tom straightened his shoulders. “The old feet aren’t too bad.”
The chimneys of the house appeared first among the overgrown trees lining the road. Corey felt his heart ache, as they moved closer to the once familiar building.
“It’s a fine house,” Tom patted his shoulder, sensing his pain. “And it’s been waiting for you.”
The paint was peeling from the gate and the rusty hinges groaned, as Corey pushed against it. White flecks fell like hail, as the rest of the paint surrendered to his touch. The stone slabs leading up to the front door lay broken and weeds sprouted from between the cracks. Wild roses ran riot, their budding beauty a welcome site among the thorns and brambles.
“I’d like to take a few moments before going inside,” Corey said.
“No, it’s all right, boy,” Tom assured him. “We’ll wait with you. How about looking around the back?”
After depositing their bags at the front door, they all walked round the side of the house.
“It’s huge,” Jamie spread his arms wide when he saw how big the garden was. “What are those buildings at the bottom?”
“They’re old stables,” Corey said.
“Great, can we get a horse?”
“No, horses are expensive,” then noticing the boy’s disappointment, Corey said. “We can get chickens though.”
“Brilliant,” Jamie punched the air before running and hugging everyone in turn.
They laughed, and the boys pushed him away. Tom and Annie were aware of the sadness in Corey’s eyes and the memories he would face when he stepped inside the house.