The Flight of the Shopping Cart
For a wonderful moment Ryan thought Josh was going to make it. When they had turned the corner to ﬁnd the bus already at the stop, Josh had burst into a run, scattering starlings and shattering puddles. The bus's engine gave a long, exasperated sigh and shrugged its weight forward as if hulking its shoulders against the rain, but Ryan still believed Josh would snatch success at the last minute, as always. Then, just as Josh drew level with its taillights, the bus roared sulkily away, its tires leaving long streaks of dull against the shiny wet tarmac.
Josh chased it for about twenty yards. Then, through the tiny crystal specks of rain that freckled his glasses, Ryan saw his hero stumble, slow, and aim a kick at a lamppost.
The bus seemed to have carried away Ryan's stomach, and the last of the summer daylight. Suddenly the dingy string of shops seemed much colder, darker, and more dejected than before. Ryan could still taste the chocolate milkshake that had cost them their ride, and the flavor made him feel sick.
Behind him he heard Chelle's asthmatic gasping and turned to ﬁnd her fumbling with her inhaler. She took a deep breath, her round eyes becoming even wider for a second so that he could see the whites all around them. She stared at Josh's slowly returning ﬁgure.
"He said . . . Josh said . . . he said that the bus was always late, he said there was time for a milkshake . . . I am sososososososo dead . . . my mum thinks I'm babysitting. . . ." Her pale eyebrows had climbed up her forehead in panic to hide behind her blond bangs.
"Shush, Chelle," Ryan said as kindly as he could. It was hopeless. Chelle was unshushable.
"But . . . it's all right for Josh—everyone expects him to get into trouble. I . . . I don't know how to be in trouble. . . ."
"Shush," Ryan said with more urgency. Josh was almost within earshot. Whenever Josh felt bad about something he had done, he got angry with the whole world, became playfully vicious. Ryan did not want to be stranded in Magwhite with an angry Josh.
They were not meant to be in Magwhite at all.
Magwhite was an almost-place. The gas towers and the railway made it almost part of Guildley. The lurid ﬁelds of oilseed rape that stretched away to the east were almost countryside. The sad little strings of houses, the mini-mart, and the bike shop were almost a village. The towpath walks were almost pretty.
Someone had once been knifed there, or maybe a ﬁnger with a ring had been found on one of the paths, or perhaps the local rugby club came to pee in the canal from the bridge. Nobody could quite remember which, but something had happened to give the name "Magwhite" ugly edges. If Magwhite was mentioned, parents' faces stiffened as if they had picked up a bad smell. It was very deﬁnitely Out of Bounds.
There was nothing much to do there, but its out-of-boundsness made it exciting. Feeding fries to the jackdaws outside the boarded-up Magwhite post ofﬁce was more interesting than feeding ordinary birds in the park. So, ever since the summer holidays had started, the forbidden excursions to picnic by the Magwhite canal had become almost routine.
Magwhite was their place, but now there was nothing Ryan wanted more than to be out of it.
Josh trudged back toward the others, his head bowed, the rain darkening his ﬁerce, blond, scrubbing-brush hair. He seemed to be grimacing at his foot. Maybe he had hurt it against the lamppost. Then he looked up, and Ryan saw that he was grinning.
"'S all right." Josh shrugged and wiped the rain off his yellow-tinted sunglasses with his sleeve. "We'll catch the next one."
Chelle was biting her lower lip, her upper lip pulling down to a point, like a little soft beak. She was trying not to disagree, because she worshipped Josh more than anybody else in the world, but words always seemed to dribble out of Chelle like water from a broken tap.
"But . . . we can't, that was the last Guildley Cityline bus, our return tickets won't work for the Point-to-Point bus, and we haven't got enough money for new tickets for all of us . . . we're stuck. . . ."
"No, we're not." Josh was still smiling. "I have a plan."
It was a simple plan, an odd plan, but it was a Josh plan, so it had to work.
Behind the wall of the mini-mart parking lot, there was a long, tree-tangled slope that ran down to the canal side. In this wood roamed escapee supermarket carts, stripped grass trapped in their wheels, creepers trailing from their wire frames. Josh's plan was to ﬁnd one of these, take it back to the mini-mart parking lot, attach it to the chain of carts outside the entrance doors, and reclaim the coin deposit in the handle slot.
Suddenly everything was an adventure again. The threesome dropped over the wall into the wood and started hunting through the trees.
It was a strange wood, stranger still now the light was fading. Ryan loved it for its litter. Yellowing newspapers nestled in branch nooks, like a crop of dead leaves strangely patterned with print. A sprawling throne of rotten oak trailed dark ivy and coddled a treasure trove of crushed cans. The twigs of one wavering branch had been carefully threaded through the ﬁngers of a red woollen mitten, so that the little tree looked as if it was waiting to grow another hand and start applauding.
"Ryan, you're our eagle eyes, ﬁnd us a cart," said Josh, and Ryan felt an uncomfortable swell of pride and doubt. He was never sure if Josh was making fun of him. "He sees everything different from us, Chelle. 'Cause his eyes, right, they're in upside down. You just can't tell looking at them."Well Witched. Copyright © by Frances Hardinge. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Well Witched by Frances Hardinge
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.