Her name is Velvet, like the material. She was born to the warm smell of smoke, in a valley surrounded by hills that smoulder with embers. In this place, she lives with her Mother, the Stepfather, and the dog. The trees are black and crisp but the sky is always a bright powder blue, even at night. The kind of blue that is good for laundry, that people used to wish for after cloud.

            When she was born, the family dog was named Velvet for his dark velvety fur. Though Velvet’s Mother, having grown fond of the name, decided to give it to the baby instead. The dog is now named Tiger, although Velvet calls the dog Velvet, and sometimes her Mother does in secret too.

            Velvet has short, straight black hair with a fringe that hangs above her grey-ish eyes. She wears baggy shorts that reach her knees, a sea-green cotton vest, and white runners with pink stars on the sides. Her room is painted three shades of green. Forest, emerald, and lime. A thin white line divides each shade. She has a bed next to her own for Tiger, and a desk for her books.

            It’s unusual to have stepfathers in her town, but Velvet goes to school and has weekends like everyone else, and she has a best friend named Martin.

            To have a second parent implies something very serious happened to the first. Though this is not why Velvet and the Stepfather fight a secret battle. They both understood it from the moment they met. From the way the Stepfather looked at Velvet on the day he moved in, with one arm wrapped tight around her Mother’s waist, and the other holding his things.

Velvet has all the answers she needs. Green, Reading, Monkey, Teacher, and Good.

            Green for her favourite colour. Reading for her best subject at school. Monkey for her favourite animal. Teacher for what she wants to be when she grows up. And Good, for how her day was. Every answer is a lie, except Reading.

            Velvet’s Mother works in the hospital caring for people who are too old, sick, or emotional. She comes home tired and slow. Velvet follows her and waits behind closed doors until her Mother asks, How was your day at school, and Velvet replies, Good.

            Velvet’s best friend Martin only has a Father now because his Mother is dead and buried in the hills. Velvet had liked Martin’s Mother, who was different from her own because she was always at home and didn’t work at the hospital. Martin’s Mother was interested in their games and stories. Sometimes she joined them on a walk or to feed the birds.

            Velvet hears what the adults say under their breath at the shops and at school and in the kitchen. Martin’s Mother is gone because she got trapped in her sadness and put everyone at risk.

Velvet visits Martin at the hospital where her Mother works. His face is puffy and his eyes are red, though normally they are brown and white. Her Mother is combing down his curly hair, which is a mess of knots.

            ‘You can stay for ten minutes,’ her Mother says.

            Velvet sits in the chair by the bed and draws pictures. She colours paper with orange and pink pencils and calls it a sky, to show Martin that he won’t become trapped. Martin holds the picture and his red eyes widen, but Velvet’s Mother snatches it and sends Velvet home.

            In the doorway her Mother says, ‘You’re not to spend any more time with that boy. He is not well.’ She forces a smile and adds, ‘I don’t ever want to see you here again.’

Velvet writes her name on everything. She writes it all in capitals VELVET, so that Tiger can have the lower-case version. She waits for Martin to return from hospital. Teacher, she says, when the teachers ask what she wants to be when she grows up. They smile and leave her alone.

            In Ethics, Velvet concocts new plans for her secret battle with the Stepfather. Ethics is only the story of the hills and the sky. How they got angry and changed forms, how they could never change back again. They practise their safe emotions: forgiveness, acceptance, and happiness. Sadness and anger, the teacher says, are dangerous.

Velvet knows that the Stepfather participates in the secret battle. While her Mother is at work, Velvet occupies one side of the house and the Stepfather the other. Velvet knows his sounds and smells and where he is at all times. She knows when he reaches for something in the fridge, or when his pace quickens towards the front door, rushing to get to her Mother first.

            The Stepfather smells of Pepsi Max and nicotine gum. His favourite foods are things like spaghetti bolognaise, meat on the slow cooker, chicken on the bone.

            He only ever makes spaghetti bolognaise when it’s his night to cook. She had never tasted anything so dark and heavy.

            Each time, her Mother will slurp the spaghetti and say to Velvet, Isn’t this delicious? The Stepfather will flick his tongue to lick the sauce stuck in his beard.

            He will watch Velvet until she has eaten every last bite. Sometimes, when he lays a hand on her Mother’s thigh and pulls her close, Velvet will sneak the spaghetti outside. It is not good enough for Tiger so she washes the chunks of meat under the tap and offers it to the birds. Back inside, the adults will be gone. Dark red sauce stains the dishes. Pepsi bottles line the kitchen bench.

            The Stepfather jokes with Velvet about how she spells her name in capitals, how she interacts with the dog, about how she only has one friend, and how she plays with her food. What he really means is, this is his house now, her Mother belongs to him, and Velvet will lose.

            Her Mother chuckles as though they are a family having a nice time, feeling and seeing none of it. In front of her, they smile at each other and say good morning and good night. He asks Velvet how her day was. Good, she says.

Velvet continues to see Martin when he comes back from hospital. They sit together in school. They ride their bikes towards the hills and watch them smoulder. The Stepfather cooks boiled eggs for breakfast and Velvet sticks them in her pocket to feed to the birds. Martin giggles as the birds peck the white flesh from his hands. They sit at his Mother’s resting place among the bare trees. Their clothes smell like smoke.

            They used to laugh at bad words like anger and sadness. After school one day, Velvet says sadness! and cracks up. Water forms on Martin’s cheeks and he does not laugh. He looks like the pictures from Ethics.

            ‘It’s not funny,’ Martin says. ‘What if I’m going to become like the hills and the sky?’

            Velvet doesn’t know what to say. Everyone is afraid of getting trapped in a big emotion and never changing, but they don’t talk about it outside of Ethics.

            Martin’s lower lip trembles. ‘I miss my Mother,’ he says.

            Velvet looks down at the pink stars on her shoes. ‘I don’t have a Father,’ she offers.

            ‘But you have a Stepfather,’ Martin says. ‘And you have a Mother too. You have both.’

            Velvet jumps to her feet. ‘That’s not the same.’ She pauses. ‘I hate the Stepfather.’

            Velvet says this with a force she has never used or heard before. They are stunned by the word hate, and by Martin’s lower lip, which does not stop trembling.

            To make them both feel better, Martin asks for another pink and orange sky. Velvet sits and draws one, adding some yellow. When they hear the Father come home, Martin slides it under the pillow.

            The Father sings in the kitchen and unloads some groceries. He is the same as before Martin’s Mother died. ‘He has practised acceptance,’ Martin explains.

            The Father smiles when he sees them. He says, ‘How was your day at school?’

            ‘Good,’ they say together.

That night, Velvet sits cross-legged on the bed with a book when the Stepfather knocks on her door.

            ‘Come in,’ she says, casual, even though he has crossed their unspoken boundary.

            He watches her for a moment and then he says, ‘I know where you’ve been.’

            Velvet listens to Tiger panting in the bed below. The Stepfather can’t stay long. Her Mother will be home in twenty minutes.

            ‘Well, do you have anything to say for yourself?’

            Velvet smells tomatoes soaking in basil, meat tossed with onions. His night to cook. He leans against the door and his mouth tries to smile. He wants to resist the urge to say the next thing.

            Velvet calls Tiger and pulls him onto her lap.

            The Stepfather can’t help himself. ‘Your Mother will be home soon,’ he says.

            Velvet studies his pants and feet. His dark blue jeans sag in the wrong places. They fray at the bottom. His feet hide in grey socks and their long and narrow shape poke out under the jeans. The sight of him in her doorway gives her a sick feeling. She recognises, accepts, and moves it on like she has been taught. She does not let it hold.

            ‘I had a good chat with Martin’s father down at the shops.’

            Velvet tries not to blink. He likes the sound of his own voice, her Mother said that to him once.

            ‘I’m afraid we’ll have to tell your Mother what you’ve been up to. You’ve done the opposite of what she asked. That boy is dangerous. You wouldn’t want to end up at the hospital, would you?’

            Velvet smiles and strokes Tiger, kisses him on the head. She can hear the water for the pasta boil and bubble over.

            ‘I love you Velvie,’ she says to Tiger.

            Something burns across the Stepfather’s face and his muscles tighten. He flees to the kitchen and the door hangs open.

            Martin doesn’t come to school the next day. Velvet asks where he is and the teacher smiles, says he is not well. The teacher removes the piece of paper that says Martin from his desk.

            The smouldering hills smell familiar and safe, and the sky is as bright blue as ever. It pours in from the windows and over Martin’s empty chair.

In Ethics, Velvet tries to make sense of what she heard the night before.

            Her Mother had said, It’s only a matter of time. And the Stepfather had said, The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

            Velvet had dreamt about her own Father. She saw him crystal clear in sleep, even though there was no trace of him in the day. He walked with Martin and Martin’s Mother, and they all shared the same expression. They were walking towards the hills.

            Velvet draws an orange sky for Martin while the teacher sings:

            When the hills got angry with us, what happened to them?

            And what happened to the sky, when it did the same?

            Velvet sings the response along with her class, and then, the teacher tells the story again.

Velvet goes straight home after school. She senses that the battle with the Stepfather is nearing the end. They are starting to challenge each other in new ways.

            Her Mother waits for Velvet on the couch in her crinkled hospital uniform. Her hair is loose from its usual bun.

            ‘Come and sit by me,’ her Mother says.

            Velvet sits and drops her schoolbag. Her Mother opens the bag and pulls out the orange sky without hesitation. She tears it up with quick movements and walks to the kitchen. Velvet hears the bin open and close. She hears the Stepfather snigger from somewhere deep inside the house.

            Velvet thinks of Martin and feels her lower lip tremble. She is wet behind the eyes. Her Mother grabs Velvet’s face and turns it towards her. She presses her fingers down on Velvet’s lips. She dries the wet marks on Velvet’s cheek with the rough sleeve of her top.

            Velvet can sense the Stepfather. He pads into the room in his grey socks and frayed jeans. He carries Tiger and chews his nicotine gum.

            Her Mother shifts in her seat as the Stepfather approaches. She keeps a firm hold on Velvet’s small face, stares into Velvet’s eyes.

            Tiger leaps from the Stepfather’s arms and jumps into Velvet’s lap.

            In a shaky voice, her Mother says, ‘How was your day at school?’

            The Stepfather is close to victory, Velvet can feel him closing in on her as he circles the room. She wants to ask where Martin is and if she can visit him at the hospital again. She wants to ask what happened to her Father and if he is buried in the hills.

            Velvet strokes Tiger’s soft velvety fur, and her Mother’s firm grip and gaze tightens.

            The Stepfather says, ‘Well, how was your day at school?’

            Velvet stares back into her Mother’s eyes, which are not grey-ish like her own. They are the same bright colour of the sky.

            Velvet smiles. ‘Good,’ she says.