We ate silently. The only thing we heard was the scraping of knives on the plates.
After we had finished eating Niall asked, "And how are you feeling?"
"Okay," I said, and he grinned.
"Then the poison hasn't probably work yet," he said.
I looked at him with a what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you-look and he squinched up his face.
"Too soon?," he asked and I nodded. Niall sighed and stood up. "My room is up stairs; take the first door on the right. From the room you can reach my bathroom, there you can wash your hands. Go ahead, I'll be right after you."
I nodded, got up and ran up the stairs.
The corridor stretched before me, it seemed endless. I walked into Niall's room and memories flooded me.
In the corner where now stood a single guitar, formerly beanbags had lain on which we lay for hours and could talk about anything. A huge, modern bed stood on a small rise. Previously there was a bed in the shape of a race car. Once the floor was covered with a carpet, on which streets and houses were imprinted; it was replaced by a plain, solid color carpet.
I held on to the door handle, so I don't fall over. I didn't know what to feel or think.
It was as if there would be two different universes, in which I had lived. In the first where I was a child, happy, with lots of friends. In the second as I am of the present, at the end of my power and almost alone.
I breathed slowly, straightened up and walked into his bathroom. I washed my hands, left the room and looked surprised at Niall's bed. There lay neatly folded the sweater, which he wore in my dream and my backpack leaned against his bed. Niall stood before it and smiled at me.
"Can we start?" he asked. I swallowed and nodded.
We sat down on the carpet and I rummaged in my backpack the necessary things. Niall got his backpack, too. First, we read our own pages through, then we exchanged.
Again and again my thoughts wandered. I acted as if I'd read any paragraph at the beginning of the page and watched Niall.
He bit lightly his lower lip, had his eyebrows pulled together and read focused. His blue eyes darted about the page, remained at a few words and then scurried on.
I tried again to focus on my own pages, but it was very difficult for me. I didn't like biology. I had never. I sighed and gave up.
Niall looked up and asked, "You okay?"
"I don't get it," I said honestly. He grinned.
"With your glasses and your reputation you always sounded so smart. And now you're the one who doesn't understand that?," he said. I raised an eyebrow.
"My reputation is obviously wrong," I said. "But Ms. Stewart said that you were the best out of our course. And that also doesn't fit to your reputation." He chuckled.
"The lads are not my life. I have to take care of my future," he said.
"Oh, you don't all want to be hatchet man? Or cruel brothel owner? Otherwise I can't explain your behavior and girlfriend choices," I said dryly, and immediately regretted it.
What the hell? What had gotten into me that I was so brave and told him my opinion?!
Instinctively, I leaned back to avoid a possible hit. But Niall looked at me for a moment dumbfounded, and then he began to laugh loudly. I allowed myself a small smile, but my eyebrows had drawn together uncertain. But Niall laughed and laughed and kept holding his belly.
"I didn't think that you are so sarcastic and funny," he said, looking at me with a wide grin.
Then there was a short knock on his door.
"Come in," he called.
An elderly woman walked into the room with a tray.
"I thought maybe you could use a little Snack, so you can think better," she said and placed the tray next to me.
Her black hair was combined into a strict bun and her dark eyes were calm in her face.
"Thank you, Kayleigh. Also, for already bringing up my laundry, I would have done it later," said Niall.
The woman, Kayleigh, smiled at him and her entire face blossomed. Now she looked much younger.
"But that's my job, Niall," she said. Then she nodded and left the room.
"Tea?," Niall asked, pointing to the tray.
"Uh, sure," I said, and he poured us tea in the cups.
The tea still evaporated, but was already edible and tasted deliciously of fruit.
Then Niall cleared his throat and asked, "So, have you at least understand what the main topic of the project is?" I thought for a moment.
"We have to plant plants and influence them with different music. And then write down how their growth behavior is, right?," I said and he nodded.
"Yeah, exactly. At the end we compare them and make a conclusion."
"That isn't that hard. I mean, if we leave out foreign words" I said and pulled my eyebrows together again. Why didn't Ms. Stewart let me do this project alone?! It sounded so easy.
Niall nodded and said, "I suggest that we do this in our garden shed. You may remember that that's the hobby of my dad."
Suddenly a memory flashed in my mind, which I hadn't thought about for years. Niall, Josh, Aly and I stole strawberries and felt so guilty afterwards that we wanted to blame Niall's older brother Greg. But then we all confessed and his father just laughed.
I began to smile. "Yeah," I said, and then nodded. "Okay, then let's do it here. Are the music genres prescribed?"
He glanced back in the papers. "Nope, also not the plant type" he said and I nodded.
"Okay. How about seven different directions: Classic, Metal, Punk Pop, Rock, Rap, Dubstep?," I asked.
"Let's say seven, I'm still for acoustic guitar," he said and I nodded.
"What type of plant we take?," I asked and he shrugged.
"It doesn't matter. We could drive to the next market garden and choose one," he said. I swallowed.
"Okay," I said, but my voice sounded far away. I hoped he wouldn't notice, but he was more attentive than I thought. He squinched up his face and sighed.
"Listen to me. I understand that you don't trust me. But... This is our last year at school. I want to leave it with a clear conscience. And if this includes to do everything well what I have ever done wrong, then I'll do it. Plus you belong to it anyway. And Josh also," he said, and his voice sounded honest. I looked at him in surprise.
"Why this change of heart?" I asked.
That is certainly all a trick. I can't trust him.
This afternoon his best friends stuffed Josh into a garbage can and wanted to get rid of me. Granted, Niall had gone in between and had saved us, but that could also belong to their plan.
I had become so suspicious.
"Because of Taylor" he sighed and looked at his hands.
"I didn't know you have a sister" I said and he smiled slightly.
"Because she has only been with us nearly three months. She isn't my biological sister, we have adopted her."
"Oh," I said. I hadn't expected that.
"Yeah... When we found her she was totally intimidated, lived in her own world."
I thought of the little girl, who looked at me with shining eyes and hugged me tightly.
"But..." I began and he chuckled.
"I know. She changed," he said. "Since Greg has moved, I live alone in this huge house, when my parents are working. Although Kayleigh lives here, but I hardly see her. She's like a fucking Ninja," he said and laughed again.
"Instead of buying a dog, my parents saved a little girl from the orphanage. And of course she's scared of boys, especially of ones, as I was one." He looked out the window.
"Tay... She was excluded in the orphanage. Had no friends, even the manager couldn't stand her. She was unimpressive. No one paid any attention to her... thus she slipped into her own world. Lived in it, had given up hope. For years she lived like that and then she suddenly comes here. Here it is colorful, sometimes loud and here are people who care about her. The first few weeks she has only talked with Mom. Then she confided to Dad. We did a lot as a family, but she still was afraid of me. Eventually, I was awake at night because I heard something in the hallway. Mom and Dad were at a business lunch, Kayleigh sleeps like a bear, so it could only be Taylor. I found her crying in the attic between old toys and boxes." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"I talked soothingly so long to her, until she finally started talking to me. She was afraid that it was all just a dream. That if she had at some point got used to everything and to us she would wake up and be alone in the orphanage again. Since that day we spend almost every day together. She has changed and me too. Last week, Mom and Dad weren't here. Tay and I were on the attic again and searched for albums of the time Greg and I were at her age. We leafed through the pages and then she suddenly pointed to a picture and wanted to know who the girl is." He looked at me.
"And it was you, Selena. It was the photo from your eight birthday. You got a doll and couldn't leave her. You've held her in the camera and smiled wide… and Josh and I laughed because we had never seen you so happy. Aly was, of course, eating pie, like the rest of your guests. The next photo was also of the day, probably a few minutes later. You sat on a stage, the doll lay like a baby in your arms and you concentrated fully on her. You didn't notice that Aly has vomited from the whole cake and Josh and I had laughed even more."
I looked at him dumbfounded and couldn't help but laugh. I remembered.
A year and a half later my Dad moved out, months later the twins were born.
Niall's voice interrupted my thoughts.
"I told her the story about the pictures and she was... She loved it. Because she used to be just like you in the picture in her own world. The photos made Taylor brave. You made her brave. She said that you must be a wonderful person. She said, she could tell it the way I talked about you. But I couldn't answer her. And..." He shook his head. "I'm disgusted with it. Everything. Everything that the boys and I have ever done to you. If Tay has to go through all this like you... I'll kill these persons. Without ever thinking about the consequences." He sighed.
"As if I wouldn't know how you felt when your parents got divorced and your mom..."
He got back to the story, left the sentence open and laughed quietly desperate. Niall raised his eyes and looked directly into my eyes.
"You were there for me when my parents divorced and I- I'm sorry. About everything. I know that no excuse in the world can make up for how we behaved. But... I don't want that. I don't want to be like this anymore. I want to be a good brother. A role model. I was never... and I'm also kind of... I don't know. I had never thought. I have done what the others have done... I was a total douche. Asshole. Bastard. Slimy git. Wanker. And of course a coward. I didn't want to slip off. Just as Josh, who had turned down the offer before me."
I looked at him confused. It rattled in my head.
"Does that mean... that if Josh had taken it... you were not in the gang? And Josh... would be where you are now?" I asked.
Niall licked his lips briefly. "Yeah. I was asked a week later. With me the clique was completed. Zayn wanted a five point clique. And what Zayn wants, he usually gets."
"Wow, that sounds, uh, girly" I said.
"Zayn has only sisters, he is influenced in the long run. Or was," Niall said curtly. "But anyway, that's not the issue."
I was stunned by his honesty. From the story about Taylor. Of... of his behavior. Just as he had told me all this and his body language... that... it looked real. As he would mean it.
I laughed confused.
"That's... I...," I started, but I had no words. I swallowed.
"Josh and me have been for years your target. You excluded us. Spread Rumors. You- you locked us up, throw old food on us, stole things, blackened us... Every single day of school in the last five years. And of course when we met somewhere random. Or on the internet."
Niall looked at me tormented. But the pain he felt now was not nearly the one that Josh and I had experienced.
"Josh and I had only us. Have only us. Everyone belongs to you and do what you do." I shook my head. "You're right. No excuse in the world can ever correct that again or make it look less bad."
Niall swallowed and run his hand through his dyed hair again.
Because of him and his shitty friends I had started self harm. Had suicidal thoughts. For years I had only Josh. I couldn't trust Niall that easily. I only have Josh. And when this year was fucking around, it would only be Josh and me. We would never think of these assholes again. We would emigrate somewhere to start a new life and try to forget.
I clenched my hands into fists and looked at them.
"You make my life a hell. You did it for years. In addition to Josh, I have no one to help me. No one who is there for me. Josh and I have only us. He is doing just as bad as me. Five fucking years, Niall," I said, looking up again.
"You want to apologize? Be a friend? First be clear about who you are. And when you're ready, then prove to me that you can be different. That you can be who we were as children. That you can be good and want to help Josh and me."
"I'll try," he said. "I won't only try, I'll do it. I'm so-"
I interrupted him mid-sentence by shaking my head.
"Save your excuses," I said coldly and he just nodded.