"The universe wrote fiction in us; it's called fear,"
It is a hot day outside. The sky is a cloudless blue, stretching out farther than I can think of and the heat from the rays of the sun bake me like a bun in an oven. The slight breeze does little to cool me. I swipe away the sweat off my forehead and take a deep breath, closing my eyes to contemplate.
I am ready. I have to do this. They cannot see me defeated. I may have lost the battle, but I still have my pride and I will not bow down to their expectations.
When my eyelashes flutter open, dozens of eyes blink at me. Gulping, I slowly descend the cemented steps, placing my feet unsteadily. My hands clasp into fists, more from the pain that my back experiences than from anger or self assurance.
The crowds of students that were spread across the grass now rise and separate to each side, making a single column for me to walk in. Boys and girls, of all ages, ogle at me with huge eyes, drinking in my actions. Some mouths are hanging open, others are pressed into thin lines.
Grass tangles at my feet, compressing wherever I step. I keep my head high and even manage to give a sour smile, merely for the amusement of it. Finally, the whisperings begin. Gossip, rumours, hissing and insults follow.
I strain my ears to forget them and my walking pace quickens. I see some familiar faces, but I can't find Poppy and Meg. It's strange and they could still be in the building or Meg could simply be keeping Poppy away for her sake.
I shake off the thoughts and circle around uncle Ogden. Its violently green leaves sway gently and the bark is covered in scuttling bugs. It is low and its colossal branches spread outwards vastly, sending shadows scattering across the field. It is a remarkable tree; the braches are as thick as its bark.
Seated on one of the branches is none other than James. He is quite high up; somewhere closer to the top. He leans back against the tree, his head tilted and his eyes closed. His legs are crossed and extended, with his hands folded over his chest that heaves mightily.
A lump rises in my throat and somehow I don't think I should have come here. The previous embarrassment of touching his hand is still fresh in my memory and my cheeks blaze a violent red immediately.
Silently, I turn around on my heels, ready to go. Somehow, he must have heard me, because a loud whistle fills my ears. I whirl around, looking up at him.
"Why are you leaving?" he cocks his head, looking downwards, "Something wrong?" his question seems almost innocent and I don't know what to say, so I keep silent, "So are you going to come up or what?" he grins widely, excitement evident in his tone.
I gulp, racing my eyes down from he bottom to the top of the tree, "I think...I'll hang out down here for a while. You can stay there, it's okay," my voice shakes and I blush yet again. He lets out a warm chuckle, winking at me.
"Are you afraid of me or the height?" his eyebrows rise up, the smile still tugging at his mouth.
"I am not afraid of anything!" I hiss back, anger rising suddenly in me. Technically, it's not against the rules, but I figure that this won't be taken lightly. Then again, what have I got to lose?
"Prove it," his smile fades and he looks at me challengingly. I narrow my eyes and stride over to the tree until I am beside the lowest of all branches. It is so old that the wood is chipping off and moss grows around it.
Sucking in a breath, I haul myself on top of it and grab the next branch with my hand, while balancing on the lower one. I continue to climb up like a monkey, forgetting about my dress, because there's nobody watching from the bottom, so it's not a big deal.
The only problem is the pain that eats out my back. I blink away the tears and grit my teeth to forget about it and it almost works. Almost.
Branch by branch, I gradually get closer to him and when I reach the last one, I look down, still clinging on to the branch he is sitting on. My head swirls and I feel slightly dizzy. It's not that I am afraid of heights, but I have never been this high before, from what I remember.
The grass seems miles away and when I look up, the canopy of leaves completely covers us and no one can see us unless they come closer to the tree. The foliage is so thick that it seems to stitch together so I can't see through.
"Congratulations," he claps and beckons to me to climb over and sit down. I sigh, flinging my leg over the branch and just as I am about to support myself with my hand, my other foot slips and I am sliding downwards.
A strong hand catches mine and pulls me up with such ease as if I am like a feather, "Easy there," James pants, leaning back into the tree. I gaps for breath, seeing as I held it for the whole climb, and clutch to the branch with my hands, whilst hanging my legs down on either sides. I wonder how on earth will I come down. I have the whole day anyway.
"Why, in all places, did you come up here?" I give a shaky laugh, running a hand through my hair. He peels open his eyes and looks at me curiously.
"I like the view," the answer is so simple that I feel stupid for asking. He shrugs and closes his eyes again. Regaining my calm, I pick at the wood with my fingernail. I notice that underneath I still have dried blood. I shudder at the memory.
Looking over at James, I see that his face is still dappled in bruises and cuts. I feel a bit guilty for not thanking him properly, "Thank you, James," I whisper so quietly that I am surprised he heard it. His head snaps towards me, leaving the tree and his eyes flutter open. In them, reflected is a sense of curiosity or even confusion.
"For what? I thought we were over that," his voice is tight, strained.
"No, I want to say thank you sincerely now. It took a lot to do what you did today and not everyone could do that. Thank you," I say more confidently now. I look at him forcefully, waiting for his reply, but he remains silent. I realise how close we sit.
"Anytime," he answers finally and tilts his head back again.
An odd silence passes and I feel stupid for coming up here now. It was such a foolish idea. I have only decided on climbing back down, when James sighs heavily and leans in closer. I hold my breath, glancing with my eyes to each side.
He looks at me with huge round orbs for eyes and such sadness is evident in them, that I feel pity for him. And I hate myself for it. Pity is the worst thing anyone can feel for someone.
"Have you ever wondered what it's like out there?" he suddenly asks. I am bewildered and look at him surprised, "I mean, have you ever thought of escaping?" he talks in a whisper, even though there is no one in earshot.
It's as if my heart has stopped beating. He has brought up the most dangerous topic of all and it's like a needle pricking me. I try to seem calm, but he is no fool and must have seen my panicked reaction, because immediately, he rushes to confront me, "Sorry, that wasn't fair. Forget about it," he bites his lip.
I take a few minutes to answer, "I have, James. Everyone has thought about it, certainly. It's what keeps me going, but in reality it's not possible," I mutter in bitterness.
He suddenly seems to get excited at my answer and sits up straight, grabbing the branch for support. His eyes gleam with the idea, "Why not? Have you tried it?"
"No, but - "
"Then it's possible," he concludes as-a-matter-of-factly.
I groan, "James, listen to yourself! You're talking nonsense! Anyone who is caught faces death and can you imagine Poppy - ?" I shut up before I can finish my thoughts. I have gone too far for my own liking and mentally I curse at myself for even allowing such ideas.
"Ah," he speculates, "Anyone who is caught," his tongue curls around the word.
"Drop it," I wave him off, but his excitement is too much and he can't stop himself. He is smiling so much that it creeps me out a bit.
"Think about it, Katherine! We could do it! You and I, we could run away from this god-forsaken place and leave it all behind!" he flings out his arms in eagerness.
I suddenly feel such disgust that it's all I can do not to slap him, "You mean leave Poppy behind," my voice is lethal. This seems to have brought him back to Earth and the excitement that was burning in his eyes has extinguished. I burst his bubble and his smile fades away like mist, as if it were never there; a shadow of the past.
"Katherine - " he starts disappointingly, but I cut him off.
"No, James! I can't leave her behind and now, Meg. They would kill her! You don't understand. She would never leave me and I can't do that to her. I promised her that I would keep her safe," I rush, hoping that he didn't actually believe in that idea seriously.
"I see," is all he answers. He is distracted, I can tell. His brows crease together and his eyes droop with thought. He scratches his hair and purses his lips, trying not to show his agitation.
"I promised, James, and I keep my promises. And even if she was to come with us, it would be unrealistic to escape effectively without being caught. She's only a child," I look away, down to the grass below.
About ten minutes must have passes by the time he speaks again. He understood my wish not to talk about it and I am glad for that. He's not entirely bad then, "Have you ever thought about the name of the school?" his mouth crinkles up and a dimple appears on his cheek.
I look at him with utter bewilderment and burst out laughing, "That has just proven my theory about you being insane. And I thought I lost my wits,"
He smiles too, "Well, I figure we all have a bit of insanity inside of us, otherwise it would be quite a boring life, eh?" his brows raise.
I shake my head at him, dismissively, "You are full of mysteries,"
"That's mutual, don't you think?" he tilts his head to look at me sideways.
"What about the name?" I finally say, distracted by his hand tapping his lap. He must be thinking of a song or something. That, or it's a nervous habit.
"Well, it's Dalewood Institute of Education, right?" he says knowledgeably. I nod in approval, rolling my eyes, "Well, the first letters spell DIE. Ironic, isn't it?" his voice turns gloomy and I feel stupid for not noticing it earlier.
I am a bit irritated at him for mentioning it and for having such morbid thoughts that I keep silent, although he knows I am angry, "And Satan said; Let us be sent to this part of Hell," he concludes.