Someone is shaking my shoulder, forcing me awake. As I regain consciousness, I hear my sister’s voice in my ear.
“Volani, wake up! We need to go!” she calls. I turn to see her run giddily out of the room and down the stairs. Her eager feet almost trip from her excitement, but she maintains balance and makes it to the stone floor of the kitchen. I roll over slowly, trying to decide how long I can get away with staying in bed, but in the end I can’t argue with myself anymore and sit up. I blink a few times to get my eyes to focus, but my laziness is interrupted by my sister’s scream.
The duvet melts into the desk, the bed becomes a chair, the illusion snaps. I sit up with a jolt, breathing heavily, looking around for my sister but finding her nowhere. I still feel her hand on my shoulder, but it is not her.
“Are you OK?” Abi asks. She looks frightened, stepping away slightly but leaving her hand where it is. She is not my sister, my sister is not in danger, she is not screaming and she is definitely not here. I know it’s true, but I still can’t quite believe it.
“Where is sh-she?” I hear myself ask. I know exactly where she is, but the memory was so vivid, so tangible that I find it hard to persuade my eyes that they are wrong. Abi steps away from me as I start pushing chairs aside, looking under tables and out of windows.
“Who are you looking for V? Can I call you V? You don’t mind do you?” her frantic questions stop me. I turn and face her, allowing my eyes to fully open and take in what they see. I let my heart sink, back to its murky home.
“Sh–ʺ I falter, “Sh-She’s not here.” Abi still seems confused; she keeps trying to follow my gaze and work out where I’m looking, which is something I can’t work out myself. Eventually she gives up and changes the subject.
“What happened with you and Ellie? I heard there was a fight, is that true? Did you get hurt?” Her torrent of questions forces me to forget my sister in trying to formulate an answer.
“Sh-she called me a parasite.” I reply simply, letting Abi fill in the blanks. Her eyes widen, she hesitates before asking the question I knew was coming next.
“How hard did you hit her?”
“As hard as I could.” I say, watching her eyes grow yet wider, beyond what I thought was humanly possible.
“Did she hit back?”
“Is she OK?”
“I don–ʺ I take a breath and try again, “Don’t care.” She gives me a stare of both sympathy and disapproval, before stepping forward and grabbing my hands. Her cold skin catches me off guard, so I try to pull away, but her hands hold tight.
“Listen V, you can’t just hit someone and expect everything to go on as normal, you’re going to have to apologise,” she watches my reaction, I roll my eyes at her, she continues, “And you never know, she might understand how bad she made you feel now…” She trails off at the raising of my sceptical eyebrow. “What?”
“Sh-she will n-never un-nderstan-nd,” I scoff.
“Maybe you underestimate her,” she argues, beginning to drag me from the room.
“Wait, where are we going?”
“To first-aid,” she says with a smile. I try to resist, but she is stronger and in the end I have to give in. Damn. She pulls me by my gloved hand along the busy corridor, ignoring the snickers and pointing. I notice every glance and every nod towards us, I guess the news of the fight has spread quickly, things always do.
Abi reaches the door to first-aid and knocks with her free hand, still clinging tightly to my left hand with her right. The first-aider lets us in after a moment’s discussion. We are greeted with the kind of welcome I have come to expect.
“Hey there lovers,” Ellie smirks. I twist my hand away from Abi’s quickly, whose cheeks seem a shade redder. She looks down, avoiding both mine and Ellie’s stares. Ellie and I share a rare glance, which we both end sharply.
“Listen, Ellie, I came to apologise,” I say, my voice shaking slightly. I look at her face, properly this time. She has bruises across one side of her face, dried blood on her chin, a swollen lip and a bulge on her forehead. She notices my stare and loves it.
“Proud of yourself?” she asks, with more than a hint of sarcasm. I scowl at her and turn to leave, but she calls after me.
“Wait!” Her panic confuses me, she sounds like she really does want me to stay, but why? I guess I’ll find out. I turn back, ensuring my face is painted with an expression of annoyance. “I–ʺ she stops, unusually uncertain, lacking the confidence that defines her. “I just wanted to ask how you got the scars on your hand.” She bites her lip, watching me with honest eyes; there is no hint of the thrill she gets from tormenting me. But how does she know I have scars? Did she get a glimpse of them? Or maybe she’s just guessing. Should I tell her the truth? I consider for a moment, I’ve never told anyone, except those who were there, is it time to let someone else in? I don’t think so.
“There was a f–ʺ I take a breath and try again, “F–ʺ Damn. “–Fight.” I hope my vague answer satisfies her. She nods slowly, looks at my feet and lifts her shirt to show her abdomen. Black, sprawling bruises all the way down one side, what looks like a healing cut from some kind of blade reaches all the way across her stomach. Those marks were not left by me.
“Who did th–ʺ I stop, not because of my stammer, but because I see her start to cry. I turn to Abi, who gestures for me to go to her. I’m not sure if I should do what she says or not, after all, this is the girl who just an hour ago insulted both me and my father. Still, I should help shouldn’t I? I’m not heartless, I know she’s obviously in pain both physically and emotionally, I’m just not sure if I’m the right person to help. Damn. This is no time to be picky, I haven’t got much to lose, she already hates me.
I step gingerly towards her and sit in the seat next to her, she keeps on crying. Now right by her, I can see that her normally flawless hair is tangled and chaotic. She seems so weak, so fragile, I tentatively place my hand on her shaking shoulder, she doesn’t react so I leave it there. Each sob is matched by a wince of pain at the contraction of her damaged muscles. My mind keeps repeating itself, I try to think of something to say, but I keep stopping myself, reminding my brain that I am supposed to hate this girl, who has caused me so much pain.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers and turns her eyes to look in mine. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, she must be joking, this is all some kind of prank surely? But there is no punchline, no sarcasm, no sneer or smirk. She’s sorry. Genuinely, truly sorry. The impact of that doesn’t quite hit me, I neglect to think of all the nightmarish days that she used to create, that will cease production as the manager realises what she’s done. I neglect to think of all the times I’ve thought of killing her, so that for at least a moment she’d understand. Instead I think of myself, I think of what an idiot I’ve been to not notice her pain, to not realise that she did understand, that she has been through pain at least as bad as mine. I think of how we really are quite similar in the end, we just deal with things differently. In all my thinking, I don’t say what needs to be said, I don’t tell her I forgive her, I don’t tell her about my own pain, I don’t apologise. I just sit there, staring at her broken face, waiting for one of us to say something. I know she is waiting for me, waiting to hear the words I don’t say.
In the end, it is Abi who breaks the silence, telling me I need to go to my next class. I wait, not wanting to leave this rare sight of Ellie showing remorse. I make up my mind; I want her to understand exactly why I act like I do.
“Let me sh-show you my home.” I say. It is not a request, but an instruction. Ellie doesn’t seem to understand, I guess she assumes I live in a council flat or something. I stand up to leave, she doesn’t seem to react, so I make sure she at least has the option to accept my offer.
“Come to th-the music departmen-nt af–ʺ I have to skip the sound to avoid getting stuck on it. “–ter school.” She just looks at me. I guess that’s a ‘no’ but I’ll find out later, when I stay for as long as I can get away with, alone with that painting, just in case she changes her mind.
Abi hurries over to open the door for me; she can probably see the conflict within me, how uncertain I was about how to react. Abi gives me a small smile, though it is not entirely sure, suggesting she too can’t tell if I did the right thing. I could ask her, but she would probably just say I did out of reflex. No, I hardly know this girl, that’s what my sister would do; I have to make the separation. This girl is not related to me, she knows nothing about me, I know very little about her, but there is some kind of connection there. It’s as if she’s known me as a friend her whole life, but I’ve only just noticed her.
I take a sideways glance at her as we walk down the corridor, her eyes seem distant, unfocussed, or at least not on anything I can see. I can see more than just an iris and a pupil, there is something else, some kind of loneliness. Thinking about it, I’ve never seen her with any friends or classmates, but she seems likeable, if a little shy at times, so why wouldn’t she have fit in with someone’s friendship group? She’s still looking down, holding her hands together in front of her, fidgeting constantly. She seems strangely nervous around me, which I guess is reasonable considering what I did to Ellie. Damn. She saw that, she must think I’m some kind of raging lunatic, great, the one friend I’ve managed to make and I’ve scared her already. Damn.
She notices me watching her and her cheeks go red again. Is she ashamed to show her fear? She can’t be that afraid surely? The first time I met her, I had just collapsed and she supported me with a single hand. I probably weigh a couple of stones less than her despite her being a foot or so shorter than me. Still, she seems to comfort herself, trying to relax her nerves, her thumb caressing her wrist gently. Now aware that I am watching, she looks up and around, deciding hastily to look out of the window. I don’t think she is afraid, but what then? No one has ever acted like this before; I’m used to jeering and cold shoulders, not this confusing tense silence that she is obviously trying to fill. I can almost see her considering each option available to her and calculating my reaction.
I wonder how easily she predicts, and how accurately. I know a lot of the things I do are irrational, I know I snap too easily and when I do, things like today happen. But I’m not sure if my irrationality has become foreseeable. Have people come to expect me to lash out? Or are they still surprised? They seemed shocked today, but I’ve never snapped like that before, or at least, not at this school. I know that I have never been able to predict anyone except Ellie, even she surprised me today, but I usually put that down to my lack of perception. Sometimes I wonder if other people find it easier, if other people can read me like a book, or if, like me, they are constantly confused when people do things they didn’t expect. Most of the time I don’t care.
I reach my Maths classroom. But as I turn to enter, Abi speaks, suddenly and anxious.
“Wait! Can I come?” she asks, biting her lip. I understand now why she took so long to consider, I’m not sure how to react, so I don’t think she could possibly have the slightest clue. I trust her more than Ellie, there’s no doubt, but whether or not I want her to see my house is a tougher question. I know Ellie’s opinion of me can’t get much lower, but this could shake the unsteady friendship I have with Abi. I don’t want to lose her, at least not until I know what she’s really like. In the end, I suppose she would be more offended if I said no. Damn.
“I guess you could come,” I say quietly. A wave of relief passes over her, her face is instantly more animated and her nervous fidgeting stops, instead she runs off to her next lesson, shouting over her shoulder.
“See you then!”
I shake my head, not even trying to comprehend what just happened. I lean on the door behind me and enter my class. Damn. I forgot my book.