There’s no nice way to describe her. Perhaps a slightly more human version of Medusa: seaweed green hair coiling and looping in half drawn circles by the sides of her face, the stark red of her lips ugly against the pallor of her white skin.
A twist, a cruel curve to her mouth, and a sharpness to her eyes that forbids you from looking too long or looking away.
She’s his best friend. Or maybe not, but that hardly seems to matter. He sees more of her than his own parents.
She’s got an unlit cigarette poking out from between her teeth, and a broken lighter balanced between her fingers.
He decides not to ask her what the matter is. She might set him on fire or smoke him out: he can tell she’s angry. Grumpy. Sour as milk curdled and left out in the heat for a few weeks.
She narrows her eyes, and the thick sweep of her lashes close in on her pupils. “What?”
He takes the cigarette from her, and drops it down the crack in the pavement. It leaves ashes as it falls.
“What?” she says again, and this time her voice snaps. Breaks halfway through like the click of a closing door.
“Have you seen Olivia?”
“No,” Amber sneers a little. “Why? Am I boring you?”
He shrugs. Yes. “Just a little.”
“Well, sorry,” she drops the lighter, and it hits the floor loudly. “I haven’t. And even if I had, I wouldn’t tell you. Because I hate her.”
He watches the lighter. It’s a disgusting purple: cheap and sticky-coloured like corner shop sweets. “Oh.”
Amber tugs a green curl that hangs by the nape of her neck, and wraps it around one of her ash fingers like a swirl of rope or ribbon. “Please don’t hang out with her. Hang out with me.” The whine of her voice is put on, but the desperation behind it isn’t. It is a well-known fact that Amber Pearson does not have many friends. Whether or not that’s because of her medusa hair or her unpleasant manner, nobody is quite sure. She’s just not liked generally.
“Can you see my roots?” Amber asks, gesturing vaguely at the top of her head.
He checks. “Yes.”
“But are they brown or green?”
“Yay.” He isn’t quite sure whether she’s being sarcastic or not, but either way, Amber’s hair isn’t particularly interesting. It’s very ugly, in fact, and if she grew it out brown again she’d probably look very pretty.
He stares at it. “Why do you have to have green hair?”
“I have to look at it every time we’re together. You should think about the way I feel when I see it.”
“Shut up, Jules.”
He sighs. Maybe it wasn’t a good time to bring up the green hair. It never is. Sometimes he just brings it up because he wants Amber to feel upset. There’s a strange sort of satisfaction in it for him: a kind of sadistic satisfaction that he almost wishes he didn’t get, but is also sort of addicted to.
Amber’s eyes tear up. They go glassy like a pair of dirty windows, and she angrily scratches at them as though she’s trying to tell him she isn’t actually crying. Even though of course she is. Of course she’s crying. Amber always cries.
“Why are you upset?”
Amber cannot seem to stop crying, now. It’s too late to brush the tears away because, unfortunately, they’re already falling. Spilling across her nose and in between her lips.
“Fuck,” she spits out, and sniffs angrily. “Fuck you.”
Jules blinks. “Sorry for bringing up your green hair. I didn’t really mean it.” He pauses. “Well, I did. But I’m sorry I meant it.”
“Oh God, shut up, shut up, shut up.”
Amber covers her face with her long white fingers and long nails painted snow white like ice caps.
“What happened?” Jules asks.
Perhaps Amber sort of wants to scream ‘shut up’ again, but she pushes it down. She keeps her hands across her face, and the only thing Jules can see of her is the scarlet of her lips hanging slightly open with words unsaid.
Jules blinks again, and then wraps a long arm around the shoulders of his friend. She’s wearing a soft white t-shirt and dark soft jeans, and new converse with pale laces, and her rings tinkle together as she curves an arm around his stomach.
“I wouldn’t stop being your friend just because I hate your hair,” Jules says.
“Did you break up with Clio? Because if you did, you shouldn’t be crying.”
“I did,” Amber’s teeth tap together between sobs. “But that’s not why I’m crying.”
“Is it Olivia?” Jules drums his fingers on Amber’s shoulder. “Because I wouldn’t actually hang out with her over you. Even though she has very shiny blonde hair.”
Amber groans under her breath. “I don’t know.”
“Then stop crying.”
Amber pulls away from Jules’ embrace, and rubs angrily at the red stitched around her eyes. She hardly dares bring her hands away from her face because she knows how she looks. There are sleepless nights and cigarette smoke she can’t stand painted across her skin, and the green of her hair is garish against her broad nose and rosebud lips. She knows her hair is stupid and ugly, but really, isn’t it the only thing she has?
Her eyes crinkle again. “Do you really hate my hair?”
Jules lets out a breath that paints the air silver. “I guess.” He knows it’s the wrong answer before he says it out loud, but the truth is always better than a lie. He knows that. It’s his most important principle. “But I don’t really hate you, so it doesn’t matter.”
Amber’s smile is a little flat, but she can’t seem to keep it in. It’s bright on her face and a little tear-streaked and her lipstick seems to have smeared slightly over her upper lip. She brushes the laugh away with the back of a grubby hand. “Yeah, okay. You’re forgiven.”
“I don’t need your forgiveness.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I’ll take it anyway.”
“You’re too kind.”
Jules nods. “I know.” He gives her a soft punch, and Amber catches the pale crescent scars on his knuckles before he pulls away. They look like little moons etched into his skin. Very beautiful. Amber will never mention them. They’re the markings of nails digging into skin; short nails, hardly cut or filed so they’re a little jagged.
Amber doesn’t look any longer just in case she can’t stop.
“I’ve got homework to do,” Jules says quietly, a sigh hanging over his words. “You can come over and do yours with me.”
“So I can help you?” Amber teases, even though she knows Jules will never get the joke.
“Don’t be stupid.” He stands up, and runs scarred fingers through his brown hair. The darkness clusters in the crooks of his face and the frown lines in his forehead that never seem to leave. He reaches down a hand, and she takes it. One of her knees cracks as she gets to her feet.
Jules tugs her collar into place. “Your face is dirty.”
“I can clean it.”
“Yes, actually. I can.”
Jules turns away. He thinks she’s lying. Amber never seems to be very clean. There’s always dirt crusted into her nails or smears and blotches on her face, even though she denies they’re there even in front of a mirror.
Amber elbows him in the ribs as they walk, just to make sure he hasn’t forgotten she’s still with him.
When they pass street lamps or the flash of cars, the light catches against Jules’ face. The brightness snags like rags caught in wire by the groove of his chin and the cold lines of his jaw and throat.
She knows he can see her looking at him, but he doesn’t say anything because he thinks she’s a bit stupid, sometimes. A bit slow.
Jules thinks everyone’s a bit slow.
Amber hooks her arm through his, and he raises one of his dark eyebrows.
“I did see Olivia, by the way.”
Amber scrapes her teeth across her tongue, because she doesn’t really want to tell him about the shiny-haired bitch that got a better score than her in history. “She was waiting for you.”
“Did you talk to her?”
What did you say? Jules’ eyes ask.
“I said you didn’t want to see her,” Amber says confidently, even though it’s painful to remind herself of the lie and she knows Jules will be so angry.
The muscle in his cheek feathers. “Thank you very much, Amber.”
“Sorry,” she mutters back, her eyes now trained on the passing cars and running white lines of the road. “I actually am. Really sorry.”
“You can hate me now, if you want. Me and my hair.”
“I said stop talking,” there’s a scornful turn to his lips as he opens them again. “Just in case you say something you shouldn’t again.”
Amber’s cheeks stain red, and she stops talking. She fervently hopes their homework won’t be too difficult, just so she doesn’t have to ask him for any more help this evening.