And he stands back, so he is with us: all eyes are on Phoebe’s sketch. Everyone, together, studying the drawing. The robin that trusted her, hopped closer and closer. Phoebe’s smile as she sketched, murmuring at the robin, him chirping back. Seconds tick by: to a minute of silence, then two.
He shakes his head sadly, and returns to the front of the class.
‘Today, draw something or someone you care about, that makes you feel something; feel anything. Good or bad, I don’t care. Go! Get started.’
He slumps at his desk. Movements begin around the room; small, unhurried. Paper smoothed. Pencils, charcoals selected. All as if waking from a dream, a trance.
I lean over crisp, white sheets. Out of the corner of my eye I track Mrs Ali. Hers are thoughtful, puzzled; she departs.
Gianelli looks older today, the lines about his eyes more pronounced; his skin as grey as his hair. A silent protest at one of his students being taken, but we all know what he did just now, the risk he took. I see him slip a flask out of his pocket, tilt it into his tea. Then start a sketch of his own.
Without thought or question, I use my left hand. Turned in my seat a little so I can see the door, in case Mrs Ali comes back.
Draw someone I care about; someone who makes me feel something…
Quick and smooth strokes. A subject I haven’t tried before, but there is no trial and error with my left hand: it is right the first time. His thoughtful eyes. Strong chin, dark hair that is more wavy than curly, just below his ears: Ben.
Where are you? He wasn’t in biology this morning. Worry makes me chew my lip so hard it hurts. He hasn’t done something stupid? I asked Miss Fern but she didn’t know; she wasn’t hiding anything, though; there was no worry or remoteness in her. I’m starting to understand that there are different types of teachers. Fern, Gianelli, and the running coach, Ferguson: they are real. They might tell me off on occasion, they’re not always nice, exactly, but they talk to me like I exist, like I matter. Then there are ones like the Head, Rickson, Dr Winston, the ed psych, and Mrs Ali: who for all their smiles and ‘I’m just here to help you’ chat are really just watching for mistakes, for anything outside the rules.
I jump when the bell goes. Time passed unnoticed. I lay down my pencil as Mrs Ali appears in the door. Gianelli starts to gather up drawings, and pin them up around the robin. When he gets to me, I say, ‘Wait. It’s not finished.’ He looks at it and sees that it is, but doesn’t comment, moves on to the next one as I pack it away.
I look up at the sketches. It is a sea of faces; important to each of us. Some probably a mum or dad, brother or sister, friends. One of a dog.
Mrs Ali appears at my shoulder. ‘Let me see,’ she demands, and opens my folder. Stares at my drawing of Ben, and raises an eyebrow. I flush.
She studies it. ‘It is a good likeness of Ben,’ she says, finally.
It is better than good. It isn’t just that it looks like him: it is his eyes. They are him, a him that I don’t want to share: the way he looked at me yesterday, just before I thought he might kiss me and I pulled away. Before I told him about missing persons, and Lucy. Before he ran.
We walk across the class to the door just as Gianelli pins up his own drawing. He’s never done that before; showed us something he did, himself. Everyone still in the room looks up, and catches their breath: it is Phoebe. He has captured a side of her I didn’t know. The anger is gone: her face, the way she stands, everything about her is so very sad. She stands alone. Mrs Ali’s eyes grow cold as she stares at Gianelli.
I go to the track at lunch, afraid to look; afraid of what it might mean if I can’t find him. Ben always comes here at lunch. Is he here?
I scan the track. There are a few runners scattered along it today, now the rain has stopped. Most I recognise from training, but not the one I am looking for. I hug my arms around myself, watch them a few moments. Trying not to think. Where could he be?
I turn to go, and crash straight into Ben.
‘Careful,’ he says, and puts out both hands, one on each of my shoulders, to steady me.
‘Where’ve you been?’ I demand.
He shrugs. ‘Here. Where else?’
‘You weren’t in biology.’
‘No, I was late. Had a doctor’s appointment, then Mum got a flat tyre on the way back,’ he says, his eyebrows raised in a puzzle.
‘You could have told me!’ I say, and push my hands into his chest to shove him away, then start to walk off. I’d been so worried and he just had a stupid appointment.
‘Well, I hardly knew we were going to get a flat tyre,’ he says, in a reasonable tone that just makes me madder. He follows and catches my hand, hooks his little finger in with mine and holds it tight. ‘What’s wrong?’
The anger fizzes out and my eyes are filling. I blink. ‘I thought something happened to you.’
‘You were worried about me?’ And he smiles, looking very pleased about it. But before I can decide whether I want to punch him or hug him, it happens.
Bzzzz: on my wrist. I sigh in exasperation.
He grabs my hand, and we look at it together: 3.9. ‘Come on.’ He pulls me back towards the track. ‘See if you can keep up today. You were a bit slow yesterday.’
Slow?! I hit the track before Ben, pour everything into my legs, my feet. Again and again. Ben gradually catches but doesn’t pass me. Though maybe he holds back? I go faster, until there is nothing left. Bit by bit I pull ahead, and I feel a cold sense of satisfaction. This is the way it should be…
As the running takes over, some small part of me is amused. Why did I get so angry with Ben? It wasn’t reasonable, was it. I was confused about yesterday – about why he took off when I told him about Lucy, and wouldn’t talk about it afterwards – but if he is anything like me, he needed time to take it in. And he expected to make it back in time for biology, so there was no reason to tell me he wouldn’t be there. I can almost laugh at myself.
But I can’t. Because the problem, here, is a serious one. One I don’t want to face.
What is Ben to me?
When we stop I see Ferguson. Standing by the gym, stopwatch in hand, shaking his head a little. We walk past him as we leave.
‘Flipping record. What a shame,’ he mutters to himself, shaking his head.
‘What does he mean?’ I say, stalling, before Ben can ask me, well, anything.
‘Not sure, but I’m guessing we broke the track record.’
‘But that’s good, right?’ No matter the motivation for running like that, no matter that it might be difficult to repeat the frame of mind that made me do it.
Ben shrugs. ‘Sure. If you like breaking records.’
‘But he said it was a shame.’
‘Of course. Since we can’t compete.’
I stop short. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Slateds can’t be on school teams; you know that.’
And as he says the words, I realise: I do know. I’ve been told some variant of it, anyhow. But I hadn’t connected the dots together to apply it to cross-country running.
‘But why let us train, then? What is the point?’ Anger courses through me, but my levels are still safely up from running.
Ben shrugs. ‘I asked last year if I could train with them. Once he saw how I can run he said yes; suppose same applied to letting you come along. I train with the team, helps spur them on to do better, I suppose.’
‘Doesn’t that make you angry? You are the best – or maybe, I am – and we can’t compete. That isn’t fair.’
‘Maybe I am, maybe you are; maybe I just let you beat me, today,’ Ben teases. He’s not really bothered by any of this, I see.
But instead of getting more angry I crumple inside myself. I feel like Phoebe in Gianelli’s drawing: isolated, and alone. Even Ben, for all his wanting to find out what happened to Tori, doesn’t seem to notice how things are run, how unfair it all is.
Ben asks if I want to train before Group again on Thursday: train for what? But I say yes just as the bell rings for next class. I’m a sight: my hair is soaked to my head, my clothes stuck to my back, and no time to use the gym showers. No one will want to sit next to me in English.
No change there, then.
Mrs Ali corners me at the end of day.
She smiles her gentle smile, her eyes are warm. A cold shiver goes up my spine.
‘Kyla, dear, we need to have a talk.’ We stay in the classroom after the other students leave. My English teacher spots Mrs Ali and, muttering something about a cup of tea, makes an exit.
‘How are things, dear?’
‘Fine,’ I say, shifting miserably in my damp clothes, cold now that the warmth of the run is long gone.
‘I see. Are you having problems coping with anything?’
‘No,’ I lie.
‘Well, listen a moment. I see a potential problem. That is you, and your friend Ben.’
I shift, uncomfortable in my seat. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Now dear, you’ve only been out of hospital, for what: three weeks?’
‘Just over three weeks, then. Now, I know Ben is a good looking boy, and a decent one, too, by all accounts.’
I flush, beginning to see where this is going.
‘But you know, dear, that you need to concentrate on school, on your family, on integrating into your community. Not on a boy.’
‘Sure,’ I say. ‘Can I go now?’
She sighs. ‘Kyla, I am also well aware that excessive exercise is a way to overcome the monitoring effects of your Levo. In future, you are not to run the school track with Ben at lunch. Is that clear?’
‘Perfectly,’ I say.
‘You may go.’
Stunned, I head for Jazz’s car. More confused than anything else. Ben. I feel a pang. I can see that I won’t be seeing much of him at school any more. As far as the running goes, if I can’t get on school teams anyhow, why bother? Though she didn’t mention Sunday training. Maybe she doesn’t know about it.
Is it me being with Ben that is Mrs Ali’s problem? Or the ‘excessive exercising’. At hospital, the nurses told me to run on the treadmills as a coping strategy, to keep my levels up. Does she want me to crash?
Jazz’s car isn’t parked in the usual place, but I spot it up ahead. He has pulled out of the student car park to queue to the exit, but the cars aren’t moving. What is going on? He and Amy get out when they see me approach.
‘Where’ve you been?’ she asks.
‘I got cornered by Mrs Ali.’
She shudders. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘Peachy,’ I say, about to add more, but then get distracted by Jazz.
He isn’t listening, I can tell. His eyes are fixed on something behind us, the smile has fallen from his face, and as I start to turn to look, he puts an arm on both of our shoulders to push us towards the car.
‘Get in. Now,’ he says, and yanks the door open.
I climb in and twist to see out the window. Gianelli is walking past us on the footpath along the car park, flanked either side by Lorders. Another walks behind. They are heading towards a black van double parked by the school buses, blocking the exit. Gianelli stumbles; one yanks on his arm and pulls him to his feet, and they continue on.
None of the buses have left, even though I was late getting out. Students are waiting, but the bus doors are shut.
There are Lorders scattered about the bus bays. In black vests. Armed. A dozen or so of them; maybe a thousand students.
We all watch, as Gianelli – one old man, an artist, who stood up and protested in his own way – is shoved towards the van side door. His head bangs on the roof, he falls and the Lorder plants a boot in to get him through the door. It is slammed shut.
No one does anything; no one says anything. I don’t, either.
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