The pain from shredded skin, torn by razor points on the thorn and bramble thickets - nature’s barbed wire – sapped all that was left of my strength. Gasping and shaking, I scrambled to the summit of the mound that marked the resting place of some long-dead, warrior-chief.
I dragged shallow breaths into my aching, ice-scorched lungs. Time was running out and I hadn't delivered the warning.
I remembered Caleb standing with his hand outstretched – the intensity in his amber eyes and the longing in his wistful smile. He’d warned me that evil twined itself into his life. But, when he said he had to fight it, I hadn’t realised he meant it literally. If I’d known would I still be standing here, facing what I could see stalking slowly towards me, or would I have given a different answer?
I imagined myself in alternate realities – each one different based on the choices I’d made. My mind agonised over questions while my heart found its answer. Certainty, warmth, excitement, and the knowledge that I knew the real him, enveloped me.I smiled, and even though he wasn’t there with me, I reached out my hand as if we could really touch.
Then took a deep breath and screamed.
NOT ALL CHANGES …
Dad parked in front of the familiar redbrick building. Even there I could see that things had changed. Above the white stone entrance there was a new school crest with a beast standing on two legs. It had sharp teeth, a lolling tongue and limp front claws and it leered down at the visitors to school.
“D-ifferent!” I commented as I hurried around the car to join Dad.
“Umm! Mr Jenson’s ‘lost’ toupee isn’t still flying from the flag pole?”
“No-one ever proved I was responsible,” I squeaked but my footsteps faltered.
Dad smiled at me but with a steely glint; he put one hand on my shoulder to keep me walking forward. We stepped into the reception area, pressed the buzzer by the viewing window, and waited. A tall woman, with two biros stored in the bun at the back of her head, marched over from her desk at the back of the office.
Her unusual hair accessories distracted Dad, “G–ood Morning. I’m Simon Trainer, and this is my daughter, Jess. We’re here to see the Headteacher.”
She whipped a pen out of her bun and tapped it on the desk as she checked the Head’s diary, “Mr McIntyre is in his office. I’ll let him know you’ve arrived. Please push the green button and I’ll let you in.”
Dad and I exchanged glances that condensed his lectures and my promises to small, but significant, facial twitches. I pushed the buzzer and felt the lock release. We walked into the brown, tiled corridor. We sat beside the office. I smoothed imaginary creases from my navy shirt and trousers while we waited.
“Mr McIntyre will see you now,” called the assistant as she approached.
"You look fine," whispered Dad. "Don't fidget."
We followed her into the room dominated by a long, curved desk. We saw Mr McIntyre reach into a low drawer, in the filing cabinet behind his desk. He seemed to freeze for a moment. I watched him draw a deep breath before he swivelled around.
My hands felt hot and uncomfortable – a sickly, nervous sensation began to twist, worm-like, in my stomach. How could I make a good impression with the person in-charge of my old school records?
He stood and walked around his desk towards us, “Please join me here, where we can sit more comfortably.” As we made our way to a collection of soft chairs that surrounded a low table, he held out his hand to shake my father’s. “You must be Mr Trainer.” He looked speculatively at me. “Jessica.”
“That’s right. It is good of you to agree to see us. Jess is keen to come back here to join the Sixth Form.”
Mr McIntyre shuffled some papers but there was a frown on his face, “Well Jessica, I have your old records here.” I gulped and my stomach wound a little tighter. “I also have a testimonial from your school in Guyana. They read very differently.”
I watched the Headteacher finish scanning the papers in his hands. I gave serious thought to ducking and running. But that wouldn’t help me get a place in his school. I looked down at my hands to avoid the eyes I knew were riveted on me.
“When you came here you were quite a regular in the Detention Log. While your report from your next school suggests that you were well behaved. Miss Trainer…?”
I blushed. I tried to calm my racing heart. I looked up to meet his piercing, pale brown eyes.
“Which pupil do you suppose would be attending my school?”
“Mr McIntyre!” my Dad began.
The Headteacher swiftly raised his hand; they both waited for me to reply.
The queasy sensations made it hard for me to even think. I couldn’t look at him and a form a sensible response. Inhaling and exhaling slowly I forced my eyes away from his.
“Everyone changes, Sir, and I changed more than most. I learned to concentrate on my work. I became interested in swimming and running. I want to come to this school – it’s a great school. I think I have a lot to offer and… I want to come here.” I looked up, to see if my appeal had persuaded the Head, but what I saw made me freeze in my seat. His upper lip made his nose crease with disgust. My face paled and my hands became cold and clammy. But, as I glanced at my father – to see if he had noticed – I saw the look fade.
His expression now blank, and his voice chilly the head teacher drawled, “Well. I believe this is an opportunity we could all benefit from. So, after our tour, if you still want to come to Woodford College, we could complete the details.”
Mr McIntyre and I stood. I examined his features again, but I saw nothing except a vaugely amused smile. I ached to get out of his room.
I trailed a little distance behind my Dad when the Head lead the way. He launched into his introduction speech. I didn’t listen but I watched him - the controlled hand gestures and mask-smooth features. Away from the dim office, I found it hard to believe that I had seen that expression of revulsion. I looked for familiar faces in the rooms we passed. I was jolted back to the present when we stopped by a door.
“Physics!” announced Mr McIntyre. “This is one of our newest facilities. I don’t think Miss Boston would mind if we visited for a while.”
So, we entered quietly near the back of the room. Miss Boston continued her demonstration but the pupils turned around, and made no effort to get back to work. I felt excited and queasy – this was Ben’s class. I noticed the one pupil, who sat with his back to me. I watched him tilt his head and turn slowly around.
I caught a glimpse of his straight, blond fringe that almost obscured his intense amber eyes. He looked annoyed. His gaze was never still. I could see subtle changes in his expression as if he was involved in an internal debate. He waited until the Headteacher was ready to leave before he turned back to the lesson.
Mr McIntyre shepherded me back out, to continue our tour. I pushed away all thoughts of the glowering boy. I’d enjoyed the stop at Physics because Ben had been in that class. He hadn’t had surgery or bought contacts: he had spent those minutes cleaning his thick-lensed glasses. The lesson was probably crystal-clear right now! I grinned but also took a couple of deep breaths as excitement grew.
We walked through a familiar part of school until we reached the Maths Department. I was worried when we stopped at Room 7. I used to have maths there with Mr Jenson. He had given me most of my after-school and Saturday morning detentions. Of course, my parting shot had been the hair piece stunt. I smiled remembering how Ben helped me ‘borrow’ the toupee when Mr Jenson was washing (technically, his need to wash had been my fault too). Putting it on the flag pole had been very helpful really. I hoped Mr Jenson had moved on, retired or resettled on Mars but, sadly, I wasn’t that lucky. The first thing I saw was a slightly older face, under the familiar head rug, still droning away. I shivered as I remembered his taunts and bullying.
I scanned the interested pupils hoping to spot someone I knew. I saw Alison, sitting – I’m sure – in the same desk. She was deeply engrossed in her Maths problem – that was just her way. I smiled and some of my queasiness began to fade. I turned to leave but noticed a boy staring at me, his head tilted to the right. A speculative look glowed in his soft amber eyes – what …? I was sure I’d seen that face before, or one that was very similar. He couldn’t be the same boy because the bell for the end of lesson hadn’t rung. Besides this boy’s eyes looked less brown and more yellow; his hair was different too – it seem darker and a little shorter.
WORD COUNT 91,000 - in 270 pages