The Scheme

—–

“You’re late.”

Eyeing me with derision, Mrs. Henderson paused her lecture and folded her arms as I tentatively entered the classroom. Cheeks flushing, I made my way to the empty seat at the end. The stares of other students bored holes into my back. Slipping into my chair, the only person I could look at was Hermie, who shot me a sympathetic glance; but it did nothing to ease my embarrassment at being caught late again this week. I hastily retrieved a notebook and pen from my bag and, keeping my head down, I tried to stop colour rushing to my cheeks. I was seriously regretting wearing my favourite cherry red top to school that day.

Sending one last withering glance my way, Mrs. Henderson resumed her monologue. “So, as I was saying, the second derivative, or d2y dx squared, is used to discover if a turning point is a maximum or a minimum; therefore…”

I genuinely tried to listen, for maybe for a minute; but Mrs. Henderson didn’t earn her nickname of ‘Droner’ for no reason. It wasn’t long before I was doodling in the margins of my notebook, oblivious to the maths class going on around me. Completely involved in my scribbling, I jumped slightly when a note landed on my copy, appearing from nowhere.

It was a torn sheet from a notebook, covered in a spiky handwriting that was as familiar to me as my own.

Late again? What’s up? H.

P.S. – WRITE BACK.

I looked over at my oldest friend, seated two desks away. Hermie was looking over at me expectantly, not paying the slightest bit of attention to Mrs. Henderson. She exaggeratedly mimed putting an imaginary pen to paper and writing fervently – in case I hadn’t yet caught on to the ritual of class note passing.

Still, she made me smile; and obeying her postscript, I scribbled a hasty reply and handed it to the boy beside me. He chucked it onto her desk with a sigh that was reminiscent of the many other times Hermie and I had communicated in class with pen and paper. Obviously, he was regretting sitting between us this year.

Nothing. Just family stuff. Tell you later, okay?

She didn’t bother replying to that, merely giving me an exasperated look. It was clear Hermie would have preferred a full written synopsis of the situation. It would have been nice to think she really cared. But that would be idealistic, if not completely naïve. More likely, she was just looking for something, however trivial, to help pass this most torturous of classes.

When the bell eventually rang, everyone in the class breathed a sigh of relief and collectively dashed from the room, leaving me alone with a very jittery Hermie. She was standing at my desk, ready for action before I’d even cleared my books from the table.

“Dammit, Jade! Do you want me to do it for you?” Infuriated by my slowness, she didn’t give me the option of replying, stuffing my belongings into my bag with haste and more or less hoisting me from my seat. Slight, with not an ounce of extra weight on her dainty frame, Hermie often surprised people with reserves of strength no person would attribute to a girl her size.

“So…?” she began, her words trailing off suggestively. Her expression burned with curiosity and anticipation, at the mere suggestion of gossip.

I couldn’t help but feel exasperated with her. She was the closest thing I had to a best friend. But at moments like that, when our differences were most apparent, I often wondered how we could bear each other’s presence.

We were chalk and cheese; Hermie was outgoing, exuberant and fun loving. She had a knack for getting into trouble, her motto being ‘act first, worry about it later’ – or not at all, if it could be helped. Whereas I was quieter, more withdrawn. She was a sunflower, bright, bold and brilliant; I was the wallflower, hiding in her shadow.

Most of the time our friendship was balanced. We complimented each other: Hermie helped me come out of my shell, while I gave her advice on everything from boys to classes to fashion dilemmas. She tried to get me walking on the wilder side of life, just as I tried to talk her out of some of her kookier schemes. But right then, when I really wasn’t in the mood for talking, let alone dishing the dirt on my screwed up home life, Hermie was starting to wear on me.

“So, I got to class late. Big deal,” I shrugged, as nonchalantly as possible. We departed room 16 and headed in the direction of our next class.

Hermie rolled her eyes at me, plainly not buying my attempt at playing it cool. “No shit, Sherlock. I know that, Mrs. Henderson knows that, the whole bloody class knows that.” She shook her pink curls impatiently, as if trying to shake my unsatisfactory retort from her mind. “What we’re wondering is, why was Miss Goody Two Shoes late for school the third time this week? Normally you start to panic if you don’t arrive an hour before the bell.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes, feeling venomous towards my so-called friend. Not that I’d dare tell her as much. Hermie didn’t take anything lying down, and often took more meaning out of comments than what people had originally intended. Not to mention, she was the school judo champion and no stranger to a fight – once upon a time, she started them. But I did not need to deal with this. Not when all I wanted to do was run out the school gates and sprint home, just to reassure myself that Izzy was ok. I ran my hand through my hair absently. It was dry to the touch and a vibrant carrot orange colour. Before it had been a more subtle but pretty auburn red. I was beginning to regret dyeing it – especially since the calls of ‘ginger’ had started.

“Like I said – family stuff,” I muttered tersely, sincerely hoping that Hermie would just get the message and move on or that – more likely – a distraction would come along. “You know. Izzy and her issues.”

Hermie wasn’t satisfied with that answer, no more than I thought she would be. Her forehead screwed up, like it always did when she was in a thoughtful mood. “What kind of issues?”

At this stage, I was going to invent something, perhaps a fictional job loss or a hike in the rent, when Gwen arrived and provided that most anticipated distraction.

Hello.” Her voice was a purr. Obviously she’d caught wind of something juicy, because Gwen’s face was radiant with somewhat malicious excitement. She slung an arm around each of our shoulders and drew our heads together, as if we were discussing team tactics. “Did you hear the news?”

Hermie’s curiosity piqued immediately. “Spill,” she demanded, her green eyes sparkling.

Gwen smiled, revealing perfect teeth. “It’s about Blaaake…” she hinted, in a sing-song voice. At his name, the two of them turned to look at me, twin smirks twisting their painted lips.

I tried not to react, to continue walking without breaking stride towards the classroom door. But Izzy always said my face was like an open book; easily read. And despite my efforts, Hermie and Gwen must have spotted something. They grinned and the uneasy tension that had descended between us lifted.

Hermie bumped my shoulder with hers. “Aww, Jade. Don’t go all quiet on us. We know.”

I could feel my cheeks colouring, for the second time that day. “Know what?”

Gwen executed a perfect eye-roll. “Don’t play dumb with us. It’s as plain as day. I mean-”

“-Honey, you wear your heart on your sleeve,” Hermie interrupted, in a soothing voice. She wore a concerned expression, that seemed sympathetic, but her eyes were bright, a laugh threatening to spill from her lips. “Of course we realised you have a massive crush on Bla- Ow!”

In my haste to silence her, I’d elbowed Hermie just a little harder than I’d intended.

Gwen chuckled, then looked me dead in the eye. It was a little unsettling; it always was. Her eyes were a startling silvery hue, so light they seemed almost colourless. Her jaw was set in such a way that I knew she was going to say what was on her mind, whether or not I wanted to hear it.

“We’ve known for ages now, and we were starting to wonder whether you were going to mention it to us, or if we’d have to step in and pry it out of you – like now.” She flicked her hair from her eyes, a unconscious but completely futile habit. It immediately fell back into its previous position. “I mean, I don’t understand why you didn’t plan on telling us. We’re your friends, it’s ok to share stuff like this with us.”

Clutching her ribs, Hermie nodded in agreement. “We need to know these things, so we can do something about them – since you’re too shy to,” she said with a grimace, still smarting.

I drew my arms closer round me, feeling self-conscious. Why the sudden interest in me? “I didn’t know it was worth sharing. It’s just… infatuation. I don’t- I’m not expecting anything to happen.” It was pointless denying things now, not when the pair of them had already put two and two together. But there was no point in getting my hopes up either: Blake was still completely out of my league. “Besides, last time I checked, he had a girlfriend.”

Gwen smiled mischievously, her eyes glittering. “Which brings me back to my big news: Blake’s officially single.”

What?” Hermie and I spoke in unison. I knew my jaw was probably on the floor somewhere; I was gobsmacked. “He and Stephanie broke up?”

Gwen nodded, her smile stretching into a Cheshire Cat grin. “You heard it first – The Blake and Stephanie Show has officially been axed. I have it on good terms – I actually witnessed the break-up myself, just there.” She winced, hunching her shoulders. “The choice of vocabulary employed would make a sailor blush.”

I rolled my eyes. “They broke up just now? Hate to burst your bubble Gwen but chances are, it’s just like every other time they’ve split up. They have a huge row, swear that they never want to see one another again…”

“…And a day later, they run back into each other’s arms, and all is forgiven. Yeah, yeah. I know!” Gwen placed her hands on her hips and sighed heavily, as if I was being deliberately difficult. “But this time, it’s different – he broke it off with her.”

That was new, admittedly. “But that doesn’t mean anything. What if-”

Gwen held up one perfectly manicured hand – effectively shutting me up – and gave me a pained look. “Look, I was saving the juiciest details for last, but fine – Blake caught her screwing Dean. Does that mean something?”

We had by now reached the classroom door, which everyone else was crowded around, waiting for Mr. Duvall to show up and let us in. But on hearing Gwen’s unhushed announcement, the entire corridor ground to a halt, as everyone turned to stare at us. You could have heard a pin drop.

Then the whispers broke out.

Everybody faced their friends and immediately began dissecting this latest bombshell. It was an certainty that this would be the topic on everyone’s lips, from the fresh-faced first years to the more seasoned sixth years, by lunch time. Blake and Stephanie’s turbulent relationship was the source of much debate and scrutiny in St Desmond High – not to mention, entertainment.

Gwen was nonplussed. “They’d have found out somehow,” she shrugged, with an air of flippancy and a flick of her hand.

Hermie was shaking her head incredulously. “I can’t believe it. Blake and Psycho Stephanie, finally splitting for good… Who’d have guessed it?” She was quiet for a moment; something unusual for Hermie. Then like something was slowly falling into place in her mind, she began to smile. She turned to me with a crafty look in her eyes. “Do you know what that means?”

I returned her gaze curiously. “Well, erm, after things have died down, it’s going to be pretty boring around here – until Stephanie takes it up with someone new, and then-”

“Not that!” Hermie was practically bouncing with excitement. “It means Blake is now officially on the market.” Her smile morphed into a wry smirk. “And, after Psycho Stephanie, he’ll be looking for a little stability.” She drew me into a impulsive hug, practically squeezing the life out of me with her grasp. “Oh Jade, I’m so happy for you!”

Gwen was looking on, with a smirk of her own. “Someone’s getting a little ahead of herself.” But she was just joking, with no real bite to her words; at times, no one had a sharper tongue than Gwen. As Hermie pulled away, she tilted her head and looked at me questioningly.

“You’ve definitely in with a chance, you know. If you wanted to be with Blake.”

I was hyper-aware of how loud Hermie’s voice was. It wouldn’t surprise me if the entire corridor was listening in to our conversation. But thankfully, the surrounding crowd were still involved in their own discussions, on this newest Steph-and-Blake scandal.

My throat felt dry as I spoke. “Look… I don’t know. You have to admit, the chances of me taking up with him were slim to begin with, even if he wasn’t just after splitting up with the girl he’s been seeing for the last two years.”

Hermie’s face had fallen slightly, leaving a ghost of a grin hovering on her lips. I hated dragging her down like this. But I had to set her straight, before she cooked up some plot to set me up with him. I did appreciate how much she wanted me to get a boyfriend. I just didn’t want her to actually find me one.

“Not only that, but the guy’s not going to want a relationship right now, after… that.” I cringed inwardly when I thought of it. Blake and Dean were friends; not the closest maybe, but they got on all right. I assumed they trusted one another. For Blake to catch his girlfriend (no stranger to playing around) with a friend he thought he could trust, it had to be the worst feeling in the world. “He’s not going to be ready for that for a while, maybe not for years. So, I might as well move on and just… admire him from afar.” I punctuated my speech with a weak joke, hoping to lighten the atmosphere a little. Hermie was looking dejected, while Gwen was studying me with a frown crinkling her features.

The silence was awkward, but it didn’t last long. With three of us, it rarely did.

With a little shake, Hermie cleared her head of all I had just said; her megawatt grin had returned. “I get ya, Jade, but I’m not buying it.”

I frowned at her, as did Gwen. Hermie truly was being more stubborn – and difficult – than usual. “Sure. Blake’ll be upset – for a while. But he’s better off without her. As soon as he sees her strutting around the school, hanging off Dean, he’ll realise he’s well shot of her.”

Personally, I would have said that that would do the opposite to him – but mentioning this to Hermie wouldn’t do any good. She was in her own little world at the moment, wrapped up in her idealistic view of life.

She flipped her loose waves expertly, a coy smirk on her face. “I understand he won’t want to be with anyone – for a while. What he’ll need is friendship; someone to be there for him, someone to listen, someone he can trust. And of course, maybe in time he could learn to love again.” She winked at me and played her trump card: “Jade, that’s where you come in – on both counts.”

I frowned at her, my mind piecing together what she had said. “You’re saying I should get in with him, help him get over Steph… then come on to him? Wow, Hermie. What a great plan. I’m sure that would work.” I rolled my eyes and turned to exchange exasperated looks with Gwen.

Only, to my surprise, she wasn’t sharing my expression of disdain for Hermie’s suggested plan. Actually, she looked like she was considering it.

“Gwen…?” My voice was unusually high.

She was smiling sheepishly. “That actually mightn’t be the worst idea she’s come up with.”

Hermie grinned triumphantly over at her and received a similar smirk back. It was their mental version of a high five, something Gwen and Hermie did whenever they agreed on something – or when they were ganging up on me.

Well this time, I was standing my ground.

“That’s crazy! You can’t expect me to use him like that! When he’s hurt, vulnerable, on the rebound!” I glared at my two ‘friends’, hoping to knock some sense into them.

Gwen smiled at me; in my current state of mind, it seemed vicious. “Aww look, she cares about him.” I felt like forcefully wiping the smirk from her face. That was unusual for me. Normally I was a more of a passive-aggressive kind of girl. The topic was really starting to get to me.

Hermie’s own smile was victorious, as if she’d already won something. She slipped a slender arm around my shoulder. “Jade dear, you wouldn’t be ‘using’ him, as you put it. You feel sorry for Blake, right?”

I nodded suspiciously. I was certain that, whatever answer I gave, Hermie would twist it around to her own advantage.

“You want him to heal, to get over Steph. You want him to move on from all this, right?”

“Hermie, wha-”

“That’s all you’d be doing, Jade. You’d be a friend to him, a listening ear. That would be your ‘only’ intention.” She waggled her tongue at me. “Of course, after a while he might want you as more than just a friend…” She winked at me, a smug grin on her face. Beside Hermie, Gwen wore a matching expression. Funnily enough, they looked like cats who had gotten the cream – considering it was my love life they were plotting.

I could feel my resolve wavering, but I wasn’t letting myself get frog-marched into this without putting up some resistance. I raised my eyebrows at the two of them, bringing out my final argument. “Even if I did find a way to get close to Blake and even if he did eventually get past this, assuming he and Steph don’t get back together in the meantime…” That was a lot of uncertainties. Pausing to let my words sink in, I shot a hard look at the pair of them. This was my trump card and I was playing it to my fullest advantage.

“After all that, what’s to say Blake would ever think of me as a romantic interest?” Mentally, I sat back and relaxed, confident in my victory. Because, my logic was infallible; why would Blake – tall, blond, athletic, possibly the most lusted after guy in the school – even look my way? Timid, self-conscious Jade who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, who had trouble being herself with her best friends, let alone with anybody else.

Their reaction wiped the smile right off my face. They didn’t react.

Gwen laughed quietly. “That’s the last thing you need to worry about.” She ruffled my hair almost fondly, something I’ve always hated anyone doing. “If everything else was to go wrong with this, that would be the only thing that you could rely on going right.”

“B-but,” I stuttered, a little panicked now that my last pillar was crumbling under me, “There’s no chance a girl like me could end up with a guy like him.”

“Really?” Gwen replied passively. She was looking towards the classroom door. Mr. Duvall had finally arrived and he was twisting his keys in the lock. “From here, I can think of three good reasons why you could.”

Hermie picked up on the thread. “Firstly: Blake’s just finished up with Stephanie. Psycho Stephanie.” She rolled her eyes, as if this should be obvious to me. “He could do with some consistency, some reliability. And if there’s one person who could be attributed as consistent and reliable, it’s you.”

“Secondly,” interjected Gwen, “You’re nice. You’re kind. You can be funny. And you’re a complete mother hen, which would probably work to your advantage where Blake is concerned. It’s just a pain in the ass for the rest of us.” She sighed and examined her watch. It was two more classes until break. To me, it seemed as if this morning had dragged on forever.

“Face it Jade – he’s gonna fall for you. It’s the other stuff you need to worry about.” Hermie winked at me, as we walked slowly into the room, letting the rest of our classmates out in front of us. “Now, we just need to figure out how to get you and him talking…” She trailed off, thinking once more.

“Gwen. Hermie.” I grabbed their arms and held them until they stopped. We were near the back of the room, our constant fixture in any of our classes. “Be serious. I won’t- It would never work.”

Hermie merely shrugged and grinned. She pulled her wrist from my grasp and strolled over to her seat. But Gwen fixed me with those silver eyes and spoke flatly. “Jade, do you fancy Blake or not? Because for a girl that has a thing for him, you seem pretty damn reluctant to change that status from unrequited to mutual.”

“Gwen, it’s not that I don’t-”

“Jade, damn it, just answer me! Yes or no?”

By now, Mr Duvall was seated at his desk, taking out the roll; he was throwing us the kind of look that gave an ultimatum. “Jade, Gwen, are you two planning on sitting down any time today, or are you looking for a detention?”

Not so much to answer Gwen as to get her sitting, I replied. “Yeah. I think so.”

With a steely nod, she spun on her heel and moved in the direction of her seat; I too walked briskly towards my table, beside Hermie’s, and took my place. I received my second dirty look from a teacher that day, before Mr. Duvall started calling the names.

One little question was left wriggling in my mind. Before I could block out this morning’s drama and try concentrating, I knew I’d have to get it answered, more out of sheer curiosity than actual need.

I passed the hastily scribbled note, before Mr. Duvall had even called out the last name.

There was a third reason? – J.

It took less than a minute for Hermie to reply.

3rd reason was so obvious, didn’t think I had to mention it. Helpful hint – try looking in a mirror sometime. 😛

—–

The day crawled by. It was difficult to concentrate, between thinking of Blake, of my harebrained friends and of Izzy. By the time the bell clanged, signalling the end of classes and of another school day, I was jogging out the gates, anxious to return home. I wasn’t even sure if I had the books for my homework.

As a private school, St Desmond High was located way outside town, a good five kilometres away. I did have my bike but my pace seemed achingly slow. I peddled frantically for ten minutes, the time it took to get into town, and for five more to get me home.

Izzy and I lived in a small apartment, in a street just off the town centre. It wasn’t the most lavish of living spaces. Not to say that it was a bad part of town; just that, compared to the stately homes and modern penthouses some of my friends inhabited, my standard of living was modest, to say the least. Our abode occasionally raised some pointed questions with parents and even students of St Desmond High, at school socials and parent teacher meetings. The most common one, although usually phrased in a more genteel manner, was: Why are you living there, when you can afford to go to private school?

I never could answer that question; Izzy had always been very vague as to where my school fees came from. Considering she was on a secretary’s wage, I was doubtful that she was actually paying for them herself. My grades had always been average, so I had ruled out the possibility of a secret scholarship that I’d unknowingly managed to earn. Unless there was some kind of grant she was claiming, I saw no other way: Izzy had to be paying the fees herself.

Nevertheless, I liked my home. It was very central: any place I ever might want to go – the cinema, the shopping centre, the local Chinese – was within a five minute walk and we were on the top floor, with a good view of the streets below us. The building itself was nondescript – it was a neutral beige colour, with a large door entering it from the street. The elevators worked (normally), and there was even a convenient shed behind the building that was for the tenants to use, where I stowed my bike.

Reaching the door of our flat, I fiddled for my keys, located somewhere within in the confines of my jeans pocket. But my mind was occupied and not totally devoted to the task. Instead I was reliving the events of this morning, which had haunted me all day.

—–

The shouting began around a quarter past eight, when I was preparing to leave the flat.

It wasn’t a new thing. Izzy and Ryan had been arguing near constantly for the last month, but it had escalated this week. I was skulking in my room, ready to leave, but not willing to enter the fight. Any time I interrupted their screaming matches, I was either yelled at myself or asked to take sides, a dangerous venture I refused to indulge in. I tried to block out their argument, but with the paper thin walls of the flat, it was a futile task.

I already knew the gist of things. Izzy wanted commitment; she wanted to settle down with a man, a house and – a few years down the line – a family. She had more or less raised me; I didn’t remember our mother. For ten years or so, she’d lived the life of someone twenty years older than her. It was only when I hit my teens that she’d been able to go out at the weekends, reconnect with old friends; she even started to date, for the first time in my memory.

But with me now practically an adult and with all her friends getting married and having kids, Izzy was ready to start the cycle again. This time, she would be raising her own children, with a husband by her side.

That’s where the problems started. In Ryan, Izzy had picked the worst kind of man as her partner. I knew she would be a brilliant parent. As a sister, she’d been no pushover, yet she was the biggest mother hen going – something that had (according to Gwen) rubbed off on me. Izzy would be in her element as a mom. It was Ryan that was the issue.

He was neither the worst or the best of Izzy’s boyfriends. When she’d introduced him, two years ago, he didn’t make much of an impression on me. To be honest, I didn’t think they’d last two weeks. They were complete opposites. Izzy was a true grafter, never happy to sit still. No-one I knew worked harder than her. Whereas Ryan was unemployed the day I met him, and he hadn’t done much to remedy that status since. Oh, he’d had a handful of jobs; but none had lasted longer than a month. Half a year ago, Izzy’d asked him to share our already cramped flat. He’d moved in all right, but did no sharing whatsoever. He contributed nothing towards the rent, the groceries; even the crates of beer he sent my sister out to buy, he expected her to pay for them herself. After all, Ryan was ‘a victim of the economic downturn’: his words, not mine. To me, he was just lazy, grumpy and completely intolerable.

What surprised me was, Izzy actually accepted all this. Izzy, my stubborn, gutsy sister who took crap from no-one. No-one – except Ryan. She was like his servant. She bought his booze, did his laundry, even let him have control of the remote of her tv, which she was paying the licence on.

She complained rarely and when she did think to bring it up with him, all it took was a smile and a promise from him that he’d find work – and they’d be all over each other for the next week, all qualms forgotten. The promises he made were never fulfilled.

I couldn’t understand why Izzy was still with him. I mean he was good-looking. Even hot, for a thirty-something year old. And despite his demands of her, he treated her like a princess: not a day went by without Ryan calling her beautiful. I could also vouch (thanks again to those damn thin walls) that their sex life was more than sound.

But good looks and soft words didn’t make up for the fact that he was a sponge. He, of course, was raising his hackles at the mere suggestion of the word ‘responsibility’, let alone ‘engagement’, ‘mortgage’ or God forbid, ‘baby’.

It wasn’t going to end well. But telling my sister this was like telling a fish to look out for an oncoming hurricane. She just wasn’t going to listen, and by the time Izzy realised it for herself, the storm would be directly overhead.

Their disagreement today was particular heated. It had gone from a few snide comments over breakfast, to raised voices as I left the room, to full-on screaming minutes later. They’d been due a bust-up, and in some ways it was a relief; you could have cut the tension in the apartment over the last few days with a knife. At least this way they were getting things out into the open, and venting their frustration too. That was one trait Ryan and Izzy shared; both had tempers hotter than volcanoes.

However, it did set my plans for getting to school early back a little.

“It’s been two years, Ry! Two! And we’ve haven’t so much as talked about the future! It’s time for you to grow up, and at least discuss-”

Damn it, I’ve told you! We’re not ready to settle down yet. Two years? That’s nothing! People need to wait, before making decisions! You’re trying to rush things, and-”

For fuck’s sake, I’m not asking you to walk me down the aisle tomorrow! I’m asking you to talk, Ryan! Just talk!”

It was twenty to nine; I couldn’t put things off any longer. Grabbing my keys, bag and phone, I was edging towards the door that separated me from them, when I heard one final curse, followed by the smash of glass shattering. A moment later, the front door slammed shut. I froze. The silence left in its wake was disturbing.

It took a moment for me to thaw; then I was barging out of my room and into the open plan room that was our kitchen, dining space and living room, all in one.

Izzy was sitting on the floor, surrounded by shards of green glass. Blood was trickling from a gash on her arm. Her face was a gaunt, expressionless mask.

“Izzy!” I ran to her side, careful not to trod on any of the glass. “What did he do to you?! There’s so much blood… You-you need a towel-”

“Go to school, Jade.” Her voice scared me, more than blood ever could. It was flat, devoid of emotion. Her hazel eyes were lifeless.

I placed a hand on her undamaged arm. “Izz?”

“I said, get to school.” She didn’t even raise her voice, but I could hear the raggedness behind it. The signs were there: Izzy was about to explode and as worried as I was about her, I wasn’t hanging around to watch.

I grabbed my bag and left. Before the elevator doors clanged shut, I could hear the crash of another beer bottle being flung at the wall.

—–

All day long, I’d been on edge. Unable to concentrate in lessons, my mind wandered without fail to Izzy. Even when Gwen and Hermie took a moment to stop jabbering about Blake and tried to worm whatever was bothering me out, I clammed up and steadily changed the subject. Amazingly they offered no resistance. I’d like to think they’d never bully me into telling them something I didn’t want to reveal. The reality was that Gwen didn’t care enough to find out and Hermie was too wrapped up in herself to worry about anyone else’s troubles. But even if they had persisted, I wouldn’t have told them anything. There’s some things you just don’t share.

I’d thought of mitching school all day, just to see if she was all right. Yet now, standing with my key in the lock of our door, I was almost afraid of what I might see inside. But I pushed my fears aside – I’d always had a tendency to make mountains out of molehills. She’ll be fine, I told myself, as I twisted the key in the lock.

But the door would not give. Normally it clicked open easily, with a quick twist of the wrist. Today, the key wouldn’t even turn. Dropping my bag on the floor, I devoted my full attention to the lock. Leaning on it heavily, I attempted to wrench the key with as much force as I could muster. But for all my efforts, it would not give.

Just as I was about to give up and pluck my phone from my pocket, the door opened for the inside, and I tripped forward, arms windmilling frantically. I only just managed to regain balance, avoiding total embarrassment.

Izzy frowned at me, as she stepped back to allow me in. Rather than retrieving my belongings and shutting the door however, I pulled her into a fierce hug, before firing questions at her.

“Izz! Jesus, do you have any idea how worried I’ve been? Are you ok? What happened to Ryan? And hey, the lock’s not-”

She cut me off before I could draw breath to continue my frenzied quizzing. “I’m sorry for worrying you, I’m fine thanks for asking, Ryan’s not coming back and I’ve changed the locks.” Her tone was even and steady. I swallowed the questions that were hovering on my lips and examined her properly.

She was immaculately made up, as far away as she could have been from the state I’d left her in this morning. Her make up was thick but not overdone, her blond hair was styled to perfection and her clothes were nice. Not exactly casual, but not too dressy either. I could see the faint bump of a bandage, hidden under the sleeve of her top.

Other than her concealed gash, outwardly there was only one other sign that showed Izzy was not in a good way. Her expression was carefully controlled but her eyes – red-rimmed, blood-shot and still a little too wet – told another story. Izzy didn’t mope, not over anything. To anyone else, she would appear fierce and strong, a woman who didn’t let anything as trivial as a man get her down. But I was the one person she couldn’t hide anything from and, as much as she was trying, I knew she was taking this a lot harder than she’d ever let on.

She broke eye-contact first, diverting her attention to the kitchen. As her back was turned, I gave a quick glance around the flat: it was clean. More than that, it was spotless, almost as if this was a showroom in a house – perfect, but somewhat cold and uninhabited. Perhaps to some, this wouldn’t mean anything – but that morning, the apartment had been home to two of the world’s most untidy people. If there was another common trait Izzy and Ryan shared, it was their inability to be neat. With Ryan, I think it was down to laziness more than anything else. Tidying up meant moving from the couch. Enough said. As for Izzy, there were always a zillion things that needed doing; and cleaning up was at the bottom of her priority list. It also never budged from that position – if anything else needed attention, Izzy would undoubtedly do that before lifting a duster or plugging in the hoover.

So to see the flat without its near permanent covering of dirty clothes, used cups, half-full Chinese cartons and inch-thick dust was unnerving. The place looked somewhat naked.

Izzy ceased rummaging in one of the drawers and handed me a key, the metal cool and unmarked. “Stick that on your keyring – it’s the new key. The guy who did the job was really nice. Took it on last minute and everything. He was really understanding about it…” She wrapped her slim fingers around the mug of coffee she had just poured and everything about her – her downcast eyes, her hunched shoulders, the subtle tremble of her lips as she sipped the hot liquid – screamed fragile. My strong, invincible sister had finally taken a hit and I had no idea what to say to her about it.

—–

After an hour and a half of awkward conversation, where both of us steered clear of the elephant in the room, Izzy kicked me out of the flat and sent me to Hermie’s house.

She didn’t specifically ask me to leave. She simply suggested that I get out of the house for a bit, go see the girls, have some fun. I hesitated, but Izzy merely sighed and said, “You should go.”

I did. I knew what it was all about. Izzy didn’t like to cry in front of me or anyone. I’d come back later and her eyes would be sore and red-rimmed, but she’d be in lighter spirits than before. At least, I hoped she would be. That said, I couldn’t help but feel like I was abandoning her, just as she needed me most.

Hermie’s mother answered the door and ushered me inside, telling me to “come in out of the cold!” I loved the way Jessica Harrison never seemed fazed when I randomly turned up on her doorstep, uninvited. To be honest, I loved Mrs. Harrison, full stop. She treated me like a second daughter and I had come to see her as the mother I’d never had growing up. She was the grown up prototype of Hermie with her zany personality and luminous hair, while her clothes were more befitting of a woman half her age. She was also one of the most unselfish people I knew.

I found my two friends hanging around the spacious bedroom Hermie had claimed when they’d moved here, following her parents’ divorce. Both her and Gwen were happy but not exactly surprised to see me. I received two quick smiles of acknowledgement, before they resumed their discussion – something that seemed to be heading in the direction of an argument.

Winter was steadily approaching, and already the upper classes were buzzing with excitement over the annual Noel Ball. An organising committee had been set up, themes were being debated by both teachers and students alike and already there’d been drama over who was asking who, who wasn’t asking who, and who wasn’t going at all.

As current sixth years, we’d had the opportunity to attend the ball last year. Only Hermie actually did. Although it was scarcely October, she was already planning her dress and shoes as well as dithering over what colour to dye her bubblegum pink hair. She was torn between a soft auburn shade – not dissimilar to my own natural hair colour – and a brighter honey blond. She was also working on Gwen, trying to persuade her to go this year.

“You’d get a date, no problem,” she was saying, while examining her reflection in her bedroom mirror. “And you’d look good in a sack, lucky bitch. So what’s stopping you going?”

Gwen replied in a bored tone, implying she’d anticipated such questions – and had already thought up answers to them. “Nothing. Hermie, you’re just going to have to accept that I don’t want to go.”

“But why?” Hermie turned her back on the mirror and faced Gwen, hands planted firmly on her slim hips. “You can dance. You can handle drink. You could have any guy in the school. That’s more than most of us can say! I just can’t understand why you’d rather be at home than attend  the social event of the year! Imagine all the gossip you’ll miss! I mean, think about it… Who’ll pass out first this year and end up in St James’s? Who’ll end up fighting with who? Who’ll get it on around the back of the hotel? Who will Stephanie go with this year? And more importantly – who will she leave with? Be reasonable Gwen. This is your last chance to go. You can’t stay at home watching telly, studying, whatever, while we’re having the time of our lives across town!”

She shook her head incredulously. Hermie couldn’t think of a better way of spending a night: wearing a floor-sweeping gown, flirting with any and every passing male and getting gradually more intoxicated as the hours wore on. Even I had come around to the idea, sort of. But Gwen seemed to think such activities were beneath her. Something like that. She barely lifted her head in reply but her manner was tetchy, her words laced with acid.

“I don’t see how you can be so certain it’ll be a good night. You don’t even remember last year’s – though I daresay Jack Carroll had fun reminding you.”

Hermie’s eyes narrowed, her cheeks aflame. “That’s below the belt! My sense of judgement was impaired. Normally, I’d never even dream– Jack was lucky that night,” she announced sniffily. “Very lucky. I made sure he knew it too. Now, can we please leave it at that?”

“Suits me fine.” You could tell that dropping the subject had been Gwen’s objective all along. She really had Hermie wrapped around her little finger – Gwen knew full well what got her talking and what made her defensive. She didn’t really do smugness, but you could tell she was somewhat pleased to have gotten herself out of the limelight. Of course, she then decided to drop me in it.

“But we still have to discuss how we’re going to get Blake to ask Jade to the ball.”

Hermie, still bristling, wasn’t as enthusiastic as she had been earlier. “What?… Oh, that again? Well… I don’t know, to be honest. I mean, it seemed like a good idea, at the time…”

That gave me hope. While she was brimming with ideas, Hermie rarely followed any of them through. She was great at thinking up little plots and situations, planning them all out in her head, yet she wasn’t so brilliant at putting these into action. But sadly, what she lacked in motivation, Gwen more than made up for with sheer persistence.

“That might be so, but it was one of your better ones. Besides, you haven’t picked on Jade at all about this stupid dance. I mean, who is she going to bring? Why am I the only one who’s getting bullied into it?”

Gwen’s words made me chuckle, albeit nervously. The thought of anyone trying to bully Gwen was laughable. She’d send any potential tormentor cowering into a corner, with a flash of her stormy eyes and a few sharp words.

“Jade doesn’t need to be bullied. She’s very obedient, unlike some people. I don’t know who she’s going to bring. If worst comes to worst, we can rope one of Jem’s friends into going with her.”

“What am I, invisible?” Hermie wasn’t deliberately trying to be hurtful; tact had never been her strong point. Still, I didn’t appreciate being treated like part of the furniture. “I could ask someone myself.”

“I suppose that’s possible. Miracles do happen, after all.” That was Gwen all over. Ever the sceptic. “But you want to go with Blake.” For the first time that evening, she made eye-contact, her expression and words very matter of fact. “You don’t even have to say it – every time he walks into a room, you blush. Every time he so much as glances in your direction, you freeze and you don’t move until he looks away. Right this minute, you’ve turned a not-so-attractive shade of red – and he’s not even here!” As ever, Gwen had skipped the niceties and hit the truth squarely on the head.

Hermie perked up somewhat. She plonked herself down on the bed beside me, blasting me with a wave of whatever perfume she had on. “She has a point. You’re hopelessly pining for him. I’d say something if you smiled at him once in a while or laughed whenever he passes a comment in class. But you don’t. You’ve made no effort whatsoever to catch his attention. No wonder he hasn’t noticed. Jade, we wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t been the same way around Sean. At least that went somewhere! How can you like someone, but not want to let them know about it?”

“It’s easy for you to say that.” When Hermie had her eye on someone, everyone in the school knew about it, not just the guy in question. She had confidence in bags. She never had problems approaching boys. Even when she got knocked back – not that that happened often – she took things on the chin and moved on. I wished I had her resilience.

“But why can’t it be easy for you? Even if you just stopped cringing every time he walked past and smiled at him every once in a while, you’d be making progress. Believe me, you’re another one that could get anyone to go to this ball with you. If only you looked up from the floor once in a while and talked!” She was looking at me with an odd blend of empathy and exasperation. “Jade, if you could just be the same way with Blake as you are with us, you’d have one foot in the door. You know, I reckon it’s not so much you being pathetically in love with him, but a confidence issue.”

“You make me sound like a complete drip.”

“Yeah, but you’re our drip.” Hermie’s smirk was a little softer than it normally was. “To be honest though, it’d be easier to deal with a crush than a lack of self-esteem. I think if we could just get you talking to Blake, without you stammering all over the place and freaking him out, that would be half the battle won. Only, how to get the pair of you chatting…”

She tailed off softly, retreating into her head as Gwen rejoined the conversation, rising gracefully from the couch. “Believe me, that’s the least of our problems. We’ll think something up. In fact, I have an idea, but it needs work. Once I figure out the first part, then we’re home free. I have all the rest of it planned.”

“What’s planned?” came a cheerful male voice from the direction of the door.

Jem had sneaked up on us silently, the same way he had for years. He grinned at us mischievously, looking remarkably like a male version of Hermie. As twins they were unmistakably alike, but very distinct people. While both had dyed hair, bright green eyes and happy-go-lucky personalities, Hermie was five foot nothing; Jem had to be pushing six feet. Hermie saw school as a social event, nothing more than a chance to meet friends and have a laugh; Jem was a straight A student, set to ride through college on an academic scholarship. I’d known both of them since we were knee-high to a grasshopper. Although it was Hermie I hung around with, I considered Jem a good friend too.

But while any other time I’d be glad to see him, right then I didn’t want anyone, let alone a guy, hearing about the… thing I had for Blake, or the madcap scheme his sister and Gwen were going to cook up to try and get him fancying me in return.

Gwen for once looked just as shaken as I was. However, unlike me she had retained the ability to speak. She was about to open her mouth, probably with a quickly thought up lie on her lips, when Hermie chimed in.

“Our plans for the ball,” she simpered sweetly, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Oh how looks can be deceiving. “Or at least the appointments we’ll have to book for it. I mean, there’s dress shopping and all that, but we’ll need to get a hairdressing… appointment.” She winked at us. Her mom owned Hair Magic, a quirky salon in the middle of town. “One at the beauticians too, you know, for make-up, eyebrow plucking and whatnot. Maybe a day at the spa as well – a facial would do so much for my zits. What else? I guess I forgot about the bikini wax. That’s vital. Oh, and the-”

Jem held up his hands in surrender, looking slightly revolted. “TMI, sis. TMI.” Grimacing, he looked as if the very mention of the word ‘wax’ was sending shivers down his spine. “There’s things in this world that should be left unsaid.” He shuddered, and quickly changed the subject.

After retrieving his English notes, which had ‘teleported’ under Hermie’s bed, Jem exited with a quick smile. We only exhaled when we heard the reassuring slam of his own bedroom door, down the hall. I thanked my stars that he had obviously heard no more than the tail end of our discussion.

Hermie was pretty much unaffected by her brother’s arrival and departure. She looked at me with a smile. “I handled that well, right? Mr. Murphy says I’m a born actress; Mom just says I could lie to a saint.” She rolled her eyes, before pensively adding, “I mean, it wouldn’t really matter if Jem found out, but-”

I made a choking noise, a cross between a laugh and cough. “…Erm, yes! It would actually!”

Hermie threw me a funny look, while Gwen merely raised her eyebrows skywards, a wordless question mark. I cleared my throat, before hastily explaining. “It’s not so much that I care specifically about Jem knowing – but just in general, do you think I want anyone discovering that I plan on schematically getting Blake to fall for me?”

I only realised the error of my words after saying them, which was much too late for me to take them back.

Gwen pieced it together at about the same time as I did. She smirked at me, her tone angelic, her eyes devious; “So, you will go ahead with this then?”

—–

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