Ketchup clouds, p.12
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.12
 

           Annabel Pitcher
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  NO!

  I don’t know if I said that out loud or in my head as the girl nodded and Aaron started to move in my direction. My first instinct was to hide, but where? Behind the armchair in the far corner? The cupboards, jumping in next to the cereal? Panicking, I ducked behind a tall boy with acne as Aaron pushed past Lauren. My pulse quickened. He reached the drinks table. My pulse raced. He nodded at the boy with spots. My pulse exploded. One metre away – that’s all he was and I couldn’t let him see me, not if he was here with another girl and his brother was probably somewhere in the house too.

  Cringing, I turned away from the drinks table, determined to stare in the opposite direction until he’d gone, but as that man Orpheus realised in the underworld that’s a whole lot easier than it sounds. Orpheus is someone from Greek mythology in case you’re wondering, and to rescue his wife he had to lead her out of danger without looking back to see her face. Just as he was about to succeed, he glanced over his shoulder and his wife vanished into thin air. Unfortunately when I looked at Aaron, he didn’t disappear into thin air or fat air or any sort of air for that matter. Instead he ate a nacho, so close I could almost hear the crunch.

  He grabbed two beers, swinging them in his hand as he returned to the girl. Standing on tiptoe, I saw him stroke her back to announce his presence, all his DNA sparkling between her shoulder blades. Tears filled my eyes. Lowering my head, I pushed through the crowd, out of the kitchen and into the hall, desperate to get away, but someone grabbed my hand as I started on the stairs.

  I followed the fingers to the palm. The palm to the wrist. The wrist to the arm, my heart beating faster and faster only to stop dead as I realised the hand belonged to Max and not his brother. He was stretching, straining to maintain contact, and his face came in and out of view as people pushed up and down the stairs. He was shouting something I couldn’t hear as his fingers tightened round my wrist and pulled. I resisted at first. He pulled harder, tugging me down the stairs towards him. Towards Aaron. Wine splashed out of my glass as I slipped.

  ‘Outside,’ Max mouthed.

  His grip was firm. We moved down the hall and I kept my eyes on the carpet, terrified of being seen. When the front door came into view, I made it easier for Max, speeding up and walking with more purpose because Stuart I wanted to disappear. I needed to get away from the house, away from Aaron and the girl with long red hair. Stepping over legs, we turned sideways to squeeze through small gaps between people, the music getting louder and the hall getting hotter and our feet getting slower as we tried to push our way to the porch.

  At last, Max’s fingers touched the brass handle. He tugged hard then tugged me too, pulling me into the garden. Snow crunched under our feet and icicles sparkled on windowsills and bare branches made black lines against the orange of the streetlights. Max led me behind a fir tree and the house disappeared from view.

  ‘It’s crazy in there,’ I said, my voice strangely flat.

  ‘But nice out here,’ Max replied, handing me his blue jacket. ‘Here. Put that on.’ Shoving my arms into the coat, wine spilled out of my glass, splattering on the frozen ground, red on white. ‘It’s good to see you.’

  ‘You too,’ I said because Stuart it sort of was. He smiled as if he was relieved then pulled me between his legs and of course I let him because he was strong and solid and Aaron was inside with another girl. I put my glass on the wall then linked my hands behind his neck. ‘Good Christmas?’

  ‘Boring,’ Max muttered, going straight in for the kiss and his lips were soft and familiar and comforting.

  Somewhere to my right, there was a cough. I jerked away, scared it was Aaron, but a man rounded the corner, walking his dog.

  The front door creaked. I jumped again. Moving the branches of the fir tree to one side, I strained to see, but it was just a girl lighting a cigarette.

  Max rubbed my arm.

  ‘You’re a bit twitchy.’

  I chewed my top lip then said, ‘Shouldn’t we go somewhere a bit more private?’

  Max smirked then kissed the tip of my cold nose. ‘What do you have in mind?’

  I moved my face to one side but Max’s lips brushed my neck as he put his hands on my bum. ‘Er . . . nothing . . . I mean, it just feels a bit open. And I’m freezing.’

  Max thought for a moment. ‘Wait here,’ he said, running off before I could protest.

  He was back a couple of minutes later, something silver jangling in his hand. He waved the keys in the air.

  ‘My brother’s car’s parked down the road.’

  My mouth fell open. ‘We can’t do that!’

  ‘Relax. My brother’s cool. I asked him,’ Max said, starting to walk.

  I stayed where I was, my heart thumping in my chest. ‘You asked him? What did you say?’

  Max turned round and walked backwards, beckoning me with his finger. ‘I said I had a girl and we were looking for somewhere warm. ‘Just to talk,’ I told him, but my brother laughed like he knew exactly what I had in mind.’

  I chased after Max, frantic now. ‘Did you say who I was? Did you mention my name?’

  Max opened his lips to reply, and then paused. ‘Why?’

  It took a lot of effort but I managed to relax my voice. ‘Just . . . Well, I don’t want to get a reputation. Not after the whole photo thing.’

  Max put his hand on my back and moved me gently towards the car. DOR1S appeared at the end of the street. I thought of the dice hanging off the mirror. Miss Scarlett.

  ‘Maybe we should go back to the party,’ I said.

  Max applied more pressure to my back. ‘Relax. There’s nothing to worry about. I didn’t tell my brother your name.’

  ‘Still. I don’t think this is a good idea.’

  Max sighed in frustration. ‘Why not?’

  ‘Well, it’s just that . . . I don’t know . . . It just feels a bit . . .’

  ‘Come on, Zoe,’ Max said, sounding annoyed, and there was nothing gentle about his push now. ‘I haven’t seen you all Christmas and I’m—’

  ‘You’re what exactly?’ I said, jamming my feet into the pavement so he couldn’t pull me any further.

  ‘You know,’ he said, trying to be all cheeky about it. ‘And I know you want to,’ he whispered in my ear.

  ‘Let’s go back to the house,’ I pleaded. When Max frowned, I added, ‘Find an empty room.’ I took a step closer and lowered my voice, hating myself but forcing out the words, anything to get away from Aaron’s car. ‘An empty room with a bed.’

  The keys disappeared into the pocket of Max’s jeans. ‘Now you’re talking.’

  We started to walk.

  There was the wall. And the tree. And the girl smoking a cigarette.

  There was the drive. And the door. And the house heaving with people, impossible to make out in the darkness. Aaron could have been anywhere.

  But he wasn’t anywhere, Stuart. He was right there in front of us, standing in the doorway, facing into the house. My eyes widened in horror as I stared at the back of his head. Max pointed.

  ‘That’s my brother. Over there.’

  ‘Let’s go the other way!’ I squeaked. Without waiting for his reply, I yanked Max across the garden. He filled his lungs and opened his mouth and I realised with a great thrill of fear that he was going to shout.

  ‘Aaron!’

  I dropped Max’s hand just as Aaron started to turn. An ear came into view. A nose. With a leap, I sprang two metres to my right then dashed into the shadows.

  ‘Back already?’ Aaron said. Something jangled through the air – the car keys being thrown.

  ‘We changed our minds.’

  ‘We?’ Aaron asked and I imagined his head twisting from side to side as he searched for another person. I told myself not to look, but my neck twisted and my head turned and this time when I saw Aaron, I wished with all my heart that there really was an underworld that could suck Aaron into darkness.

  His eyes narrowed and his neck strained as he leaned for
ward to make out the girl in the shadows, wrapped in his brother’s jacket.

  ‘Aaron, this is Zoe,’ Max said.

  ‘Zoe?’ Aaron repeated and something in his voice made my insides hurt. I stepped out of the shadows because Stuart the game was up. ‘Zoe,’ Aaron said again. ‘You’re with my brother?’

  ‘Just tonight,’ I said quickly.

  Max put his arm round my shoulder. ‘Well, and all the other times before.’

  ‘Other times? Like when?’ Aaron seemed to realise this question might sound odd and forced a smile. ‘How long have you been keeping her quiet, Max?’

  ‘Not long,’ he said, enjoying the attention. ‘Only since September.’

  ‘September?’

  Max misinterpreted the reason for his brother’s surprise. ‘Hey, everyone’s got secrets. You don’t breathe a word about your—’

  ‘Because there’s nothing to tell,’ Aaron replied. I drew myself up a little taller. I might not have been innocent, but Aaron wasn’t either.

  ‘What about—’ I was about to say ‘Anna’, then realised it might look suspicious.

  ‘What about what?’

  ‘Your girlfriend,’ I muttered, pointing back into the house. ‘The one with red hair.’

  ‘Anna?’ Max said, sounding surprised. ‘Is that who you mean?’

  ‘We’re just friends,’ Aaron replied, and my stomach dropped. ‘Known her since I was four.’

  ‘But . . . but I saw you together. At the bonfire,’ I spluttered. ‘You were hugging and she—’

  ‘Had just broken up with her boyfriend,’ Aaron finished. ‘I was looking after her. She’s like a sister or cousin or something.’

  ‘Right,’ I said and I was surprised how normally the sound came out when everything inside me was screaming.

  ‘Not like you two,’ Aaron said, walking into the garden, his hands in his pockets. ‘Why did you keep her a secret, Max? Have you gone all shy or something?’ His tone was jokey and Max laughed.

  ‘Whatever. She’s been to the house. Not my fault you weren’t there.’

  I closed my eyes.

  ‘What?’ Aaron said, his mouth tightening even though his tone was light. ‘When?’

  ‘I dunno, like November or something. You came over for a bit, didn’t you?’

  I opened my eyes slowly.

  ‘Yeah. Yeah I did.’

  The wind picked up, blowing Max’s coat around my body. Even though I was freezing, I wanted to tear it off and throw it on the ground.

  ‘Let’s go inside,’ Max said, taking my hand.

  ‘Actually,’ I replied, dropping his fingers, ‘I don’t feel that well. I think I’m just going to go home.’ I took off his jacket. ‘I need to lie down. Alone,’ I added, because Max had winked.

  Without looking at either of the brothers, I set off across the grass, desperate to call Mum or Dad to ask for an early lift. Max shouted after me.

  ‘What about your coat and stuff?’

  I stopped and swore under my breath. ‘Er, they’re in Lauren’s room. Could you get them for me?’ Max didn’t look that pleased about it, but he disappeared into the house, leaving me and Aaron alone.

  Neither of us spoke.

  I wondered if his heart was thumping like mine.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I said at last. ‘I should’ve said.’

  Aaron sniffed. ‘No apology needed. Nothing happened between us.’

  I swallowed. Paused. Flexed my fingers. ‘There was something . . .’

  Aaron looked surprised. ‘Was there?’

  Stepping forward, I muttered, ‘You know there was.’

  Aaron crossed his arms. ‘You’re just a girl I keep bumping into. Someone I barely know.’

  The words hit me in the pit of my stomach. ‘You don’t mean that.’

  He nodded too long. ‘I do. You and my brother, you make a good couple.’

  ‘We’re not a couple.’

  ‘Doesn’t look that way from where I’m standing.’

  I brushed my hair out of my eyes. ‘I’m sorry, okay?’

  Aaron kept his voice cool in his reply. ‘Like I said, no apology needed. You’re free to see whoever you want. Why wouldn’t you be?’

  ‘Because we’re . . .’

  ‘Friends,’ Aaron finished. ‘If that. Acquaintances more than anything.’

  ‘Fine!’

  ‘It is fine,’ Aaron said, all condescending as if I was acting crazy or something. I glared at him, and Stuart maybe I had no right to be furious but try telling that to the anger thundering through my veins.

  ‘If that’s how you want it!’

  ‘That’s how it is,’ Aaron replied in the same cool tone. He smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. ‘Have fun with my brother,’ he said before walking back into the party, and as I watched him leave, I decided right there and then that fun with Max was precisely what I was going to have.

  The first morning of the year began with a bright red sunrise as if all my anger was burning in the sky. I’d barely slept, just tossed and turned the conversation in my mind until I couldn’t remember what Aaron had said or what I’d said but I knew that he was In The Wrong and Stuart I’ve done those capitals on purpose to show you how convinced I was of this Concrete Fact.

  I smashed open the fridge door and poured milk too roughly, planning my revenge. I’d make Max fall in love with me and maybe I’d fall in love with him too and we’d walk up mountains and sit at the top in the fog and I wouldn’t do any homework and it would serve everybody right. I chucked the spoon into the sink where it clattered against a bowl.

  ‘Happy New Year to you too,’ Soph said, her mouth full of cereal.

  ‘Manners, Sophie,’ Mum reminded her, looking up from the laptop.

  Only Dot was in a good mood, prancing around with a list of resolutions written in crayon on a large piece of paper.

  ‘So, my first is to go on a diet,’ she signed, pointing at her plump belly. ‘My second is to learn to fly by watching the birds, and my third is to be kind to everyone except teachers and strangers who might want to steal me, and my fourth is to . . .’ She went on and on then scrambled onto my knee, asking about my resolutions.

  ‘Don’t have any.’

  ‘How about To work hard and do well in my exams at the end of the year?’ Mum chipped in, her eyes glued to a website about cochlear implants.

  ‘They’re only mocks.’

  ‘Mocks are important, Zoe. If you’re going into law then—’

  ‘Who says I’m going into law?’ I snapped.

  Mum typed something quickly. ‘Well, what are you going to do instead?’

  ‘Maybe write. Maybe not. I don’t know yet. I don’t need a plan.’

  ‘That’s ridiculous,’ Mum sighed, clicking a couple of buttons.

  ‘No, it’s not,’ I sulked. ‘There’s no rush, is there? I’ll just see how I feel when I finish college.’ Mum tutted at me so I tutted right back and I was sent upstairs for being cheeky.

  My room was messy but I didn’t tidy it and I slumped at my desk, waiting for Aaron to apologise. Now Stuart I don’t know when mobiles were invented, if it was before or after your murder trial, so maybe you’ve never been in the position of waiting hours for a message. If so, trust me that’s one thing you should be grateful for because it’s torture, hearing imaginary beeps, your hopes rising rising rising as you check your phone, and your heart crashing back down, shattering on the empty screen.

  Time dragged that day and the TV didn’t help. There was nothing on but back-to-back old films. I’m sure you must’ve heard of Gone With The Wind and who knows maybe you’ve even seen it, and if so I’m wondering if you managed to stay awake because that film is long – so long I had to go to the toilet twice before it finished. When I got fidgety on the sofa, Mum kept whispering ‘Just be patient’ as though there was going to be this great reward for the effort I was putting in. I watched all four hours to see the lovers get together at the end, so you can imagine my disappo
intment when the man called Rhett walked out on the woman called Scarlett just before the final credits. I looked at Mum like that-surely-can’t-be-it but Rhett didn’t come back and Scarlett didn’t run after him so that was how the film ended.

  Gone With The Wind was an even bigger disappointment than The Great Escape (they don’t escape) so I grabbed the remote out of Mum’s hand and bashed the off button.

  ‘Didn’t you like it? It’s one of the greatest love stories ever told,’ Mum said.

  ‘Well, that’s depressing.’

  ‘Less depressing than Titanic,’ Soph yawned. ‘At least Rhett didn’t freeze to death then sink to the bottom of the ocean.’

  The door burst open and Dot ran in carrying Skull. She dropped onto her knees with the rabbit’s ears poking up over her shoulder.

  ‘Is that wind thing over?’

  ‘Gone With The Wind,’ Mum corrected her.

  ‘I know why it’s called that,’ Dot smirked and I could tell she’d been practising a joke.

 
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