Ketchup clouds, p.14
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.14

           Annabel Pitcher
 
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  Sandra moved the curtain with her foot. ‘You can’t do that, lovey. It’s pitch black out there. Freezing.’

  ‘I’ll be fine. Honest,’ I replied, moving towards the door. ‘I have to set off now though. Mum wants me back by 10pm.’

  Sandra combed her fingers through her hair. ‘I feel terrible. I’d give you a lift but I’ve had too much wine.’

  ‘Aaron?’ Max suggested.

  My stomach twisted guiltily. Nervously. Hopefully. Sandra was already on her feet and hurrying out of the room.

  Stuart you can imagine the tension as I stood outside the house saying goodbye to Max as Aaron climbed into DOR1S. Even though we’d had a nice time, I tried to escape without being kissed but Max leaned in close as the car headlights came on. In the glare, he put his hand on my chin and brought his lips to mine and I pictured it from Aaron’s point of view, trying to feel good about my revenge, but any sense of glory just bounced around my empty insides like that phrase Hollow Victory.

  Max disappeared back into the house. There was just me and Aaron. Aaron and me. Biting the inside of my cheek, I put a foot into his car.

  ‘Sorry about this.’ Aaron didn’t reply. He stared straight ahead and started the engine as I closed the door. ‘I really appreciate it.’ He put the car into reverse and moved backwards down the drive. ‘It’s freezing out there,’ I tried again. Aaron turned on the radio.

  We drove in silence. Over the zebra crossing. Past the church and the Chinese takeaway. The emerald dragon whizzed by the window. Aaron gripped the steering wheel, his back poker straight and his arms thrust out in front of him, locked at the elbows. Turning down the volume on the radio, I tried once more to strike up conversation.

  ‘How did your revision go?’

  Aaron twisted the dial too hard in the opposite direction. The speakers screeched in protest as a singer bellowed LOVE just like that, and it sounded big and painful and scary.

  We jerked to a stop at a traffic light, Aaron’s foot slamming the brake too hard. Miss Scarlett hit the window then swirled in a circle as she hung from the mirror. I tapped her with my finger to make her swing.

  ‘Don’t touch that!’

  I did it again. Tap. Aaron shook his head and turned off the radio suddenly. LO—

  ‘You’re such a child,’ he said. ‘Everything’s a game to you, isn’t it?’

  I folded my arms. ‘It’s just a stupid Cluedo figure.’

  ‘That’s not what I’m talking about,’ Aaron growled, glaring at the road, his eyes wild. ‘That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it. What do you think you’re playing at? Turning up in my kitchen? Coming to my house?’

  ‘Your brother’s house!’ I corrected him. ‘Your brother’s.’ The traffic light turned green. Aaron put his foot down and the car screeched off.

  ‘So it’s like that is it?’ he shouted.

  ‘You tell me,’ I replied, gripping onto the dashboard as we sped round a corner. ‘You’re the one who said we were a good couple. You’re the one who told me to have fun. So that’s what I’m doing. Having fun!’

  ‘Fine!’ Aaron yelled.

  ‘It is fine,’ I said, throwing Aaron’s words from the party back in his face with spiteful triumph. Hands trembling, throat raw, my finger flew to my chest. ‘I’m not doing anything wrong, Aaron. I’m free to see whoever I want. You said so yourself.’

  Tears burned in my eyes. I swiped them away, glowering at Fiction Road.

  Fiction Road.

  Mum was walking out of the house, about to set off to Lauren’s. Aaron was slowing down, trying to work out which house was mine. Any moment now, Mum would glance this way and see me in the—

  ‘Drive!’ I screeched, ducking as Mum’s eyes fell on Aaron’s car. ‘Please just drive!’ Aaron hesitated. Bit his lip. And then hit the accelerator so we roared past my house.

  ‘What’s going on?’

  ‘You’ve got to get to Lauren’s! I should’ve said. That was my mum. She thinks I’m at my friend’s house.’

  Babbling, I told him the directions, choosing a back way that gave us more chance of beating Mum. I was urging the car forward with every ounce of my being like it was a horse and I was a jockey in the race of my life. We turned right. Screeched left. Powered down a straight road.

  Aaron sniffed.

  ‘You should stop telling lies, you know. It’s a bad habit.’

  I looked at him in disbelief. ‘You really want to continue this now?’

  ‘I’m just saying. You should stop lying. It’s—’

  ‘It’s what?’

  He paused. Took a breath. Pronounced the word clearly. ‘Immature.’

  I forced out a laugh. ‘Immature? Who’s got Miss Scarlett hanging off their mirror? Who talks about ghosts and alligators and black holes full of snakes? Who hasn’t got a plan and doesn’t know what they’re going to do in the future and—’

  ‘Don’t change the subject,’ Aaron snapped. ‘You lied to your mum and it was wrong and that’s the end of it.’

  ‘Who says it’s the end of it? You? Just because you’re older? Give me a break, Aaron. You have no right to tell me what I can and can’t do. What I tell my mum has nothing to do with you. Nothing.’

  Aaron lifted a shoulder. ‘Maybe not. But what you tell me is pretty important, and you lied to my face.’

  A traffic light turned red as we approached it. I swore under my breath, glancing at the time on my phone. 9.55pm.

  ‘You told me your grandpa was dead.’

  Red

  Red

  Red

  Green

  ‘GO!’ I shouted and we sped off again. 9.56pm.

  ‘But you weren’t visiting his grave that day I saw you,’ Aaron pressed.

  ‘No, but . . .’

  ‘You’d been in my house. My house!’ He was shouting now and his words rang in my ears. ‘With my brother!’

  ‘I know, but . . .’

  ‘In his bedroom. And you had the cheek, the nerve, to get into my car and pretend that you’d—’

  ‘Enough!’ I roared, slamming my fist onto my thigh. ‘Enough.’

  9.59pm.

  Aaron pulled into Lauren’s street. I leaned up on my seat, scanning the road for Mum’s car with frantic eyes. The coast was clear. Pulling open the door, I made to get out.

  ‘You’re welcome,’ Aaron said sarcastically.

  ‘Oh grow up,’ I spat, climbing out of the car, the air freezing against my hot cheeks. ‘Thanks so much for the lift. It’s been great.’

  ‘I don’t know how you could do it, Zoe!’ Aaron called, his eyes blazing in the darkness. ‘I don’t know how you could’ve acted like such a bitch!’

  ‘You never gave me the chance to explain!’

  I slammed the door as the clock hit 10pm. Aaron revved the engine and tore down the road and I swore at him loudly, all the worst words I could think of. The wind swirled and my body trembled and my blood boiled underneath my flushed skin.

  ‘Good night?’ Mum asked a couple of minutes later as I collapsed onto the seat, hiding my anger. The fib caught in my throat but I thought of Aaron and forced it out defiantly.

  ‘Not bad. You know. For a Geography project.’

  I want to tell you what happened next but I’m going to have to leave it there because I can barely keep my eyes open. The last few nights have been interrupted with bad dreams. I keep jolting awake, cold and clammy as the rain pours and the smoke swirls and the hand disappears over and over again. I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet, but I will do. One day soon. That’s a promise.

  We’ve still got a bit of time before May 1st if the worst happens and the nun can’t put a stop to it. There must be something we can do so don’t give up yet, thinking you deserve this punishment for your mistakes. As you can see, I made them too. You’re not on your own Stu so don’t lie there on your thin mattress believing that the whole world just sees your bad soul because there’s a girl in England who knows there’s some good
.

  Love,

  Zoe xx

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  February 13th

  Hey there Stu,

  The spider’s not been around for a few weeks but there are a couple of new webs by the door. I reckon she’s lurking in the shadows, watching me scribble and copying my words, spelling out my secrets on the ceiling in silver silk. Or maybe that’s the paranoia kicking in, which fyi is hardly surprising given what happened today after school.

  I stayed behind to talk to my old R.E. teacher and you’ll be pleased to know why because I was asking about the nun.

  ‘Why do you want to write to her?’ Mr Andrews said, scribbling something about Jesus on the board in purple ink ready for his class the following morning.

  ‘Because . . .’ I began, trying to pluck up the courage to tell the lie I’d planned.

  ‘Because . . .’ Mr Andrews mocked, drawing a stickman on a crucifix.

  ‘I found God.’

  ‘Where?’ He drew a speech bubble from Jesus’ mouth and scrawled AAARRRGH in block capitals. AAARRRGH indeed. I hadn’t expected that question.

  ‘In my . . . pencil case, sir.’

  ‘Borrowing a rubber, was he?’

  ‘No. When I opened my pencil case in Maths, light reflected off the lid and made a cross on the table.’

  ‘Moving,’ Mr Andrews said. ‘Truly.’ He threw the board marker onto his desk. ‘She’s from a convent in Edinburgh. St Catherine’s. And her name is Janet.’

  Janet will be receiving a letter soon Stu, don’t you worry about that. As I walked out of school enjoying the sun shining on my face, I felt positive for the first time in months. I rushed all the way home to start my campaign, planning to print off your poems to send to the nun and to write all your good qualities in a bullet point list to make it clear you’re

  A good listener

  Understanding

  Creative

  Similar to Harry Potter because—

  And that’s when I saw it.

  DOR1S.

  Parked outside my house.

  A pair of brown eyes followed my progress along the pavement.

  ‘Hi,’ I called from the other side of the road.

  ‘Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting for you.’

  Waiting for me? ‘My R.E. teacher . . . I stayed behind to talk to him. Why are you driving . . . I mean, why are you in his car?’

  ‘Mine’s having a service,’ Sandra explained. ‘This one’s been sitting in the garage for months.’

  I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The old blue doors. The dinted roof. The three wheels.

  ‘Is everything okay?’ I asked as Sandra beckoned me over. I caught sight of my reflection in the car window. Pale cheeks. Wary eyes. Thinner than I’d realised.

  Sandra smiled suddenly, but it looked odd. Too intense. ‘I’ve got some good news.’ She undid her seatbelt and I recoiled slightly as she stepped out of the car. ‘There’s going to be a memorial service.’

  ‘A what?’

  ‘I only thought of it this afternoon and I came straight here to tell you. I want to mark the first anniversary. Do something special for him.’ She put her bony hand on my shoulder, completely misreading my horrified expression. ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be involved too. A reading or something.’

  ‘No!’ I said and Sandra blinked, though her smile didn’t fade. ‘I don’t know if I can do that. Not in front of everyone.’

  She increased the pressure on my shoulder. ‘I know it’s hard, but we need to do something to keep his memory alive,’ and Stu I almost laughed out loud. As if it would ever fade. As if it was that easy. She leaned back into the car and pulled a notepad out of her handbag. ‘I’ve got some ideas,’ she said, flicking through pages and pages of her messy handwriting. ‘Have you got time to hear one or two?’

  ‘Flute lesson,’ I blurted out, making it up on the spot.

  ‘Oh. Okay. Never mind then.’ She closed the notepad. ‘Maybe some other time.’

  ‘Sure,’ I said, walking away as fast as I could. ‘See you later.’

  Before I reached my drive, she called, ‘When, exactly?’

  I stalled. ‘Whenever you like,’ I said, without turning round.

  ‘Shall I ring you? You can come over. Maybe this weekend. We can plan it together.’

  I closed my eyes, trying to hide my growing anger. ‘I’m busy this weekend.’

  ‘All weekend?’

  ‘Well, no, but—’

  ‘I’ll call you then,’ she said and I turned round to see her climb back into the car, hitting Miss Scarlett with her shoulder. The red figure swung from side to side and I missed Aaron with a pain that gnawed on every bone in my body, like toothache all over, and Stu a year ago I felt exactly the same, pining for him after the argument when he didn’t call and he didn’t call and he didn’t call.

  PART ELEVEN

  With Aaron out of the equation, there was no real need to stop things with his brother. Besides, things had improved since the night of the jigsaw so we became a fixed pair that kind of went together even though it was a bit odd, like peanut butter and jelly, which I’m guessing might be one of your favourites. Of course I stayed clear of his house but, whenever I could think of an excuse to tell Mum, we hung out in town nearly always by the river because it was quiet and there was a bench with trees hanging over it to protect us if it rained.

  Grandpa was moved from the hospital to a care home and Dad was helping him get settled in, visiting as much as possible. On Valentine’s Day he came downstairs with a card, dropping it on top of the pile of ironing Mum was doing in the kitchen as I ate my breakfast before school. Mum didn’t acknowledge it, just watched Dad chuck a bag onto the floor and some bread into the toaster, the iron steaming on Dot’s trousers.

  ‘You off there again?’ she sighed.

  ‘Taking him some more photos. It’s working. Honestly. His speech is getting better too. Last time he said The Lord’s Prayer with hardly any mistakes. The nurses have been brilliant. Really impressive. We’re working together to try and get him—’

  ‘Shame they’re not paying you . . .’

  ‘I’m looking for a job too,’ Dad replied, peering into the toaster.

  ‘Well, you won’t find one in there.’ She folded the jeans then took the Valentine’s card off the pile of clothes and tore it open. For a second, her face softened. ‘Thank you, Simon.’ Dad looked pleased with himself as he buttered his toast.

  Now Stu I’m sure you must celebrate Valentine’s Day in America, probably much bigger than we do over here because I’ve seen on TV how your country goes mad for festivals. Once in this documentary about Halloween an old man from California painted his face black. Someone said ‘Barack Obama?’ and the old man replied ‘OJ Simpson’ and I didn’t get the joke but everyone laughed over the pumpkin pie so I’m guessing February 14th is just as fun. I reckon you used to do loads for Alice before she told you about the affair with your brother e.g. candles and petals leading to a candlelit meal on your balcony, or maybe you left a trail of ketchup sachets instead so your wife followed them to the cheeseburger and curly fries and milkshake with two straws.

  I didn’t love Max but what choice did I have but to send him a card so I bought him one with a polar bear in a bikini and gave it to him at lunchtime. The words inside said You make me hot and I’d added . . . Like global warming. Max stared at it blankly but I knew Aaron would have laughed so my stomach twisted as I sat down with my tray. I told myself off with this harsh voice in my head, chewing my chicken nuggets with more determination than usual, eager to laugh at Max’s jokes but he didn’t tell a single one and honest truth he looked miserable, picking at a few chips.

  After school we had an hour together because Mum was taking Dot to speech therapy so we made our way down to the river. Chaffinches flew from branch to branch as we found our usual bench. Max picked up a stone and started to scratch something on the wood as a heron swooped out of the
sky to land near my feet.

  ‘Look!’ I exclaimed, pointing at the huge bird dipping its yellow beak into the water. Max barely glanced at it. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked, fed up of his mood. ‘You’ve been grumpy all day.’

  ‘I’m good.’

  ‘You don’t look it.’

  The stone stopped moving. ‘It’s Wednesday.’

  ‘So?’

  ‘I see my dad on Wednesdays. Normally, anyway. But whatever.’ Max started on the bench again. ‘He’s taking his girlfriend out for a meal. I don’t care though,’ he said quickly. ‘Doesn’t bother me.’

  ‘Of course it does,’ I replied gently. ‘And that’s okay.’ He nodded so imperceptibly I might have imagined it, and then stood up quickly. The heron took off from the water with a huge flap of wings. Dropping the stone, Max pointed at the bench.

  MM + ZJ

  FEB 14

  ‘Happy Valentine’s Day, girlfriend,’ he muttered. ‘You know. If you want to be.’

  He looked so awkward and nervous that I reached out for his hand and just said, ‘Yes.’

  Even as the word left my lips, I knew it felt wrong and Soph detected it too, lying on her bed with her head dangling off the edge, looking at me upside down, her cheeks turning purple as they filled with blood.

  ‘So you’re not an Or What any more?’ she said when I got home.

  ‘No.’

  ‘You don’t sound very pleased about it.’

  ‘I am,’ I lied. ‘’Course I am. It’s Max, isn’t it? Everyone wants to be with him.’

  ‘You gonna tell Mum?’

  I lay down next to her and tipped back my own head, my hair touching the carpet. ‘I don’t have a death wish.’

  ‘She probably wouldn’t care anyway,’ Soph said. ‘Too busy worrying about Dot.’

  ‘More like Dad,’ I said, because he still wasn’t back from visiting Grandpa and Mum was seething. A temping agency had left a message on his mobile saying there was a couple of weeks’ work but Dad had missed it because he’d forgotten to take his phone. Downstairs I could hear Mum pacing pacing pacing, stopping every now and again no doubt to open the curtains and check the drive. ‘I wish he’d get a job. Or that Grandpa would get better.’

 
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