Ketchup clouds, p.17
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       Ketchup Clouds, p.17
 

           Annabel Pitcher
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  ‘I’m sorry.’

  I swallowed, fear welling up inside me. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘He needs me, Zo. He needs you.’

  ‘But I can’t pretend,’ I said, my eyes filling with tears. ‘I can’t go into school on Monday and not mention what happened in the library.’

  ‘Please,’ Aaron begged. ‘Give us some time to think about what to do.’

  ‘Are you honestly saying you want me to walk up to him and kiss him and act like nothing’s wrong?’

  ‘Yes . . . No . . . Oh, I don’t know. Look, can I see you tomorrow?’ he asked desperately so I told him about Dot’s party, and how I would have the house to myself for a few hours because Mum was making me stay behind to revise for a science test. ‘I’ll come over and we’ll talk about it,’ he said. ‘We’ll sort something out. I promise you.’

  ‘Okay.’

  There was silence for a while and then the quietest of whispers.

  ‘I don’t regret it, Zo. Maybe I should, but I don’t.’

  I gripped the phone. ‘Me neither. Not one bit.’

  ‘Your voice changes when you smile.’

  I grinned even harder. ‘So does yours.’

  ‘This is messed up.’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘But we’ll sort it.’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘And then . . .’

  ‘And then.’

  ‘S’long, Bird Girl.’

  ‘S’long.’

  The following day I was pretending to revise my notes on magnetism when there was a knock on the door. Aaron was standing in my porch in a pair of blue jeans and a green hoody, holding a tennis racquet.

  ‘Can I have my ball back, please,’ he said like a small boy and I did this daft girly sort of squeal, jumping into his arms, suddenly understanding the principles of magnetism a whole lot better than I ever had in class. ‘I still need my ball,’ Aaron said, as I pulled him into my house. My house, Stu. Aaron was inside my house, his trainers on my carpet, his smell mixing with Mum’s polish.

  ‘Did you actually throw a ball into my garden?’

  ‘I hit one over your roof,’ Aaron said, pretending to serve and accidentally hitting the lightshade with his racquet.

  We tore through the house, bursting into the back garden to hunt for the ball, parting leaves and sticking our heads into bushes and moving plants to one side with our feet. It became a competition, a mad race to be the first to find the ball, and we both spotted it at the exact same moment near a plant pot. With a spectacular dive, I grabbed it before Aaron and sprinted off at top speed, cheering with the ball above my head. Aaron caught up with me, clutching my waist and lifting me high into the air.

  ‘All hail, Bird Girl!’ he announced, carrying me across the garden as I waved to my cheering fans, and then we both fell onto the wet grass. ‘Well done.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I replied, pretending to take a bow. We flopped onto our backs with our hands touching but not holding because there were rules that we had to obey and a conversation we had to have.

  ‘So what are we going to do?’ Aaron asked, his voice becoming serious.

  ‘Not yet,’ I groaned. ‘Not right now. Let’s just lie here for a minute.’ Out of nowhere a bird burst into song and I sat up, staring all around for the source of the noise.

  ‘Swallow?’ Aaron asked.

  I giggled. ‘Just a house sparrow. The swallows are still in Africa. Probably having a crazy adventure.’ I lay back on the grass and this time Aaron took my hand.

  ‘That’s what I’m going to do,’ Aaron said, squinting as the sparrow took off with a noise that sounded like freedom. ‘Travel the world.’

  ‘I’ll go with you. When we’ve told Max and I’ve finished school and Mum can’t stop me. I’ll save up all my money from the library and we’ll go to—’

  ‘London? Manchester? Leeds?’ Aaron teased. ‘Wouldn’t get very far on your wages.’

  ‘You’ve got the money from your dad,’ I said. ‘You could take us both on an adventure.’

  Aaron pulled me onto his chest, my legs dangling between his as our hearts thumped on top of each other. ‘You’re on,’ he whispered, his breath tickling my ear. ‘South America or somewhere.’ He pecked my forehead. And then my eyelids. And then my lips, opening his mouth, his tongue darting against mine. Pulling away, I waggled my finger in his face.

  ‘Naughty! We’re not supposed to be doing anything bad.’

  Aaron rolled on top of me, blocking out the sun.

  ‘Sometimes there are good reasons to do bad things,’ he muttered. ‘Just ask Guy Fawkes.’

  ‘Cheesy.’

  ‘You love it!’

  ‘I love you,’ I whispered, putting my hands on either side of his jaw and drawing him close, covering his face with tiny kisses, my lips finding the hard bridge of his nose and the soft fuzz of his eyebrows and the prickly stubble of his chin as he mouthed Me too me too me too.

  The heavier things got, the lighter I felt until honest truth I was right up there with the sparrow, swooping and darting high above cloud nine. When it started to drizzle, Aaron pulled me to my feet and Stu we couldn’t stop kissing, moving into the shed in a blur of mouths and hands and stumbling feet, stepping over tools and squeezing past the box of tiles, our actions growing more urgent as our love steamed up the windows probably forming dew on the spider webs, glistening on the silk.

  Aaron cleared a space in the junk and took Dad’s old jacket off a peg, spreading it on the dusty floor. My fingers found the bottom of his jumper and I pulled it up, needing to see him to feel him to be close to his skin, and there it was, pale and smooth and firm and I stroked every last inch of it as he gasped without sound, his mouth opening as my thumb brushed the brown hair curling in soft spirals beneath his belly button.

  He wrapped one hand round both of mine and raised my arms into the air pulling my top over my head, my hair lifting up up up in the material and swooshing back down onto my bare shoulders. His eyes said ‘You’re beautiful’ and I felt it too as he took off my bra, slowly slowly like he was scared of doing it wrong. Hardly breathing now, I pulled him down onto the coat and we wrapped ourselves up in it as best we could, our bodies tangling together into a knot that no one could undo. My skin was on his skin, his body warmer than mine. He scooped his arm under my head. We blinked in unison. Inhaled the same air. And just as our lips were about to touch there was a deafening

  RING RING

  RING RING

  RING RING

  Aaron reached into his back pocket and I knew from his expression who was calling.

  ‘Should I speak to him?’ he asked, panic in his voice. Before I could reply, Max rang off. Dropping my head onto Aaron’s arm, I exhaled loudly – only to breathe right back in again as my own phone buzzed in my pocket. ‘You’d better answer that, Zo.’

  ‘I can’t!’ I said but I pressed a button anyway, leaning up on my elbow and turning away from Aaron.

  We spoke, Stu, and I can barely write it down because Max was so upset about his dad’s engagement and I was just trying to get him off the phone, muttering words I didn’t mean as his brother lay next to me, his bare chest rising and falling as he listened to the conversation, his hands covering his eyes.

  ‘What you up to anyway?’ Max asked eventually and my throat tightened. I cleared it. Twice.

  ‘Nothing much. Just revising for that science exam,’ I managed and Aaron threw Dad’s old jacket to one side, standing up abruptly.

  Max sighed down the phone. ‘I need to do some work for that. Do you want to come over? I’ve got the house to myself. Mum’s out shopping with Fiona and I don’t know where my brother is.’

  I screwed up my face. ‘I should stay here,’ I said as Aaron pulled on his hoody, yanking it over his head and shoving his arms through the sleeves. ‘Sorry. I have to concentrate.’

  ‘Please?’ he said in a voice I didn’t recognise. ‘I need to see you.’

  ‘Sorry,’ I said, apolo
gising for things he would never have believed. ‘I should go.’

  It took a while to get rid of him and when I finally lowered the phone, I felt sick with shame.

  ‘You did what you had to,’ Aaron said at last but he was staring at the lawnmower rather than me, all the tenderness gone from his voice. ‘This is my fault,’ he muttered, sorting out his hair with jabbing fingers. ‘I should never have come.’

  ‘Don’t say that. Please don’t say that.’

  He sat down on the box of tiles, a look of self-loathing on his face. ‘What are we doing, Zoe? This is bad. This is really bad.’ Scrambling to my knees, I pressed my chest against his legs. Aaron put his hand on my bare back as I rested my head on his lap. ‘It can’t happen again.’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘We have to tell him the truth.’

  I looked up at him. ‘Yeah. When, though?’

  ‘I dunno. We have to wait for the right time, I guess.’

  ‘There is no right time,’ I whispered. ‘It’s going to be awful whenever we do it. Horrible.’ He rubbed my shoulder as I started to cry and I hated myself for being weak but I couldn’t stop the tears. ‘Let’s wait till after the wedding though. What you said on the phone yesterday. He needs you. And me. We can’t—’

  ‘But that’s ages away, Zo.’

  We stared at each other helplessly. I sniffed, trying to be strong. ‘It’s only a few weeks. A few weeks, that’s all.’ I held his hands in mine, wiping my face with my arm. ‘We should set a date for telling him though. I don’t know. May 1st or something.’

  Aaron kissed my forehead. ‘All right. May 1st.’

  So that’s how we decided, Stu, choosing the date at random and I don’t want to talk about what happened on that night, not now or ever. I don’t want to talk about the rain or the trees or the disappearing hand or the blue sirens or the sobs or the lies or the coffin or the guilt the guilt the guilt that I feel every single minute of every single day. And if I have to write it all down, I want to do it in pencil so I can rub it straight back out again, erasing that whole part of my life so it smudges into nothing and I can start again, drawing myself the way I want to be with a free smile and a pure heart and a name that I can write in block capitals because I’m not afraid to reveal it in a letter scribbled in a garden shed.

  Love,

  Zoe xxx

  1 Fiction Road

  Bath

  April 12th

  My dear Stu,

  By the time you receive this letter you will be very near the end and I’m so sorry I couldn’t do more to save you. All I can hope is that the sun’s shining on your last days, beaming through your window as the red kite soars in the sky. I hope it looks different, the yellow brighter and the blue deeper and the scarlet feathers more vibrant than any you’ve ever seen in your life. I wonder if you feel calm or if your heart’s acting crazy. If you had one of those hospital monitors, I wonder if it would go BOOM BOOM BOOM like a giant’s trapped inside it, or boomboomboomboomboom as if a mouse is running through the wires.

  Whatever is happening to that heart of yours, I hope it feels light and free as if it’s going to drift right out of you towards the sun and float away into the universe when it finally stops beating. You deserve some happiness now, Stu. Of course you made mistakes, but you faced up to your crime and accepted your fate so at least your story ends bravely. With honesty. And that is something to be proud of.

  PART FOURTEEN

  My story ends differently as you will see. Not that I could have guessed it on May 1st because the morning was so perfect like God had ironed a turquoise cloth across the sky and stitched a yellow circle right in the middle of it. It hurts to think how I closed my eyes to breathe in the day or how nice breakfast felt on the patio, Mum and Dad reading the newspaper and taking their time over a pot of real coffee, not talking much but not arguing over who got the business section either. Soph was prancing on the lawn like a pony making Dot laugh her head off, and then they linked arms and galloped round the garden until Dot tripped. Of course she blamed Soph but Mum didn’t run to Dot’s side or put a plaster on the graze. She just told her to be careful then went back to the paper as Dad smiled at something he was reading.

  That night I was going to the Spring Fair in the park where the bonfire had been held. I couldn’t sit still at breakfast or lunch or dinner and I fidgeted away the hours, anticipating the moment I’d see Aaron. We’d kept our word and not met up but of course we’d spoken on the phone practically every night if you want me to be honest about it, sneaking a word here and there, checking in with each other, hating and loving the situation all at the same time if that’s even possible. The wedding had taken place in the last week of April so it was time to confess and we’d decided to do it together that evening. I put on my new blue dress having a million practice conversations in my head, imagining Max saying ‘Don’t worry about it’ and smiling by the Ferris wheel.

  At last it was time to set off so Dad drove into the city centre towards the stalls shining in the park underneath rows of flashing lights. He pulled up by a hot-dog van. Onions sizzled. Smoke swirled. Music from two different live bands clashed in the air as rides zoomed by the river. I spotted Lauren making her way towards the park entrance so I jumped out of Dad’s car and joined a large group that was growing by the second, families filing in from the left and the right. A clown was tottering about on stilts giving out sweets and Morris dancers were doing something ridiculous that I can’t even describe and a brass band appeared in the middle of the street, all these marching black feet and farting gold instruments and musicians dressed in smart uniforms with brass buttons you could see your face in.

  When I reached the gate, Lauren was clutching a metal spike, taking off a shoe and flexing her toes.

  ‘Too small?’ I asked.

  ‘Too small, too high, too tight, but so pretty!’ she replied, stroking the red stiletto. ‘Let’s go in!’

  I felt a thrill of fear as we walked into the park. The sun started to set and Stu it was spectacular, like imagine ice cream in a bowl, pink swirls and orange swirls and yellow swirls melting together to make colours that don’t even have a name.

  ‘Dodgems?’ Lauren suggested so we paid to go on but my heart wasn’t really in it because I was looking looking looking for Aaron.

  All of a sudden the dodgems roared into life and everyone moved forward but Lauren pressed the wrong pedal so we hurtled backwards in a circle. Round and round and round we went, both our mouths wide open and screaming. When we finally got ourselves going in the right direction, a boy came out of nowhere and smashed into the back of the car, jolting us forward. I swore under my breath, realising with a shock that it was Max. Guilt and anger mixed in my stomach as he reversed quickly. Putting his foot probably flat on the floor, he charged towards us once more and crashed into our side.

  ‘Stop it!’ Lauren shouted as our heads snapped forward. Jack yelled something – he was there too, speeding around in a fluorescent yellow car – and Max threw back his head and guffawed as Lauren, furious, hit the wrong pedal again so we shot backwards into a pillar.

  When the ride finished, I climbed out of the dodgems on shaky legs as Max ran over. I wanted more than anything to disappear in the opposite direction, but he grabbed my arm.

  ‘That was a bit much, Max,’ Lauren said, rubbing her neck. He shrugged, his eyes wild as he leaned in with no warning, his teeth clattering against my top lip. His breath tasted of vodka and onions as he sucked my face, no other way to describe it.

  ‘Gross,’ Lauren muttered which was the exact word I was thinking as I pushed him away.

  ‘I’m only celebrating!’

  ‘Celebrating what?’

  ‘Weddings!’ Max yelled, raising his arms into the air.

  Just as Lauren twirled a finger by her temple to say that Max had clearly gone mental, the boy in the year above grabbed her round the waist and pulled her towards the dodgems. Stumbling in high heels, Lauren climbed into a
pink car and I watched her zoom round as Jack handed Max a bottle of clear liquid. He gulped down a mouthful and passed it back. Jack put the bottle on a bench looking queasy. All the lights from the fair shone in the glass and I gazed at it, thinking it was beautiful, then turned my head to see Aaron in jeans and flip-flops and a plain white t-shirt, and I gasped because that was even more beautiful.

  My eyes lit up in recognition, my expression over-familiar and my voice about to give us away. Aaron shook his head quickly before Max could see. I changed my face. Kept it calm. But underneath my skin, excitement bubbled in my blood. It was almost our time, Stu. Almost.

  ‘Aaron!’ Max exclaimed. ‘Zoe, this is my brother. The best brother in the world and that’s not even a lie. You should have seen him at the wedding.’ His words were slurring and he patted Aaron on the back so hard he stumbled forward.

  ‘We’ve already met,’ Aaron muttered as I cringed all the way from my curling toes to the prickling roots of my hair. ‘Remember?’

  ‘Noooo,’ Max replied and then he started to giggle in this false sort of way, holding his own arms and moving his shoulders up and down. ‘’Course I remember. New Year’s Eve. Me and Zoe were going to—’ he dropped his voice to a whisper ‘—you know in your car.’ Max held out a fist and a finger and put one inside the other, pumping hard. Sweat crept up my back, crawling underneath my arms and breaking into hot beads on my upper lip. Aaron looked away as Max’s hands reached a climax that splattered into the air between all three of us. He winked at me. ‘Maybe later . . .’ His crooked smile looked dangerously off kilter as he put an arm around my shoulder and held me close. That’s when Sandra emerged out of the crowd.

  ‘Look at you two,’ she said, smiling at us all indulgent as Max kissed my cheek, leaving spit on my skin. My shoulder twitched because I wanted to wipe it off but I let it dry, this sticky ring right in the middle of my face and I remember feeling branded. ‘It’s boiling isn’t it?’ Sandra said, fanning herself, her hair sticking to her forehead. ‘How’re you, Zoe?’

 
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