Where foundlings hide, p.11
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       Where Foundlings Hide, p.11

           KL Mitchelson
 
Chapter Eleven

  There’s a box of matches inside the bag too, the long, safety kind, and the spray paint is branded with the same logo as the art supplies in the annexe – a black X – like the X’s daubed on the paintings of Lana.

  I think about taking the bag straight to Ms Gould, but I’m not convinced that she’ll believe that I simply found it stuffed under my mattress.

  My heart starts to hammer in my chest. Someone is trying to frame me for vandalising the paintings...and for starting the fire. I’m just assuming that’s where the matches come in, because no one knows yet how the fire started. The last I heard, the Fire Brigade and the Police where still looking at possible causes.

  There’s nothing else for it, I have to get rid of the bag. I shove it inside my blazer, under my arm where its bulk is less noticeable, and I hurry from the room. I race along the corridor and down the stairs, ignoring the gazes of those milling around in the foyer. I don’t stop until I reach the big waste container by the back door of the kitchen. I hazard a glance around the yard, then I lift the heavy, rubber lid, holding my breath as the stench of rotten food hits me. Trying not to retch, I lift a soggy piece of cardboard coated with potato peelings, and I bury the bag deep amongst the garbage.

  I let the lid fall shut, then I hurry back inside with my stomach in knots.

  I head straight to the bathroom to scrub the garbage juice from my hands, wondering who could’ve planted the bag in my room. I realise that it’s probably the same person who vandalised the memorial display and started the fire. My first thought is Molly, but she was too upset about the display, she wouldn’t have ruined her paintings of Lana. Also, I’m not convinced that she’s capable of this level of strategy. Unless she had help. Caleb’s face flashes through my mind.

  My thoughts are interrupted by my phone buzzing in my pocket - a text message from Bria telling me to meet her in the lounge. It’s typed all in capitals, as though she’s shouting, her words followed by lots of exclamation marks.

  I find the lounge packed, but unnaturally quiet, the atmosphere tense. There are two police officers standing in the corner, one male one female, looking oddly out of place in their uniforms of black and white. They survey the room with furrowed brows as muffled, raspy voices burst at intervals from the radios at their sides. The sight of them makes me want to turn and run, but the officers barely glance my way as I weave around the chairs and tables towards Bria. She is sitting with Nick, Orla and Jas. I scan the room for Caleb and find him sitting with Molly, she has her back to me, but her head moves as though she is talking animatedly.

  Caleb watches her with an even expression, his lips set in a small, polite smile. He doesn’t turn my way, but I think I see him glance at me out of the corner of his eye.

  “What’s going on?” I ask, perching on the arm of Jas’s chair.

  Bria nods towards the police officers. “They said the fire in the woods was started on purpose. The teachers are searching everyone’s rooms.”

  I feel the blood leave my face.

  The door to the lounge swings open then, and a group of students file into the room, flanked by a flustered-looking Ms Gould and two more police officers.

  “May I have your attention?” Ms Gould holds up her hands for silence. “We’ve almost finished our search of the school; I just need you to be patient a little while longer while we check the sixth form dormitory.”

  “Do you think she really believes that one of us could have started the fire?” Jas asks, watching the door swing shut behind Ms Gould.

  Orla shakes her head. “The police are probably just ruling us out before they look elsewhere.”

  “Where else is there to look?” Bria asks. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

  Nick squeezes her shoulder. “They’ll speak to the farmers and the people who live in the village.”

  “How do they know it wasn’t just an accident?” Jas asks. “The news is always reporting spontaneous fires these days.”

  “Yeah, in hot countries,” Orla says, patiently. “Not in the middle of Northumberland, Jas.”

  “They must have found evidence,” Bria says, chewing nervously on the cuff of her jumper. “They wouldn’t just search our rooms on a whim.”

  With a jolt, I think of the bag with the spray can and matches inside, now buried deep inside the waste container. What if the culprit put something else in my room that I didn’t find? Would the police believe me if I told them that someone is trying to frame me?

  It occurs to me then that I have an alibi, at least for the night of the fire. I was with Caleb. My eyes flit to where he sits with Molly, she turns at the same time and our eyes meet. She smirks at me, drawing her knees up and resting them against Caleb’s thigh.

  Ms Gould returns to the lounge some time later, her expression unreadable. She scans the room and I hold my breath, waiting for her eyes to find mine, but they don’t. “Thank you everyone, our search is over.”

  The noise levels rise in the lounge as everyone starts to file out into the corridor. Nick kisses Bria swiftly on the cheek before clambering over the back of the sofa, he catches up with Caleb and the two of them disappear with the rest of the crowd, much to Molly’s dismay. She looks around the almost-empty lounge, and her eyes settle on our group. For a second, I think she’s going to come over, but then she flicks her hair over her shoulder and stalks out of the room.

  “I’ve had enough of this.” Orla says, starting towards the door.

  “Wait,” I call after her. “Just leave it, we need to talk.”

  She looks at me questioningly, but I gesture at the crowd now filing out the door and I raise a finger to my lips, communicating that we need to wait until they’ve gone. When there’s just our group left, Bria, Orla and Jas all stare at me expectantly. I don’t know what I’m going to tell them, all I know is a problem shared is a problem halved, or quartered in this case. I have to tell someone about what happened, but first, I need to be sure that they had nothing to do with any of this.

  I know it’s wrong to suspect my friends, but finding the bag in my room has set me on edge, it’s filled me with an unease that I can’t shake.

  “Before I tell you anything, I need you to do something for me,” I say. “Bria, give me your hand.”

  She looks at me blankly. “Casey, what’s this-”

  I hold out a hand. “Please, Bria, just do it.”

  She frowns, but obediently places her hand in mine. I close my fingers around it as the familiar tingle starts in the base of my skull. She is calm, but her curiosity builds with every beat of her pulse. I let go, satisfied that she had nothing to do with the bag in my room.

  “OK, Orla?”

  Orla touches her palm to mine, a bemused expression on her face, then Jas does the same. Neither of them give off anything that suggests they’re involved with any of this, not a glimmer of anxiety or a pinch of guilt.

  “Casey, what’s going on?” Orla asks. “And what’s with the hand thing?” She waggles her fingers in front of me.

  “Someone planted a box of matches and a can of spray paint in my room,” I say. “I found them under my mattress. I was holding your hands to see if you knew anything about it. You know, a raised pulse, a sweaty palm?” I swallow reflexively, hoping they’ll accept this explanation.

  Orla and Jas exchange shocked glances.

  “I don’t understand,” Bria says. “Why would someone put those things in your room?”

  “Why do you think?” Orla says, rolling her eyes.

  “I found them before I knew there was going to be a search. I put them in the waste container by the kitchen.”

  “And you thought we had something to do with this?” Two pink spots appear on Orla’s cheeks. “And when did you turn into a human lie detector?”

  “I just freaked out, everything’s so messed up lately. I’m sorry.”

  Bria puffs out her cheeks. “Someone’s trying to get you kicked out of school.”

&n
bsp; “Kicked out?” Orla says incredulously. “She could’ve been arrested.” She stares around the room thoughtfully. “You don’t think…Molly?”

  “She’s the only person with a grudge against me,” I say. “But this doesn’t seem like her style, it’s too well thought-out.”

  “Molly is upset,” Jas says. “But she wouldn’t do this.”

  “Wouldn’t she?” Orla raises an eyebrow. “She’s not the same person, Jas. We don’t know what she’s capable of anymore.”

  “I just wish things could go back to the way they were,” Bria says, wistfully. “When we were all friends, when… when Lana was here.”

  A blanket of silence falls over us and Orla scuffs her toe awkwardly against her chair.

  “I think Molly liked Lana as more than a friend.” I don’t know why I tell them, but the words fall out of my mouth before I can stop them and now they’re all looking at me with wide eyes. “The night we cleaned out the Annexe, Ms Gould showed me Molly’s Art folder. Every picture was of Lana. They were really intense, like she was in love with her or something.”

  Orla and Bria look unconvinced, but Jas shifts uneasily in her chair. “I think you might be right.”

  Orla’s eyebrows almost disappear into her hair line. “What do you mean?”

  “Molly told me,” Jas says, twisting a lock of hair around her fingers. “Kind of. The night Lana…. the night at the cliffs, Molly was drunk, she said she wanted to be with Lana. She said she wanted to be with her forever.”

  We all stare at Jas in stunned silence. “And you’re only telling us this now?” Orla asks.

  “She was drunk,” Jas says. “I didn’t know what she was talking about.”

  Orla looks at her in disbelief, “I think it’s pretty obvious what she was talking about, Jas.”

  “No, we all used to say it, remember?” Jas says, shaking her head. “We said we’d be friends forever,”

  “I don’t think that’s what she meant.” Orla says, rolling her eyes.

  “Molly hates me because she thinks I hurt Lana,” I say. “The girl she was in love with, it all makes sense now,”

  “She doesn’t believe that, not really,” Orla says. “She’s just jealous. Lana was your sister and Molly was just her friend. There was no special connection, no reason for anyone to acknowledge her pain, and she was mad that you didn’t tell her when… you know, when they found Lana.”

  “But that wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t thinking, I-”

  “Hey, I’m on your side,” Orla says, holding up her hands. “I’m just trying to explain why she’s behaving the way she is, why it might be her who planted those things in your room.”

  “And you honestly think she’s capable of starting that fire?” I ask.

  Silence falls over us again as we consider this and my stomach twists uncomfortably. “You don’t think Lana and her were like…. a thing?”

  Bria shakes her head, her red curls bouncing around her shoulders. “No, Lana definitely liked boys.” Her brow furrows a little, and I know she’s thinking of Nick.

  “Molly was so sad after Lana died,” Jas says. “We all were, but Molly was like, really sad, end-of-the-world sad. She had to see a doctor because she was so depressed. Then after the funeral, she just lost it.”

  “I bet it was Molly in your bedroom after the funeral,” Bria says, her eyes wide. “Sneaking around, going through your stuff… and now the same thing’s happening again.”

  I shake my head. “That was different, if it was her in my room that day, she was looking for something.”

  “Was she?” Bria asks. “Because you said nothing was taken.”

  Orla throws her hands up. “Now what are you talking about?”

  “After the funeral I went up to my room to hide out for a while,” I say. “Bria followed me up and then a little later someone else came in. We were hiding under the beds and we heard them rummaging around, like they were trying to find something.”

  Jas’s dark eyes are like saucers. “But nothing was missing?”

  “I don’t know; I don’t think so.”

  Orla sighs heavily and presses her fingers to her temples. “Well, whatever’s going on, someone’s trying to get you into trouble, and you’re going to have to tread carefully. This isn’t just about school anymore; the police are involved.”

  “Orla’s right,” Bria says. “You need to be a golden girl again.”

  I pull a face at Bria and she returns it. “I’m serious; all of the teachers here love you, you just need to help them remember. You have to do everything you did last year, get involved, be top of the class. You can start by going back to fencing practice.”

  “I was never top of the class,” I say. “That was Lana’s place.”

  Bria sighs. “Well you were right behind her, and you know what I mean.”

  Orla nods in agreement. “We’ve got your back, but you need to stay as far away from trouble as possible. Don’t give Ms Gould any opportunity to get on your case.”

  “I don’t go looking for trouble, you know.”

  They all look at me doubtfully.

  “Fine,” I huff, getting up from my seat. “I’ll dig out my fencing gear.”

  “Good,” Bria calls after me. “And stop leaving your door unlocked.”

  Later that evening, I peer through the shatterproof glass of the doors to the sports hall, trying to work up the courage to go in. The fencing class hasn’t started yet, but the group inside are already pulling on their masks, faceless warriors in white.

  “Good evening, Miss George. You’re late.”

  I jump at the sound of Dr Campbell’s voice. He’s wearing his black coaching uniform, his fencing sabre jammed under his arm.

  “I could say the same to you.”

  He laughs a little as he pulls on his gloves. “Coach’s prerogative.” He opens the door and steps back to allow me to pass.

  I chew my lip as I peer inside. “I thought I might just watch for a bit.”

  “I don’t think so,” Dr Campbell smiles and jerks his head in the direction of the hall. “I need one more for equal numbers.”

  I take a breath as I cross the hall, feeling uncomfortable in the uniform that I haven’t worn for almost a year; the breeches are a little too small around my waist and the breastplate digs sharply into my ribcage. The faceless group watch me as I dump my bag at the side of the hall.

  Dr Campbell takes us through some drills. I remember most of the stances, and even though my limbs feel a little tight, my feet step exactly where they should, my sabre held at just the right angle.

  Dr Campbell sends four of the group over to the side of the hall, where they slash at the mannequins haphazardly. I remember when that was me, he makes us all start with training foils before upgrading to sabres, practicing at the mannequins before we’re allowed to spar. I practiced at the mannequins for two months, learning steps, touches. Lana was sparring within a fortnight.

  Dr Campbell sorts the rest of us into pairs. I am coupled with a tall figure who I assume is male by the broadness of his shoulders. He nods curtly at me as we take our positions.

  I bounce immediately forward on my toes, my opponent dodging my onslaught with a sharp sidestep. Then he attacks. I feint to the side and strike him under the arm, but he whirls around and catches me in the chest, his sabre thwacking off my breastplate.

  I try to land as many touches on him as possible, but my sabre is met by his every time. Sweat pours down my face and I start to get frustrated, my right arm aching with every strike. My opponent is unrelenting in his attacks, lunging towards me again and again. He lands a touch on my shoulder, then in the side, but it’s the sudden hit across my mask that sends me reeling until I am pressed against the wall.

  Dr Campbell calls time. “That’s not a hit, we only strike the torso.”

  My opponent takes off his mask and sweeps his dark hair off his forehead, fixing me with a piercing, green-eyed stare. Caleb.

  A
fter practice, I head straight to the girls changing rooms to shower, shaking with exertion, embarrassed that I was beaten, but mostly annoyed at Caleb for almost taking my head off.

  I scrub furiously at my scalp, squinting as shampoo runs into my eyes. I rinse it off my face and hair, and then I turn off the water, feeling around for my towel with my eyes squeezed shut.

  I freeze when I hear it, a rustling sound.

  “Is somebody there?” I find my towel and I wrap it around me before using the corner to scrub at my eyes. I peer around the half-open shower curtain and find the bathroom filled with steam. “Hello?”

  I step carefully across the wet floor. The other cubicles are empty, but the hot water is running in all of them, the steam billowing in clouds. I make my way along the row, turning off each shower while trying to avoid the scalding hot spray. Before I reach the last one, I hear the tap turning with a squeak and the water stops abruptly.

  “Who’s there?”

  The shower curtain snaps shut and I inhale sharply, my heart beating furiously in my chest. There is a shadow standing behind the screen, too tall to be any of the girls here, and thin, skeletal. I back away as the curtain starts to slide slowly along the rail, a hand covered in rotting flesh reaches around the plastic screen, it has just three fingers, long, unhuman, knotted at the joints.

  A scream catches in my throat. I turn and run, my feet sliding on the slick tiles. I throw the door open and find Molly standing on the other side, her eyes black, like they have been hollowed out, her face expressionless.

  “Molly-”

  Her lip twitches. She pushes me and I stumble backwards, but I dare not look over my shoulder. Molly pushes me again and I slip, falling heavily on the tiled floor. The air leaves my lungs.

  She leans over me and before I can stop her, she reaches down and grabs a fistful of my hair. She yanks my head upwards and then slams it into the ground with a sickening crack.

  Pain bursts inside of my skull and I feel a warm, rush of blood pool around my head as darkness taints the edge of my vision. The last thing I see before my eyes close is a blurred face framed with white-blonde hair.

  “Lana.”

  I will myself to stay awake, but my eyes roll back in my head, then there is nothing but darkness.

 
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