Snippet Eleven: Never Too Late

When Miss Adams calls the register, I swear I am the only one to realise that Florence’s name is missing. I bolt upright and whip my head about the classroom – frantic.

“What’s up?” Kitty asks, confused; the violent flagellation of my hair causes her to have to dodge its attack.

“Florence…isn’t here.” I mumble distractedly.

“Who?” She queries, touching her chin.

“New girl. Tallish. Blonde.”

“Ah, right, the one that got beaten up. Come to think of it, I heard you packed a punch of your own. Was that…the virus?”

“I – yeah. You see – I got to know Floss, you know, while you were away.”

Kitty is silent.

In a tenth scan of the classroom I pick out a tuft of discoloured hair belonging to the one other being who might give a crap about what’s happened to Floss. The bell rings and I scoot in front of her before she can leave the room, Kitty trailing, bewildered, after me. “Hey. Adalyn.”

“Uh, Saffron? C-can I help?” She has every right to her degree of perplexity. I only newly exist in her world, as she in mine.

“Yes actually. I was just wondering if you know where Florence is.”

After a momentary hesitation, she confides in a whisper: “She’s not coming back here.”

“Oh.” Comes my deflated response. I don’t ask why; I think I can deduce that for myself.

“Uh.” Adalyn says, fiddling with her hands. “If you want to – you know – say farewell and stuff, I could give you her number?” Her voice goes all high-pitched at the end, as if she’s sure that I’ll say no.

But I am determined to prove her wrong. “You can?” I exclaim gently, appreciating her courageous geniality. “That’d be amazing, thanks. I’d be really grateful.”

While Adalyn mumbles Floss’s number, I punch the digits into my phone, thanking her again. I make a mental note to talk to her more often in future.

Turning back round, I am confronted with a tilt-headed Kitty, scrutinising as if she doesn’t quite recognise me.

“I didn’t know that you and Adalyn were on speaking terms.” She states, incredulous.

“Um, yeah, recently – not a lot though.” I instinctively feel embarrassed by my friend’s observation; it must show on my face because, straight away, Kitty reassures me.

“No, no – I’m proud of you. You’re branching out.” She says sincerely.

“Ah, OK then. Thank you.” I accept the backhanded compliment with an addled smile.

Snippet Ten: Break Down

My door is creaking open as I click off: it’s Erin. I consider shouting at her for breaking and entering but, seeing my deliberative expression, she holds out her hands in front of her face, a compromise between self-defence and surrender.

Whilst doing this, she quickly begins to speak. “Mum sent me up to check on you. She considers “blustering” through the door and “thundering” upstairs a cause for concern. Her words, not mine.”

When I won’t answer, my sister squints at me impatiently and asks, “So, are you okay?”

That’s it: the trigger. All thoughts of chucking my aluminium fireball at her head fly out of the window and instead I crumple to the carpet, sobbing softly.

Erin is evidently startled by this unorthodoxy, gawkily shuffling fully into the room. She doesn’t ask me what’s wrong – she knows that whatever the matter is, she won’t be adept at consoling me. That’s something we have in common, our inability to deal with shows of impassioned melancholy. Instead, Erin kneels crookedly down next to me, pencil skirt riding up in an unusual absence of decorum. Not used to sisterly contact, she simply places a hand on my right shoulder, as if about to begin a prayer for my sake.

At first I am conscious of trying not to fidget whilst fire and ice clash within my chest and head; I do not want to sabotage her attempts. Soon though, I relax into the scanty touch, a source of comfort like warm water licking my skin.

For a reasonable amount of time, we remain there, statuesque, before I nudge her away when I notice my body rising in temperature with a new emotion: love. Desiccated salt clings to my cheeks.

“Get some rest.” My sister sends out the feathery words before leaving me lonely.

I start to drag myself up the several miles onto my feet, realise that the miniature hot-water-bottle is missing from my clambering claws, and drop back down again. It is only a relief to abstain from using energy unnecessarily.

In painfully landing flat on the chest, my pursuance materialises from the fuzzy blackness under my bed. Simple-minded, I reach for it, then roll over onto my back like a dog cajoling a belly scratch. Holding the mobile vertically above my face, I unlock the screen. I have a message; it must have come whilst Erin was here. Seeing who it is from, all elements of forced calm evaporate.

Tell Thomas it was me.

Snippet Nine: Little Boy Lost

“Wait, what?” I exclaim, Thomas’ rapidly-fired demand a word search. “Who’s “they”?” I don’t know which part to concentrate my concern onto: Luca being gone or that someone else is involved in his vanishing.

“The Social!” Thomas shouts, ire mingled with genuine distress. “They turned up at about 8:30 this morning and told me that I’m not fit to look after him! I’m 17!” He spits on the ground and it’s all I can do not to shuffle my feet in disgust.

“But -” I start. “That arrangement was only temporary, right? Your mum won’t be in hospital forever.” I am amazingly calm in my surety of the situation’s eventual resolution. Perhaps I am missing something; my psyche is sluggish from minimal rest.

Thomas suddenly draws back from his assault of my personal space. He grips a frontal tuft of blond and tells me quietly: “Mum’s dead.”

My stomach plummets as though I have just descended from the climax of a rollercoaster, then is stabbed with a pang of panic. “What?” I utter hoarsely. “And – and you – you haven’t told Luca that?” My head and chest are smouldering so fiercely that I wish I could take off my coat.

“Are you insane? That kid’s already fucked up. But never mind that. I want to know who called them.” His tone is scarily bitter. “Luca says he’s going out with you for the day to work on whatever crackpot project you’re doing, and the next thing I know, the S-workers come knocking!”

I now realise where he’s going with this – but he’s wrong. I didn’t call them. It must have been Sam or Ms Stapleton – no, not Sam: he’s too innocent. Stapleton though, she’s a teacher… I don’t quite manage to defend myself at this moment in time; I am still caught up in the concept of Ms Amello’s death. “When did she die?” I put forward bluntly.

“Look. Don’t bullshit me.” He scowls. “You called them, didn’t you?”

“No. No. There were others. More people with us. “

“Like who?” Thomas taps his feet impatiently.

“Uh, a boy, Samuel. And – and Ms Stapleton.”

“Ms Stapleton? The teacher?” He pales.

I nod. He must have friends at Rosenham High.

“Well. She probably did it then.” He squeezes out, toothpaste from a near-empty tube. “What did you say to her?”

Now recovered from my initial internal paralysis, I am overcome with irritation at Thomas’ recurring accusations. “Who said I said anything?” I say indignantly, although I wrack my brains in the pause that Thomas uses to raise his well-shaped eyebrows, awaiting a conclusive explanation. “If you must know,” I come up with, “your oh-so-victimised “alien” brother happened to mention that you were his 17-year-old guardian.”

He looks somewhat sulky at my retort and manages to suppress any shock that he might be experiencing with expertise. “I don’t see why she would have snaked us out based on just that.”

“Nope, neither do I.” I snap, thoroughly ruffled. “Where have they taken Luca?”

He tells me the address of the children’s home, a couple of miles up north somewhere. “Bye then.” He says, shrugging helplessly.

“Still can’t believe you lied to your little brother.” I provoke hotly as his shoulders slant to leave. “Was she ever actually in hospital?”

He stares at me – hard. “Fuck off.” He commands, briskly completing the turn. But by the time he reaches the end of the road he yells something else. “They switched her off the day before yesterday.”

Oh. My heart plummets like an arrow that’s missed its target. What have I done? I think, switching with amazing speed from incredulity to self-disgust. The candle in my throat is only an invisible reminder that I cannot be held fully accountable.

Aside

Body Hair: An Endangered Species

Sharp blades of silky obsidian grass

Poking up from pinches of ochre soil;

Luxuriant undergrowth – twisting coils

That of undesirables block. The. Path.

 

Wispy, transparent dandelion seeds

Strewn across a rough and earthy terrain;

Dark mossy barks that grow slick in the rain

And glint like stars in the sun’s lucent beam.

 

Tell me. Why would you ever desire to

Burn or scythe or mow or pluck out any

Of the shrubs that bore this charming garden?

 

Perhaps it had never occurred to you

That it was not there to please the many;

Only those who can fathom its allure.

 

A.N. This sonnet was inspired by Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey as well as my own experiences of the way in which body hair, especially female body hair, is perceived by society. I can’t help but notice that, despite the increasing acceptance of things that were previously considered disgusting and abnormal like being a member of the LGBT+ community or someone who is larger than usual, hirsutism and even common patterns of body hair remain neglected by the liberal-minded. As part of my own journey to self-love, I believe that it is important to accept my body in its natural state, and realising the beauty of that which society deems unbeautiful is one change of mind-set that will help me on my way.

Snippet Eight: Soda and Ice-cream

Once we’re settled into the twin tartan armchairs that engulf Kitty’s bedroom, I fill her in on all that has happened on and since that day. I can’t stop even if I want to: the beans spill out of me like a spliced tin, the mystical pulses of fairy tales. Had it been any other I confessed to, I doubt my words would be believed; in this case, it would probably be more trialling to label my descriptions as oneiric. I am not one prone to flights of fancy.

Before we discuss this fantastical material, we agree that it is wise to first plan an evening of normality. “Like old times” she says. Kitty needs time to digest and I need an hour to forget. Besides, her parents are out for the evening, as is her sister; these days need to be taken advantage of.

Within minutes we are slumped in front of the TV downstairs with a pint of mint ice-cream, lovingly taking the mickey out of trashy teen dramas.

Out of the blue, as the ditzy female lead finally realises that her boyfriend is a cheat, a recollection from the hazy depths of my mind swims to the forefront, gripping the edges of my thought pool with stubborn fingers. “Hey, Kitty,” I begin tentatively, causing her to turn to me with an open mien, “you know when we – we almost made up – why did you avoid me afterwards? I know I must’ve burned you but – why not talk to me about it?”

Her expression shifts to one of faint horror. The event has clearly made its home in the hell of her long-term memory. “I – I don’t know. I was just – terrified – illogically so. In my mind, you’d aimed a blowtorch at my skin and burned holes in it. I couldn’t stay touching you without screaming, it felt like. It freaked me out so much that fear clouded my memory of you every time I thought about apologising. But the further away I stayed, the more rational I became.”

“Uh.” Is all I can say. “I wish I could explain but I can’t. I don’t understand what’s up with me. It was probably because of me.” I lament.

Kitty smiles sadly and speaks consolingly. “Well, we may as well forget about it for now then; no use digging at concrete with a spade.”

I almost snort at that awful metaphor.

Snippet Seven: Revolutionary Revelations

“So, erm.” Sam’s uncle is saying, twisting his hands together in a startlingly similar manner to his nephew.

I wonder if Theo or Erin or I have inherited any body language from Mum or Dad.

“Okay, I’m just gonna say it but, be warned, it’s a laaang story.” A Caribbean twang slips into his sentence, disrupting the uniformity of his otherwise English accent. He takes a breath that appears to wobble as his lungs fill with oxygen and deflate before he is ready to speak. “Alright. You guys aren’t normal.”

My eyebrows jump up involuntarily. Well, duh I think and notice Luca and Ms Stapleton looking equally unimpressed – Sam embarrassed.

“And it’s all my fault.” He tacks on, staring at the fluffy white rug cuddling our feet like the fists of a dozen tiny babies.

Well, that changes things.

“Yes, so, basically, uh, about seven years ago, myself and two of my colleagues, we thought ourselves clever enough to alter the, er, genetic make-up of an existing virus in order to manufacture an entirely new one. The problem was, we were fairly sure that, for the virus to take hold, we needed to test it on those who’d not yet built up antibodies against the original. I.e. children.” His hands are trembling so much that he jams them into his pockets to trap them in position. “And – and then when Sam broke his leg and was admitted to hospital – I – I saw the perfect opportunity.”

“No!” I shout, outraged, ready to launch into an onslaught before Luca shushes me. A blaze has started up in my chest, using the criminal confessions for fuel. Oh God, oh God, oh God. Shit. I’ve heard in Science lessons that these manipulations are possible, but never have I considered them to be taking place unregulated. I almost don’t want to hear what’s coming next.

“I walked straight into that A and E ward pretending to be visiting Sam and while I was there I released seven of the new viruses into the cups of water on each of the bedside tables.”

Automatically, my mind is transported back to the time when I was seven and in agony from an arm I’d broken swinging from tree branches in someone’s garden. I hadn’t taken much notice of the other patients, excepting Jade, who was in the bed to my left, and the frail girl to my right, who’d looked like death. Even then, I’d been too absorbed in self-pity and the activities of my own brain.

“So what exactly does this virus do?” Ms Stapleton demands.

Sam’s uncle is stunned as he takes her in for what seems like the first time. “I – I don’t recall ever seeing you on the ward, ma’am. How can you have been affected? Forgive me, I don’t understand.”

“I was accompanying my sick niece.” She answers coldly. “Jessica was scared to drink the hospital’s water so I took a sip just to show her that it wasn’t deadly. But it seems that she was right, after all.” She frowns, giving Luca just enough leeway to interject.

“What’s your name?” He queries, fishing out his notepad.

“Oh, um, Jaimes.” Sam’s uncle responds distractedly, then returns to addressing the headmistress. “The thing is Miss…”

“Helen.” She supplies, and, out of the blue, I feel ashamed for never bothering to ask for her name myself.

I rush to quash the guilt before it sparks across my skin, repeating to myself like a mantra: Stay neutral, stay neutral, stay neutral.

“Helen.” Jaimes echoes. “Well, I don’t actually know what the long-term effects of the infection are. That’s why we needed to test it. We had an idea of what we wanted it to do, but there was no telling if it…actually worked. I fled Rosenham the moment I came to terms with what I’d done. All I can say is that it was supposed to make one more attuned to others’ emotions – more empathetic, you might say.”

“I wouldn’t.” Helen Stapleton mutters bitterly. “The neighbours keep me up all night with their songs of passion.”

I almost choke at the implications of that statement, composing myself in time for Jaimes to ask, his tone inflected with curiosity: “So, what exactly does the virus do? If you don’t mind sharing.”

“I can see emotions.” Luca pipes up eagerly. “Like colours emanating from a person.”

“I can hear them.” Helen stresses unhappily.

Upon an expectant glance from his uncle, Samuel, head down, whispers “Smell.”

I feel overwhelmed all of a sudden as I realise that this visit has solved nothing: “I have no idea what this virus has done to me. All I’ve got are mood swings. And I can sometimes set things on fire.” I add, registering how abnormal that is as I say it. Luca flicks his head to me in surprise, then immediately starts scrawling. I guess I should’ve told him that.

“Jaimes’ eyes widen, but he maintains his cool and nods slowly. “I’m sorry -” He begins.

However, something about his repentant stance irks me and before I know it my innards are up in flames and I am jumping in with a fiery cry. “Well it’s no good apologising now!” Both my palms are cupped, as though I am praying. “The damage is done. Congratulations, you’ve ruined four perfectly good lives.”

His face contorts.

“There are more of us, aren’t there?” I comprehend, no longer angry but weary.

“I’m not proud of what I’ve done, but the guilt was gnawing at me from the core and I knew I had to tell someone. I can help fix it.”

We all stare at him, chewing various parts of our mouths and waiting for him to complete his soliloquy.

“I fled when it was done. It was instant, brutal shame that fuelled my move from Rosenham and my family and friends. I did not deserve to live among those I’d corrupted.” His voice is weighted with regret, the voice of a man deep-set in his melancholy. “Straight away, I started to work on a cure. I enlisted the help of my accomplices, feeding them the line that it was ‘just in case’.” He glances up to his audience, though doesn’t look at anyone directly. “They didn’t wish to see their hard work go down the drain.”

“So there is a cure?” Helen prompts. She cannot restrain her hopefulness.

Jaimes, the centre of attention, looks startled – a deer caught in headlights. “N-no. I managed to let slip that I intended to use the finished product on our test subjects; after that they refused to work with me and destroyed the mixture that we had concocted so far. I never saw them again.” He draws a nail across his bald head. “Without our combined knowledge and resources, I’ve found it impossible to recreate even a base solution. Believe me, I tried. Eventually, I gave up and attempted to charge all my moral strain into sprucing up this place.” Jaimes gestures vaguely around the room. “Evidently, it didn’t work.”