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Author's note: I was inspired to write this when our English class at school had a guest speaker -- the mother of two autistic children. SHe spoke to us about her life and about autism, and she helped us understand more about this condition. Our teacher, Ms. Van Daalen, asked us to write a story from the perspective of an autistic child/teenager. After I wrote mine, she encourage due to develop it further and so I wrote a short novel: Toothpick
My name is Benjamin Sayer. I am 15 years, 8 months, 2 weeks, 5 days, 18 hours and 34 seconds old. I live in London, in England. Here are ten facts about London:
London is the capital city of the United Kingdom.
The River Thames is the largest river in England
The London Eye is the biggest Ferris Wheel in Europe
There are over 19,000 listed structures in the British capital.
About 25% of all people today living in London were born in another country.
Each week, the 409 escalators in the London subway cover an astonishing distance: The equivalent of several trips around the globe!
Gaslight was introduced in London in 1807; prior to this, torchlight was used.
About sixteen percent of the UK’s restaurants are located in London.
The Big Ben is actually not the name of the tower, as many people think it is. It is the name of the 13 ton bell inside of it. The tower is actually called the St. Stephen’s tower.
London is home to people speaking over 300 languages.
I like listing facts. Mum says that it helps me to understand things better. Sometimes I think that Mum thinks I’m stupid. I know that I’m not stupid. I know all my times tables, every capital of every country and every star sign by heart. Today is a Saturday. I know that because I have a calendar in my room with every day marked in a different color. Every day, Mum puts a marker on the color of the day that it is. Today it is blue. That means that this is Tuesday. Friday is yellow. I don’t like yellow and I don’t like Friday. Friday is the day when Mum makes me walk to the supermarket to get dinner. She lets me choose whatever I want. I hate walking to the supermarket. All the people around me, the noise, the smells, it makes me want to run home and curl up in a ball under my desk. It is nice under my desk, and it is safe. Under my desk, I have a flashlight and a pack of strawberry gum. I eat half a piece on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That way, I save it and I don’t have to go to the supermarket to get more.
Today, Aunt and Uncle are coming to visit us. They are bringing their children. Mum says that their children are my cousins. I’ve never met my cousins but I hope that they are nice.
Mum told me to make them a welcome card while she went out to the shops.
When Mum got back, she dressed me in my nice clothes and we taped the welcome card to the door, so that they could see it when they came in. I used blue and red glitter and my new sharpies that I got for Christmas. Then, I lined up all my animals. I make my animals from toothpicks. I have lots and lots of them. They are all over my floor and my wardrobe and my desk. I have a farm and a jungle and a desert and a house. First, I break the toothpick into little bits and then I use my special glue to stick all the little pieces together so that it looks like a dog or a cat or a donkey or whatever animal I fancy making. I make 1 every day and if I don’t, it is a bad day. Mum says she loves them but she wishes I would put them somewhere else and not all over my room because it is impossible to walk from one end to the other without crushing them. I find it easy though. I take one step into the farmyard, right between the cow and the pig, and then two steps between the gap from the jungle and the vet’s office, and then a big leap into the empty desert and I’m at my bed. Easy.
The doorbell rang. I like it when the doorbell rings because it always means there’s someone there and you don’t know who it is, so it’s a surprise. While I wait for Mum to get the door, I think about who it might be. When the doorbell rang this time, I knew it was going to be Aunt and Uncle because when Mum rushed to the door she said, “Ben, they’re here! I hope you didn’t forget to brush your hair, darling,” I had not forgotten to brush my hair.
My Aunt and Uncle walked in and Mum hugged and kissed them, like you do when you’re meeting somebody and you want to be polite. I sat on the stairs because Mum didn’t tell me to do anything yet. I figured that it’s better to wait till Mum tells me to do something because when I do things from my own mind, I can sometimes get in a lot of trouble.
“Ben, come over here and say hello to Aunt and Uncle!”
I got up and walked down the stairs. I walked down 14 stairs till I reached the bottom.
“Oh Benjamin, look how you’ve grown!” my aunt exclaimed. She hugged me with her huge arms and pressed me to her huge bosom and I felt the softness of her blue sweater. She smelt of that cheap perfume that Mum hates so much. I don’t like that perfume. Maybe she could borrow some of Mum’s expensive perfume that she orders from Italy on her birthday.
When she finally let go of me, she held me outstretched in her arms as if to marvel at me once more before planting a huge smooch on my cheek. I felt the sticky red lipstick cling to my cheek. Gross. I wiped it off. Mum gave me her mean look which meant I’ve done something bad. Then Uncle came over to me. He was long and thin and had hair like the clouds and whiskers like the neighbor’s cat, Twizzles. He smiled at me and shook my hand. His hands were rough and sandy and they didn’t feel very nice, but I shook his hand anyways because I know that it is the polite thing to do. Then, I went back to my stairs and sat down. I wanted to go upstairs and play with my animals. I wanted to make a crocodile.
“Dad, where the hell is my iPod? You told me you plugged it into the car charger and it isn’t there.” I did not like this voice. It was a mean voice. I looked to see where the voice was coming from. It was from a tall girl. She had lots of black around her eyes, sort of like a panda bear. She had shiny silver pieces around her lip and nose and lots on her ears. She had black hair with pink and blue pieces in it. I’ve never seen anyone with blue and pink hair. Maybe she is from somewhere where people have rainbow color hair. Then I remembered that man I saw on the way to the shop with spiky red hair. Maybe he was from the same place. I wouldn’t mind having rainbow color hair. Then I’d have hair to match every single day of the week.
The girl wiped her hands on her black trousers. Her fingernails were painted black and she had lots of rings with skulls on them, like pirates. Maybe she is a pirate. I wonder if I could make a pirate out of toothpicks. Then it could have a parrot friend and I could use my bathtub boat for its ship.
“Hold on a sec honey, I’ll go fetch it.” My uncle scurried out of the house like a mouse.
Aunt and Mum chatted away and went to the kitchen to get some tea.
The door suddenly flew open and two little children flew into the room. They are very rude, I thought, they didn’t ring the doorbell. The children were about as old as the children who live down the block with Mrs. McKinny. They had smiles on their faces as if they were about to do something naughty. They ran through the house to the kitchen screaming and laughing very loudly. That noise hurt my ears so I sat on the stairs and cried. Mum ran over to me. “Ben, dear, I think you need some time to cool off. Do you mind running over to the shops to pick me up some biscuits? Use the change to buy yourself a chocolate bar or something nice.” I took the money gratefully. Going to the shops is bad, but being here is worse because I can’t get away. When I go to the shops, I can walk where I want and do whatever I want and look at whoever I want.
It was a sunny Saturday. Sunny Saturdays are nice because you can just relax and enjoy the sun and not worry about anything. If it was a sunny Sunday, it wouldn’t be as nice because you would worry about the fact that the next day was school.
There were little puddles of rain on the sidewalk and I liked the sound that my sneakers made when I stepped in them. Squelch. I hit the busy road too soon. The noise started here, and got worse and worse until I reached the shops. I just tried to focus on other things, like the birds flying over the rooftops or the soft clouds slowly moving along or the water flowing deep under the bridge and all the fish that swam around in there, just like Mum told me to. I fiddled with some toothpicks in my pocket.
I got to the shops and found the biscuits that Mum likes especially with her tea. Then I picked a Lion chocolate bar and paid for everything. I still had some change left so I put it in my pocket along with the toothpicks.
The way back was worse because I knew that Aunt and Uncle and my cousins were going to be there and I didn’t know how to be nice or how to make them like me or how to make sure that Mum didn’t give me her mean look.
I munched on my Lion bar and tried not to think about it.
When I got home, Mum answered the door. “Chris! Thank you so much darling! These will go perfectly with the tea!” She hurried back to the kitchen and I took my shoes off. I glanced into the kitchen. Aunt and Uncle were there, and the girl with the rainbow hair. The two little kids were jumping around on the couches in the living room.
I ran upstairs to my room to start on my crocodile. I knew exactly what color he would be and I decided to make his teeth out of tiny bits of white felt. When I got to my room, I didn’t know what to think. My animals were gone. I mean, they were still there, but they were just broken toothpicks. My bed covers were on the floor and my strawberry gum was gone. And my animals were broken. My animals were broken. My animals were broken. I couldn’t stop screaming. I hid under my desk and wept into my knees. I stood up and kicked the mess of colorful broken toothpicks. I knew the children did this. They were not my cousins. I knew they were not my cousins because Mum said my cousins were nice and sweet. This was not nice and sweet. They could not just do this and go home. I was mad. I was very mad.
I ran down the stairs very fast. I ran into the living room and grabbed one of the children. I held his neck because this is what I saw the snake wrangler do on television. I grabbed his neck and shook it and shook him until my anger went away a little. The child was screaming. I did not like his screaming so I shook him more. I heard a scream and I felt hands pulling me away, pulling the child away. I heard crying and more screaming and everything was bad. Mum was screaming and holding me and Aunt and Uncle were holding the children because they were scared that I would hold their necks again.
The girl with colorful hair was standing in the doorway munching on a biscuit.
I ran outside to the sun. I knew I had done a bad thing. My animals were ruined. My animals were ruined.
I knew they were bad when they didn’t ring the doorbell.
I can run very fast. Not many people know that. I did not look where I was going, I just ran. Mum says this is very dangerous because what if a car hit me or I ran into something or someone. But I was not thinking about cars or poles or people. I was thinking about my animals and the kids and red. Red is anger. It is funny because Wednesday is Red, but I am usually very happy on Wednesdays because that’s when Mum lets me play a game on her computer. The game she lets me play is called Tetris and it is where you have to stack up different colored blocks on top of each other but so that they make an entire line. If the blocks reach the top, you die.
I ran all the way till the end of Gingham Road, which takes 47 minutes to walk to at an average pace. I didn’t stop. I ran like there was something inside me that was pushing me. I don’t like people pushing me, but this time I didn’t mind because I wanted to be pushed. I wanted to be pushed away from everything.
I stopped at a lake. It was a nice lake and there was a statue of a man with a big mustache holding a sword and dressed in shiny armor. I had seen that statue before. I had been to this lake before. I closed my eyes very, very hard and sat down on the bench by the lake and tried very hard to remember. I did remember.
Mum and Dad used to take me here a very long time ago when I was very little. I remember because Mum has a photo of all of us feeding the ducks. I like feeding ducks. That was before Dad left. I don’t remember much about Dad. All of my memories are tucked away somewhere in a brown shoebox under Mum’s bed. She showed me once on my 9th birthday because Dad called the week before and asked if he could come over to celebrate with us. Mum bought an extra big cake and we got on our hands and knees and made a huge poster with lots of pictures of things that made us happy and I also copied the picture of us feeding the ducks by the pond with green felt-tips and pastels. Then we hung up blue, red and green balloons everywhere because those are my favorite colors.
He didn’t come.
Mum cried and hugged me close and when I saw that she was sad, I cried too. I also cried because I missed Dad and because he didn’t want to come to my birthday. So, Mum put the shoebox away and we never took it out since.
I stared at the lake and thought about the fish in it and I wondered what it would be like to be a fish. It would be nice because you could swim all the time. I like to swim, but only when I know my feet can touch the ground. Then, I thought about Mum. I thought about how sad and mad she would be when I went home. Then I thought of Aunt and Uncle and the kids and the girl with the rainbow hair and I got very scared and I made up my mind to only go home if they were gone.
I started walking home quite fast because it was starting to get a bit dark and it isn’t safe to be out on the streets alone when it’s dark.
When I finally got home, I did not see Aunt and Uncle’s car so I felt a bit happy. I rang the doorbell and Mum answered it very fast, like she was waiting right behind the door.
“Oh, Ben!” Mum grasped me and sobbed into my shoulder. I did not know why she was so upset because I was only gone for a bit. After a very long time, Mum let go of me and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Aunt and Uncle and the cousins just left. I need to talk to you about something Benji.”
She held my hand tightly as she walked with me into the living room. She poured us both a cup of tea on one of those little plates with the gold flowers on the sides. “Listen Ben, I know that sometimes you don’t realize what you’re doing and you don’t mean to do any wrong, but what you did earlier.. I didn’t know how to react,” she sighed and buried her face in her hands for 6 seconds, “Aunt and Uncle were very upset about what happened. About when you shook your little cousin’s neck.”
“That boy broke my animals.”
“I know Benji, I went up and saw them all and I know you must be terribly upset and it was a horrible thing for them to do, but you can’t do that to someone. You can’t do it ever again.”
I told her that I knew it was a bad thing and that I was sorry and that I would never do it again. Mum told me to go to my room because I was probably very tired after today and I should get some rest. I did not feel tired and I did not want to go to sleep but I knew it would make Mum happy, so I did.
My room was not messy. Mum had cleaned up all the broken animals. I was happy that she did because if I saw them I would start crying and screaming and feeling very red. I lay in my bed and looked at all of my glow in the dark stars. Mum got them for me at the science museum when I was 11. Mum had seen an ad in the paper about a special planetarium exhibit so she let me skip school and we went to see it. Mum loves the stars. She was going to be an astrologer. An astrologer is someone who studies the stars and outer space. But then I was born and she did not have any more time to study stars and constellations and astronauts, so now Mum works for a publishing company. That way she can do her job at home so she can take care of me.
Sometimes when there are lots and lots of stars, Mum takes out her fancy telescope and we climb onto our roof and look at the stars. I wonder how many stars there are. Mum says that nobody really knows because stars die and stars are born all the time. Mum knows all of the constellations and she tries to teach me them, but I always get them mixed up.
Maybe if I had not been born, Mum could have been an astrologer and she could have discovered the number of stars and she would be famous and rich and live in a big mansion with Dad. Maybe if I had not been born, Dad would not have left. Mum told me that it wasn’t my fault and that Dad was being immature. Immature means that you are acting like a baby and not being responsible. Mum said that Dad thought I was odd and that we were not what he wanted and that he had met a young blonde whore who he fancied lots more. That is what Mum said.
Then I made a promise to Mum. I promised that I would never do a bad thing again and that I would be very good. I promised because I was worried that she might leave, like Dad. Then I would be all alone. I promised this in my head because Mum thought that I was asleep and she would be mad if she knew that I was not.
“Grace that is completely…you can’t do that! Don’t you dare hang up on me Grace. GRACE!” Mum slammed the phone down and buried her head in her hands.
“Mum?” I was standing on the stairs in my pajamas. I wanted orange juice and pancakes with strawberries and cream sugar. “Mum what is the matter?”
“That was your aunt Ben, don’t worry, it’s nothing.”
I knew it was not nothing because Mum looked very upset. When people look upset, it means that they are sad and angry at the same time. I wondered why Mum would be upset because
I had not been bad since my promise
It was very sunny outside. Mum likes to lie on the grass and wiggle her toes in the sun.
It was pancake day
I could not think of any other reasons why Mum would not be sad or upset, but the only reason that I could think of that would explain why she was upset was that
She was still upset about yesterday
I did not think this was true.
So, I did not know why she was upset
“Is Aunt still mad at me?” I asked Mum if Aunt was still mad at me. Mum told me that she did not want to talk about it right now and could I please just eat my pancakes and stop asking questions and she would try to go through the day without a nervous breakdown.
I was very hungry so I decided not to think about Mum being upset until after I had eaten my pancakes and gotten dressed. I never eat my pancakes in my proper clothes because it makes you feel like you are going out someplace. When you are in your pajamas, it’s cosy and relaxing and I like that.
After I had finished my pancakes, I went upstairs to my room. I did not know what to do. On Sundays I usually spend the whole day in my room making animals. I did not want to make animals today. I did not want to think about my animals. My broken animals. I went downstairs and asked Mum if she would like to play a board game with me. Mum said that she would in a second and that she had to write a few emails first. I asked her who she was writing emails to and she said that it did not matter and would I please go to the living room and set up the board game while I was waiting? I said that I would, but I still wanted to know who the emails were to and I was getting a little bit upset because Mum was not telling me anything today and I do not like it when I do not know stuff.
I decided to set up Cluedo. The best part of Cluedo is when you open the envelope with the killer in it at the end. Then you see if you got it right. I always get it right.
We were cleaning up the game when the phone rang. Mum got up and answered it. She immediately sighed and walked out of the room into the kitchen and closed the door. I could hear lots of screaming from the kitchen so I thought that it was most likely Aunt.
“You can’t do this to me Grace, he’s my kid, not yours.. Yes, I know, but... Grace I swear.. God, I will never forgive you Grace, never.”
I walked over to the kitchen because I had finished cleaning up the game. I saw Mum sitting at the table and she was crying. I do not like it when Mum cries. I opened the kitchen door and hugged her and she hugged me back and told me again that everything was going to be just fine and that I should not worry.
I was stupid when I believed that.
Very early the next morning, the doorbell rung very loudly and woke me up. The person at the door was holding down the doorbell and it hurt my ears very much and I wanted it to stop so I ran downstairs very fast and opened the door. There was a woman there. She had red hair that was tied back in a ponytail, like Mum has. But Mum always has little hairs sticking out. This lady did not. She was wearing very fancy clothes and she has a fancy top hat, like the ones that the people that work at the bank wear. She was carrying a black shiny briefcase. She did not look friendly. She looked mean and she was staring at me in a way that I did not like so I ran up the stairs to get Mum.
Mum was lying in bed holding a pillow over her head. “Mum, there is a lady at the door.”
“What bloody time is it?” groaned Mum as she felt around for her alarm clock.
“It is 6:46.”
Mum sighed and put on her robe and slippers and her glasses and we went down the stairs together.
“Good morning Ms.Sayer,” she said with a very posh accent, “Would you mind if I came inside? I believe we have some matters over which to discuss”
She looked at me sternly and strutted right in, even though Mum did not say that she could. I had decided that I did not like this lady because she was:
Very fancily dressed, and Mum says you can never trust those people because they just want to take your money.
She had a very big nose which means that she must lie a lot, like Pinocchio.
Mum blinked and slowly closed the door and turned around. “Benjamin will get you some coffee and biscuits while I get changed quickly, okay Benji?” Mum shot me a reassuring smile ( though I was not very reassured ) and dashed upstairs.
I wished that Mum had not left because I was scared of this lady and I did not want to be left alone with her for very long. I walked into the kitchen and she followed me, her shiny black boots making a brisk click clack sound behind me. I got her a can of cold coffee because that is what Mum and I like to drink. After Dad left, we threw away the coffee machine because Mum said it reminded her too much of Dad. This was because it was the first thing they bought after they moved in together. The coffee machine had been called ‘Purrfect’. Mum had tried to figure out how to make it work, but had gotten so frustrated that she threw it out of the window, but it did not break. Dad brought it to the shop and learnt how to make it work and he said that it was okay if Mum tried it out again because after all it did have 8 lives left. This made Mum laugh, but I do not really know why.
The lady took the ice coffee like it was some poisonous bug and gave it a look of disgust before putting it down on the table. She sat down and crossed her legs and put her briefcase down next to her. She took out a notepad and a pen and started writing stuff.
“What are you writing?” I asked her, because I wanted to know what she was writing.
“Nothing, darling,” she said in a sickly sweet voice, with a smile that you see people give to little children. “Now do you mind running up and seeing what is taking your Mum so long?”
I ran up the 27 stairs to get Mum. She was brushing her hair in front of the mirror. “Mum, the woman downstairs says that you have to hurry up.”
“Of course she did,”said Mum, rolling her eyes. She was nibbling her lip very hard and when she does this it usually means that she is scared.
Downstairs, the lady talked to Mum alone for a little bit. I sat in the living room. I could not think of anything to do, so I just stared out of the window in front of me. The neighbor’s cat was sitting on the fence, her butt in the air. I thought that this looked quite funny so I laughed. Then, I saw a small little brown mouse on the lawn underneath the cat. I knew that the cat was going to catch it and eat it. I thought about saving the little mouse. I could keep it in a cage and it could be my pet and I could teach it how to jump over little fences and run through tunnels and stuff like that. But then the cat would be sad and hungry. I did not know what to do, so I made a list because that is a very good solution in times when you do not know what to do.
Reasons why I should save the mouse:
I could keep it as a pet and teach it things like how to run through a tunnel or maybe even to fetch little marbles, like a dog.
It would stay alive and make lots of little baby mice
It would be something to do, like an adventure. Maybe I could make it like those animal catching shows on Animal Planet.
Reasons why I should not save the mouse:
The cat would be hungry
The cat would probably not like me anymore and so she wouldn’t rub against my legs and make that funny vibrating noise in her throat and lick my hands.
It would go against the law of nature and the food chain and all that stuff I learnt in school
I did not get a chance to evaluate the situation further because at that moment, Mum walked into the living room and told me that the woman needed to talk to me and ask me a few questions and if that was okay with me. I thought that maybe if I did what the rude fancy woman wanted, she would go away. I wanted her to go away because she was making Mum very upset. I could tell that Mum was upset because her eyes were red, like she had been crying. She was trying not to show this because she was wearing her brave face. When you put on a brave face it means that you do not want people to see that you are actually sad or scared. A brave face is sort of like a mask, Ms Jenny said.
I got up and walked to the kitchen where Mum and the woman were sitting. “Ben, your Aunt sent Ms. Stonehem here because of, you know, what happened.” Mum tried to explain.
“Are you talking about when I grabbed the boy’s neck like the snake wrangler ?” I asked, because I thought this was what she was talking about but I needed to make sure.
Mum closed her eyes and inhaled sharply before opening them to look at me. “Yes Benji, that is what I’m talking about.”
The woman was sitting at the table in a stiff upright position. Her stocking covered legs were crossed and she was tapping her high heeled boot against the floor in an impatient sort of way. “Benjamin, do you know why you did this?, the woman peered down at me from the rims of her glasses, “Do you care to enlighten me on the thoughts going through your head at the point of…attack?”
“He destroyed my animals, so I felt very mad and very sad. That is why.” I said this because this was the truth.
“And you thought that this was a good reason to strangle him?” The woman raised one of her eyebrows like you do when you are confused or when you do not believe something.
I thought about this. “Yes.”I said.
“I see,” said the woman, picking up her pen and scribbling on her notepad vigorously. “Benjamin, what did your mother do after the incident?” The woman glanced at Mum, who did not look very happy to say the least.
“Are you questioning my parenting?” Mum said bitterly.
“No dear, simply trying to assess the situation,” reassured the woman.
Mum raised her eyebrow and scowled.
“My Mum was mad and said that I should never do it again.”
“Mhhmm okay, good. So Benjamin, what exactly do you know about the whereabouts of your father?”
I glanced at Mum, who was still busy giving Ms. Stonehem the death stare.
“He left me and Mum and ran off with a young blonde whore.”I said, because that was exactly what he had done.
Mum winced and looked at Ms. Stonehem nervously. Ms.Stonehem raised her eyebrow and it occurred to me that her eyebrows must be getting very tired with all the raising that they were doing.
“Ahem, Ms.Sayer, are these the sort of…explanations that you give to your son?”
“Oh give me a bloody break, will you? I’m a single mum working a full-time job just to keep the roof over our heads and food on the table. I barely have enough time to take care of my son, let alone give him the love and attention that he needs, but I’ve still managed to keep the house and the job and Benjamin so don’t you bloody barge into my house and tell me what or what not to do until you’ve taken a long bloody hike in my shoes.”
Mum’s face was very red and she was breathing heavily as she sat down again.
Ms. Stonehem had not moved a single inch during the entire speech. Even her expression had not changed one bit. I was not sure what this expression was because I did not remember seeing it on my flash cards. It looked like she was thinking: I do not care for these foolish words spewing out of your mouth and would you please sit down and shut up.
This did not make me like her any more.
“Right well I think I have heard enough.” She said painfully. “Ms. Sayer, would you mind seeing me out?”
“Follow me,” grunted Mum, obligingly. Ms. Stonehem nodded sharply and placed her notepad and pen back in her briefcase. “Goodbye Benjamin, I hope to see you again soon.”
“Goodbye,”I said. I did not tell her that I would want to see her again soon because that would be a lie because I never wanted to see her ever again in my entire life.
I sat in the kitchen and nibbled my biscuit while Mum ushered Ms. Stonehem out. I could vaguely hear their voices from down the hall.
“I won’t let you take him away from me,” spat Mum vehemently.
I stopped chewing and was very quiet so that I could hear them better.
“That is not my decision to make, I’m afraid.”said Ms. Stonehem.
That was the last thing I heard because the door slammed shut.
After 27 seconds, Mum came back into the kitchen. She did not say anything to me. She poured some water into the kettle and set it on the stove to boil. She just stood there, staring at it. “Mum?”I asked tentatively. She did not answer so I thought that maybe she did not hear me over the whistling of the kettle. “MUM!”
She turned around sharply. “What is it Ben? What?”
“Is Ms.Stonehem going to take me away?”
Mum closed her eyes very tightly.
“Oh god…listen Ben, I’m not going to lie to you okay? Because you aren’t a little boy anymore and you deserve to know the truth.”
“Okay,”I said. Mum poured herself a cup of the boiling water and added an earl grey teabag and a spoonful of honey. She sat herself down at the table across from me. “Ben, you know that your Aunt was the one who sent Ms.Stonehem over here. I tried..I tried to stop her but well, you know your aunt.” Mum sighed.
“But why did she send her? Because of what I did to the boy? Because she was mad?”
“Yes. She thinks that you are violent and not ‘domesticated’ or whatever,” Mum rolled her eyes, “She thinks you’d be better off somewhere else, like a boarding school, a special boarding school. Understand?”
“Yes.”I nodded. I did understand, but I wish I didn’t. “Mum, I don’t want to go away. I will not. I will not leave you, do not worry.” I could feel my heart go very fast and my fingers were starting to twitch uncontrollably.
“Calm down Ben, calm down. Look at me, look at me Ben!”
I looked at her.
“I am going to try my best to keep you here okay? Don’t you worry.”
“Okay.” I said.
But I did worry.
I like baths. I don’t get them much because Mum says it uses up a lot of water and showers are more hygienic anyways. Today though, Mum ran me a hot bath and she even put bubbles in it. I like putting the bubbles on my face and pretending that I have a beard, like Santa Claus, or crazy hair like Einstein.
When I am in the bath, thinking is very easy. It’s like my brain is wiped clear with a whiteboard eraser, so that every thought that comes up is easy to read and not all jumbled up like when I am worried or confused.
I do not know a lot of things. Like Ms. Jenny says, there is a whole world out there, and an abundance of knowledge. I did know one thing for sure though, and that was that I really, really, for absolute sure did not want to leave. I did not even have to make a list to figure it out.
I thought about all of the things that I would miss; Mum, my room, my desk, Twizzles, watching the sun stream in through my window in the morning, my house, my Lion King toothbrush mug…
Thinking about all of these things made me very worried and upset and the bath water suddenly seemed very hot and steamy and I started feeling very faint. I jumped out of the bath very quickly, and after drying myself, went into my room to put on my pajamas.
I lay in my bed and stared up at the stars that Mum had stuck on my ceiling. It was not yet dark enough for them to glow like they normally do, but I could still make out the star signs that Mum had formed, reciting each one to me as she plastered them on. I tried remembering their names, but before long, I fell asleep.
The following week went by very slowly. Mum was always either sitting by the phone or waiting by her laptop. I was not exactly sure what she was waiting for, but I had a feeling that it was important.
It was a Thursday. Thursday is red on my color calendar. I like Thursdays usually because I end school early. I don’t go to a normal school like all the normal kids in my neighborhood. Mum home schools me. I like it that way because even though she makes me get up early, like the other kids have to, sometimes she lets me go in my pajamas, or eat my breakfast during a lesson. I also don’t have to walk to school, which would take me 28 minutes (I checked once, when I was maybe going to go to Rosewood Westside Academy).
I walked to the hallway to put my books away in the little cubby that Mum had fashioned me from an old tea box. Below it, in the mail box, something caught my eye. There were some brightly colored pamphlets, like the ones that people bring to our door when they want us to buy something from them, like cheap musical instruments or mobile phones.
These pamphlets were not for musical instruments or mobile phones. I picked one up and looked at the cover. It read: Trevor Hughes High - School for the Disobedient. There was a picture of a huge old building with a grassy lawn surrounding it. The building was also surrounded by tall metal gates. On the inside of the pamphlet, there was a lot of writing and some pictures of kids smiling and some pictures of kids reading a book together. I decided that the mean woman called Stonehem must have left it behind. I frowned. I was not disobedient. I was just about to go and inform Mum about this preposterous news, when the phone rang. Mum jumped from her computer to the phone in 3 big leaps. I found this quite impressive.
“Hello? Helen Sayer speaking,” she answered.
“Oh, right. One second.” Her voice stiffened and she put on a worried face. “Ben, do you mind going upstairs for a bit, darling? I need to talk privately.”
I supposed that this must be the important call that she had been waiting for. I went upstairs as she asked me to. Because I am obedient, I waited outside my room, trying to hear Mum’s top secret super important conversation. I wondered what it could be about. Maybe Mum was a spy or a secret double agent, like James Bond. Maybe she was on a top secret mission for the government and they needed to give her information, or let her know that the latest spy gadget was out and that they would be delivering it to her promptly. Or, I thought, maybe she was planning a surprise for me, or discussing my birthday present. I thought that this was probably more possible then the spy theory, as my birthday was in only 1 month, 2 weeks and 4 days.
Mum was taking an awfully long time, I thought. She had been on the phone for 17.8 minutes. Sometimes, from my room, I heard her yelling, but I could not hear the words she was saying. I stuck my hand in my pocket, fumbling around for a toothpick, but then I remembered.
Before I could remember more, I heard a knock on my door. I opened it to find Mum. She was quite red in the face and her eyes were puffy.
“Benjamin,” she called softly, “Would you come to the kitchen honey, we have to talk.”
Mum sounded very serious and this made me scared.
She seated me down at the kitchen table and got us two mugs of steaming tea.
“Was that the Stonehem woman?” I asked suspiciously.
“No, it was the people that she worked for,” Mum sighed. “Just like her, only ten times more powerful.”
I imagined a group of giant Ms. Stonehems with huge fiery red hair and huge top hats and spectacles and, I giggled, an even bigger mole.
“Ben,” Mum sternly called me back to attention. “I promised your aunt and uncle that you wouldn’t do it again, I told them you’d learnt your lesson and you’ll know better, but they didn’t believe me.”
Mum was looking anywhere around the room but at me. She was biting her lip and doing that thing with her face when she is trying not to cry. This was not good. This was very not good. “They want you to go away, Benji. They want you to go away to a school. Not forever of course, just for a little bit, I promise. I’m so sorry Ben. I’m so sorry.”
Mum started crying. I had never seen her cry this much before. Her neck was all wet and shiny and her eyes got really red and small.
“I do not want to go away,” I said, because I did not want to go away. I liked it here in our house on Water-view Avenue with Mum. I liked how the sun hit the end of my bed at 6:34 every morning. I liked the view of the little field from Mum’s bedroom window and how I could see all the different dogs running around. And I liked my desk.
“I know you don’t honey, I know. Aunt and Uncle really do believe it’s best for you though, and you know that they just want the best for you.” I did not know this.
“Aunt and Uncle are not my mum. They can not tell me what to do.”
“Ben, they said that if you don’t go, they will telephone the police and make them put you in some juvy.” She sighed and massaged her temple in circular motions with her index finger. “And you never know, maybe they’re right. Maybe it would be good for you to get away for a bit.”
When Mum says ‘some juvy’, she means a Juvenile Center. Juvenile Centers are for boys who do bad things. I learnt this by reading the newspaper about a boy who beat up lots of little kids in the playground and did lots of drugs. The police caught him and sent him to a juvenile center so that he could learn to be good.
“I do not understand. I did a bad thing but the little boys did a big bad thing and they do not have to go away. It is not fair.”
“I know. Sometimes life just isn’t fair, Benji. Now listen to me, we’re going to get through this, no matter what. When you get back, it’ll be you and me forever, just us two. And even when you’re gone we’ll call each other every day and I’ll come visit you as often as possible, I promise.”
I was going away. I was going away. I had never been away. I noticed that I had not taken my shoes off. The red laces had gotten a bit dirty. I did not like it when they looked dirty. I wanted them to look as good as when I had first bought them at the Nike store with Mum on my birthday.
Mum sipped her tea nervously. “Benji, do you understand? Ben say something, please.”
I took my mug of cold tea and poured it down the kitchen sink. I did not look at Mum or anything else. I just looked straight in front of me.
Then I ran upstairs and hid under my desk and cried.
I cried myself to sleep that night. When I woke up in the morning my eyes were small and puffy and my tousled brown hair had gone utterly wild. The door of my room swung open and Mum hopped on my bed. Her eyes were also red and puffy and her hair wasn’t much better.
“Good morning Ben!” Mum said with forced cheer, hugging me. “Come downstairs! I made your favorite breakfast!” She dragged me out of bed and down the stairs.
I didn’t need much more coaxing when I saw the steaming plate of waffles piled high with soft cream and topped with a handful of bright, juicy strawberries. My mouth watered.
After finishing my breakfast, I went up to my room and started to get dressed. I was just pulling my green and blue stripy t-shirt over my head when Mum stuck her head around the door of my bedroom. She was wrapped in her towel and her hair was dripping with water from her shower. “Hurry up Ben! We’ve got to catch the tube!”
“The tube?” I asked, confused. Mum only used the metro when she needed to go to work, and I had only been on it a few times, like when Mum and I wanted to go into the city center to visit some museum or zoo. I wondered why we were going to go on the tube. I couldn’t remember Mum mentioning any special exhibits that she wanted to see.
“We’re going into the city today, just us two. We’re going to have a really special day.” She smiled and whipped back into the bathroom. The buzz of the hairdryer started up.
Mum grabbed her purse and keys and we left the house. It was 10:13 and our tube was at 10:15. The station was only down the road, but we still had to run. Mum was wearing a bright red shade of lipstick and a red and white polka dot dress. I hardly ever see her wear lipstick or dresses, and it made me feel happy. She grabbed my hand and we ran down the street, ducking under overhead branches and leaping over potholes in the ground. We finally got to the station, and ran down the stairs, gasping for breath and swallowing giggles.
The tube doors were starting to close, but Mum stuck her leg in. The doors reluctantly slid back, and we hopped on. Two doors down, there was a conductor collecting tickets from the passengers. I looked at Mum. Mum looked at me. “We didn’t get tickets,” I said.
Mum clapped her hand to her mouth and whispered a very bad word. “Can we go out and buy them now?” I asked. “No, it’s too late. If we had bought them before, we wouldn’t have caught the metro on time, and it’s definitely too late now,” she chewed on her lip worriedly.
I started to panic. The conductor man was getting closer and closer, and the click click of his hole puncher was getting in my head, making my hands start to move very fast and my face started to get very hot.
Mum saw this and she grabbed my hand and we ran through doors of the compartments in the metro, rushing past all of the passengers. The sounds of newspapers rustling, giggling girls and hurried phone conversations of important business men reached my ears as Mum and I dashed past. We ran in the opposite direction of the conductor with the hole puncher. Finally, Mum pulled to a stop and let go of my hand. She fumbled with a door on the side of the 9th compartment. The door had the letters WC on it. This means water closet, which is what they used to call toilets in the old days. Mum pulled me into the water closet and locked the door. It was a very small water closet, about the size of a closet actually, and we had to squeeze together to fit inside.
Mum was giggling like crazy and she had to put her hand over her mouth to stifle her high pitched laughter. “Oh god, I haven’t done something like this in ages!” she managed to get out. I did not know what she meant by ‘something like this’. Did she mean being squashed up in the water closets of trains? I wondered if when Mum was little, she used to do this sort of thing a lot and maybe this sort of thing was cool, like what all the teenagers do. This made me feel a bit better about having my knee jammed in a toilet.
After we heard the train sound system announce that we had reached our stop, Mum unlocked the door and we walked out, Mum trying to look as casual as possible. The line of passengers waiting outside the bathroom door all gave us dirty looks as we sidled towards the open exit doors. Once we were out and standing on the platform, I asked Mum where we were going to go. She just winked and said it was a surprise. I don’t like surprises much. Once when I was little and Bernie Gerwinstein was having a play date at my house, I was walking out of the kitchen with a glass of juice and Bernie jumped out from behind a cabinet and yelled ‘SURPRISE!’ I jumped very high in the air and the juice in my glass went everywhere. I was covered in sticky orange pulp and so was Mum’s cream carpet. After that, I did not like Bernie Gerwinstin, or surprises.
After we had exited the station, Mum flagged down a taxi on the curb. She waved her purse around frantically her brown hair whipping back and forth as she scoured in every direction for the old style black London taxi cabs that took people to places.
It didn’t take her long to get one, and we both hopped into the back seat. “Outer Circle, Regent’s Park,” Mum instructed the driver, and then added, “ZSL London Zoo.”
So that was where we were going, the zoo! I smiled because I was happy because I had not been to the zoo in a very very long time. I really did like the zoo a lot. We used to go there every year for my birthday. Until Dad left.
I remembered the big iron gates, the ice cream and popcorn stands, the people dressed up as animals posing with children for pictures, the gift shop with all of the too expensive plush animals and the orangutans who looked so much like human beings, with their fingers and toes. It had actually been my first visit to the zoo that had inspired my toothpick animals. Every animal that I looked at, I would tell Mum and Dad that I wanted to have it as a pet. Dad told me that that was ridiculous and that we would never have enough space for all of those animals. Mum agreed that we really couldn’t have pets. Then I had a very good idea. We were sitting in the zoo restaurant, and I saw the toothpicks in the little metal cup in front of me. I could have a whole zoo, and more, if I made them out of toothpicks! When I got home, I started. I managed to make the whole zoo in 4 and a half days. After that, I moved on to farms, jungles and underwater scenes.
I looked down at my hands and realized that my I had been clenching onto the seat with my nails, my hands balled up into fists and my knuckles red. I put my hands in my lap and took 3 deep breaths, just like Mrs. Petra told me to do.
I looked out of my window, watching all of the people. They were everywhere; rushing in and out of shops, in cars, jogging down the sidewalk, running over roads, rushing to meetings with their briefcase in hand and cellphone pressed to their ear. I was happy that I was in the taxi, and not out there with all the rushing people. Even if the taxi did smell like puke, old leather and Aunt’s perfume. The more I thought about the way that it smelled, the worse it seemed to smell. I glanced at Mum, who was busy rifling through her purse. It didn’t look like she noticed the smell, so I decided I ought to let her know. “Mum this taxi smells like puke, old leather and Aunt’s perfume.” Mum’s eyes widened and let out a sharp breath. She leant over and said in a very soft voice, “Ben, you aren’t supposed to say those things out loud, remember? They are mean, and can hurt people’s feelings.”
“Like the taxi driver?” I asked
“Yes, like the taxi driver!” exclaimed Mum in exasperation.
I thought about this. If I was a taxi driver and one of my passengers said that my taxi smelt like puke, old leather and their Aunt’s perfume I think that I might feel a bit sad and angry. So, I tapped on the taxi driver’s shoulder and said, “Sir, I am sorry for saying that your taxi smells like puke, old leather and my Aunt’s perfume. Maybe if you clean it very well it will not smell like that anymore. I hope you are not sad or angry.”
The driver smiled at me. No, he did not turn around and smile at me because that would mean that he wasn’t watching the road, and that is very dangerous. I could see his smile through the rear view mirror.
“It’s okay mate, this isn’t even my taxi! It does smell rather funny, doesn’t it?” He chuckled.
Mum, who was looking very worried, smiled and turned to look out of the window. “There it is!” she exclaimed in relief. And there it was. The iron gates weren’t as big as I had remembered them, and there was a big black banner reading ZSL London Zoo in big white letters. The taxi slowed to a stop and Mum paid the fare of 17.90 pounds to the driver.
“Have a nice day!” he said cheerily as Mum opened the door and we slid out.
“Thank you, same to you,” I said to him, because when someone says something nice like that to you, it is polite to say it back.
The taxi driver drove off, and Mum and I walked through the zoo gates. We had to line up for tickets. The lines were very long and I do not like standing in line for a long time because my feet start to hurt and I get annoyed. There was a man with a little cart selling ice cream nearby and I asked Mum if I could go buy one. She said that alright, I could, if I promised not to make a mess with it. I told her that I wouldn’t. She gave me 3 pounds because you can buy every ice cream with that. There were so many to choose from; long twisty popsicles, chocolate covered ones and cones with caramel on the inside. In the end, I chose a cone one because I don’t make a mess with those and it looked tasty on the picture.
The ice cream man pulled it out for me and I handed him the money. He gave me back one pound and fifty cents, which means that it only cost one pound and fifty cents because if you add both of those up, it equals three pounds.
When I walked back to find Mum, the line was a lot shorter. I gave her the change and unwrapped the ice cream. I made sure to throw the wrapper in a bin because littering is not good for the environment.
Soon, it was our turn at the ticket booth. The woman behind the glass spoke through a microphone to us. “One adult and one child?” She asked. “Yes,” replied Mum.
The woman typed something in on the computer and then paused to look up again at us. “Inclusive donation of 1.90?” she asked, her fingers perched above the keys, ready to tap away again. “Donation?” Mum asked. “Is this something new? I don’t remember that the last time we came here, then again, it was years ago.” The woman took her fingers off the keyboard, like she knew that she wouldn’t have to use them for a while. “Yes, it is rather new. The donation goes to help the zoo as a charity to help conserve animals and their habitats.” Mum smiled, “What a nice idea! We’ll get that then.” The woman happily turned back to her computer and relayed the information with a few taps and clicks of her eager fingers. “That’ll be 34 pounds and 10 cents.” Mum inhaled sharply and pulled out her credit card. After she had paid, our tickets were printed and the woman placed them on the rotating circle between us and spun it around so that we could take them. Mum’s ticket had a giraffe on it and mine had a baby orangutan, which I thought was nice because they are my favorite animals.
I grabbed a map of the zoo and on the inside it also had information about the zoo. Here are 5 facts about the ZSL London Zoo:
It is made up of 36 acres
It was opened in 1828, making it the oldest scientific zoo
It is a charity dedicated to conserving animals and their habitats
ZSL London Zoo also owns Whipsnade Zoo.
Both zoos together have more than 17,000 animals and over 650 different species
Mum and I walked around for ages, and I used the camera to take some really good close-up pictures of the animals. I took one picture of a penguin swimming and it looked just like one that I’d seen in the National Geographic. I thought that maybe I should send it in. I also took a funny picture of Mum and one of those people dressed up as animals. Finally, after going through the Africa section, the Asia section, the bird section and the reptile section, it was time for my favorite part; the ape house. The orangutans were the biggest and most popular exhibit. There were loads of people standing in front of the glass and I did not want to stand with all of them because they were very close together and they were making lots of noise. So Mum and I just stood back and tried to get a glimpse at them over the crowd’s heads. Mum suggested that we move on and then come back later, but I said that we should stay and wait because the orangutans were all that I wanted to see now. Little by little, the people began to disperse. The Chinese tour group left, with their various cameras and video recorders and ZSL London Zoo baseball caps, all chattering to each other excitedly. After that, there were only a few people left and so I was able to press my face right against the glass and stare at the furry orange monkeys. There was a whole family. The huge father sat at the corner of the enclosure with a sombre expression, chewing on a blade of straw from the floor. The youngest was swinging on one of the ropes that were strung from the sides of the enclosure. She was hanging by her toes and waving her arms around in the air and laughing. The mother was sitting in the tire swing picking through the hair of her other child, who was fidgeting and trying to escape. The mother pinned him down though as she rooted through his hair for ticks or any other pests. I laughed because it reminded of me of when Mum got a notice in the mail saying that there had been a lice outbreak in my class and that she should check me for nits to prevent it spreading. I had tried to get away but she firmly sifted through every single one of my hairs with a fine-toothed comb.
These creatures were so much like us. They had bodies that looked almost the same, and they could make the same faces as us as well. The father looked sad. I think that he missed the rainforest where he came from. The mother looked frustrated, probably the same face that Mum had trying to comb for nits in my hair, I thought. The youngest only knew this enclosure as her home, and so she did not miss anything. She seemed very content just swinging to and fro on the ropes. The teenager looked embarrassed. His head was bent down as he reluctantly let his mother invade with her leathery fingers. Their fingers looked just like ours, and moved like ours too.
I didn’t understand how these creatures could be locked up in this glass enclosure, when we were allowed to roam free and go wherever we wanted. I was happy then that Mum had bought the tickets with the donation because it would help them maybe to have a nicer life.
I stayed at the orangutan enclosure for the next hour, much to Mum’s dismay. The youngsters (who I named Charlotte and Joel) would always make me laugh, with their little tricks and wrestling matches. The mother would sometimes try to pry them apart and get them to stop shrieking but in the end she gave up and just lay in her tire swing, too tired out to care.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and I turned around very fast. I do not like it when people touch me when I don’t know. It was a zookeeper. I know this because he was wearing a light brown short-sleeved shirt with matching shorts. The logo of the zoo was printed on his right pocket of his shirt, along with his name. Alan. He had a brown beard and twinkly eyes. “Are you the kid who’s sat through 3 demonstrations?” he asked.
“Yes. I like orangutans” I said. To tell the truth, I didn’t listen much during the third as it was pretty much the same information as the first and second and the guide who was giving it had a very monotone voice. I would have fallen asleep had it not been for little Charlotte who was making funny faces behind his head.
“Yeah, they’re great, aren’t they?” he laughed as Charlotte pushed Joel off of the climbing board. “Hey, it’s feeding time now, would you like to try your hand at it?” he winked at me.
I did not know what to say because nobody has ever told me what to say when a zookeeper asks you to feed orangutans. So I just stood there with my mouth open until Mum came to my rescue. “Are you sure that’s allowed?” she asked, concerned.
“Aw Ma’m, you don’t have to worry about the safety of your son. They’re harmless creatures and all he’ll be doing is handing them some nice veggies for lunch!”
“I would like to do that very very much!” I finally got out.
The zookeeper smiled and motioned for me to follow him. I looked behind me to make sure that Mum was right behind me.
“Wait Ben, let me just fetch my camera!” She ran back to get her bag and then followed us down a small path that led to a door. The zookeeper took out a ring with lots of keys, all of different colors, and used a green one to unlock the door. There were bales of hay stacked up against the walls and there was a pungent smell of dung and straw. The zookeeper took a bucket off the wall and opened a huge container, full of vegetables. He reached in and scooped up a bucket full of leafy greens. Then, he unlocked another door on the left. I hoped that this door might lead to the orangutans. It did. The father, who had had his back pressed against the door, got up reluctantly and lumbered to the other side of the enclosure, where he proceeded to chew on the piece of straw. “Hey guys!” Alan cheerily shook the bucket of tasty treats and Charlotte and Joel were immediately on top of him, trying to knock the pail out of his hands. He laughed and brushed them off. “Guys! C’mon! Don’t meet so greedy!”
I did not know what to do. I had never been this close to orangutans, ever. In fact, I had never been this close to any monkey, or any animal that I had seen in National Geographic. “Here, you can hand her a carrot and she’ll just take it from you!” Alan handed me a bushel of carrots and pointed to Charlotte.
I took the carrots and stepped forward, so that I was standing in the enclosure. As soon as Charlotte spotted me with the carrots, all attention on Alan was lost. She tried climbing up my leg, but kept falling. I laughed and knelt down. I held out a carrot to her and she grabbed it and hungrily began munching on it. With the other hand, she gripped firmly onto a few of my fingers. Even after her second and third carrot, she still would not let go and whenever I tried to pull free, she would just stare at me with those big brown eyes.
I will never forget the feeling of those tiny fingers. The warm soft leathery feeling, sort of like a cat’s paw.
Mum quickly snapped a few shots with the camera. “Oh Ben, she’s adorable!” She laughed, “Oh my god, what are the odds?”
Alan smiled at her and tossed the last bits of lettuce into the enclosure. “I just wanted to make some lad’s day special, Ma’am, that’s all.” He looked at me and then he looked at Charlotte desperately trying to climb up me. “You know, you can pick her up if you like. She really ain’t that heavy, and she loves the attention.”
I put down the last couple carrots behind me and slowly stretched my arms around her. Then I fastened them around her waist and gently lifted her off the ground. She wasn’t heavy at all, much lighter then I had expected. The soft orange baby hair felt soft and I wanted to bury my head in it. I picked her up so that she was on my chest and then I put one hand on her bottom and one hand on her back, just like how you hold Twizzles the cat. She played with my hair and my ears and it tickled so I laughed. Mum reached out a hand and stroked her. “Ben, here!” She pointed the camera at me and Alan stepped out of the way. “Oh, no! You have to be in it as well!” she exclaimed. Alan smiled and moved in next to me. I was happy that he did not put his arm around me. Instead, he did a big thumbs up, which I thought was funny. “Okay, ready? 1, 2, 3, smile!”
It was the first time in a very long time that I smiled for a photo. Mum always tells me to smile, but I do not understand why I should smile if I am not actually happy.
But today, right at that moment, I was very, very happy.
“That was a good one,” Mum said and smiled.
As hard as it was saying goodbye to Charlotte and all rest, it was time to go. Alan closed the enclosure and he told us that any time that we came back to the zoo, to try and find him. I was happy that he said that because I would really like to hold Charlotte again. And see Alan, because he was very nice.
Mum and I got on a tram, but there were lots of people on the tram because lots of people had to go home from the zoo and then there were also other people coming home from work and lots of other things that I did not know and my hands started to clench up and I started to grow very sweaty and see red stuff and dizzy and I did not know what to do and I did not know where Mum was because how could I find her with all of the people?
“Ben, Ben...” I heard Mums voice as she put her hands under my armpits and lifted me up. I realized that I was balled up on the floor of the tram.
We had to get off the tram at the next stop and get a taxi.
“Marylebone Road,” Mum instructed the driver. She seemed very excited. I wondered where we were going this time. Marylebone Road sounded familiar, but I could not seem to remember. It was getting dark, and the street lamps and car lights were all turned on.
“Marylebone Road, here we are.” The driver turned onto the big road and I suddenly remembered. Marylebone Road was where the planetarium was, the planetarium where Mum used to work, where Mum taught me all of the constellations and their meanings and where we used to lie on the floor with all the lights out and watch videos taken by astronauts from outer space, projected on the dome ceiling. “Here! Stop here!” We pulled up right in front of the huge cylinder. Mum paid the fare and we got out.
Something was different. I realized it as soon as I stepped out of the cab. The colors on the planetarium were faded and there didn’t seem to be anyone lining up outside. There didn’t actually seem to be anyone inside either. Mum tried opening the door, but it did not budge. “Maybe it’s closed. It is getting sort of late. It used to be open till 10 every night, but that was a while ago..” Mum walked around to the other side and found a security guard walking around near the Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. “Excuse me sir?” she asked, tapping his navy blue shoulder pad. He turned around. “Yes Miss?”
“Is the planetarium open?” “Oh, that old thing? No, it’s been closed for a while now. People just lost interest, you know? It’s owned by the wax museum and it’s used like once a year for the special celebrity show.” Mum bit her lip. “Thanks.”
It was dark but I could see the tears welling in her eyes. People can cry for two reasons. They are either very sad or very happy. This time, Mum was crying because she was sad. She was sad because the planetarium was closed, and it was her favorite place. It also made me sad because I liked going to the planetarium a lot with Mum. When people are sad, it is nice to make them feel better. This is called comforting. There are many ways that you can comfort people. I decided to go with the easiest; the hug. I put my arms around Mum and said, “Do not worry Mum.” “I’m fine Ben, really,” Mum sniffled, wiping her nose, “It’s just I never expected this place to ever close down, you know?”
I looked up at the sky. It was filled with stars. “You don’t need a planetarium to look at stars. Just look at the sky Mum.” Mum looked up and smiled. “I think I know where we can go.”
Mum and I walked down a few blocks and she took me to a small park. “I used to come here a lot when I was small,” she told me. Near the park, there was a small Chinese takeout place. It was dinnertime and we still had not eaten, so Mum and I got two boxes of noodles and ate them in the park. We lay on our backs and looked up at the sky. She pointed out all of the constellations and told me about the way that they were shaped. Mum had not talked to me about stars in a long time and it was fun. Also, the noodles tasted really good, so that was nice. I looked at my watch. 8:30. It was nearly my bedtime so I told Mum that I thought that it was time to get the tube home. “Ben, it’s late. I think we should just stay the night in a hotel,” she looked at me worriedly, “Is that okay?”
No. It was not okay. This was not normal. I never sleep anywhere else but at home, in my bed. I told this to Mum and she said that it was dangerous to go home on the tube this late and that we could stay in a real life hotel and it would be lots of fun and that I had to trust her. I closed my eyes and took 3 deep breaths. I tried to calm down, to tell myself that everything was going to be okay, but it did not work and Mum knew. “Okay then, shall we get a cab home?” she asked, with a sigh.
We ended up taking a cab the whole way home, which cost loads. I knew this because the whole way home I was looking at the fare on the meter, going up and up, even when we stopped at a red light, or were in traffic! Mum was also looking rather concerned.
We finally pulled up in front of the house at 9:23. I was happy that we had left at 8:30 because this meant that I had time to get washed and into my pajamas before my bed time. Mum paid the fare (not without a heavy sigh) and we went into the house. Mum set some water to boil for her tea and I went upstairs to have a shower because I was feeling rather dirty from lying on the ground in the park and I was also quite tired, so I wanted to get into bed asap (this means as soon as possible).
I was all in my pajamas and just ready to jump into bed for a long night’s sleep when Mum opened the door of my room. “Ben, do you want to come lay in my bed with me and watch TV for a bit?” I wondered why Mum was asking me this, because she never really asks me to lay in her bed and watch television with her unless there is a big storm or she is feeling sad or something. Then I remembered. I mean, about leaving. That was why Mum took me out today, that was why she was being so nice. I suddenly felt very sad and scared. I nodded and we walked to her room and sat on her big double bed. Mum switched on the TV. I switched it off. “Is the reason why you took me out today to the zoo and to the park because I am leaving to the boarding school soon?”
Mum sighed and looked down at her tea, which she cupped tightly in her hands. “I.. I just wanted us to have a special day together, before you go.”
“When am I leaving?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“Tomorrow.” Mum bit her lip. She would not look me in the eyes, and when I saw the tears rolling down her cheeks, I understood why.
“I was going to tell you before you went to bed, so that it didn’t ruin our day together,” Mum pleaded, as I started to get off the bed. My fingers started clenching together, my nails digging into my palms. I was breathing very fast and the room started to spin. I ran to my room, slamming doors and pushing over books as I went. I curled up into a little ball under my desk, rocking back and forth. When I finally lifted my tear streaked face, I saw Mum sitting there next to me. “Ben,” she said, trying to keep her voice from breaking, “I didn’t want this to happen, I don’t want you to go, but you have to. It’ll just be for a year or so, and I’ll visit you as much as I can, and I’ll write you letters ever day! You’ll make friends and you’ll have fun!” She paused. I did not say anything. “I’ll help you pack. You won’t need many clothes because they give you uniforms over there, so maybe just a few pairs of jeans and some shirts..” She started rambling on about all of the things that I needed to bring, and I started to zone out. I imagined the school, the big scary gates and the teachers who would smack your hand with a ruler if you answered a question wrong and the scary headmaster who would call you to his office and make you sit behind that big desk and the bullies who would beat you up in the locker rooms. Yes, I had watched the movies and read the books and I knew exactly what those sort of far away big uniform boarding schools were like.
Mum put her hand on mine and I let her. I got up and Mum fetched a suitcase from the attic and we started going through my drawers and picking out clothes to pack. Mum collected a variety of toiletries and organized them into all of the little pockets of her old toilet bag. Mum also put a bag of glow in the dark stars in the suitcase. “For you to decorate your new room,” she said with a smile. I did not know how I would reach the ceiling to stick them on without Dad’s ladder, but I thought that it was nice of her anyways. She also packed a huge plastic box filled with toothpicks, along with a mini portable paint set that came with a paintbrush, and a small tube of glue. “Just if you feel like starting it again. You really do have a talent, Ben, you know. You shouldn’t just give up on it.” I did not like seeing all of the toothpicks and the paint and the glue because it reminded me of my broken toothpick land. It made me really really mad to remember that now because it was because of that that I was being sent away to the school. I let her but it in though. Just in case.
After the last zipper and been zipped, Mum shoved the suitcase into hallway and placed my rucksack on top of it. Then we went back to Mum’s room and sat on her bed and turned the television back on. There were F.R.I.E.N.D.S reruns on. Mum really likes F.R.I.E.N.D.S; she thinks it is very funny. I do not understand a lot of the jokes in it, but I thought it was funny when Joey had a chicken stuck on his head in the thanksgiving episode. This episode was not the thanksgiving episode, so Mum flipped through a few channels until she found a nature channel. I like nature channels a lot. There is never anything to figure out, or any jokes that you do not understand. It is just real life. I like to pretend that I am the explorer, trekking through the woodlands or the rainforest or the snow covered ice caps of Antarctica, finding rare species and whispering about them into the camera so that they do not get scared and run off.
The nature channel had a show about praying mantids. It was very interesting and so I watched all of it. At the end, I looked over at Mum, who was swamped in covers till her neck and resembled a snoring Eskimo. Unlike Mum, I learnt a lot about praying mantises. Here are 10 facts about them:
They are carnivores
In the wild, their average life span is 12 months.
They grow from 1.2 - 15 cm
They are typically green or brown and camouflage well
Mantids can turn their heads 180 degrees
They have two large compound eyes and 3 other simple eyes located between them.
The female will sometimes eat her mate during or after mating
Females lay hundreds of eggs at a time
They use their front legs to grasp their prey with reflexes that are so fast, they are impossible to see with the naked eye.
They feed on moths, crickets, grasshoppers, flies and other insects.
I quietly crept off Mum’s bed, so as not to wake her, and into my room. I sat on my bed and stared out of the window, up at the stars. I thought back to the park, and tried to remember all of the constellations that Mum had told me about. I needed to remember them, I needed to know them. Stars were so important to Mum and Mum was so important to me. I was going about to lose her, and so I needed to remember the stars, just so that if she lost them, I’d have them for her. I lay in my bed and closed my eyes, trying not to think about what tomorrow would bring. I closed my eyes and pretended that everything was normal, that I had never strangled my cousin, that I never had to go away to the school.
But I knew that tomorrow, it would just be me. Me, and a 3 pound 50 cent bag of plastic glow in the dark stars.
Mum woke me up early the next morning. I already had an outfit set out for me from last night, and my pair of Nikes that Mum had not packed. I did not really own any really smart clothes, except the ones that Mum had got me for when guests came over, but those weren’t really smart. I wondered what I would have to wear when I got to the school. I hoped it would be some smart suit, like James Bond wears.
I got changed and went downstairs. Mum made us some toast and orange juice and she told me more about the school and the teachers and some of the rules and guidelines that she had received in an email. “You will have a different teacher for each class, and there will be different levels for some classes. You’ll get 3 meals a day and there will be venders there if you get hungry during the day, so I’ll give you some money for that, but don’t spend it all at once because it needs to last and that stuff is crap anyways...” She chattered nervously and I did my best to pay attention until we heard a car pull up and the doorbell rang. “That’ll be the cab,” Mum said, taking a deep breath and folding up the brochures that she had spread all over the table. “Get your stuff Benji.”
I ran upstairs and threw my rucksack over my shoulder and lugged the suitcase down the stairs. Mum took the suitcase from me when I reached the door, and then the taxi driver piled it into the cab.
I heard the click of my seat belt and the splutter of the engine as the driver pressed down on the gas pedal. We slowly pulled away from the house. I stared at it, the lawn with the over grown flower bed that Mum and I once planted as an elongated summer project a few years back, the half blue/half white picket fence and Twizzles, sprawled out on the garden bench in the sun, finally enjoying some solitude. All of my memories, all of my childhood, had been in that house, on this street. And now it was just drifting away slowly through the window. I craned my head backwards and watched it disappear. Mum leant over and squeezed my hand. “It’s not gone forever, Ben,” she said softly, “You’re going to come back.”
I did not say anything. I just let her hold my hand.
We got off the taxi at 10:48. The taxi actually stopped right in front of the school, so that was nice because it meant that I did not have to walk far with my suitcase. The big iron gates loomed down in front of us, but Mum bravely strode forward. She told the guard our names and he lifted the latch for us. The walkway up to the front door seemed nice. It was like a small park, with freshly mowed green grass and trees and flowerbeds all neatly shaped in squares and circles. But it was so quiet. The only sound I could hear was the light breeze rustling the trees and the thin streams of water spewing from the rotating sprinklers. Mum realized this too, I think because she said, “They’re probably all in class.”
I looked up. A long grey building stretched out before me.
Bits of plaster were peeling off and there was barbed wire strung along the top. I could only see three windows, and the metal frame around them was rusted and bent. The stains from graffiti that had been attempted to remove still lingered on the crumbling bricks. This did not look at all like the majestic Victorian villa I had seen in the brochures. Or maybe it did, a million years later.
Mum swallowed and grasped my hand tightly. “I’m sure it will be nicer on the inside.” It wasn’t. The front doors swung open to reveal a cheaply decorated reception. Laminated posters of the times tables and the alphabet were the only color in the room, besides the sickly dentist green color of the plastic stools. A woman sitting behind a fiberglass desk raised her hand and whistled at us. Mum marched me over, trying hard to take in as little of her surroundings as she could. “Mrs. Sayer? And your son?” She asked, a pen poised in her hand and her eyebrows arched expectantly. “Yes,” Mum managed to get out, “That’s us.” The woman had bushy orange hair that she had tried to pin back, but to no avail. She wore huge bright green turtle earrings and bright red horned rimmed glasses, the same color as the paint on her lips. She was not a small woman, to say the least. Her flowery dress strained to keep her monstrous body inside, and appeared to be ready to rip apart at any second. “Well hello there!” She spoke with a thick American accent. She sounded like those women in the old west cowboy shows on television. “I like your earrings.” I said, because I did like them. I had never seen anybody with big turtle earrings like that before and I thought it was nice, like little pets with you all the time. “Why thank you young man!” she exclaimed, placing her hand on her left breast, “Do you like turtles?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Turtles are smart and amphibians which means that they can go on land and water, so I think that that is very cool.” The woman smiled, “I like turtles too, a lot. I have 13 of them back at home, all different kinds as well. Here,” she said, reaching into her pocket for her wallet. She pulled out a few little photos from the ID compartment and held them up to me. “There’s Lucy and there’s Billy and Amber.. and look, here’s one of Britney eating a carrot! She does love those carrots.” She pulled the photos back and smiled wistfully at them. I looked over at Mum, who looked rather pale.
After the cowgirl turtle woman had carefully placed the photos back in her wallet, she turned back to us. “So, you want to get settled. Let’s see,” she flipped through some pages on her clipboard, until she pressed her thumb on one of the tiny boxes filled with fine print, “Here you are: Benjamin Sayer. You are in room 286 on floor 2.” She handed me my room key. “Here is your class schedule, and here’s your meal schedule. In the baskets next to the stairs you can pick up your blanket, sheets and pillow. You have an hour to get settled in and then you’ll be scheduled to report to your class.” She handed me a handful of sheets and directed me to the stairs. “Bye now, Benjamin! I’ll see you later” “Bye..” I did not know the cowgirl turtle woman’s name and I did not think that she would like being called the cowgirl turtle woman. “Martha,” she winked, “Ma names Martha.”
Mum walked with me to the stairs, and picked out a clean sheet, blanket and pillow for me. Each was wrapped separately in plastic. We walked up the steps to the platform of the first floor. I was on the second floor though, so we had to walk along the first floor to the next staircase. As we walked, we passed by all of the rooms. The doors were all the same color, the same size, the same shape. Some rebellious students had stuck stickers on, or written something. The doors were all closed, but I could hear voices coming from inside as I passed. The second floor looked almost identical to the first floor, except that the doors and color scheme was blue instead of the dark red on the first floor. I unlocked my door and walked in. The room smelled like cleaning fluid, which I did not like very much. It was quite nice though. Nicer than I expected. The floor was covered in a layer of blue carpet. To my left, there was the bathroom door. In the bathroom there was a sink with a shelf above it and a mirror above the shelf. There was a toilet and next to the toilet there was a small shower with a light blue shower curtain. Further on in the room, there was a small table with a few drawers and a lamp. There was also a nice wheely chair parked in front of it. My bed was not in a separate room, it was simply behind the desk. It was a simple bed with a metal frame and bare mattress. It did not look very comforting, but Mum immediately began unpacking the sheets and blankets and preparing it. “Well this is quite nice, isn’t it Ben?” Mum said, looking at me expectantly. “Yes, it is quite nice,” I agreed. I looked around. There was not much on the walls, only a small framed photograph of New York at night, which I found rather irrelevant. There were no windows in the room. “Mum, there are no windows.” Mum lifted her head from underneath the mattress that she was bent over, desperately trying to stretch the sheet over it. “Yeah, that isn’t very nice..” She looked concerned, “But I’m sure you’ll get enough outdoors and sun with the beautiful garden out front,” she added cheerfully. I knew that she was right about the lovely garden, and this made me happier, but I still missed the sunlight streaming in through my window in the morning, and watching the stars through the glass at night. I told Mum this and she said, “Well all the more reason to get your stars up on the ceiling, right?” I did not tell her that it was not the same, because I could tell that she was already very worried and I did not want her to be more worried.
Not long after Mum had finished preparing my bed and I had explored every nook and cranny of the room (not that there were many), I started to hear hustling and bustling from outside of my room. Mum checked her watch and her eyes widened. “S*** Ben! What’s your first class?” I rifled through the stack of paper that Martha had given me and finally found the sheet with a timetable on it reading ‘Class Schedule.’ It said that my first class on Monday was third period, and that it was Science. I was happy about this because I like science a lot. It is probably my best subject. There isn’t anything to ‘interpret’ as Miss Jenny says. It is all fact, proven by scientists in science books. All you need to do is memorize stuff, and I am good at that. Mum kissed me on the forehead and gave me a very long hug. “Good luck,” she said, squeezing my shoulder comfortingly, “Call me as soon as you have a minute, and I’ll call you tonight after work.”
I nodded and put on a brave face so that she would not be able to see that I was scared out of my socks to walk out of that door. Mum had bought me loads of new school supplies, insisting that my old ones weren’t good enough. I had them all together in my school bag. Mum opened the door of my room. Students filled the previously empty hallways, pushing through each other to reach their allotted classrooms. She waved and smiled as she disappeared into the crowd.
I looked down at my schedule again. Room A3. The thing was, I had no idea where Room A3 was. I could have gone back into the room and looked through more of the papers that Martha had given me; there was bound to be a map somewhere in there. But that would have made me late for my class. I decided that the most efficient option would be to ask someone. I crept into the crowds, and I did not feel good. It was like a walk to the supermarket, but sixteen and a half times worse.
People pushed against me on either side. I could feel them. I could hear them. I wanted to crawl into a little ball and put my hands over my head and block it all out, but I did not do this because I felt like I was in the middle of a herd of elephants, and I have heard about many stories on the nature channels about people like photographers and stuff so get trampled by elephants. I did not want to get trampled by elephants, so I just stood still, and moved with the crowd as best I could.
Then I remembered that I needed to find A3, and that I needed to ask someone where it was. There were so many people though, how would I manage to stop one of them to ask them? They all seemed like they were in such a hurry. I pushed my way to the side and tried to find one student lingering by the lockers.
After a few minutes, I saw a girl. She had dark brown hair and she wore a baseball cap, ripped jeans and a black t-shirt with a white print of a man with long hair holding a guitar. There was writing below the print that read: Smells like Teen Spirit. She was fumbling with her locker key and bopping around to some music that was blaring into her ears from her earphones. “Excuse me,” I said, loudly so that I could be heard over the noise of the stampeding elephants and her music. Obviously, it wasn’t loud enough. “EXCUSE ME,” I yelled. She turned her head and pulled out the earphone from her ear closest to me. “Sorry. What’s up?” She had a surprisingly soft voice, soft and sweet. I liked it. “I want to know where room A3 is.” I said. “Oh you’re a newbie?” she laughed. “Lost on your first day? Man, you’re in for a great year.” Suddenly, her voice did not seem so soft and sweet. I did not like her teasing me for getting lost. It was not my fault that I did not have a map. She must have read my face, like Ms Jenny says people can do, because she bit her lip and said, “Sorry, that was mean. I’ve been here for ages and I still get lost. A3 is just down the stairs and to the right..I’m heading there right now myself actually! Third period English?”
I nodded. “Yes.” and then, “Thank you.” I started walking towards the stairs when I heard her behind me. “Hey! Hold up! I’m walking with you!,” she laughed, “You aren’t exactly Einstein when it comes to catching on are you?”
I did not say anything because I did not see any relation between our conversation about the whereabouts of school classrooms to great mathematicians with funny hair.
She slammed her locker door shut and slid a pile of books into her turquoise shoulder bag.
“Let’s go!” She darted through the stampeding elephants, and it was all I could to keep up with her. When we had reached the stairs, there were few enough people that we were able to walk next to each other. “So, what’s your name? What’s your middle name? How old are you? Where are you from?” A stream of questions tumbled from her mouth as she rambled on excitedly. Then she stopped. “Sorry,” she muttered sheepishly, “Sometimes I ask too many questions. You don’t have to answer any of them.”
We walked in silence for a bit, then:
“You probably think I’m really weird now, don’t you?”
“No.” I said, because I did not think that she was weird. I guess it was just that nobody had ever really asked me those questions before. Nobody had ever been interested in the answers. “My name is Benjamin, but my Mum calls me Ben or Benji. I don’t think I have a middle name, and if I do, I don’t know it. I’m 15 years old and I am from London.”
She smiled brightly. “That’s lovely.”
More silent walking.
“Well don’t you want to know about me?” She asked accusingly after a few minutes.
“Oh,” I said, remembering my manners, “Yes. What about you?”
She smiled. “Well, I’m Sadie Millan. No middle name, just that. I’m 15 years old, like you and..” she paused, as if remembering what other specific criteria she had to fill in, “Right, and I’m technically from LA but I live in Croydon.. or lived.” She made a face at that.
“That’s nice,” I said politely. I did not know what else to ask her, so I thought of something really quickly. “Who’s the guy on your shirt?”
She looked at me as if I had come from outer space. “You don’t know him?” She asked incredulously, “KURT COBAIN!,” she practically screamed. “Only the greatest musician to have ever walked the earth?” She stretched her shirt out and jabbed her finger at his figure as if to prove her point. I shook my head feebly. “Jeez. Do you even listen to music?,” she asked disgustedly.
“Yeah, of course!”
“Like what?” She looked at me skeptically.
“The Beatles. Mum likes them, so she plays them a lot. Also One Republic. Oh and I listened to a few songs on the radio in the taxi by Kid Cudi, Wiz Khalifa and.. Whitney Spears!,” I said proudly.
“Ugh! Beatles are okay, I suppose. A lot of their stuff sounds the same, and some of it’s a bit slow, but I have most of their work. The rest of that pitiful stuff you call music is just mainstream garbage. You have to delve deeper into the soul of music to really find it. Nirvana is the soul of music. It’s pure. There’s no auto tune or anything, it’s just loud, soulful rock n’ roll.”
I didn’t like her criticism or judging, but I realized that she probably knew a lot more about music then I did, so I let her say whatever she wanted.
“Well, this is it,” she announced abruptly, and stopped in front of a door with a metal plate with A3 etched in black on it. It was closed. “Are we late?” I asked nervously. She laughed, “Just by a few minutes. And it doesn’t matter because you’re new so we have an excuse,” she winked and knocked on the door. I was feeling scared because I know never to lie to a teacher and Mum told me specifically not to be late on my first day.
A younger looking man with short brown hair opened the door. He wore a button up shirt that had the first few buttons undone and his sleeves were rolled up. He wore jeans and Nike sneakers. “Sadie...” he said sternly, “Late again? And on the first day?”
Sadie grinned, “Sorry sir, you see, I was helping Ben find his way to class. He’s new, you see. I’m just assisting my fellow students.”
The teacher smiled and shook his head, “It’s always something isn’t it, Sadie. Well come on in you two,” he paused to look at me, “Oh and welcome… Ben right?” He extended his hand to me and I shook it.
Sadie and I walked into the classroom and took our seats at the back of the class in the corner. Mr. Pritchard strode to the center of the room and took a deep breath, which made his whole chest inflate. He then began his welcoming speech, which Sadie says he does every year. “Welcome class of eleven years into the 21st century. My name is Mr. Pritchard and I will be your English teacher for this year, and perhaps the coming years depending on how long you stay here and whether I like you or not.” At this, the class giggled nervously. “I may teach in a different style to the other teachers in this school, or previous teachers that you have had, but do not be alarmed. I will assure you that by the end of this year, you will be capable of using every form of punctuation correctly, identifying sentence structures and being able to recite Animal Farm by heart.” The class didn’t giggle at this. “Along with other things of course,” he said with a smile, as if this would make us feel more confident.
I liked Mr. Pritchard at once. He reminded me of those teachers in the movies who always have a class pet and take the kids out to loads of restricted field trips and makes lessons fun. We started off the lesson with going around the class and letting every student tell the class a bit about themselves. I liked listening to everyone, but I was dreading my turn. It seemed like a bomb, slowly circling around and then finally, exploding on me. I hate speaking in front of people; I hate knowing that everyone’s eyes are fixed on me, listening intently to every word that I utter. In my head, I tried to prepare what I was going to say. I would just say my name, where I was from… the kind of stuff that I had told Sadie earlier. That wasn’t too bad, I thought.
Sadie looked totally cool. She would react so openly to everyone’s stories, scrunching her face up in distaste or grinning at some familiarity or humor. When it came to her turn, she bravely stood up and recited pretty much what she had told me, enforcing her passion of music, and Cobain in particular. Then she started a string of bands who she adored and who ‘inspired her musical talent’ and gave her the knowledge and opinion of music that she has today. It was all Mr. Pritchard could do to make her sit down.
I knew it was my turn. I did not stand up, as some of the shyer kids in the class also stayed sitting down. I cleared my throat and said, “My name is Benjamin and I’m from London. I am 15 years old. I live with my Mum.. my Dad’s run away with a whore.” The class laughed and I felt my cheeks burning up and I knew that I was going all red. I closed my eyes and kept going. “I moved to this school because of an incident with my cousin.” This was what Mum told me to tell everyone. She said that if I explained it in further detail, it might not be good for my social life. I guess I sort of understood. Sadie nudged me, “Hobbies and interests?” “Oh, I like looking at the stars and..,” I looked at the floor, debating whether to mention the toothpick animals. I wanted to say something; everyone said something. Some of them played the drums in a band, some kept aviaries or greenhouses, or wrote stories or painted. I looked at stars. I wanted to tell them what I was really good at, like Mum said, it was my talent. “And I make little toothpick figures.. like animals and people and houses and trees.” The class was silent, so I felt like I should continue. “I stick little pieces of felt to them for clothes or curtains or tails or teeth. Sometimes I paint them as well. At home, I had a whole jungle and a farm and an underwater scene..” My classmates were still silent, and then one of them laughed and covered her mouth with her hand to stifle it. Then the whole class was laughing, laughing at me. The stifled giggles soon turned to loud, roaring laughter.
The sound was digging into my ears, filling my brain and traveling all through my body, making every little muscle and joint quiver. I wrapped my head in my arms and hands, trying to block the sounds. It didn’t work. They just got louder and louder. And then: SHUT UP. I heard a voice bellowing somewhere above me. The class immediately resigned to a stunned silence. I peeked up between my fingers and saw Sadie standing on her desk with her arms crossed over her chest. She was surveying the class defiantly.
“Thank you Sadie, sit down now, please.” Mr Prichard said quietly. Then he turned to the class. “I thought this was all going very well, until now,” he said, his voice soft, and he was talking in the same tone that Mum had talked to me after I had done something really bad, like he was really disappointed. “You should never, ever, make fun of your classmates. I’m sure we all have little quirks that we wouldn’t share with the rest, but he was brave enough to, and I think that we should all respect that, instead of mocking him and making it impossible for other students to raise their voice in this classroom. I will not tolerate this. Do you understand?” The class nodded I could hear a chorus of mumbling, “Yes Mr Pritchard.” and “Sorry.”
“Now. I think it’s time we move on with the lesson. Let’s start with poems, okay?” The class groaned. Mr Prichard laughed. “Don’t worry guys, you’ll learn to love it.”
We started with a poem called Snowstorm by (find author). This was the poem:
Our job was to try to interpret it and then a few students would speak to the class and share their interpretations. I do not really like poems. They always have some hidden meaning. Some are just silly, like:
Red teacup in
With striped zebras
And those get really famous! I have no idea how. They make no sense. I could just think up some random phrases and put it together and make up some hidden meaning and get it published in some magazine. Voila.
This poem wasn’t too hard to figure out though. It was clearly about a snowstorm, and an explorer who goes into it and dies. I felt quite proud with myself for figuring it out, and had I not been so shy, I would have shared my interpretation with the class. I figured that if none of them got it, I would do it, and make Mr Prichard proud and show the class that I was not just some loser who played with toothpicks. Because I knew that this was what they thought.
When Mr Prichard announced that the time was up, Sadie’s hand was the first to shoot in the air. Surprise, surprise. He sighed and smiled. “Yes Sadie, go on..” He leaned back in his chair with his arms behind his head and his feet propped up on his desk, as if he knew that he was going to be there for a while. He was right.
“After reading this poem, it is quite obvious that it is about a snow storm. From what I could comprehend, there is a group of explorers who trek into the arctic on an expedition. There is one man in the group who is sick and weak, and a burden to the rest. He goes out into the storm to die, but before he does, he goes to the main room where everyone is sitting and they see him walk out. They just let him leave, and they know he is going to kill himself!” She said the last bit with anger, gesticulating wildly. “They could have tried to heal him or something, or carried him, but no, they just let him go out into the harsh, deadly conditions and die!” She paused for a breather, frowning hard as if she was reconsidering, “I guess you could debate that having him along would have been such a burden that it would have greatly affected the rest of the group, and maybe they were short on food supply and stuff, but still, that’s my opinion. Anyways,” she inhaled sharply, “The man goes out and climbs to the top of this small mountain where the winds are the strongest, and he lets himself get buried in the snow and freeze to death. In the poem, it’s obvious that he died, but some readers may not have picked up that it was a suicide. However if you read back to all the facts and hints in the poem, it is quite obvious that it was a self sacrifice.”
She surveyed the class with a smile and sat down.
I decided it was better I stayed silent.
“Well,” Mr Prichard said, “That was an excellent interpretation of the poem, Sadie. Thank you.” He had an expression on his face which told me that he would have been quite stunned at her lengthily and thorough recount had he not been so used to them. Nobody else raised their hand, and Mr Prichard said that that was just as well because the bell was going to ring any minute now.
The rest of the day went by uneventfully. My math teacher, Mrs Jertop, was severely unpleasant and made all of the students in random come up to the board and do an equation in front of the whole class. Thankfully, she did not pick me, but I knew it was only a matter of time. My science teacher, Ms Wren, was funny, but she spoke so fast that I could barely understand her. When it came to lunchtime, I was relieved. Most new kids are scared of lunchtime because they think they won’t have anyone to sit with. I wasn’t. I never sat with anyone at school anyways.
I got my tray at the cafeteria and got in line. I looked down the long line of students next to metal trays and containers of food. It looked pretty tasty actually, at least better than it had been at my old school. The scrawny lunch lady made me a plate of sausages, green beans, mashed potatoes and fries. She also put a bottle of milk on the tray and a fork and knife. I moved my tray over to an empty table and sat down. I had not even picked up my utensils when I heard something behind me. “Psssst!” I turned around and saw Sadie, hidden behind a book, her dark lined turquoise eyes fixed on me. “Sit here!” she said, and motioned to the seat across from her. I got up and obligingly moved my tray across from hers. “This is cool,” she said with a smile, “Sitting with someone, I mean. It’s usually just me and Orwell.” She looked fondly at her book, and laid it down.
I noticed that she had no mashed potatoes, but 3 sausages with ketchup and mayonnaise and a glass of orange juice. When I mentioned this to her she grinned. “Yeah, Sal loves me. I play guitar for her sometimes when she’s washing the dishes or having a smoke, and in return, she gives me a custom meal,” she said with a wink, and then made a face, “The potatoes are disgusting. It’s all packaged powder stuff, Sal showed me. She tried buying real potatoes but it exceeded the school’s budget or whatever.” She rolled her eyes.
I smiled. It seemed like Sadie just had it all figured out. I couldn’t help but feel jealous.
“So,” she said, her mouth full of custom sausage, “What are you in here for?”
“What am I in here for?”
“You know, like why did you get sent here. Everybody has a reason. Some have issues and need special attention, some are just bad kids who are trying to get good..what are you?”
“I.. I had an incident with my cousin, and my aunt called an agency and a woman came over to our house and talked with me and my Mum and then I had to move here.”
“An Incident huh? So what happened? Did you like break one of his bones or something?” She leaned over the table, suddenly very intrigued. I felt uncomfortable. I shrugged and looked down at my suddenly not-so-appetizing meal. “Um, Mum says I shouldn’t talk about it. It might be bad for my social life.”
Sadie cracked up. “Oh boy, this is gonna be good! C’mon, it’s just me. I won’t judge.” She looked at me, suddenly very serious, “I promise,” she said solemnly.
I decided that I could tell her because I thought that I could trust her and who else was I going to ask me or want to know? I didn’t think that I was going to have much of a social life anyways. “I strangled him.”
Sadie’s eyes widened. “Did you.. kill him?” she breathed.
“No. But it scared him. And it scared my Aunt even more. So that’s why I’m here.”
She nodded. “Why did you do it?”
I sighed and I felt as if the dark cloud that I had tried so hard to push away from my mind was returning. “He was playing in my room when I was out and all of my toothpick creations were on the ground. He wrecked them all. I.. I just got so mad.” I looked down at my plate again. The food was seemed to look more and more distasteful.
Sadie played with the rings on her fingers, sliding them up and down thoughtfully. “I guess that would have made me pretty mad as well,” she said slowly. “Probably not that mad though,” she added with a laugh.
I nodded. Sometimes I get too mad. I know that. I know that I have a problem. Mum always says it isn’t a problem. Just something that I have, and it’s who I am and she loves me nonetheless. I told Sadie this and she scrunched up her eyes at me. “Autism, right? My cousin’s friend has it, he told me about him.” I shrugged. I was not sure. But Sadie was, so I guessed that it had a name. She looked pleased with herself for figuring it out. “Ah, yes, now I can see it quite clearly,” she declared expertly, “You fit all of the symptoms.”
This was starting to make me feel sort of worried and I was starting to wonder if I was really that weird and if people thought that I was that strange, so I decided to ask Sadie something about herself so we wouldn’t have to talk more about me.
“So why are you here?”
“I’m kind of like you, Ben.”
“You have autism too?” I hoped that she did.
She laughed. “No, no. Just... never mind.”
“Okay.” I said, because I knew that she did not want to talk about it and I do not like it when people make me talk about things that I don’t want to talk about.
We ate our lunch and did not talk any more about autism or how Sadie was sort of like me.
When school was over, I headed back to my room. Sadie was on the floor above me, so I said good bye to her. I lay in my bed and stared at the ceiling. I closed my eyes and wished that when I opened them, that there would be stars covering it, formed in all different constellations. My wish didn’t come true.
I sighed and turned over. I thought it might be productive to unpack my stuff properly, so I started to arrange my clothes in the closet. No sooner had I placed the last sock in the drawer, the phone rang. I picked it up quickly, knowing that it was Mum.
“Ben! How are things?” she asked cheerfully.
“They are okay. My English teacher is nice. He is called Mr. Prichard.”
“Oh, lovely! See, I told you it wouldn’t be so bad! Have you made any friends yet?”
I smiled to myself. “Yes, Mum, I have.”
The next morning, I was woken by a blaring alarm. I covered my head with my pillow, but it wouldn’t go away. I could also faintly hear it from the other student’s rooms. After 5 minutes, it turned off. I got up and put on a pair of jeans and my grey and red NIKE sweatshirt. I went to the bathroom and brushed my hair. Then I looked at my schedule for the day. I had to go to breakfast first. I decided that I would brush my teeth after I had eaten, as that made more sense. I opened my door and let myself get swept away with the hoards of students rushing to the breakfast room.
Breakfast was pretty good. I mean, they were serving more choices then I got at home. There was muesli and cheerios in the cereal dispensers, and then scrambled eggs and bacon in the hot-boxes (hot-boxes were what everyone called those big metal tins that were used to serve hot meals). Breakfast was self serve, so I served myself some eggs and only one piece of bacon (Mum says bacon is one of the worst things you can feed yourself). I also poured myself some muesli and milk. This time, I spotted Sadie and went to sit with her. Today, she was dressed in a black t-shirt with a red and white stripy long sleeve shirt layered beneath it, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. The T-shirt had a bleeding yellow smiley face. The word NIRVANA was written above it.
“How’d you sleep? I remember not sleeping at all on my first night.”
“Yeah,” I confessed, “I did not sleep much. I usually fall asleep looking at the glow in the dark stars on my wall, but my Mum didn’t put them up and the ceiling’s too high for me to reach..”
“You have a chair in your room right?”
I felt very stupid. “Yes, it’s wheely though!” I exclaimed in my defense, “It would be hard to stand on!”
Sadie pondered on this. “True..,” then she looked up, her eyes bright , “I know! I’ll hold the chair while you stick them on. I’ll come by your room tonight.” She glanced at her watch and promptly got up, put her tray in the racks and ran off to class with a quick smile and wave over her shoulder. And that was that.
I could not concentrate much in class. I kept thinking about Sadie coming over. I hardly had friends over. When I was younger, Mum’s friends would bring their kids over to our house when they came to visit Mum, or I would go along with her to their houses if they had kids. I never got along with them though. I had a friend called Itamar who was an exchange student from Russia, but he left back to his home country after only a month, so he only came over once or twice. Itamar did not talk a lot, because he could not speak that much English, so I did not have to worry about saying the right thing. He was very good at drawing, so he would show me all of his pictures and I would show him my toothpick animals.
Sadie, unfortunately, was not an illiterate Russian.
The more I thought about what to say, and what to do, the more nervous I became. During dinner, I prayed that she would tell me that she was busy and could not make it. But no such luck. She blabbed on about the book that she was in the middle of, school assignments, Sal’s new boyfriend, floods in South-East Asia and anything else that her perceptive ears had picked up.
“So,” she said, as we finished off the last of our dinners and were preparing to put our trays away, “I’ll just go up and brush my teeth and stuff and then I’ll come down to yours okay?” She smiled and whisked her tray off to the racks and skipped out. Then I realised; I had never told her which room number I was! How would she know where to find me? I relaxed and took a deep breath. Then I put my tray away and headed up to my room.
I had been lying on my bed for no longer then 12 minutes when I heard a knock at my door. Upon opening it, I found Sadie standing in the doorway. “How did you know where my room was?” I asked her. “Oh, Martha told me,” she replied nonchalantly, and pushed past me. “Mmm,” she observed, “Nice room. I guess the ones on this floor have a different layout to the ones on my floor. It’s a lot taller than mine.”
“You mean you’ve never seen a room on this floor?” I was surprised. I thought that Sadie would have always been popping by other people’s rooms like she was doing with me. She shrugged and sat on the bed, “Nope.” Then she laughed weakly, “Can you believe it? 3 years and nobody’s even talked to me.”
Suddenly I realized. Not only was she my first friend, but I was hers as well.
We unpacked the stars and scattered them across the floor. We had decided that it would be more practical to have Sadie stick them on the ceiling while I steer her around on the chair, seeing as she was lighter and more nimble.
“So, you want them in different constellations right?”
“Well you’ll have to show me where to put them then. I don’t really know much about constellations.”
Finally!, I thought, something that I know about more than she does.
“Okay,” I said. “I want the big dipper, the little dipper, the Orion,
She blinked. “I’m not even going to pretend that I understood any of what you just said. Look, draw their basic shapes out on a piece of paper and then just tell me where you want them on the ceiling.”
So, I drew out the big dipper, the small dipper, the Orion, etc. on a piece of paper from my school binder. Sadie hopped on the chair while I held it steady, but it was not hard. She was very light. Sometimes I had to tell Sadie to place the stars a bit to the right or the left, but she did not need much help. With every star, she would give it a few extra presses so that it wouldn’t lose its stick and fall off. Mum used to do that too.
When we were done, Sadie carefully edged off of the chair and pushed it away. Then, she spread out every blanket and pillow that I had in my room on the ground, including the ones from my bed. I groaned, remembering that Mum wasn’t here to make my bed again.
“Lie down here,” Sadie instructed. I did as she told, and found it surprisingly comfy. “Now close your eyes.” I closed them. This surprised me. I would have never closed my eyes if someone told me to, because then you can’t see what’s happening and you do not know what they might do to you. But for some reason, it felt okay with Sadie. It felt safe.
Behind my eyelids, I saw the room darken. Then I heard a voice by my ear, “Open them.”
I saw Sadie next to me, staring up at the ceiling in awe, and when I looked up, I saw why. This was even better then my room at home. Because the ceiling space was smaller here, it was so tightly packed with stars that the ceiling appeared endless, like I was really sleeping beneath the stars.
“With just the flick of a switch..,” Sadie breathed in amazement.
I showed Sadie all of the constellations and told her about them, like Mum had done with me. She was a good listener, and I felt as thought I could go on and on. But when I finally ran out of facts and stories to tell her, and it had gotten late, we stood up and she turned the lights back on. “Well, I’ll be off then,” she said, “Thank you for tonight, Ben. It was really fun.” She smiled at me and before I had a chance to reply, she was gone.
The next day, I was sitting in class and I felt something wet land on the back of my neck. I turned around to look behind me at where it had come from. Two boys a few desks down were snickering and whispering to each other. I felt at the back of my neck and pulled off a sticky little piece of crumpled paper. The snickering behind me turned into a sort of cackle. I knew that they were laughing at me, and I did not know what to do. I was in Science, and Sadie hadn’t turned up for class. She had dashed off at breakfast after scarfing down a yoghurt, saying something about being late for a meeting or something.
I swallowed hard and turned back to the board. The teacher was earnestly drawing the diagrams of plant cells and animal cells on the board. I could tell her, I thought. Then the two boys would get in trouble and they would leave me alone. I turned around to see if they were still laughing, and no sooner had I twisted my neck to look behind me, I felt the same wet clump of paper land on my cheek. I hear a few girls shriek and then stifle their hysteric laughter while the boys weren’t as considerate to hold back on their raucous howls.
“What,” demanded my teacher, “Is going on back there?”
I raised my hand, because that is what you are supposed to do when you want to say something in class.
“Two boys behind me are throwing little balls of wet paper at me, Miss,” I said, because this was exactly what they were doing.
The teacher sighed, very slowly. “Rodger and Thomas. If this happens one more time in my classroom, I will make very sure of it that you two both get week detentions. Have I made myself clear?”
They stopped after that, and the teacher carried on sketching the nucleus and the cytoplasm on the board. Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Arthur, the short skinny boy with glasses who was sitting the closest to me, handed me a small piece of folded paper. I took it from him and opened it up.
Too bad your girlfriend isn’t here to stand up for you. Cry to the teacher one more time and you are dead meat.
I looked at Arthur, who just shrugged at me and turned back his textbook. Then I looked behind me at Rodger and Thomas, who smirked and made a fist with their hands, beating it against the palm of their other hand methodically. I turned back around and sunk low in my chair, just willing the clock to move a bit faster.
I sat alone for the first bit of lunch, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. That was until Sadie spotted me and came dashing over, her glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (a treat from Sal, I guessed) teetering scarily as she plopped her tray down across from me.
“Where were you?” I asked.
Sadie blinked. “Um, nowhere really, just, you know, I was just doing some extracurricular activity to get a few more extra credit points or whatever.” She rolled her eyes. “So, how was class? Did I miss anything good? Please don’t tell me Mrs. Schwartz made Rani sit in the corner with that tall pointy hat on from like back from the 18th century when she was a kid, I’ve been dying to see that!”
“No,” I replied, “She did not.”
I decided not tell Sadie the story about the spitballs. I wanted her to think that I could cope perfectly without her, that I did not need her by my side all the time standing up for me.
After class had ended for the day, I sat with Sadie on the bench behind the kitchen. There was a small garden where Sal had attempted to start a garden, but it just looked like a load of brown shrubs. The sky was blue and clear though, and if i closed my eyes and turned my face up to the sun, I could feel the heat beating down, sinking in under my skin.
Sal had given us a bag of chips that she had bought for us at the supermarket. Sadie and I were nibbling them sparingly and licking our fingers after each one, savoring the taste.
Sadie’s phone made a buzzing noise and she scrambled to wedge it out of her pocket. She smiled to herself as she read the message, and then started typing back.
“Who is it?” I asked.
Sadie looked up. “Who is it? Um, it’s just my uh.. my uncle.”
“Oh. I never text with my uncle.” I said, and almost laughed at the idea of my uncle giggling over a phone as we exchanged messages.
“Mm, sucks,” Sadie said distractedly as she attacked her phone’s keyboard.
No sooner had she put her phone down, it started to buzz again. Sadie giggled to herself and picked it up. I could see her eyes scanning the message. They were crinkled at the corners, which meant that she was happy.
After about the sixth buzz, I pushed the chip bag over to Sadie. “You can finish them. I’m going back up to my room now.”
Sadie glanced up from her phone for a second to flash me a smile and say, “Okay Ben, see you later!”
When I got to my room, I decided that I should call Mum. She had not called last night. I carefully dialed the number that Mum had written on a scrap of paper and tacked to the wall. The phone rang 5 times before Mum picked it up, gasping for air.
“Oh! It’s you Ben! I’m so sorry I forgot to call last night, I was out.”
This was weird. Mum never went out. She made fun of the other Mums who got all dressed up and went out on the weekends and tried to hit on all the younger guys.
I could not imagine Mum doing this.
“What were you doing?”
“Oh, I was um I was just having some dinner.”
This was even weirder. Why would Mum go out by herself to get dinner? She had nobody to go with, and she would not go out by herself.
“No, no, I was with um, hold on one sec, okay honey?”
I could hear her whispering to someone in the background, but I could not hear what she was saying. Then, I heard another voice, the voice of a man.
“Hey Ben, sorry about that. Hey, you remember that nice man from the zoo a couple weeks ago?”
“Yes. The zookeeper.”
“Yes, yes. Well, that’s who I went out to dinner with last night.”
Mum made a few noises, like she wanted to say something more, but she didn’t.
“Oh.” I did not know what to say. I liked Alan, and I wanted Mum to have a friend so that she would not get too lonely without me, but I did not want her to forget about me completely. If she had already forgot to call me, I could only imagine what it would be like if they stayed friends for a long time.
“Ben, how do you feel? I mean I know it’s been a long time since I’ve had a boyfriend, but I don’t want you to feel threatened in any way, and you liked him right? I mean, he really is very sweet and you guys would get on so great, well you already did right?”
Boyfriend? So he was more than a friend. Since Dad had left, Mum had had a few boyfriends, but they never lasted long and I never really saw them much. Mum never really made a big deal out of it, and sometimes she wouldn’t tell me at all. But this time was different. Mum sounded happy, happier then she’d been in a long time.
“I’m okay Mum. If you are happy, then so am I.”
Mum breathed a sigh of relief, “Oh Ben, thank you so much, you’re the best!”
I talked to Mum about school for a bit, and then she said that she had to go and that she would call me again tonight.
After I had put down the phone, I turned off the lights in my room and lay on my bed. Looking up at the stars cleared my mind. It put things in perspective for me. I was mad at Andy, I decided. He was probably just being nice to me at the zoo so that he could become Mum’s new boyfriend. He was trying to steal her away from me. He was like the evil stepmother in Cinderella, or any other fairytale. Except he would be an evil stepfather, not that he would ever be my father.
I did not want to keep thinking about this, so I turned over and put my pillow over my head.
I woke up the next morning in my jeans and shirt. I must have fallen asleep the other night, I thought. I brushed my hair in the mirror; 3 quick swipes to the left, 3 on the right side and then one on the back. My hair was getting quite long, I noticed. When Mum comes to visit, I thought, I’ll ask her to cut it. I never let anybody cut it, even a hairdresser. I brushed my soft golden brown hair away from my eyes. I was just about to leave when I heard that familiar knock on my door. Sadie. This time though, I didn’t feel resentment or scared. I was so happy to hear that knock.
Sadie strode in, her usual polite way of entering. “Ew. You smell.” she commented as she walked past me
I sniffed myself self-consciously. I grabbed my can of Adidas deodorant and sprayed some under my armpits. Sadie was wearing a tight fitting black dress with a red checkered shirt, the dress was belted in the middle. She wore electric turquoise tights and purple socks, paired with her usual black combat boots. Despite this peculiar ensemble, I thought she looked very pretty.
Sadie looked at me warily. “Take a picture, it will last longer.”
I did not know what she meant so I did not say anything I did not even have a camera.
“Shouldn’t we get down to breakfast?” I asked.
Sadie smiled slyly, like a fox. “Today,” she declared, “is going to be different.”
“Different?” I don’t like different. I thought that I had already had enough ‘different’ lately.
“We’re not going to class,” she continued, “We’re going out. Trust me, it’s okay, I’ve done it loads before. They won’t even notice were gone.”
“We’re going to skip?” I asked Sadie incredulously. I had never skipped in my life.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” Sadie snorted,” Of course you can! Look, I know this place we can go to. We can just go downstairs and have breakfast, wait till everybody's gone to class and then sneak out. Trust me on this Ben, C’mon!”
I bit my lip very hard, like Mum does when she’s nervous. It must be genetics, I guessed.
“Maybe,” I said.
“No!” Sadie exclaimed, throwing her hands up in exasperation, “Not maybe, YES! Ben, you’ve got to start saying YES! Your life is so boring Ben you never do anything. You’re just so... afraid.”
Sadie shook her head and then stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
I watched the shadows of her feet from the small crack under the door disappear. I tasted blood in my mouth and realised that I had bitten through my lip. So afraid? I was not afraid. I did things! I tried to think of things that I had done, things like things that Sadie did I frowned. I could not think of anything. Maybe Sadie was right, maybe I was afraid. I sat down on my bed and thought. I thought for 4 minutes and 23 seconds Then, I decided that I was going to be more like Sadie I could go along with the plan. I would not go to class.
I went down the breakfast and before I got my food, I looked around the cafeteria for Sadie. She wasn’t there. She must have already left, I thought. Part of me was upset that she had just left without me, that she didn’t really care if I came or not. But part of me was relieved. This meant that I didn’t have to worry about skipping and getting caught or into trouble I stood in line for my food, but soon realised I wasn’t even hungry. What if Sadie was really angry with me? What if she did not want to be friends with me anymore? I put my plate back. I needed to go outside. I needed some air.
I walked to the other end of the cafeteria. it felt like everybody was watching me, so I fixed my gaze on the ground, not daring o look up and see if it was true. When I reached the small kitchen door at the back, I slipped out. The sun beat down on my face and for some reason; it felt as if I hadn’t felt it in a long time. when my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw Sadie. She perched on an upside down bucked, chatting to Sal during her cigarette break. They paused their conversation when they saw me. “Hey Sadie,” I said softly.
She sighed. “Hey.”
I wanted to tell her that I had changed my mind, that I wanted to come, but Sal was there and I did not know if she would get us in trouble or not. Sadie shrugged and got up, “ Well I’ll be off then. See you Sal.” They embraced and Sadie started walking off down the campus without even a backwards glance.
“Wait, Sadie!” I yelled, jogging to catch up with her. She turned around, “What?” she asked warily. I swallowed. “I want to come with you.” Sadie’s suspicious face transformed into a broad grin, “Great, let’s go!”
It was easy, just as Sadie said t would be. We didn’t see any cameras, and if there were any, it was doubtful that anyone was watching them, especially during breakfast. We threw our bags over the looming wrought iron gate and climbed over. I’ll never forget that moment when I was sitting at the top, half of me on either side. I could feel the adrenaline rushing to my brain as I climbed down the other side. Then, we grabbed our bags and ran.
I don’t know where we ran or why exactly we were running,but we just ran. Sadie was fast and it was hard to keep up with her. After about the 6th block, I felt as if I was going to pass out, and I yelled to Sadie to stop for a rest. “It's just around the corner! C’mon!” she yelled back. I considered asking her exactly what was around the corner, but I knew better. I had grown used to Sadie’s spontaneous nature and love for surprise. We are total opposites, I thought to myself with a laugh.
Note to self: When you are running at the speed of Usain Bolt and searching for the last ounce of oxygen into my squeezed lungs, it isn’t’ a good idea to laugh. I doubled up, spitting on the ground and clutching my gut. I could feel vomit in the back of my throat. Sadie, probably upon realizing the absence of my coughs and wheezes behind her, had jogged up to me, “You okay?” she said, concernedly, her eyebrows knitted together.
“I..,” I gasped, “I can’t go any further.”
Sadie patted me on the back and then quickly pulled her hand back upon feeling the sweat. Wiping her hand on the back of her jeans with a look of disgust, she told me,“Don’t worry Ben, it’s right here!” I looked up. We were standing on a side-street branching off from a busy, crowded street. Our street was more narrow and occupied only a few hippy looking pedestrians. In front of me was a ‘Marijuana Bar,’ Glass tubes in all different colors filled the windows and reggae music blasted from the open door. Sadie laughed. “No. Here.” She spun me around to face an old looking store. The windows were covered in stickers and posters of various bands. Guitars-acoustic and electric-were propped up in any available space. The sign read, ‘Music Shop-Second hand guitars and records.’
Sadie dragged me up to the door, which was closed but had the typical white and red OPEN/CLOSED sign hanging on a suction cup. Sadie pushed it open. I found myself in a narrow room, with guitars of all sorts lined up on the sides. Plaques and signed photos and posters covered the walls. Though the room was confined, I could see that it went on quite far in the back and opened up into a bigger room. There was also an upper floor which hung below the ceiling. If you stood on the edge of it, I guessed, you could survey the whole shop. Music played softly on the speaker system. I did not recognize it but Sadie sang along as she rifled through the piles and piles of dusty records.
“Raj!,” she yelled up at the upper floor. A young Indian man stuck his head out from above the railing.
“Sadie!” He ran down the stairs and met her. They did some handshake which seemed very confusing. They laughed. “Yo, long time no see girl!”
Sadie giggled. “Sorry! With the new term and all, the teachers and staff are really cracking down on us.”
Raj winced. “Ouch. See kids? This is why I dropped out of high school!” Then he turned to me. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your little friend?”
I did not like being called little. I was actually 1 meter, 78 centimeters. Sadie looked at me suddenly, as if she had forgotten that I was even there. “Oh, of course,” she exclaimed, “This is Ben. He’s new.” Raj rolled up his sleeves of his red checkered shirt and extended his hand out to me. With his flashy white smile and big dark eyes, it was hard not to like him. HIs handshake was warm and firm.
“Raj owns this place” Sadie said knowledgeably. Raj sighed. “Yeah. Don’t really get many customers though. I keep telling myself it’s the location but..” He sighed again. “Oh well.. hey what about a jam session, huh Sadie? Grab the old Gibson.” Sadie dashed off, delighted.
Raj looked at me. “So, do you play?” he asked. “No.” I said, because I had never played a guitar in my life. Raj shook his head. “Shame, man. Well you can always listen and sing along!”
I was about to point out that I probably wouldn’t know any of the songs, but he was already heading towards the open area in the back of the shop. I followed him. Sadie was there as well, sitting on a stool with an aqua blue electric guitar slung over her neck. It was covered in black and gold detailing. She had it plugged into a big box with lots of switches and dials on it. Raj also had his guitar plugged in. His was red and white .it didn’t look as new as Sadie’s. It had a few signatures at the end of it, but I didn’t know who’s they were. Raj adjusted the dials on the box while Sadie picked a few strings. She was good at it. Even the few strings that she played let out a beautiful melody. I wondered if there was anything that she wasn’t good at. Raj got up from his tinkering and sat down on his stool. “So, why don’t we start with..” But Sadie had already started strumming away. “Ah,” Raj winked and started a finger pick that fit perfectly along with Sadie’s strum. Sadie started singing. Her voice was soft, but I could make out almost every word. “Time to erect in bloom.” The chorus of the song started and Sadie’s voice grew loud and ragged. It still sounded beautiful. When they had finished, Raj said, “A young Cobain, isn’t she?” He laughed and Sadie blushed a bit, which meant that she was embarrassed or self-conscious
They played a few more songs and then Sadie and I said goodbye to Raj and left. We walked onto the busy road until we found a small ice cream cafe. It was the heat of the day and we were both hungry and thirsty. We got a small table by the window with those really high chairs that they have next to bar counters. Sadie picked up the menu and flipped through. I picked one up from a nearby table. There were hundreds of extravagant ice cream combinations. They were all around 5 pounds. I realized that I did not have any money with me. I told Sadie but she just waved her hand in the air dissuasively. “I do. Don’t worry about it, it’s on me.” “Thank you.” I said, because I thought that it was very nice of her to pay for my ice cream. “What are you going to have?” Sadie asked. “I’m deciding between double chocolate fudge banana split and fruity cocktail with cream.”
I had no idea what to choose, there were so any! I flipped to random page and scanned the pictures. “I might have the Hawaiian Punch with coconut shavings and cream.” Sadie licked her lips. “Mmm, that sounds good. Okay I’ll have the banana split one. Stay here, I’ll go order.”
I watched her walk over to the counter and stand in line. She pulled out her phone and smiled. Then she started typing on it. I wondered again who she kept writing to. Did she have a boyfriend? I had seen girls do that with their boyfriends in movies. I suddenly felt a pang of what I could only call sadness. It felt like all the oxygen had been taken out of my chest. I did not know why. What would it even matter if Sadie had a boyfriend? She could do whatever she wanted. It was not like we were anything more than friends. I unclenched my fist and looked out of the window. Little children clung onto their mothers. Businessmen went at a quick pace, their briefcases winging rhythmically beside them. It was fun to think that they all had different lives, that each one was going somewhere, that I was just an onlooker, like they all were.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. Sadie was holding two big ice cream sundaes. She placed them on the table and then hopped onto her stool. Her phone was gone. She dipped her long spoon into the ice cream and took a bite. “Mmm,” she closed her eyes, “It’s delicious. How’s yours?” I tasted mine and felt the sweet fruity ice cream melt in my mouth. “Mine’s delicious as well.” Sadie grinned. “So you like Raj huh?”
“Yeah, he’s cool.”
Sadie nodded. “I met him about a year and a bit ago when I first started at the school. It’s a funny story actually. I was sitting in the garden in front of school playing my guitar when Raj walked out of the school. He heard me playing and sat down on the bench next to me. He told me that he had just dropped out and that his great uncle had passed way and left him some money. He told me that he was going to start up a music shop with the money. He told me that he loved my playing and that I should hit him up sometime and maybe become a teacher at the shop or at least work there. About 5 months later, I found his number and called him. I went to the store and... yeah, we’ve been friends ever since.”
“Wow.” I said. Then I thought, what if Raj is her boyfriend? They did seem quite close. There was really only one way to find out. “Sadie is Raj your boyfriend?”
Sadie laughed out loud. “No! God, what gave you that idea?”
I shrugged. “You keep texting on your phone and smiling and I have seen girls in movies do that with their boyfriends.”
Sadie pursed her lips and looked down at her ice cream. “I don’t text Raj.” She said, as if that answered all my questions,
I could tell that she did not want to talk about it anymore though, so I just ate my ice cream and shut up.
After we had both finished our ice creams, Sadie went to the counter to pay. She did not take out her phone. The total came to 11 pounds and 35 cents. I said thank you again and that I would pay next time. I tried to remember to as Mum for some pocket money next time she came to visit me.
Sadie checked her watch. “We’d better be getting back, school’s almost over and we should get in when everyone’s in the corridors so we remain inconspicuous,” she winked. I nodded. We walked till the end of the busy street. There were people dressed up in costumes asking for money. One man was dressed as the tin man from the Wizard of Oz. I knew this because Mum loves that movie. He even had his face painted silver and he was wearing the same tin had with the spout sticking up at the top just like the tin man from the movie. Sadie’s phone buzzed a few times in her pocket, but she ignored it. We talked the whole time, or Sadie did mostly. She went on and on about the book that she had just finished, ‘The Beach.’ She recounted the entire story to me, from beginning till end. After 6 minutes, I stopped listening altogether. I became absorbed in my surroundings. I realised that I wasn’t afraid of being in such crowded places. I remembered how scared I used to be to even walk to the supermarket. I had changed, or Sadie had changed me. I didn’t know what it was. The countless therapists and psychologists that Mum had arranged meetings with when she first found out about my condition had never had any effect. But for some reason when I was with Sadie, I felt normal. Maybe it as that I felt I had to prove something to her. I didn’t know. But I liked it.
“And so then there was this huge massacre and they escaped and lived happily ever after,” Sadie concluded. I blinked. “That sounds like a good book.” I said, which was not totally a lie because the parts that I did hear sounded interesting. Sadie grinned. “I know right! I’ll lend it to you if you want.” I nodded. I did not tell her that I probably wouldn’t read it. I don’t read books very often. We talked and walked at an average pace, which I liked a lot more than running.
Climbing over the gate this time seemed harder because I had to make sure not to fall on any of the iron spikes while scanning the school windows and yard for anyone who might see us. When we got over, we grabbed our bags and made a run for it, sprinting across the grass to the door. W were just on time. Sadie looked very please with herself as the students burst from the doors and filled up the medieval looking hallways.
“I’ve got to go somewhere, I’ll see you tonight for dinner?” Sadie shouted. I nodded and let myself get swept away with the sea of students. I needed to work on my English report anyways. Mr. Pritchard had read out a short story in class about an old couple who find a dead body. We had to write an essay on how we interpreted it and how you think it would have ended (Mr. Pritchard left it unfinished). I got to my room and sat down at my desk I closed my eyes. It seemed as if the whole day had just been one big blur. I felt pleased with myself for not being afraid. It was fun not being afraid.
I pulled out a pen and paper, willing myself to focus, the report was due tomorrow morning. I fumbled through my folder of school handouts, looking for the copy of the story that Mr. Pritchard had handed out to us. I couldn’t find it. I sighed and cursed myself, which I only do sometimes. And only when I am alone because otherwise it would be rude. I got up. I would have to go to Mr. Pritchard’s homeroom and ask him for another copy. I ran down the stairs and down the corridor and then took a left. I knocked softly on the door. Nobody came so I knocked harder. Mr. Pritchard opened the door. He looked annoyed. His glasses were off and his hair was messed up. His shirt was slightly unbuttoned and untucked from his pants. He stood in the open crack of the door. “Hey Ben, what do you want?” He sounded brusque and irritated, not like the Mr. Pritchard that I knew at all.
“I lost the copy of the short story that you handed out and I wanted another copy,” I said. “Right. Uh. let me just get you one. Wait here.” He went back into the classroom. The door slid open further and I saw Sadie. She was sitting on the desk, her hair messed as well and her face streaked with tears. I pushed the door open further. “Sadie?” I asked. She looked up, her eyes wide with fear. Mr. Pritchard spun around. “Didn’t I tell you wait there?” He stopped rifling through his desk drawers and slammed the door shut.
I did not know what was wrong with Sadie. Maybe she was in trouble. I could not imagine Sadie crying just for being in trouble though. Also, I thought that Mr. Pritchard liked her a lot, so why would he yell at her enough to make her cry? Now I was stuck outside the door. I could not help Sadie. And I could not do my English report.
Sadie didn’t show up at dinner either. I ate my food quickly and then resolved to go out and find her. I would be like Sherlock Holmes, trying to uncover the case of the missing Sadie Millan. I stacked my tray and went around the back to check if she was with Sal. She wasn’t. I left the cafeteria and decided to check her room when I realized I had no idea where it was. I frowned. It was hard being a detective. I didn’t know how Sherlock Holmes had solved all of those cases. I wondered what he would do if he were me. He would be resourceful; he would try and think of alternatives. I had an idea. I ran to the reception, hoping that the turtle cowgirl woman would be there. She was.
“Hello,” I said, breathless. She looked up at me from behind her horn-rimmed spectacles. “Why hello there, Ben is it?”
Her thin lips spread into a long lipsticky smile. “What’s up hun?”
“Uh, Sadie Millan’s room please.”
She winked at me. “Ah, I see. Hmm let’s see if I can find it for you.”
Licking her thumbs, she leafed through a huge pile of stapled papers. “Here we are! Room 204. That’s one floor above yours if I’m not mistaken.”
I nodded. “That sounds right. Thank you.”
“Anytime, hun!” she replied with a warm smile.
I wasted no time in getting there. Detectives never dawdle. I could find my way around the school quite easily now so it didn’t take me too long to find Sadie’s room. I knocked on the door, but nobody answered. I knocked again. Still no answer. “It’s me, Ben,” I said, so that she would know that it was me. The door opened. I stepped in. Sadie looked horrible, which was an achievement considering how beautiful she looked every day. But now her hair was all over the place. Mascara was streamed down her cheeks and her eyes were bloodshot. “Hey Ben. What’s up.” Her voice sounded dry and emotionless. I frowned.
“What is the matter with you Sadie? What happened with you and Mr. Pritchard?”
Sadie’s lip quivered. She stayed silent. Then she flung her arms around me and sobbed into my shoulder. This wasn’t the strong fearless Sadie that I knew. I hugged her back because that makes people feel better when they are sad. “I..I thought he liked me,” she cried.
“Mhm,” she sobbed, “he, he tried to.” Her body shuddered and a new stream of tears flowed onto my blue t-shirt.
“What did he try to do?” I asked.
“Have.. have sex with me.” She pulled back so I could see her blotchy tear stained face. She looked down. “He just started acting so weird, pushing me and then he started kissing me and.. and then you came. He got mad .He told me to leave and never speak of it to anyone.”
She walked over to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. “God I look horrible.”
“No you don’t,” I said. I remembered when Mum used to cry before going out to dinner or party because she thought that nothing looked good on her. I would tell her that she looked very pretty and not to worry. Then she would wipe her eyes and hug me and say how lucky she was to have me and how much she loved me. She had Alan to do that for her now though. I took a facecloth and soaked it in some warm water. I wiped her face softly, taking off all the black streaks and smears. She smiled bleakly. “Why are you so nice to me, Ben?” I did not know what to say to that so I just kept wiping her tears. Sadie touched her hair. “Ugh.” She opened up the little cabinet above the sink and took out a hairbrush. I noticed two bottles of pills sitting on one of the shelves. The label had Sadie’s name on it. It also had Bipolar and Lithium written on the label. Sadie must have seen me looking at them because she took one bottle out and tossed it in her hand. “Yup, I’m bipolar. Wouldn’t have guessed right? I’ve got to rake one of these every day but I doubt it would make any difference if I didn’t. I’m totally normal. I mean compared to those other lunatic suicidal cases, right?” She laughed feebly.
I didn’t really know anything about people who were bipolar, but I didn’t think that it was serious. Sadie did seem totally normal.
We sat on her bed. “It sucks,” she said finally, “because I thought that he actually liked me. I mean, he would always text and call.. we’d share all of our personal problems, all our secrets,” she shook her head angrily, “how could I have been so stupid?!”
I suddenly felt very angry. Mr. Pritchard had seemed so nice, so caring. He was the one teacher who really seemed to care about his students. He was fake. My fists clenched into little balls, my nails digging into the palms of my hands so hard that my knuckles turned white. My eyes squeezed shut, all I saw was black. I imaged that instead of squeezing my eyes so tight that my head started to hut, that I was squeezing Mr. Pritchard. But this time I wouldn't stop. I would just squeeze him, so hard..
I felt hands on my shoulders, shaking me. I opened my eyes I felt dizzy. Sadie pried open my hands and then clasped my face, looking into my eyes.
“Ben.. Ben.. Stop it Ben.”
“I’m..I’m sorry,” I murmured.
“You were screaming,” Sadie said, a concerned look on her face. I did not say anything. Everything started to come into focus. I noticed a guitar next toSadie’s bed. It was wood, not colored metal like the ones from Raj’s shop. Sadie smiled. She picked the guitar up and put it in her lap so that it nestled perfectly over her thigh. “My baby,” she said, stroking the shiny wood lovingly. “Whenever I’m upset, I just play something. It always makes me feel better.”
“So play something,” I suggested.
She closed her eyes and started to strum rhythmically. Then she started singing. Her voice turned into the same hoarse voice of Kurt Cobain that I had heard in those songs that Sadie had showed me from her I-pod.
“Load up on guns and bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s overboard and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word”
When she finished, she opened her eyes and smiled. “See? Better already.”
“That was a Nirvana song,” I said, knowledgeably.
Sadie laughed. “Well done. Yeah it was ‘Smells like Teen Spirit.’ Probably my all-time favorite.”
“I like it,” I said, because I did.
“So what do you do when you’re upset?” Sadie asked, her chin propped on her hands, leaning forward expectantly.
“I.. well, I used to make those toothpick animals,” I looked down, not wanting to remember. “Oh right. Why don’t you try it again?”
I shook my head. “No, it’s too.. I’m too..”
I bit my lip. Afraid. She was right. Again.
“You know, just because of that one incident, doesn’t mean that you can’t ever make them again. It’s what you’re good at Ben. You can’t just quit.”
Though I hated it, I knew she was right. I missed bending and snapping the little sticks, turning them into creatures that looked real enough to live and breathe.
After a while, it was time to go back to my room. I said goodbye to Sadie. She thanked me for everything and then said, “Oh and Ben, please don’t breathe a word of.. what happened.. to anyone, okay?” I frowned. “Don’t you want people to know? Don’t you want him to get in trouble? We should go to the headmaster Sadie!”
Sadie shook her head violently. “No no no. I don’t want anyone to know. You don’t understand what would happen. It would be so humiliating. I just want things to carry on normally. Please Ben,” she pleaded.
“Alright,” I consented, and headed back to my room. I rifled through my suitcase until I found the pack of toothpicks that Mum had packed for me. I felt anger when I thought about Mum. My birthday was in 3 days and she hadn’t even called recently. I ripped open the packaging and pulled out the first little file of toothpicks. I wiggled one out and played with it, bending it between my forefinger and thumb. I took out the paint and glue and started working.
I worked the whole night long, catching only a couple of hours of sleep before the wake up bell sounded. I rubbed my eyes. My desk was cluttered with animals. I had made giraffes, horses, peacocks and so many more. I felt that same pride that I felt whenever I finished an animal. I felt happy. I couldn’t wait to show Sadie.
And at that moment, I heard the familiar knock at my door. I opened up quickly. “God, you look terrible Ben. Did you get any sleep last night?” I glanced in the mirror. She was right. The bags under my eyes were dark and huge and my hair was sticking up in every direction.
“No,” I said. “I was doing this.” I pointed to my desk. Sadie yelped in delight and ran over to the colorful pile of toothpicks. “Oh Ben, they’re so wonderful!” She had picked up an elephant, marveling at it in the palm of her hand. “Oh look at its tiny tusks! Ben! These are amazing!”
After Sadie had admired every one of my creations, we walked down to breakfast together. “Sorry if it seems like I keep coming by your room.. It’s just.. I didn’t want to go alone, you know?” She looked down at the ground.
“Yeah,” I said. I knew that it was because of Mr. Pritchard. “Don’t you want to drop out of English class,” I asked.
Sadie shook her head. “I can’t It would look too weird. I mean everyone knows how much I love English and how close me and Mr. Pritchard.. were.”
I understood, but I dreaded the next day when we would have English class. I never wanted to see Mr. Pritchard again and if I felt this badly about the situation, I could only imagine how horrible Sadie must feel.
We walked to lunch and sat down at our usual table by the window.
“My Mum is coming to visit soon,” I told Sadie.
“That’s nice,” she replied with a smile, “I can’t wait to meet her!”
“She’s coming for my birthday,” I added.
“Your birthday!? When is it?”
“In 3 days.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Now I have hardly any time to think of a present!”
I laughed. “You don’t have to give me a present!” People say this to be polite. But really they do want a present.
Our first class that day was Biology. Our teacher, a cool hippy woman with dreadlocks and bandanas, who claimed that the reason for her career choice was thanks to her last name, which happened to be Nucleus, was handing us back our tests. If you didn’t know, the nucleus is like the brain of a cell. As she worked her way down the tables, passing out the results, I closed my eyes and hoped that I did well. The test had been about plant reproduction, which I had seen a few documentaries about on the National Geographic channel. I could hear students around me groaning and the crumpling of paper. Not reassuring noises.
“Aaand,” she thumbed through the stack of papers that were balanced precariously in the crook of her elbow, “Ben, here we go.” She glanced at the top of the paper. “Wow, well done!”
She dropped it on my desk and I looked at the number circled in red. 8/8. I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Maybe today wasn’t going to be so bad after all. I decided that tonight I would phone Mum and tell her. She would be proud, I thought, and maybe she’d see the sense in all those nature shows now. I also couldn’t want to show Sadie, who wasn’t in my Biology class. Most classes I have aren’t with Sadie actually, but I don’t really mind.
I don’t miss the distasteful remarks about us being in love or perfect for each other or even just the mocking snickers. If I was in a class without Sadie, I would just sit by myself. I didn’t mind it at all. I preferred to sit alone then to sit next to someone who would try to engage in small talk and act as if they were interested in my answer. After a while, the bullies in my class had stopped picking on me. Of course, they never missed the opportunity to give me an ‘accidental’ shove into the lockers or call me rude names, but I learnt to just ignore them.
After Math and Art, it was time for English, the last lesson before lunch. I didn’t know what was going to happen when I saw Mr. Pritchard. Was he going to talk to me? Was he going to be mad at me? I wanted to hit him. What if I hit him? I was scared. But I forced myself not to think about that. Sadie was probably much more scared then me.
As I was heading towards the classroom, I felt someone grab the back of my rucksack and pull me into a corner. “Hey Ben, you’re going to have to go to English without me, okay?”
“Where are you going?”
“I just don’t think I can go. I’ll call in sick or something. I think I’ll just go into town for a bit, maybe visit Raj.”
Before I could even reply, she had turned around and begun to head towards the door. Then she turned around. “Oh and Ben, don’t do anything stupid.” She smiled weakly and was gone. I wondered what she meant. Maybe she was talking about me hitting Mr. Pritchard. I supposed that would be stupid. I might get in trouble.
I was relieved that Sadie wasn’t going to be there though. I was worried about her, and I was certain that the further away she was from Mr. Pritchard, the better.
I walked into class and I could feel Mr. Pritchard’s eyes on me. I did not look at him. I just sat down at my usual desk on the left side of the classroom next to the windows. Only until I had pulled out every piece of equipment from my bed that could remotely be used for the lesson, did I look up at him. He did not seem flustered at all, not at all like he had been yesterday. He seemed his cool, collected self. “Good morning class. So, first I’d like to start by asking you guys to hand in your essays. They’d better be good because the grade’s going on your mid-term report!” The class erupted in a chorus of gasps and cries of distress. Mr. Pritchard laughed, “Don’t worry guys, don’t worry. I’ll give you a chance to hand in a new and improved second draft after I’ve finished grading them.”
The class all sat back in their seats and breathed sighs of relief.
He went through the class just as he always did. He talked to us about the proper use of punctuation and did a game where we gave us a printed paragraph that we had to punctuate correctly. Whoever finished first with everything right won.
When the bell rang, everybody packed up their bags and began to exit the classroom. I was halfway out the door when Mr. Pritchard called my name. I turned around. He beckoned me to come over to his desk. I walked over.
“Here’s the short story. I’ll give you an extra week to hand in your essay!”
I took the sheet of paper. I did not say thank you. I turned to walk away when he called me back. “Ben, if there’s anything else you want.. a permanent extension to all assignments, signed late slips.. you name it, I’ll make it happen.”
I knew what he was doing. He was trying to bribe me not to tell about what I had seen. It wouldn’t work.
“No,” I said.
Mr. Pritchard shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Listen Ben, about yesterday. I’m sorry for snapping at you, and for... what you saw. I just, I hope you won’t tell anyone. It would be the best thing for all of us if you kept your mouth shut.”
I shrugged. “Best thing for you probably.”
Then I had an idea. I was very proud of my idea and I suspected Sherlock Holmes would be too.
“I won’t say anything,” I said softly, “If you leave here.”
Mr. Pritchard inhaled sharply and ran his fingers through his hair. “Ben, this is my job. It was one mistake.” He looked at me pleadingly. “Please.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had given him a chance to get away from everything, to not go to jail, which I was pretty sure was a place where he could end up if I said anything. And he wasn’t jumping at the opportunity? I started feeling mad. Very mad.
“You tried to have sex with my best friend,” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “I think you had better leave.”
Mr. Pritchard looked taken aback. There was a long silence. 3 minutes and 19 seconds. Then Mr. Pritchard said, “Okay, I’ll be gone by tomorrow.”
I was taken aback. It sounded good in my head, but I didn’t actually expect it to work. But I had done it, I had gotten rid of him. He was going to leave, and maybe now everything actually could go back to normal. I felt like I had power, like I could make him do whatever I wanted. I wanted him to be afraid of me, I wanted him to run away from this school as fast as he could. I smiled. I smiled because I was happy and proud. I also smiled because it scares people who you’re mad at. I know this from movies.
“I think that would be best,” I said. Then, I turned around and walked out. And that was that.
Sadie wasn’t there when I got in line for dinner, but I was not too worried. I figured that she was probably just with Raj. I was too elated about getting rid of Mr. Pritchard that I felt as though nothing else could harm her. Just as I had sat down at my table though, she came bursting through the door and skipped over to where I was sitting.
“Where have you been?” I asked her.
“Just with Raj,” she replied. I was right. “How was your day?”
“Good,” I said, which was an understatement. “I got my Bio test back. I got 8 /8.”
Sadie grinned, “Wow Ben, that’s so good! Well done!”
I smiled. “Thank you.” It felt good to have other people being proud of you.
Sadie played with the ends of her hair. “How was English?”
I tried to hide my smile. I wanted Mr. Pritchard’s resignation to be a surprise. “It was fine. Mr. Pritchard just acted as if nothing had happened.”
Sadie nodded and looked down as she traced shapes on the table with her finger.
I wanted to tell her so badly, but I didn’t.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked her, noticing the absence of any food on her tray.
Sadie shook her head. “Nah, I had something to eat with Raj.”
When I had finished my food, Sadie said that she was tired and that she was going to go to bed early that night. I was fine with that because I wanted to call Mum and work more on my toothpick animals anyways.
I knew our house number by heart, so I dialed it into the phone in my room. It rang 3 times before Mum picked up. “Hello?”
“Ben! Hey! I’ve been meaning to call you but I’ve just been so so busy.. Oh I have so much to tell you!”
“What do you have to tell me?” I asked. I thought about big things that could have happened to her. Did Alan ask her to marry him? I hoped not. Did she move houses? Did she quit her job? Was she pregnant? I really hoped not.
“Well,” she began, “I quit my job.” I was right. And I was relieved because it was probably the most favorable out of all of the possible scenarios.
“And,” she continued, “I got a new one. I work at the zoo now, Ben! That means you can come visit me and the monkeys whenever you want! Alan hooked me up with the manager who he’s friends with and it turns out they’re looking for a Vice President. I might have been missing some of the qualifications, but he said it wasn’t a problem and that he trusted me. So that was a load of pressure, which is why I haven’t spoken to you in so long. I’ve been working my ass off, but they’re all really happy and the pay is much better than before. Oh Ben, I’m so happy.” She sighed. “But I’m sorry, I’m rambling on and on about my me. Whats up with you?”
She worked at the zoo now? With Alan? That must mean that their relationship was getting very serious. I swallowed. “Well, I got 8/8 for my Biology test.”
“Oh that’s great honey! I’m so proud of you!” Mum replied ecstatically.
I was happy that she was proud of me, but I was still worried. It seemed as though life back home had completely changed. She was doing all these new things, and I wasn’t there with her. I wondered what it would be like when I came home. Would I even want to come home? I did not know what to say to her about the new job, but I knew that she was expecting an answer so I said, “Is your relationship with Alan serious?”
Mum paused for a moment. I knew that she was thinking about what to say.
“I do like him Ben, I like him a lot.”
“Do you love him?”
“Yes, Ben. I do.”
Now it was my turn to be silent. Mum had never told me that she loved any of her boyfriends. She had never told me that she loved anyone but me. I did not know what to say so I did not say anything.
“I’ve got to go though Ben,” she said finally, “There’s a conference for a fundraiser to help the chimps in Borneo. I’ll see you soon though, for your birthday! I love you, bye!”
And then she was gone.
The next morning, my first thought was that today would be the day that Sadie would find out about Mr. Pritchard. English was our first period, so I was determined not to be late. Not that I ever was. I pulled on my clothes and brushed my hair. Then, I waited in my room for Sadie’s knock. I didn’t have to wait long, she was right on time.
“Hey Ben, listen, I’m not going to be in school again today.”
My heart sank. “Oh. Where are you going?”
She shrugged. “Just out. But you should stay.”
My heart sank even lower. She didn’t want me to come with her? Did I do something wrong? And now she wouldn’t even find out about Mr. Pritchard the way I had planned.
“Are you going to have breakfast?” I asked.
Sadie punched my shoulder playfully. “Jeez Ben, you don’t think I’d actually leave you to eat breakfast alone, do you?”
We walked down to breakfast and got our trays. I was still sulking over my ruined plan. When we were almost done with our bacon and eggs, the loudspeaker came on with a loud crackle that made everyone jump to attention. The headmaster’s voice came on, his quirky voice blasting throughout every room in the school with tremendous volume. Not many students had actually seen the headmaster. It was said that he just locked himself up in his office all day and left late at night. Some said that he was short and fat and smoked a pack of cigars every day. Some said that he was small and weedy and had tried to become a famous mathematician, but had failed. The only time I had ever heard him was during his announcements on the loudspeaker, and even those weren’t very common.
“Does anybody know how to turn the blasted volume down on these things? The school can’t afford to buy a thousand hearing aids for god’s sake!”
There were some giggles from the students. There came some more crackling from the loudspeaker and then the headmaster’s voice came back on, this time at a less deafening volume. “Students, I have an announcement to make. Mr. Pritchard, formerly known as your English teacher, has resigned as of last night for an unknown reason. Until we find a replacement, I will send in a substitute to as many of your classes as possible, but you may find that you have some free periods. Schedules will be posted on the bulletin board as soon as possible, so check those. Adios!” And he signed out with another crackle.
Everyone started talking immediately. I could hear people making various guesses as to why he resigned. “Maybe he got in a fight with the headmaster,” guessed one. “I bet he moved to Egypt,” said another.
I looked at Sadie. She was gaping at me in awe. “Was this you?” she leaned over and whispered to me. My face must have given it away. I nodded sheepishly. Tears sprung to her eyes and blinked them away furiously. Some escaped though, and ran down her cheeks. She wiped them away. “Oh Ben. I don’t know what to say. How did you even...,” she looked at me in amazement.
“It was easy actually,” I said. “I just told him that if he didn’t leave, that I would tell.”
“You’re so brave.” Sadie got up and hugged me tight. I had helped her. She was so happy, and it was all because of me. We put our trays away and I said goodbye to Sadie. She said that even though Mr. Pritchard wasn’t there, she still needed some time away. I understood. Nothing could be fixed so easily.
The day went by slowly. I missed Sadie being there. It was lonely without her.
When class ended for the day, I put my books in my bag, pushed my chair under my desk and began to walk back to my room. I could hear people walking behind me, so I turned around. It was those two boys from my class, the ones who threw spitballs at me. They were much bigger then I was, and they were sneering at me and stepping on the backs of my shoes so that my heel came out. I walked faster, pushing past people in the crowded corridors, but they were not easily lost. When I was almost at my room, I felt a hard blow on my side. One of them had pushed me into a small closet space, filled with stacks of papers and some old printers. They stood over me, laughing.
“Too bad your little girlfriend isn’t here to protect you.”
I cowered in the corner. I did not want to say anything because I was scared that whatever I would say would make them hit me. I did not want them to hit me.
It was too late for that though. The bigger one took a swing at me, his fist coming in contact with my jaw with tremendous force. I could taste blood in my mouth and it felt as though the world was spinning. I could hear them chortling above me.
“What a little wuss. You won’t even stand up and put up a proper fight.”
The little one spoke up now, his accent a heavy English drawl. “So where’s that little girlfriend of yours anyways?”
“She’s out,” I whispered.
The two boys grinned. “She’s messed up right? Like sick in the head.”
I did not say anything.
“You want another hit? Answer me.”
“She’s bipolar,” I said, because that was the truth.
“Yeah, yeah that’s it,” grunted the big one. He wiped his pudgy hands on the backs of his baggy trousers. “She’s got some sick pills right?”
“She has pills,” I said.
“Get them for us,” he ordered. “You can’t get s*** around here, we aren’t even allowed to leave the grounds. We need a kick, right?” He nudged the littler one.
“No,” I said. I did not want to steal Sadie’s stuff. It was not a nice thing to do.
“Did I hear you say no?” spat the littler one. He leant down and put his face very close to mine. So close that if I had time and if I had not been so frightened, I could have counted every one of his freckles. “Now you listen up. We saw them together. Mr. P and your precious girl. Now, I’m sure she wouldn’t want us telling the whole school about that little incident, would she?”
I shook my head. She wouldn’t.
“That’s right,” he nodded, straightening up again, “She wouldn’t. So, what about those pills, huh?”
“They are in her room.”
“Well, you’d better hurry up and get them before she comes back, right?”
I got up slowly, praying inside my head that they wouldn’t hit me down again. The two boys stood aside. “Meet us back here in 10 minutes. And you had better have them.”
I nodded and ran off. I could feel my heart beating in my chest and I could feel the sticky blood on my lips. I ran down the fire escape to the floor below and to Sadie’s room. She had given me a key to her room and I used it. Once I was in her room, I turned on the lights and looked around. There were a few items of clothing strewn over the floor and her guitar lay on her bed. It looked just as it always did.
I remembered where the pills were, on the shelf above the bathroom sink. I opened up the mirror and sure enough, there they were. I shook the bottle. It was almost full. I felt a wave of relief as I imagined what might happen if I went back to the boys with an empty bottle. I tried not to think about what I was doing. Sadie had told me herself that she didn’t really need them anyways, that she was normal. I told myself that it wouldn’t change her. Nothing would happen. It was fine, I was just protecting her.
As I closed the mirror back again, I saw my reflection properly. The left side of my face was bruised and the blood had begun to dry all over my chin and lips. I wondered if I had enough time to clean myself. In all the rush, I had forgotten to check the time. It didn’t feel like close to ten minutes though, so I splashed some water on my face and wiped it with some tissues. Then, I flushed them down the toilet. I didn’t want Sadie to see them.
I ran back down the narrow fire escape and back to the closet where the two boys were casually standing. They glanced down at their watch as I approached.
“Good. One more minute and you would have gotten it good,” grunted the big one.
“Yeah, so you got them?” The little one jutted his chin out at me.
“Yes.” I said. I pulled out the tube from under my coat and held it out in front of them.
“You stupid twat, don’t just hold it out like that.” The big one grabbed it out of my hand and stuffed it into the pocket of his oversized coat.
“Now piss off. And remember what happens if you tell anyone about this.”
I nodded, and we both left in different directions.
When I got back to my room, I turned off the lights and lay on my bed. The ceiling lit up with thousands of little stars. I closed my eyes, and told myself again that everything would be fine. I had made the right choice.
Sadie didn’t show up for dinner, and I felt a bit worried, but also relieved because it meant that she would not notice her missing pills just yet. I ate my dinner quickly so I could go back up to my room. I did my homework and worked some more on my animals. I was starting to get really good at making them, just as I was before. I was running low on supplies, but Mum had promised to bring me some more tomorrow, on my birthday. I was going to turn 16. Sadie kept making jokes about throwing me a secret sweet 16 party, but she knew I’d hate that. Plus, it would probably just be us two. And maybe Itamar, my illiterate Russian friend. If he would come all the way from Russia that is, which I doubted.
I just wanted something small, to just be able to spend time with Mum and Sadie.
I went to sleep that night wishing that Sadie was there to stay up with me and count down the hours till my birthday, like Mum used to do. I knew that Mum couldn’t do that anymore, but Sadie could. Why wasn’t she here? Why was she never here? I went to bed wishing that my birthday would go as I wanted it to. That nothing would be wrong. But sometimes wishes just don’t come true.
I didn’t feel any different when I woke up the next morning. I looked in the mirror, and I still looked the same. Sometimes I wonder why people make such a big deal about birthdays. In some cultures, they don’t even remember your birthday. I liked birthdays though, so I decided not to complain.
I also remembered that today, I would see Mum. This made me happy. In the morning of my birthdays, Mum used to wake me up with breakfast in bed and a present. I missed that very much. I pulled on my clothes and brushed my hair. Then, I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. I looked in the mirror and saw that the bruise by my jaw was still there. I knew that Mum and Sadie were probably going to ask what had happened. I would say that I hit it somewhere. This was not exactly a lie, because I did hit it somewhere. On the bully’s fist. It was a Saturday so I did not have school. I thought that it was nice that my birthday was on a weekend. The phone in my room was blinking red. I knew that this meant that there was a message that I had to listen to. I pressed the button, just as Mum had showed me, and I heard Mum’s voice. “Happy birthday Ben! you must be asleep, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m on my way, and I’ll be there in around an hour. Love you!”
I was happy that she had called me to wish me happy birthday and that I was going to see her soon. It seemed like it had been so long. I also wished that Sadie was here though. I didn’t understand why she was still always gone. Just at that moment though, Sadie burst into my room. I didn’t ask how she had gotten in, I assumed she had probably taken one of my extra keys.
She pounced on my bed, threw up her arms and yelled, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” She threw colored streamers that she had crumpled in her hand up in the air. Then she gave me a hug that almost made me lose my breath completely.
“Thanks,” I laughed.
Sadie grinned. “I can’t wait to meet your Mum! Oh, today is going to be so fun!”
“Yes, it will be,” I agreed.
“So,” she continued in a more serious manner, “When do you want your present?”
I was surprised. I did not think that she had actually gotten me something.
“This afternoon,” she asked, “When your Mum is there as well?”
“Yes,” I decided, thinking that that would be the best time.
“Oh,” Sadie said after a bit, cocking her head sideways like a confused dog, “You know something weird? My meds are gone. Like completely gone.”
“Oh,” I said. I had been hoping that she wouldn’t bring this up, but I knew it was coming.
“Not that it really matters anyways,” she said, brushing her hand through the air dismissively. “I’m totally fine, like I said before. I just got a new prescription, so they won’t be expecting me to come in for a refill anytime soon. Until then I’ll just take a break.”
She seemed so dismissive, like it wasn’t a big deal at all. I felt relieved. That meant that I was right then. It wouldn’t change anything, and in a while she’d get a new bottle of pills and everything would be fine.
Sadie and I went downstairs to have breakfast and then waited on a bench outside for Mum to come. I couldn’t wait to see her, and I didn’t want her to have to wander around the school trying to find my room. We didn’t have to wait long. After 12 minutes and 4 seconds of sitting there, I saw the bus pull up in front of the school. I got up and walked to the gates, Sadie following at my side. I saw Mum hop out of the bus and onto the pavement. She looked around and then saw me. Her face broke into a big grin and she started waving frantically. I waved back, and so did Sadie. Then, instead of walking towards us, she craned her neck to look behind her. And then out from the bus came the zookeeper, Alan. She grabbed his hand and they walked over to us.
Mum had brought Alan to my birthday? She knew that I liked it being just me and her. It had never been anybody else since Dad had left. I watched her with him, stuck on his arm, laughing. She looked so happy. I wanted to make her happy, I did not want him to. I did not want him here on my birthday. I never wanted to see him again. The voices and noises around me started to turn into a low humming noise. I could hear Sadie whispering my name worriedly, but I did not listen. I turned around and ran.
I ran all the way back to the school, through the door and up the stairs. When I was on my floor, I ran to my room and slammed the door behind me. I curled up into a little ball in my bed and hid under the covers. I wanted to disappear, leave everything behind. Especially Alan the zookeeper. I wished so much that I had my desk from home. It always helped me disappear. I also wished that I had strawberry bubble gum. I lay in my bed with my eyes closed tightly shut. I tried to imagine that everything was fine, that my birthday was going to go exactly as I wished, but I knew that couldn’t happen now. I was so angry. I was angry at Mum for bringing Alan and for liking him so much. I was angry at Alan for coming and for liking my Mum so much. I wasn’t mad at Sadie. I decided that if Sadie came up to my room looking for me, that I would let her in.
I lay in my bed for 18 minutes and 36 seconds before I heard the knock. I knew it was Sadie because of the way she knocked. I got up out of my bed and opened the door. I hoped that Mum and Alan weren’t there with her. They were not.
“Hey Ben,” she said with a sigh.
“Hey,” I replied, letting her come into my room.
“Why did you run away?”
I looked down at the ground. “Because she brought the zookeeper.”
“So?” Sadie said, gesticulating exasperatedly, “You knew she had a serious boyfriend. Don’t you want her to be happy? Alan is actually a nice guy!”
I thought for a minute. “I do want her to be happy. But not with someone else. With me. She’s going to forget me and stop loving me as much and start loving him more. I know it. I wanted this day to just be you, Mum, and me but she had to go bring him as well. She didn’t even tell me.”
Sadie nodded. “She should have told you. But listen, it’s your sixteenth birthday! You can do whatever you want. If you don’t want to spend the day with him, you shouldn’t have to. It’s all up to you, Ben.”
It’s all up to me, I thought. She was right. “I know what I want to do.”
Sadie went to her room to get her bag and then we left. I did not say goodbye to Mum or Alan. I did not want to see either of them. We ran down the fire escape and then outside. We climbed over the gate and ran down the sidewalk, away from everything and everyone. This time though, we didn’t run all the way into town in the direction of Raj’s music shop. We went a different way, down some busy streets and some crowded streets. Sadie and I posed for a photo with a man dressed up as a knight in shining armor. We asked a random man to take it for us. We walked further until we came to a lake. There was an ice cream man with a small stand on wheels selling ice cream and popsicles. Sadie bought us each one of those white creamy ice creams that come out shaped like twirls. It was quite a hot day, and we licked at them from around the sides so that they didn’t melt all over the cone. Holding our ice creams safely up in the air, we slid down the grassy slide on our bums, laughing at our grass stains afterwards. We took off our shoes and I rolled my pants up so that my legs dangled in the water. Sadie was wearing shorts, so she didn’t have to.
“This is what I want to do.” I said, happily.
Sadie smiled. “This is nice, but you should be more grateful for what you have Ben. I mean, you have a Mum who loves you and who phones you and visits you.. I don’t even have that.”
I frowned. I realized that I hadn’t really talked to Sadie much about her parents. Whenever one of us brought the subject up, she would talk about something different.
“Where are your parents?”
Sadie laughed dryly. “How should I know? They could be in Rome or China or probably just relaxing by their pool mansion in Boca. Neither of them have said a word to me in almost half a year, except for the occasional postcard. They’re crazy rich, so they travel everywhere and it’s pretty handy for them to just stick me here while they’re off on their wild adventures.”
I was surprised at the loathing in which she spoke of her parents.
“But whatever,” she continued, “I’d rather be here then to live with them. I’d rather be anywhere then live with them. My Mum spends most of her life in the shopping mall or at her plastic surgeon anyways.”
I glanced at my reflection in the water and licked my ice cream thoughtfully. Maybe Sadie was right. I wondered why she had never told me that before. I never knew that her parents didn’t care about her. I felt silly now, thinking that Mum would ever treat me that way.
Sadie smiled. “You’ve got a little...” She took her finger and put it to my lip, wiping at something. And then her hand was moving down my neck and onto my shoulder and her face was moving towards mine and her lips were on mine and she was kissing me. Her eyes were closed, so I closed mine too. I could taste the same sweet ice cream on her lips. I liked the feeling, the warmth, of them against mine. I had never been kissed before.
When we stopped, she pulled back and smiled shyly at the water.
“Why did you do that?” I asked, because I definitely had not seen that coming. And usually I see things coming.
Sadie went red and became very interested in drifting her pink and black painted toes in and out of the water. “I guess because,” she said softly, “Because I like you, Ben.”
Well I liked the turtle cowgirl lady, but I didn’t kiss her.
“I like you as, more than a friend,” she corrected herself.
“Like a boyfriend?” I asked.
“I, well, yeah, I guess like that.”
“Oh.” I said. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and I was worried that she could see it too and know how nervous I was. I didn’t know what I was feeling. It wasn’t something that I had ever felt before. I wanted to always be able to kiss Sadie like that. I liked her, as more than a friend.
“I like you too,” I said, “as more than a friend.”
Sadie smiled at me and I smiled back at her and then I leant forward and kissed her because I wanted to.
When the sun was going down and we were about to head back, Sadie exclaimed, “Wait! I almost forgot!” She unzipped her bag and pulled out a little box covered in wrapping paper. “This is your birthday present,” she said, holding it out to me proudly.
I took off the wrapping paper carefully, sliding my finger under the tape as not to tear it. It was a little plastic box. Inside the box, was a green I-pod. It was shaped like a long, thin rectangle. I had never had my own I-pod. Mum did, but she didn’t use it much except for when she went jogging. And she hardly ever went jogging.
“It’s an I-pod Nano!” exclaimed Sadie, as if I didn’t know.
“Wow. Thank you so much Sadie.” I hugged her. “How did you pay for this?” I asked, because I knew how expensive I-pods were.
“My parents send me some spending money, and I worked at Raj’s for a couple days to get the rest. It doesn’t matter.”
So that’s where she had been those last few days. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t expect her to do this much for me. I didn’t know how to thank her.
“Thank you so much Sadie. This is amazing, and you really didn’t have to!” I said, because it was nice and polite and it was also what I felt.
Sadie laughed, “It’s no biggie. By the way, I already synced it and downloaded all my music onto it. I thought you should start off your music appreciation career with the good stuff. So, you’re welcome for that.” She got up and dusted off the back of her pants.
I got up as well. I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and listen to it.
We walked back, leaving the sunset behind us. I wondered if Mum would still be there, but I doubted it. We had been gone for hours and hours.
“By the way,” Sadie suddenly said, “That wasn’t your only present.”
“You mean there’s more?” I said in astonishment. There couldn’t possibly be more after all she had done for me.
“Just wait and see till tomorrow, it’s a surprise,” she winked. She tagged my shoulder and started sprinting off down the road. I laughed and ran after her.
When we had arrived at the school and climbed back over the gates, I was surprised to see Mum sitting on the bench. She was sitting cross legged and reading a book.
She didn’t realize that I was there until I stood right in front of her, casting a shadow over the crisp white pages of her novel. She looked up.
“Ben.” She closed her book and looked up at me.
Sadie looked at us. “Well, I’m just going to put my bag in my room. I’ll leave you two alone.” She skipped off.
I sat down next to Mum. “I’m sorry for running off,” I said. “I was mad that you brought Alan.”
Mum nodded. “I understand. I should have told you. I just, I thought you liked him and I thought maybe you’d be happy. But it was stupid of me. I’m sorry.”
She hugged me and I hugged her back.
“Where’s Alan?” I asked.
“He went home,” she replied. “We agreed it would be better if it was just you and me. How was your day with Sadie?”
“It was nice,” I said, looking at the ground sheepishly. I didn’t want her to know that we had kissed. “She got me an I-pod for my birthday.”
Mum raised her eyebrows. “Wow, an I-pod. Well that’s hard to beat.” She laughed. “Here are your presents.”
She opened her bag and pulled out a few wrapped parcels.
I unwrapped the first present. It was shaped like a book, so that was what I suspected that it was. I was right. It was a big hardcover book about constellations and the universe. I thanked Mum. Now I would be able to tell Sadie even more about the stars.
The next one was a box, but bigger than the one that Sadie had given me. I unwrapped it to find that it was a mobile phone with a camera and touch screen. Mum grinned. “I thought you were ready to have your own mobile phone. Especially since we’re so far apart now.”
I grinned. I had been wanting a mobile phone for a while now, and this was a really nice one. I thanked Mum and gave her a hug. The last one was very small and thin. It seemed to be a piece of card, so I unwrapped it very, very carefully so that I wouldn’t destroy it. It was covered in pictures of animals and read, ‘London Zoo: Year long Membership.’
“That’s so you can come to the zoo any time you want, for free,” Mum explained.
This meant that I could watch the monkeys whenever I wanted. I could just come and go whenever I pleased. “Thank you so much Mum!” I hugged her.
Even though the day hadn’t started off as I had dreamt it to, it turned out to be better than I had imagined.
I showed Mum my room and Sadie’s room and all of my toothpick animals. She was very happy that I was making them again. When it was dark, she reluctantly told me that she would have to be leaving. We walked her out to the bus stop and waited with her until her bus came. Then, I hugged her and so did Sadie. She promised us that she would come again soon. Then she kissed me on the cheek and told me happy birthday again. And then she got on the bus and drove away.
The next morning, I slept in. I didn’t need to get up early because it was a weekend which meant that there was no school, and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come. At 10:50, I got up and got changed. I put on a red t-shirt that had a picture of an old car on it and a pair of jeans. I brushed my hair and teeth and decided to call Sadie to ask her if she wanted to go down to breakfast or sneak over the gate and get some at a cafe. I took out my new mobile phone and called Sadie.
“Hey Sadie, do you...”
“Hang on, I’m coming over to yours!”
She hung up, and moments later I heard a frantic banging at my door.
I opened up and found Sadie. The first thing I noticed was her hair. It was bright turquoise. Then I noticed her clothes. She was wearing even more eccentric items than usual. Her red sheer tights were layered with bright yellow knee-high socks and on top she wore a black sweater with a plaid vest. She bounced into my room.
“I feel amazing!” she screamed.
“Your hair is blue,” I said.
“Duh,” she retorted, “I spent all night doing this. But I finally got it the perfect color! Like it?” She did a twirl, her hair swirling around her in a whirl of blue. The color reminded me of the color of the blue slush puppies.
“It’s different,” I replied. It really was different.
Sadie seemed not to hear me, she was in her own world. “God, I haven’t felt this good since.. since I don’t even know when!”
She suddenly looked at me as if she had just realized that I was there. “Oh, so why did you call me?”
“I was just wondering what you were doing for breakfast,” I replied with a shrug.
“Oh yes! Breakfast! We can go into town and get something! I’ll go down to my room and get my purse. Meet me by the entrance!” She skipped out of the room, not closing the door behind her.
I thought that Sadie was being weird, that she was being different, but I told myself that she was just spontaneous and this was probably one of her phases. I grabbed my wallet and headed out. Mum had given me quite a bit of money to spend on outings and other various things. She had also left me with a good amount of supplies for my toothpick creations, which I was happy about.
I met Sadie in the entrance, where she said, and we left. She told me in awe about how beautiful the birds sounded in the morning and how she wondered why she had never realized it and that I shouldn’t sleep in so late because I missed it.
We strolled down to the really busy street, which wasn’t that far. Sadie babbled on nonstop about anything and everything. I just walked and did not listen.
There were many cafes along either side of the street, and Sadie would skip from one side to the other peering in the windows and judging if it was a good enough place to go to. Finally, after what seemed like hours of criticism and debating, she picked a funky vegan cafe that was painted in all colors of the rainbow and had various festival posters thumb-tacked to every inch of available space. Sadie said that the colors matched her mood. We ordered two servings of vegan pancakes with syrup and dug in. They were surprisingly good. Sadie kept drizzling the syrup in little smiley faces all over her pancake. I still found it hard to get used to her turquoise hair. There were still some black bits in it, but it still made her look so different.
After we had finished our breakfast, I paid for our pancakes and walked further down the busy street. We were in the more cultural part now, and now the sides of the street were lined with handmade jewelry shops, costume shops and vintage clothing shops. Sadie wanted to go into every one. She loved the clothing, and would take whatever stood out to her on the racks and sling it over her neck, posing in front of the mirror. Sometimes, she wouldn’t even try it on. She would just look at it briefly, hang it over her arm on top of a whole pile of other random junk and pay for it. She particularly liked the colored shoes, and would stomp around in them laughing. I would just stand there and give her feedback whenever she asked for it. She spent what seemed like thousands, flashing her bank card in every store that would accept it.
We were walking down another street, heading more or less in the direction back to the school, though I wasn’t sure where we were exactly at all, when Sadie’s phone vibrated. Her hands were full with shopping bags, so I dug it out of her bag for her. It said it was from Uncle Nicolas.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, dropping all her bags onto the ground and grabbing the phone out of my hand, “You can’t read that!”
I frowned. What secret could she be keeping from me now? I was beginning to despise that phone.
“It’s about the other part of your birthday present,” she explained, probably noticing my face. She tapped around on her phone and I could see her eyes scanning the screen.
“Okay,” she said finally, “We need to be back at school in an hour.”
“Do you know where we are?” I asked.
“No!” She laughed hysterically. “That’s why this is so fun! Adventurous, spontaneous, fun fun fun!”
I frowned. She wasn’t making any sense. If we needed to be back at school in an hour, we should try to find a way home. Sadie made a sad face and squeezed my cheeks.
“Someone woke up on the wrong side of bed today huh? Don’t worry, we’ll just get a taxi back.”
We finally managed to flag down a stray taxi and told him the address. It took us 40 minutes to get back to the school, which showed just how far we had walked. There was traffic though. When we got back, Sadie told me that I would find out my surprise super soon and that I would be so happy and that it was very exciting.
I wondered what it was going to be. I didn’t like surprises, but I thought that if Sadie had organized it that it would be okay. I thought. After seeing her hair, I had sort of changed my mind about Sadie’s surprises.
I sat in my room and fiddled with my toothpick animals. I sorted them into groups and put them in different positions. I had made so many, maybe even more then I had had back home. And these were better too, I thought.
I heard Sadie knocking on the door, so I went to open it. She was standing with a man. He looked young, early thirties I’d have guessed. He had brown skin and a slender molded face with some stubble placed evenly over his chin. He wore jeans, a white shirt and a light blue blazer. He looked like someone from a TV show or a magazine. He smiled at me, his white teeth even whiter against his caramel skin.
“Ben, this is my uncle Nicolas, Nicolas, this is Ben. Nicolas is the husband of the sister of my Mum,” Sadie introduced us.
“So,” he extended his hand to me, “This is the Ben that I’ve been hearing so much about.”
I shook it and replied, “Hello.”
Sadie laughed and hugged me. “So, you’re probably really confused right now? Right? Right?” She shook my shoulders, grinning from ear to ear.
“Quite bouncy today, aren’t you Sadie?” Uncle Nic gave me an awkward smile and put his hand on his niece's shoulder as if that would calm her down. She brushed it off.
“Ben, Nic owns a gallery in the posh part of London, and he needs a show. The theme this season is African Culture, right?” She looked up at Uncle Nic for reassurance. He nodded and smiled encouragingly.
“So,” she continued, “He wants to look at your toothpick animals for the exhibition!”
“Well, I had a photographer who I was going to have flown to Africa to take pictures for it, but it seems that’s what all the galleries are doing. I want something different. Something that people will really remember.”
I nodded. It was true that nobody had ever really heard of making things out of toothpicks before. I held open the door and motioned for them to come inside. Uncle Nic saw my toothpick creations immediately. He walked over to my desk and turned on the overhead light, even getting down on his knees so he could see them at a level.
He even circled around, admiring each of them separately.
“Can I pick one up?” he breathed in amazement.
I told him he could, and he carefully picked up an elephant with his thumb and forefinger. He reminded me so much of Sadie when she had first seen them.
“These are amazing,” he concluded. “I would be honored to display them at the exhibition.”
“You really want to display these in your fancy gallery?” I gasped. I couldn’t believe it.
Sadie grinned. “I told you! See Nic? Don’t I just have such an eye for things like this? Oh Ben, this is going to be amazing!”
Uncle Nic nodded. “Trust me, people will love this. It’s so fresh, so new. And they’re so intricate!” He shook his head in disbelief. “You’d get quite a sum of money from it as well, and all the credit for the art.”
I nodded. Was he seriously asking me to consider? Like I needed to! “Yes! Yes, I’ll do it!” I exclaimed. I felt exhilarated. It was like for the first time, people were actually starting to notice what I was doing. Maybe now I wouldn’t get teased anymore. Maybe now people would respect me.
Uncle Nic gave me a booklet that he had printed out with all the necessary protocol that I needed to fulfill. He told me exactly what I needed to make, and gave me his email address so that I could take pictures and send them to him regularly so that he could track my progress and plan out what to put where.
“I was worried that I would have to go with the photography idea, seeing as the exhibition is only in a week, but Sadie told me you made all of these in just one or two nights?”
Uncle Nic shook his head again. “Well, it looks like I’ve found my guy then.”
After saying goodbye to Uncle Nic, I thanked Sadie again. “I can’t believe you called him. That was amazing, Sadie. Thank you so much.” I hugged her tight.
She hugged me back and then kissed my cheek. “No problem.”
When I got back to my room after dinner, the first thing I did was call Mum. I called her on her cellphone, because I did not want to call home and risk the chance of Alan the zookeeper picking up the phone.
“Hey Ben!” came her voice on the other end of the line.
“Hi Mum. Guess what?”
“Sadie has an uncle, Uncle Nicolas, he owns a gallery in the posh part of London. Anyways for his new exhibition, he needed something to do with Africa and he didn’t want to do photography because he felt like that was too typical, so Sadie mentioned my toothpick animals to him and he came over today and saw them and he wants me to make him loads of them for the exhibition!”
Mum gasped, “Oh, Ben, really? Oh my god, that’s great! I can’t believe this! I’m so proud of you honey. Your talent is finally getting really appreciated!”
“I’m really happy,” I told her, because I was.
“I bet you are,” she said, and I could tell from her voice that she was smiling. “I wish I could celebrate with you right now. Say thank you from me to Sadie though!”
“I will,” I promised. “I’d better go now and work on them, the exhibition is in a week.”
“Okay sweetie, send me all the information!”
I told her that I would and we said good bye and then I hung up.
I cleared off the toothpick animals that I had already created. I had already sorted through them with Uncle Nic and Sadie, picking the ones out that he wanted for the exhibition. I laid out all my materials in a neat row, and got to work.
The next few days, I worked harder then I had ever worked before. I made 300 African animals, along with Masai villages and livestock. I had also constructed trees and other foliage. Uncle Nic had told me that he was already getting someone to create the landscapes, so my creations would look right at home.
Sadie had still been acting as bubbly and boisterous as she had the day that she dyed her hair. Now, she was considering dying it all of the colors of the rainbow, but she thought that it would be hard to color the back of her hair and that she might mess up. I told her it was better just to leave it turquoise.
Before I knew it, the day of the exhibition was upon me. I had finished everything that Uncle Nic had wanted me to, including extras in case any broke. Sadie and I had to wake up at 6 am, get dressed and wait for the men to arrive. I wore a suit that Mum had sent me in the mail. It was very fancy, with black pants, a white pressed shirt and a black blazer. Mum had borrowed a pair of fancy black shoes from another Mum, so I was wearing those. I even had a red bow tie around my neck. I felt like James Bond.
Uncle Nic had told us that he was going to send around 10 men to wrap up the toothpick art and transport it to the gallery. He also said that he had ordered a separate car for us.
We were both very excited, though I thought that Sadie probably was excited enough for both of us. She couldn’t sit still, jumping up and down on my bed and babbling about how amazing it was all going to be.
When the men came to my room, we helped them wrap up every toothpick animal separately in foam and put them in little boxes. It was a tedious task, but it made me feel special, like my toothpick creations were actually a work of art that needed to be protected and taken care of. The men wrapped in silence, while Sadie tried her best to start conversation with them. They would glance at her, smile and nod politely and then go back to their work. This did not discourage her though, she went on and on about this and that and it was starting to give me a headache so I decided to listen to my I-pod.
Sadie had filled it with almost a thousand songs, none of which I knew. I liked the Nine Inch Nails, Arcade Fire and of course Nirvana. I could even hum along to Nirvana’s songs now, to Sadie’s delight.
After hours of wrapping, taping and packing, we were done. The men carried the boxes downstairs with Sadie and I in tow. It was a school day today, but I was missing it. Uncle Nic had written me a letter to explain. As our procession paraded down the corridors, students turned their heads to watch us. Nobody dared to through little paper balls or sling curse words at me, not with ten burly men walking with me.
Outside, there was a minivan and a black limousine. The men opened the back of the van and piled the boxes into it. A man in a suit and a black cap got out of the limo and beckoned us over. He walked around the other side of it and held the door open for us. “This is for us?” Sadie squealed, hitching up her red velvet skirt that she claimed was the finest item in her wardrobe.
The inside was sort of like a small room. The seats were like sofas all along the sides. There were bottles of apple juice, coke and sprite in a little fridge under the flat screen TV.
I felt like a celebrity, like there should be paparazzi trailing behind us.
“We’re like celebrities!” Sadie exclaimed, echoing my thoughts. She eagerly poured herself a cup of coke. Like she needed any more caffeine.
The driver turned around in his seat so that he was facing us. “We’ll be there in an hour, enjoy yourselves guys!”
We thanked him and turned the TV on. Law and Order was on, so we watched that. I like that show because it has detectives in it. Also, it is fun to guess who the culprit is and then see if you’re right or not. I also watched it because Sadie liked it and she didn’t want to watch a nature channel. I was glad to watch something that she liked because it meant that maybe she would be quiet for once. Her constant babbling was really starting to ‘get on my nerves’ as Mum says.
When we arrived at the gallery, I wished that the drive could have been longer. I didn’t want to get out of the limo. I could hear the people outside, the loud noises. I wanted to stay inside where it was nice and safe. I could tell that Sadie was also reluctant to leave. She stroked the leather seats lovingly and then said, “Okay Ben, let’s leave.”
I was about to dispute when my door swung open. The driver was holding it open and motioning for us to get out. I could feel Sadie jabbing my back, forcing me out. I took a deep breath and stepped out. The moment the door closed, I was blinded by flashing lights. Photographers snapped away at me, their faces hidden behind their big cameras.
The driver pushed them away and made a path for us to follow to the front entrance. Then he slid a card that he had hanging around his neck through a little slot and the glass door slid open for us.
Uncle Nic came out to meet us. “I’m so glad you guys arrived on time, there’s so much to be done. Where are the boxes? We need to start unpacking immediately.” He ran the palm of his hand over his forehead. I could tell that he was very stressed.
“The boxes are in the van,” I told him. And just then, the door opened again and the men walked in, holding the boxes very carefully. They carried them further inside and set them on a big table. Uncle Nic breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, okay everything’s going well.”
He pointed to the door. “See all those photographers? They’re all excited to see you, Ben! You’re the star! There’s going to be people from the newspaper here as well to interview you. The toothpick art announcement was a huge hit. I can’t thank you enough!”
I told him that it was no problem, and then Sadie and I remembered to thank him for the limousine. He brushed his hand in the air dismissively. “It was the least that I could do.”
A man in a suit with a wire connecting to a microphone that was attached around his ear led us to a room upstairs where he told us to wait. He said that there were diorama specialists constructing the scenes downstairs, and that we weren’t needed until the doors opened to the public. He showed us a fridge filled with various refreshments and a table with croissants, pancakes, sandwiches and fruit salad. I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t had breakfast and that I was actually quite hungry.
As soon as the man left, closing the door behind him, Sadie and I dug in. Then we ate our food in front of the TV. There was a show on about a couple who wanted to redo their house. I thought that it was boring, but I watched it anyways.
The whole left side of the room was one big glass window. When I looked out of it, I felt as though I could see the whole of London, though I knew that that wasn’t possible. People filled every inch of pavement, like a big sea of colors. The grey and brown buildings were high and looked very important.
Sadie and I played Monopoly that had been purposely left out on the glass coffee table. I won every time.
We were starting to get restless when Uncle Nic came in. He apologized to us for having to wait up here for so long. He told us that the specialists who were setting everything up downstairs were almost finished and that the guests would arrive soon. He told me that most people who were going to attend the opening were important, rich people. He told me that I could just walk around and talk to some of them, and not to be shy. He told me I could answer whatever I wanted to their questions. Then, he went back downstairs. He took Sadie with him, and said that in half an hour, I would need to come down the stairs for my grand entrance.
Sadie wished me good luck and skipped off with her uncle. They looked an odd pair, her with her electric turquoise hair and red velvet skirt and combat boots and him with his fancy, pressed suit.
I looked out of the window, suddenly wishing that Sadie had stayed with me. I was scared to walk down those stairs all by myself, with all those people watching me. I told myself not to be afraid, but I still was. Mum said that she was going to be there. She also told me that she was going to bring Alan. I did not know exactly how I felt about this, but I decided not to run away this time. I wouldn’t talk to him or like him, but I wouldn’t hate him. I was just happy that Mum was going to be there. I wanted to make her really proud of me.
I could hear the people arriving downstairs, the clinking of glasses and the sounds of conversation. When exactly thirty minutes had passed by, I opened the door and looked down the white staircase. I slowly started walking down. I did not look, but I could feel everyone watching me. I could hear the silence rest over them, and the only sounds that were heard in the room were those of my footsteps descending the stairs. I wished that they would all just talk and make more noise. When I reached the bottom of the staircase, Uncle Nic came over to me and put his arm around me.
“And here is our star. He created every one of these intricate, delicate pieces of art. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you, the talented Benjamin Sayer!”
The crowd erupted in applause. All of the men were wearing suits and all of the women were wearing dresses and very high heels. They did look very rich and important.
I did not know what to do, so I smiled at everyone to be polite. Uncle Nic steered me into the crowd, briefly introducing me to people as we went around. I smiled and shook their hands.
“So, I guess you want to see the exhibit, right?” Uncle Nic winked.
“Yes!” I breathed. I couldn’t wait to see how my figures had been assembled.
He led me over to the adjoining room. Glass cases displayed exotic African scenes. The herds of animals that I had made seemed to come to life, galloping over the African savannah. The little Masai men grazed their cattle by the village, and the little children clung onto their mother’s backs. There were little glass dioramas that clung to the walls, and then big ones in the middle of the room. Guests peered into the glass, admiring my artwork. I could hear them on all aides of me, discussing how amazing they were and how they had never seen anything like this before. I spotted Mum, gazing into a small diorama at the other end of the room. The diorama showed a pride of lions eating a giraffe.
I walked over to her. “Hi Mum,” I said.
She hugged me. “Oh Ben, I can’t believe you made all of these! I’m so proud of you honey, these are simply beautiful.” She looked as if she was about to cry.
Then I saw Alan standing next to her. In his suit and tie, he was just as dressed up as Mum, who was wearing a dark blue dress with a green necklace and heels. He smiled at me and shifted his feet awkwardly. “These are really good Ben, I didn’t know you were so talented. You must be very proud.”
I nodded stiffly. “Thank you.”
I talked to Mum for a bit, with Alan adding a side comment every now and then. He was being nice, so I decided not to say anything mean to him. Then, I went back into the other room where all the guests were standing, glasses of champagne held daintily in their hands. A couple men approached me, one with a big camera and one with a pen and paper.
“You’re Benjamin, right?,” asked the one with the pen and paper.
“Yes,” I replied, because I was Benjamin.
“We’re from the Huffington post and we were wondering if you would agree to answer some questions for us.”
I told them that I would. The man with the pen and paper asked me things like where was I born, how did I start making the toothpick animals, what did my parents think about it, where did I get my inspiration from and was this the first time that they were being displayed to the public. I tried my best to answer every question well, because it was for a big newspaper. Then, the man with the camera took a few pictures of me standing with Uncle Nic by the dioramas. Nobody had ever wanted to interview me before, or take pictures of me.
In all of the introductions, I had almost forgotten about Sadie. I found her in the corner of the room talking to my Mum. When I approached, Sadie hugged me very tight and exclaimed, “Ben, this is so good! See how well it turned out? Everybody loves your art! You’re going to be so famous!” She giggled and posed with me for a passing photographer.
After hours of walking around the rooms, talking to people and answering questions, it was time to go. Most people had already left, and it was getting dark. Mum offered to take Sadie and I and Uncle Nic out to dinner to celebrate, but Uncle Nic politely declined, explaining that he had too much work to do at the gallery. Sadie and I were so tired, we both just wanted to go to sleep. Also, we had eaten so much at the gallery that we weren’t even hungry. Mum sighed and promised us that we would just do it again another night. I said good bye to Uncle Nic, thanking him for everything. He told me that he would talk to my Mum about the money that I had earned. I wondered how much it was, not that it really mattered. Having everyone consider my toothpick creations a work of art was enough for me.
Sadie and I did not watch much TV in the limo on the way home. We put the seats all the way back and slept. There were even blankets and pillows, so it was quite comfy. When we arrived at the school, we thanked the driver and watched him drive off. We walked into the school, our feet dragging behind us. I couldn’t wait to get into my bed.
Sadie hugged me again and told me how proud she was of me. Then, we went to our separate floors.
I was fast asleep when my phone rang. Woken up by the loud ringtone, I felt blindly around the floor next to my bed for it. I tried to focus my eyes to see who was calling. It was Sadie. I picked up.
“Sadie, it’s midnight”
“Is it? I thought it was 3 am. Or maybe it’s 4 am.” Her voice sounded dry, disconnected and emotionless.
“Sadie are you okay?” I asked her.
“Define okay,” she replied.
“Well, are you sad?”
“Sad?’ she laughed. “Sad. What an understatement. My life sucks, Ben, can’t you see? Look at you, you’re going to be famous. You just had a grand opening at a classy gallery in London. You’re in the newspaper for god’s sakes. You have a mother who’s so proud of you. What do I have? Nothing.”
“You have me.”
“Right, until you become rich and move back to your house, or maybe buy your own apartment even, I don’t know. I’ll just be left here, just like before, just like always.”
“I won’t. I promise,” I said earnestly.
Sadie laughed again, but it wasn’t her usual bubbly cheerful laugh, it was a dark haunting laugh. One that made you feel chills in your bones.
“You know Kurt Cobain was bipolar right?”
“No, I did not know that.”
“Yeah. He was. Do you know how he died? He wrote a suicide note and shot himself in the head. He killed himself. I used to be proud of being bipolar because of him. How ridiculous, right?”
“Well you do like him a lot,” I replied.
Sadie snorted, “Right. I’m just some stupid little obsessive fan girl and you’re going to be this big hit. Well guess what. I’ll show them just how much of a fan girl I am.”
She hung up.
I was too tired to think about the conversation. Sadie was always pulling stuff like this, it was all part of the spontaneous thing, I figured. I fell back asleep in no time.
At 1:02, I woke up again. My room was too hot, and I wanted to turn on the fan. While I was stumbling around, I noticed my phone flashing. I picked it up and saw that I had 4 missed calls from Sadie. I tried calling her back, but she didn’t pick up. I started to get worried, what if she wanted to tell me something? I was awake anyways, and I knew that I probably wouldn’t be falling asleep anytime soon, especially if I didn’t know. So, I pulled on sweatpants over my boxers and threw on a shirt and left.
The lights were out in the corridors, and I felt as though I was in a horror movie. I told myself that there weren’t any serial killers hiding behind the lockers waiting for me to walk by. When I got to Sadie’s room, nobody opened the door. I knocked and knocked, but nobody opened. I had the key though, so I opened the door with that. The room was pitch black. “Sadie?” I called softly. “Are you there?”
No reply. Had she snuck out? Was that why she called me? Because she wanted me to come?
I flicked on the light.
No, she had not snuck out.
Sadie’s body was pale and lifeless on her bed. The white sheets were stained red and her arms flopped down, revealing gashes on the insides of her wrists and all up her arm. Blood was still dripping down, off her hand and onto the carpet where it gathered in a little pool. Her head was turned the other way, so I couldn’t see her face.
I felt like screaming, but no sound came out. I felt like running, but my legs didn’t move. I just stood there. Then, I walked towards her. I was scared to touch her. Her turquoise hair had streaks of dried blood in it and it hung around her face like a tangly mess. Was she dead? Her skin was as pale as a ghost. She looked dead. But she couldn’t be, she couldn’t. I slowly reached out my hand and put two fingers on her neck to feel her pulse. It was still there. She was not dead. I knew what I needed to do, I needed to get help. I felt in my pocket for my phone, but realized that I had left it in my room.
I saw Sadie’s phone lying on her desk and quickly dialed 911, which is what you call when you need the ambulance. An operator picked up on the other end and asked me what service I required; police, medical or fire.
“Medical,” I replied softly. I could taste my salty tears in my mouth, but I didn’t feel them running down my cheeks.
The operator transferred me to someone else, who asked me what was wrong.
“My friend, Sadie Milan. She, she has slits on her wrists, there’s blood everywhere..” My voice started shaking and I couldn’t stop it.
“Don’t worry honey, we’ll be right there. Where are you?”
I told her the address of the school, and the floor and room number. I didn’t want to go downstairs to wait for them and have to show them the room. I didn’t want to leave Sadie by herself.
I stroked her hair and her cheek. I kneeled beside her bed and clasped my hands together. I don’t believe in God. Neither Mum or Dad ever did. I find it hard to see the truth in the fact that there is some other being watching over us, fulfilling wishes and creating new lives. But now, I wished that he existed. I squeezed my eyes shut and rested my chin on my knotted fingers. “Please God, if you are up there, please don’t let Sadie die.” My words came out all sputtery, not strong and brave like I wanted to. My tears flowed onto my hands, making my fingers slippery.
It seemed to take forever for the ambulance to come, but it only took 10 minutes until I heard voices coming down the corridor. I got up and stood in the doorway, beckoning them over. They ran past me, lifting Sadie onto a stretcher. They connected wires to her, and stuck tubes in her that were connected to machines and plastic bags filled with liquid dangling on a metal pole that was attached to the stretcher. They didn’t pay any attention to me, so I just stood and watched. They were yelling things at each other, but I couldn’t hear them. Everything just started to go fuzzy. I felt nausea in the pit of my stomach, and before I knew it, everything went black.
I woke up in a chair in the lobby downstairs. Sal was sitting in the chair next to me, sipping a cold tea. Her eyes were red, and I knew that she had been crying. When she noticed that I was awake, she clasped my face in her hands, and hugged me. I could feel her body heaving with sobs. “She’s going to be alright, it’s okay, she’s going to be alright,” she repeated between fits. I remembered Sadie, and the people from the hospital carrying her on a stretcher.
“We need to go to the hospital,” I told Sal.
She nodded. “I was just waiting for you to wake up. Let’s get a taxi.”
We didn’t speak in the taxi ride to the hospital. I think we were both just praying, praying that she would be okay. When we arrived at the hospital, we ran to the front desk and asked for Sadie. They pointed us to the Emergency Room, where a nurse told us that we wouldn’t be able to see her for a while and that we would have to wait.
I hated the hospital. The people being pushed around in their beds, the white floors and that sickly smell of plastic gloves. I sat down next to Sal and thought. How did it happen to her? I knew that it was a stupid question. I knew the answer. It was a suicide attempt, she had done it herself. Why would she do that though? I leant forwards and clasped my forehead with my hands. She seemed so happy before. She wouldn’t have done that to herself. I knew Sadie, and she wouldn’t have done that.
I thought back to the phone call in the middle of the night. I couldn’t remember exactly what she had said, I had been too tired, but I remembered what she said before she hung up; I’ll show them just how much of a fan girl I am. Did she want to be like Kurt Cobain and kill herself? She wouldn’t do that though, that was so stupid.
I needed to talk to someone. I needed to hear someone’s voice. Sal was in too big of a state to talk to me, so I wanted to call Mum. I knew our house number by heart, so I asked Sal if I could borrow her phone. She handed it to me without a word.
It was 3:35 am now, and I knew that Mum would be sleeping. The phone rang several times before it got picked up. I heard Alan’s voice on the other end.
“Hello. It’s Ben.”
“Oh. Hey Ben, why are you calling so early?”
“Something happened,” I explained, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Where are you?”
“In the hospital. It’s Sadie, she, she cut her wrists.”
Alan inhaled sharply. “I’ll be right there.”
I wondered why I hadn’t asked for Mum. I would have preferred Mum then Alan, but I didn’t really care right now. I just needed someone. I was glad that Alan was coming, even if it would take him a while to get here.
5 minutes and 29 seconds later, a nurse came and sat down next to me.
“I need to ask you some questions,” she said softly, “if that’s alright with you.”
“Sadie’s bipolar. You knew this, right?”
I nodded. She scribbled something down on her notepad.
“Did you know if she was taking her medicine?”
I paused. Did she do this because she didn’t have her medicine? Was the fact that she wasn’t taking her pills making her act like that? I did not know what to say. I could get in trouble I thought, I could get sent to jail. But I needed to tell the truth. I needed to help her to live.
“She stopped taking them a week ago,” I replied, my voice shaking.
The nurse nodded. “That’s all I need to know.” She got up and looked at me. “She’s lost a lot of blood, but she’s going to be okay. I’ll let you know when you can see her.”
I leant back in my chair. She was going to be okay. She was going to be okay.
I heard someone running down the hospital hallway and when I looked up, I saw that it was Alan. He was wearing jeans and a sweater with a jacket over it. I stood up and he came over to me.
“What happened? I got here as fast as I could. Is she okay?”
“The nurse said she was going to be okay.”
“Oh, thank god.” He hugged me uncertainly, but I hugged him back.
“Did Mum come?”
“No, I didn’t want to wake her up so I left her a note explaining.”
I nodded. “Alan, I’m sorry for running away that one time on my birthday. It wasn’t because I don’t like you. I do like you. You work at a zoo, you like monkeys. You’re perfect, but that’s just the problem. Mum thinks you’re perfect too. I just don’t want her to forget about me. It was always just me and her and.. now you’re here too.”
Alan smiled. “You don’t have to explain it to me, Ben. It’s okay, I get it. And I’m sorry if it seems like I’m taking your Mum away from you, but I assure you that neither of us will forget about you. Things are just going to go on as they used to. Your Mum makes me happy, and I think I make her happy too.”
I nodded. “I want her to be happy.”
Alan hugged me, tighter this time. “I hope I can make you happy too, Ben.”
Alan and I went to the cafeteria to get some coffee. Usually. I don’t drink coffee, but I was so tired, and I wanted to stay awake. When we were sitting down sipping our hot drinks, I decided to confess.
“It was my fault,” I told Alan.
He looked up. “What was?”
“Sadie. What happened to her.”
Alan frowned. “I find that hard to believe. How?”
I took a deep breath and told him all about Sadie’s affair with Mr. Prichard and how the bullies had seen it and forced me to give them her pills. Alan stayed silent throughout it all, and when I finished, he sighed.
“It wasn’t your fault. You did what you thought was best for her, you couldn’t have known what would happen.”
His words made me feel a bit better, but not much.
“You can tell her later, when you both are ready,” Alan told me.
I nodded. “Should we go back and see if we’re allowed to see her? It’s been a long time.”
Alan nodded. “Let’s go.”
When we got back to the ER waiting room, the woman at the reception desk called us over. “I was told to tell you guys that you can see Sadie Millan now. She’s in room E8, just down to your right.”
We jogged down the hallway that she had pointed out, past E1, E4, E6, and finally, to E8. I slowly opened the door. Sadie was lying there, dressed in a hospital gown. She didn’t look as pale. There were still cords and tubes connected to her. Most of the blood was gone though. Her arms were covered in bandages.
Alan waited outside while I walked over to her cot. She opened her eyes as I came.
“Ben,” she whispered.
“Sadie,” I said, tears streaming down my cheeks.
“I’m so sorry,” she breathed as I pulled a stool up and sat close to her. “I don’t know why I did it. It was stupid. I was stupid.”
“No you were not,” I said, stroking her hair. “It was just because you weren’t taking your meds. It wasn’t your fault, Sadie.”
She smiled weakly at me. “Thank you for being here Ben.”
I smiled back at her. She looked so pale and tired. “I’ll always be here. No matter what.”
Tears were spilling down both of our cheeks. “I was so afraid I was going to lose you,” I told her shakily.
I dug my I-pod out of my pocket and carefully placed one earbud into her left ear. The other one, I placed in mine. I climbed into her cot and lay beside her and held her bandaged hand. I looked up at the spotless white ceiling and gave God a silent thank you as we hummed along to Smells Like Teen Spirit.