Read Since You've Been Gone Online

Authors: Mary Jennifer Payne

Since You've Been Gone

Cover
Dedication

To my parents, Susan and Dennis, for their love and support

In memory of Tyson Bailey, and all the other young men of Regent Park and Lewisham, whose lives were taken too soon due to violence

A big thank you to the Toronto Arts Council for their generous support in completing this novel

CHAPTER 1

T
oday
I punched Ranice James in the face. My fist connected with her cheekbone and she dropped to the asbestos-filled tiles of our gymnasium floor like a bag of marbles. Now I'm officially suspended. I might even be expelled. According to our principal, Mr. White, Safe Schools will be involved for sure, and maybe even the police. The police. Just the thought of the police being involved in any way makes me want to dry heave all over my bed.

Mom is going to be so disappointed. She won't “kill me,” which is what other kids say when they make a major life mistake like having a party while their parents are away for the weekend, or smoking weed, or getting caught shoplifting. My mom doesn't get angry. Ever. She won't even raise her voice at me. Anger is something she avoids like a bad dentist; I guess she figures we've dealt with enough of it in this lifetime. But I think it's natural. Anger, I mean. It's a natural emotion. And it would be so much easier to deal with her getting angry like normal parents. Instead, she'll be disappointed … and worried. More than anything, my suspension is going to make her super anxious because there will be follow-up meetings about it at school. And at these meetings there will be questions. Questions about our situation at home and what might be making me so angry. I wonder if Ranice's mom will want to press assault charges. I doubt it. Most people in our neighbourhood have a pretty uneasy relationship with the police.

I walk over to the window, press my hands against the windowsill, and let my forehead rest against the cold glass. The streetlamp in front of our townhouse is already on; its yellow light illuminating the spiderweb-shaped cracks in the windshield of the abandoned car at the curb and the dirty snowbanks left over from last week's blizzard.

I look at my watch. It's nearly six o'clock. Mom should be home by now.

We have this pact, this unspoken rule, that if one of us is going to be late, no matter what the reason, we have to call. And we can't just leave a message; we need to speak to the other person. That way we can be sure we're both safe.

I try to push down the nervous, sick feeling that starts to spread in my stomach.

She's fine. She'll be home any minute.

Sensing a chance to get petted, my cat Peaches jumps up beside me and stretches out along the windowsill. Her throaty purr vibrates against the palm of my hand.

The ringing of my phone startles both of us. Peaches leaps off the windowsill as I run over to my bed to grab it. I glance at the screen and smile. It's Mom.

“Hey,” I say. “Where are you?”

“Edie. You need to pack. I'll be home within fifteen.”

I feel like I'm in an elevator that's plummeting thirty stories to the ground.

“What?”

I don't know why I'm asking; we've been through this so many times.

My mother's breathing is heavy, frantic.

“Just two suitcases and not too heavy. Janice will be with me. Look for her car. It's the grey Toyota.”

“I know what she drives,” I snap.

Mom ignores that. “And Edie, don't open the door for anyone. No matter what.”

As if I'm that stupid, I think. Anger is rising in me like hot lava. It's not her fault. I know that. Mom didn't ask for this any more than I did. But I'm angry anyway.

“What about Peaches's carrier? Is it still in the basement?”

There's a pause.

“Mom?”

“I'm so sorry, Edie.” Her voice is strangled with emotion. “But we can't take her this time.”

The blood drains from my body. Peaches meows softly from the bed where she's curled up, anxiously watching me. It's like she understands what we're talking about.

“What do you mean?” I shout. “You can't do this. Why can't we take her?”

“We'll talk when I get there,” she says. “I need to go. We don't have much time.”

Then there's the familiar click of our call ending and I am left staring for the last time at my bedroom, at Peaches, at the bed I'll never sleep in again. And suddenly my suspension doesn't matter at all.

CHAPTER 2

M
y
life is never stable. It's as if I live balanced on a series of tectonic plates like the ones under the Pacific Ring of Fire. We learned about tectonic plates last year in our Grade 9 geography class during a unit on earthquakes. I hated our teacher, Mr. Chahil, this round ball of a man with a head as smooth as a balloon and a disgusting habit of checking out female students' boobs during class, but I was fascinated by thought of these plates underneath us, just waiting to screw around with our lives and turn everything upside down.

I could totally relate. My life will seem secure for a while, but if you watch long enough, it eventually shifts, just like those plates, and everything I'm used to changes again. The frustrating thing is that each time my life changes, I leave little pieces of myself behind. Sometimes it's a photograph or a gift I really liked or even just a project I did at school that I was really proud of. More often, it's a best friend, a supportive teacher, or a boy I'm crushing on. I was ten years old when we began running, and I've been leaving pieces of myself, of my heart, in different apartments, cities, and schools ever since.

This time it's much worse.

My first day in England, the sky outside the bedroom window is so dark and grey I actually forget for a few moments that it's afternoon. It seems so much more like early morning. You know, that time just around dawn when everything is kind of hazy as though you're seeing the world through a thin layer of smoke.

Mom is sitting perched on the edge of the bed. I can feel the mattress sinking in her direction. She's rubbing my back. This is something she's done to comfort me as long as I can remember.

“Edie? Are you awake?”

I open one eye and attempt to nod at her. My entire body feels as though it's filled with cement bags. I've never felt so exhausted.

“Wake up, sweetheart,” she says, giving my shoulder a gentle shake.

“Mwamf,” I reply, burying myself face down into the pillow. My breath reeks. I can't remember if I even brushed my teeth before going to sleep.

Then I begin to remember. I'm not at home in my bed. And I'm not in Regent Park.

The first thing that hits me is how musty this new place smells, like a grandmother who'd been living with five cats and a closet full of mothballs.

I sit up and swat Mom's hand away because now I remember everything.

I rub my eyes. The skin beneath my lids feels gritty.

“What time is it?”

Mom glances at her wristwatch. “I forgot to change this,” she says, her voice strained. “It's 10:00 a.m. in Toronto. I guess that makes it … three o'clock here.”

Here. So it isn't a bad dream. This time we're not even in Canada, let alone Toronto. I think about last night's plane ride during which I tried to hide my tears from my mother and the stupid stewardess who kept smiling at me in that fake way they reserve for children. I'd spent most of the flight with my blue British Airways blanket pulled up, leaning my cheek against the cold of the tiny window, watching the clouds and lightning swirl below us.

“We're in London, Edie,” Mom whispers. “The city I grew up in.”

I don't reply. Instead I let my gaze wander around the room. Rivulets of water slide down the windowpane. It's pouring rain outside. Yesterday in Toronto the weather was freezing cold with a wind chill that would make tears freeze to your cheeks. The way winters should be.

“I know where we are,” I say flatly.

It's not Mom's fault we're here. But I'm angry all the same.

“What did you do with Peaches?” I ask. Mom made me wait in the car with Janice while she took care of last-minute things and locked up the house.

“Edie,” Mom begins, her voice low. “We talked about this last night.”

“What did you do with my cat?”

“We couldn't bring her. We just couldn't. There wasn't time.”

“I know all of that. But what did you do with her?” I'm shouting now but I don't care. Tears tickle my cheeks.

Mom doesn't answer. She just stares down at her hands. They're folded on her lap like limp fish. I hate that she's so calm, that she doesn't tell me off for yelling at her. It makes her seem weak.

“Who's taking care of her? Is Janice?” I'm in her face now.

“I did the best I could. She was left out with plenty of food and water.”

Peaches. My beautiful cat Peaches. Despite everything, we'd managed to keep her with us for four years. She must be so terrified and confused. We always kept her inside and now she'd been abandoned and left to fend for herself in the middle of winter in Regent Park. I glare at my mother.

“I hate you,” I hiss. “I hate you and I hate this shitty life.”

I throw myself back down on the bed and toss the thin comforter over my head.

“I'm so sorry,” Mom says. The mattress recoils as she stands up. And just before the door clicks shut, I hear her choke back a sob.

CHAPTER 3

T
he
first day at a new school is always the worst. And this time is no different. I'm standing around on the grey asphalt of the schoolyard, trying not to notice all the students walking past me without so much as a glance. I feel invisible. A group of girls huddle beside me, discussing their weekends.

“God, aren't you lucky! My mum dragged me to stay with her new boyfriend at his flat in Reading. His feet smelled like rotten cheese every morning and I couldn't eat breakfast because I felt sick. I don't know why she wouldn't just let me stay at home.”

“Really, France is not all
that.
Would've rather stayed here. After all, they just speak French in France so I couldn't understand anything on the telly.”

I hate this part the most. The part when I'm walking around completely alone, checking my phone twenty times a minute, trying to look like I'm waiting for someone, trying to think about anything other than the fact that I look like the biggest loser on earth.

Fitting in at this school will be a million times harder. I'm a new kid: a kid from a different country. I have a different accent. I don't know what's cool when it comes to clothing and hair. And of course there's always the issue of my name. God only knows what Mom was thinking when she named me. I asked her once, and she told me she thought Edie was a beautiful name for a girl. That's when I knew she inhaled. I just hope she didn't do it when she was pregnant with me.

I stumble over an uneven patch in the asphalt. Stupid shoes. When Mom registered me at the school, they gave her an “emergency” second-hand uniform. The uniform fits well enough, thank god, but my black flat shoes were one of the things I had to leave behind in Toronto. Shoes and boots make suitcases heavy. So now I'm here, trying to walk as normally as possible in a pair of my mother's black ballet-style flats, which isn't easy because her feet are a full size larger than mine.

I stuff my hands farther into the front pockets of my jean jacket. I don't understand why I'm finding it so much harder this time. After all, it isn't like I haven't experienced all of this before. The bell will ring soon, which will make it easier because then I can just blend into my classes.

“Oi! Watch your head!”

I feel the soccer ball whiz past my right cheek before I really know what's happening. A couple of centimetres closer and it would've slammed into the side of my face like a speeding train. God, then people would notice me!

A boy with crazy Afro hair dashes past me. The ball is rolling quickly out the school gates and toward the street, which is jammed with cars crawling bumper to bumper like a colony of determined ants. I watch as he belly flops on top of the ball at the last second, then scrambles to his feet and holds it over his head like a trophy.

“Hurry up, Rodney! You wanker!” another player shouts from across the yard. I look over at the group of boys standing around, impatiently waiting for the ball so they can continue their game.

One of them catches my attention right away. Maybe England isn't going to be as bad as I think especially if there are more guys this cute here. Amazing smile, stylishly messy blond hair … he's a bit taller than the rest of his friends, too, and looks confident in a good way. I like boys who are confident. Most guys my age are either blabbering idiots or act super aggressive, all gangsta and up in your face with their pants down around their knees. And he's wearing glasses. I know it's stereotyping, but I think the glasses make him look intelligent and thoughtful. And since I'm always being pegged as a bit of a geek for getting high marks and knowing stuff, I look for guys who have more than half a functioning brain cell. It's nice when you can talk about things other than whether a certain team is going to win the NBA season, or if Rihanna should've went back to Chris Brown.

Suddenly, he locks eyes with me.

“Hello, darlin'!” he shouts. “Like what you see, then?” Then he pokes his tongue out at me and begins rapidly flicking it up and down. “Why don't you come over here and give us a kiss?”

The rest of the boys around him burst out laughing.

My cheeks are burning embers. So much for my hypothesis about this guy being intelligent. My embarrassment rapidly turns into anger. I envision walking over and punching him in the face or grabbing a handful of that dishevelled blond hair and pulling it as hard as I can. I imagine the look of surprise on his face, the shame and embarrassment he'd feel in front of his friends. And, though there's no guarantee, most guys still don't hit girls, so I figure it would be a win-win situation for me.

“Don't mind them,” a soft voice from behind me says.

I whirl around. Standing only a few centimetres away from me is this freaky-looking girl. She's watching me so intently it gives me the creeps. Part of the creepy feeling comes from her appearance. She's incredibly thin and as pale as a dead fish. Her bony arms jut out, twig-like, from the sleeves of a black T-shirt that is so faded, it's nearly grey. To top it off, I notice the round scabs running up and down the inside skin of her forearms. Gross.

“I'm Imogen,” she says, sticking out one of her scrawny hands in my direction. With her other hand, she pushes the thick glasses she's wearing farther up the bridge of her long nose. I notice that black electrical tape is the only thing holding the right arm of her glasses onto the frames.

What a freak. She actually wants me to shake her hand? Weirdness seems to be this girl Imogen's thing, so I go along with it, already wondering how to get away from her.

“I'm Edie.”

The palm of her hand feels moist. I have to stop myself from gagging. Instinctively I wipe my hand up and down the front of my navy skirt as soon she lets go.

Imogen runs a hand through her thin, blond hair, cocks her head to one side and continues to study me. Her hair is so thin it's almost translucent. Creepy doesn't even begin to cover this girl.

“That's an unusual name. Kind of Andy Warhol. Are you from Hollywood?”

“No,” I reply.

“What year are you in?”

“Year?” I ask. Then I remember. They don't go by grades here. “Year Ten.”

“Me, too!” Imogen squeals. If she gets this excited because I'm in the same grade as her, I wonder what she'd be like if she won the lottery. Clearly friends are in short supply for this girl.

The bell sounds. I've never been so glad to have a school day begin.

“See you around,” I say, turning and walking toward the front entrance of the school.

Instead of getting the hint, she scurries up beside me like a cockroach.

“Where are you from then?”

“Toronto,” I answer. She's really beginning to get on my nerves. I don't like it when people ask too many questions. The less people know, the safer it is for both Mom and I.

“Where's that?”

“It's in Ontario.”

“Is that in America?”

I grit my teeth. “No … it's a province in Canada.”

“Oh,” she replies with a dismissive shrug of her bony shoulders. “'Cos you sound as though you're from Hollywood. After you,” she offers, struggling to hold one of the heavy front doors open for me while balancing her binder and books. I wonder why she hasn't invested in a knapsack like sane people.

As I step through the doorway, I'm shoved aside by a group of girls pushing through. One of them turns sideways as she moves past Imogen, nearly knocking her over.

The girl glances back at us.

“You best watch where you're going, Maggots,” she says a smirk playing across her face.

Imogen reddens, readjusts the books in her arms, and then stares down at her feet.

The girl tosses her dark red-and-black braids behind one shoulder and fastens her eyes on me. I glare back at her.

“Why look!” she squeals with mock delight. “Maggots got herself a friend this year!” The group of girls begins laughing in unison. What a bunch of lemmings.

“Shut up,” I snap, narrowing my eyes. I look her up and down with a glare of disgust. “You don't even know me.”

She places her hands on her hips and glares back at me. Her upper lip curls away from her teeth, giving her this rabid-dog look.

“I don't know you, huh? Well, you obviously don't know who
I am
.” She sucks her teeth loudly to emphasize her point. “You're just lucky I need to get to class, tough girl. Else we'd have ourselves a little introducing right here and now.”

With that she strides away, followed closely by her friends.

Imogen and I wait a few seconds before walking into the school. I think both of us want to avoid any further confrontation with the girls though I'm so angry I could punch walls. I'm feeling all shaky from the adrenaline and force myself to take some deep breaths to calm down.

I try to get my mind off of what just happened by taking in my new surroundings. The school is old and huge. With all the English accents and uniforms, it's kind of like being on the set of a Harry Potter movie. Hundreds of students move through the cavernous foyer, their voices echoing loudly off the walls. Sharp pangs of homesickness wash over me.

“I can't believe you did that,” Imogen says. She's watching me with a look somewhere between awe and fear plastered across her face.

“She deserved it,” I say with a shrug of my shoulders. “What I can't believe is the way you let her push you around. It's pathetic.”

Imogen stops walking and hugs her binder against her chest. Her bottom lip quivers. For a moment, I feel ashamed. The putdown was completely uncalled for.

“What choice do I have? Most of us just try to stay clear of Precious and hope she doesn't notice us.”

“Her name is
Precious
?”

“Yeah. Precious. Precious Samuel.”

“And you're really that afraid of her?”

Sensing that my nastiness is done, Imogen nods enthusiastically, causing her broken glasses to slide down the bridge of her nose again. She's like a puppy dog — so eager to please.

“Why?” I ask. There's no way I'd ever let anyone treat me like that.

“Precious and her lot are cows. You need to watch out for them. Last year Precious broke this girl's jaw at the Riverdale Centre. It's the big shopping mall by the roundabout.”

Imogen doesn't realize that all these landmarks mean nothing to me. The longing to be back in Regent, back where I belong, hits me again.

“Broke her jaw?” I ask. “She's so skinny she looks like she'd snap in two in a strong wind. Anyway, nobody scares me.” Nobody but
him
, I think.

Imogen looks around as though checking to make sure no one is overhearing our conversation. “She goes crazy sometimes, Edie. Absolutely nutters.”

Another bell rings, sending several students scurrying up the nearby stairwell.

“Pants! It's the second bell already,” Imogen moans. “What form are you in?”

“I don't know. They told my mom I had to go the office first to find out because I was a late register.”

“Oh, okay,” Imogen replies. “I'm in A204 with Mr. Smith. Fingers crossed that we're together!” She turns to go, waving enthusiastically over her shoulder at me.

I smile half-heartedly back at her. Walking toward the doors to the main office, I cross my fingers, hoping to be placed in any homeroom class other than A204. I definitely don't want that girl thinking she's my new best friend.

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