Read You Against Me Online

Authors: Jenny Downham

You Against Me (6 page)

‘Rabies?’

‘We were in Kenya.’

The closest he’d got to Africa was Dex teaching him how to roast goat meat with garlic.

She peered at him. ‘Have you got any scars?’

Imagine she’s some girl in a pub, he thought, and make something up. It helped not to look. ‘I got shot once,’ he told her, ‘but it’s on my arse.’

She laughed for the first time and he felt ridiculously pleased with himself. ‘Some guy shot me five times at point blank range. You want to see?’

She shook her head, still smiling. ‘You were running away if he shot you in the arse. Which makes you a coward.’

Now that wasn’t an ordinary line – too quick-witted. Again, he felt confused. He wondered about this girl. She wasn’t even drunk, not remotely, and there was loads of booze at the house. He decided to get back to the point.

‘Tell me about your brother,’ he said. ‘Tell me two things about him.’

‘I thought you knew him.’

‘He’s a friend of a friend really.’

She turned to him, frowning. ‘Why don’t we talk about you instead? Why don’t you tell me two things about yourself?’

If he had to give something away to get something back, then he would. ‘My special skills are cooking and kissing.’

She half smiled. ‘How do you know you’re good at them?’

‘I practise. What about you?’

‘I’ll swap cooking for swimming.’

‘And keep the other one?’

She looked at her feet, shy now. ‘Maybe.’

‘You like swimming? What’s your favourite stroke?’

‘Front crawl.’

He wanted to ask if she did competitions and stuff, if she’d ever won anything. He wanted to ask if she was genuinely good at kissing and did she want to prove it? But he wasn’t supposed to be chatting her up. He needed to concentrate and steer the conversation to something useful.

‘So, does your brother like swimming?’

She hesitated a moment too long. ‘I’d rather not talk about him, if that’s OK with you.’

Well, that shut him up.

He didn’t say anything else. Girls liked the sound of their own voices and she’d probably speak again in a minute. But he wasn’t going to. He wanted her to feel as stupid as he did.

While he waited, he looked at the way the river puckered in the breeze, dead leaves swirling on its surface. If he lived here, he’d be at this river all the time. He’d teach Holly stuff about it – the names of things and how to catch fish. He’d have to learn it himself first, of course, but that would be easy – he’d have a personal trainer, like people who joined a gym.

‘What are you thinking about?’

Her voice startled him. But this was a good question. It meant she fancied him. ‘I was thinking about you.’

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Serious. I think you’re gorgeous.’

She sighed. ‘Do you even want to have a proper conversation?’

He’d promised himself he wouldn’t, but he looked right at her again. ‘I was thinking about the river.’

‘What about it?’

‘I like the way it’s moving, how it never stops.’

She thought about that for a minute, then said, ‘Everything’s moving really. The forward momentum of the earth is sixty-seven thousand miles an hour and the rotation is nearly two thousand miles an hour. We’re also spinning around the centre of the Milky Way at some rate I forget.’ She grinned at him. ‘I’ve been revising Physics. You probably think I’m a total geek.’

He shook his head. ‘Why don’t we feel it then?’

‘That we’re moving?’

‘Yeah. If we’re spinning about so fast, how come we’re not dizzy?’

‘Because our perspective doesn’t extend beyond our fixed surroundings.’

‘What?’

‘We only notice movement if it relates to what’s right in front of us. In a plane above the clouds you don’t notice speed because there’s nothing to compare it with, but on the ground as you take off, you can feel you’re going fast.’

He didn’t know what to say. Keeping quiet was probably best. He didn’t want her to know that he’d never been on a plane or that he didn’t quite understand what she was talking about.

‘Are you doing any sciences?’ she asked.

He wasn’t sure cooking would count, but he went for it anyway, told her he was doing an NVQ, with two days a week work experience attached. He didn’t know if such a course even existed, but it sounded cool. And because he wanted to impress her more, he took the bottle of whisky from his jacket pocket and held it out. ‘Look what I’ve got.’

‘Where did you get that?’

‘My mate. You want some?’

She shook her head, but he unstoppered it anyway, tipped the bottle back and took a long slug. Before he’d had time to swallow, she reached over and grabbed it from him. Whisky spilled down his chin and onto his jacket. He wiped his mouth, laughing. ‘You said no.’

She smiled prettily. ‘I changed my mind.’

He didn’t know what would happen next and he didn’t know what he’d do when it happened. He watched her sip. She grimaced as she swallowed, then passed the bottle back.

‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I should probably go back. They might wonder where I am.’

‘I’ll come with you.’

‘If you like.’

It was only as they went through the gate that he realized he hadn’t found out anything useful about her brother at all.

‘So,’ she said as they walked back up the slope. ‘How does your mate know Tom?’

She stopped walking and smiled. He knew she’d seen him falter. She leaned in to him, whispered, ‘You better get your story straight, because here he comes.’

Tom Parker came walking down the slope towards them. He was thinner close up, and looked younger. He had big blue eyes, like he wouldn’t hurt anyone. But Mikey knew his secret.

Tom smiled at his sister. ‘All right, Ellie?’

So that was her name.

He said, ‘Found someone to talk to in the end?’

She shrugged. ‘Whatever.’

‘Don’t be like that. I’ve been looking for you for ages. Where have you been?’

Ah, it was thrilling how close he was. He had designer stubble, a sore place at the side of his mouth, a spattering of freckles across his nose. If they were alone, Mikey would reach into his pocket for the spanner. He’d yank it high and slam it down on the bastard’s skull.

Tom frowned at the whisky in Mikey’s hand. ‘Where did you get that?’ He leaned right in and grabbed the bottle from him.

Mikey shot a glance at Ellie. She was smiling, or rather trying not to laugh. ‘Leave it, Tom. He didn’t know it was Dad’s.’

Tom waved it at them. ‘You know how much this is worth? Two hundred quid a bottle. I’m sorry, but this is definitely not for public consumption.’

Mikey wanted to say something funny, but couldn’t think of anything.

Tom turned to Ellie. ‘Who
is
this?’

She hesitated. Mikey could hardly breathe, waiting for what she’d say. Finally, ‘He’s with me.’

Mikey liked that. All the tension coiled out of him, knowing she was on his side.

A boy came running up, pulled on Tom’s sleeve. Mikey saw he was desperate for something. ‘Your dad’s freaking out,’ the boy puffed. ‘Some bloke’s been asking questions about you and your dad thinks he’s a journalist.’

‘Where’s the bloke now?’ Mikey asked. He couldn’t help himself, knew this kid was talking about Jacko.

The boy shook his head. ‘Dunno. We chased him, but he got away.’

Maybe the relief showed on Mikey’s face, because Tom narrowed his eyes at him suspiciously. ‘If this is anything to do with you, you’re in big trouble.’ Then he spun off with the boy across the garden.

Ellie said, ‘My brother’s a bit wired tonight. Sorry.’

‘Yeah.’

‘He’s had a hard time.’

‘He should drink some of that whisky, help him relax.’

She didn’t say anything to that, but she eyed him steadily for a moment. He didn’t know what that meant.

‘I should go and see if they’re OK,’ she said. ‘If my dad’s freaking out, the party’s pretty much over.’

It was a disaster. Not only was she walking away, but Jacko had been chased out, which meant Tom Parker was going to escape a kicking for the second time.

‘Nice to meet you,’ she said.

He had to stop her. ‘Give me your mobile number.’

She turned round. ‘Why?’

Because he was supposed to be gathering intelligence. Because she was the best source. Because he could see the same anger simmering in her that he had in him and he wanted to know why. But what he said was, ‘I’d like to see you again.’

She frowned. Maybe she didn’t like him. They’d been laughing and it had seemed like it was going well, but maybe he’d read it wrong. The signs were probably different with girls like her. He kicked the dirt with his foot. She was making it difficult. She was making it seem real.

She pulled her phone from her pocket. ‘You give me yours instead.’

He reeled it off. It wasn’t what he wanted, but she shook her head when he asked for hers again. ‘I might change my mind in the morning.’

He gave her his best grin. ‘Why would you change your mind?’

She shrugged. ‘You can’t rely on anything.’

She looked sad for a minute and he thought he had to do something quickly. ‘I’d like to get to know you better,’ he said. ‘No kidding.’

‘Then maybe I’ll call you.’

He watched her walk back up to the house, all the doors open, all the windows blazing with light.

Eight

Ellie had followed all the rules of invisibility. She wasn’t wearing make-up, not even mascara. She’d taken out her earrings, removed her necklace and tied her hair up neatly with an elastic. Her grey skirt was regulation length and her white shirt was buttoned to the top. She had no perfume on.

A yell from downstairs made her jump. ‘Hurry up, Ellie, we leave in five minutes!’

Maybe it would be all right. She gave herself a final look in the bathroom mirror, then opened the door and went downstairs.

Her mother clapped her hands to her face. ‘Oh, love, you look perfect.’

Dad and Tom looked up from their breakfasts and took it all in, from the flat-heeled shoes to the thick black tights.

‘Very smart,’ Dad said.

Tom waved his fork in agreement, ‘Looking studious, kid.’

Ellie pulled on her cardigan and did the buttons up slowly. ‘You know everyone’s going to stare at me?’

Her mum gave her a doleful look, but didn’t say anything.

Tom said, ‘I wish I was doing something normal today.’

‘Well, why don’t you go instead of me?’

He pulled a face at her. ‘Very subtle, thanks.’

Ellie sighed, poured herself a juice and took a sip. Her mum stood at the end of the dining table wielding serving tongs. The platter in front of her was loaded with fried egg, sausage, bacon and mushrooms and next to it was a basket of croissants and pastries.

‘Anyone for any more?’ she said, and she snapped the tongs at the men like crocodile jaws.

Ellie frowned. ‘Why have you made all this food?’

‘Your mother’s feeding us up,’ Dad said. ‘We’ve got a conference with the barrister this morning.’ He had a notebook and pen in front of him, scribbled something down, then turned to Tom. ‘We need to get together a record of your academic achievements – everything you were involved in at school, everything at college. Clubs, prizes, that kind of thing. Extra-curricular activities will go down well.’

Ellie reached for a croissant and spread it with butter. It was hardly a low-fat breakfast, but if she thought of herself as a soldier going into battle, then the calories were justified.

Dad continued to scribble things down in his notebook. ‘The golf club tournament would count,’ he said. ‘You got through to the semi-final in that, didn’t you, Tom?’

‘Quarter-finals.’

‘Oh, well, that’s still something.’

It was like a war conference with maps and strategies. Ever since the arrest it had been the same, as if Tom had been diagnosed with some rare and terrible illness and they all had to concentrate on finding a cure. Nothing else was important.

Ellie dolloped a great heap of strawberry jam on the side of her plate, then broke off pieces of buttery croissant and dunked them in.

‘Hurry up, love.’ Her mum passed her a napkin. ‘You don’t want to be late on your first day back.’

Soon she’d be out there in the world, being driven down the lane to the main road, past the station, across the junction and into town. She’d managed to bunk Monday and Tuesday by claiming she had study leave, but then Dad had bothered to check the school’s website, so that wouldn’t wash any more. She tried to get out of it one last time. ‘Please, Mum, I don’t actually feel that well …’

Her dad shot her a glance. ‘School’s statutory, Ellie.’

‘Not if you’re Karyn McKenzie.’

A name so hot it made Tom blush. So hot her dad yanked his glasses off and waved them at her. ‘You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, Eleanor, and that girl most certainly has, which is why she’s skulking at home. Now you go to school and you show everyone that.’

‘Like a sacrifice?’

‘No, like someone who’s done nothing wrong.’

‘It’s going to be horrible, with people taking sides.’

‘Well, then you’ll find out who your real friends are.’

He was referring to whoever had caused hundreds of pounds’ worth of damage to Tom’s car by scratching it up. He was also referring to the various people who hadn’t bothered showing up to the party. He’d gone on about their lame excuses for days – too much traffic on a Friday, no babysitter, too far to come from London, not enough notice. He hadn’t confronted any of it, said it was too upsetting to deal with. But now he wanted his daughter to go out and tackle the world.

‘You’re living your life vicariously through me,’ Ellie told him.

‘Good word!’ he said, pushing his glasses on with a smile and looking back down at his notebook. ‘Probably worth two marks in GCSE English.’

She turned to her mother. ‘Please, Mum.’

‘No, I agree with Dad. You’ve been stuck indoors for days and there’s no need for you to incarcerate yourself.’

Good word. How many points was that worth?

They’d obviously talked about it together and there was no dividing them. Ellie could see it in their eyes. Something premeditated and determined. She wiped her hands on the napkin and left the rest of the croissant on her plate.

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