Read You Against Me Online

Authors: Jenny Downham

You Against Me (8 page)

He went and sat on the toilet for a while to think about it. He took ages, hoping it would somehow all be sorted by the time he’d finished.

He thought of the bloke they’d seen on TV the night before, sent off to Iraq at eighteen – running about in all that heat with snipers aiming at his head. What had Karyn said?
Now there’s somebody brave. But the poor bastard had been shaking in front of the camera, and the look in his eyes was mad – something like terror, something like shame. Was that brave?

Mikey took a wad of toilet paper and wiped himself. Things usually seemed easier after a dump, like the world got put back in the right order.

The texts arrived when he was washing his hands. Jacko saying he’d meet him outside at ten. Sienna saying she’d expect him in half an hour. Mikey leaned over the sink and closed his eyes. By the time he’d taken Holly to school, he’d be late for both of them. It felt like spinning plates, keeping everyone happy, not letting anything fall.

He texted Sienna back,
Course
. He texted Jacko,
11.00 @ Sienna’s
.

Holly was on the landing again when he came out of the bathroom. She had her school uniform and coat on, her book bag slung over one shoulder. She’d even made an attempt to plait her own hair.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to go.’

‘But I want to.’

‘You can stay here with Karyn.’

‘But we’re doing scrap art today and that’s my favourite.’

‘Well, I can’t take you now, I’ve just got busy. Anyway, you’ve been wanting to stay at home since you woke up.’

‘No I haven’t.’

He squatted down next to her and she looked back at him, her eyes all teary. ‘What’s going on?’

‘I thought you’d be here too. I thought it was your day off. I don’t want to be on my own with Karyn.’ She stuck her thumb in her mouth and looked down at her feet. ‘She makes me feel watery.’

Mikey felt his stomach grip again. He put both hands on her shoulders and made her look at him. ‘School started half an hour ago, Holly. We’d get into real trouble if I took you in now. They’d tell me off and they’d tell Mum off. There’s no one to pick you up either, so we’d all get told off twice. Then they’d send some nosy woman round to ask us all questions. And you know what that means, don’t you?’

Holly nodded, her eyes wide with the thought of children’s homes. It worked every time.

She followed him down the stairs and sat on the carpet in the hallway. In the lounge, the TV was blaring. At least Karyn had managed to get out of the bedroom.

Mikey sat on the bottom stair to put his trainers on. ‘If Mum comes back, tell her to text me.’

‘Will she come back soon?’

‘Maybe.’ It was the closest to the truth he could manage.

‘What if she doesn’t?’

‘Well, then you get to watch TV all day with Karyn. Tell her you get to choose half the programmes, OK?’

‘You tell her.’

But he didn’t want to go in there in case she tried to stop him leaving. If he was going to fit Sienna in before hooking up with Jacko, he had to go now.

He kissed the top of Holly’s head. ‘I’ll be back later with some shopping. I’ll get us some nice things.’

‘What if a bus hits you?’

‘It won’t.’

‘But what if it does?’ She looked at him with serious eyes. ‘Please don’t go.’

But he had to. It was only fair. He pulled on his jacket, did up his zip and smacked his chest like a gorilla. It usually made her laugh, but not today.

Ten

‘Karyn McKenzie’s a slut and everyone knows it.’

Ellie didn’t know this girl, or any of the other kids who sidled up to her in the playground and stood around in small groups listening in.

‘She started having sex in Year Eight,’ the girl said. ‘She bragged about that for weeks. And remember the rumour about her and that boy from college?’

Ellie nodded. Karyn was a liar who came from a crazy family. She got wasted and slept with Tom, then changed her mind in the morning. Ellie wished she’d come back to school days ago. She’d never been so popular.

‘I heard she’s gone really weird,’ another girl said, ‘all agoraphobic or alcoholic or something.’

‘It’s guilt,’ the first girl said. ‘If you turn up uninvited to a boy’s house dressed like a ho, it’s not a total surprise when he jumps you, is it?’

A couple of boys laughed. One of them patted Ellie on the back as if they’d been mates for years. ‘So, did your brother get charged twice?’

‘Um, sorry, what do you mean?’

‘She’s only fifteen, yeah?’ He leaned close, grinning. ‘Did he get charged once ‘cos she’s too young, and twice ‘cos he never bothered asking if she wanted it?’

But before she could tell him to piss off, Rebecca and Lucy from her tutor group ran over. Lucy took her hand. ‘You came back!’

‘Yeah.’

‘We didn’t think you would.’

They asked question after question –
Were you in the house when it happened? Is it true you spoke to Karyn in the morning? Did she tell you she was going to the police?

Ellie tried to stay calm. She felt as if she’d been running up stairs, or as if she’d suddenly become asthmatic. It was one thing listening to other people talk, but she didn’t want to go into details herself.

‘I’m not allowed to discuss it, sorry.’

Rebecca looked disappointed. ‘We won’t tell.’

She grabbed at the best excuse she could think of. ‘The police said I shouldn’t.’

Lucy put an arm round Ellie’s shoulder. ‘We’re all friends.’

Ellie cast a quick look round. A boy gave her a wave as their eyes met, a boy next to him shook his head as if he was disappointed. A girl sucked her teeth, leaned back and said, ‘Ellie Parker, you’re so up your own arse.’

Laughter rippled through the crowd as Ellie moved away.

Maybe this was what it was like to be famous – not knowing what was real and what was fake, just grinning and trying to let everything wash over you.

She walked the playground to kill time, head down, eyes on her shoes, one step at a time. Soon this would be over, soon the bell would go and she would be in her tutor room and there would be teachers and work to do. In a few days the great gossip machine would move on. She simply had to get through it until then.

It was difficult to get to the doors when the bell went. A boy brushed her arm, whispered, ‘Your brother’s a paedo.’

Another said, ‘How’s your brother?’ And when Ellie told him Tom was fine, he said, ‘Shame.’

Three girls who would never acknowledge her any other day came up.

‘How’s Tom managing?’ they asked, all soft-voiced and concerned, as if he had many wives.

‘Um, he’s OK.’

‘Tell him we’re thinking of him. Tell him Lily, Alice and Caitlin send their love.’

‘OK, thanks. I’ll tell him.’

A strained stillness enveloped the tutor room as she went in, and all eyes turned to her as she made her way to her place. Conor Lockhead, the class prat, came straight over and sat on the edge of her desk.

‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Is it true your brother raped a girl?’

Ellie chose to ignore him and slunk into her seat.

‘Is he in prison?’ Conor said.

‘No.’

‘So, he didn’t do it?’

‘He didn’t do it.’

‘Is he back at college?’

‘He’s not allowed back yet.’

Conor looked confused. ‘I thought you said he didn’t do it.’

‘He didn’t. Listen, I’m not supposed to talk about it.’

She got out a pen and paper and kept her eyes firmly fixed on them. She began to doodle a tree with many sprouting heads, all teeth and snarl. She wished she had a friend, someone to sit next to, keeping her safe.

Mr Donal came in, coughing, saw Ellie and smiled. ‘Welcome back.’

And that’s all he said. He had a stack of sheets with him, handed them out swiftly, and soon they were all occupied with filling in questionnaires on their progress reports. Excellent plan. Total silence. No talking allowed. No moving, or standing, or going to the toilet, or walking past and shoving secret elbows into Ellie’s back. But it only lasted fifteen minutes, then the bell went for period one.

First to approach her in Maths was Danny, six foot tall and the only boy she’d ever kissed. He’d asked her for the last dance at the Christmas party and they hadn’t spoken since. She blushed every time she saw him and today was no exception.

He said, ‘Sorry to hear about your brother.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Has he got a court date?’

She shook her head, knew it made her look sullen, but she couldn’t speak, could barely look at him. This hadn’t been her idea of the next conversation they’d have.

‘Well, best of luck with it all.’

He walked away and it was like passing a baton, because before she’d even stopped blushing, a friend of Karyn’s strode up.

‘You’re the talk of the school,’ she said.

‘Me, or my brother?’

‘Well, since he’s not here, I guess I mean you.’

Ellie stared down at her Maths book, prayed for the teacher to hurry up and tried to concentrate on saying very little.

The girl leaned forward. ‘Karyn won’t see anyone, she’s locked herself in her flat and never goes out. You tell your brother that.’

‘I’m not allowed to talk about this.’

The girl ignored her. ‘We text her, but she won’t see us. None of us. Not even Stacey.’

‘I’m sorry, but I have nothing to say.’

‘Do you feel guilty?’

Heat crept from Ellie’s neck to her face. ‘Why would I?’

‘Well, if I was the only other person in a house when someone got raped, I’d feel pretty guilty.’

It was a total relief when Ms Farish arrived and the lesson began. On her worksheet, Ellie wrote out formulae. In her head, she tried to remember, like a series of photos, the sequence of things – Karyn and Stacey and three boys turned up at the house with Tom. It was Saturday night and Mum and Dad were away. Ellie went upstairs. Later, she looked out of her window and saw Tom and Karyn with their arms round each other. Even later, she saw them kiss on the landing outside her bedroom door. She watched Tom’s hand creep down Karyn’s back. She watched Karyn lift one of her strappy heels from the floor and press herself closer to him. No one knew Ellie saw that kiss, no one in the world. If Tom liked Karyn, and she liked him back, why would he hurt her? Why would he take something when Karyn was going to give it for free?

English followed Maths and was the last lesson before break. Kids who hadn’t seen her yet either insisted on asking questions, or kept quiet and shot daggers with their eyes. Maybe when everyone had seen her once and decided what their response was, they’d get back to what they usually did and ignore her.

At break, the corridor wasn’t as bad as she’d imagined. No one pushed her, no one thumped her or slammed her against the lockers. When she went to the toilet, the only other girl in there merely grinned and said, ‘Hi.’

Ellie started to relax. It wasn’t so bad. Far worse to be Karyn – stuck in her flat avoiding everyone. She probably wished she hadn’t started all this, and that Tom was her boyfriend instead of her enemy.

So when Ellie saw Stacey and her mate sitting on a bench under the trees, she knew what she had to do. She felt brave and certain as she walked up and stood in front of them. They both stared up at her in total disbelief. But it was too late now.

She said, ‘How’s Karyn?’

Stacey shook her head slowly. ‘Are you talking to me?’

‘I was wondering how Karyn was.’

‘Piss off.’

‘I met you when you came round my house that night, do you remember? I know you’re her friend and I didn’t want to ignore you – it felt important.’

‘Important?’ Stacey’s lips curled as if something tasted bad in her mouth.

‘Yes.’ Ellie knew she was blushing, hated how hot she felt. ‘Someone told me she’s not leaving her flat any more.’

Stacey stood up and took a step towards Ellie. She had thin lips and pale skin. Her eyes were brown. Ellie had never known any of these things about her before. ‘If I got nut-job texts from your brother, I’d be too scared to go out.’

‘He’s not allowed to text her.’

‘I’m talking
before
, when she told him she was going to the cops.’

Ellie shook her head. She had no clue what Stacey was talking about. ‘How is she
now
? That’s what I’m asking.’

Stacey took another step forward. ‘She won’t leave the flat, she won’t see her friends, she won’t come to school. She’s having a total breakdown. Satisfied?’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Why, what did you do?’

‘Nothing. I’m sorry, that’s all. Could you please tell her I’m sorry?’

‘You think she gives a crap how you feel?’

Ellie could feel humiliation burning her face, down her neck to her chest. Even her fingers burned with shame. She turned away.

But Stacey grabbed her sleeve. ‘Don’t walk away from me!’

Ellie yanked her arm free and tried to push past them, but Stacey and her mate separated and came round on either side of her, backing her towards the fence. It was a perfect manoeuvre, like something rehearsed. They stood in front of Ellie, blocking her way. She tried to stare them out, but it was difficult to focus – the playground appeared to tilt behind them.

Stacey said, ‘Why did you tell the cops you never saw anything?’

‘Because I didn’t.’

‘How can that be true?’

Both girls looked her up and down. Ellie tried to push past, but they pushed her back. She stumbled, nearly fell.

Stacey said, ‘Where were you all night?’

‘Asleep.’

The mate said, ‘Yeah, course you were.’

People were beginning to notice. Three boys standing further along the fence were clocking it all. One of them yelled, ‘Cat fight.’

No, Ellie didn’t want this. With people looking she’d have to do something, say something. She’d look stupid if she didn’t defend herself. Or guilty.

She tried to break free again. ‘Let me go.’

Stacey shoved her back. ‘Or what? What you gonna do, bitch? You gonna rape me?’

She was blaring it out. The boys jogged over. Stacey’s eyes glittered as she turned to them. ‘She was threatening me, did you get that?’

Ellie felt a shift in her belly as more kids came running up.
What’s going on? What’s it about?
Acid churned in her stomach.

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