Contact Preview: Chapters 1 – 3
I slowly opened my eyes and looked around, trying to ignore my throbbing head. The room was dark, but the strip of daylight filtering in through the gap in the curtains cast enough light for me to see the mismatched Ikea furniture, buried underneath piles of dirty clothes, books and old food wrappers and take-away boxes. Enough to tell my fuzzy brain I was not in my bedroom. I suppressed a groan.
Despite my blinding headache, and waking up in a strange bed, there was something else bothering me. A niggling sensation, like I was missing something important, but I couldn’t remember what. Like forgetting a birthday or an item from a shopping list, a distant thought floated at the back of my mind, just out of reach. Reluctantly, I thought back to last night. Lauren Summers, a girl from school, had thrown a party. I had gotten far too drunk and no doubt disorderly. An involuntary flashback of me dancing on a table and waving around a bottle of vodka popped into my head, making me cringe. I had been back in the country for a week, and I was already slipping back into my old ways.
I winced at the pain in my head as I rolled over. My gaze landed on a mound in the bed next to me—a human-shaped mound.
I sat up with a jolt.
Oh my God!
The mound shifted, revealing a sleeping sandy-haired boy, about my age, whom I didn’t recognise.
My mouth dried out like a sandpit as I forced myself to swallow.
I didn’t. Did I? Surely I would remember if we—but then again, I didn’t remember going to bed at all. I peeked under the covers, and a rush of relief flooded through me; we were both fully clothed. The mess I had been in last night, there was no way I could have got dressed again if we had slept together. What’s-his-name must have crashed next to me after I had passed out.
The nagging feeling was eating away at me, but I still couldn’t place it.
As quietly as I could manage, I crept out of bed and tiptoed to a door in the far corner of the room, which I hoped was an en suite. The door creaked as I opened it, making me flinch. It was a bathroom. I carefully closed the door behind me, turned on the light, and grimaced. Soap scum lined the bath, and an array of male grooming products were scattered around the grubby sink unit.
I was even more horrified by my reflection in the mirror. My highlighted blonde hair, which the night before had been teased and curled into soft waves, was now matted and frazzled. My smoky eye makeup, which made my aqua-blue eyes pop, no longer said ‘Hollywood glamour’ but more ‘zombie apocalypse’.
As I neatened myself up as best I could in this scuzzy bathroom, I wondered how far away I was from Burnt Oak. Amy and Tasha were going to be pissed off with me, and I couldn’t blame them. I should have gone home early when they did, not carried on partying with a crowd of people I barely knew. When I saw them at school later I would have to—
I realised what had been nagging me with a sudden stab of alarm. Today was the first day of school!
“Dammit,” I muttered under my breath. I snuck out of the bathroom, grabbed my bag, shoes, and coat, and ran out the door. Now that we were in the sixth form we might not have to wear a uniform anymore, but they still treated us like kids, and as I found out last year, they still handed out detentions like sweeties.
With hangover-induced wobbly legs, I dashed down the stairs. The aftermath of the party was not a pretty sight; it looked like a war zone. The house was a wreck. Rubbish was on every surface, plastic cups and beer bottles on the mantelpiece, all over the floor, even floating in the huge fish tank. Overflowing ashtrays were scattered everywhere, and a thin layer of smoke hung in the air. Whoever lived in this house would smell the stale stench of tobacco long after the last cigarette butt had been thrown away.
I picked my way through the carnage, checking the last remaining unconscious bodies, hoping I might recognise someone—no luck. I kept going until I reached the front door, then hurried outside.
Squinting in the pale morning sunlight, I fumbled in my bag for my mobile. My battery was low, but it still had a bit of juice left. The clock read 6:38. I breathed a sigh of relief. Although that meant I had only managed a few hours of sleep, registration didn’t start until 8:45, so it was possible to get home, change, and still get to school on time…technically. Only one problem: I didn’t know where the hell I was, or how to get home.
I checked the map app on my phone and found I was five miles from home.
Rummaging in my purse, I scraped together just over a pound—not even enough for a bus. Maybe if I begged? Surely they wouldn’t leave a girl alone out here in the middle of goodness-knows-where?
Come on, Eliza, you’re a resourceful girl; you can do this, I told myself firmly, trying to clear my head. My throat burned and my mouth still had that gross sandpaper taste. I would sell body parts for a glass of water right now, I thought, wishing I had grabbed one from the house before I left.
Following the map, I started walking toward the main road, cursing myself for getting into this situation.
After walking for a few minutes with no sign of life, I began to panic. All I could see were fields stretching into the distance. Hitchhiking was out of the question, not only far too dangerous but it also required a car, and I hadn’t seen one go by since leaving the party house. I could try calling Amy or Tasha, but that would mean explaining myself, so that was less plan B and more plan Z.
I resisted the urge to scream. This was all Dane’s fault. Things were fine until he humiliated me and ruined everything. If he hadn’t cheated on me then I would have been having fun with everyone else instead of avoiding them by going to a stupid random party in the middle of nowhere on a school night. Yes, we had broken up two months ago, but it was still the reason for my social hibernation and why I had felt the need to fly to Cyprus for the summer.
I took a deep breath. Blaming Dane was not taking responsibility for my own actions, something I promised Ruby I would do the last I time turned up late for work, stinking of booze, wearing last night’s clothes.
Just the thought of Dane made me want to punch something. Not because I still harboured any romantic feelings for him—those were absolutely, most definitely dead and buried—but the hurt was still raw. Fleeing to Cyprus for the summer to avoid him, and everyone from school, had been great while it lasted, but now I was back, and unfortunately hiding forever was not an option. I had to face them. That was, if I ever got back to town. Maybe I subconsciously sabotaged myself so I wouldn’t make it to school today.
That’s cowardly, I thought as I kicked a stone and watched it bounce along the road ahead of me. Besides, I was pretty certain my sole motive last night was partying.
In the distance a row of houses came into view, including what could be a corner shop and post office. My spirits lifted. It wasn’t a high street or anything. It was hardly even a street, but compared to the whole load of nothing I had seen so far this morning, this was more than I dared wish for. Maybe they would have a cash machine in the shop. I was already overdrawn, but this was a level-one emergency.
As I neared the houses I noticed a woman in her late twenties wearing a floral wrap dress and cute ankle boots, loading a baby into a car. If I ever had a baby, I hoped to pull off the yummy mummy look as effortlessly as her. When she looked up I caught the shock on her face; understandably she was surprised to see me. Who knows what I must have looked like tottering along the road in three-inch glittery heels and last night’s party dress before 7:00 am on a Monday morning; probably a streetwalker.
“Hi there. Are you okay?” the woman called out.
I hurried over, ignoring the pounding in my head.
“Yes. Well, no, actually.”
She was struggling with the baby’s car seat, so I took the various bags she was carrying to allow her straighten it out.
“I had an argument with my boyfriend. He left me, and I don’t have enough money to get home.”
Not a complete lie. Dane and I had a ridiculous row about where to go for dinner, and he stormed off and left me in town…about six months ago. Also, he came back to get me ten minutes later. But those were just minor details. I didn’t want to admit to this lovely, polished, together woman that I was lost out here in the middle of nowhere because of my own idiocy.
She brushed a long strand of pale blonde hair out of her bright green eyes. “Honey, ditch him at once. Any boy who would do that to you is not worth your time. Anything could have happened to you all alone out here.”
Not wanting to tell too many lies, I nodded. She seemed kind, and I was tired, hungover and emotional. A silly as it sounded, considering I had only just met her, lying didn’t feel right.
“I need to get to Burnt Oak, or in that direction at least. I would be so grateful for a lift to a bus stop or as far as you’re going.” If she drove me to a bus stop, I might still have enough time. I would worry about not having the correct fare later.
“I’m supposed to be on my way to the babysitter,” the woman said, gesturing to the baby, whose sky-blue eyes watched me with interest. “But I suppose I could take a detour. Sister-solidarity and all that.” She gave me a friendly smile, displaying a set of perfect, gleaming white teeth. “Besides, if I don’t then I’ll just worry all day about whether you made it home safely.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.” Times like these restored my faith in human nature.
“My name is Scarlett by the way.” She held out a slim, manicured hand.
“Eliza,” I replied, shaking her hand.
“Nice to meet you, Eliza. And this little madam is Lola,” Scarlett said, tickling the baby under the chin. “Okay, before we get going, will you be a doll and hold her for me while I sort this stuff out?” She held Lola out to me, who extended her little arms to be taken. When I hesitated, Scarlett added, “Just for a second.”
“Sure.” I took the baby, who clung to me tightly.
My face must have betrayed me. “Not a big fan of babies, huh?” She opened the boot of her glossy-black Jeep and arranged the plethora of bags required for taking a baby out.
“Oh no, it’s not that. I’m just out of practice—my little sister is seven years old now.” I also felt guilty holding a baby when I knew I must smell like a brewery. The alcohol fumes coming from me right now must be enough to ignite the whole of England. I was surprised little Lola didn’t pass out from one whiff.
Scarlett finished fiddling with the car seat, fastened Lola in, and we set off for Burnt Oak. Based on the tiny clock on the dashboard, I calculated that I still had enough time to get home and ready for school. I sagged back in the plush seat with a sigh of relief. In Cyprus I promised myself I would turn over a new leaf, a calmer and more responsible leaf, when I returned to England. So far getting trashed at a random party and nearly missing school was a lot like the old Eliza.
I scrolled through my mobile for texts. Recently I had developed a nasty habit of drunk texting—never a good idea, especially not when your boyfriend dumped you for the school’s biggest bitch, also known as your ex-friend. Fortunately, I seemed to have bypassed that humiliation today. Next I checked Facebook but was not so lucky. Six new friends, and I didn’t recognise any of them. I must have added them last night. I was also tagged in several hideously unflattering photos in various states of inebriation on Instagram. One even included me dancing on the table with a bottle of vodka in my hand—a whole bottle. I groaned. The sight of it made my already-sensitive stomach churn. I took a deep breath. The last way to repay Scarlett’s kindness was to throw up in her posh expensive car.
“Everything all right?” Scarlett asked.
I shoved my phone back in my bag and muttered, “Just the usual ‘morning after’ stuff.”
She smiled. “On a Monday? Gee, that makes me feel old.”
I touched my fingers to my throbbing head, once again resolving this as the last time I would do this to myself. “I regret it now, believe me.”
We spent the rest of the journey chitchatting, and before I knew it the green fields made way for the familiar oak trees of Silver Leaf Forest, which surrounded my small hometown.
Burnt Oak was only a two-hour drive from London, but it might as well be a million miles away, the land that time forgot. Sometimes I thought the twenty-first century had bypassed our little town completely. They only installed semi-decent broadband last year, and when Primark finally opened a store in the high street, the celebration rivalled Big Ben on New Year’s Eve.
I gave Scarlett directions to my house and twisted around to wave at Lola, who was gabbling from the backseat and greeted me with a toothless grin.
“She’s adorable,” I told Scarlett.
She glanced in the rear-view mirror at Lola, and her face lit up in the way only a proud parent’s could. “My husband often has to go away for his work. His family helps out, but she can be a handful.”
“I can imagine. Like I said, my sister is seven now, but I still remember the sleepless nights and dirty nappies.” I didn’t mention the reason those days were so clear in my mind was because Mum had usually been too off her face to tend to Daisy. At eleven it had been left to me to feed and change her most of the time.
When Scarlett pulled up outside my rundown farmhouse, with its faded bricks and peeling paint on the windowsills, a huge wave of relief crashed through me. I thought of how I could still be wandering around in a field out in the middle of nowhere and gave Scarlett a grateful smile. “Thank you for the lift. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t bump into you.”
“You’re welcome, Eliza. But please be careful in future. A pretty girl like you shouldn’t be wandering around on her own. There are some scary people out there. And dump that boyfriend of yours.”
“I will. I hope I didn’t make you too late. And thanks again—you really saved my bacon,” I said, waving to Lola as I shut the door.
I carried on waving as the Jeep disappeared down the road.
I hurried inside as fast as my pounding head allowed, eager to take a shower and remove the grimy feeling from my skin. But first I needed water, so I passed through the hallway to the kitchen at the back of the house.
Our farmhouse was misleading: although not in the best shape, it was far nicer than my family should be able to afford. Had my mother not inherited it from her parents, we would probably live in a cramped flat in a poverty-stricken council estate. If my grandparents were still alive they would be dismayed at the state of the place, and the state of my mother too. They had both died when my father was still alive, so they never had the displeasure of meeting my stepdad, Stan.
Until I was Daisy’s age my mum had been somewhat normal, but everything changed after my dad died. It was sudden, a car accident, and my mum went off the rails. Drinking heavily, using drugs, and eventually having a breakdown, she was admitted to a mental health unit. Life had been tough, and if it hadn’t been for my grandmother’s best friend, Ruby, and her husband, Len, taking me in, it would have been a lot tougher. I still remember them comforting me as I cried myself to sleep every night, clutching the necklace my dad left me.
Not long after being discharged, Mum met Stan. At first he seemed good for her, but after a while things got worse. Their relationship was volatile. He would get drunk and fly into a rage, getting abusive with her, and me. Then, a few years later they had Daisy, and Stan stopped. Just like that. Mum and I never talked about it. Fatherhood didn’t seem to have changed Stan in any other way—he still drank too much and was a moody loser—but the cruelty had stopped.
Daisy sat at the table, eating a bowl of cereal in her pyjamas. She grinned when she saw me. “Eliza, please can you plait my hair for school?”
“So you’ve decided to show your face then?” Mum called from the back door where she hovered, a cigarette dangling from her lips.
Ah, my adoring mother. It was amazing to even see her up at this hour. Usually she was the one nursing a hangover, and I would be getting Daisy ready for school.
I ignored her, giving Daisy a grin as I looked for a glass in the cupboard. “Of course I will plait your hair.”
“Where were you last night? You look like crap.”
“Wow, thanks, Mum.” I sighed. Of course, none of the glasses were clean, so I grabbed a dirty one out of the sink to wash up. I had the place clean and tidy yesterday before I went out. How had they messed everything up so quickly?
“What? You want me to sugar coat it because you’re my daughter? You’re out all night the day before school starts? What’s wrong with you?”
“As long as I’m back in time to take Daisy to school, what do you care?” I snapped. It was typical of my mum to poke her nose in at the most annoying moments. When rumours of Dane’s cheating were all over town, she loved rubbing it in my face. The rest of the time she couldn’t care less, which suited me fine.
Mum flounced off, grumbling about me being an ungrateful teenager, and stomped upstairs, no doubt back to bed. I wasn’t sure what she thought I should be grateful for.
Nausea swirled with my hangover. I closed my eyes and counted to ten before plastering a smile on my face and turning to face Daisy, who was still munching her cornflakes.
“I think you look pretty.”
“Thanks, Daise.” I ruffled her hair before taking her brush and smoothing her long honey-blonde hair into sections.
Daisy was the single most important thing in my life. I adored her. Maybe our bond was so strong because I had been the one to care for her when she was a tiny, helpless little pink bundle, a light for me in the darkness without my dad, but I loved that little girl so much I would give up my life for her. I constantly wondered how such a beautiful soul had been conceived by two deadbeats like my mum and Stan, but I thanked my lucky stars every day that she was in my life.
Fortunately, we hadn’t been entirely alone. My best friend Amy’s parents had looked out for us over the years. Ruby and Len were always around to help too, and I earned extra cash for Daisy and me by working at their cafe.
As I plaited Daisy’s hair I noticed a sparkle of blue on her wrist. “Is that my bracelet?”
She dipped her head. I didn’t need to see her face to know guilt was written all over it.
“Daisy, I don’t mind you borrowing my things but you have to ask. And don’t go through my stuff when I’m not home.”
She twisted her head to look at me. “Sorry. I only did it because I wanted to wear something pretty to school, and I didn’t know when you would be back.”
My shoulders sagged. Way to hit me where it hurts, Daisy.
“Okay, you can borrow it, but you know they’ll make you take it off when you get to school. Are you looking forward to going back?” I asked, keen to switch subjects. I didn’t need another reason to feel bad about last night, and I could not handle feeling like I let Daisy down today.
“Yes,” she said. “We have Mrs Baxter this year. She lets us bring in our favourite toy every Friday, so this week I will take Tinkerbell and next week I’ll take Wedding Barbie.” She pointed to the two dolls she had sat down to watch her eat breakfast.
“That’s great.” I finished her hair, and we cleared her breakfast dishes away. If only life were that simple again, choosing which toy to take to school. Even if I didn’t have to deal with seeing Dane at school or getting through the day with a big fat hangover, I would still have my hands full balancing home, work and staying on top of my school work. Then there was the question of what I would do next year. I shuddered at the thought. Let’s take one problem at a time.
Chivvying Daisy along to get dressed, I jumped in the shower and got us both out of the door only a few minutes later than usual. Maybe the universe was giving me a break, crossing my path with Scarlett’s and getting me home safely and on time.
I just hoped my fortune would last long enough to face the music at school.
I called Amy for a lift to school, as I didn’t trust that my blood alcohol level wasn’t still off the chart, and I would never risk driving over the limit, especially not with Daisy in the car. After what happened to my dad, I was all too aware of the consequences.
Amy waited until we dropped Daisy off at her primary school before reprimanding me for my behaviour last night.
“Eliza, anything could have happened to you!”
Apart from it being the truth, this was one of the reasons I wanted to stop being so reckless. I hated the disappointed look in Amy’s eyes. She should think about a career in law, because that stare was enough to put the most hardened criminals on the straight and narrow.
“I thought you were going to calm down on the nights out,” she said as she turned into Burnt Oak Academy’s student carpark.
“I was…I am. It’s just the thought of seeing Dane and everyone at school…” I said, sinking down further into my seat.
I told Amy the bare bones of what had gone on last night. She had seen the photos on Instagram and Snapchat, so she already knew about as much as I remembered, but when she assumed I caught a lift back with a fellow partygoer sometime in the early hours I didn’t correct her. I didn’t usually withhold anything from her, including my messy nights, but with my head still banging I felt too delicate to deal with her worrying right now. I had learnt my lesson and would fess up to the true horror some other day.
Burnt Oak Academy was a sprawling red brick eighteenth-century building nestled on the outskirts of Silver Lake Forest. We were beginning our final year in the sixth form, housed in a modern annexe adjoined to the main school.
As we joined the throng of students streaming along the path toward the main entrance, I had the same unpleasant feeling of trepidation I imagined cattle did on their way to the slaughterhouse. Yes, a tad dramatic, but I disliked school at the best of times, and dealing with a massive hangover, a serious lack of sleep, and seeing my ex-boyfriend for the first time since he dumped me didn’t bode well, especially as it was only the first day.
I never needed to try very hard to get good results in school. I had been lucky, getting by on average marks with little effort. My teachers tried to encourage me and coax out the ‘potential’ they believed they saw in me, but knowing my home situation, I think they were mainly pleased I managed to keep my head above water. I subscribed to the ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy of life, but last year it had all gotten away from me. I tried to burn the candle at both ends and ended up burning out completely. My results had been poor, and whilst school wasn’t vitally important to me, it was another factor in my reason for doing things differently this year.
It didn’t take long for the staring to begin. Some were ‘Dane dumped her’ pity looks and others were judgmental glares, most likely because they witnessed me making a fool of myself last night. Unfortunately, the glow of embarrassment was all too familiar due to my colourful family life, and my habit of coping by enjoying nights out a little too much. Even when I behaved myself and acted like a model citizen, Mum or Stan’s behaviour kept the town gossiping about us. I had grown up used to ignoring them, but my public breakup and stinking hangover left me feeling more overwhelmed than usual.
Lowering my head, I kept my eyes to the ground. I didn’t have the energy to do anything except wish I was invisible. I wondered for the millionth time what it would be like to grow up somewhere like London, where no one knew your business and a breakup was no big deal. Ruby always assured me it was a big, lonely world out there and living in a small town like Burnt Oak had its advantages. I was yet to be convinced.
“Is it me or are people extra judgy today?” I asked Amy.
She gave my arm a reassuring squeeze. “It was a slow summer, and people have nothing better going on. Don’t take any notice. You’ll be fine.”
I loved her for trying, but her words didn’t give me much comfort. Reassuring me in times of crisis was all part of a best friend’s job.
I was distracted from Amy’s positive encouragement as the stares from the crowd left me and flowed in a new direction. Intrigued by what had taken the heat off me, I followed the current just in time to see a new student strolling through the front gates. Heads turned to watch him as he walked into the courtyard. It wasn’t surprising; new students stuck out like a Tottenham fan at an Arsenal match at Burnt Oak Academy because everyone knew everyone. The whole year only consisted of eighty students, but as soon as I glimpsed the newcomer, I realised why everyone had stopped to stare so intently. My eyes nearly popped out of my head as Amy and I joined the rest of the gawking student body. He was by far the finest specimen of the opposite sex I had ever laid my eyes on.
Mr Handsome was tall with lightly tanned skin, and his inky-black hair had a messy curl to it. His eyes were striking, a stormy grey and noticeable even from a distance. There was an air about him that was impossible to imitate, a combination of effortless cool with a quiet confidence, and he had the bad boy moody-scowl down to perfection. Totally gorgeous with ‘trouble’ written all over him. He must be a complete arse, because a boy that beautiful must have a major flaw. It was simply a matter of finding it. Not that I was going to, of course. I had sworn off boys, possibly for the rest of my life, but at least for this year. School and Daisy—they were my priorities. Still, there was no harm in looking.
Amy and I were still gawking when a silky voice came from behind us. “Scoping out your next victim?”
I spun around, and found myself face-to-face with Sadie Green. Rich, spoilt and a major she-devil, Mayor Green’s daughter was the three Ps: pretty, popular and polished, but she also had a couple of Bs: bitchy and brutal. The classic blonde, blue-eyed, slim girl next door, she was spoilt rotten and hated not getting her own way. More importantly, though, Sadie also happened to be the aforementioned ex-friend boyfriend-stealer.
Once upon a time we had actually been friends, but the girl I used to know had morphed into a mega-bitch. We went from frenemies to just plain enemies when she slept with Dane just to spite me. You could accuse me of being arrogant, thinking it was all about me, but Sadie’s fake tan lasted longer than her relationship with Dane had. The fact that I since realised she did me a favour was so not the point.
“That’s rich coming from you,” I shot back. “I’m surprised you haven’t offered him your full services already, or are you waiting to see if I’m interested first?”
Sadie turned up her nose. “That’s right, because everything I do revolves around you, Eliza. You’re the sole reason I get up in the morning.”
“Deny it all you like, but actions speak louder than words, and as far as I can see, you think about me more than…whatever cold-hearted bitches care about.”
I knew I should just walk away. I was tired of pointless bickering, and in desperate need of rehydration before the first registration bell, but Sadie’s smug grin wound me up so much, she made it hard to be the bigger person. Luckily, Amy was a bigger person than all of us and took my arm, swiftly steering me away with Sadie and me still glaring at each other.
“She is such a cow,” Amy said, as we stopped at the water fountain.
“I know, right? How is it she steals my boyfriend and yet still has the cheek to come over and be a bitch to me?”
Amy shook her head. “Ignore her. You know she isn’t worth it.”
With a frustrated growl I took a drink from the water fountain, savouring the cool water. Amy was right, but man, was Sadie hard to ignore when she was so irritating. I thought she would lie low, at least for a while considering she was the one in the wrong. Before I left for Cyprus we had a very public showdown at a party. Serious mud-slinging on both sides, ending with me throwing my drink over her head and being dragged away before things turned physical.
I was about to ask if murdering Sadie could be considered a form of ignoring her when the bell rang. The shrill sound made my teeth rattle, and I closed my eyes. It was going to be a long day.
Surprisingly, the morning flew by. People stared, and there were a few comments about my table dancing, and a few more about Sadie and Dane, but only stupid stuff, nothing that fazed me. I kept a low profile, and by second period the whispers started to ease off.
So far I had avoided seeing Dane altogether—quite an accomplishment considering we shared classes. I began to hope that he hadn’t come to school today. Maybe he was ill, or better still, his parents sent him to boarding school, or emigrated.
My hope deflated when I spotted him sauntering down the corridor like he owned the place. Typical Dane, acting like a god—and, in our school, he was.
Dane was good-looking in a rough and rugged kind of way. His light brown hair always fell into place without looking like he tried too hard, and his chocolate brown eyes could melt ice. He had always been tall for his age, but over the years he had really bulked up. Playing for both the school rugby and football teams kept him fit and, along with his height, he carried off his large build with ease. Burnt Oak Academy was like every other school in the entire world; the sporty kids were big-shots, and if you were fortunate enough to be attractive too then you were a straight up hero. Dane fell into both categories and wore his celebrity well, showing off his cavalier disposition whilst still managing keep people on his side. Wherever he went people noticed him, and if he gave you his attention it was like basking in sunlight after a lifetime of darkness.
A weight settled on my chest at the sight of him. He hadn’t seen me yet, and, not wanting a confrontation, I ducked into the nearest doorway, which happened to be the library.
Next to the assembly hall, the library was the largest room in the school. High ceilings and huge windows ran the length of the right side of the room, making it light and airy. The place was deserted, apart from the elderly librarian sitting behind the large wooden counter. She cast me a cursory glance and then went back to whatever she was doing, which to me looked like reading a Kindle under her desk.
I made my way to the back of the room, finding a nice secluded table. I would just take five to chill out; I had time before my next class.
Throwing my things onto the table and collapsing into a chair, I rubbed my temples. My head was still throbbing. I closed my eyes. Just a few minutes of peace to clear my head was all I needed to recharge.
When I opened my eyes again the world was grey. My breath caught in my throat, freezing in my lungs. Frantically, I looked around me. Still everything was grey. I rubbed my eyes. No change. What was this? Was it my eyes? My heart pounded so hard I felt like it was going to explode out of my body, and I pulled my coat open and stared with horror. My chest was glowing red. The pounding grew harder, thumping louder until I cried out, covering my ears.
I jolted. The room was quiet and in full Technicolor glory. There was no pounding. I clasped my chest. Normal. What the hell? With a groan I wiped a hand over my face. Had I fallen asleep? Despite having one of the worst hangovers ever, it didn’t feel like an average dream. I was still shaking. Was I hallucinating? Maybe one of those uni kids spiked my drink last night? It was possible.
After a few minutes of concentrated breathing I felt better, and honestly rather embarrassed about falling asleep and freaking out over a bad dream at school.
I glanced at my watch and did a double-take. That must be a mistake. I had been in the library for over an hour and a half? I pulled my phone out and checked the time again, the clock on the wall too. Nope, they were all the same. I must have slept through my class. Great way to start the year.
I dashed out of the library into the silent corridors. Everyone was still in their classes, and the school felt eerily void of life. As my footsteps echoed, too loud in the quiet, I thought I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. When I turned around there was no one there. I took a deep breath to steady myself. I needed to get a grip.
After stopping by the ladies’ toilets to splash water on my face and pull myself together, the bell rang, causing the building to buzz with life again, so I headed to the canteen.
It was only lunchtime on the first day, and I had already bunked off one out of my two lessons so far. All I wanted to do was run home, crawl into bed and sleep for the rest of the school year. That weird dream or whatever it was that happened in the library seriously freaked me out. My nerves were frazzled.
Spotting Amy in the crowded canteen, I wanted to weep, I was so grateful to see a friendly face.
As I made my way to join her in the food queue I passed the new boy sitting at a table with a few of the other boys from our year. As I passed he looked in my direction and I gave him a friendly smile.
It was hard to imagine what Burnt Oak Academy must seem like to an outsider. It probably felt like some other dimension. I expected to give him a smile of encouragement and move on my way, but when our eyes met I felt a jolt of electricity.
Something passed over his face—surprise maybe? Time stood still. Not in a good way, like in the movies when two lovers meet for the first time. No, his eyes bored into me like I was an unwelcome disease, and as hard as I tried it was impossible to tear my eyes off him.
Aware the queue had shifted forward, I tried to move, but I was welded to the spot. Frozen in place. All sound around me muted, and the temperature dipped at the coldness of his eyes. With a frown he turned away, and suddenly, just like that, I could move again. Warmth flooded the room, and the buzzing chatter of the crowd filled my ears.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and rolled my shoulders in an attempt to shake off the weirdness. I waited until I moved along in the queue before sneaking another peek at him. Everything was normal. Our eyes met again briefly, his expression impassive before his gaze moved past me. No strange feeling.
I turned away, fighting back the tears welling in my eyes. I took a few breaths, and after a moment I began to feel better.
Now I had calmed down it was easier to rationalise. I was just tired and hungover. I was imagining things, and okay, yes, that was super weird, but I hadn’t ruled out someone spiking my drink, plus I drank a hell of a lot of alcohol last night.
I drew in a breath. I just needed to hold it together for a few more hours, and then I could go home to sleep and all this madness would be something to laugh at tomorrow. The knots in my stomach loosened slightly. Yes, a decent night’s sleep and everything would be fine.
I plonked in the seat next to Amy and alongside our other friend Tasha. My stomach rumbled. I couldn’t remember the last time I ate. Food hadn’t exactly been my priority last night. My canteen sandwich consisted of a few pieces of dry chicken and a couple of limp lettuce leaves, but after a few bites and some water I already began to feel better.
I filled them in on my psychotic episode in the library.
“Someone must have put something in your drink last night,” Amy said, her eyes like saucers. “Eliza, you have to be more careful.”
I hung my head. “I know. I will.” The thought of someone spiking my drink and what could have happened made me feel sick. That was it: no more partying, no more drinking. New Eliza was sensible and cautious.
“Sounds like you win the award for most excitement of the day. The only mildly interesting thing I’ve seen today is the new boy,” Tasha said, her dark eyes shining as she nodded her head toward his table. I risked another glance at him and breathed an internal sigh of relief when nothing odd happened.
“His name is Jack Cartwright; he’s Freddie Foster’s cousin, from America,” Tasha continued. Freddie joined Burnt Oak Academy when we started in the sixth form last year, but my knowledge of him ended there.
As I watched Jack chatting to a few of the other boys like they were lifelong pals, I spotted a tattoo on the back of his neck. I couldn’t tell what it was, only a black outline with the edge of orange and yellow swirls, part of a bigger design, poking out of the top of his shirt.
I eyed him with renewed curiosity. “He’s American?”
“Yep,” Amy chimed in. “Extra hot points for that one, huh? Nearly every girl in our year is staking a claim on him.”
Like I said, we didn’t get too many newcomers to Burnt Oak. It wasn’t so small that everyone knew every single thing that happened in each other’s lives, like in Emmerdale or something, but at school it wasn’t so far off. Amy, Dane, Sadie and I had all grown up together, along with most of the kids in our classes, so when someone new came to town it was impossible to slip in unnoticed, and if you were an extremely attractive guy from another country, then we were the bees and he was the honey. Tasha knew all too well—not the attractive boy part, but she and her family moved to town a few years ago from Devon, and she compared her first week to feeling like an animal at the zoo.
“Oh, and those eyes,” Tasha said dreamily. “You could get lost in them. He’s totally DDG.”
“Drop-dead gorgeous,” Tasha said with a grin. Amy and I laughed and shook our heads.
“There’s something off about him,” I said, watching as he managed to make even the simple task of eating lunch look sexy. “He’s too good-looking.”
“Too good-looking?” Tasha spluttered into her juice. “Have you heard yourself? How can anyone be too good-looking?”
“I mean he must have an awful personality, a boring airhead or something. Nobody is that perfect.”
Tasha rolled her eyes at me and flicked a lock of glossy black hair over her shoulder. “Eliza, I’m going to write that off as you being tired and hungover.”
“He is hot though,” Amy said.
“You should go and talk to him,” I suggested, giving her a nudge.
She looked horrified. “I could never even flirt with someone like him, let alone go out with him.”
“Why not?” I asked, turning my attention back to my dry sandwich.
Amy never had understood how utterly wonderful she was. She had gone from a cute child to a beautiful girl. She was tiny, with a rosy complexion, twinkly hazel eyes and silky chestnut hair. She was shy but not too awkward, and definitely the sweetest person I had ever met.
“Oh please!” she scoffed. “He looks completely intimidating. You wouldn’t understand; you don’t have a problem talking to anyone. I, on the other hand, would completely embarrass myself.”
I sighed, taking a gulp of water. “Amy, it is all about perspective. He’s only human—just like you, me, and everyone else. If you don’t blow it out of proportion, it’s not a problem.”
She shook her head. “That sounds good in theory, but I’ll stay inside my comfort zone, thank you very much. Anyway, I meant for you. He looks like the perfect distraction from all the Dane and Sadie madness.”
“Moving on from Dane to Mr Gorgeous USA would be the perfect revenge,” Tasha agreed.
I pulled a face. “Right now, girls, it is all I can do to concentrate on not throwing up or passing out. Besides, I told you I’ve sworn off boys.”
Tasha and Amy nodded, but I could tell from their faces neither of them believed me.
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