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The home-time bell’s so loud it hurts my head. I clamp one hand over my ear and stuff my pencil case and books back in my bag with the other. Everyone else rushes for the door, but I take my time. I’m in no hurry. 6B next door had PE last thing, and that girl with the blonde ponytail won’t be finished changing for another five minutes. When she gets down to the alley behind the hairdressers I’ll be waiting for her.
But not because I’m her friend.
It’s her birthday today. She was walking round the playground with a big ‘Happy 11th Birthday’ badge on like a Disney princess on parade. I mean, how stupid can you get? Talk about an open invitation.
Not to her actual party, of course. I haven’t had one of those special pink envelopes filled with glitter from anyone for years. I don’t care though. I don’t need friends. And I don’t need an invitation from Zoe Snot-Nosed Weir to the kind of party where I knock the sugar-filled stuffing out of her.
It’s not her pretty pink invitation I want from her anyway.
It’s her birthday money I’m after.
I zip up my bag and put my jacket on slowly, staring out of the window at the Drumhill estate. It looks just like the cardboard model on the display table, only our cornflake box tower blocks are painted blue instead of boring grey like the real thing, and Mrs Gibb made us hang a sparkly yellow sun above them. Ha! That’s a joke. It’s only just stopped raining outside, and if I’m not careful my feet’ll be soaking by the time I splash through the puddles to Grandad’s house for – Oh.
Then I remember, and my knees turn to wobbly jelly. It’s been over a year since the accident and I still forget sometimes. I can’t go to Grandad’s house ever again.
I squeeze my hands into fists and stare out at the grey sky, trying to pretend that I don’t care and the lump in my throat doesn’t hurt me at all.
“Caylin?” my teacher calls. “Are you still here?”
No, I’m not. You’re hallucinating. Maybe you’re mad. Stupid old witch.
Mrs Gibb comes back into the classroom and interrupts my daydreams. She’s always doing that. I’m pretty sure the thought of telling me off is what gets her out of bed in the morning.
“Didn’t you hear the bell?”
The whole of Glasgow heard the bell, Mrs Gibb. It’s probably set about a hundred decibels over the safety limit.
I know all about decibels. There was a programme on the other night about noise pollution and why so many kids are going deaf. From now on I’ll be covering my ears every time they try to wreck our hearing with that school bell of theirs. I don’t want to end up half-deaf like Mrs Mitchell in the flat downstairs. Mrs Gibb says I watch too much TV, but I learn more from the telly than I do from her stupid lessons about fractions and decimals. Who cares what you get when you multiply a bit of one thing with a bit of something else? All you end up with is still just bits. That’s what my life is like now. Bits multiplied by bits adding up to a whole heap of broken nothing.
Try to work that sum out on your blackboard, Mrs Gibb. I dare you.
“Caylin, are you listening? It’s time to go home.”
Mrs Gibb is sighing now, and that’s one of her warning signs.
I don’t answer, but I pick up my bag and head for the door. I’m only halfway there when she stops me.
“Look, Caylin, we need to talk.”
Make up your mind.
I stare at my feet and fiddle with my backpack straps so she’ll know I’m not interested in anything she’s going to say.
“I don’t have time today, I’m running late for a meeting, but perhaps one day next week your mother could pop in for a quick chat after school? Would that be possible?”
My jaw clenches, my hands gripping my backpack straps tightly now for support. I swallow hard, trying to remember just one of the million excuses I’ve invented to explain why no one ever sees Mum any more. The lies all disappear down a deep dark hole right when I need them most, and the fear of being found out is all they leave behind.
“I’ll ask her,” I mumble. My throat is dry as sawdust, and I wince at the way the ‘s’ comes out as a ‘th’. I hate my lisp. I hate talking. And I hate Mrs Gibb for making me talk.
“Sorry?” Mrs Gibb says.
I glower at her, half-angry, half-afraid. She heard exactly what I said. She always makes me repeat myself and look stupid in class.
“I’ll ask her,” I repeat, just as quietly as before, praying Mrs Gibb will give up and stop asking about Mum.
“You really will have to speak up and stop mumbling,” Mrs Gibb sighs, focusing all her unwanted attention on my speech impediment instead. “You’re nearly twelve and you’re starting high school this year. I know you’re self-conscious about your lisp, but with a bit of daily practice I’m sure –”
“Got to go. I’m late,” I growl, not caring whether the old witch hears me or not.
I hurry past her, practically running down the corridor to the main doors. Everything Mrs Gibb says makes me want to scream. Why does she always have to talk about my lisp like it’s the only thing that matters about me? My face is burning with embarrassment. The thought of her trying to set up a meeting with Mum and noticing our phone’s been cut off, or worse, dropping by one day after school, makes my throat so tight I can barely breathe. What if she finds out about Mum and then –
Don’t think about it! Only a few more months and then I’ll be out of here and away from Mrs Gibb and her stupid questions for good.
Only a few more months and then I’ll be starting high school.
My stomach knots, and I want to throw up right there in the playground.
Primary school’s bad enough, even with me being bigger and meaner than all the other kids who’d snigger at me behind their hands if I gave them half a chance. What’ll happen when I start a new school as the scabby wee first year with the lisp and the cheap clothes who never has money for school trips? How will I keep my secrets safe then?
Maybe I’ll just run away. Maybe I’ll keep running and never come back.
But not today. Today I have a job to do.
I walk out the gates and take a good look round. I’ve timed it just right. The parents picking up the younger kids have gone and the groups of girls chatting on their mobiles and boys kicking footballs have moved on. The street’s almost empty. No witnesses.