Ali dropped the card off on the way to her last exam. I could hear her talking to Mum in the hallway. The subdued murmur of their voices reached me like a faint echo of another life. After a while, I heard the gentle click of the front door – doors didn’t slam in this house anymore – and I knew she’d gone. I imagined her striding off down the drive, back into that other reality where I could no longer follow her.
Later, Mum brought the card up. She smiled down at me in bed before taking it carefully out of its envelope, making sure the paper didn’t rattle too much. Then she propped it on my bedside table and sat wordlessly in the chair beside me, staring silently into the darkness. We stayed like that for an hour or more until it was time for her to go back down and make lunch.
When she’d gone, I reached out for the card. My arm burned with the effort of lifting it; my head felt muzzy. I strained to focus. A chubby bear stood clutching a huge silver key with the number 16 emblazoned across it. Its glowing face and rosy cheeks positively radiated health and well-being. Inside was one of those printed verses about being “Sweet Sixteen” and all your dreams coming true. Ali had drawn an arrow coming from it with the word YUCK!!! written in bold capitals, followed by several exclamation marks.
I smiled, remembering the day Ali and I had run round the card shop in town, competing with each other to find the cheesiest verse until the shop assistant’d had enough and kicked us out. I screwed up my eyes, trying to block the rush of misery and longing that surged through me.
That was the real Sarah, the real me. ‘Not this. Not this,’ I repeated over and over, the hiss of my voice fading against my cracked lips. Perhaps, if I closed my eyes for long enough, this wouldn’t be happening to me: if you don’t walk on the cracks, then the bears can’t get you. I held my breath for a full minute until I could see stars beneath my closed lids. Then I opened my eyes, ready for a miracle but the world was just the same: the blacked-out window panes, the tomb-like silence of my room and my burning, aching body: the wretched shell of a human being.
I didn’t want to stay there. Instead I decided to join her, that other Sarah – the real me. I knew the only place I could reach her now was in memories so I closed my eyes and slid gratefully into the past. The birthday card fell from my hands and I was fourteen again, sitting with Ali on the plastic moulded chairs of the Community Centre, at one of those hideous family dos, you know, the sort where you take one look around and just pray you were adopted. Not my family this time; it was Ali’s sister’s sixteenth and I’d been invited to keep Ali out of trouble: big mistake. We’d located the drinks’ table in about five seconds flat and had already siphoned off half a bottle of vodka into our long glasses of lemonade. Suddenly, everything became ridiculously funny, even the pervy jokes Ali’s uncle kept making about everything being legal when you turn sixteen.
‘Hope that includes putting members of your family down,’ Ali cringed as her father gyrated across the dance floor in a way that must have been deeply embarrassing to anyone who knew him, even twenty years ago.
I spluttered, rather too loudly, into my lemonade causing a collection of nearby aunts to tut disapprovingly. And that was when we decided. We’d gang up when it came to our sixteenth and insist on a party for us and our mates, strictly no family allowed.
The noise of a car horn outside dragged me cruelly back to the present. There’d be no party for me now, only another day of the same stubbornly familiar four walls with their insistently cheerful lemon hue and that crack in the ceiling which seemed to be gradually evolving into a deep immovable gash. How could I have slipped so far from myself, from the girl who laughed a little too loudly at a party to the one who lay here, day after day, trapped in this dark tunnel, this shadow of a life?
I knew there must have been a moment when I could have stopped it, when I could have held on tight to the world, stood firm and simply refused to let it all happen. Day after day, I traced and re-traced my life, desperately trying to find the moment where it had all gone wrong, to stop time and put it right again.
But where to start? I cast my mind back for the millionth time and arrived at that Friday, a warm day in early spring only a little over a year ago. I was rushing excitedly through the empty school corridors desperate to let Ali in on my big news and stubbornly ignoring what my body was already trying to tell me . . .
By the time I reached the girls’ locker area it was deserted apart from two Year 8s, in a corner, squealing over some glossy magazine and Ali, of course, who stood leaning against our row of lockers sighing and looking theatrically pained. She was making small stabbing gestures at her mobile and from the look on her face, I rather suspected she was pretending it was some sort of voodoo doll made in my image. When she caught sight of me, she waved it frantically in the air.
‘Where on earth have you been? I must’ve sent about a dozen texts.’
‘Sorry,’ I gasped, scrambling through my bag to find my mobile. ‘I’ve not switched it back on yet.’
Ali rolled her eyes and I sank down onto the floor to reach my locker. You see, in our school, you either have a top locker which means you get to practise beheading people when you open it or, like me, a bottom one so you end up crawling round on your hands and knees and generally showing your knickers to the world every time you want to get a book out.
‘So?’ Ali demanded.
‘I had art,’ I said as though that was some sort of explanation in itself which, to be fair, if you knew our teacher, it probably was. Ali looked unimpressed though. ‘Well, you know what Thompson’s like.’ I buried my face defensively in my locker and started to dig out my PE kit. ‘She’s had us standing there all afternoon, sun right in our eyes, trying to catch the essence of a table leg or something like that. You know what it’s like: half an hour of that new age dribble and you sort of stop listening. Anyway, I’m completely blinded by the sun and I go and spill half a ton of paint all over the floor literally two minutes before the bell and, of course, she makes me clear it all up which took about half an hour but then . . . guess what?’
‘Well, I’m guessing it’s not that you came rushing here to meet your long-suffering friend.’
‘Not ex-actly,’ I squirmed, feeling slightly guilty. ‘I was on my way here, honest, but then I ran into Dan and . . .’ I paused for dramatic effect, jerking my head up so I could see Ali’s reaction. She was busy deleting messages from her mobile. ‘. . . he asked me out to the cinema tomorrow night.’
‘And the surprise is?’ Ali’s eyes didn’t even flicker from her touch screen. ‘About time as far as I’m concerned. You two have been simpering round each other for weeks. I was torn between getting a sick bucket and locking you both in the storeroom till you’d actually managed—’ she broke off and looked straight down at me. ‘Hey, what’ya wearing?’
I froze in panic. ‘I hadn’t got that far.’
‘You can borrow my new top, if you want.’
‘What, really? No way!’
That’s just like Ali: she calls a spade a spade, as Grandad used to say, but she’s dead nice underneath. Plus, she just happens to be in possession of the most gorgeous, expensive top I’ve ever seen. It’s got this amazing neckline: not really, really low so you’re hanging out all over the place but just right, you know, sort of sexy but subtle at the same time. You see, we’re the same size, me and Ali, which is pretty much it as far as looking alike goes. I’m blonde and well, let’s face it, a little on the short side whereas Ali’s five foot nine at least with dark skin and jet-black hair which makes her pretty distinctive looking, particularly round here which isn’t exactly the multi-racial capital of the universe.
We’re talking suburbiaville: think immaculate lawns and identikit houses, parents whose dreams revolve around their kitchen extensions and kids who just want to get as far away as they can before they turn into replicas of them. Mind you, it’s too late for some. Take Chloë, this girl in our class. She’s spent the last two months boring everyone stupid, going on about the huge en suite bedroom she’s going to have when her parents move to this swish new executive home. In form period this morning she excelled herself: fifteen solid minutes of every tedious detail you could imagine. Ali was sitting beside me, scribbling away, desperately trying to finish her history homework. All the same, I could feel the pressure building and finally, sure enough, she cracked.
‘Great,’ she announced, cutting short a particularly lengthy description of matching floor and wall tiles, ‘you can go to the toilet in your bedroom. Can we change the subject now? This isn’t exactly helping me write about the Industrial Revolution.’
‘It’s not my fault you’ve left your homework till the last minute, again,’ Chloë sniffed. And with that she stuck her annoyingly pretty little nose in the air and made it clear she wasn’t talking to either of us. No great loss, of course, but all the same, I’m not quite sure how I got blamed for it. I did snigger rather loudly but I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that Chloë’s got this major crush on Dan and seems to think I’m some sort of evil femme fatale, luring him away from his true destiny.
Dan. The thought of him suddenly made me panic. I mean, I liked him. More than that, he was gorgeous. Half the girls in our year had a crush on him but hours on end alone together? What if we had nothing to say to each other? What if it turned into a repeat of the Mark Lewis fiasco?
Mark Lewis – that was a thought I did not need to have right now. What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time. He was this boy in our class, not exactly ugly, no major mental incapacity and he could string a sentence together. Not really a glowing recommendation but you haven’t seen the rest of them. So, anyway, when he asked me out, I was like, yeah, all right, that’d be great. You see, the problem was, I’d never actually been out with anyone before and I was just so relieved someone had finally asked me that I jumped at the chance without really thinking if I liked him or not but there was nothing there between us, no spark and the date was like this major disaster: we just sat there stiffly in the cinema, staring rigidly forward, extra careful not to brush against each other for two excruciating hours. I think we were both relieved when it was all over. And then, two weeks later, Mark’s dad got this job in America and the whole family moved away. I don’t think there was any connection to our date but Ali remains to be convinced. Oh well, as long as Dan didn’t leave the country, I suppose it could only get better.
‘He-llo! Earth to Sarah.’ Ali was frowning down at me. ‘Are we going home or are you planning to spend the night in your locker?’
‘Sorry.’ I dragged myself back and grabbing my last few books, got to my feet. As I stood up, I felt weirdly dizzy. The world seemed to whizz past me and I had to grab hold of Ali to steady myself.
‘You OK, Sarah?’
‘Yeah, I-I’m fine. I’ve just been feeling a bit gooey all day, like I’m coming down with flu or something. Could really do without it, to be honest. I’d better be ill for tomorrow night.’
Ali hoisted me up. ‘Oh, you’ll be fine. Just dose yourself up on aspirin. My sister did half her exams like that and she was all right. Anyway, there’s no way you’re backing out now. Nothing’s going to cheat me of the look on Chloë’s face Monday morning when she finds out.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll be on that date even if it kills me. Purely for your sake, of course.’
‘Come on, then,’ Ali laughed. ‘We’ll go round to mine and check out that top.’ And picking up my PE kit, she started to haul me towards the door.
© Rachel Clarke