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I opened my eyes.
My legs were bound and my head ached. There was one dark moment of disorientation before the bad-dream fog abruptly lifted and I woke up all the way and rolled to smack the shrilling alarm. I was exactly where I was supposed to be: in my tiny room, lumpy pillow over my head and thick maroon duvet wrapped around my legs. I disentangled myself and kicked the duvet away. The muffled tinkling as it slithered off the foot of the bed reminded me that Kevin and I had stored the empty beer cans there.
Well, that explained the headache.
I could hear voices in the living room, where the other girls in our little dorm-come-flat were gathering. I huddled farther under the pillow, willing myself ten minutes more sleep and hangover recovery time. The wisp of a thought was
drifting somewhere in the bottom of my mind, refusing to rise to the level of consciousness. Something I’d forgotten. A truly incredible snore resounded from the boy sleeping on the floor.
I rolled out of bed so fast that I lost my balance and fell right on top of him, my full weight thumping against his impressive chest. He wheezed, his dark eyes popping open.
‘Shut up!’ I hissed, jamming my hands over his mouth. ‘It’s morning!’ Kevin’s eyes went from huge to enormous. The lounge
was horribly silent. I tensed as someone knocked on the door.
‘Ellie? Are you okay?’ Samia asked.
‘I’m fine! I just fell!’
‘Did you hurt yourself?’ The doorknob rattled.
‘I’m naked!’ I yelped. Samia wore headscarves and long sleeves in public, but she often walked through our girls-only flat in nothing but her underwear, and for a moment I entertained the horrible vision of her ignoring my fictional nudity and coming in anyway. She’d find a boy and alcohol in my room, she’d tell Mrs Chappell, I’d get expelled from boarding school, my parents would have to leave their once-in-a-lifetime dream trip around the world, and then, they would kill me.
On the other hand, being discovered lying on top of Kevin Waldgrave would definitely improve my reputation at Mansfield for the few days I’d have remaining. I might even become someone vaguely acknowledged by the other students.
The doorknob stopped moving. ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘See you in Geography.’ ‘See you!’ I cried weakly, and let out a sigh of relief as the noise from the living room became a shuffle of departure. ‘Your breath smells like an alcoholic’s arse,’ Kevin remarked.
I got to my feet, hauled him to his, and punched him on the shoulder, not nearly as hard as I could have. ‘You fell asleep!’
‘So did you.’
‘It’s my bedroom. And you have to get out of it before someone sees.’ I gave him a quick inspection, and made him zip his tracksuit up over the beer stain on his longsleeved shirt. The lightbrown carpet lint I picked from the side of his face was almost the same shade as his skin, so I was lucky to catch it. His dense black hair was also a mess, but that was normal. ‘Okay. If you can make it to the road, you can say you went for a jog before breakfast.’
‘You’re a genius.’ He grinned, then shot me an uncharacteristically shy look. ‘Um. And a real mate. I think I said some stuff?’
I couldn’t face that conversation feeling this sick. ‘You have to go,’ I said, hating myself a little for the way he stiffened. ‘We’ll talk later, though?’
Dark eyes looked down into mine. At six foot four, Kevin was one of the few people I knew who was taller than me. He was gratifyingly wider too, though in his case it was mostly muscle. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘We can talk on the way to rehearsal. Meet you at six?’
‘Rehearsal for what?’ I asked, and then that dreamfoggy memory caught up with me. ‘Oh, shit.’
‘You promised,’ Kevin said.
‘Because you got me drunk! I can’t believe you!’
‘Ellie, you get permission to get away from this place for a while, and all you have to do is teach the cast how to pretend to smack each other without actually smacking each other.’ He spread his hands, looking very reasonable.
I wasn’t fooled. ‘I have a black belt in tae kwon do, not in . . . stagy fake fighting.’ ‘You promised,’ he insisted. ‘And we really, really need you. Iris is getting pretty desperate.’
Iris Tsang was a year older than us, stunningly pretty, permanently enthusiastic, and so nice it made my teeth itch. As far as I could tell, she’d also been in love with Kevin since kindergarten, completely undaunted by his lack of reciprocation. It was no wonder that she’d dragged him into her play when the original cast members had started deserting, even though all natural laws stated that first-year uni students should forget all about people still at their old high schools.
This was what happened when I drank. It all seemed great at the time, and then it resulted in bad dreams and being dragged into situations where I’d have to talk to perverted egomaniacs who liked to prance around in tights, led by a woman who made me want to crawl into a totalbody paper bag after ten minutes in her perfect presence.
‘Fine,’ I growled. ‘But I’m never drinking again. Get the hell out.’ ‘You’re a real mate,’ he said again, and hugged me before
he went out the window, which was fortunately large. The building backed onto Sheppard’s celebrated gardens, and from there it was just a quick climb over the fence. I watched him jog cautiously between the trees, and then turned to the concerns of the morning.
Samia could walk around in her underwear because she was slender and had actual boobs and smooth coppery-brown skin that never got pimples. I, burdened by skin that was less ‘creamy’ and more ‘skim milk’, and not at all blemish-free, avoided the mirror and peeled off my pyjamas. I replaced them with my last clean longsleeved blouse and the hideous maroon pleated skirt that stopped at mid-calf and made my legs look like tree stumps. My mustard-coloured blazer was lying crumpled over my desk chair, so I grabbed the jersey instead. The scratchy wool cut into my upper arms and stretched awkwardly over my belly, leaving a bulging strip of white cotton exposed between skirt waist and jersey hem. I’d always been big, but after half a year with no exercise, living on the dining hall’s stodgy vegetarian option, I’d gone up two sizes to something that I was afraid approached outright fat, without even the consolation of finally developing a decent rack. I put on knee-high grey socks – the girls were supposed to wear pantyhose, but no one ever did, just as we never wore the maroon trousers in winter instead of the stupid skirt – and slipped my feet into scuffed black shoes without untying the laces.
There. A proud representative of Mansfield College, New Zealand’s third-ranked coeducational high school, at her dubious best.
I hid the beer cans in the empty drawer under the bed and hit the communal bathroom to brush my teeth, throw freezing water on my face, and brush my hair back into a sleek ponytail. Then I hoisted my ragged backpack, pinched the bridge of my nose against the hangover headache, and stepped out into the morning mists.
The Anglican settlers, in their inspired wisdom, had established the city of Christchurch, jewel of New Zealand’s South Island, in the middle of a swamp. Every leaden day of this winter I had longed for my hometown in the North Island, for the clean lines of Napier’s Art Deco buildings and the scattered sunlight on the sea, much brighter in my memory than it really was. In my head, I knew that I hadn’t liked winter in Napier either, and that Christchurch had its fair share of crisp, bright days where the smog kept to a decent altitude. But on bad days, the musty smelling fog seemed to rise out of the sodden ground and ooze along it, seeping into streets and buildings and my skin.
Every time I went past the drab stone mass of Sheppard Hall, I was glad I didn’t have to live there with the younger girls. Sheppard had central heating and an impressively weighty tradition, but it also had lights out times, hall patrols, and ground floor windows that didn’t open all the way. The Year Thirteen buildings were brand new, meant to prepare us for independence at university next year, and conveniently free of most obstacles to rule breaking late night visits.
When Mansfield had first gone coed, the board of trustees had spent some time debating where exactly the new boys’ hall should go on the undeveloped land. Eventually, they’d paved Behn Street beside the girls’ hall, and plunked down brand new and well-lit rugby fields on the far side of the new road. Pomare Hall, all steel and glass, and much nicer than Sheppard’s draughty tower, sat smug and distant at the edge of the fields, as far from the girls’ side of the boarding area as possible. The trustees hadn’t been very trusting.
There were plenty of boys trudging along the path beside the fields, but no one tall enough to be Kevin. If he’d been caught, he wouldn’t give me away. But if he was suspended or expelled, I’d suffer all the same. He was all I had here.
I wasn’t quite sure how this had happened. I hadn’t been really popular in Napier, but I’d had friends, even if I’d drifted from most of them during what I thought of as Mum’s Cancer Year. When she’d recovered, she and Dad had decided to spend the remainder of the inheritance from my Granny Spencer on their lengthy trip around the world. Still suffused with relief at the recovery, I hadn’t minded being left behind. I had minded Dad’s response to my suggestion that I spend the year with my older sister in Melbourne. He was worried about her ‘influence’, which neatly translated to: ‘But, Ellie, what if you also catch the gay?’ And none of my remaining friends’ parents had the room for me to stay.
‘Boarding school,’ Mum had decreed. Sulking at losing my Melbourne dreams, and angry on Magda’s behalf, I’d arbitrarily applied to Mansfield instead of to any of the North Island Catholic high schools Dad would have preferred. To my own shock, I’d been accepted – at least, by the selection committee. The students had been less welcoming. They weren’t really mean; just unwilling to open their tight social circles to a new girl. And, as I privately admitted when I wasn’t too busy feeling really sorry for myself, I hadn’t made much of an effort. Kevin had been a fortunate fluke – most of his friends had been in the year above. While plenty of people wanted to know him better, including most of the girls in our year, he’d settled on newcomer me.
In light of last night’s confession, picking the one girl his age who wasn’t eager to make kissyface with him took on a more sinister dimension. But it had worked out well for both of us.
Unless, of course, he was expelled.
I waited at the pedestrian crossing with a cluster of younger Pomare boys, all of whom were happy to ignore me in favour of talking about the latest Eyeslasher murder.
‘—heard that he keeps them around his waist like a belt.’
‘Yeah? My cousin said it’s this cult, and the cops know who it is, but the Prime Minister’s son is mixed up—’
‘She doesn’t have any kids, you munter!’
I rolled my eyes and outpaced them when the light blinked green.
Busy mentally snorting at the appetites of fifteen-year-old boys for grisly conspiracy fantasies, I was going way too fast to stop when the girl in front of me halted abruptly at the gate. I tried to dodge sideways and ran straight into Mark Nolan, day student, loner, and focus of more than a few of my
Classics-period daydreams. Everyone but me had got used to him and his enigmas; as a newbie, I still had some curiosity left. Embarrassing, then, to crash into him outside the school gates.
‘Oof,’ he grunted, and tried to sidestep around me while I wobbled a few steps and bounced into the rough wall. He about-faced and grabbed my elbow. It was presumably to prop me up, but he didn’t have the weight to support me. Caught off-balance, I staggered into him again, threatening to send us both to the ground. Giggles bubbled out of my throat, dancing on the dangerous edge between amusement and mild hysteria.
‘This is no good,’ he said decisively, and braced himself against the wall while I put myself back on even keel. ‘Okay, I’m letting you go on three. One, two, three.’
‘Ow!’ I protested, my head jerking down.
And a tingling shock ran down my spine and through my veins. It reverberated in my head, like a thunderclap exploding behind my eyes. It wasn’t static electricity; it was nothing I’d ever felt before. Startled, I met Mark’s eyes, and found no comfort there. The perfect planes of his pale face had rearranged themselves into something frightening. It was the same face – same high cheekbones, same arched, feathery eyebrows, same thatch of shaggy red hair – but frozen into unnatural and shocking stillness. He stared at me, inhaled sharply, and then, as I blinked and stuttered, made himself look almost ordinary again.
Mark lifted his hand, easing the sting in my scalp, and I saw the cause – a strand of my hair had come loose and wrapped itself around something silver shining on his wrist. In defiance of the uniform code, it wasn’t a watch, but a bracelet made of links of hammered silver, small charms hanging off the heavy loops. The charms weren’t like my childhood jewellery – no tiny ballerinas or rearing ponies – but a jumble of more ordinary things: a small key; a bottle cap; a broken sea shell; a tuft of white wool; a grey pebble with a hole in the centre; a stick figure bent out of No. 8 wire. My hair was twisted around the bracelet itself, caught between a stylised plastic lightning bolt and a rusty screw.
I’d never seen the bracelet before, and that was odd because I’d shamelessly memorised every visible inch of Mark, right down to the greasy tips of his hair, which he didn’t wash very often, and the way his maroon trousers were worn shiny at the knees. And those weird, compelling eyes; not bluegreen or greygreen or brownflecked hazel, but a uniform dark green, a colour so pure and strong that it could (and often did) stop me dead from halfway across a room.
No one knew why anyone so good-looking seemed to make such an effort to disguise it. Rumour had it that he was super religious or a scholarship student, but the really religious kids tended to turn up well scrubbed, and the scholarships included uniforms. He took part in no school clubs, never had parents come for family days, and barely talked except in class. The only thing anyone knew for sure was that he’d been awarded the English and Latin cups every year at prize-giving, and never turned up to claim them. Samia thought he might be a communist. Kevin thought he had social anxiety. I thought he was far too pretty to be entirely real.
I’d never thought he could be scary.
He picked at the hair for a second, then met my eyes, now looking rueful and adorable. ‘Sorry, Spencer. Either I cut this loose, or we’re stuck together forever.’ I hoped I didn’t look too awestruck. Was I a giggling idiot, to be struck by lightning at my first physical contact? But then, he’d felt something too. And he knew my name.
‘Option two is tempting, but . . .’ I yanked at the wayward hair. It resisted, then snapped raggedly, leaving a blondish strand knotted in the bracelet. ‘Yuck. Sorry.’
‘No worries.’ He rubbed thoughtfully at the knot and smiled at me, a sudden flash of white, even teeth. My breath caught in my throat and I felt the blush burn in my cheeks.
‘I like your laugh,’ he said.
Apparently, that was a goodbye. He turned and strode through the school gate, head extended and fists clenched in his pockets to make bony wings, a heron stalking along a bank.
I stooped, fiddling with my shoelace until I felt my treacherous complexion was under control. That peculiar tingling sensation was still there, but it wasn’t as strong as the rising wave of glee. Mark Nolan had noticed my laugh.
Mansfield’s boarders’ dining hall was happy to give us hot breakfasts and dinners, but school-day lunches were packed for us in the morning, and available for pickup at the morning break. I sat huddled in my jersey at my usual bench in the covered area outside the Frances Alda music centre and occupied myself in picking the bacon out of my cold BLT. No matter what I put on the order form, I never got my vegetarian options for lunch. The kitchen staff was notoriously bad at ‘special’ diets, although Samia’s sustained campaigning had finally got them to have halal beef and lamb sometimes. I was glad for her, but it didn’t do me or my mood much good.
Despite my best efforts at making eye contact, Mark Nolan had sat in the back row of Classics, and resolutely ignored everyone but Professor Gribaldi all period. It was his modus operandi, but I’d been hoping for more. Some shared joke, about my clumsiness, or his bracelet, or something.
‘Hey,’ Kevin said, and dropped onto the bench beside me, large and resplendent in his blazer.
I sat up straight. ‘Hey! Are we expelled?’
He took the piece of bacon from my fingers and dropped it into his mouth. ‘Yep. We’ll have to run away into the woods and live on nuts and berries.’ ‘I could eat bugs,’ I offered courageously. ‘When the hunger pangs get really bad.’
He grinned. ‘Nah, we’re good. Walked in the door, told the guys I’d gone running. Even found a fresh pair of socks. Hey, did you hear there’s been another Eyeslasher murder?’
I grimaced. ‘Samia said in Geo. A phone psychic in Tauranga. God, I hope they catch the bastard soon.’ ‘Me too. Murder’s bad enough, but taking their eyes is sick.’ ‘I think the murder probably matters more.’
‘Sure, but eyes are tapu, Ellie.’
I blinked at him. Kevin’s parents, on the two occasions I’d met them for uncomfortable dinners, had been as stiffly AngloSaxon as posh New Zealanders came, but Kevin’s lightbrown skin wasn’t the result of a good tan. I knew that his greatgrandmother had been Ngāi Tahu, and that he was one of the leading lights of Mansfield’s kapa haka performance group, but I hadn’t realised his desire to learn more about his roots had meant this much investment in Māori beliefs about the sacred.
‘You’re right. Sorry. Wait, don’t you have kapa haka on Wednesdays?’ I made vague hand gestures meant to invoke the poi twirling the girls did; Kevin rightly ignored me in favour of stealing my apple and holding it above my head.
‘Give that back or I won’t turn up to your play,’ I threatened. ‘And then there’ll be no one to be the no-woman’s-land between you and the admiring hordes.’
I meant it as a joke, but he scowled and shoved the apple into my palms. I blinked at him, awaiting explanation. ‘Iris keeps . . .’ he said. ‘She keeps . . . looking. Like maybe I’ll like her back if she can just be there enough.’
‘She’s stalking you?’
‘You could tell her what you told me last night,’ I ventured. His scowl deepened. I tried to smile, but the humour in my voice was too
forced. ‘Come on, it can’t be that hard. You just say, “Hi. My name is Kevin. And I’m asexual.”’
Kevin stared at his big hands. ‘Great. You think it’s like alcoholism.’ ‘No!’ I said, and tried to think of something not stupid to say. Nothing came to mind.
There was a pause while Kevin picked at his cuticles and I scraped my teeth down the apple. ‘Now that we’re sober, just to clarify,’ I said at last, and let my voice trail off when my courage gave out. I couldn’t stop myself from picking at scabs, either.
‘I’m not gay.’
‘Okay,’ I mumbled.
Kevin’s lips twisted. ‘People understand gay. Even if they think it’s sick. But asexual . . . they don’t understand someone who’s not interested in sex at all.’
‘Really not at all?’
He flattened his hands on his thighs. ‘Really.’
I thought about saying Maybe you’ll change your mind, and then remembered Dad saying exactly that to Magda when she came out, and my sister’s strained, white face as she fought back equal measures of fury and despair.
‘Okay,’ I said instead, and covered one of his hands with mine. A smile appeared at the corners of his mouth and rested there a while.
‘About Iris. She’s my oldest friend.’
I took my hand back. ‘I know.’
‘And you’re my best friend,’ he said, matteroffact, as if
it was something I should have already known. ‘I want my oldest friend and my best friend to get along, you know?’ I swallowed hard against the sudden dryness in my
throat, and knew that I’d never ask if he’d only befriended me in the first place because I’d been too withdrawn to go all gooey over him. What did it matter? It was real now.
‘You’re my best friend too.’
‘I’ll tell her. In my time. Okay?’
‘Like I should have any say in it,’ I said, exasperated and flattered. ‘Is that what you came to tell me?’
‘Idiot. Go to kapa haka. Shout manly things.’
He bumped my shoulder with his and strode away. I returned to the contemplation of my soggy sandwich. Maybe I could skip lunch too. No; that led to eating disorders and hunger headaches. I bit into the apple instead and caught a flicker of movement in my peripheral vision.
Mark Nolan was walking toward the music centre, covering the ground with his stalky heron gait. His gaze was unerringly fixed on me. ‘Spencer.’
I chewed and swallowed, little lumps of apple burning on the way down. ‘I do have another name.’ That was tarter than anything I’d rehearsed in my head while I waited for Classics, but there was no reason for him to scowl at me like that.
His frown deepened. ‘Eleanor?’
‘Only if you’re a teacher. Ellie.’
‘Ellie,’ he said. ‘Can I have a word? In private?’
I glanced around. Most of the older students preferred
to eat in their common rooms on cold days, but there were a bunch of younger girls at a picnic table in the nearby quad, and a mixed group of Year Twelves flirting a little way beyond them.
‘Sure,’ I said, and shouldered my backpack. We were actually the same height, I noticed; only Mark’s slenderness and my slouching made him seem taller. ‘We can talk in the music centre.’ I could feel an echo of that same tingling thrill, and tried to tamp it down. No need to get excited, just because someone who never spoke to anyone was talking to me.
He nodded shortly and led the way through the glass doors, going left at the foyer, toward the smaller practice rooms in the back. In his wake, I had little time to admire the centre’s blond wooden floors and atmosphere of peaceful light.
‘Is something wrong?’ I asked, wondering if I’d damaged the bracelet in our crash. He turned into the small corridor that led to the bathrooms. ‘Hey! Mark!’
He spun to face me, and I felt my breath catch at the angry tension in his face. ‘Did you know?’ he asked, long fingers sliding over his bracelet’s charms.
I stared at him, and he moved closer, bringing the blood to my cheeks. ‘Spencer. Do you know what you are? What you could be?’
‘No,’ I said, dazed, knowing it was a strange question, but unable to work out why. I had no idea who I was or what I could be; wasn’t that normal, for people my age? My skin felt vibrant, warm and loose, as if it might slip off and tapdance up the walls. I giggled at the thought.
Mark ignored my laughter and muttered to himself, eyes darting around the hall. ‘Do you break curfew?’ He was wearing that frightening face again, and his green, green eyes were intent on mine.
The euphoria vanished and I swayed back into the wall. My head was pounding. ‘Sometimes.’
He stepped easily to the side as a skinny boy exited the bathroom, tugging at his belt. Mark’s long, lean body was suddenly right next to mine, his voice clear and quiet in my ear. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. ‘Don’t go out after dark alone,’ he ordered, his breath soft against my throat.
Something was not right. I struggled for a moment, shaking my head and shoving my palms hard against the wall, but Mark’s hand clenched tight around his braceleted wrist and my resistance faded. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I won’t.’
The tension went out of his shoulders and his hands relaxed. ‘Okay, Spencer. I’ll see you later.’ He hesitated a second. ‘Sorry,’ he added. ‘I had no idea.’ Then he brushed past me and vanished around the corner, back stiff against some invisible strain.
I walked into the bathroom, uncertain of why my cheeks were flushed, and unable to remember how I’d got there. I had the dimming notion of an odd conversation, but not of whom I’d spoken to or what had been said. When I tried to mentally retrace my steps, my scalp suddenly stung as if I’d been yanking out fistfuls of hair. The pain swallowed whatever had jolted my memory, and I splashed water onto my face and frowned in the mirror until the colour in my cheeks faded.
‘You,’ I said softly, ‘are never drinking again.’
* * * * * *
Mrs Chappell was the Sheppard Hall Dorm Officer, which was the new term for Matron. She had a bony face, a thin platinum bob, a rotating set of pastel cardigans, and, it was rumoured, her husband’s skeleton arranged neatly on his side of the bed, not that I could catch any glimpse of the alleged bones from my uncomfortable seat in her austerely decorated office.
I needed her permission to attend Iris Tsang’s heavy rehearsal schedule, so I had taken the trouble to change into my nicest pair of jeans and my bestfitting pink wool jersey under my black winter coat, and the effort seemed to be paying off. My lack of school spirit had not endeared me to Mrs Chappell, but when I explained I was trying to increase my participation in extracurricular activities, she very nearly managed a smile.
‘I must say, it’s good to see you with some enthusiasm for something, Eleanor. Even if it is an outofschool affair.’
I beamed. ‘I’m very interested in stage production.’
‘My nephew is a costume designer, you know. He works in Wellington.’ ‘How interesting!’ ‘He once helped in a rush at Weta Workshop with that
Peter Jackson,’ she confided, and then straightened, hair swinging stiffly. ‘Now, as this is a nonMansfield activity, I will need your parents’ written permission.’
I nodded gravely. ‘My mother said it was okay in this email from Florence.’ I was mildly proud of myself. I’d even looked up today’s weather for Tuscany to give the forgery that extrarealistic touch.
Mrs Chappell made a pretence of looking the printout over. ‘We would normally prefer a signature, but under the circumstances, I suppose that will be fine. How will you be travelling to and from the university?’ She gave me a stare that was probably supposed to frighten details of nonapproved debauchery out of me.
I smiled and looked straight back. ‘Kevin Waldgrave has car privileges and his full licence. He’ll be attending all the rehearsals I’m going to and he’s offered to escort me.’
Mentioning golden boy Kevin, scientific genius and – as far as the school knew – perfect boarder, neatly did the trick. ‘Excellent. We don’t want you girls wandering around at night with that awful murderer on the loose.’
I refrained from pointing out that all the Eyeslasher murders had been in the North Island, and that only one of the five victims had been female, and nodded obediently.
‘All right. As with weekend and ordinary afterschool leave, you will sign out on leaving and in on returning, and be back in your building by ten. This is, of course, conditional on your completing all your homework and class work to your usual standards. Having no official lightsout for the senior girls doesn’t mean you can stay up until the wee hours completing rushed assignments.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, realising that I would actually have to do this. Oh well, it would make Kevin happy.
Mrs Chappell pursed her lips. ‘Have you given any further consideration to what you might study at university next year, Eleanor?’
Typical Mansfield. Ambushing you with the grim prospect of Your Future every other time you turned around. ‘I thought a Bachelor of Teaching at Waikato. Like my mum.’
‘Professor Gribaldi has noted your good work in Classics.’
‘Really?’ I blurted, then shut my mouth at her raised eyebrow. Classics was my favourite subject, and I’d always managed decent marks, but La Gribaldi had made me love class more than I’d have thought possible. She had her share of eccentricities – like insisting on Professor instead of Ms – but she demanded nothing less than the best from her students, and I ended up giving it. If she’d complimented me to someone else, I must have been somehow nearing her astronomical standards. But Waikato didn’t offer any Classics courses.
‘Mmm.’ As if regretting the almost warmth, Mrs Chappell glanced at the golden watch swinging around her skinny
wrist. ‘Well, I think you’d better get going, don’t you? You don’t want to be late for your first day.’ I levered myself out of the chair, which was reluctant to release me. ‘Thank you, Mrs Chappell.’ ‘You’re welcome, Eleanor. I will look forward to attending one of the performances.’ Oh, excellent. I managed a sickly smile and edged my way out of the office.
Kevin was waiting on Behn Road, looking unreasonably good in a pair of dark jeans and a maroon school rugby jersey. ‘Yes?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘You sound nervous. “It’s a sure thing, Ellie. It’s just a formality, Ellie.” You didn’t mention “You’ll get thoroughly interrogated, Ellie.”’
His eyes went huge and round, but before he could panic I gave him the thumbs-up and crossed the road, heading toward the car park. ‘Of course it was a yes. I am a master.’
His grin flashed. ‘Mistress, I think.’
‘Sexist,’ I scoffed. Kevin’s ancient blue Volkswagen Beetle wasn’t with the other boarder cars. ‘Where’s Theodore?’
‘Iris borrowed him yesterday. We’ll have to walk.’
‘I just told Chappell—’
‘Only this first time,’ he said. ‘Come on, it’s not far.’
I glanced at the grey sky. The dim reddish glow of the sun was settling on the mountains to the west of Canterbury’s wide, flat plains. ‘It’s getting pretty late,’ I said, scrubbing my gloved hands against my denim clad thighs. In mid–winter, sunset came in the late afternoon. It would be nearly dark by the time we followed the creek to the university grounds.
Kevin snorted. ‘Since when does that bother you?’
There was a twisting pain in my scalp. ‘Since . . . I don’t know.’ There was something I wasn’t remembering, something important.
‘You’re Wonder Woman. I’m counting on you to protect me.’ He took a few steps down the path and then turned when I failed to follow, looking mystified, then concerned.
‘You’re really worried about this?’
‘I — I won’t be alone.’
Kevin touched my shoulder. ‘I’ll be right here.’
‘I can’t go out alone,’ I said, not entirely coherently, and managed to make my legs work. The prickling sensation in my head eased after a few steps, but I glanced nervously at the gathering fog. It was ridiculous, was what it was.
‘Bloody Chappell. She started in on the Eyeslasher and now she’s got me scared.’
‘Oh,’ Kevin said, in tones of enlightenment. After a brief pause, he continued. ‘So, did you hear that Mr Reweti nearly blew up the lab this afternoon?’
I let him go on about the interesting properties of potassium, the monologue washing over me as I settled into the freedom of being outside the school on a weekday. Most of the weekends were our own, provided we didn’t drink or smoke (even if, like eighteen-year-old Kevin, we were legally allowed to) or violate curfew. And it wasn’t hard to get permission for afterschool leave. But I was used to a more complete freedom – I’d been able to roam Napier at will since I turned sixteen. My parents trusted me, and had relied on me during the Cancer Year; Mansfield’s rulebook treated me like a stupid kid, and I found myself acting like one. Drinking in my room was a total moron move, and it hadn’t been the first time.
Kevin’s chatter trailed off after a while, and we walked in friendly silence. Even cold and smog and the thick smell of burning couldn’t make the path completely unpleasant. Ducks floated serenely along the creek, occasionally passing on an important piece of duck-related news. The houses between Mansfield and the university were invariably owned by the wealthy, and lush lawns and well kept gardens showed in glimpses over redbrick walls. Most of the gardens were populated with imported English varieties, but there were a couple of house owners who had made some effort with native New Zealand vegetation, and the dark greens and rich browns stood out among the bleak, bare branches of the nonnative trees that seemed to claw at the grey air.
We followed the creek, which divided one of the university halls of residence from another, and cut into the sports fields that stretched all the way to the edge of the university proper. Wet grass and mud squelched under my sneakers. There were going to be boys in the play – possibly hot uni boys – but choosing not to wear my decent boots in this muck had obviously been the right decision. Still some way distant, the tall column of the main library loomed up to dominate the skyline. Kevin picked up the pace; I pointedly checked my battered watch.
‘Got to pee,’ he said. ‘I’ll jog ahead.’ ‘It’s getting dark,’ I protested, but not too loudly. There were plenty of people around now, students lugging backpacks
and making their way back to their halls for dinner. The important thing was that I not be alone. ‘Sorry,’ Kevin said, not sounding very sorry, and took off at something close to a dead run.
‘I can’t take you anywhere!’ I yelled after him, and continued at my own speed. I could have kept up, but only at the price of arriving sweaty and rumpled. Iris made me feel grubby even at my most polished and composed; there was no point in spotting her an advantage.
We were supposed to be meeting in the student union building. I was vaguely familiar with the university grounds – Mansfield students were allowed to use the library, which was much better stocked and stayed open later than ours – and the fastest way there would have been to turn south at the road and walk straight down the block to hit the studentunion car park.
But I was enjoying the walk, and I still owed Kevin for dragging me into this. It would serve him right if he had to wait for me. I carried straight on into the university. Out of my school uniform, I could pass for a first-year student, I thought. Maybe even a secondyear. Studying Commerce, maybe, or Law, or Forestry. Or Classics – why not, in a daydream, even if it was useless for getting a job – a Classics honours student, soberly occupied with a translation of Euripides that would make her famous and admired the world over . . .
Caught up in the fantasy, I realised I was in danger of walking right through the campus. I dodged around two girls practising Māori as they walked, turned southwest at the next path, and found myself in a strange spot I hadn’t seen before.
The ground had been shaped into a semicircular hill – an amphitheatre, really, sloping down to an outdoor concrete stage jutting out of the building behind it. The cherry trees that studded the top of the rise must have looked pretty in bloom, but now their black branches glinted sullenly in the heavy air and the feet of other short cutters had churned a straight line of muck through the grass, up and over the slope. I avoided that sodden path as I crested the hill, more out of fear that my worn sneakers might skid than out of fastidiousness.
With a shiver of fear, I saw that the others had all vanished into school buildings or other paths. I was alone, in the growing darkness, when the redhaired woman walked out of the fog.
I ducked my head nervously, but though she surveyed me from my sneakers to the collar of my coat, she didn’t meet my eyes. I gained the impression that, my heavy body being of no interest, my face could hold nothing more, and flushed, half-furious, half-ashamed. Of her, I saw white skin, red hair, piled and pinned, and a tight, shortwaisted jacket.
As she came closer, her beauty struck me, almost physically – a weird, ageless beauty that lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. I felt like an alley cat, bristling at the sudden appearance of a Siamese.
I pulled my hands out of my coat pockets. She was almost as tall as I was, but her wrists were delicate and the high sweep of her cheekbones almost painfully fragile. If it came to a fight, I could hit for her face, and run.
The rush of aggression subsided a little in the bloody horror of that image. My hands were in fists so tight they squeezed my bittendown nails into my palms and I forced them flat against my thighs. They stiffened there, blades of bone and sinew.
But the gesture gained her attention. She tilted a glance at me as she passed, and I saw her eyes, undimmed by dusk and fog. They were strong and dark – like greenstone under water – but there was something wrong with them. It took me a long moment to realise that her face gave reason to my fears.
The woman had no pupils.
A shout stalled in my throat as she regarded me with that inhuman gaze for seconds my heart stammered out in double time. My throat was too dry for words, too tight for air; I felt breath whistle harshly out through my nose and a straining tightness in my chest.
Then she smiled slightly and stepped past me, precise and measured through the mud.
I managed a sound that was more a whimper than a cry and scrambled up the rest of the slope, bracing myself against a tree trunk before I dared to look after her. I halfexpected her to have vanished, but I could still make out the straight line of her back through the fog. When she did disappear, it was into one of the university buildings, via a door held open by one of a group of chattering boys. One of them brushed against her, and I saw her move with the impact before he made his cheerful apology.
I was panting like a dog, breath coming in short sharp huffs of chilly air. Head pounding, I leaned against the rough trunk and tried to put my thoughts back in order.
She wasn’t a ghost. Just someone with weird contact lenses, a fetish for Victoriana, and bad manners. Any campus had its share of crazies who got their fun out of scaring the normal people.
‘Hi, Ellie!’ someone chirped behind me, and I screamed and whipped round, my hands ready to strike.
Iris Tsang stepped backwards hastily, her sleek fall of black hair swinging back and forth across her shoulders. She looked alarmed, as well she might, with a giant girl screaming at her.
I leaned one hand against the tree and bent my head as the adrenaline subsided again, fighting the urge to pant some more. ‘Oh, my God! I’m sorry! Oh, God!’ So much for polished and composed.
‘It’s okay. Are you all right? You’re completely white!’
‘I’ve always been white,’ I cracked feebly, and straightened to give her my usual envious onceover. I knew that ‘China doll’ was racist, even just in my head, but I couldn’t help thinking it. Iris had skin like fragile porcelain, dark eyes that tilted sweetly under a delicate fold of eyelid, and that gratuitously gorgeous hair. I was proud of my own hair, which was blonde and straight, and the only thing that was vaguely pretty about me, but Iris had me beat without even trying. And she was wearing boots, kneehigh black ones that looked great with her grey skirt and white jersey.
‘What happened?’ I frowned. ‘Nothing. I was just . . . it’s spooky, I guess. The fog.’
She nodded sympathetically. ‘Well, come on in. We’re in the lower common room tonight. Oh! Did you hear? We found a new Titania!’
I fell in beside her as we went down the hill and across the bridge over the creek. Passersby looked at us, and I bristled inwardly at the inevitable comparison, hunching down into my coat. ‘I didn’t know you’d lost a Titania.’
‘Sarah pulled out yesterday, and with only three weeks to go, can you believe it? I thought we might have to promote one of the fairies. But Reka got a hold of me.’ She frowned a little. ‘She had some conditions . . . oh, well, I’ll explain when I can talk to everyone. And thank you so much for helping! I just have no idea what to do with the fight scenes.’
She really did look grateful. ‘No problem,’ I said, and resolved to be a nicer person, kind to animals and old people and irritatingly gorgeous nice girls who had never done me any harm.
The rehearsal room was filled with earnest, stretching people in white martial arts uniforms, which, unless Iris had vastly underestimated the fighting abilities of her cast, seemed out of the ordinary for a rehearsal. Kevin was just sticking a notice on the door when we arrived.
‘We’ve been booted out by the karate club. We get the theatre.’
‘Isn’t that better?’ I asked.
‘It’s freezing in the theatre,’ Kevin explained. ‘Iris, why can’t we do this outside? In summer?’ Iris smiled at him. ‘One, the only reason a mere first
year is directing is because no one else wanted to take on a production this close to exams. Two, my directorial vision requires a decent set. And three, I want to do it now, and you’re helping me out because you love me. Did I miss anything?’
Kevin’s smile suddenly looked forced.
‘Four, he’s allergic to bees,’ I said quickly.
Iris turned to me, eyes shining brightly. ‘Oh, of course. Four, possible horrible death.’
‘Iris!’ someone cried from behind us, and I twisted to see a pair of petite girls in the student uniform of sweatpants and pink polarfleece hoodies coming up the stairs. ‘Oh, how are we translated?’ the smaller one asked, which made no sense to me at all.
‘Transported, more like,’ Iris said, and pointed down the corridor. ‘To the theatre.’
We wandered through the smokers’ lounge and past the photos of past student executives, beginning with the faded blackandwhite photos of the early 1900s. Kevin tossed a mock salute at his missing Great Uncle Bob when we passed his photo, and we had to stop so Kevin could explain the tragic story of his uncle’s disappearance to the two girls. The photograph had been taken in 1939, a week before he’d gone missing. The boyish, handsome face was eerily similar to Kevin’s – a bit darker, maybe – but some photographer’s trick had given Robert Waldgrave’s dark eyes an intense, suppressed excitement that Kevin had never demonstrated.
The girls made the expected sad noises at the story and then introduced themselves to me as Carrie and Carla. They were playing Helena and Hermia, and they were delighted that I was going to teach them how to catfight properly. I wondered if Iris had cast them for the alliteration, but she was staring pensively at Kevin, and I didn’t ask. I began to edge forward, and the girls followed me, talking about the fight.
‘I thought we could fall over things,’ blonde Carrie said. ‘Like, maybe I break a walking stick on her, and then she tugs at my foot and we roll around. And then I kick her in the face!’
I pictured the impact of Carrie’s flailing shoe against Carla’s snub, brown nose. ‘I’ll work something out,’ I said diplomatically.
‘Nothing that tears at clothes,’ Carla said. ‘We’re hiring all the Edwardian stuff.’ ‘Carla’s doing costumes,’ Kevin informed me. ‘Since the original costume designer quit.’ ‘Do you want to be onstage too?’ Iris said, perking up.
‘You could be a fairy, Ellie.’
‘What do fairies wear?’
‘Bodysuits,’ Carla said promptly. ‘With koru designs
drawn on them, and the girls get grass skirts.’
I envisioned myself on stage, wearing spandex decorated in curling patterns and surrounded by tiny women like these. ‘Ah . . . no. Thanks.’
‘I’m glad I don’t have to wear one,’ Carrie chirped, rubbing her flat stomach. ‘I’ve put on the firstyear five kilos since March!’ I was probably imagining her sly look at my bulk, I told myself, uncomfortably aware that my ‘dinner’ had comprised three chocolatechip biscuits and four pieces of peanutbutter toast. I had to get some exercise. My tae kwon do gear bag was in my wardrobe, untouched since I’d moved down in February. Maybe I could join the university karate club after the play. It might be interesting to see how they did it.
We had come to the end of the corridor, and entered the wide lobby. Kevin pushed on the wide, paleblue doors, emblazoned with ‘Ngaio Marsh Theatre’ in flowing script, and ushered us in.
‘Are any other—’ I began, but I had spoken into one of those sudden silences that occasionally punctuate group conversations. All the strangers gathered on the stage looked up at us.
Empty, the theatre was immense and intimidating. The black side curtains were tied up in enormous knots, and the undressed stage stretched all the way back to the brick wall. The group of shivering bodies clustered on the stage’s scarred wooden floor barely covered a tenth of it.
I skirted the sunken orchestra pit and joined them, making abortive attempts to smooth down my hair.
Iris beamed at me. ‘Okay, guys, this is Ellie Spencer, from Mansfield, like Kevin! She’s our fight choreographer!’ She clapped. Everyone joined in.
‘Hi,’ I said, through my teeth, hoping it looked like a smile. There were cute boys, but none of them looked enthused by my introduction as a mere highschool kid. Probably not even my nice boots would have helped.
‘It’s good to see everyone here on time!’ Iris said encouragingly.
‘Sarah’s not,’ Carrie pointed out.
‘Sarah left,’ Iris told her, but before the groan from the other cast members could swell into real protest, she held out her hands. ‘It’s okay! We have a new Titania lined up already. Reka Gordon.’
‘Why did Sarah quit?’ one of the boys asked, looking disgruntled. I’d noticed him right away – he wasn’t really tall enough for me, but I liked his brown curls and wide mouth.
Iris paused, a look of momentary confusion flickering over her face. ‘You’d have to ask her yourself,’ she said, then rallied. ‘But I’m sure it was a good reason.’
‘What’s this Reka done?’ he persisted.
Iris blinked again. ‘Oh, lots of things,’ she said. ‘She’s just moved here, I think, so nothing recent . . . she has done Dream before, though, so that’s a real bonus. Just one thing, though, before she joins us! She’s allergic to the smell of cooked food. So we can’t bring anything that smells to rehearsal.’ She picked up her notebook and smiled hopefully at the group.
Kevin raised his hand. ‘She’s allergic to the smell of cooked food?’
‘That’s – uh . . . I’ve never heard of that.’
‘Like, is she allergic to peanuts?’ Carrie asked, pretty nose wrinkling. ‘Because that’s airborne allergies. My cousin can’t be around satay.’
‘Cooked food,’ Iris said swiftly. ‘All cooked food. Okay?’ Her voice was composed, but I could see her hands tensing and relaxing in her lap. ‘She’s joining us a little later. Let’s get warmed up.’
I squished myself into one of the seats in the row nearest the stage and watched as she marshalled everyone into a circle like a hyperefficient sheepdog and took the cast through a series of increasingly bizarre physical, vocal, and mental warmups. I couldn’t really see the point of making people howl, or asking them to visualise themselves dropping into a pool of black ink, or having them all clap in unison, but they did look more focused and intent when they were finished, so what did I know? And browncurls boy looked even more interesting with his face screwed up in concentration.
‘Okay, Ellie! How do you want to start?’
Panic swamped me. I’d been so intent on complaining about Kevin making me do this that I hadn’t come up with any practicalities. ‘How about if I see the scenes like you’ve got them, and then come up with some ideas?’
Iris nodded as if that made perfect sense. ‘Okay! Act three, scene two. From Helena’s entrance.’
Carrie and Carla eagerly disappeared into the wings, and two boys whose names I had already forgotten began mockpunching each other, while another two sat at the back of the stage. Everyone else trooped into the auditorium, setting up camp in the front rows. Iris sat down beside me, so I took out a notebook and tried to look serious.
Carrie ran from the wings, pursued by one of the boys protesting his enchanted love for her. I’d studied A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Year Eleven, but it was hard to follow Shakespeare’s lines at speed. I thought that they were probably pretty good, though. Carrie’s Helena was maybe a little too stagy, but Carla’s Hermia was really distraught.
Browncurls boy was playing Puck, and he caught my eye more than once, smirking gnomishly to himself, or lifting his fingers in gestures that mocked the girls’ earnest arguments.
Carla floated around in front of her Lysander in a pretty useless attempt to stop him duelling, then turned on Carrie, launching into the speech about their comparative heights. It came off oddly, since they were almost the same size, but I grimaced when she scorned Carrie’s ‘tall personage’.
‘I am not yet so low but that my nails can reach unto thine eyes!’ she declared in a rising shriek, and then stopped, looking expectantly at me. ‘And then we fight.’
I nodded. ‘Just speak the lines you say during.’
She looked disappointed, but they continued until the boys stormed off to duel and the girls followed in bemusement.
Iris twisted to smile at me. ‘Any ideas?’
To my surprise, I did have a few. It wouldn’t be real training, but I could make them look a little less like actors and a little more like girls who genuinely wanted to hurt each other. ‘I think so. Is there someplace I can take them to try it?’
‘The greenroom is back there,’ she said, pointing to the right wing.
Kevin tagged along, either to offer support or out of boredom. Backstage was dimly lit, and we walked cautiously around untidy piles of wood cutoffs and rolls of canvas. The chill air smelled of paint and sawdust, simultaneously sharp and musty. I shivered and tucked my numbing fingers into my coat pockets.
‘How old are you, Ellie?’ Carrie asked.
‘Really? I thought you might be older. You’re so tall.’
‘I noticed that myself,’ I said blandly, and watched her cover her fluster by reaching for the greenroom door.
The handle yanked out of her grip as the door swung abruptly back. Carrie stumbled forward, narrowly avoiding collision with the redhaired woman on the other side.
‘Careful,’ she snapped, and strode through. She looked ready to move right through us, before she spotted Kevin and her whole demeanour changed. From the cool scorn of her lovely face she produced a beautiful smile, and aimed it directly at him.
Reflexively, Kevin smiled back.
The moment hung in the dusty air, and then the woman made a neat quarterturn on the heel of her ankle boots and stepped surely onto the stage. The bare lighting edged her red hair with gold before she moved into the auditorium and out of sight.
Kevin stared after her.
‘Is that Reka?’ Carla wondered.
I was staring myself, but with the shock of recognition. In the fog she’d looked no age at all, and now she looked in her early twenties, just a few years older than me. But all the mystery of that odd encounter was explained – clearly an involvement in student theatre was sufficient reason for strange clothes and weird contacts. Although she must have taken them out. The light from the green room had shown two perfectly normal pupils in her darkgreen eyes.
‘She must be,’ I said. ‘Let’s get started.’