TAKERS

 

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TAKERS

  1.  

M.L. Leigh

 

 

​Life can be cruel; life can be kind,

would life be more beautiful if the whole world were blind..

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Chapter 1

Sweet sixteen… Honestly? I’m pretty sure a teenager didn’t come up with that crap. I remember the moment I decided sixteen sucked all too well. It was ten days after my birthday- I was lying on my back, blood trickling from my lip; the world a fuzzy, collage of shapes. There were people around, hushed giggles. Snippets of conversations wafted through the fog. I was confused; I didn’t know what they were saying. Then I heard her shouting.

    ‘GET UP BITCH!’

    Despite the polite request I couldn't move. The iron awning above swirled into focus. I could hear soft clicks as the metal expanded. I desperately hoped this was a horrible nightmare- the throbbing and stannic taste told me it wasn't. How did life get like this? School hadn't always been so bad. I used to have heaps of friends, I’d loved going. But that was in a small town miles from here; that was before Dad got transferred. He was super excited the day he told Mum and me about it. The job paid way more, had great opportunities. They thought it was perfect timing because I was about to start high school. They thought a city education would be way better. I didn't agree but I didn't get a say, and before I knew it we were moving to Annaford Sydney. The argument I had with Mum the day we left was pretty big. It was a five-hour drive to the new house. Dad had flown over to get everything ready. I started sulking the second we pulled out of the driveway. Mum tried to get me chatting. I gave her nothing but shrugs. A few hours later she cheerily asked what I wanted for lunch. ‘Whatever Elaine.’ I mumbled, knowing how she hated it when I called her by name. Her smile withered, she went quiet; her driving became aggressive. I turned to face the passenger window happy I’d ruined her day. I resented her eternal optimism and the hours she'd spent reassuring me how wonderful the move would be. Mum is one of those 'chirpy' souls who always sees the best in everything and everyone. I've always been more like my Dad; a bit cynical, moody even.

    She huffed dramatically. ‘Honestly Jade I can't believe you are being so selfish! This job is a huge opportunity for your father; this move is as much for you as it is for him. Don't you think I'll miss my friends? You're not the only one upset so just get over it!’

    Mum's little outburst got my attention but I didn't want her to know. I spent the rest of the trip ignoring her, staring at the endless scenery zooming past. The whole thing sucked in my opinion.

‘I said. GET! UP! BITCH!’

    Unfortunately I couldn’t ignore this voice so easily. A flushed face bent over me. I examined her angry expression. She wanted me to fight back. Four years I'd been at school with this girl, yet today was the first time we'd ever spoken. We'd been in plenty of the same classes; ironically her name was Jade too. Well, maybe it’s not that ironic since Jade seems to be the most popular name at Annaford High- there are four of us in my year alone. This was another thing my parents got wrong. You see, when people have the same name teenagers tend to add a defining word to help tell you apart. The other three Jades are great friends; some of the most popular girls in grade eleven. They did Ok with the naming. The simpletons at my school came up with Hot Jade, Blonde Jade and Tall Jade. I could've lived with any of those, but at the end of this well thought out naming process it seems there was only one adjective left- Ugly. So that is what I got. Fortunately I was rarely called this in person but I knew that was how I was defined. So was I ugly? Well, I certainly didn't look the other Jades, then again few of us do. I was average height, average weight; my mousy brown hair did tend to embrace a certain level of frizz. My teeth were a little crooked, I had pale skin, freckles, a few pimples; otherwise I didn't look that different to most other girls my age, but as they say perception is reality. So as far as everyone was concerned ugly I was.

    ‘Seriously, if you don't get up I'm going to slap you again!’

    This was Tall Jade by the way. I'd upset her by running into her while she was chatting to Zach Davies. Zach is the cutest guy in our year. He also lived right across the road from me. Zach had been dating Hot Jade for a while, but everyone knew Tall Jade still fancied him. Tall Jade was probably the least attractive of the three; her face is kinda horsey. But she did have flawless skin and great hair- really great hair. Long caramel curls draped over her shoulders, the sheen was ridiculous- funny how gorgeous hair can hide otherwise obvious flaws. Zach was backing away from her giggled flirtation when I careened round the corner. I knocked a bottle of water out of her hand right down the front of his shirt.

    ‘Good one!’ He spat before storming off. Tall Jade watched helplessly. I didn't move fast enough. 

    She turned on me. ‘You stupid cow!’

    I edged away. We were outside the science buildings at the end of he day and for the first time in history there wasn't a teacher in sight. ‘I… I'm sorry. I didn't see you.’

    ‘See me now don't ya?’

    The sparse number of students suddenly grew sensing impending entertainment. I glanced at their faces; I didn't know any of them. They all wore the same look of unpleasant curiosity.

    ‘I'll get you another drink.’

    ‘Think I'd rather you licked the last one up.’

    I stared in horror wondering if she really going to make me do this- I didn't have to wonder long. A second later I was on my back, my jaw on fire. I lay there dazed, crippled by fear. Excited chatter exploded in the background. A chorus of dings punctated the air as mobile phones switched to video. She started yelling, wanting me to get up. Her face came into focus. She smirked, bent over and drew back her hand. Her white shirt clung to her armpits. I could smell the sickly sweet scent of floral perfume mixed with sweat. Her arm swung forwards; it took forever to hit my cheek. Odd thoughts skittered in and out as I waited for the impact, but only one really stuck-'God I wish I had your hair.'

    ‘What's going on over there?’

    The deep voice scattered the crowd.

    ‘Later!’ Tall Jade hissed before slipping round the corner.

    Mr. Summers appeared and crouched down, his thin, pale curls doing little to hide his pink scalp. ‘You Ok Jade? What happened?’ Mr. Summers is my physics teacher- one of those guys old enough to be your father who tries to be everyone’s friend. He's nice enough, but a bit slimy. I accepted his outstretched hand and found my feet. I wiped the back of my wrist across my face. Gritty, crimson stripes clung to my skin. ‘Were you fighting Jade?’

    My eyes dropped to the concrete. There was more blood on the front of my grey jumper; my grey stockings were torn at the knees. I never did understand why stocking always seem to tear at the knees, even when you fall backwards like I just had.

    ‘I, um…tripped.’ I mumbled.

    ‘Your face doesn't look like you tripped… If someone hit you Jade you can tell me. You know the school has an anti-bullying policy.’

    I kicked at a solitary blade of grass breaking through the concrete. ‘Seriously Mr. Summers, I'm all good.’ I couldn't bring myself to look at him. The final bell rang.

    He sighed and patted my shoulder. ‘You know where I am if you need to talk Jade.’ I nodded shuffling backwards. ‘Well, home time, I’ll catch you later.’ I turned and ran.

Walking out the front gates I let my hair fall over my face so people couldn't see my rapidly swelling lip. My stunned confusion was subsiding only to be replaced by red-hot anger. I was running the scenario over and over in my mind, except in my version I stood up to Tall Jade and told her to 'Go to hell!' I was imagining horrible things happening to her. I had an overwhelming desire to find her house, wait till she was asleep, break in and cut her hair off- then everyone would know how ugly she really was. That’d make her sorry. Would serve her right too, stupid bitch.

    ‘Hey J, what's the rush?’

    I was so caught up in my mental rant I didn't see Michael waiting. I pulled up. His tall, gangly frame sidled up beside me. His goofy grin dropped at the sight of my face. ‘What happened to you?’ The concern in his green eyes was palpable. I looked at him unsure if I wanted to hug him, yell at him, or burst into tears. He placed a warm hand on my arm. ‘Seriously Jade, who did this?’ Wavy, dark hair fell across his forehead. His eyebrows drew tight. Michael was one of my only true friends at Annaford High. We’d met the first day of school. Like me he was one of the 'new' kids. Almost everyone else had shifted from the primary school across the road so friendship groups were already in place. At second break we’d kinda just gravitated to each other out of desperation. He’d done most of the talking. He was actually pretty funny, and cute in a dorky kind of way. It was the first time I'd really laughed in weeks.

    Our group had grown from there. There were six of us now; three girls and three boys- mutual friends brought together by one common interest, nobody else liked us. The girls, Elly and Megs, are lovely. They’re both super good at math, science- all the academic stuff. Physically though they are complete opposites. Elly is tall and solid, her blonde hair thin and straight. She wears glasses, a chubby smile and has the softest skin I've ever felt. Megs on the other hand is short and skinny. Sometimes it's hard to see her face amongst the mass of red curls drowning her head. She has an odd habit of frowning when concentrating; as a result she has permanent wrinkles. This bothers her heaps, she often jokes about getting Botox- sometimes I wonder if she is really joking. Alex and Gabe round off the group. They are both nerds and fit in nicely. Gabe is artist and more attractive than he realises. His parents are from the Middle East somewhere; you can see it in his dark eyes and skin. English is his second language; his quiet voice hides a subtle sense of humour. Elly and Megs are both secretly in love with him. I think he might be gay. Alex on the other hand is loud and stumpy, his skin and hair are almost the same colour white. Poor guy has one of the worst cases of acne I've ever seen. He is a genius with computers though. I suspect this is due to years spent cracking porn blocks placed on his PC by his parents. They are all great guys and I love them dearly, but Michael had always been my best friend. 

‘Jade you're starting to worry me.’ Michael's soft voice soothed the anger. I'd been staring at him for a good ten-seconds. I opened my aching mouth but nothing came out. A single tear tracked down my cheek. He took my hand. ‘Come on.’ Pulling me back through the gates he guided me to a nearby bench hidden by jacaranda trees. His fingers held mine tightly. I looked at his hand. In all the time I’d known him we'd never touched like this. There’d occasionally been a hug if one of us was going away, but that’d been it. ‘Sit.’ He instructed releasing his grip. I did as I was told. He sat down beside me. The faint smell of the soap settled around me. ‘Look, I'm not really sure how to do this, us guys kinda suck at this sort of thing, but since we have no other option you're not going anywhere till you tell me what happened. And if you need to have a bit of a cry then go for it. As long as you realise you're not wiping your snotty face on my jumper or anything.’

    I huffed in amusement despite myself. His lopsided grin did little to conceal his worry. I examined his face. The dimples in his golden cheeks deepened. I sighed heavily. ‘Had a slight misunderstanding with Tall Jade is all. Accidentally walked into her while she was talking to Zach Davies.’

    Michael grimaced. ‘Made her look like a fool in front of wonder boy did we?’

    ‘She spilt half a bottle of water on him.’

    His grimace got bigger. ‘I can see she took it well.’

    ‘You could say that. Not sure it's over either.’

    Michael's expression turned serious. ‘Did she say that?’

    ‘Pretty much.’

    ‘Well, looks like I'm going to hanging out with you a lot more then doesn't it.’ His sincerity was unquestionable; resolution coloured his eyes. A warm bubbling invaded my stomach catching me off guard. I looked away, confused by the heat in my face.

    ‘I’m not sure which is worse, facing Tall Jade again or hanging with you.’

    He chuckled. ‘You know, you can be a right bitch some days Jade Johnson.’

    I looked up. I loved the way his face lit up when he teased me. The perpetual pink tinge of his cheeks darkened. ‘Takes one to know one.’

    A contagious laugh erupted from him. He stood up and offered a hand. ‘Come on Bruce Lee, let's get you home.’

I dropped by Michael's house on the way home to borrow some of his Mum's makeup. I wanted to hide my swollen lip from my parents. Michael didn't approve but there was no argument. The house was empty when we got there. We'd expected this. Michael's parents, Jenny and Otto, were both GPs who owned and worked in a local practice. They were rarely home before six. Michael always called them by their first names and they insisted I did the same. His house was really nice- three levels of stark white, architect designed, perfection that smelt of coffee and cinnamon. The views were amazing. The house sat on small hill overlooking Pittswater Bay- a huge, sunken puddle rimmed by glamorous mansions and patches of mangroves. I loved visiting his place. His mum and Dad were great too. They'd even invited my parents over for dinner a few times. It was a crack the first time they'd met. I'd told them Michael was adopted but I'd neglected to mention that both his Mum and Dad were Asian. They certainly did look quite the family standing together. Michael's nearly six-foot frame towered over Jenny and Otto who'd barely managed to overcome the five feet mark. His green eyes clashed violently with the black of theirs and his skin was a totally different shade of olive. The only common trait they all shared was their constant smiles. I'd never met a family that got on so well, it was almost creepy. Their favourite past time was playing jokes on each other. For example Otto loved chocolate and there was always a box in the pantry. Michael didn't like chocolate but he did love stealing them. He'd put them up high so his Dad could see but not reach them. If given the chance I'd always eat a few before Michael hid them because I do love chocolate. When Otto finally dragged a chair over to recovered them I'd blame Michael for the missing pieces. Michael would protest but his Dad would still lecture him, all the while winking at me. It was never dull when his parents were home. Sometimes I wished I were as close to my Mum and Dad.

    After I’d finished disguising my lip (and stealing a good spray of Jenny's delicious perfume), I threw my torn stocking and spot cleaned jumper into my bag. Michael was waiting near the front door when I emerged. 'I'm walking you home.' He declared in a tone that rebuffed argument. His house was only three blocks from mine.

    'Ok.'

    He carried my bag as we walked. Cold air seeped from the shadows as the warmth of the day pursued the sinking sun. I remained pretty quiet, as my mouth was so sore. He kept glancing at my lip and grinning. Finally it got too much.

    ‘What’s so funny?’

    ‘Nothing.’ He said innocently. I raised an eyebrow.

    ‘Then why do you keep looking at me like that?’

    He tried to restrain a huge smile by biting his lip. It didn’t work. ‘It’s just you look a bit…fish like.’

    ‘Thanks for the confidence boost.’

    He chuckled. ‘You could be a Hollywood soap star with that trout pout.’

    I scowled. A part of me wanted to laugh but he’d hit a raw nerve. ‘Maybe…if it wasn’t for the rest of my face.’

    He stepped in front of me. The unexpected action caught me off guard. His eyes locked on mine. ‘Don’t say things like that J, there’s nothing wrong with any of you.’

    I stared, baffled by his sudden intensity. I would've curled my lip in confusion if it weren’t already half way to my nose. ‘O…K.’

    ‘I mean it. You’re beautiful both inside and out. I’m sorry I teased you, it was stupid.’

    It couldn't understand why he was acting so odd. ‘It’s fine.’ I murmured. He nodded briskly but didn’t move. ‘Um… We’d better keep moving.’ I said stepping round him.

    'Yeah…good idea.' He marched past me as though nothing had happened. What the hell was that all about?

After Michael's little outburst we walked home in silence. The glances kept coming but the amusement had gone. I still wasn't sure why he’d gotten so upset. We tormented each other all the time. Maybe he felt sorry for me after my big cry earlier. Either way, I guess it was nice that he cared. It wasn’t long till we arrived at my house.

    ‘See you first thing.’ He chirped, back to his normal happy self.

    I did my best to smile even though it must have been ridiculously lopsided. ‘Alright then.’ I replied a little sadder than usual about him leaving. ‘See you tomorrow. ‘He handed over my bag and strode off. I wandered up the path touching my lip tentatively to see if it was any smaller- it wasn’t. I took a few deep breaths and went inside. The TV was on in the kitchen. ‘I’m home!' I called out.

    A bright voice wafted down the hall. 'Hey sweetie how was school?'

    'Good. Do you need a hand with dinner?' My tummy rumbled as I registered the thick, rich aroma of meaty sauce. I took a long breath drawing in the comfort of my mother's cooking. Yum, spaghetti bolognaise- my favourite.

    'All good thanks, it's nearly ready.'

    'Have I got time for a quick shower?'

    'Sure.'

    I bounded up the stairs and tossed my bag beside my desk relishing the idea of hot water on my skin. It'd feel good to wash away the day’s dramas.

I’m not sure if it was the makeup or if Mum and Dad were preoccupied, but neither of them seemed to notice my injury over dinner. Eating spaghetti with a fat lip was a bit tricky but I successfully got most of it into my mouth. After we’d finished I cleared the plates and sneakily stole an ice pack.

    Mum wandered into the kitchen after me. ‘You Ok sweetie? You seem quiet tonight.’

    I set about putting the plates in the dishwasher so I didn’t have to face her. ‘Yeah just got lots of homework to do.’

    ‘Well leave that, I’ll clean up. You go upstairs and get started.’

    I turned the good side of my face to her and delivered a small smile (which was more of a grimace due to the fact that I had a very, very cold ice pack shoved down the back of my pants.) ‘Thanks Mum.’ I said dashing from the kitchen. ‘Dinner was awesome.’

    ‘Don’t stay up too late.’ She called after me as I shot upstairs.

    ‘I won’t.’

I sighed heavily as I sat down at my desk and put the icepack over my lip. My lower back felt like a freezer thanks to my badly thought out hiding place, and the pain in my face was getting worse. I got out some books. Even though I did have a pile of schoolwork I could barely keep my eyes open. I half-heartedly worked on it for about forty-five minutes before giving up and going to bed. Despite my exhaustion it was hours before I got to sleep. Michael's promise to not leave my side was reassuring but I still couldn't shake the dread of Tall Jade finding me tomorrow. It was going to be a long night.

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Chapter 2

‘Come on Jade, its quarter past seven, if you don’t get up you’ll be late!’ I sat up with a start, unsure where I was. Three sharp bangs rattled my door. ‘You said you weren’t going to stay up late!’

    Sense filtered in.

    ‘It’s all good Mum, I’m up now.’ I yelled trying to sound more awake than I was. Her footsteps trailed off down the hallway. I fell back on my warm bed feeling like crap. I toyed with the idea of having a sickie but then I remembered Michael was coming over to walk me to school- a lecture from him was more than I could take. I groaned loudly and swung my legs out of bed. My feet hurt as they sunk into the carpet. I staggered into the bathroom rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I couldn’t believe how puffy they felt. 'Gonna to look extra pretty today.' My mind taunted. I shuffled to the sink and splashed cold water on my face. I patted my skin dry and looked in the mirror waiting for my eyes to focus. Even in my dopey state I could see something was different. I leaned closer inspecting my blurry image. It took several rapid blinks to clear my vision. I gasped and stumbled backwards. Something crazy was going on with my hair. I raised a hand tentatively. I'd never seen it so shiny, or smooth…and it was lighter in colour…and wavy. I didn’t understand. I turned towards the shower. I'd washed my hair the night before letting it dry while I slept. This was never a good idea as it usually resulted in an unruly mass of frizz and kinks. I examined the shampoo and conditioner. They were the same peach scented brand Mum always bought. I spun back. My hair lifted gracefully before settling onto my shoulders. Bloody hell, I looked straight out of a hair commercial. Maybe I was still asleep and dreaming. I touched the silken curls. If this was a dream it was a wicked one. I squeezed my eyes shut, counted to three then eased them open. It was still there. I stood dazed, transfixed by my reflection. How had this happened? I rechecked my memories of the night before. I definitely hadn’t done anything special. I felt stuck, unsure what to do- then I realized there was nothing I could do; I just had to keep getting ready for school. A small smile curved my lips. Maybe today wasn't going to be so bad after all.

I nearly skipped down the path to Michael. He had his back to me leaning on our fence. I was almost always late when Michael walked me to school (usually because I spent so long trying to force my hair into a civilised state), but not today. I crept up behind him, grabbed his arm and yelled.

    He swore and leapt round. ‘Holy crap Jade, where'd you come from?’ A huge grin crumpled his cheeks; his eyes skittered across my face then settled on my hair. The colour in his cheeks evaporated along with his smile.

    ‘What's the matter? Did widdle Michael get a big fright?’ His attention stayed firmly on my hair. ‘So, what do you think?’ I said flipping a curl dramatically. His eyes darted to mine. His stare was piercing, as though searching for something deep inside.

    ‘How did this happen?’ His voice was quiet, unnaturally low. The grin slipped from my face. Anyone would've thought I had a terminal disease.

    ‘I don’t know.’ I shrugged defensively, thrown by his reaction. ‘Guess I'm just having a good hair day.’

    His lips thinned. ‘So you're telling me you didn't do anything to change it? It just happened…by itself.’

    I pouted. He was starting to annoy me. ‘Why are you acting so weird about this?’

    ‘Is. That. What. Happened. Jade?’

    I didn’t like his demanding tone. He was totally ruining my happy mood. ‘Yes Michael, that’s what happened.’ I retorted snootily. His shoulders tightened and he stepped back. ‘What's wrong with you?’ I nearly yelled. He looked away, lost in concentration. I could've sworn he was whispering to himself. A second later he inhaled deeply. He met my frustrated gaze with a forced smile.

    ‘Sorry J, you’re right; I'm being a jerk. It looks…great, honest. I was just surprised, that's all. Had a late one; was up studying. Must have drunk too much coffee.'

    My eyebrows knotted. I wasn't buying this at all. ‘Studying? What for? We haven't got exams for ages.’

    He shrugged. ‘Gotta keep up with you nerds somehow. We're not all naturally smart like you.’ I gave him a tight-lipped smirk. I still wasn't buying this. ‘Come on, we'd better get moving.’

    He turned and strode away. I hurried to catch up. His face was set, his expression unreadable. This really wasn't like Michael at all.

A few blocks later and he still hadn't said anything. I cleared my throat. He ignored me.

    ‘Weather is nice today.’ I commented. He didn’t answer. My mood was shifting from annoyed to pissed. Honestly, you’d have thought he’d be happy for me. 'Hope it stays like this for the weekend.' He nodded briefly. My anger soared. Right, that was it; he was getting the silent treatment. He could be such a pig when he wanted to be.

We soon joined the current of other students flowing towards school. Michael still hadn’t said a word but I'd decided it was his problem not mine. As we walked through the wrought iron gates I couldn't help but study the milling groups scattered amidst the uninspiring, solid red brick buildings- I wanted to see if anyone noticed my new hair. A few people looked up from their conversations, the ones who knew me definitely gave a second glance. A few even whispered to their friends who also turned. The further we went, the more my mood picked up. For once I had no problem meeting everyone's glances. It was so different to the usual head-down march I performed most mornings to avoid the daily assessment of just how uncool I was. Michael stormed onwards, his hands clamped to the straps of his backpack. I had to trot to keep up. He turned towards the building where the year eleven and twelve homerooms were housed. As we passed the science block my heart sank as memories of yesterday's encounter filled my head. Would Tall Jade really come after me again? I scoured the crowd for any sign of her. She was nowhere to be seen. We entered a doorway and climbed three flights of stairs. I was puffing hard by the time we reached our floor but Michael still didn't slow, not even to see if I was keeping up. He ploughed on, weaving through the crowded hallway. I was almost jogging by this stage. Suddenly he stopped; I ran squarely into his back.

    ‘Hey! What’re you doing?'

    He didn't move; he just stood staring into one of the year twelve homerooms. I followed his gaze only to see none other than Taylor Wilson.

So who’s Taylor Wilson? Taylor Wilson is by far and away the most popular girl in Annaford High and the only person I actually knew before starting here. So how do I know her? Well I know her because she’s my cousin. You see the main reason Mum and Dad chose to live in Annaford was because Mum's sister already lived here with my uncle and Taylor. They'd moved to Sydney a few months before we did which probably helped Dad make the decision to drag us here too. Before that Taylor and her parents had been in Canada for about three years. When I was young Taylor and I saw each other heaps. Back then they’d lived in Melbourne and we visited most holidays. Taylor was nearly two years older but we were only a year apart at school (I was young for my year and she was old for hers). We’d gotten on heaps well and had tonnes of fun. We’d climbed trees, gone shopping; spend hours and hours singing into to hairbrushes in front of the mirror. Believe it or not Taylor had pretty bad self-esteem in those days. I was alright- as I said, primary school had been Ok, but I knew Taylor struggled. To be honest she really wasn't that attractive as a young girl. She was short, tubby; had blotchy skin. Her eyes were the small type that sat too far back in her head, and unfortunately she wore glasses that made them look even smaller. Her hair was similar to mine and she snorted when she laughed. I loved her to bits though. She was hilarious, not scared of making a fool of herself and so much fun to be around. I was devastated when I found out she was moving overseas. I didn't see her the whole time they were away. We got the odd photo and I noticed she lost weight, dyed her hair, but there were never any close ups. The only good thing about moving to Annaford was knowing I’d get to see her again. The night we arrived I couldn't wait to go to hers for dinner. Dad had caught up with them earlier in the week. He mumbled something about 'wait till you see Taylor, you won't know her.' I had no idea how right he was. When Taylor opened the door I nearly fell over. Seriously, I was convinced we were at the wrong house. It was only when I saw my aunt in the background that I knew there was no mistake. I'm not kidding; she was completely, totally, utterly unrecognisable. The chub had gone replaced by the svelte frame of a ballerina. She had beautiful long blonde hair and skin to die for. Her lips were full and naturally pink, she even smelled great like toffee or something. But despite all this the one thing I really couldn’t get past was her eyes. They were huge- incredibly, perfectly, beautifully huge, and not to mention ridiculously blue. It was insane. I mean the rest of her I got- diet, skin creams, hair care, that stuff can make a difference, but how can someone make their eyes bigger? Even without her glasses her eyes were never that big. Admittedly I'm probably making them sound freakishly large, in reality they probably aren't any bigger than most, but compared to the memory I had of Taylor, they were enormous.

    She smiled patiently, still holding the door, amused by my dumbstruck expression. ‘Why Jade.’ She purred. ‘Haven't you grown, you look so…different.’

    I managed to shut my mouth and return something of a grimace. Even her voice had changed. She had a slight American accent and spoke way more posh than the Taylor I’d known. ‘Yeah, you too.’ I finally breathed.

    ‘Please, come in.’

    She gave my parents a quick hug as they passed. When I got to her she ramped the smile up a notch, shut the door, and trotted off down the hall. I followed, still totally blown away. I didn't get to talk to her much that night (not that I would've have known what to say if I did); I just spent most of the evening staring. On the first day of school Taylor and I went in together but as soon as our parents were out of sight she couldn’t get away from me fast enough. I saw her several times between classes. She was constantly surrounded. I smiled and waved a couple of times but only got a flick of blue eyes in return. That day set the pace of our relationship for the next four years. She quickly rose to the ranks of super popular; I spiraled to the depths of undesirable. We only ever spoke when forced too at family things. Except for my closest friends, no one would've ever guessed we were even related. Very occasionally though, when she thought I wasn't looking, I did catch her staring, I figured she was just trying to work out how we could possibly be related. It was just the way it ended up I guess, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt.

Despite my barrage of firm pushes Michael still hadn’t moved. I glanced at Taylor again who also seemed frozen. Strangely enough she was looking at me not Michael. Still unable to move Michael and held in by the crowd, I reluctantly met her eyes. They narrowed; there was no mistaking it, she had noticed my hair. I began to feel uncomfortable. I shoved Michael harder. He didn't budge. I couldn’t tear myself from her cold blue stare. Then the strangest thing happened. Taylor's face twitched…and she smiled- actually smiled. I was stunned. And it wasn't just a polite smile; it was genuine. But there was something behind it, something not quite right.

    Suddenly Michael came to life. ‘Let's go.’ He declared, roughly grabbing my arm. He dragged me into the swirling mass of students again.

    ‘Hey!’ I yelled. He didn't reply or let go. I glanced back. Taylor had moved to the door. Multiple people said 'hi' as they slipped past. She ignored them all. The beaming smile was still on her face and as happy as I was to see it, it still bothered me. Something was going on and I had no idea what. Michael didn't release me till we were outside my class.

    I turned on him the second he released his grip. ‘God, grab me hard enough?’ I spat rubbing my arm.

    ‘I'll meet you at recess.’ He stated blankly. My fury rose.

    ‘So what, you're my Dad now? What was that all about?’

    He looked past me. ‘What was what about?’

    I rolled my eyes. ‘You and Taylor. How come you stopped like that?’

    ‘Because she was staring at you.’

    I ground my teeth together. I hated it when he didn't give straight answers. I was sure he sometimes did it just to annoy me. Other times I suspect he did it because he didn't like the question. Either way he wasn’t getting off that easily. ‘That's crap. You stopped way before she even saw me. Why?’

    His pale green eyes flicked back. He was rarely this serious. He opened his mouth to answer. The bell rang. I jumped. ‘See you at recess.’ He mumbled more gently. He was gone before I protest. Alone and confused I dumped my bag, grabbed my books and headed for my desk. I dropped the texts and flopped into my chair. Could today possibly get any stranger?

‘God, double English.’ I mumbled as I headed to my first lesson. It wasn’t my favourite subject on the best of days. Lost in reruns of the morning’s events, I’d already had more compliments on my hair than I could count. I’d told everyone who’d pounced on me that I'd used some 'miracle' oil from South America. When I said I couldn't remember the name, several of them had actually threatened to harm me if I didn't write it down and bring it in the next day (I was going to have to do some serious Googling when I got home). I was so tangled up in my countless thoughts I made it all the way to class before remembering this was the one subject I shared with Tall Jade. Fear dried my mouth as I stepped in the room. Phew- she wasn’t here yet. I shot to the back and took my seat. I opened a text and pretended to read while watching everyone filing in. When the bell rang she still hadn't appeared. I exhaled the air I'd been holding too long. Maybe she was sick, maybe she missed the bus; maybe she'd moved to Alaska. Just as the anxiety was easing she suddenly appeared. Scurrying in head down she fell into her seat a few rows ahead. I froze waiting for something to happen…but nothing did- she didn't turn; she didn't even glance over her shoulder. She just slumped down on her desk and placed her hands either side of her head. And that's when I saw it. Her hair…it had changed too, but not in a good way. If anything…it kinda looked like mine did yesterday. It was pulled into a messy bun. I couldn't remember ever seeing it up. It was darker, frizzy and anything but shiny. I gathered my own hair, pulling the emergency hairband from my pencil case. I tied it back, tucking the ponytail into my shirt. Now probably wasn't the best time to show off my new, improved curls. I wriggled lower in my seat praying the morning would go quickly. I already knew I wasn’t going to learn anything anyway.

    The recess bell was the sweetest sound in the world. I shot out of the classroom like I’d heard the starter’s pistol in a race. Michael was waiting.

    ‘How'd you get here so fast?’

    He shrugged and held out his hands for my books. We walked back to homeroom, grabbed a snack and headed to our usual recess spot. Everyone else was already there. They sat on benches shaded by the heavy canopy of wattle trees. The smell of sunshine on puffy yellow flowers floated down from the foliage.

    Megs looked up from a giggled conversation with Elly. Her grin fell away. ‘Shit Jade! What have you done to your hair? It looks brilliant!’

Everyone’s attention swung to me; Elly next to never swore. I blushed, both embarrassed and pleased. I curled a finger through my long fringe. I'd taken the band out as soon as we'd left English.

    Michael frowned as I arranged the curls across my shoulders. ‘She used some amazing new hair gel or something.’ He interjected before I could answer. ‘And I'm kinda sick of hearing about it.’

    He flopped onto the nearest bench. All eyes switched to him, Michael was rarely grumpy. The girls both shot me a 'what's his problem' look. I shrugged and walked over to sit with them. Gabe seemed uncomfortable.

    Alex cleared his throat and gave me a dodgy grin. ‘So Jadey, hear you and Tall Jade got in a bit of a fight yesterday. Would’ve liked to see that. Anyone lose a shirt?’

    I curled my lip. ‘Grow up Alex.’

    He chuckled.

    ‘Is that true?’ Elly asked distressed.

    ‘Yeah sort of.’ I mumbled, taking a bite of my apple. ‘It was nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.’

    Megs and Elly frowned, Gabe looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. Michael focused on his unopened drink bottle; Alex sniggered oblivious to my insane desire to slap him. God I hated him some days.

    ‘So what was it about?’ Megs added bravely. I sighed.

    ‘Nothing, just a misunderstanding. We’re all good now.’

    Megs and Elly nodded in unison. For once Elly had just as many wrinkles on her forehead as Megs. The conversation died, I think everyone got the message. We ate in silence for a while. More than once I found my hand drifting to my still tender lip, then over to my hair. My mind was in overload, so many thoughts screamed to be acknowledged; to be listened to and processed. But I was just too scared to let them in or to give them any substance.

The rest of the afternoon was pretty uneventful. Michael was by my side every time I stepped outside a classroom, but I was no longer sure it was just to protect me from Tall Jade. As we walked home, again he was weirdly silent. I spent the first few blocks gazing at the same houses I passed everyday trying to look like I wasn’t bothered. I couldn't remember the last time we’d gone this long without talking. A nagging fear chewed at my throat. I couldn't understand why he was acting like this. It was getting ridiculous. We turned into the park, which was a shortcut to my house. Michael's place was a block in the other direction. I was grateful he was going to walk me all the way. We slipped into the shade of a large gum tree.

    ‘Soooo…studying again tonight?’ I asked brightly trying to lighten the mood. Our feet crunched on dry leaves releasing the tangy eucalyptus oil.

    ‘Dunno.’

    I nibbled my bottom lip as the anxiety grew. ‘Thanks for babysitting today.’ I mumbled nudging his arm. He didn't answer. I felt my body tighten; I couldn't contain the hurt any longer. I stopped walking. ‘Right! That's it! What is your problem?’ He pulled up. Turning cautiously, his green eyes gripped mine. His expression was cautious, almost fearful. A chill ran through my spine. Something was really wrong. ‘Why are you looking at me like that? You’re starting to scare me.’

    He stepped closer. I tilted my chin in defiance. I always felt so short next to him. ‘What do you think is happening Jade?’

    I blinked, baffled. ‘What do you mean?’ His eyes absorbed my hair. He reached up gently entangling a curl between his fingers. His mouth curved downwards; my frustration surged. I had a sudden desire to stamp my foot and scream. I hit his hand away. ‘Ok. So don't like my new hair, I get it! But what I don't get is why you're acting like I've killed someone. I didn't do anything to change it- it just happened Ok! It's not my fault I somehow managed to steal someone else's hair!’

    I froze, horrified by my own stupidity. The thought had been haunting me all day, and now I’d blurted it out I couldn't take it back. The blood retreated from his cheeks.

    ‘What did you say?’

    I looked away. I wanted to kick myself. ‘Nothing. It's been a long day. I'm not making sense. I just want to go home.’

    I tried to side step him; his hands clamped on my shoulders. I was getting a little sick of all this grabbing. I met his stare. He wanted to say something; I waited. He was too close but I wasn’t going to pull away first. His breath shifted my hair, tickling my face. His eyes dropped to my lips. Lines creased his brow; he looked in pain. The moment became uncomfortable. He leant closer, his lips parted. For one crazy moment I thought he was going to kiss me. A tight warmth surged upwards from my knees. I looked away, embarrassed. His hands fell from my shoulders.

    ‘You should be Ok from here.’ He said flatly. I glanced up but was already leaving. I wanted to call after him but I didn’t. I watched him go; lost in emotions I didn't understand. I was confused, angry, bitter…and just the tiniest, tiniest bit disappointed. Why did I suddenly feel so hollow?

‘Jade is that you?’

    I dumped my bag at the bottom of the stairs and headed towards the kitchen. ‘Yeah it's me.’

    ‘You're home early.’ Mum wandered out wiping her hands on a tea towel. She was wearing an old pair of jeans that’d once belonged to me. She thought it was great we could share clothes now- only problem was I rarely borrowed anything of hers. She brushed a dark strand of hair from her forehead leaving a smear of flour. Her eyebrows dipped. ‘Everything all right sweetie? You look… Tired.’

    ‘Yeah I am a bit.’

    She nodded as though she understood. I never told Mum or Dad how bad it was at school anymore. The few times I did try they’d just shrugged it off. And it didn’t help that Taylor went on and on about how great it was every time they saw her. My grades were Ok so Mum and Dad thought it was just a phase. These days it was just easier to let them think everything was fine. ‘Have you done something to your hair?’

    (I'd managed to sneak out that morning without her seeing me.)

    ‘Um… Yeah. Megs put me onto a new oil treatment.’

    She laughed. ‘Well if it’s managed to tame her curls no wonder it worked for you. It looks great. Might have to try it myself.’

I smiled, nodding. I should’ve been buying shares in hair products.

That evening I hit Google hard, and it wasn't just to find a name for my ‘miracle oil’. My own words about 'stealing someone else's hair' had repeated countless times in my head. I still thought it was crazy but what if there was some truth to it? What if I had actually swapped hair with Tall Jade? I couldn't deny mine was now uncannily like hers, and even more disturbing, hers now looked like mine had. Was it just some huge freaky coincident or something else? I had wished for her hair, and I had meant it. Maybe it was some strange punishment for being a bully. Karma perhaps? I spent hours trawling websites looking for people who'd had the same experience. It looked even more stupid when I typed it in the search bar. I found lots of Magic sites with spells to change bodies. There was an episode of 'The Twilight Zone' from the 1960s where some guy could change body parts. Heaps of stuff also came up on 'Changelings', but none of it really answered my questions. I couldn't find anything convincing about trading physical appearance-at least not by just wishing for it. It was super late by the time I gave up. I really didn't want to go to bed, partly because I was worried I'd wake up with my old hair and partly because I didn't want to think about Michael. My brain loved to bring up unwanted topics in the middle of the night and the way he'd treated me hurt bad; even more than I liked to admit. Michael was such a big part of my life and I couldn't imagine it without him. My stomach tightened every time I thought of the way he'd looked at me, as though I was some circus freak. And then there was the heat that’d flooded my chest when he’d stood so close. What was I supposed to do with that? My life suddenly seemed to be a roller coaster of conflicting emotions, and unfortunately I had no idea when this ride would stop.

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