There were moments when you could just feel a new chapter starting in your life. Sometimes it was only noticeable in retrospect. Sometimes it was obvious right off the bat. This was one of those obvious times. Our new chapter started with a spring that was further ahead than in Twinbrook, and with sunshine that didn’t seem like it would ever set despite the name of our new hometown. Sunset Valley peeked from behind the horizon like a picture in a postcard, and it looked too nice and too glossy to be a proper hometown. But it was a part of us now. It still felt unreal.
Our new house was… different. It had never been an industrial building. It had just recently been renovated, and it was a wooden two story house in what had been advertised as a calm and happy neighbourhood. Its walls were covered with greyish blue planks that made it look pretty cosy, to be honest. I had seen it before, and I could – if I tried hard enough – imagine us there, with our stuff and Patrick’s vegetable garden on the spacey yard. I imagined the grass being tousled by Rem’s bare feet, and myself holed up in my room upstairs, where I could watch birds fly by and sometimes speculate where the people passing our house were going. There was no gazebo, though, and even though I’d never really got the appeal of one, it had been the selling point for mum. I wondered what she would find to love in our new house.
The moving truck was already there, and we got to work, dragging our stuff inside, and unpacking. It would be a few weeks living in a jungle of boxes because everything would seem to take its time to find its place. I’d heard mum and Patrick complain about it many times, and I knew to expect it. I didn’t remember if we’d had the same problem when we’d moved into our house in Twinbrook. Maybe.
I unpacked everything I could as soon as we got the boxes in, and my room shaped up quickly. It was the only thing I could do to jumpstart getting adjusted to this new, unfamiliar postcard of a place. Even with my dedicated unpacking pace it took a few days before my room was presentable. It looked different, but to my surprise it was good different. Like it had shed the last layer of childishness that had been there back in Twinbrook.
The laptop I’d got for my thirteenth birthday had been the first thing I’d set up after getting the desk under it. I’d sent a bunch of messages to Bree and Jace, telling them about our new home even though so far there wasn’t much to tell about. Mostly I just wanted to sit down and take it all in. Bree told me how she wanted to make a short film with some of the other students and asked me for story ideas. I posted some for her. Jace was enthusiastic about his new skateboard and sent me a video of him trying and failing to get it airborne. I laughed at the video in my otherwise quiet room. I missed them, just like I’d known I would.
Aside from long-distance friends, what I’d taken from Twinbrook was memories and advice. One of the best advice was from Mr. Bob, about my stories. I’d always done a lot of writing, but in Sunset Valley I didn’t seem to be able to stop at all. I bought a notebook I could write my thoughts into, and I often turned them into little tales, most of which I’d probably never tell anyone because they weren’t thought out so well and had all kinds of stupid metaphors and bad word order in them. It helped me think, and I loved just writing and ignoring everything else. I had another frequent escape besides reading now. I was actually surprised I hadn’t thought about doing it sooner.
Better late than never, I guess. And I had a feeling I’d really need to sort out my thoughts into the pages of my new notebook very soon. Everything had changed now, and next we’d actually have to cement the change by starting in a new school.
The night before the school started, I felt a sense of déjà vu, as well as the same dread as before. It felt like I’d had to be scared of returning to school just yesterday. Back then it had been just Stary, a place I’d known. Now it was a new place entirely, with new people who didn’t know our story. And Patrick would be a teacher there, just – thankfully – not in either of our class. I was a scarred new kid whose parent was a teacher. Awesome. I could just imagine the things they saw when they looked at me.
I sat on our new porch and watched the late night pedestrians pass by. I’d dipped my still mangled hair into some light blue dye soon after moving because I’d felt like going back to feeling a bit more like myself. Now I wasn’t sure if it hadn’t been such a great idea, but at least it would take some attention away from my face. The night air was pleasantly cool and I felt it on my face, where I could imagine it healing my scars.
Our house was still littered with boxes, but Patrick had been adamant that the vegetable garden needed to be set up right away after the most essential things had been unpacked. Now the skinny apple trees Patrick had bought from a nearby garden and the shyly growing bushes that he had managed to transport all the way from Twinbrook through some magic of environmental consciousness were swaying in the breeze. It was starting to feel like home. The house, at least. I watched the unfamiliar streets around us, and hoped they’d introduce themselves to us soon enough as well.
Our new school was far away enough that we were told to get the school bus instead of biking. I think a part of it was also because mum and Patrick were worried we’d get lost in a new town. Or that Laketon would somehow jump out of a bush and attack us on our way to school. It really wasn’t likely, because we knew Laketon was in prison, a several hour drive away from here. Still, I couldn’t blame them for worrying. Sometimes I was afraid of that too.
But the school bus was too full of people to be scary. In fact, there were just enough people for it to be suffocating. I sat with my eyes glued to the speeding landscape in the window, my hand on my cheek somewhat casually but actually just to cover my scars. Mum had shown me how to cover them up pretty naturally with make-up, but doing it required a heavy layer of it and left my face feeling really stuffy. So I’d settled for fading them out a bit. Hopefully no one would ask too many uncomfortable questions.
I’d managed to blend in while in the bus, but the class was something else entirely.
Our teacher was a woman named Fiona Glick, who bore some vague resemblance to Mrs. Vasquez, with the same motherly feel and all, but it was all just some kind of natural deception. When she spoke she sounded dry like sandpaper, and she called me to stand in front of the class and introduce myself to the others despite the fact that I’d clearly sat into the back row to stay out of sight and specifically said before the class started that I didn’t want me being there become a big deal. Apparently it was school policy or something. I hated it already.
I stood there awkwardly, having trauma-filled flashbacks about my presentation back when I had been nine. I took a moment to let the faces of my new classmates to sink in. They were mostly well-dressed kids, and I figured some of them had more money than our family would ever have, not that I cared that much about that. A lot of them had sandy blonde hair, and I wondered if that was some kind of gene pool thing around here. Their faces looked expectant, and there was whispering and glances at my face. At Mrs. Glick’s prompting, everyone told me their names with varying disinterest. I tried my best to remember at least some of them. Then it was my turn. I sighed.
“Okay. Hi,” I said, took a deep breath and decided to just talk as fast as I could so I wouldn’t get any second thoughts, “I’m Lynn. Nice to meet you. I moved here from Twinbrook and I like books and summer and autumn and my favourite colour is purple. And before anyone asks, I was in a fire and I don’t like remembering it so there’s no need to ask about my face.”
I walked back to my seat before the teacher could stop me and ask me to elaborate on something I’d said. Her mouth was open in a way that suggested she had planned to do exactly that. I saw some of the students turn their heads and twist around on their seats to look at me. One of the girls glanced at me in a way that made me expect something would come up. Something like bullying or at least a few not so nice remarks.
Well, at least they didn’t laugh at me yet.
They waited until the second break. Before that it had become evident that Sunset Valley’s Community School for the Gifted was ahead of Stary in some subjects, and that was pretty frustrating because now I had to do extra work just to catch up. I had taken my new history book with me and sat on a couch near our classroom and tried to catch up with what I’d missed by the simple act of changing towns. I was just trying to see the parallels between Sim Nation’s political and artistic development when the clop of designer shoes stopped near me and I could feel condescending gazes on me.
I looked up.
The girl who’d cast me the odd look in class was standing there, with another girl from my class next to her. Judging by the way other people stopped what they were doing just to look at her, it was pretty obvious that she was the kind of girl others followed. Like a queen bee. She cocked her head, letting her strawberry blonde hair fall over her shoulders in the kind of way that looked natural at first glance, but that was actually just made to look naturally pretty.
“So,” she said, “You’re the new girl.”
So far it wasn’t anything unpleasant. I mentally allowed myself a small sigh of relief. But only a small one. I had no idea where this was going yet.
“Yeah,” I said, not putting down the book, “And you were… uh… Carla?”
“Yes. Carla Faroffington,” she said in a way that implied I should be impressed by the surname that to be fair sounded kind of pretentious. Like someone had made it up because they wanted to come off as fancier than they were. And failing at it too.
“Well, nice to meet you,” I said as politely as I could with my limited people skills, “I kind of need to catch up with history, though. Back in Twinbrook we didn’t cover this part.”
“I’ve heard Twinbrook’s a swamp,” Carla said, “Good to see you managed to move up in the world. If only to be a small, tiny fish in a big pond.”
I could have pointed out that calling someone small and tiny in the same sentence was pretty redundant, but I figured I didn’t need to make any enemies here. Not deliberately at least. In Twinbrook I’d managed to skulk by at school as the quiet kid who had few friends but whom everyone at least tolerated. I could keep it up here too.
“Well, it’s not all swamp,” I just said, “It’s pretty great actually.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll change your mind when you get to live here for a while. Maybe soon you’ll have some respect for it.”
“I do already.”
I returned to my book. This Carla was obviously baiting me. I wasn’t going to fall for it.
“Well, walking around, showing your ugly face here really doesn’t scream respect to me.”
Yeah. There it was. Carla’s friend – Mina Jones, I think – had cracked up laughing. A lot of the others were laughing too. I contemplated between slamming my book shut and running and just chucking the book at Carla’s smug face. Or then I could sit down and calmly take it. Then people would see the tears that were threatening to well up, though.
I slowly stood up and started walking without a word.
“Hey, relax!” Mina said, “It’s just a way to say welcome the new kid. You know, get all the insults out of the way from the start.”
I stopped and turned, seeing Carla and her friend grinning like mad. The other students were either looking away or gawking. No one clearly wanted to get between Carla and her prey.
“Well, that’s dumb,” I said in a threateningly quiet voice, “Maybe you shouldn’t start with that at all. Or is it in your school rules? Or did you just try to sound clever? I bet it’s the last one. Well, it’s not working.”
With that, I returned into our classroom and read there until the teacher chastised me and told me students were supposed to be outside of the classroom during breaks. If it had been someone nicer, like Mrs. Vasquez or definitely Mr. Bob, they would have understood. As it was Mrs. Glick, however, I didn’t even bother trying to explain. I mumbled a quiet “Yes, ma’am” and went all the way to the front yard. I spent the breaks of my entire next week there.
This had not started well.
I kept quiet about the cold welcome at school when mum and Patrick asked me about my days. They were having enough worries with their own with settling down, and with Rem’s still persisting depression. Patrick was doing well at his job, apparently, at least. He was well liked, and he could probably have done something to the nasty comments, but a teacher’s pet was a label I had managed to avoid so far, and I felt that would pretty much be the final nail to the coffin with these kids. Sure, they weren’t all bad, and most of them stayed out of it, but I really didn’t want to push it.
Mum still sent her articles to Life & Sprouts for You, but she had said she wanted to broaden her horizons and had started blogging. A lot of her writing was about Sunset Valley. She was trying to get a picture of our new hometown in text form, I knew, and she spent a lot of time just interviewing interesting locals for what usually amounted to articles that didn’t fit either into her blog or Life & Sprouts, so she had to bounce them from magazine to magazine. I knew it was tiring, and watching her do it over and over again made me quietly question my dreams of becoming a writer myself.
At least she was slowly getting over her fear of Laketon. She hadn’t said anything about it and whenever we talked about him it was just to remind us all that he couldn’t touch us. Still, I could see the apprehension on mum’s face whenever an unknown number called or mum checked our mail. I hoped she would stop being afraid soon. It was eating her up, and it would be easier for me to stop worrying if our parents did the same first.
Rem was quiet, but there was some bounce back in his steps still. His easel had been set up in our new, shiny and sunny living room and he spent most of the time there, painting on big canvases and ending up with dark pictures that slowly got brighter again. There were dark boogeymen and shadows, but also flowers and fairies and dragons. Once he painted a phoenix, despite my protests. He gave it to me, but didn’t mind when I shoved it into my drawer and didn’t want to look at it. He said I could take it out when I was feeling better about it.
What he seemed to have got over was the fear, thankfully enough. He wasn’t worried about Laketon or “the Tree Lady” anymore. In fact, he’s started adoring trees and climbed them whenever he could. Now that I thought about it, even with all the running around and playing outside, I’d never seen Rem be that much of a fan of trees. Now he could stay up in them for hours on end like an overgrown, freckled squirrel.
Sometimes I could hear him arguing with Patrick, which was weird because they almost never did that. It usually started when Rem asked him about his biological mum, and Patrick responded with the same vague non-answer he always did. Rem always left the conversations in tears. Sometime later Patrick would go find him and they would hug it out and everything went back to normal. I didn’t know what to make of it at all.
My time at school didn’t get much better. Most of the kids avoided me, and those who didn’t just occasionally stopped by to make fun of me. I figured it had something to do with some rumours Carla or someone else had spread about me. I didn’t even want to know what those rumours were, but they probably had something to do with our family. Or the fire.
Once one of the students walked right up me and yelled at the top of his lungs that the school was burning. My heart skipped a beat then and for a moment I almost believed him. But as soon as it had come the moment of panic was over, and I realised I didn’t feel the heat on my face or smell the burning hair and flesh.
I lost my temper then and yelled right in the idiot’s face. It didn’t make me any more popular. Not that I wanted to be popular. I just wanted to be left alone.
I found more good hideouts besides the yard of the school building as the weeks went on. Usually I sat in one of them with my notebook, or if I was really bored and tired, fiddling with my phone that had some games installed on it. Patrick sometimes found me, but he let me be when I said I wanted to do my homework early. The rest of the teachers left me in peace by default. Or then they just didn’t care.
There were some kids who occasionally spent time with me and were actually nice. The nicest of them was a Chinese girl named Min. She’d lost her mother at an early age, which was not the first thing I would’ve liked to know about her, but I did anyway because that was how the other students talked; they looked for differences. Maybe it was normal. I know I did it too. Min was friendly, though, and made me want to know her besides the “no mother” -status. And she was happy. It inspired me in a way. If someone who’d lost so much could be so at peace, I knew I too had a chance. So we talked, occasionally, not enough to count as real friendship, but it was a start.
“I was bullied too at first,” she said to me once in the hallway, “Then I beat one of the jocks at football during a break. It was apparently awesome enough for it to stop.”
“Too bad I suck at sports,” I mused, “I’m okay at running, but that only encourages them.”
“You’re funny. In a good way. I’m sure they’ll come around eventually. And if not, then I’m pretty sure you’ll become famous or something and get to show them. You know, when you grow up.”
“That doesn’t happen that often in real life,” I pointed out.
“No, but hey, it’s something to dream of. I dream of being a sports star, but not because I want to show anyone. Except myself.”
I thought about it for a while.
“Hey, Min? Has anyone told you you’re really smart?”
“Not that often, no.”
“Well, you are.”
Min beamed at me. For a moment she reminded me a lot of Bree. Except Min was way more of a tomboy than Bree would probably ever be.
So maybe it was close to real friendship. And maybe it wasn’t all bad.
Even though I tried to keep my not so great school experience from mum and Patrick, they could see that something was wrong anyway. They were sometimes annoyingly smart, and I wondered if all parents were. Probably not. Some were pretty much blind when it came to their kids. Or everything else. I knew I shouldn’t complain. At least our parents loved us and cared. Still, I wasn’t very thrilled when Patrick sat next to me after one school day, still wearing his neater clothes he wore at work. It was always weird to see Patrick dressed up, because he usually changed right away into the ancient, ratty sweater or something else out of his very limited wardrobe when he got back home.
“How was school today?” he asked.
“It was okay,” I said, “We had sports and I got a basketball in the head, but it was an accident and didn’t even hurt that much.”
“Ouch,” Patrick said anyway, “Are there bruises? Bumps?”
“No. I said it didn’t even hurt.”
“Alright. What about the other kids? Are they still nice?”
Patrick nodded, with a pretty unconvinced look on his face.
“Uh-huh. You know, teachers aren’t deaf or blind. Or at least I’m not. Do you want me to do something about the bullying?”
“If I said ‘it’s fine, don’t worry about it’, would you believe me and not meddle in this?”
“No, I wouldn’t. There’s no shame in going to a teacher, or us, about it. It’s better than just letting them do whatever they want.”
“How long have you known?” I asked, tugging at my shirt sleeves.
“Not long. I found out yesterday, and got confirmation today. I’m sorry it took so long.”
There was an unspoken “You should have told us” in between his lines.
“It’s not too bad. Just name-calling. I don’t want to make things worse by getting the tattletale stamp on me.”
“Yeah, I know. I was bullied too when I was younger. It’s pretty normal – sadly enough – with kids. And maybe later too.”
“I can take care of myself,” I muttered, “I think… I just have to stop caring what people think about me. It’s starting to feel like a chore.”
“Well, as long as you don’t start making people feel bad on purpose. Not that you would. I know you well enough.”
“So you’re not going to…?”
“Oh, I’ll tell the other teachers and get them to pay more attention. From what I’ve seen, that kind of thing is a bit too widespread in that school for my liking. But I’ll be discreet.”
He smiled as if we had just formed a conspiracy of some kind. I couldn’t help but laugh a little.
“No problem. Hey, could you do me a favour in return and tell your brother to get down from the swing set? We agreed he could climb the trees but he’s pushing it a bit.”
I got up and went outside. The air was getting warmer and summer was sauntering steadily closer to Sunset Valley. Soon the school year would be over and we’d have the whole summer vacation to get to know our town properly. The leaves were greener than in Twinbrook, and amidst them I could see Rem’s yellow jacket. Except he wasn’t in a tree. Like Patrick had said, he was on a swing set, but just now I realised how literally he was on it.
“Hey,” I said, “Patrick wants you to come down from there. How did you get up there anyway?”
“From the tree. Don’t worry. I won’t fall. You’ve been sad.”
I crossed my arms.
“Not really sad. Just a bit annoyed.”
“Daddy told me the kids at school aren’t nice to you.”
“Oh, so now everyone knows? Great.”
Rem smiled a bit.
“Not everyone. I’ve seen the girl who says the worst things at school. She’s a princess.”
I raised a brow.
“Like a real princess or your-way-of-seeing-things princess?”
“My way,” Rem looked into the emptiness, and his eyes were shining.
“She’s in her tower a lot… I think she’s actually lonely. She’s got friends but her parents want her to be perfect. It’s sad, really.”
“Sorry if I don’t share your compassion.”
Rem nodded slowly.
“Right. Well, just… don’t let her get you down.”
“I won’t, but I’ll get you down from there, squirrel!”
Rem laughed. Then he was back in the tree and then on the ground before I could make good of my threat.
I thought about what Rem and Patrick had said, and I was grudging to realise that both of them had a point. I didn’t have to just take the bullying, and I should probably remember that underneath the frigid glares, Carla Faroffington was a person too. I’d said mean things to others sometimes for sure as well. That was something I should just keep reminding myself of.
But it all went out the window when one day I heard everyone laughing and realised they were laughing at me. The laugher had more power to it than usual, and I had no idea why until I asked Min about it and she said with a very uncomfortable look on her face that I should probably see the school’s bulletin boards. I did, and saw my notebook, or rather, its pages. They’d been torn out of the book so that my stories could be pinned all over the boards.
My hand flew to my bag and I searched through it only to realise my notebook was indeed gone. They must have swiped it during class, in a moment when I’d been especially focused on either the lecture or my own daydreaming. Now all the unfinished drabbles and tales I’d written to either figure out something about myself or just to pass the time were there for all to see. And judging by the laughter and the smug look on Carla Faroffington’s face, she had had a hand in it and she had made sure everyone knew that what was pinned on the boards like a half-hearted insect collection was my writing.
This was worse than yelling “Fire!” behind my back. This, aside from making fun of my family or friends, was the worst.
And as I stood there with my fists clenched, I decided I really didn’t just have to take it. This had gone far enough to warrant some proper payback.
I’m sure that wasn’t what Patrick had wanted, and he might have actually said something about not trying to be nasty to others on purpose, but right now, all I cared were my secret thoughts that people were laughing at.
I swallowed down my tears and pretended not to hear people reciting my texts and calmly took down the pages. I gently folded them and stored them into my schoolbag. I knew the teachers would hear about this, and that meant Patrick would hear about it as well soon enough. They’d probably figure out who’d done it and punish them accordingly. Or what they thought was accordingly. My fists were still clenched when I marched away from the hallway and into the class. At least there the students would have to tone down their laughter a bit.
I could still feel their stares on me, again. This time it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. Just mostly annoyed. I pointedly ignored them.
“There’s got to be something that really gets to Carla,” I said somewhat innocently in one of our conversations with Min a couple of days later.
“What, aside from people who don’t do what she wants them to?” Min asked, “I think that comes from her parents, though. I’ve seen them. They act all high and mighty, especially the dad. It’s pretty stupid if you ask me. I mean, they’re not even the richest people here anyway, and the Goths and the Landgraabs and the Altos are way more ‘important people’ than them.”
“Yeah, I’ve got that,” I said, “And their kids are so much nicer than she is, too. But I mean, something that would really get under her skin.”
Min narrowed her eyes.
“Wait, are you going to do something bad to her because of that notebook thing?”
“What? Me?” I put my hand to my chest in mock hurt. Min wasn’t impressed.
“Are you going to stop me?”
Min thought about it.
“Well, it’s not nice, and it’s all sinking down to her level and stuff. She wasn’t even the only one in it.”
“But she was the mastermind.”
“Well, yeah…” Min said slowly, “I’m probably going to regret this, but Carla has a big brother. If someone knows something to get to her, he does. He’s just a couple of years older than us, and his classes are on the other side of the school. Just… don’t do anything mean. I didn’t think you’d be that kind of person.”
I smiled, but for a moment my mind screeched to a halt. I really wasn’t that kind of a person. Sure, I could say some pretty scathing things when I got especially angry, but that happened so rarely… I’d never done anything too bad to other people.
Then again, why should I keep being the quiet one when someone invaded my privacy and made everyone laugh at how I’d sorted out my life? It just wouldn’t be fair.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll be good. And I’m never going to ask you to do anything bad, at least.”
Min sighed. Maybe she had seen this kind of thing before. Maybe she really wanted to believe me, but couldn’t.
Not that I could blame her.
Carla’s brother was named Michel, and he was pretty easy to find once I got to the place where the older kids hung out. He sat back near the edges of the schoolyard during the break when everyone had to stay outside unless the weather was close to the end of the world. He was listening to music on his cell phone, and had this detachedly bored look that according to Patrick was normal with older kids. He didn’t have friends surrounding him like Carla did. There was a girl doing her homework nearby, but even she was obviously not with him by any meaning of the word. He wasn’t dressed in designer clothes, but in what I suspected was from second hand stores like all of Patrick’s wardrobe and about a half of ours. There were some hints of money here and there, though, like the silver watch and the very expensive phone. I cleared my throat, the confidence I’d been gathering up the entire way to Michel evaporating at the prospect of actually having to start a conversation with a stranger. A stranger I was going to heartlessly use to get back at his little sister.
I was a horrible person at the moment. But I had already come this far.
“Um… hi,” I said, “Is it normal for you older kids to hang around here?”
I mentally punched myself. Wasn’t that close to one of those awkward pick-up lines I’d heard on TV? Michel looked up at me and raised his brow. He tugged loose the headphones and actually paid attention to me. I wanted to flee, but this was definitely a point of no return already.
“What?” he asked, “Wait, are you the new kid? The one with the notebook?”
My face started burning. These people knew about it too? I hated this more and more.
“I… yeah. You’re… Carla’s brother? Michel? Are you going to laugh at me like she did?”
I was being rude, I knew, but it was the only way I could think of to go from there. I had to look like I was not trying to fish for info on Carla, and him mentioning the notebook might actually give me something to work with.
Michel had an amused smile in his eyes.
“Nah, she does those kinds of things to a lot of people. What, you want to use me to get back at her or something?”
“What?” I blurted out and then stopped talking because my brain had short-circuited. I was so confused I actually sat down next to him. I couldn’t have been that obvious, could it? “No! I…”
“Hey, a lot of the braver kids have done it before,” Michel said nonchalantly, “I’m actually kind of interested in seeing if anyone ever goes through with it.”
I managed to regain control of my vocal cords at the sheer uncaringness of his tone.
“What? You want other people to do something mean to your sister? Isn’t that kind of cold?”
“I don’t exactly want that,” Michel said, “No one ever does it, anyway. They’re afraid, or something. I mean, our parents have made it pretty clear that whoever lays a hand on us will be tarred and feathered or something.”
He looked kind of embarrassed when he said that. He even shook his head, and I figured I’d found the black sheep of the Faroffington family.
“Well, I don’t like the sound of that,” I said, because it was the only thing I could think of.
“Me neither. It’s a bunch of… uh, well, you know. All talk. Maybe,” at this point Michel flashed me a creepy grin, “Well, if you’re feeling daring, Carla really hates ladybugs.”
I stared at him.
“What? Really? Just like that? And wait, ladybugs? But they’re the cutest bugs ever!”
“It’s got something to do with her accidentally eating one and it trying to fly around in her mouth when she was like five. Besides, have you seen the local ladybugs? They’re pretty big.”
I eyed him suspiciously. The whole situation was not going the way I’d pictured it. Then again, what had I pictured? Somehow fooling him with my awful small talk skills? If anything, I should be happy this was so easy. Too easy, in fact.
“You’re probably lying,” I said.
“Who knows,” Michel said and shrugged. It was irritating, “Maybe I’m just playing you. Maybe not. You’re the one who’s up to no good anyway. Even if I am lying, you can do all sorts of pranks with ladybugs, don’t you think?”
I hadn’t thought about that. And now when I did, I could think hundreds of things that were better for pranks than ladybugs. And then I thought – again – that this was probably not a good idea.
“Well, thanks, anyway,” I managed to say, “See you around. Maybe. Or not.”
“Yeah, whatever,” he said, but he was smiling. He put his headphones back in his ears and got back to his teenage boredom.
Patrick and mum were both upset about the notebook incident. They talked about it with me and I said I was angry and embarrassed. They told me they would deal with this, and I let them because that would probably be the sensible thing to do. We had talks with both Carla’s parents and Mrs. Glick, and it was awkward and coldly polite and Carla didn’t look sorry when she apologised. Still, everyone assured me we could be done with that. I wouldn’t have to be angry or alone with this anymore. The whole matter could be settled peacefully and I could let it go. I again reminded myself that Carla probably had problems of her own and she wasn’t being nasty just because she was bad. I shouldn’t harbour any vengeful feelings about it.
So then why was I outside on one Saturday morning, catching ladybugs and feeling guilty?
I’d decided to test Michel’s statement about Carla and ladybugs before actually bringing any to school to mess with her. It wasn’t difficult to figure out where they lived. Carla had advertised it enough, and I could spot the modern, big house with too many balconies about a block away. I’d told mum I’d be going out for a walk, and since it was still daytime mum had let me as long as I kept my cell phone on and was home for dinner.
I circled around the house, took note of a swimming pool and what looked like a whole story just for cars. Mostly I focused on finding Carla’s window, though. It was probably on the top floor, because Rem had mentioned a tower in one of his weird rambly moments.
Nothing about the house was especially tower-like, just kind of towering. Still, I could see a lot of pink and princess-y white from one window and could guess that it was Carla’s room. I checked that there was no one around, clutched the jar of ladybugs under my arm and started sneaking towards the window.
It was so high up, and only slightly ajar. Getting a ladybug up there would be difficult, if not impossible. I couldn’t see any trees to climb that would get me high enough. I could just let the ladybugs out one by one and just hope one of them wandered in through the window, but that would take way too much time. I checked the time. I had only one hour before dinner. I’d have to think of something better. I glanced at the pool. I could just wait near the house and hope Carla decided to go for a swim before I had to go back. Or out. Or anywhere besides stay inside. It was a long shot, but it was a better plan than breaking into the house. That was a line I wouldn’t cross.
I lingered near a fence in a spot where I could see their house and pretended to be interested in the grass and the bugs I had with me. At the same time I tried not to feel too horrible. I reminded myself of what she had done to me, and to a lot of other people, by the sound of it. This would be nothing compared to that.
I was lucky, because Carla did step into the backyard. I immediately sprung to action. Carla looked like she was heading out, so I had to be quick and sneaky about it. I shuffled behind the fence a bit better even though it wasn’t very concealing, my hands glued around the small box where I’d stuffed the admittedly large ladybugs. Carla walked towards the pool’s edge, seemingly deep in though. I shook my box and carefully took out one of my captives, aiming the ladybug right at her back and then ducked into cover.
The red and black bug sprung to flight immediately after getting to freedom, and I was lucky enough on the first go that it headed straight for Carla.
She turned just when I was out of sight. And when the ladybugs were right in her face.
I heard her scream. It was high-pitched and goofy and not something she’d ever let out in public. I heard her frantic running and the slam of the door, and I had to stifle a laugh. Michel had actually been honest about it. It was… kind of amazing, really. Amazing and horrible. That was pretty much how I felt. I knew what I’d just done hadn’t been nice, and if I’d take this even farther it would be even less so.
I stayed low until I got back on the street. When I passed the Faroffington’s house again I could see a still shaken Carla talking to a man I assumed was her father. The man looked mostly angry, and turned her away quickly. I frowned at that. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but it still didn’t look nice to me.
Rem was probably right about princesses and towers. I started running so I’d get home on time.
That night I stared at the box that had a couple of more ladybugs in it, just waiting for a good prank. It would just take a couple of evenings hunting for them to get enough for something spectacular. I knew a couple of really good spots thanks to the internet and a couple of days of dedicated snooping. It would be so easy…
I emptied the box the next day, saving one ladybug in a terrarium I’d found from Patrick’s storage of things he never wanted to throw out. I decided it would remind me of my revenge plans. I was planning on naming it Carla, but it would be too obvious and I didn’t want to be reminded of her too much so in the end the ladybug became Carrie. Soon it would have friends that I could then use for the most epic ladybug prank in recent history.
Carrie remained lonely and peaceful in its terrarium the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. A couple of weeks later I let it go and hid the terrarium into one of my drawers and vowed to do it all properly later. Maybe next week. Or the week after that.
Three weeks after I’d hidden the terrarium mum and Patrick called both Rem and I to the kitchen for a family meeting. I felt a cold lump in my stomach. Did they know about my plans? Had Carla put two and two together and told her parents to tell my parents off? Or… an even worse thought made me freeze. What if it was Laketon? Maybe he’d somehow got out. Maybe…
“Mum? What’s this about?” I asked quickly before I could really start panicking about this, “Am I… Are we in trouble?”
Rem was looking calm but confused. Like his visions were sending him mixed signals. Or then he really didn’t know what this was about either. His clairvoyance seemed to be very sporadic anyway. Maybe these family meetings were the true mystery even for him.
My thoughts came to a halt when I realised mum looked nervous, but incredibly happy. She couldn’t contain her smile at all. Okay, so it couldn’t be Laketon, then. Nothing about him could make mum smile like that.
“Well, kids…” she started and then cleared her throat, “we… Patrick and I…”
“Mum, please just tell us,” I said, “Don’t do this stalling thing like you did last time. It just makes us more anxious,” a sudden thought occurred to me again, “Wait, we’re not moving again, are we?”
“No, we’re not. Okay, fine. We’ll be brief, but just a fair warning: this probably should have some build-up.”
“Daa-aaad,” said Rem, “Just tell us!”
“Fine, fine!” Patrick raised his hands in surrender, “We are having a baby. You’ll get a new baby brother or sister.”
My mouth opened, but all that came out was a strangled:
“It’s true!” mum said with barely contained excitement, “It was a surprise for both of us, actually, but it’s… wonderful. Isn’t it?”
Rem was staring at mum and Patrick with impossibly wide eyes. I probably looked no better, to be honest. A baby sibling? Since when had mum and Patrick ever wanted… okay, they had just said it had been a surprise, although how that worked I wasn’t so sure about. The birds and the bees had been covered for us both already, but it just made me even more confused about how one could just accidentally… wait, that totally wasn’t the point of this at all! The point was that… our family was growing, after all these years of getting used to it being the four of us. It was… strange. But it was also…
“Right,” I said out loud, “Wonderful.”
What I meant to say was: It’s going to be a new adventure.
I didn’t know if I was ready for one again so soon. But maybe this time it wouldn’t be so bad.
Author’s Note: I have no idea how I managed to somehow – without thinking about it at all – make most of the kids in Lynn’s class have the same skin and hair colour and only notice it after I’d taken the screenshots and demolished a part of the sets! I mean, it makes sense for Mina and the boy to match because they’re actually siblings, but… ugh. Oh, well.
Also, those ladybugs are pretty badly rendered compared to almost everything else. Hope you guys enjoy this chapter despite badly rendered bugs!