It all started when I said I was going to hitchhike up the coast.
I had hoped that would get some sort of reaction. Something that would indicate that she actually gave a crap about her only daughter. But from where she had passed out on the lounge the previous night, Mum merely rubbed a hand across her gummy eyes and told me to grab her another Ruski before I left.
So I heaved a sigh, got the old woman her booze, grabbed my bag and left.
After spending two hours walking around the old neighbourhood, I managed to find myself a bench that wasn't too covered with bird poop and chewing gum and settled down. Two older men stared at me from across the street and I stared back. I had my pocketknife and my taser, and was fairly confident of my own physical prowess after knocking out Gary the groper during the last school social.
With my oversize sweatshirt and scruffy hair, I looked like a hobo. The sort of teenager that'd beat you to death with a brick before stealing your car.
Apparently other people thought so, too.
"Get a job, trailer trash."
"Bite me, asshat."
I had to wash my hands of this dead-end town before I began selling my organs on the black market to pay the power bills.
The bus pulled up in front of me, and making one final decision, I grabbed my stuff and bought a ticket.
Watch out, world. Ella Swain is out to getcha.
My enthusiasm waned as soon I was seated on the bus. Somehow, no matter what I did, I always ended up next to the fat guy that smelled like cheese.
He was probably waiting.
I thought about my dad, Chuck. I'd never been on the best terms with my father. Probably because of the fact that he didn't know he even had a kid until my dear old mother hit him up for child support when I was three. When we finally met ten years later, there were no tears or flowery verses. We just stood looking at each other as I realised with a sinking feeling where I got my gangly frame from and he realised with a sinking feeling that there was no way he'd be able to deny paternity.
"I thought you'd be taller." He said.
"So did I." I'd replied.
Then, that was pretty much the extent of our conversation. He was content to stay out of my way and I was perfectly content to stay out of his. It was the perfect parental relationship. Still, I had no way to know what would happen once I turned up on his doorstep in a semi-permanent manner. The most plausible theory was that I'd be welcomed with open arms before being kicked out on my ass in a few months once I'm eighteen and not legally his responsibility anymore.
I had come to the conclusion that some people should not be allowed to breed.
The sign said Welcome to Fawkes.
Chuck was waiting for me at the bus stop, beside his crappy old company car. Quite honestly, I was surprised that he hadn't told me to go jump the moment I phoned him and told him I was coming. I stared at him through the window of the bus, he with his sparse moustache and thinning hair, the hood of his squad car dented either from hitting a kangaroo or a drunk teenager.
Someone had shot out the back windscreen.
I alighted from the bus, carrying all my worldly possessions in a bag over my shoulder. Chuck gallantly took the bag from me before we proceeded to re-enact our first meeting from years ago.
Finally he broke the staring match and ushered me toward his beat-up old police car. "'Spose I better get you home, then."
"Thanks." I said in a small voice.
The drive to Chuck's place passed in uncomfortable silence after a few comments on the weather and a remark on how unbelievably underfed that I apparently appeared. The next fifteen minutes were the slowest I've ever lived through as I pondered the dirt under my nails.
I had to exclaim aloud when Chuck pulled up in front of a sprawling homestead with a covered pool in the front yard. Dad grinned at me as he watched me press my nose flat against the window like a little kid. "You live here by yourself?"
Chuck gave a small smile. "Not anymore." He said quietly, and he showed me up the front steps.
The bedroom he showed me to whiffed of fresh paint. I could tell the furniture had only been recently assembled as the boxes were still stacked in the corner.
"You knew I'd definitely be coming."
"I thought you might." I was touched that my father had gone to such trouble on account of a 'might'. He rested a large hand on my shoulder and then left me in peace to unpack my meagre belongings.
I sat on the bed, surrounded by a few trinkets from my childhood. And I smiled. Maybe this could be good after all.
I could just smell the beginning of something new.
Even though the public school's official enrolment periods were early in the New Year and at the end of the last, the school had such a low pupil count that enrolment for new students never officially closed. So, naturally enough, the prodigal daughter of the chief of police was accepted with open arms.
The high school had strict uniform rules, which no one seemed to bother with or enforce, so I turned up for my first day at Fawkes High in ripped blue jeans and a t-shirt in school colours. I felt overdressed in the sea of miniskirts and midriff tops.
After a few minutes, I found a brick building with Admin painted on the side. I looked around myself. The younger students were racing around the yard playing handball and soccer in the half hour before the bell, and the older ones were sitting around with lofty expressions trying to look cool while discreetly eyeing the younger students longingly.
I pushed into the administration office.
"Hi. I'm Ella Swain."
"Ah. Constable Swain's daughter." The office lady said nothing else as she handed several documents to me, her expression bored. I blinked. I had expected some sort of reaction for being the bastard daughter of the chief of police, but clearly the lady had heard similar stories many times before. Pursing my lips, I stuffed the papers in my back jeans pocket and went back out to the car Chuck had given me.
My Ford was a decommissioned police patrol vehicle, so it was easily able to reach speeds that weren't marked on the dash. The only real problem with it was a small bullet hole in the right wing mirror, which whistled as I drove. I sat in the carpark, studying the school map. In retrospect, it was rather ineffectual as there were only four blocks of classes, each block clearly marked.
Because of Mum, I had to drop out of school about halfway into my senior year. Therefore I was stuck repeating. But that wasn't too bad, as I pretty much knew all the answers in advance.
Country schools tended to get the hand-me-downs from their counterparts in the cities.
Class pretty much passed in a blur. Hardly any of the teachers noticed that there was a new face in their classes. On the contrary, I'm not sure they would have noticed much as each and every one of them had an almost identical run-down expression of despair on their faces.
One of the girls in my class named Jessie invited me to sit with her group for lunch. Jessie was one of the artistic people, and she and her mates had established their territory in the memorial gardens, where they could watch other students walk past and make biting, pithy comments.
I paid scant attention as Jessie pointed out the major social cliques. Like any High School there were the Sports Freaks, the Pretty People, the Computer Nerds, the Gamers, the Outsiders, the Immature Seventh Graders, the Arty People, the Special Ed. Group and the Usual Suspects. I winced as I glanced at the Usual Suspects table and looked away quickly; least they took my stare as a challenge. My eyes wandered around the room and settled on another group that I hadn't noticed before. My eyes widened and I raised an eyebrow.
There were three boys and two girls, and though they made a show of not actually being together, it was obvious that on some sort of subconscious level they were closer to each other than anyone else in the room.
Sometimes I think about these things too much.
At the end of the table, there was a bulky guy with dark hair wearing a t-shirt perhaps a size too small. His biceps seemed to quiver of their own accord. The next bloke was blonde and lean, though I couldn't help noticing that he was in pretty good shape too. The two girls were practically polar opposites of each other, the blonde girl tall and curvaceous and the dark-haired girl small and pixie-like. I practically begged the gods to have given these two beauties some massive personality flaw, simply because it would make mortal women everywhere feel a little bit better about themselves.
The last guy was slimmer and lanky, his long legs crossed under his chair. Great hair; I knew from experience that it took a long time and a lot of hairspray to make hair look that studiously tousled.
They were all so impossibly pale.
"And who are they?"
Jessie glanced at where I was looking and her expression turned amused. "Those are the Way-Out-Of-Your-League people," She said with a chuckle, opening her can of drink. "That's Eddie and Emerson Collins, and Rosa and Casper Gale, and Ally Collins. They're Dr. Collins foster kids." She quirked her eyebrows at me. "Don't bother embarrassing yourself, though. They're all together - Emerson and Rosa, and Casper and Ally. It's kind of weird, but you get used to these sorts of things in a small town."
I laughed a little awkwardly, wondering exactly what kind if hick town I had woken up in. My eyes raked over the Collins family once more and in a split second the one with the great hair, Eddie, met my gaze, before dropping it just as quickly, as though he might get contaminated by my commonness.
"Sort of weird," I conceded, and turned back to my lunch, quickly forgetting about the strange family with their untouchable air.
I had planned on wagging Biology entirely, but as the English and Maths head teachers fell into step behind me and Jessie, I reluctantly walked along to class.
I walked into the lab, books under arm and absently chewing the end of a pen. Spying an empty space, I dumped my books on a prep table halfway up the lab and plonked down into the seat, barely glancing at the person I was sharing the desk with.
It was a pity he wasn't inclined to offer me the same level of disinterest.
I happened to glance up from my note-taking halfway through the lesson, glancing past my partner and out the window, like I often did when I was bored out of my skull. Then I focused my eyes back inside the room again, my gaze absently brushing over him.
Eddie Collins was staring unblinkingly at me, something akin to hatred in his dark eyes. It was probably a trick of the light, but his eyes appeared the deepest black. Maybe he had been struck with a particularly nasty thought, and I just happened to be directly in his line of sight at the time. Inwardly, I shrugged. Pretending not to notice, I went back to my work.
The uncomfortable feeling of eyes on the back of my neck ten minutes later made me look up again. This time was no accident, I was certain of it. I pulled my hair back from my face and stared straight back at him, my chin stuck out defiantly. While the teacher was busy with the blackboard, I decided that just because I was the new kid, it didn't mean I had to put up with this kind of crap.
"I'm sorry, is there a reason you're looking at me like I've just eaten your dog?" I hissed angrily. "Does my personal hygiene offend you or something?"
For a moment, Eddie Collins looked like he actually might have been shocked into replying, but then the end of school bell rang. With grace that a teenager shouldn't have been capable of, Mr Great-Hair rose from his seat and left the room, leaving me behind, glaring at his back.