We moved to Clockford six months ago. The move coincided with my move into sixth form, so I didn't have any exams to worry about, and with the death of my grandfather, who was the only tie we had left to London. I was glad to leave the city. Although it meant I'd lose what precious few friends I had, it meant I would breathe clean air, see green fields, and experience life in a village for the first time.
In a city, no one knew who you were and didn't care. If you fell in the street, no one would help you up. Mum told me about her childhood in another small village. Everyone knew everyone else, and the community was like one big family. You didn't even have to lock your doors at night. What she didn't tell me was that you had little privacy, that Clockford didn't take well to intruders, and that once you broke some sacred law of village etiquette, you would be shunned forever.
The first law I broke was being Catholic in a Protestant school.
For at least a month I was the sole object of interest. They would all stare at my new uniform, at my city haircut, how I didn't pray with them every morning, even what I ate. No one approached me, and no one tried to befriend me.
I told myself that it was my fault, at least at first. That I must be doing something wrong, or that something must be really weird about me to make them treat me like a freak. Maybe I just had a really unappealing personality. I tried talking to them in class, at lunch, before and after school, but it didn't work. After two weeks, I gave up and resigned myself to solitary confinement. The school needed my good city kid grades, anyway.
At the beginning of the second month of my exile, another student spoke to me.
"Hey. Want to sit with us today?" His tanned hand gripped the edge of the table as he eased himself into a chair. I looked up, puzzled. Surely he didn't mean me?
"No, thanks. I don't think anyone likes me very much." It was such a stupid thing to say, and I felt myself blush at the semi-accusation. He was talking to me. It was a start.
"Well, I don't really know you. How about I sit with you this lunch and I pass judgment when we're done?" He smiled, and I looked into his face for the first time. He had a wide, appealing smile and honest eyes. Dark hair framed his face. Several girls from other tables stared at him, or glared at me with jealousy in their eyes.
"Sure." I shrugged. He sat properly, taking a sandwich out of his pocket.
"I'm Mark, by the way." He said around a mouthful of egg and cress.
"You're Madeleine Cox. I know. Everyone knows who you are," He smiled knowingly
"Oh. Well, then you're Maddie Cox. Now I know." He laughed. His smile was contagious; I felt my lips twitch.
Mark was my first and only friend. He introduced me to all the other kids in our year, but none of them really tried to be friendly with me unless he was there too. I was grateful for the friendship, but I didn't like what our presence did to my classmates. Everyone assumed I was sleeping with him for acceptance. It made half of the girls shun me entirely, and half of the girls complete bitches to me, so I stuck with Mark whenever possible.
The one girl I wasn't able to shake off was Bethany, Mark's girlfriend. She stuck to Mark, and consequently to me, like glue, policing our every action. In his presence, she was all sunshine and sweetness, but the minute he turned his back the claws were out and she was looking to pull Mark away as soon as possible.
"What time should I meet you tomorrow?" She cooed, pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. She was doing it on purpose, talking about their date.
"About two? At the bus stop?"
"Sounds good. I'll see you there." She leaned up and pecked him on the cheek, eyes locked on me.
It bothered me that she thought I was her competition. If I wanted him that badly, I wouldn't hang around him. I'd be part of the crowd of avid admirers, ogling from the outside.
Maybe if there had been more time, it could have been something.
A couple of months later, a new family moved to Clockford. They bought the old manor house a little way out to town, so they were largely ignored, but at least the pressure was off my family. Although we weren't quite so well embraced yet, the new freaks had arrived and the villagers were looking to poke holes in all of them.
"Hey," Mark whispered across the table during maths. "Do you want to come back to my place tonight? I have a couple of new games. And my mum's cooking her awesome pasta."
"Sure." No wonder people thought something was going on with offers like that. But that's really all we did. No sex. No flirting. Just zombie video games, glasses of lukewarm coke, and bowls of pasta. I killed another digital zombie, virtual blood spattering the screen. Killing zombies was a great way to relieve stress. I pictured every monster had Bethany's face, grinning like a psychopath as I sliced it off with a machete.
"Mark? Mark! Get in here, phone for you!" Mark's brother shouted from the hall. Mark's house wasn't that big, and sound travelled well through the old walls. He froze the game and left me alone. I leaned back, counting the cracks on his ceiling.
The door slammed open.
"She's dead. They just found her. She's dead." Mark whispered. His eyes were wide, and his tanned skin was bleached white with shock.