Chapter 1 School Daze
A Normal Intermediate
"Yay, the first day of school. Yee haa."
My friend Rob was a mad thing, capering on the footpath outside school, getting in everyone's faces. One of the bigger boys took exception to Rob's demented enthusiasm and threatened to bash him, but Rob skipped away, laughing.
I pick up my bag and followed in the wake of the manic Rob and other, more reluctant students. We straggled into school, uncomfortable in uniforms and regulation footwear after six weeks of boardies, t-shirts and bare feet. The new kids stuck out. Their clothes were stiff. They looked too neat. Their backpacks were tightly zipped and free from dangling objects, unlike mine, which is hung about with charms and keepsakes - a stuffed penguin, my proper name (Teresa), a Lego torch man and a bunny of my own devising.
I always have mixed feelings about the start of the new school year. I was unhappy, because the holidays were over. I was sad, because one of my best friends had changed schools. And I felt anticipation, looking forward to the new things I could do this year.
The morning was cool , with enough dew still on the grass to show footprints, but the sky was already an intense blue, promising a hot day ahead. By lunchtime, I predict we will all be seeking the shade of the big trees, then have trouble staying awake in the airless classrooms, teachers droning on ...
"TEZZA." I turned to see who it yelling my name so loudly.
"CATIE!" She had been away all summer. Her blonde hair was shorter but she was taller, but still straight up and down. Her school skirt threatened to slide off her hips. I had grown too. My Mum, probably being kind, described me as strongly built. We hugged, my darker hair contrasting with hers.
Catie squeezed me hard and let go. "What is Rob doing?"
"Freaking everyone out, or peeing them off," I answered. "He thinks it's funny."
We watched Rob run circles around the boy who had threatened to bash him. "Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. You're too slow, can't catch me," he sang.
Giving up on his red-faced victim, Rob danced over to the girls.
"Hey,Tezza, hey Catie."
"Hey, Rob. You haven't made a friend there." I smiled at the bigger boy glaring in our direction.
"Hah, his fault for having no sense of humour," said Rob. "He needs to loosen up a little, get with the program, get a life." I rolled my eyes. Rob was unstoppable this morning; I pitied his teacher.
"Are you going for the record of fastest detention ever?"
Rob smiled evilly. "That's a thought."
"No," I protested, shocked. "You won't be able to get your Good Citizen award."
Rob laughed (evilly). "Ah, my dear Teresa, so young, so innocent..." He spun away as the bell rang.
Catie and I walked towards our classrooms as slowly as we could.
"I haven't seen Nay, yet," said Catie.
I felt sad again "You haven't heard?"
"No. What?" asked Catie with wide eyes.
"Her family moved. She had to change schools."
Shocked, Catie stopped and stared at me. She looked worried. We both knew that Nat was shy and a little awkward and did not do well in strange, stressful situations. "Is she OK with the change?"
I started to tell Catie Nat's story.
"She came over during the holidays. I thought she was sick, she was so pale and quiet. As soon as we could we went up to my room. I closed the door and Nat told me, 'I have to change schools.'
"I started to laugh; then stopped. I didn't believe her. I thought she was joking 'What? Did you say change schools?'
"'Yes, we're moving to the country and I have to change schools.' Nat said, blinking furiously to try and stop herself crying.
" 'No. You can't,' I wailed.
"Then Nat started to cry.
"I hugged her hard and got her to sit beside me on my bed. 'Tell me everything that's happened.' I said."
An ear tearing, skull splitting electric bell sounded right beside us. "Oh no, second bell," said Catie. "I want to hear more about poor Nat.
"Morning tea time," I promised, sprinting off in the direction of my classroom
Nat's Story - The bait
"It all began with a drive in the country," said Nat.
"Mum yelled at us to get our swimming togs and get in the car.
"I was reading. I did not want to leave my book and go swimming, but it was very hot. I put the book down, carefully marking my place, and hauled myself of my bed, scooping up my togs and towel were (conveniently lying on the floor) and stuffing them into a supermarket bag (also conveniently on the floor).
"Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be loaded into the big four wheel drive along with my brother, sister, parents and a big pile of junk.
"My younger sister (Emily) asked 'Where are we going?'
"Dad told her, 'It's a surprise.'
"Emily asked if we could have ice creams. I hoped we could.
"Dad's answer wasn't very satisfactory . 'Maybe, on the way back, we'll see.'"
A long way off the beaten track
"We drove for ages, through the small town that guarded the entrance to the Gorge, then along a river lined with poplar trees. I thought we were going to the river, but no, we went on, over a bridge and turned right into a side road. It was narrow, steep and full of tight corners and wound up onto a river terrace before heading straight for the hills. Almost at once we were driving alongside a small rushing river and the hills were covered in heavy native bush.
"We still weren't there. We ended up on an unsealed track that branched right, to river, and left, up into the bush. Dad followed the bush track about 100 metres to a clearing. And we saw it. Set back into the side of the hill and the bush was the most amazing house I had ever seen. It looked like a series of tree houses, suspended between the trees, stretching up and along the bush-clad slope. In places it was almost invisible, except for the glint of windows in the sunshine.
"Dad ordered everyone out of the car. The air was cool and smelled sweet. We didn't know what was going to happen next, and were all amazed to see Dad pull out a set of keys, walk over to the front door of the house and open it.
"Dad's grin was a mile wide as he asked us if we wanted to look around. He was nearly bowled over as we raced each other to the front door, all wanting to be the first to explore the awesome house."
"We ran from room to room, along open corridors, up erratic staircases, higher and higher. One wall of the room at the top was all window. It looked out over the stream below, the forested valley, over to the Tararua Ranges. I could even see some of the windmills.
"Mum asked if we liked the house. Then she dropped her bombshell. 'It's for sale. We've made an offer on it and our offer has been accepted.'
"Straight away, I knew which room was going to be mine. It was one that almost vanished into the trees. It was private and intimate, like a tree cave – no - a nest. A fantail was flitting around hunting insects just inches from my window. I lay down on the carpeted floor and close my eyes. This was a room to dream in.
"My dreaming was interrupted by Dad calling us, asking us if we wanted to go down to the river.
"Our own swimming hole, in our own river, in our own forest. I didn't mind being dragged away from my book; it was like I was in one, in my own fantasy story.
Catie was entranced with the idea of the combination of house and trees. "It sounds amazing. Have you seen it?"
"No," I replied. "But ..."
The school bell rang again, ending our morning break. We would meet again at lunchtime.
"So Nat loved the new house?" asked Catie.
"Yes. It wasn't until later that evening, while they were eating fish and chips for tea, that she realised there would need to be some changes. Nat's mum said she would be going back to work, and that they had to think about schools and after school care and arranging activities, music, sport, seeing friends.
"That made Nat feel a little uneasy and she asked if they would have to change schools."
Nat's story – springing the trap
"What do you mean about schools? Won't we keep going to the same ones?"
"Mum wouldn't give me a straight answer. She said we needed to talk about that. That there were closer schools than the Intermediate."
"Leave my friends? The idea made me feel sick. The sight of the chip papers, with their transparent grease spots, red tomato sauce smears and the little hard potato bits that nobody wanted was not helping - and the smell ... I stood up and had to hold onto the edge of the table. My knuckles were white.
"'Nat? Are you alright.'
"No, I was not alright; I was going to be sick.
"I reached the toilet just in time. Hot, acid chunks of chips came up, again and again. At last, achingly empty I sat back against the wall, hugging my knees to my chest.
"'I'm here, darling.'
"'Let's get you cleaned up and into bed," said Mum. She helped me rinse my mouth and washed my face. I crawled into bed without bothering to undress. Mum kissed me goodnight.
"'Sleep well, darling. You'll feel better tomorrow and then we can talk some more.'
"Opening my eyes hurt. Then I remembered - the house in the trees, throwing up, – that explained the disgusting taste in my mouth. And, nooooo, changing schools. I curled up into a foetal position. No, not changing schools. A sharp queasiness in the pit of my stomach took over as the number one pain in my body."
"A new school. Leaving my friends. Having to face new people. I thought that if perhaps I said nothing, if I was very quiet and very good and did not draw my parents' attention to me, nothing would happen. Maybe everything would be alright. Maybe they would forget. For a nanosecond I wondered if praying would help, then I laughed at myself. How could I even consider that putting my faith in something I absolutely did not believe.
"Oh, Tezza. Poor Nat - she must have been freaking out," said Catie.
Catie looked so concerned and upset I thought she was going to cry, but she was right; Nat had freaked out.
Nat's story continued
"A ghost, I was a ghost, drifting around, unable to touch or feel anything. I moved silently around the house, trying to stay in my bedroom as much as possible. If anyone asked, I said I was reading, but really, I spent my time lying on my bed exploring the tense ache that was living under my ribs. I sucked her stomach in as far as could, imagining it touching her spine. This changed the shape of the ache but it was still there. Nat curled up on her side and shut her eyes, willing herself away, anywhere not here, somewhere safe with all her friends.
"Mum tried to understand. 'Nat, darling, we've moved lots of times, half way across the world, even, and you've handled those moves well. This time we only moving about 15 kilometres.
"'I know you are worried about changing schools, but you will make new friends, I promise. And you will still be able to see your old friends. You can invite them out to swim in the creek and explore the bush.'
"I hugged my knees tighter and wished I could sink into the mattress and vanish. I did not give her mother any sign I had heard her, but supposed she was right. I had never heard of anyone dying from changing schools, but the future was looming like a big black hole sucking her in. Powerless, I was going to be overwhelmed and swallowed whole.
"What was the inside of a black hole like? I don't know where that thought came from, but, somehow, the insides of black holes reminded me of Rob swinging from the adventure challenge course at school - a ninja-sniper-idiot. He would enjoy the energy and chaos of a black hole.
"I was sure Rob would like running round in the bush at our new place. So would Tez and my other friends. That might be fun."
"So we still going to see her?" asked Catie.
I had to laugh. "Of course. She's only moved schools, not universes and there are these things called phones and the Internet.
"I hope her first day is going alright," worried Catie.
Nat's first day
"The purple tunic was stiff and unyielding. It was baggy on my thin body and almost reached my knees. 'You'll grow into it' my mother and the woman in the shop had said. I had a new white blouse on underneath, and a purple cardigan with the school's crest on over the top. Attractive brown Roman sandals completed the look. At least I looked OK in purple, with pale skin and dark hair. My older brother, Hamish, tended towards red-headedness and looked a bit ill when he wore his purple school jersey.
"Mum stopped the car outside our new school and wished us good luck..
"I faced the unfamiliar school gates and took one step forward, then another. It was taking an act of will to move at all.
"Head down, shoulders hunched focusing on the ground and my feet, I followed Hamish into the school grounds. I was sure everyone was staring, whispering, judging. The ache my her stomach was growing. I wanted to throw up, or faint, or both. Or maybe scream and run.
"The school hall was vast and full of a noisy, constantly moving, heaving, sea of purple. There was a stage at one end with a couple of what must be teachers standing on it. A woman stepped up to a lectern with a microphone. She tapped the microphone and the mob quietened a little.
"She introduced herself and started to read out the lists of year classes. I tuned the woman's voice out and did my best to stay small and out of the way.
"Year 8. "Natalie McDonald ...
"This was it. I took a deep breath and felt incredibly light-headed. The people in my peripheral vision were blurry and insubstantial; there was a roaring in my head and a demon in my stomach was trying to claw its way up my throat.
"Focus. FOCUS. Think about good things. Think about the weekend. Think about exploring with Tezza and Catie and Rob. FOCUS.