The building went up in a roar, bricks shattering apart as the fire burst from the inside. Snakes of flame coiled and reared amidst the wreckage, lighting the blackened, dust-choked air with a hellish glow. Shards of glass rained down like glittering confetti. The sound of it like the tinkle of sweet, delicate chimes. Smoke curled up into the sky, a dark plume of ash, a scar on the starry night that alerted the city to the violent destruction.
I didn't look back at the remains of my life. I picked up my bag, damp from the wet concrete of the street, and walked away with the pitiful shreds of my only remaining possessions slung across my back. The sound of sirens wailed into the night, noble men racing to save the scorched ruins of a stranger's world. I smiled as I fled.
It was no longer my world. Not my life. Not anymore. Why? Because I was no longer alive. That's what being undead means.
It didn't matter how much I hoped, how much I prayed to God, how much I begged with fate; English never got any less boring. Today was no exception so far. The teacher to our small class of twelve people, Mr Adams, had just announced that we would be watching, hell of all hells, Romeo and Juliet. Why was it always Romeo and Juliet? Why couldn't it be Macbeth, or Hamlet? It was always R and J. It was torture.
The handful of girls in the class shifted their plastic chairs across the room to huddle together in the back corner of the darkened room, where they could giggle over magazines and gossip without repercussions. The guys, scattered around the room, groaned and grunted unhappily. Three of them, the biggest wankers I've ever met, moved so they could sit as close to the girls as possible, trying to see down the gaping collars of their shirts as they leaned over their copies of Glamour magazine. Nothing ever changed. Every year, it was the same slutty, shallow girls and thick-headed, jerk guys, and me. Oh sure, I could have had friends, could have joined the football team or basketball club, could have had any of the girls I wanted. I used to have to shoo them off with a baseball bat and bug repellent, until they got the message that I wasn't interested. The guys, since then, had decided I was gay and therefore a prime target for five-day-a-week torture sessions that lasted every waking minute from 8:45am to 3:15 pm.
I suppose it didn't help that in my self-appropriated lonerdom, I had chosen to spend my time doing something which every other teenage male in the vicinity regarded as the miserable hobby of an Emo or, yes, a homosexual: Writing poetry. The kind of brooding poetry that I'd once been told would attract girls like flies…and it had to start with. But once I figured out that none of them understood the poetry, they just liked the rhyming words and the ability to say 'I went out with a boy who wrote gorgeous poetry for me', that was when I got tired of them and bought bug spray.
Now, sitting in the dim, stuffy classroom that smelled faintly of coffee and sweat in the afternoon heat, I kept my seat by the window and leaned my chin on my hand. It really was a tiny classroom the smallest in the building and there were only two free seats available besides the teacher's swivelling office chair that he never sat in; He always sat on the desk at the front of the class, resting himself amongst the shambles of papers and books and chewed pens. The paint on the walls, a sickly pale green that always made me think of hospitals, was cracked and peeling in the corners near the ceiling, right where the spiders liked to cultivate their wispy, cobweb homes. The school was built in the 1800s, so it had the typically Victorian high ceiling, which some idiotic architect had thought would make up for the twenty by twenty foot space of the floor down below. The late June sun beamed through the blinds, gold stripes layering across the desks and lining the walls. It was irritatingly hot, and I already had my sleeves rolled up and my top three shirt buttons undone. Any more and I'd be just as well going shirtless. The idea didn't appeal to me. I put my head down on the desk and blindly shuffled my MP3 out of my trouser pocket, turned it on, and discreetly plugged one ear-bud into my left ear, the side the window was on, so the teacher wouldn't see. Instantly, the pleasantly obliterating screaming of one of my favourite rock bands roared into my skull and blocked out the horrendously gag-worthy sounds of Romeo's fickle heart dragging him along to Juliet's window.
I settled in for forty-five minutes of tedium and Slipknot. Mr Adams had his head bent over a book, ignoring the class, as he popped his feet on a chair in front of the desk he was perched on. I fixed my gaze on the round, white clock hanging above the door, watching the narrow red arm ticking off the seconds until I could go home and pick up the copy of 'The Forgotten Highlander' that I'd been reading until late last night.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Mr Adams look up suddenly and glanced at him. Following his gaze, I realised he was staring at the door. Through the blare of my music, I hadn't heard anyone knocking, but he got up and went to see who it was. I turned down the volume of my music. Mr Adams cracked the door open a bit and spoke to someone, and my eyes drifted back to the clock. The door swung open wider and Mr Adams stepped back. There was a rush of whispering behind me that couldn't really be called whispering, and I lowered my gaze again, curious as to what had the girls suddenly so chirpy. Immediately, I saw her, standing by the door with a notepad clutched to her chest while Mr Adams spoke to her. Bright lines of sunlight bent across her slight body and caught strands of strawberry-blonde hair, lighting them to gold-ish pink. I pulled out my headphone and stared like everyone else. A new girl. There hadn't been a new girl in my year since Lucy Crawford moved here two years ago, and she'd been just like all the other girls. She'd attempted to get my interest to begin with, but I think the other girls warned her off because one day she just started giving me the same look everyone else did the look that said, you are totally hot but you are too weird, so you are not interesting. But this girl didn't look like the others at least.
She was slighter, shorter, but she was pretty. Very pretty, but not in the kind of very obvious, look-at-me-aren't-I-gorgeous? way. She had pale, smooth skin and long strawberry-blonde hair, a kind of oval face with slender brows over nicely shaped eyes. Instead of the black mini-skirt and tight blouse that I'd come to think of as customary school uniform for teenage girls, she was wearing black skinny jeans and a black hoodie with the sleeves pushed up in the heat. Her hair was pulled back in a silky ponytail that I really wanted to stroke my fingers through.
That thought brought me back from my staring a bit, and I blinked. Don't get ahead of yourself, I thought, pushing down the pang of hope that had risen in my chest before I could stop it, she might be like all the other girls. Her skirt might just be in the wash or something. But somehow, I didn't think that was it.
Before I could plug my ear-bud back in and return to watching the clock, the teacher finished speaking to the new girl and pointed in my direction. It took me a moment to realise that he was pointing to the open seat next to me. Then Mr Adams, cruelly, gestured toward the only other free seat in the room, on the other side of the class. He left her to choose her own seat and perched on top of his desk again, picking up his book and pushing his glasses further up his thin nose. My heart beat a little faster as I tried to slyly watch where the new girl was thinking of sitting. She hesitated by the door for a long moment, eyeing the seat on the wall nearest her, and I felt my hope beginning a slow descent into hell, where it would once again be obliterated and I'd be back to being the freaky loner boy with nothing better to do than write poetry about finding a girl who would understand the lines I wrote about her.
Sweet, chaste maiden, oh so fair,
Standing there with ribbons in your golden hair,
How I long to see you smile at me,
How I long for an angel who will never be.
I picked up my pen from the desk in front of me and tapped it against my lip, considering lines and words and the way in which they might flow together. Then I felt eyes on me and looked up. The new girl was staring at me. I met her eyes, hers the pale blue of the summer sky outside; mine a shade of darker blue the colour of the night sky. A shiver rolled down my spine and sank into my stomach, a not-unpleasant feeling. It could have been seconds or hours that we stared at each other, her face alight in the shaft of sunlight she'd stepped into. Then she smiled, ever so slightly, and I felt my heart skip a beat. She made her way toward me and slid into the seat next to mine, and there was a sort of collective gasp from the girls behind me at the bold stupidity of the new girl.
Her arm bumped mine as she set down her notepad and a blue pen, and goosebumps rose on my bare skin. I shifted my arm away slightly so she wouldn't notice. She turned to me and her lips moved. I watched her blink twice, her lashes long and dark as they batted her cheeks, and a shy, nervous smile curled her mouth. Even in the dimness, I could see colour rising to her pale cheeks, and that was when I realised she'd been talking to me. I blinked and smiled what I hoped was an apologetic smile, and said, "Um, sorry. What did you say?" I tried not to wince at my own voice. I wanted to hit my head on the desk. God, I was a moron. She had probably already put me firmly in the 'freak' category of her mental catalogue.
But then she smiled a little wider, showing perfect, white teeth, and the butterflies in my stomach turned into large, angry moths. "I said, hello" She said softly, her voice almost a whisper. Lowering her gaze shyly to her hand resting on the edge of the desk, she lifted the other one to tuck a loose lock of amber hair behind her ear Up close, I could see it wasn't plain blonde or really ginger, but tinged with strands of red so pale it was almost pink, too. When she moved, I caught a whiff of some faint, delicious scent that made my gut clench with sudden, breath-taking desire. Whoa. That had never happened before. Not even seeing Lacey Silverman in a wet bikini last summer had made me feel so intensely. But then again, I'd known Lacey since I was twelve so there was no mystery about her to intrigue me especially not when she wore that tiny bikini. The new girl tilted her head, her smile falling.
Once again, I'd zoned out in my thoughts and I hadn't yet replied to her. Too late, I said, "Uh, hi. You're new here." Oh. My. God. Could I get any denser? Just point out the obvious, Anson, why don't you.
The girl nodded, and I smelled that lovely perfume again. Like honeysuckle and freesia. I wondered, briefly, agonisingly, if her lips would taste like sugar. Stop that. You just met her. You don't even know her name yet. She solved that issue a moment later. "Good guess, Sherlock" She nodded, smiling gently, "I'm Poppy". Poppy. An unusual name. A pretty name. It suited her. Someone behind us snickered, but if Poppy heard it, she didn't react. She just kept smiling at me patiently. If she'd been like all the other girls, I'd have blown my chances four times over already. Clearly she was different. Hope rushed up inside me again so fast I nearly choked on it, feeling my lips stretch into a grin helplessly.
This time, I didn't wait an eternity to reply. "Hi. I'm Anson" I raised a hand in a somewhat shy wave to her and she returned it. Right then, something clicked. I felt it, something between us, practically heard it; Click. And I knew, with a certainty that astounded me, that this year was going to be different from last year, and the year before, and the year before that. This year was going to be good. This year was going to be exciting. This year, just maybe, I would finally find the girl who would understand me.
Then something smacked into the back of my head, bounced off, and landed on the desk between us. I snatched up the ball of paper before Poppy could see 'Dear Freak' scribbled on it. I unfolded it without really wanting to, and saw the bubbly, girly handwriting that I was sure was Lacey's She was one of the girls in the class, sitting behind us. The note read:
Could your staring be any more obvious, or more creepy? Isn't she a bit too, you know, female for you?
I almost rolled my eyes; here we were in English class, and Lacey was writing grammatically incorrect notes. It should have been 'any creepier', not 'more creepy'. But whatever. The message was supposed to be mocking and insulting. I crumpled it up and shoved it in my pocket, but when I looked up, I looked directly into Poppy's blue eyes. She was staring at me with pursed lips, a thoughtful, considering look on her face. I'd never seen a teenage girl wear a look like that before unless she was holding two pairs of identically disgusting shoes and saying 'I just don't know which ones I want…I might as well get both. It's Daddy's credit card anyway'. My mouth went dry and I squirmed under her intense gaze. "What?" I asked, trying not to sound petulant.
Poppy blinked and one side of her mouth quirked up. The sun outside had shifted positions so the light now slanted through the blinds onto our desk and illuminated one side of her face. It was still stiflingly hot, but I didn't think that was entirely because of the heat of the sunlight. My own body seemed to be trying to cook me from the inside out, starting somewhere in my gut. It was an achingly good feeling. I needed to get away from this girl, soon. "Are you gay?" She asked suddenly, the bluntness of her question like an arrow to my chest. The worst thing was, she was still smiling…but it wasn't a cruel or mocking smile. It was irritatingly beautiful.
My voice came out a little frostier than I'd expected. "No. I'm not". Poppy didn't frown at my tone, didn't laugh sarcastically, didn't react in any of the ways I'd expected her to. Nope, she smiled wider, her blue eyes lighting up like she was pleased with my answer. Lighting up in a way that made me think of the glow of the setting sun on an autumn evening.
A smile like buttery sunshine,
Skin like milky moonlight,
Eyes bright as autumn rain,
A truly gorgeous sight,
That causes me all this pain.
Another note hit me in the head, and this time it fell to the floor. I bent to pick it up, but Poppy snatched it up first and held it in her little fist. Her eyes locked on mine, shockingly even, determination clear in their crystal depths. "If you're not gay, why do you let it bother you so much?" She asked, holding up with fresh note between her fingers. I reached to take it from her and she pulled it back, shaking her head. "Tell me, why do you let it bother you?" She asked again, her voice light but edged with sadness. I hesitated, considering, before reaching for the note again. With a sigh, she crumpled it up and dropped it into the collar of the loose white shirt she was wearing under the unzipped hoodie. I froze, swallowed as my mouth went dry, licked my lips. I opened my mouth to say something, shut it again without saying anything, my eyes still on her chest. Slowly, I raised my eyes back to her face and sat back. I turned my face away, feeling my ears and cheeks burning.
Poppy laughed softly and said something under her breath that sounded like, "Definitely not gay, then". It made my ears burn hotter and I groaned, dropping my head onto the cool, hard surface of the desk. Then she said, "Don't let them get to you. They're just jealous you're prettier than them". For a minute, I thought for sure she was mocking me this time, but she was still smiling that innocent, playful smile, and I realised she was making a joke. She was making a joke out of their bullying. It made me want to smile so hard my cheeks hurt. I laughed, for possibly the first time in weeks, I laughed a genuine laugh. And she laughed too. Oh, it was a moment of pure bliss.
Until another note hit the table. This time, Poppy grabbed it and spun around in her seat, her eyes narrowed to glare at the girls behind us. Unlike her, those girls were all fake blondes, their roots showing through the platinum blonde dye. All four of them were attractive in a tacky way, with lots of mascara and bulging cleavage spilling from their low-cut shirts. And they were all mean as alley cats. Lacey was smirking dangerously, her green eyes cold as ice. I wanted to tell Poppy just to forget it before she got herself into trouble; if she pissed off Lacey and her crew, she'd be doomed to lonerdom forever, like me. Then again, we could be loners together…it was a nice idea.
I didn't get the chance to decide how selfish I wanted to be, because Poppy lifted the hand with the note in it and looked directly into Lacey's icy eyes. "I've got a tip for you" She said in a cool voice. Her eyes flickered down to Lacey's chest, where she was spilling out of her shirt, and looked back up. "Actually, two tips. Number one: Grow up" Poppy flicked the note back at Lacey. It bounced off her excessive chest and landed on the table. Lacey growled while the other girls gasped. There was even a mutter from some of the boys, who were all riveted to the scene, possibly hoping for a catfight. "Number Two" Poppy added, "Find a size eight, 'cause I don't think you can really squeeze into a six anymore" Then she turned around and grinned at me. I gaped in astonishment, just as everyone else in the class did. Nobody had ever, ever insulted Lacey Silverman before. Not in the last four years at least; the last girl who did ended up moving schools a month later. But Poppy didn't look in the least bit worried. She looked proud of herself. I wanted to applaud her.
The bell rang then, and I glanced at the clock. Forty minutes had flown by, and I hadn't so much as glanced at the cumbersome old TV playing the Romeo and Juliet videotape. A-mazing. That had to have been the best English class I'd ever been in, and I was almost sorry to have it end. Still, I stood up and shoved my uncapped pen into my trousers My mum would be ticked if the ink stained and grabbed my schoolbag from under the desk. Slinging it on my back over one shoulder, I walked out the door right behind Jake Clark, the most popular guy in school and Lacey's boyfriend. He was built like a house, tall and wide and heavy, with muscles that screamed steroids. He was also fairly smart, but he hid it well. I'd seen his Physics test scores once when I spent an afternoon detention helping the Physics teacher mark assessments. He'd gotten a seventy-three out of one hundred. Smart enough. But, for the purposes of seeming cool, he acted like a moron Which I thought made him a bigger idiot than he pretended to be.
Beside him, Mark Lansford was yattering appreciatively about the new girl. "New girl's kinda hot, doncha think? And spunky. I like a chick with spunk, if you get what I mean" He elbowed Jake, who snickered. I rolled my eyes and swallowed a noise of disgust, knowing it'd cost me my Biology essay if either of them heard it. And if I didn't hand in that essay today, I was going to get another detention, and I couldn't afford another blotch on my record. It would make blotch twenty seven since I turned seventeen last year. The headmaster and I were on first name terms.
Stepping into the hallway as the self-professed idiots strode away, remarking on the doubtful availability of the new girl, goosebumps raised on my arms. The corridors of the school, with their pale walls, wide windows and grimy stone floors, were always cold, even in the height of summer. I shuffled my bag about on my back a bit so I could pull down my shirt sleeves without it slipping off my shoulder, and almost tripped over a pair of legs, crossed at the ankle in front of me. I scowled down at the scuffed black boots, heavy lace-up things, and began to raise my glower to whoever had thoughtlessly parked themself in the hallway in front of me. But by the time my gaze reached halfway up the pair of legs, my glower had faded, replaced by a surprised smile. When I finally got to the eyes, I grinned.
"Hey there. I was waiting for you" Poppy said softly, maybe a little shyly. She pushed herself away from the wall and smiled at me. I was sure I'd misheard her or something. I blinked.
"Did you say you were waiting for me?" I asked, feeling slow and incredulous. She started walking and I joined her, easily keeping up with her quick pace due to my longer legs. I wondered if she was in a particular hurry to get to her next class after having waited an extra minute and a half for me, or if she always walked fast.
She looked over at me, just a sideways glance under her lashes. "Yeah, that's what I said. You look surprised" She observed carefully, tugging down her sleeves and adjusting the cuffs over her thin fingers. As she walked, she flicked her ponytail with a brisk twitch of her head, releasing another burst of that sweet perfume. I was starting to think it wasn't perfume so much as the smell of her shampoo. Did she wash her hair with flower petals or something?
Sliding through the double doors at the end of the English hallway and taking a right at the main hall, we headed toward the stairs that would take us to the second and third floors. These stairs were only for going up, there was another set of stairs that everyone called 'the back stairs' for coming down they were called that because they rested at the back of the school, right next to the canteen. Every day at lunch, there would be a stampede down them to get into the line for pizza first. I started up the stairs with Poppy beside me. "I'm not surprised" I lied, "Just…curious" I shrugged.
Poppy raised one eyebrow at me in a sceptical expression, tilting her chin down just a little to make it look also a bit condescending, like she was saying silently, 'who do you think you're fooling?' But all she said was, "Curious as to what, precisely?" It was strange, the way she spoke. Kind of formal, but interesting. I liked it. Then again, she probably could have spoken in Dutch and I would have found her interesting.
I looked away, up the stairs, as if I needed to see where I was going. I didn't. I could have walked this entire school with my eyes closed. It just made me feel funny to look at her too long. She was bright somehow, and achingly cute up close. "Curious, I suppose, as to why you would choose to make friends with the guy who is so obviously the school loner. Instead of making friends with the pretty, popular people. I mean, Lacey might be pissed at you for what you said to her in class, but you could still get in with the 'In Crowd' if you wanted" It was true enough. But it hurt me just to say it. I didn't want her to be with the In Crowd. I wanted her to be with the Loner Guy.
We were almost at the top of the first flight of stairs and I was wondering what her next class was and if she actually knew how to find it. It seemed she was just following me around, paying no real attention to her surroundings. There was a thoughtful look on her face again, one I was beginning to think she might wear rather a lot. She was silent as we kept climbing the stairs, and moved onto the next flight that would take us to the top floor, where the Art Department and Home Economics classes were. Something sticky made a sucking sound under my foot on one of the steps and I frowned. There was a fizzy drinks can crushed into the corner of the stair and I kicked it through the rails of the banister, hearing it make impact with the ground a floor down.
Poppy still hadn't said anything when we reached the third floor and I held open one of the doors for her. She paused in the doorway and flashed me a smile that nearly took my breath away. "You want to know why I chose to befriend the school loner? Because I don't like many people, but I think I'll like you. You seem…different" She stepped through the door and turned to watch me come through, too, then began walking backwards down the dim corridor. The corridors on the top floor were always dimmer because there were no windows outside of the classrooms and only half the lights worked.
"Different" I said, trying out the word the way she'd said it. Not like it was a disease, but like it was a precious, rare trait. I supposed in modern secondary schools, different was rare. Certainly in this school it was, anyway. "You could say that. You could also say 'freak' or 'loser' and you'd be a lot closer to the tenor of being me" I commented, watching her casually strolling backwards, waiting for her to trip so I might lunge forward and catch her, and then she'd smile that lovely smile and say thank you and we might kiss and…and I was getting so far ahead of myself that I'd need a map to find my body again. You just met her, Anson. Get a grip. Yeah, she's pretty. Yeah, she sounds smart. But you have no idea if she really is smart. Find that out first and take it from there. Ah, the sensible part of my brain was a blessing where my creative side was often a curse that led me into trouble. Some of the many blotches on my academic records were not for merely arriving late to class or failing to turn in homework on time; nope, most of them were for, what my art teacher called, 'creative stunts'. These included the time I had gotten bored in Graphics and created an army of wee, spindly knights from silver paperclips instead of finishing the Pictorial View of my project design. Another stunt had been in the playground, when I'd decided to draw a mural on the black asphalt with chalk during the lunch break. Apparently the headmaster frowned upon depictions of bony black trees and dusty gravestones done in chalk. I'd thought it was a good representation of how most teenagers felt about the school. There was also the time I was suspended for a week for filling water-balloons with paint and hanging them from the ceiling of the Art department. I had meant them to be decorative; not my fault that a bunch of kids with sharp pencils decided to have a game of darts in the middle of class. Still, I had been the one forced to clean it all up.
Yeah, I was something of a 'trouble student' according to my last four report cards. Maybe that was why my mother spent all her time at home locked away in her study, hiding from me behind an oak door, with her old books and new laptop. My mum was an editor for a historical magazine, and my dad…well, he left when I was eight. I didn't know why and I didn't care why. I didn't talk about it. But without him, and with my mum always busy working on some new article for her magazine, I was usually the one left to look after my bratty little brother, Aaron. He was twelve, and thought he knew everything. He had an annoying habit of spouting useless facts at me, some of which I already knew and most of which I didn't care to know.
At least I didn't see him at school much. He'd just moved into first year last summer and I was unlucky if I bumped into him in the hallways once a fortnight. That was how I liked it. And thinking of school reminded me where I currently was and who I was currently with.
Poppy was looking at me with inquisitive eyes, hovering by the door to the Art department where I'd stopped without realising it. Apparently she had art too. I was almost ashamed of the happiness that revelation made me feel. If it turned out she wasn't as smart as she sounded, if she at least had a bit of decent creativity in her, I might be able to overlook her less-than-stellar IQ. "Do you often get lost inside your own head?" She asked quietly, her fingers on the varnished wood of the door, the silver plate with PUSH etched into it glimmering under the dim lighting. It was such an odd question, and even odder was the fact that she'd been observing me closely enough to notice me vanishing into my own thoughts.
I shrugged and leaned over to push the door open a crack. The smell of paint and chalk and bright colours poured out, flooding me with the feeling of lightness I always felt when surrounded by passion and inspiration. Art was my favourite class. Music was second. I liked poetry but I didn't play an instrument, which made Music class a little redundant to me most of the time, but I enjoyed listening to others compose their lyric-less masterpieces. "Sometimes. When you spend a lot of time alone, it becomes second nature to talk to yourself. I learned quickly that it's better to have silent conversations with yourself, though, than ones aloud."
At that, Poppy laughed and pushed her way into Art ahead of me, ducking under my arm.