1. Partner of Doom
"Settle down and listen up everyone. This term, we'll be moving onto our next controlled assessment-slash-project – Biology! Yay!" declares Mr Sterling enthusiastically, punching a fist into the air. Mr Sterling is my biology teacher on a Friday – he's slight and not exceptionally tall, but he's energetic and surprisingly young for someone who could name all the different types of bacteria in your body in less than thirty seconds (without drawing breath – in his sleep).
His animated statement is rewarded with a dissonant chorus of groans and protests. He continues, "Who loves guts and gore here? Anyone?" Looking discreetly around, I see that nobody raises their hand, so I forcefully keep my own down. Instead, all I hear is a few muttered curses along my row.
I sigh, upset at the class' disappointing lack of interest.
Am I the only person in the group that wants to get good marks? And this is meant to be the top set?
I frown disapprovingly, tucking a stray strand of dark blonde hair behind my ear.
"You have that posh look on your face again, Amber," whispers my friend Teresa, nudging me none-too-softly in the ribs. Teresa has crazily curly hair, a curvy yet petite figure, a spirited attitude and calculating blue eyes. She's been my faithful friend for over seven years now.
"What look?" I frown more deeply.
She sniggers and shakes her head, her short brown ringlets bobbing.
Turning my attention back to Mr Sterling, I absorb the information he's rattling on about – about how animals are important for medical research and for learning more about different species, and that if anyone feels very uncomfortable about dissecting them and poking about their insides, we should get our parents to write a note which we must bring in ASAP.
"Yeah right; like a stupid note is going to stop them from making us work," scoffs Teresa moodily under her breath. I roll my eyes; she says 'work' like it's the most evil practice enforced on children on the face of the planet.
"And this time, I will be putting you into partners," adds Mr Sterling at the end of his lecture. The whole room erupts into outraged cries and underhand swearing. I cringe at some of the language and wonder why such words are necessary. I mean, we're year elevens now; shouldn't we be acting a little more like adults (sensible adults, that is)?
Somehow, the teacher manages to regain some form of authority over the raging students, long enough to explain,
"This will help you to get to know some of your new classmates better, and perhaps you'll even make a brand new friend – who knows?"
There's a murmured sentence from somewhere behind me, and then a group of boys at the back laugh hysterically at a rude, oh sorry, funny comment made by the rudest and most annoying boy of all.
He catches my eye just as I'm throwing a rather disgusted look at his pack of guffawing hyenas. He scowls violently at me and, blushing, I hastily turn my back on the offending students.
Luckily Mr Sterling will probably put me with Teresa, as he knows how well we work together – and that we're close friends. I've always liked Mr Sterling; he's smart-tongued and quick to sidestep dangerous turns in a conversation, plus he's realistic and easy to relate to.
As Mr Sterling begins to read out pairs of names from a register, chairs are dragged roughly and feet are stomped in a dramatic show of discontent, whilst complaints aplenty bounce around the room. Girls are mostly paired with boys, or if not that, with someone they rarely talk to. I make a sad sound at the back of my throat as Mr Sterling pairs Hannah Blake – a moody, cynical girl with a depressing (yet admirable) hairstyle and hollow, dark eyes – with Christopher Daley. I've always had a soft spot (ok, huge, mind-numbing crush) for Christopher's good up-bringing, slight build, chocolate-brown eyes and golden locks; and I was secretly hoping that (if I didn't get to be with Teresa) I would get paired with him and perhaps have a chance to get to know him better (and get him to finally notice me).
"Teresa Phillips and Selena Raja," calls Mr Sterling. I turn to my friend in time to see her eyes widen in horror, and she grabs my arm so hard it hurts. My heart sinks. What did he do that for?
"Crap," Teresa mutters. I note the grimace on her face and wince understandingly. Teresa harbours a personal hate for Selena Raja. For a start, Selena looks like a supermodel; what with her smooth chocolate skin, long glossy black hair and expert makeup application. The 'hate' started when Selena stole Teresa's favourite lip gloss in year eight, and we found it later – completely empty, and unsuccessfully flushed down a toilet bowl. We had no evidence that it was Selena who destroyed the lip gloss, but her fake, prudish attitude made her an ideal target, at which Teresa could direct her growing vendetta. Also, Selena has this ability to make you feel like the disgusting piece of chewing gum on the bottom of your favourite shoe.
I pat Teresa's hand consolingly and mutter a "See you", before she trudges moodily over to Selena's desk, who stares at my friend as if she's a particularly unappetising bit of burnt spinach at the bottom of a cooking pot. Sorry about the peculiar comparison, but it's how I seem to think (my mind is scarily analytical – I'm a good reviser, and I get work done and achieve good marks – but I'm not necessarily the best socialiser or public speaker, and I'm even worse at talking about myself).
Glancing around the room, I feel a little ball of dread start to gather in the pit of my stomach as I watch all the reasonable science partners assigned to everybody but me. It's not that I hate anyone – most people get on with me quite well; it's just that bonding isn't one of my stronger points. People mostly take to me because I'm smart – but that's also the exact same reason why people don't take to me.
Swallowing, I stare after the last acceptable candidate as she walks to sit next to one of the unruly boys at the back.
Maybe…maybe Mr Sterling just forgot to put my name on the register. I try to console myself with such thoughts, but it doesn't work, and the students dwindle until, finally, with my mind screaming in indignation and shock and inconsolable distress: there are only two people left.
"Amber Terrance and Damien Johnson," finishes Mr Sterling, clapping the register shut with a definitive snap.
My mouth falls open, and my fingers grip the edge of the desk so hard that my nails make little grooves in the wood. I watch numbly as my knuckles go paper-white.
"I-impossible…" I whisper, as I observe Damien sling his tattered schoolbag over one shoulder and saunter leisurely from the back of the classroom over to my table with what must be a look of utter disbelief on my face.
"You gonna move up or not, partner?" he drawls when he's standing beside my desk.
I noticeably flinch at the word 'partner'.
"No!" I exclaim, completely ignoring him and jumping out of my seat. I struggle not to burst out crying in front of the whole class at my outrageous predicament – of all the people to be paired with…! Damien Johnson is an idiot; he shouldn't even be in the top set! And Mr Sterling knows that – doesn't he? Even if he thinks that Damien has but a scrap of scientific knowledge, how does he expect me to work with someone so utterly different from me? Somebody who is my exact opposite? Somebody who I feel is about a hundred years younger than I am because he acts like such a child and I'm mature for my age! I mean, this is the one person in the whole year that I was hoping never to have to get involved with – in any way whatsoever.
I storm to Mr Sterling's desk – leaving an annoyed-looking Damien behind me – and force myself to speak in my most controlled voice (easier said than done).
"S-sir…" I start, losing my train of thought just as soon as he looks expectantly up at me with his clear grey eyes.
God, this is embarrassing.
"Ah, Amber, what is it?"
How do you tell a teacher that you think they've made the most stupid, pig-headed, unbelievably inappropriate decision in the whole world?
"Umm…I was…I was wondering if ma-maybe I could swap p-partners with…with someone; be with somebody else…maybe…perhaps Selena could go with Damien?"
It's a good idea, too. Selena would probably absolutely love a chance to flirt with the 'coolest' boy in our year, and maybe be his first ever girlfriend – a position almost all the girl's in our year have tried (and failed) at least once to attain – even Teresa (she finds him attractive, something that never fails to surprise, and disgust, me).
Not me though.
I don't have time to have a 'boyfriend'. What is a boyfriend anyway? And it's not like you actually have any spare minutes to spend with them when you constantly have to revise for exams. It would just be another distraction, preventing you from working to your absolute best.
"It's too late now, Amber, and plus – I've paired you with him for a reason." He taps the side of his bony nose.
I gape at him. What possible 'reason' could anyone come up with that requires for me to be partnered with…with…that thing?
Ok, maybe a little harsh, but I just really, really want to get good marks, and feel comfortable, and indulge in a little intelligent conversation during this project – maybe even debate over a few opposing, well-thought-out opinions that differ to my own. And this is not something I'm expecting to receive as a result of working with Damien Johnson.
I manage, "What…what reason, Sir?"
His face turns serious and he motions for me to come closer. I lean stiffly forward to hear his hushed explanation.
"Damien is going through a very…difficult time at home right now and, recently, he's been going just a little off the rails…" he glances up at Damien (who is currently absorbed in scratching some graffiti onto the desk), then looks back at me, "I was hoping that someone as mature and sensible as you would be able to keep an eye on him, maybe have a bit of a calming effect on his, shall we say, inconsistent behaviour. Even your Mrs Parkinson" – our head of year – "thinks it's the perfect solution to Damien's worsening attitude towards his studies."
I bite my lip and look at the ground.
I still don't want to work with him.
I mean, what could I possibly do to make Damien less of a manic dickhead?
"But, Sir…how will it help me? I understand that I could help Damien with his work, but I still don't believe I would necessarily…benefit from us being partners." It's the closest I can get to accusing him of making a dumb decision.
Mr Sterling grins suddenly, his serious manner wiped from his face in an instant.
"Well, I didn't expect you to realise, Amber." He sighs. "What I want," he leans back leisurely in his chair, "is for you to loosen up a little – it's no good going round so wound up all the time; you'll snap! You need to learn how to have a good time, whilst you're still young. He'll teach you how to let go a little, and stop revising so much."
I never thought I'd hear that coming from a teacher.
I make to protest at his words, a strong argument on the tip of my tongue that states revising is obviously vital for good marks – but he interrupts me before I can even utter a syllable. "Revising isn't everything, Amber. Living is the true way to learn things, not burying your nose in books. Go out and see some of the world. Now, off with you!" He shoos me away with a wiggle of his fingers, and I trail helplessly back to my chair, winding slowly around the maze of desks.
Damien has his feet propped up on it, and I glare down at the scuffed white trainers in my seat. Anything other than plain black shoes is inappropriate footwear for school. I look up at him, and glare some more at his face. If I didn't know who he was, or what his personality was like, he might have an okay-looking face – but all I can see now is the ugliness of his character, and I can't see past that.
I meaningfully clear my throat.
He ignores me and picks up my pencil case, as if it were his own, rifling through its contents and pulling out my red permanent marker. He uses it to start colouring in whatever he's already scratched into the tabletop.
I can almost feel my blood beginning to boil.
"Get off," I snap in a low voice, rattling my chair.
He snorts, expression unchanging, and continues colouring. I grit my teeth, almost frozen with anger, as we stay fixed in the same position whilst other students chat calmly around us.
My patience snapping, I make a disgusted sound at the back of my throat and – in a bold move fuelled entirely by my annoyance – tip my chair forward, causing his feet to slide off it and onto the floor with a double thud. He flops forward a little, losing his balance and smudging red pen in a line across his hand, like a streak of blood. With his thick, messy black hair falling into his eyes, he returns my icy glare with an acidic one of his own. His irises are a dark, dark colour (which I'm not close enough to see properly), and his eyes, ringed with thick black lashes, bore into my head with enough force to make me take a hesitant step back.
His eyes are furious, guarded and distracted, so different from my own clear blue ones – through which you can always tell what I'm feeling, no matter how hard I try to hide it – that it feels like he belongs to a completely different species.
"What's up your arse, rich girl?" he growls vehemently, then turns away again. My shoulders tighten and I blush crimson.
I'm not that rich, is all I can think. Anyway, what does he know? Put down slightly (if I was a dog I'd have my tail tucked between my legs), I drag my chair as far away as possible from his and slump down in it, resting my head dejectedly in my hands.
I am totally going to fail biology. Epically.
My first B.
Or even worse – a B minus.
I shudder, rubbing at my temples.
What am I going to do?
It feels like I'm sinking down into a deep black hole, where nor light can save me and from which I will never –
"Your name is Amber, right?"
I start, jumping in my seat, wondering why Damien Johnson would suddenly deign to talk to an uninteresting nerd like me.
I lift my head to look him in the eye, muttering boldly, "Yeah, what about it?"
It feels like the bravest thing I've ever said – and the stupidest (something about being in a dangerous position always makes me behave like a complete idiot).
He doesn't say anything, just presses his lips together and narrows his dark eyes and stares at me. I feel suddenly self-conscious and highly uncomfortable under his gaze – it feels like I'm a prize pig being measured up for the chopping block by a ravenous wolf-butcher-hybrid. I fidget nervously; it's not often you get a boy who looks you straight in the eye.
"What?" I demand impatiently, wanting him to stop whatever he's doing and act normal already (if that's even possible). With sudden inspiration, I snatch my pencil case from his loosened grip whilst he's unawares, and then my red marker, and stuff them back into my schoolbag.
"Nothing! Sheesh, chill out will you?"
I'm guessing the statement should sound indignant, but he mutters it uninterestedly, as if he thinks it's what he's expected to do. He yawns and rolls his neck (as if school is just an inconvenience he has to endure to keep up appearances), then leans towards me across the table.
"You don't want to work with me, do you?"
The question is so serious, and spoken in a tone so much devoid of his usual sarcasm, that I almost don't realise that it's Damien who asked it.
"Well, Miss Amber Terrance?" he urges mockingly when I fail to reply. He says my name in a posh voice, making it sound like a joke.
"Umm…well, I…" I begin, unsure of what to say. I have this thing about not offending anyone – what if they hate me for it? Then they'll probably spread ghastly rumours about me and do everything they can to ruin my life. Plus it's not fair to be made a fool of by someone who barely knows you.
So how do I say that, yes, I seriously don't want to work with you; I would do anything to not work with you –
– in a non-offending manner?
I stare down awkwardly at my tightly clenched hands, which lie in my lap. They don't look like my usually relaxed fingers – thin, graceful fingers (from my mother), used for writing and typing and playing the piano.
I proceed slowly, "It's not that I have anything against you, but –"
"Yeah right," he dismisses with a twisted smirk on his lips. "Everyone's got something against me, Amber. I can tell from your perfect little posh face that you sure as hell don't want to work with me – at all. It's not like having some idiot like me as your partner is gonna do anything for your oh-so-important grades, is it?"
He shakes his head, scruffy black hair falling in front of his eyes, and looks like he's about to say something else, but then thinks better of it and stares down at the desk. His tanned, dark-skinned hands clench on the table, and I see thick veins standing out on the backs of them.
I feel bad all of a sudden.
"I didn't say I didn't want to work with you!" I blurt out, trying to think of something to say to make him feel less offended (even though I know, deep-down, that trying to be nice to the meanest guy in the year will get me absolutely nowhere).
"Really?" he questions, an amused, knowing look on his face. "Then what were you talking about just now, to Sterling?"
He stares at me with those piercing eyes of his until, like the rubbish liar I am, I have to look away.
"I…I was just…" I can't think of an excuse fast enough before he interrupts again.
"Thought not. So why don't you just keep yourself to yourself, and stay the hell out of my business. Ok?"
Without waiting for an answer, he pushes roughly away from the table, sending his chair's legs screeching painfully against the linoleum floor, and – grabbing his bag (and almost hitting me in the face with it) – swaggers moodily out of the room. The classroom door slams shut behind him and I jolt tensely at the sound; a frightened deer, ready to flee from the angry wolf.
Mr Sterling frowns as he sees Damien leaving, and gets out of his chair, ready to chase after him, but then the school bell rings, signaling the end of the school day. He shakes his head, obviously deciding to leave Damien to his own devices, and shouts above the class' packing-away din,
"Don't forget: I want all the research – which you and your partner have done together – to be handed in next Tuesday! Now, have a nice weekend and off you go!"
I carefully file the stimulus material given to us in my bag – along with Damien's copy as well – and zip it up. As I'm about to walk away from the table, I happen to glance at the graffiti on the desk that Damien was working on during the lesson.
A small chill runs down my spine.
In crude, bloody red letters, it says:
Why don't all of you go DIE