Getting up was hard. I dragged myself to the bathroom to splash my face with cold water, which helped. Studying myself in the mirror – I think the swelling had gone down quite a bit since Saturday night. The bruises had already started turning yellow, which was good.
I got dressed. These days I always have to thank someone for their charity when I do, either Beth or Mz Gregory. It was nice having some better clothes but I hated the idea of being… Dependent maybe on other people like that. Thinking of the cold last night I put two t-shirts on and a jumper before slipping on Beth’s jacket.
My stomach was starting to hurt through the first lessons of the day, those three mouthfuls I’d scrounged last night hadn’t gone far and I’d gotten used to more food. Time was when I could go the weekend and wouldn’t even notice I hadn’t eaten more than that. Maybe that’s just because I was so used to that ache.
It left me looking forward to lunch for more than one reason. I almost leaped out of my seat to get there when the bell rang.
I beat most of the rush and piled my tray full of everything I could get my hands on. By the time Beth arrived with Mike I’d demolished most of two plates and was carefully constructing sandwiches out of the rolls and some ham from the salad bar.
“Jesus, what happened to your face?” Mike said as a greeting. I was getting used to it – I hadn’t even noticed the funny looks most people were giving me all morning.
“Fight.” I replied.
“Didn’t look like you won…” He replied laughing.
“I did actually. Kind of. You should see the other guys.” I said.
“Fuck, Alexis, are you ok?” Beth sounded concerned. “Guys? More than one? What the hell happened.”
“Don’t worry Beth, it was just a fight. I didn’t get too badly hurt.” I didn’t want her to worry.
“Badly!? Have you looked in a mirror?” She sounded more worried…
“It looks like you’ve been hit with a sledgehammer mate.” Mikes useful input.
“Look, it’s nothing, it doesn’t even hurt anymore.” I lied. “There’s nothing to tell. I was jumped by some guys and one of them hit me before I could get away.”
I didn’t like lying to Beth, but I had before. She didn’t even know where I lived – It was better she didn’t know what I was doing with my free time anyway.
The mood wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. I couldn’t tell if Beth knew I was lying but no one spoke for a bit while they ate and I resumed constructing tonight’s dinner.
Eventually Mike broke the silence.
“Hey, lessons cancelled this afternoon any of you know why?”
“No. Why?” Beth said. I shrugged.
“We’ve got some career thing; I heard some military guys are coming to indoctrinate us. Sounds like fun.” He said.
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with the military! I’m seriously considering it; they train half the pilots out there you know. They run all the scholarships.” Beth said.
“Plus your dad can get a word in and you will be at the top of the list.” He said, grinning at her.
“Hey! It’s all on merit, you have to pass loads of tests on simulators and stuff…”
“Yeah, simulators you get to go play with on your holidays when old daddy dearest takes you to work. He let you see the exam papers too?” He laughed at her expression.
“No way! Anyway that doesn’t count. I bet most of the kids spend time on commercial sims anyway…”
They carried on arguing, or rather Mike carried on winding her up. I was thinking. I knew the military had a big budget for pilots. Beth was right when she said most of the scholarships were sponsored by them. They did train over half the pilots in space, US pilots anyway. The other half were the ones who had parents rich enough for the fees of a top-flight school. That was way out of my league.
I’d given joining the military a lot of thought, but I hadn’t come to any decisions. It was a long time before I had to decide on scholarships, 3 years at least. In the mean time I had to keep my grades high whatever I decided so it wasn’t something I’d committed much time to.
I did some math in my head. It was actually more like two years. I guess could see why the school had organised it now.
* * *
It was nice to be able to go somewhere with Beth and Mike after lunch rather than split up for class. We walked together to the assembly hall. Most of the back of the hall was already full of students. It was default for anyone under the age of 20 to find the back – busses, classes, assemblies. The back was always the place to be.
Because of our late arrival we ended up a few rows from the front. I folded my legs and sat down, Beth beside me. Mike, on the other side of Beth groaned as he crossed his legs.
“We are getting far too old to sit on the floor like this.” He said. I didn’t mind.
We sat and chatted within the excited murmur of voices that starts when a group of kids are brought together for something that isn’t routine.
Eventually a group of people gathered to the side of the stage-like raised platform at the front. There were a few teachers, the principle included, and three new outsiders. They all had uniforms on.
The first, and most visually prominent of the trio, was standing straight in a crisply ironed navy blue uniform covered in gold buttons and bars with a patch of badges over his left breast and a black beret neatly poised on his head. He was talking with what looked like a nurse who wore some plain light-green utilitarian overalls I vaguely recognised from a film set in a hospital that I’d watched after school.
The last person, standing to one side of the other two was in a police uniform. Not the ones they wore in the street, but the fancy dress version I guess they kept for events.
Mr Phelps clapped his hands, slowly, and stepped up onto the stage area.
“Students! Students. It has come to the time where you all need to start thinking about what you want to be doing when you leave this wonderful, caring environment you all love so much.” He grinned at the collective groan from the student body. “Come on, I know you love it. Don’t lie to me.
“On a more serious note, listen to these guys. It could be a future for you. This week every student in your year will have half an hour with a careers mentor to see what you might be interested in doing and develop a plan to get you there. Get thinking. These are some of the most important years of your life when it comes to this. Don’t mess it up like us or you’ll all end up teachers!”
He grinned widely at the ripple of laughter.
“Our first guest today is Lieutenant Mullins, let’s give him a round of applause.” The Lieutenant stepped onto the stage to a half-hearted clap and accepted a handshake from Mr Phelps. “Thank you for coming.”
“Hello kids.” Whoa, bad start. Never call a group of teenagers ‘kids’ if you want them to listen to you. They, we, find it really patronising. I could feel the hall shuffle, almost bristle, in annoyance. He continued oblivious. “First off, how many people here has been a victim of crime?”
I turned around so I could see how many people put their hands up. I noticed Beth had, along with over half the students. Those that hadn’t must have grown up in a decent area. I put my hand up, safely in the majority.
He scanned the room and his eyes met mine, his eyes widening a little. Damn. See, that’s why we like being at the back. Stupid black eye.
“You there, I can see you’ve had some trouble. What happened?”