We walked in silence. I kept my eyes open, alert to threats. Things were getting pretty serious, Mike’s brother – if he was still in power – would have to show he was doing something, show he was strong, or he was going to get into a lot of trouble. His men had seen my face, some of them at least. It was dangerous for me to be walking around in the open like this.
That meant it was dangerous for Beth to be with me. A few times I felt the need to grab her hand and lead her to the other side of the street to avoid someone who looked… off. Twice I turned around to take another route, but only once did I see someone who I could positively identify as a member of the Kolmek. I whispered a warning to Beth and lead her down a side-alley.
“Are you sure?” she complained.
“Shush. Quiet.” I listened, but I couldn’t hear anything meaningful, they were discussing a rival gang who’d started a territory grab. “Let’s keep moving, come-on.”
Rather than risk getting seen going back through the entrance of the alley I led her up a fire escape to take a high-route.
“Alex,” Beth started.
“Yeah?” I didn’t want her to distract me too much, but we were nearly at the river so I felt like I could relax a little.
“Can I stay over a few more nights?” I turned back to look at her. She was concentrating on where she was placing her feet. Or she was avoiding looking at me.
“Of course. Why would I say no? But don’t you want to go home, see your mom?” I mean, I was overjoyed with her staying. I couldn’t help but wonder why though. It wasn’t like my place was particularly enticing…
“I kind of got in an argument with her.” Ah.
“Was it because of me?” I asked.
“Err… Kind of, yeah.” Beth’s mom had been nice to me, but she did seem a little… “I didn’t know I’d be out for a couple of nights. I have a curfew at ten. She wanted to speak to your mom about me sleeping over and I knew that wasn’t going to happen even before I found you’d, err, moved out.”
“So you just-”
She interrupted me, “I just didn’t go home.”
Thinking about how paranoid Beth’s mom had been in the little contact we’d had. After the Mall… I could see that wouldn’t end well.
“I did ring her, to let her know I was ok. But she wouldn’t listen. She just started shouting so I hung up,” she said.
We crossed the bridge. My favourite way to get on and off the Island was a disused access walkway. It sagged from rusted steel supports jutting out from a pair of massive industrial pipes as they crossed the river. I had no idea what they had once carried, but the padlock had rotted away years ago so anyone could just stroll across. I liked it because almost no one did.
I wasn’t sure what to say to Beth. I didn’t think her avoiding the issue would help, but I was an expert at avoiding things so I understood the urge to. The fact was I didn’t have much experience with functional mother-daughter relationships. I wasn’t really feel qualified to advise.
I did know that she could stay with me for as long as she wanted. Maybe I was just being selfish. I should be telling her to go home and make up with her mom before things escalated…
“She just… makes me so mad.” She sighed to herself. I stayed quiet. If she wants to talk about this, anything I say would just get in the way. “She’s so protective. Seeing the kind of freedom you have, I kind of get jealous. With Mom, I have to be doing something with her. It’s so… stifling. You know, I’ve never walked so far in the city as this? She’d always drive me, she’s just so paranoid about me getting jumped or something.”
“Well, it is kind of dangerous,” I said.
“Yeah, I suppose, but only in places like where you live.” She shot me a nervous glance at me. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s no one’s fault I live in a crappy area other than…” This wasn’t the time to go into that.
“I just don’t understand why she won’t just let me take the bus into town or something.” She said, finding a broken brick and kicking it along the sidewalk.
“She’s probably just scared, maybe she had a bad experience in the past or something? She’s looking out for you.” I agreed with Beth to be honest. I’d been used to going where I wanted all my life. You had to be careful, but I couldn’t imagine having to ask someone else if I could do something. Still, I wanted her to see her mother’s side of things. No one should throw away something like that…
“I suppose. I just wanted to show her that I could manage fine on my own. Maybe she’ll loosen her hold on me a little.” I hoped she did, and by the sounds of it she was going to make an effort to go back soon. She wasn’t thinking of it as a permanent thing.
I just hoped to god that nothing bad happened while she was staying with me or it would justify everything in her mind. I had a nagging in the back of my mind that she was right. Beth shouldn’t be anywhere near me right now.
We arrived at school a fraction late due to my backtracking and precautions. I also got pretty out of breath. Frustrating, all that work undone after getting ill for a couple of days.
Splitting up for class was agonising after we’d just made up. I had hardly any classes with her and none today. I’d get to see her at lunch at least.
* * *
Mike still hadn’t returned to school. This was a relief. I kept an eye out for anyone who looked out of place. I knew his brother would want to track him down – though he probably knew that he wouldn’t be stupid enough to turn up.
There didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. I was aware that a small proportion of the kids were in local gangs. But not many were in the serious ones like the Kolmek. Some of the more fluid ones, those on the fringes. The small fish. The innocent groups of kids that had gone that little bit too far and turned into an actual gang. But they only fed off the scraps of the real gangs. The organised groups.
Also, I’d seen no one my age – no one in school would recognise me and I doubted anybody would put my absence together with the latest events.
Lunch passed uneventfully. Which was good. I ate a lot. Well, it felt like a lot – I think my stomach had repressed itself somewhat back to its old size while I’d been ill. I found having my fingers all taped together very inconvenient for writing, typing and trying to use a knife and fork.
Beth and I didn’t say much to each other, but that was fine. It wasn’t awkward. Besides, one of her other friends came and sat next to us. I wasn’t happy about it, but I tried not to show it. She had been the girl kind enough to help me last week with Haley.
Still, I was bitter that she’d seen it at all.
After a few failed attempts to make conversation, which we kept answering with single syllable words, she gave up and ate in silence. She didn’t seem put off though, and said goodbye cheerfully when we left for classes.
I met with Beth by one of the quieter exits, around the side of the building after school. I avoided the main doors and their inevitable crowds. Haley and her friends didn’t usually come this way.
We had just turned to leave when someone called out to us.
“Alexis? Beth, come here for a minute.” It was Mz Gregory, who I had successfully managed to avoid all day. Questions.
I couldn’t ignore a direct request though. Me and Beth shared a worried look before walking over. No one likes getting called over by a teacher, however well liked. And her tone was that teacher voice, not teacher-being-your-friend voice. She was on-duty.
“Mz” I said, as a greeting.
“Alexis. It’s nice to see you are well.” Teacher voice with a hint of ‘you’ve been bad but I can’t tell you off’. Then she addressed Beth. “Bethany, Mr Phelps has asked to see you.”