We shared a confused glance. I guessed we’d both assumed it was something to do with me, it seemed my life was the drama round here.
“Not me?” I asked.
“No, not you. Explicitly specified not you,” she warned.
“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if she were with me Mz.” Beth said. I was flattered.
She sighed. “Come on then. Let him sort you out.”
* * *
We trailed behind her as she led us to the principal’s office. She knocked and slipped in through the door to have a private conversation with him. After a moment we were called in.
“Bethany Spencer.” He was sitting behind his desk. His usual humour and easy going attitude professionally hidden. I scanned my mind to try and work out what this could be about. “Are you aware that your mother reported you missing yesterday?”
I looked sideways at Beth. Clearly she was not aware – her mouth was open anyway. She snapped it closed and her face settled on an angry frown.
“I spoke with her on the phone yesterday sir, and explained where I was and that I was perfectly safe,” she said.
“Well, she obviously didn’t think so,” he replied. Beth’s mother had decided to step up to Beth’s escalation of leaving home. Beat her at her own game.
It didn’t seem constructive to me, all it’ll end up doing is alienating her more… Stupid woman.
“She can’t just rule over my life like that! She doesn’t have the right,” Beth said, getting more agitated. I wished I could just step in and fix this, but all I was good for was punching people.
I didn’t think that would help.
Mr Phelps replied calmly. “Actually, she can. You’re a minor Bethany. It’s not just her right, it’s her duty. She is required to do it by law. Not doing so would be neglect. You are a child, you need boundaries.”
“Fuck boundaries, she had me on a bloody leash! I can’t even go to the corner shop-”
“Language!” he shouted. It was one of the first times I’ve ever heard him raise his voice. He must keep it for when he has you alone. All the more impact.
“Sorry Sir.” She didn’t seem fazed. Or sorry.
“Anyway, your mother is on her way,” he finished, looking a bit annoyed his shout hadn’t got a better reaction from her.
“I don’t doubt she is, Sir. Is that all?” she asked, before turning to me. “Come-on, let’s go.”
“That is not all!” he said, sounding a little more stressed, “You are not leaving here without your mother coming to collect you. Did you not hear me? She is going to be here any minute.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. How is it you plan to keep me here?” she asked, cheerfully. “It’s after school time. You can give me an after school detention, and I would be obliged to stay. But now school is over, you have to give me it for tomorrow. I would of course, stay back then. Oh, and you have to give my wonderful parents notice. Which you haven’t. So unless you plan on physically restraining me, I guess I’ll be leaving.”
She stalked to the door and threw it open.
“That fucking woman!” she said as soon as we were out of the room. I winced, knowing that they’d be able to hear us.
“What are you going to do?” I asked, wondering how to calm her down. I’m sure if they just sat down and spoke with each other they’d be able to work it out.
“I don’t know. I’m not giving in to her though. This is a low blow, I mean…” She made a frustrated noise.
I was happy for her to stay at my place. I just hated to see her so angry.
Sun hit our eyes as we escaped the school before anyone else could stop us. It hung low in the sky, failing to melt the snow that had fallen in the past few days. Night was falling earlier. Not long now and I’d be making the journey home in the dark even if I didn’t stay back after school.
Usually that was a bad thing. You’re not likely to meet anyone friendly at night in the backstreets. I was thinking, lately, that it might be to my advantage though. What protected my enemies also protected me. There was a reason it was more dangerous, it was easier to hide. To slip around unseen.
That was just what I needed to do. It was far worse for me to get spotted by the Kolmek than mugged. Muggers might not kill me on sight.
I was getting wound up again, so when I heard the squealing of tyres, a car braking, I span on my heel. I was half torn between throwing myself into Beth to get her down and jumping straight into an attack. I wished I’d bought one of the guns. I was at a half crouch, hand pulling my trouser leg up so I could get at my only damn knife I had when I recognised the vehicle.
Beth looked down at me confused for a moment. She promptly forgot my strange behaviour when she noticed her mother stepping out of the sliding car door.
I straightened out, feeling dumb.
“Bethany!” her mother shouted, “Come here. I’ve had enough of this, it ends right now.”
Beth started taking steps backwards as her mother came towards her, closing the gap. “I’m not coming home until you let me do things mom. I’m not asking for anything special, just normal things…”
She turned to me, the venom in her eyes shocked me. “You!” she said, like it was a curse. “You leave my daughter alone. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. She’s changed since she met you.”
“Don’t bring her into this mom, I’ve changed because I’ve grown up and I realised that you aren’t letting me live my life.” She stopped walking backwards, standing her ground.
“This girl is violent. She’s unpredictable and I don’t know what she was doing last time she came over, she must have been on drugs or something to end up in that state.” I was shocked, she must have meant… She thought I used drugs? I felt a flash of anger.
“Oh, pick on her mom, everyone else does. She’s a better person than you. She doesn’t need to fucking control people.” I wasn’t a better person than anybody.
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that. You are not going to see her again, you hear me?”
Beth let out a sharp, hash laugh. “You think you can tell me who I do and do not meet?” Her voice lowered. “Sure, you can say that but I will defy it at every turn. I’ll ignore it. You can’t just lock me in my room for the rest of my life. I’ll meet her at school, unless you come pick me up every day and don’t give me a chance to leave early I’ll leave just skip lessons and leave with her.”
Without warning her mother slapped Beth in the face and sent her reeling.
I’d been hit by my mother, hell she’d done worse than that and I hadn’t cared. But Beth?
No one is allowed to hit her. It took me half a second for it to register, I mean – I was just so beyond my expectations of her mom.
When she reached out and grabbed Beth’s arm, yanking her towards the car I kicked out of the shock and started to move. I grasped her mom’s hand by the fleshy part between the thumb and her palm and twisted, breaking her grip like Ivan showed me.
She was positioned with her back to me. I stepped across between Beth and her to get between them, rolling my elbow along the back of hers to carry on the twist into something resembling a wristlock, pushing her upper body downwards.
She resisted, shouting in exclamation, trying to straighten out. I applied more pressure to the back of her arm, keeping her down.
I had no idea what to do next. My instinct left me.
“Get off me you psycho!” I looked at Beth for a prompt, she had tears streaming down her cheeks but I couldn’t read anything about what she wanted me to do.
“She hit you.” I said as if to defend my actions. I didn’t mean to-
“It’s ok Alex. You can let her go.” I dropped her mother, who staggered forwards and turned to face us, outraged.
I placed myself between her and Beth, but she didn’t make a move to come closer this time.
“You hit her!” I said. Again, I don’t know why, I was just confused and stupid.
“Let’s get out of here.” Beth grabbed my roughly by the arm and pulled me into step besides her as we walked away from the scene.
* * *
Beth seemed keen on just walking some distance. Fast. I was actually struggling to keep up with her pace. Fucking infections.
“Beth, can we slow down a little,” I said. I stirred her from her furious… sulking? That’s unfair. Thinking. She let me catch up and we continued in a more manageable speed for me.
“I can not believe her. This is just…” She was genuinely speechless.
“Has she… has she done that before?” I asked, nervous about the answer.
“What, been a complete bitch? It’s a permanent state.” My frown remained and after a quick glance at my face she continued. “Oh, you mean…. that? No. It’s not like that. Maybe once before but… nothing like your mom.”
I didn’t say anything else, for one my mom had been more for neglect. She hadn’t hurt me much.
“It’s freezing, you want to grab a coffee or something?” She stopped and looked up at a small chain café. Not the kind of place you can find once you cross the river.
There was just the age old problem, “Sure if-“
“Yep, I’ll pay you idiot,” she punched me lightly on the shoulder and I was happy to see the corner of her mouth twitch upwards.
I picked my favourite cheap hot beverage and uncharacteristically Beth picked a basic coffee rather than anything extravagant. I guess you had to be in the right mood for marshmallows.
I had my back turned, watching the door. Out of habit mainly, but I was still a little on edge. Then there was an ominous ‘hmm’ from the guy behind the counter.
“Miss, I’m afraid this is coming up as rejected.” That brought my attention back to Beth, who was staring dumbly at the square of plastic.
“What?” My attention returned to their interaction.
“I’ll try again.” He rubbed the corner of the card on his neat apron, as if that would somehow fix the complex wafer thin microchips embedded in the plastic. Or unblock a card reported as stolen… He swiped it on the receiver. “I’m afraid it’s not accepted.”
“I… I don’t understand.” I did a quick calculation, I could probably cover it with the emergency fund I carried around, but it would pain me to spend it on something so trivial.
“Beth, we should probably get out of here…” I said, taking the sleeve of her jacket and trying to tug her towards the door.
“Why? I wan’t my damn coffee.” Her voice was raised just slightly above what was socially acceptable in a public setting. Someone glanced at her with a frown. “I have money, just because their stupid machine isn’t working…”
“I don’t think it’s the machine Beth.” I said, purposefully trying to speak quietly as if she would reflect my volume in her own voice. “Who’s name is your bank account in?”
“Mine of course, and my… oh.” I watched her face as it dawned on her. “That fucking whore!” she shouted. The few people sitting chatting at tables turned, and silence enveloped the café.