“Wait.” The voice stopped Emma in her tracks. It wasn’t Haley’s. Or at least, it wasn’t what it used to be. Broken. Croaky.
Emma turned on her heel to find Haley had stopped at a distance. “What do you want?”
“I just…” Haley trailed off, the end of her sentence unfinished. It was as if she’d lost her voice with a bad cold, magnified as the bare echoing corridors swallowed her words. But her voice wasn’t what stuck out as odd to Emma. Haley seemed awfully interested in her own feet. Emma had never seen her look so meek.
“Your voice,” Emma said before it dawned on her. Alex must have thrown that metal tray pretty hard. What kind of damage would that do to your throat?
“I just wanted to say…” It seemed like she really wasn’t so keen to say whatever it was. And Emma was happy with that. She didn’t want to hear a word from her. Why did she have to come back? She should have gone to a different school. She had no right to come back here. She’d make Emma’s only friend leave- “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry,” Haley croaked.
“Sorry?” Emma couldn’t believe this. Years of suffering and she has the nerve to say something like that? “For what?”
“I’m serious. What are you sorry for?” Emma said, trying to keep emotion from her voice, to keep that quiver of anger out. “Are you sorry for all the times you called me names? Are you sorry for the times you got everyone to ignore every word I said? Do you know what that feels like? To be ignored? What about when you stole my bag every time I got a new one until I stopped asking my Dad to replace it because I was too scared? I carried my books loose for a whole term. What about when you followed me home with your little gang taunting me every day until I started staying back waiting for you to get bored before waiting setting off?”
She felt her eyes prickling and willed them to stay dry. “Sorry is a word. A single word. It’s meaningless. Anyone can say sorry.”
She turned and resumed walking, partly because she wanted to hide her face and the feelings her eyes gave way, partly because she just wanted to leave.
Her steps echoed alone once again.
* * *
“I thought you said this girl was weak?”
“I…” Haley stuttered. Seems she was stuttering a lot lately.
“Find out. Before they go to the press.”
* * *
Emma slid onto the chair behind the table where it had happened. It wasn’t often occupied, and she tended to get left to pick at her lunch alone.
Her chat with Haley had got her thinking. Most of her thoughts on the subject came to a frustrating conclusion along the lines of: what in hell is she playing at? There must be some plan, a long game she was working on. Something despicably evil that only Haley could think up.
A plan that somehow involved shutting up, sitting away from everyone else and avoiding Emma like the plague.
She probably wasn’t putting it into action because of the threat of Alexis. Was she biding her time? Waiting for the most opportune moment to strike?
* * *
“Have you got anything yet?” he asked.
“No.” Haley said, pulling the loose thread from her t-shirt and watching the material pucker along her midriff.
“Why not? My job is on the line here. Have you even tried? Just ask the bitch if she knows where her friend is.” He grabbed her wrist. The thread snapped in her fingers, leaving a jagged gap in the fabric. “I want an answer.”
She studied her hands.
“When did you become so much like your mother, Haley?”
* * *
It had been a week. A week, and Haley hadn’t tried anything. What was even stranger was that some of Haley’s former friends – and former seemed an accurate description – had started pushing the boundaries a little. Nothing much, a snide remark here and there. They were testing the water now their new leader was back.
Haley didn’t join in. She ignored them, like she did everything else. Soon they’d given up on their old friend, leaving her to her silence. They continued with the odd insult, but if anything it made Emma relax a little more. Things were getting more normal, bar Haley.
Emma passed her usual table, and with a nagging doubt she should just be happy with things how they were, placed herself defiantly opposite the girl she passionately hated more than anyone else.
Haley glanced up from her meal.
“Okay.” Emma crossed her arms. “You still sorry?”
“That’s not an answer.” If Emma would have enjoyed watching anyone squirm it would have been Haley, but she couldn’t find it any pleasure in it.
“Yes,” she stated. Pity, not joy. That’s what she felt.
“I don’t understand. One day you’re a psycho trying to stab me and the next day you can’t even look me in the eye?” Pity didn’t do much to dampen the anger.
“I don’t know what else to say. If I could change what I did, I would.” It sounded convincing. Could it be a trap? Instill a false sense of security before a ploy for revenge? Even if she was genuine now, how long before she changed her mind?
Emma sighed, giving up trying to get something she couldn’t even pin down herself. If Haley was playing games to try and frustrate her, it was working. If she was genuine, her motivation eluded Emma. “Okay. Tell me one thing. Why did you do it if you are so sorry?”
Haley wasn’t a follower, she was a leader. She’d been the kind of bully that made the nice ones try trip you up. ‘Just following others’ wasn’t going to cut it.
“I just…” For once she brought her eyes up from the table and into Emma’s. “You know what it’s like here. I didn’t want to end up…”
“Like me?” Emma said.
“Well, yeah. Weak.” She winced, realising what she’d just said. Was that a hint of old Haley? “That’s not what I mean-”
“I know what you mean. I’m not an idiot.” Emma interrupted. Back-pedaling wasn’t old Haley.
“I had to either join in or have it happen to me.” Haley cast her eyes over the chaos of a school canteen. A mass of writhing kids jostling for places nearest those they wanted favour with. The sound filled the air like a soup. Voices overlaying voices, all battling one another to be heard over the clatter and scrape of cutlery. “I couldn’t be weak. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“There’s a difference between being weak and hurting people.”
“Is there?” Haley looked back. “Maybe you’re right. But… people liked it. When I did those things. My friends, they thought it was cool. They laughed. I felt… important. Strong.”
“You liked it.” Emma said. Haley was skirting around the truth.
“No- I… Well. Kind of. It was… it made me feel good. I was good at it. It was the only fucking thing I could do that I was any good at. It made people like me. It felt good. And I did it okay? I know it was fucked up and I’m fucking sorry!” She coughed and clutched her throat, wincing. Speaking so loud must hurt like hell, it sure sounded like it did.
Emma didn’t reply. What else was there to say? But then she hadn’t planned on saying any of this in the first place. She poked a fork at the wilted salad in front of her, pushing it around the plate in the hope of action reducing the awkwardness. She didn’t feel much like eating.
“Have…” Haley whispered, harsh and raw but with an almost frantic edge. “Have you seen her?”
Emma hesitated. She should lie. It would be illogical to say anything else. What would Haley do if she knew Emma hadn’t seen Alexis since that day?