It’s not dark but the school is so empty it feels like night.
Miss Henson must still be in the staffroom. In there, the teachers sit on saggy red sofas instead of classroom chairs too small for their big behinds. It smells a bit like cigarettes and a bit like the seaside.
The classroom feels massive with nobody but me in it. When I was little I thought teachers lived at school, but now I’m ten and old enough to know better. But I’m standing in the middle of the room and it feels empty at the edges.
I swing from side to side in Miss Henson’s padded chair. Seeing the classroom from this angle gives me a queasy feeling, like looking down at your own street from above. I look over at my seat. I’d be facing Miss Henson, if she was sitting where I’m sitting and I was over there. There’s another wave of sickly surprise as I imagine my own face looking up at me.
I shake my head to clear it, like in a cartoon. I came in early for a reason. For a moment I think I’ve lost the envelope but there it is on the desk, mixed in with the exercise books and worksheets as if it needs opening and marking.
I hear a thump to my right. A dark shape appears against the glass panel of the door to the playground, wobbling as whoever it is shakes rain from their coat. I jump out of the teacher’s chair, whip the envelope from the desk, run to the side counter and slip it into the tray marked Anita S.
Anita hasn’t sent me a card. I almost wish I could take mine back, but it’s propped up in front of her and she’s been talking to Debbie about it, all excited. My cheeks glow as she reads the poem aloud again, even though it’s nothing soppy: Roses are red, Violets are blue, Some poems rhyme, But this one doesn’t. Pretty funny. She doesn’t read out the bit underneath where I’d written something about love. I wish I hadn’t written that, but it’s just what you do.
After break-time a card has appeared in my own tray. Anita must have had it all along but just didn’t think to come in early like I did.
She sits directly behind me with her back to mine. I’d have to turn to speak to her, but since break-time I hadn’t turned around once. What happens next? Two people sending Valentine’s cards to each other, that means something, right?
My face aches from the glowing and the keeping still. I thumb the edge of Anita’s card where it sticks out from my maths workbook.
I have to speak to her. We’re boyfriend and girlfriend now, or something.
I only manage to half-turn. “Hey Anita? Thanks for the card. But you know that honey is spelt H-O-N-E-Y, not H-U-N-N-Y?” I’m speaking much louder than I’d meant to. “‘Hunny bunny’, that’s what you wrote.”
Anita doesn’t say anything. I turn fully but all I can see is red hair.
“Who says I sent it?” she says quietly.
I turn back to look at my workbook.
Anita doesn’t speak to me for the rest of the morning. At lunch-time, even though it’s not raining any more, the school fields are muddy and out of bounds. The playground seems tiny and there’s nowhere to stand that’s out of sight of Anita and Debbie and their friends. They keep glancing over to where I’m standing with Mousey.
“Cylinders: eight,” Mousey says.
Anita doesn’t look nearly so pleased about the Valentine’s card now. I’m sure her friends are laughing at me.
“Cylinders: eight,” Mousey says again.
I glance at my own Top Trumps card and back at Anita.
“Come on then. Hand it over. There aren’t any others with eight cylinders.”
I hand over the card without even checking to see which it is. “I’m sick of Top Trumps. It’s stupid.”
Mousey shrugs. “I don’t even like cars. What is a cylinder in a car, anyway? Johnny’s got Top Trumps with Marvel superheroes on.”
I can’t stand the looks I’m getting from Anita’s friends. I push Mousey in the shoulder with the palm of my hand. “Tig! And no tigging the butcher.”
“There’s no one else playing,” Mousey says, rubbing his shoulder. “So who can I tig?” But I’m already halfway down the playground.
The game draws in other boys until there are twelve of us hurtling around the playground and paved area beside the school doors. Anita’s eyes follow me, making my cheeks sting with heat.
Today I’m all limbs and speed. Soon I’m the only one left untigged. The other eleven shout and groan as I slip away again and again. They close in but I duck and weave. My winding, zooming route takes me towards Anita’s group but I turn away even as I run toward them. Casual and cool.
When my head thwacks against the wooden post of the doorway awning, like a ball against a rounders bat, it’s the surprise that takes me down, not the pain. I lurch backwards and hit the ground. Eleven boys tig me all at once with shouts of ‘Pile on!’ and Anita’s face disappears in the gaps between the bodies.
After lunch-time we’re marched to the tiny music room. It’s too hot with twenty of us in there and our glockenspiel-and-maracas version of ‘Yellow Submarine’ makes my ears ring. I stay at the back, shaking my maraca only when Mrs Pearson looks my way. I’m sleepy. I raise my hand, waiting for the teacher to notice me.
“Mum, I need the loo.”
Anita and Debbie turn, but it’s not just them laughing, it’s almost everyone. What’s so funny? Has Anita shown my Valentine’s card to them all?
The tiled bathroom feels small but it’s not the room that’s narrow, it’s my view of it. I lean on the sink. The cold ceramic is shocking against my palms. The edges around my reflection in the mirror are hazy. I can’t see anything outside the shaking image of myself looking back. It’s not blackness exactly—there’s just nothing there. I look left and right. The rest of the bathroom appears, bit by bit, as the circle of vision follows the movement of my head.
I leave the bathroom on shaky legs and take my place at the back of the music room.
I should say something to someone.
I can still hear quiet sniggers. Mrs Pearson shoots me a look which is partly annoyed, partly worried.
I’m telling nobody.
I leave as soon as the bell rings, stumbling through the gate and ignoring a hello from Mousey’s mum, who comes to meet him every day because she thinks he’s still a baby. I keep looking straight ahead, partly to stop the sickly feeling from spreading, and partly because everything at the edges is getting more invisible all the time.
Aldenham Road seems too long to bear. I take the cut along Roxby Avenue, past the place where an older boy once stopped me on my bike, said he had a secret to tell me, then leaned in close and spat in my ear. I cross to Lealholm Way and the embankment that I once worried was haunted, where me and Mousey sheltered from a lightning storm, certain we’d be struck and not minding.
Mrs Lilley from next door doesn’t notice anything wrong when I ring the bell to collect the house key. And then I’m home, alone, heavy and dim.
The house is all corridor, just tiny circles of clear vision surrounded by mist. My head is like an enormous iron wrecking ball balanced on my body. I stagger up to my parents’ bedroom, feeling the way. I look into the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door and something ghostly looks back.
I don’t believe in God. It’s all just stories. At the mirror, I pray to God, or something. Then I sit on the edge of the bed to rest.
I’ve always liked the wallpaper in here. The brown is broken up with curled vines, a pattern that repeats every five leaves upwards and three side-to-side. If you know where to look, there are faces in the spaces between the vines. Berries for eyes, wisps of stalks for mouths. One is laughing, one is worried, one is jealous of the others, I don’t know why.
“You know what this is?” the worried one says.
“It’s bad,” he says, without moving his stalk mouth.
The jealous face nods without nodding. “It’s bad, really bad.” I don’t know why he seems so jealous about that.
I look for the happy face. I can only see vines and leaves.
I’m dying. This is what it feels like. Soon I’ll only see a pinprick of light ahead of me and then even that will close in and everything will be black, or just nothing, and then that’ll be that.
I’m only ten. People don’t die aged ten. But I’m dying all the same.
Why aren’t mum and dad home from work yet? Where’s Michaela, my sister? Even she would do.
Mousey once said that if he knew he was dying, he’d kill as many people as possible before he snuffed it. If he was going to die then they could too. He’d read about making a bomb from washing powder and it couldn’t be all that hard.
Mousey’s a nutcase.
But I’m dying and I’m on my own and nobody’s home and I’m hungry too.
I’m back downstairs without knowing quite how I got there. I’m not all that hungry after all, just sleepy.
But I’m ten years old. I don’t want to go to sleep.
The sunlight through the kitchen window makes me wince but wakes me up a bit. I fumble with the handle to the back door. The air is cold in a good way, because my face has got all fiery again. I stumble on one of the broken slabs that dad laid out ready to crazy-pave the path. Out in the garden the hazy nothing around my circle of vision seems even stranger. The bright greens and oranges bleed into blindness.
I try not to think about mum and dad and Michaela. They’ll cry for ages, but what do I care? I won’t be there to see it.
A scuffling sound comes from the shed. I’m not on my own after all. I open the door to see Michaela’s rabbit, Roderick, looking up at me. He’s as white and ghostly as I was in the mirror. Rabbits don’t live long and he’s already six. But I’m dying today and Roderick might live for years yet. Is that fair?
Dad promised I could write my name in the wet cement. Tomorrow.
My eyes sting. I heave one of the loose paving slabs into the air. It’s thick and heavy and digs into my fingers at the jagged edge.
I lurch into the shed and raise the slab over Roderick’s head. Then I drop it on him and there’s no going back from that.
Back inside, I crawl up the stairs and into bed. The thought crosses my mind to leave a goodbye note but I’m very sleepy now and I don’t have a pencil.
The glow of light through the curtains and the noise from the street tell me that it’s still afternoon, not morning. I hear the front door close and then mum and Michaela talking.
My bedroom’s big again. It’s as though I can see everything all at once—not just what I’m looking at but things around the edges. Things and things and things instead of hazy nothing.
I’m not dead, or dying. I’m ten years old and I’m going to get older every day.
I hear the back door thunk open, then the door to the shed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tim Major is a freelance writer and editor. His time-travel novel, You Don’t Belong Here, will be published by Snowbooks in September 2016. His novella, Carus & Mitch, was published by Omnium Gatherum in 2015 and was shortlisted for a This Is Horror Award. His short stories have featured in Interzone, Perihelion, Every Day Fiction and numerous anthologies. He is the Editor of the SF magazine, The Singularity, and blogs at www.cosycatastrophes.wordpress.com