Chapter 1, Ego brawl
[BY AMBER MARIGOLD]
A series of soft strokes soothe the sapphire sky of the small painting I’m working on. I twist and turn around my artwork much like a nesting bird to find the right angle for every dab and drip. A golden lock obscures my vision and with my hands covered in paint, I’m constrained to blow the piece of hair back into place. In a song of stroke, splash, and stain, I dance around my colourful artwork with a grace akin to that of a dancer – or a killer.
A shout from upstairs breaks my concentration.
“Amber, I need your help!” I hear Uncle Anton call right above me. Of course my uncle would know I’m in the basement. The whole house is aware that I’ve set up my base of operations down here. With my canvasses, paints, and a convenient heater, why wouldn’t I?
“I’m busy!” I shout back and rub my nose against my arm since I can’t use my hands to scratch. I continue on with the field of sunflowers. Harmonious canary, butter and honey yellows dance across the larger half of my painting while a riot of stone, sky and sapphire blues balance the other half. Using almost all the colours in my arsenal, I let the artwork sing to me. Sing away the idea that a splash of red might stain what I’ve created for myself these last few months.
“This is literally a matter of life or death!” my uncle mewls.
I hear a clatter and a God dammit from upstairs before I decide to go help the poor man. I quickly rinse my paint brush in the jar of water before chucking it into my shoulder bag, grabbing my sketchbook and paints, and rushing upstairs. When I get to the kitchen, I spot Uncle Anton peering at the toaster.
“This bloody bread tanner isn’t working!” my uncle complains in a grumble – his mustache twitching up and down as he purses his lips in contemplation. I let out a sigh and push the lever down at the side. Uncle Anton looks up at me in marvel. “That’s genius, Amber! Genius!” His face is too sincere for me to tell him how un-genius it really is. It is to this day, a mystery to me how he’s a doctor. And a surgeon at that!
The buzzing from the small television on the counter gets me to look over. As always, the news is just filled with corrupt politicians and suspicions of fraud. I check the time displayed on the news channel and curse under my breath. “I’m going to be late,” I mutter as I head to the fridge to check for leftovers that could suffice as breakfast.
“Late for what?” Uncle Anton asks.
I scan the fridge and let my eyes land on some cold potatoes and fish. Let’s not try my luck today and gamble with food poisoning. I’ve never been the lucky type.
“School,” I answer and close the fridge.
“Yup,” I say without popping the ‘p’.
“Aren’t you supposed to be making a living? You’re what? Fifteen, sixteen?”
“Seventeen? Good God! We need to find you a husband!”
I’m about to remind Uncle Anton that it’s not the seventeen hundreds, but Aunt Tessa and my cousin, Jessica, come bouncing into the kitchen before I can even try. Jessy ties her brunette hair back with one hand and grabs the toast, jumping out of the toaster, with her other. Uncle Anton cries out a protest before trying to figure out the toaster again.
“Honey, the lever. You’re not a baby,” Aunt Tessa says when my uncle lets out a series of infant whines. She straightens her blazer and quickly rushes over to the kitchen counter to put fresh water into the flower vase. The yellow star-like flowers are looking pretty dreary.
Jessy turns to me with a scowl, “You’re covered in paint,” she points out, “Did you even sleep?”
I close the fridge and duck my head in guilt, “I wasn’t tired,” I try to explain.
Jessy lets out a sigh before licking her thumb and wiping off some paint from my cheek. “Wasn’t tired? What blasphemy is this? Sleep is the best part of my day. Oh my word, you even have paint on the back of your sweater. What even? Do I want to know how? Probably not. We’re going to be late, otherwise, I would’ve told you to change into something that’s not covered in paint,” my cousin rants.
I roll my eyes with a smile. “Yeah-yeah, you’re not my-” Realizing the end of that statement, I shut myself up.
Jessy sees my change in mood and catches my eye, “You sure you’re ready?” she asks – her brown eyes scanning me for any doubt.
In a bit of a daze, I watch Aunt Tessa take her daily iron pills and swallow them down with a glass of water. Immediately, I’m reminded of the countless medication I’ve had to take the last few months. Until of course, I couldn’t anymore and just decided I’ll be better. I decided that missing Christmas, Spring, my own birthday four months back and ultimately the first half of my last year of school has been a waste. It wasn’t the pills, but rather just my own stubborn will that’s got me out of the watchful eyes of doctors and nurses. I’ve convinced my psychiatrist that I’m fine. I’ve convinced my uncle and aunt that’s graciously taken me in. And I think I’ve finally convinced myself too.
“I’m ready,” I announce – hoping it’s not a lie.
“Then let’s get this show on the road,” my cousin says as she grabs my hand.
We leave the kitchen with a goodbye and just when Uncle Anton manages to make himself toast again, I grab it. Uncle Anton’s cries of protest follow us all the way to the driveway. Jessy and I climb into her silver sun-bleached Ford - that honestly has seen better days - and make our way out of the short hedge-lined driveway before heading to school.
“So, first day at Tygerwell High, you nervous?” Jessy asks as we drive past trees and houses. That’s the first difference I noticed when moving to Tygerwell. The trees are a bit different. White-barked with yellow-green leaves. I noticed a pine forest more up North - which is at least a tad bit familiar. I look up and the sky seems blue, but there’s definitely some clouds gathering. It might rain later.
“Not really,” I answer. My previous school wasn’t something memorable. It was pretty average and I was pretty average and my friends were pretty average and, well, boring I guess. Maybe my high school experience would’ve been better if I was allowed to have friends over. Although on the other hand, I wasn’t one to inform the whole school that my parents had money.
“I wish you’d let us drive your BMW. Everyone would be so jealous of us!” Jessy whines.
I don’t answer that. The BMW is the last thing my parents bought me. I didn’t even drive it to the will reading when all those vultures were waiting to see if I’d in fact be the sole inherited of all those millions. Of course, I saw right through all of them. Especially my uncle from my dad’s side that was so eager to sweep in and ‘take care’ of me. Uncle Taminn always hated me and my dad. That’s why it was so satisfying to see Uncle Taminn’s face when I chose my mom’s side of the family. But of course, my mental state hadn’t allowed me to move to Tygerwell just yet. Not until last week. And though I thought that leaving the city would get rid of the dark void in my chest, it turns out that pretending it’s not there would be the only solution and-
“Amber... you’re doing it again...” Jessy interrupts cautiously.
I look back at my cousin, “Doing what?”
“You went blank. I was telling you about the cliques of Tygerwell High and how this school’s a place to keep your head down...”
Jessy sees the quietness that surrounds me and tries distracting me. “Honestly it’s not even the BMW that matters. You can drive any car and make it look good with your insane skills,” she smiles.
“Driving is the only gift my stuck up uncle from my father’s side could give me,” I smile back.
And as quickly as the dark thoughts came, I banish them. I put on my brightest smile and will my eyes to sparkle with life. “Let’s take a first-day photo together!” I suggest. It’s a good conversation changer.
“Okay!” Jessy says when we finally roll through the school gates – passing some more white-barked trees and neatly trimmed hedges. Jessy parks the Ford in at parking spot that’s away from the more flashy cars. She whips out her phone and we pose together. “New beginning!” we both chime when her phone snaps a photo of us.
Since we used to live in different regions of the country and we both rarely saw each other, we always made sure to take a million pictures together. Online video chats were all we had when I lived with my parents. I’d trade anything to still live with them.
Jessy picks a warm, mellow filter before we observe the picture. Where Jessy has dark brown hair, like most of the family, I have blonde hair – something I got from my mom. And, where Jessy likes wearing converse and crop-tops, I prefer oversized sweaters and vintage skirts. I feel comfortable in them.
“I’m posting that!” Jessy beams.
I shake my head at my cousin. She’s the reason I even have social media. Happy with how we look, Jessy and I finally get out of the Ford and gather our bags and whatever is needed for school. School. My new kind of prison for the next few months. The kind where I’ll have to keep smiling and laughing and being fine, when in reality, I just want to curl up in a little ball and hide.
I look up as Jessy closes the trunk of her car. With its old penny and jam coloured brick walls and iron-barred windows, Tygerwell High can seem intimidating at first. But through the modern glass doors, I already recognise the familiar school-coloured lockers and chatty kids. It’s just like any other school, I tell myself. Jessy has her books in hand and smiles at me before we take our first and only step towards the school.
Out of nowhere, the screeching sound of tyres rings in my ears – followed by the rev of what I recognise to be a sports car’s engine. I whip my head towards the source of the sudden sound and spot the unmissable silver Lamborghini and its dark grey larger friend speeding through the school gates. They race towards Jessy and me. Some deep-rooted instinct in me pushes Jessy behind me as I lean back against the side of her Ford. The cars pass and miss us with no less than an inch before they skid and stop right across from Jessy’s car. The smell of burnt tyre invades my nose and I grimace.
“Oh, no… What are they doing here?” I hear Jessy mumble in fear.
But the show doesn’t end there. Another far off screeching sound comes closer and when I look at the school gates in panic, a matte black Bugatti comes drifting in with a grey Lexus right on its tail. The car halts with a high-pitched stop before it can pass Jessy and me. Feeling trapped, I continue to press Jessy behind me and stare at the scene.
The doors to the first pair of cars open and slam shut as five guys climb out and walk to face the second pair of cars. I take a moment to gawk at the guys, but don’t miss how the other student witnessing the scene are staring as well. The guys all seem to be mainly dressed in fancy coats and tailored pants. I can picture the painting. Arrogance, I’d call it with tan, beige and macho colours flamboyantly taking over. But, the artwork in my head pauses when the guy in the middle catches my attention. With his copper brown hair, and eyes that I know all the way from here are an unbelievably dark brown, he looks a bit more confident. His broad shoulders are pushed back as he stands up straight.
Jessy grabs my arm as she shuffles out from behind me. “We’ve got to move,” she says urgently and turns me away from the view of the five guys. When she has me turned, we’re facing the other pair of cars just as another group of five guys climb out.
They walk with the exact same level of authority and superiority, but where the other guys have people gawking and girls melting, these guys have people running away. And where the first group of guys are tailored in expensive, neat coats, these ones are modeling leather jackets and ripped jeans. Threatening, I think to myself when ebony, charcoal and navy colours inspire a painting. Leather Boys and Coat Boys I’ll call them. And just like Coat Boys, Leather Boys also have someone that stands out. The guy leading the group has pitch black hair and silver/grey eyes which is quite exotic with his tanned skin.
My mind takes in everything I see. I use colours and textures and emotions to paint myself a mental image of what is going on. A splash of cruelty is stained upon Leather Leader’s sneer. Pride and wealth are sketched onto Coat Leader’s smirk.
“Shit,” Jessy breathes and pulls me to the side. We stand glued to car – like we’re hoping to blend in. The cold metal bites at my palms and I wonder if it’s okay to breathe.
“What’s going on?” I protest.
“Just keep quiet,” Jessy hisses.
Leather Boys and Coat Boys meet exactly in front of Jessy and I and though they haven’t even really seen us yet, they are blocking any means of escape while having their own little stand off or something.
“Rhodes,” the leader of Leather boys snarls.
“Bowmen,” the leader of Coat Boys spits right back.
The tension can be cut with a knife. A butter knife to be honest. Hell, even a spoon.
“Some of your guys were seen on my territory,” Leather Leader says as he clenches his fists next to his sides – his body taunt with anger.
“Well, technically the whole town is my territory,” Coat Leader shoots right back.
Oh. My. God. This is battle of the egos. I have to refrain from asking Jessy to pass me the popcorn. I even mentally put in my own bets. The leader of Coat boys is definitely more muscled up by the look of his broad shoulders resting on his straight back. But I wouldn’t rule out the leader of Leather Boys just yet. There’s something about his presence that seems like a quiet kind of lethal power.
“This town belongs to us,” Leather Leader says and oh, there they go again. Measuring levels of testosterone or something.
Even from here, I hear the school’s bell ring and everyone that’s watching the scene, quickly scurries to class. The bunch of guys blocking our way, stay glued. I can feel Jessy tense up – conflicted over not wanting to miss class, but also not wanting to interrupt these guys.
“We’re going to be late,” I whisper to Jessy, but she shushes me before I can get the entire sentence out. What the hell? “It’s my first day, I can’t be late,” I try again. When Jessy only responds by shushing me again and pressing me even harder against the car, I just about have enough. I will not be intimidated by a bunch of boys acting like idiots. Here goes nothing.
I clear my throat and step forward. “Excuse me, Mister Leather Jacket and Mister Fancy Coat? Can you guys go have an ego brawl some other time? We need to get to class,” I interrupt.
I hear Jessy suck in a breath and all eyes turn to me. Both silver and dark gazes send death glares.