Chapter 17: Time
Jess’s blonde head bobbed in and out of view through a horde of boys who, judging by the overpowering smell of Lynx and sweat, had just come from P.E.
“God,” she exclaimed, tossing her hair over her shoulder dramatically. “Can’t a girl get into the common room anymore without nearly passing out in a fog of pheromones?” Her over the top grumble managed to pull the edges of my lips into a smile. No matter how dark things got you could always count on Jess to brighten your mood and shine through the shadows.
She stuck her hand out to stop the common room door, which was swinging shut behind the boys, and headed in. I followed her, licking my dry lips, trying to work some moisture into my mouth so I’d be able to talk without choking. I sat and faced her, trying to force the tension out of my spine, trying to squeeze the panic back, but it beat against my throat like an angry butterfly caught in a jar.
“What’s up with you?” Jess asked, appraising me with narrow eyes. “You look weird.”
I swallowed again at the stress that had built up in my throat, but it was fruitless, I was just going to have try and talk around it.
“I need you help with something,” I said in a nervous whisper. I flicked my eyes left and right, making sure no one was listening. I licked my lips and swallowed again. “Something major and something potentially dangerous.”
Jess’s eyes widened for a split second as I said the word dangerous, but she quickly set her face into a determined expression, instinctively knowing that whatever it was I was going to ask was frightening me, and if she showed fear as well it wouldn’t get us anywhere.
“Okay, Beth,” she said as she leaned forward and grabbed my hand. “Whatever it is, whatever you need, I’m in.”
Her fingers felt warm as they squeezed my ice cold hand. She looked at me with grim bewilderment and I had to take a moment before I could speak again. It wasn’t fear that stole my words; it was Jess’ utter commitment and trust in me, in our friendship. I knew in that moment that she would put herself on the line if I asked her to and it was overwhelming. I blinked hard at the emotion clouding my eyes.
“Come on,” Jess said in a breathy voice, a nervous giggle bubbled out on the back of her words. “You’re not going to ask me to help you rob a bank, are you?”
“No, nothing like that,” I said trying to match her light tone but failing. What I was going to ask her to do was worse, much worse.
“Well, spit it out then. Come on, Beth, you’re freaking me out.”
I felt sick at the prospect of getting Jess involved, but there was no other way. The last thing I wanted was for her to get hurt. But if I was honest, that wasn’t the real reason that was making my stomach churn like it was full of oily fish fighting for space to swim. It was the fact that I was getting Jess into something risky and complicated and that I couldn’t even be honest with her about my real reasons for doing it. I hadn’t decided to go through with it because I was a saint and was willing to be the spokesperson, the brave victim who was willing to step forward. I was doing it for the boy I was in love with, the boy who had turned my life upside down, the boy who I hadn’t been able to tell my best friend about.
Jess squeezed my freezing hand again, pulling me out of my black reverie. I blew my cheeks out and let the air slowly trickle over my lips.
This was it. It was time.
“Jess, I need your help with Whittaker.”
Jess sat up. Her eyebrows pulled into a dainty line over her eyes, which had become narrow slits, and she scrunched up her nose as if she was puzzled by what I had said. Her reaction wasn’t one of complete shock, so I guess she had already been prepared for Whittaker’s name to come up, just not in a way that suggested I needed her to actually do something.
“When you say you need my help, you don’t mean you want me to sit next to you while you ring the police to report that pervert, do you?” It wasn’t really a question. She could tell by my face that I wasn’t going to simply report his assault.
“I am going to report him, Jess; I’m just going to make sure I do it with some evidence. Tonight.” My voice was cold and steely, like a blade, and I felt it conjure a weapon inside me, a knife that I could use to cut Whittaker down. I thought about the first ring of Hell where Dante described a river of blood filled with the sinners who were violent towards their neighbors, boiling within its crimson banks. That was the fate that Whittaker deserved. He deserved to be punished for the whole of eternity, screaming in a river of putrid blood.
Jess noticed the hardness creep into my eyes and sucked in a quick, deep breath. Her eyes, which had been determined before, filled with trepidation and dread. “What have you got in mind, Beth?”
“So, I just stay hidden and record everything, right?” Jess had gone through a range of facial expressions as I had explained my plan. There had been a mix of horror, righteousness, terror and nervousness. Finally she had settled on the face of a covert spy, a modern day Nancy Drew.
“Right,” I said, feeling relief that she had so easily agreed to be on board. “You stay completely out of sight, he’ll never see you.”
Jess nodded vehemently, she was pleased be doing something that would get Whittaker off the street and she was relieved that I’d finally listened to her advice and was going to get the police involved.
A spider of shame began to creep its way up my back. Slowly, it began to cast its web across my skin until my whole body was trapped within silky strands of guilt. I wanted to scratch at my skin, rip the web away, but I couldn’t, I had to let it cover me with its net until I couldn’t breathe because it was my weakness that had allowed it to be there. I couldn’t even allow the knife, the weapon that my hatred towards Whittaker had created to slice through it, because I needed to wear my shame as a reminder.
If I was honest, I could probably record Whittaker myself. I could turn on my phone’s voice recorder and hide it in my pocket. It would work. I would have the evidence I needed for Whittaker to be arrested and then the police could break him and get him to admit to killing Drew.
But I couldn’t do it myself, I was too weak. I needed to have Jess involved; I needed her to make me go through with it. If it was really left to me on my own, I wouldn’t do it, I’d let the memory of Drew’s kiss, of Drew’s hands on my body, claim me instead. I’d listen to the selfish voice in my head telling me to do anything I could to ensure that Drew would kiss me like that again. If I listened to that selfish part of me I wouldn’t confront Whittaker, I wouldn’t try to find out the truth of what happened, and I wouldn’t let Drew leave.
So I let the shame smother me, I let the guilt choke me, because without it I would let the voice in my head win.
“Do you think I should wear black?”
“What?” I looked at Jess in bewilderment, what had we been talking about before the spider had appeared?
“I was thinking about something black and tight, like Catwoman.” She stared off into the distance, drumming her fingers on her chin. Her eyes narrowed and I could hear the sound of her mentally sorting through the clothes in her wardrobe, the scrape of coat hangers and the whoosh of fabric like flapping sails. “You know, like a sexy nighttime sleuth. What do you reckon?”
I just stared at her, open mouthed.
I was stood on a knife edge. I was balanced precariously, weighed down on either side by guilt and fear and I knew if I slipped I would fall and slash myself so deeply that I would bleed to death, right here in the common room. I would be on the floor and Jess would be stood next to me, ankle deep in my blood considering her choice of outfit.
Our cover story was the Wednesday night snooker league. Like last week, we told our parents that we were meeting up with Patrick and his friends, and that we wouldn’t be home too late. As far as the lies I had been telling my parents went, this particular tale didn’t seem so bad, and at least Jess was involved this time to shoulder some of the guilt. Jess had pouted a little knowing that she wouldn’t actually get to see Patrick, but she had the grace not to mention it.
I waited for Jess at the corner of the street. The day had been bright and sunny but it had cooled into another typical January evening, cold with an icy nip in the air. I stamped my feet and shoved my freezing hands deeper into my pockets, but it did nothing to bring me any comfort, the ice was inside me, running through my veins.
“Come on, Jess” I muttered to myself as I stared up the street, willing her to appear. Since I had opened up to her, let her in part of the way, I had come to rely on her and I needed her now like never before.
I struggled to keep my mind pragmatic, focused on the imminent task, but I was fighting a losing battle. My mind conjured up images of me and Drew, the Drew from the photograph at his house, a Drew with twinkling brown eyes and a bright white smile holding my hand. A Drew who would wrap his arms around me to keep the cold at bay. A Drew who I could reach up and kiss whenever I wanted to. A Drew who filled my heart with so much love that it felt like it might burst right out of my chest. I pinched the top of my thighs though my pockets, sticking my finger nails in as hard as I could. The sudden bite of pain did its job; it brought me out of my thoughts and back to reality. It was stupid of me to let my mind wander into those places, fantasies that warmed my insides whilst I was floating in them but left me feeling colder and more alone than ever when they disappeared from my grasp, like a curl of untouchable smoke.
Finally Jess rounded the corner, and watching her approach made me shake my head in weary disbelief. She edged her body close to the hedge, so she was deep in the shadows and crept up the street with exaggerated tippy-toe steps casting the odd furtive glance over her shoulder every few steps. As she sneaked her way closer I could see a grin plastered over her face and it managed to nudge a small smile onto my cold lips. Trust Jess to add a little light heartedness to such a dark situation.
“Tell me you didn’t see me,” she said as she leapt out of the shadows right in front of me. “Tell me I was so stealth-like that I put Catwoman to shame.”
“You are unbelievable,” I said rolling my eyes. But the smile on my lips told her I appreciated her attempt to lighten the mood, to alleviate the tension.
As we walked up to the club we ran over the plan once more.
“So, we find a car close enough to the spot where he…” She let her words trail off; not wanting to say what he had done to me out loud. She flicked her eyes up to my face, a quick sideways glance. “And that’s where I hide, right?”
“And then when Whittaker comes out for a fag, that’s when you come out of your hiding place.” Jess curled her lip like his name tasted bad in her mouth.
“And that’s when I stared recording.”
“Yes.” I clenched my teeth as I answered. We’d made the plan earlier and since we had left each other when the final bell rang I’d had about four hundred texts from her reconfirming every single detail. Not to mention the picture messages she’d sent of a selection of clothing that she thought might be appropriate.
“Beth, what are you going to say to him?” Jess frowned and chewed on the edge of her thumb nail. “How are you going to get him to do something worth me videoing?”
I tried to sound matter of fact, business like, but the fear made my words sound squeaky. “Don’t worry about that, it’ll be easy.”
“Okay,” she said nervously. She flicked her eyes at me again and then got back to chewing her nail. She didn’t sound confident. “We need some kind of code word, in case things go wrong. In case things get too physical.”
“No we don’t. No matter what happens, you just keep videoing, okay?”
“Come on, Beth. You can’t expect me to just happily record him beating you up or something.”
“Okay, okay. What were you thinking of?”
“What about Holy Hamburgers?”
I stopped walking and stared at her with an open mouth. “Really? Holy Hamburgers?”
“Yeah, why not?” It’s a good code word.”
It wasn’t, it was a ridiculous code word but it didn’t matter. There was no way I would be shouting a code word, no matter what it was. “Okay, Jess,” I agreed. “Holy Hamburgers it is.”
I stood, waiting in the shadows, on the edge of a pool of yellow light cast down onto the pavement by a street light. From my position I could see both the door to the club and the front end of the red Volvo that Jess was crouched behind. All around me the darkness was motionless, there was no breeze and I couldn’t hear the sound of any cars on the main road. It was like even the night somehow knew to be waiting with bated breath, waiting for the something that was going to come and shatter the silence
I felt like jelly. Like all my muscles had detached themselves from their tethers and had shriveled up into useless mounds of tissue. If I tried to move I’d slide to the floor, land in a heap, a loose pile of skin and bone. I closed my eyes and tried to reattach each tendon, each muscle. I flexed my arms, legs, fingers, toes, ensuring that when the time came I’d be able to move.
I glanced down at my watch for the millionth time. I felt like I had been stood, waiting for hours, but the hands on my watch said we’d only separated off into our positions for exactly seven minutes and forty six seconds. The cold crept through the soles of my boots and worked its way up my legs making it feel more like seven hours and forty six seconds. Time was playing a cruel trick on me. On one hand it seemed to be speeding forward, moving like an out of control freight train and on the other it was creeping forward, like heavy boots sludging through a quagmire. I wanted my confrontation with Whittaker to be over, but I didn’t want his confession to ever come.
A sudden blast of noise broke into the night. A mixture of music, voices and the sound of clinking glasses pierced the darkness for a few seconds and then it disappeared as if it had been sucked back into a vacuum. My eyes shot to the club door, like a camera zooming in to focus on one point in high definition.