The Exit Plan

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Chapter nine

“You know, I really like what you said in class today,” I said as I nudged Natalie on her broad shoulder as we walked towards the outdoor cafeteria. “And I appreciate you saving me. Thank you.”

“No worries,” Natalie said as she scratched her chin or as Zameer would put it, one of her many chins. “I didn’t want to see Mr. De Villiers mock you in front of the entire class. First he makes us read this totally useless novella or novel or whatever it is, about totally useless people and then he mocks his students for having better tastes in books than he does. I mean, if he wants to mock us he should do it over a Stephen King or a Dan Brown novel.”

“You have a point,” I said as I felt a lightness engulf my chest. Nobody had ever understood why I read mysteries or psychological thriller or science fiction. It encompassed the same addictive quality as a math problem or a maze had. I needed to solve it. There was something beautiful in obscurity. Solving a puzzle was a drug that kept me wanting more. It was perhaps the reason I was so drawn to Chantel. Despite her open emotions, I could never figure her out. Chantel never had any patience with a book that didn’t describe every emotion that eclipsed her heart. She even cringed at any gore and I could not persuade her to feel differently.

“Yes,” Natalie said as she raised her fist in the air. “I’ve finally found someone who thinks my tastes in literature aren’t totally lame.”

“Well, you ask Mr. De Villiers if he could do something less melodramatic than Gatsby,” I said, picturing the mutinous look on Chantel’s face if she did. But beware of Chantel. She’d kick your ass in one of those pointy heels that she got from the mall the other day.”

“She isn’t here, is she?” she said. “Please don’t tell me you like Gatsby?”

“I like Chantel.”

As I said those words Natalie looked down at her clasped palms. I expect to see tears streaming in her dark eyes but I didn’t. I didn’t see a shred of emotion encompass her soul.

“I know,” she said as we walked to the school’s giant garden, “I’m not an idiot. But what do you, the man who has a hopeless crush on Chantel, think?”

“So you think my love for Chantel is hopeless?” I said feeling my heart plummet. I didn’t want to think about a future without her vibrant smiles.

“Well, she’s always been destructive, hasn’t she?” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s beautiful. She’s a blizzard to humanity’s snowflakes.”

“I know she’s beautiful,” I said, watching her ebony tresses soar with the breeze.

“But with all her beauty, she’s a mess. A beautiful mess,” Natalie said as she watched Chantel trying to cover a back of eighth-graders pants with red paint.

My heart didn’t revolt in anger at her words. Before Tristan graced us with his presence I’d have walked away from anyone who thought that Chantel was anything less than perfect. Before Tristan came, I never spared a glance at Natalie. Sure, I was polite to her but my politeness didn’t stretch so far as kindness. I never said good morning to her or asked how her weekend went or asked her to hang out with us.

’Natalie does not feel,” I recalled Chantel saying as she gulped a bottle of God knows what. ’She’s far too dull to be of any value.’

I never wanted her because Chantel didn’t. And that stung. It stung that Chantel hadn’t always been perfect. And it stung that ripples of guilt were flowing through my heart robbing it of any peace. But I knew one thing; that Chantel was flawed.

“She has her weaknesses all right,” I said. “Like Gatsby.”

“Well, she isn’t really obsessed with a married woman who lives across the lake from her.”

“No, she’s obsessed with a teenage boy who is her equivalent of messed up,” I said.

“Wow, Natalie said as she stared at me. “I never thought you’d say that.”

“There is no point in pretending that Chantel is nothing other than a mess,” I said feeling my cheeks burn at the thought of Chantel’s body entangled in Tristan’s. “She’s impulsive and destructive and absolutely reckless. But you know what. There’s more good in her than bad. Inside that torrid mess is kindness and a sort of pureness that made her soul rarer than sapphires. And I want her.”

“I know,” Natalie said as her voice dropped. “I know you do.”

The first sign of colour had begun creeping into our school’s orange trees. Light green leaves had taken over the grounds and the frost was dying like Chantel and Tristan and I would. I always wondered how I would die. Chantel told me that I’d go out in an assisted care facility as I choked on my own bile and recalled the boring deeds of my boring life. Aaron said I’d probably die in an accident with Chantel behind the wheel. Honestly, I preferred old age.

Yet, thinking of old age was impossible amidst the still young orange trees and Chantel sitting stretched beneath one of them. Next to her were Aaron, Cassandra, people in the Art Club and of course, Tristan, who had flung an arm around her narrow shoulders.

“Will, sit down,” she said as she moved her scarlet backpack. “I got you a chocolate cappuccino from the vending machine. I even remembered to spike it.”

“Oh, very funny,” I said as I felt my stomach rumble. I remembered that I hadn’t really eaten and a cup of coffee with a highly potent amount of alcohol was just what I needed. “Natalie, join us.”

“Uh…Will, Chantel invited you to join us and not…anyone else,” Tristan said.

“Her joining us wouldn’t do anybody any harm,” I said, giving Tristan the best evil eye I could. Seriously, some people have got to learn politeness. “Besides, she’s a very nice person.”

“I better go,” Natalie whispered as she prepared to turn her back on me and flee. Not fast enough though. I caught her rather wide hand and for a moment she held on. “You’re not going back to sitting alone in the cafeteria,” I said. “She can sit with us, can’t she Chantel?”

But Chantel wasn’t listening anymore. Her eyes strayed to a small, black and white newspaper one of the Art Club kids, a girl with a milkmaid braid, was holding. “Can I borrow this?” she said as she strained her voice.

“First you pay attention to Mr McCarthy, and then you are polite,” Aaron whispered as he nudged Chantel’s arm. “Who died?”

“Shut up,” she said before turning to the girl with the paper.

“Sure,” the girl with the braid said before going back to eating her boerwors.

There was nothing special about the weekday newspaper. It featured art in its many forms and of course, a large photo of Chantel and Tristan making out.

“Word renowned artist Chantel De Carvalho in love,” Natalie scoffed as she read the headline. “Honestly, doesn’t this magazine have anything else to do other than to report on the lives of teenagers? There is racism and brutality happening out there. And all people can think of is Chantel’s love life.”

“Some people are so jobless,” Chantel said rolling her eyes and Cassandra agreed. “But at least, people will know how much we do love each other. Maybe, I’d even take a copy of this to those oldies in Bloemfontein to show that I can sustain a proper relationship. And I will.” She nudged Tristan, but Tristan did not respond. He didn’t even look at her .His eyes fixed on the charcoal print that lay before him.

“Where was this sold?” he asked the girl, clutching the paper in his hands.

“Oh, I picked it up at my aunt’s place,” she said. “And she said that she got if off a shop at the waterfront. Dozens of shops sell art magazines there although I have no idea why. It’s not like the tourist have any appreciation for anything but money anyway.”

Tristan hardly listened. “Are you sure it’s sold at the waterfront. It isn’t just some school paper?”

“It’s the weekday art paper. It’s been around since before I was born,” Natalie answered. “Chantel is one of the staff at the school’s newspaper. She’d die if the layout of the school’s paper were anything short of beautiful. And that paper right there doesn’t meet the cut.”

Tristan didn’t pay her the slightest notice but Chantel’s eyes shone at her words. “You think my work is beautiful?” she said, smiling at Natalie for the first time. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she said. “I really love your use of colour on the borders? Do you design it yourself?”

Chantel answered and the two of them dove into a long discussion on the use of colour and the emotion it brings. Okay, it was Chantel and the rest of the art club that was talking. Natalie just listened. But the spark in her eyes when someone genuinely took the time to talk to her was contagious .Soon Aaron, Cassandra and I joined in.

“Remember the time when Chantel decided that it was time for me to stop lecturing her on controlling her emotions. What was that she threw at me?” Aaron said.

“She threw an easel,” I said, recalling the day the fifteen-year-old Chantel threw a fit when Aaron chose the moment to preach. “Natalie, you missed it, in tenth-grade Chantel lost her temper for the ….what time was it?”

“I don’t know,” Cassandra said as she giggled over her iced tea. “I’ve lost count of her temper tantrums.”

“Anyway, she swore and flung the easel with stunning accuracy,” I said. “No wonder the softball team has been trying to recruit you Chantel.”

“You’d be surprised with what I can hit with accuracy,” Chantel said as she flashed Tristan one of her biggest smiles. Tristan, however, remained unmoved.

“What is it?” she asked. “Are you okay?”

“It isn’t popular, is it? The paper I mean,” he asked as his hands shook with every second.

“Oh, it’s all over shops in the Cape Town,” Aaron said, putting an arm around Cassandra. “Some of Chantel’s art has been featured there. Why?”

Tristan opened his mouth to answer but stopped as he heard the wail of some rock track. It was his phone.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Aaron said, looking over at him. “If not you wouldn’t be able to call that person for the entire school day, you know?”

“Fine,” Tristan said. “I’m going to face her right after school anyway.”

“Hi, Elizabeth,” he said as he spoke to the woman he was obliged to call his adopted mother. “School’s not out yet. So I’ll talk to you when I get home?”

Although he spoke on the phone, the woman’s voice on the other end was loud and clear. It was almost like a scream let out to haunt humanity. It was a loud one. Her scream raised all the voices of hell.

“What the hell were you doing kissing that good-for-nothing half-breed?” she said. Chantel froze as fear spread across her face. It was almost as if she knew what would come to her. Elizabeth Burnham would begin her doom.

Chantel’s emotions were instant. Her tears and her temper burst forward in a deadly stealth that made me fear for my soul. She screamed and swore as she racked her brains for the vilest thing she could call Elizabeth.

“Chantel….” Ms. Kgosi said carrying a large cup of her favourite sweet tea. “I can’t allow you to use such language in front of the younger students.” By younger students she meant the eighth –graders whose colourful vocabulary was beyond my imagination.

“S-she’s sick,” I muttered to her as I tried to think of some logical way out of Chantel getting a detention. And it wasn’t really a lie. Chantel’s face was crossed with nausea.

“Sick?” Ms. Kgosi said as she narrowed her eyes suspicion. “Or drunk?”

“Sick,” I said holding my gaze onto her. “And she needs to go home.” She looked from me to Chantel who was crying and raging in a frightful temper and agreed to allow Chantel to go home. She collapsed on her violet bedspread as soon as I got her to Noordhoek beach.

“Chantel, you’re worth a million of Elizabeth,” I said as I held her tissue wipe off her mascara tears. “You know that. You’re smart and beautiful and the kindest soul I’ve ever met. Don’t let her get to you.”

“She called me a half-breed,” she said as she ripped her bedspread. I looked for a place to sit amidst the crumpled paper and high heeled shoes that cluttered her room. I found none. “What does she think I am? Some sort of animal that needs to be sorted into by breed?”

“No,” I said, shivering at the thought of anyone thinking that about Chantel. My Chantel. “Of course not. She’s just a bitter old woman who lost her son to a bunch of murderers. So she just holds on to the old ways like she holds on to her music; with everything she has.”

“The apartheid ended decades ago,” she scoffed as she flung an old bottle right across her room. “What’s does she think? That Tristan and I are going to have a bunch of illegal kids of an illegal race. She’s insane.”

“I agree,” I said. “She’s narrow-minded and cruel and foolish and foolish people fear change like the plague.”

“But what does that say about our relationship?” Chantel said, as her head lay buried in my chest. She looked up at me through tear soaked lashes with her lips parted oh so slightly. It was then that I wanted to kiss her more than ever. I imagined my lips meeting her thin ones as they kissed me back, slow at first and then so fast that it would make her driving look like a turtle’s mile long walk.

“I don’t know Chantel,” I said as my fingers went through her hair. “You’ve done nothing wrong by being bi-racial. It’s something you should be proud of because it’s beautiful. You are beautiful Chantel. It all depends on Tristan. If he decides that this relationship is worth fighting for, of course he’ll disobey that heartless wench.”

“Heartless wench,” Chantel laughed. Her eyes crinkled at the sides making them shine with a million shades of ecstasy. “Are you starting to talk like me too?”

“Maybe?” I smiled, touching the tip of her sharp nose. “Are you proud?”

“I’ve always been proud of you,” she said as she kept her hand millimeters away from mine. Our hands edged towards each other until it wasn’t just her hand and my hand but both our hands come together. I felt her breath; full of Pinotage and Listerine strips, marry my own curry- scented breath. I needed to stop wasting my money on football tickets so I can afford some breath fresheners and perhaps a dental cleanup. Maybe, I should get contacts like Aaron did. Perhaps she’d find me more attractive.

“Really?” I said as my heart did cartwheels in my chest. She was proud of me.

“Yeah,” she shrugged. “I’ve always watched the way you used to speak at the school’s IT day, even when you thought I wasn’t paying attention.”

“You were actually listening?” I said shocked that she had been paying attention. To me.

“I was,” she said. “Okay, maybe there were inconspicuous moments of inattention because I could never care about why you think that all students should be taught how to learn coding. Taking IT in Primary School was bad enough. But I was listening okay. I was listening to how every sentence you said made you sound so…..”

“Nervous,” I said recalling the tremors that accompanied the idea of public speaking. “Or Boring? You think I’m a boring math geek who looks like he can lose a few kilos.”

“I was going to say intelligent,” Chantel said. “And intelligence is one of humanity’s most attractive qualities. Even if it does come in a form of a boy who likes math and computing a little too much. And anyone who thinks you need to shed some weight deserves a large weight dropped on them. Hard.”

“I have to admit that girls who love art and perpetually have paint stains on their clothes have an amazing appeal too,” I said as I laughed. “How could any person not get turned on when he sees the amount of paint you have on your clothes. It’s almost sensual.”

“Shut up, you freak,” she said as her hands reached for mine. “I do not have an intense amount of paint on myself. It’s only on my hands and the hem of my dress and on my back and, fuck, I do have a lot of paint.”

“Told you,” I said. Chantel laughed. It was a loud, short laugh that possessed my heart. As she finished her head sort of tilted my way and her lips met mine.

I swear I did not imagine what just happened. I even slapped myself twice to make sure I wasn’t trapped in some sweet nightmare. Her lips were soft yet firm and even though they only touched mine for a maybe a second, that moment seemed to stretch to a thousand years.

“Oh no,” Chantel said as she stepped away from me. “No no no.”

What could I say? That I wanted to kiss her? That I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was thirteen years old? That I’ve never wanted to kiss anyone else other than her?

“Chantel….” I said reaching for her.

“You don’t need to say anything,” she said as she inched away from me. “I’m going to go.” She slung her dark hair back and walked away. Yet, as she did she spared one last glance back as her eyes burned into mine. Her gaze ignited my soul.

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