The Exit Plan

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Chapter two

Chantel De Carvalho; emotional, sensitive, beautiful and so utterly interesting.

I doled polite greetings to everyone I knew at school but my eyes strained to the spot where I knew her Mustang would be parked so crooked that it would take up two parking spaces . Poor Natalie Zuma would have to find an alternative space for her grey moped. That Mustang conquered her land. It was the very same car that would also show up a quarter of an hour after the first bell rang. Late. Not that Chantel minded being late. Not that she minded anything at all, even the merciless scolding she’d receive from whichever school administrator had the pleasure to mark attendance that day.

“Who gives a fuck about being on time?” Chantel said one day as she sipped her suspiciously strong coffee.

Her temper was a little less than murderous and she’d kicked an eighth-graders’ science project in response to her scolding. “Mr. McCartney couldn’t possibly expect me to be on time to that horrible life orientation or whatever I have for first period.”

“She’ll probably turn up late just so the entire school could see her Mustang,” Aaron said before telling us that he decided on going to first period class.

“We should wait some more,” I said, leaning against the door of the orientation room. People hurried off to different classes totally oblivious to the pounding inside my chest. “Maybe Chantel be on time. Maybe we would be a couple before the first bell rings.”

“Yeah and maybe Mr. McCarthy would dance around to the school song wearing nothing more than a candy G-string,” Aaron said as he rolled his clear blue eyes. “Chantel will definitely stick to tradition and show up late.”

I was about to tell him that Chantel never stuck to tradition but at that moment a boy with sandy blonde hair and a build like a star athlete pushed past me without apologizing. I gave him a nasty scowl before he could walk into orientation.

“A new guy,” Cassandra said, looking at him in amazement. “Don’t bother about it. Bother about giving a reasonable excuse for getting late to class. Will and I are waiting for Chantel. Do you think she’ll take forever?”

“She doesn’t take forever,” I said, mocking offense. “She’s just happens to show up fifteen minutes late. On a good day. You just want an excuse to miss first-period Accounts.”

I liked Accounts. I liked the way the cold figures scattered before I managed to solve them. I liked how everything balanced out in the end like a simple solution to a seemingly complex problem. I used to believe that nothing was too complicated to solve. Then I met Chantel.

“You’ve got a perfect balance,” said Ms. Kgosi, our teacher, as her eyes sparkled at my manufacturing accounts. “You know, I sometimes feel that this class is far too easy for you."

“Every class is too easy for Will,” Aaron said. “I don’t know why he just didn’t take up Mr. McCarthy’s offer to skip ninth grade.”

Mr. McCarthy was our principal. One day he deigned to pop his head inside my English class and asked to see me. My heart stopped. Why did our principal, who never concerned himself with anything but administrative work – and Chantel’s lack of punctuality-, want to see me? Maybe, he thought I would influence Chantel to be on time. And maybe, stop her from sneaking booze to school. I knew it would be pointless. Chantel would be Chantel for as long as her liver kept functioning.

However, that wasn’t what Mr. McCarthy wanted. What he wanted, it turned out, was to talk to me about the benefits of acceleration. I was doing well at school, he said. A little too well for a ninth grader who, in his opinion, only cared about social media and video games.

“Maybe the work in the tenth grade would be much more –uh- intellectually stimulating,” he said. “Since it's only one year ahead, you wouldn’t have too much trouble socializing and it would mean you go to college a year earlier.”

As if, I thought, resisting the urge not to smirk. I had trouble socializing in my own class.

“I know that Westwood isn’t the cheapest school out there,” he said. “If you skip a grade your parents would only have to pay three years of tuition instead of four.”

I did want to relieve my parents of the burden of paying my fees. My parents taught at a local primary school. They even worked at a night school during weekends just so that they could pay for what is known as the best school in all of Cape Town.

"Will you be promoting anyone else?"

“We were thinking of promoting Ms. Zuma, of course,” he said. “She is one of the brightest minds Westwood has ever seen. She would do well in the tenth grade if she could raise her Afrikaans grade.”

He had to be kidding me. I dreaded the thought of watching Natalie Zuma, the only person in my grade who was more socially awkward than I was, fiddle with her French braid for the entirety of my secondary education. It was no secret that Natalie’s life ambition was to marry me at the altar and her gaze did its usual travel to my face every minute of the school day.

“Anyone else other than Natalie?” I asked, hoping that he would mention the girl my heart longed for.

“Well, although Aaron and Cassandra are brilliant, they aren’t exceptional,” he said, shaking his head. “Not like you.”

I laughed. Was I exceptional? I certainly didn’t feel it. I was the tall, gawky boy who always missed school social events but never skipped a visit to the church. I was the boy who was a little too good with computers. And Math. And Science. And every other academic subject taught in Westwood. I was the boy who was Chantel’s friend. What was wrong with being Chantel’s friend? It was that I might never be more to her.

“And what about Chantel?” I asked. “Would she be promoted too?”

“Um…. Chantel is definitely smart,” he said. “She has to be. She won international awards in art at such a young age. Her portraits hang in galleries all across the continent. But she is not an all-rounder. Her math, as I’m informed, is atrocious. Her Science is no better than a fourth grade kid with special needs. In fact, my primary school niece could probably beat her at any test. I’m sorry but she needs to stay where she is.”

“Then you better not decide to promote me either,” I said as I walked away.

I felt my toes curl inside my loafers. No fourth-grader could ever outsmart Chantel. I didn’t even look back at Mr. McCarthy. I knew it was selfish. I owed my parents a lot more than to have them slave for my tuition. But I couldn’t let her go.

Word got around that I declined to move up a grade. Some thought it was the stress of having to find new friends. Others thought it was my unwillingness to leave my old ones behind. Zameer, who still refused to stop tormenting me, told everyone who would listen that I had a hard on for every guy in the then tenth-grade and I stayed because I was just too scared to make a move. Despite what people whispered, I never made an effort to correct them.

“Well, maybe he just loved his friends too much to leave,” Ms. Kgosi smiled as she ignored Zameer’s whisper about how surprising it was that I had friends and turned her stooped back to correct Natalie’s work. She didn’t get very far. A roar flooded the grounds of Westwood International, making Natalie fall right out of her seat.

“Is that Chantel’s new car?” Natalie asked as her face crumpled. “What kind of beast is it?”

“It’s a Mustang,” I answered, picturing the wild girl behind the wheel of that car. “A beautiful cherry-red Mustang.”

The day I heard the first roar of that car seemed a centuries old event that was printed in the world's history books. But the emotions of that event were still scorched in my heart. I felt confusion and sorrow and anger and pain fight a torrid battle for a piece of my soul. A soul once abandoned must seek another escape. My soul had lost her and it was left to every negative emotion that dared to grasp at it. I tried to think back to the time when everything seemed at peace. Back to when Ms. Kgosi was correcting Natalie’s work with an everyday smile fixed on her everyday face.

“Excellent, Natalie,” she said, beaming at her student. “You and Will have got all my questions correct. You…..”

Before she could continue, however, Mr. McCarthy’s voice boomed on the PA system. All students were supposed to gather up in the gym for some sort of assembly. Assemblies at Westwood are generally boring affairs with some administrator droning on about the new students and school rules on the first day of every term. More often than not, that administrator gives Chantel a good side eye when reminding us that rules exists to keep order and that rebelliousness, even from Chantel, isn’t funny. The whole school just laughs whenever that happens.

As I took my seat near Aaron, who was going on about how he hoped this assembly would be an announcement of the new batch of prefects, I saw Chantel sitting in the not-so-hazy distance. Her coffee-bronze skin glowed as she stretched to the sun. Beside her were about two dozen kids from the Art Club.

“Chantel,” I yelled, waving to the girl I hoped would soon cease to consider me a platonic friend.

Her eyes lit up at the sight of me. To call them brown would be a massive understatement. They were chocolate and cinnamon with flashes of gold. They were almost like the finest tiger’s eyes. Once you gazed at them once, it was humanly impossible to take your eyes off them. Before I could flash a smile, however, her skinny, five-foot-eleven-inch body launched itself at my chest and wrapped her arms around my shoulders.

She smelled of paint and Pinotage and freshly plucked carnations and as I stretched over to plant a kiss on her forehead, I noticed my lips hovering over hers. They looked soft, underneath her shiny lip-gloss but not too pillowy. They were the type of lips I could only dream of kissing.

“So remember I told you that I needed to tell you something,” Chantel said without giving Aaron, Cassandra and I time to reply. This was something she did. She talked as fast as she drove.

“I was on the train to Bloemfontein to visit the old people – meaning my relatives- and God knows how I detest those anhedonics. They aren’t human. No human could have hearts so cold. So, anyway, I was on that train and there was this conductor screaming his lungs off asking me to stay off the railing. It really pissed me off. It wasn’t like I was damaging public property or something. I was so pissed that I wanted to make him mad since that’s the only known way to deal with jerks. So I did.”

“What did you do?” Aaron asked.

“Oh, I leaned up against the railing that was shaking only a slight degree worse than that conductor was and did a perfect bend backwards. Just like the gymnast do. You should have seen his face. He looked like he was going to hurl.”

Let me tell you that Chantel was very popular back before she slipped away from me. It wasn’t her pretty face with her razor sharp features. It wasn’t even her skinny frame or her brilliant mind that got her most of her entourage. It was the fact that she risked her life like she thought nothing of it. She never got into her new Ford Mustang with a blood alcohol level of point two six. And she never drove unless it was above ninety miles per hour. She even crossed roads without a glance. To Aaron, Chantel De Carvalho was a thoughtless girl who he was friends with. To the rest of Cape Town, Chantel De Carvalho was hot.

It was at that moment that I should have said it. It was those three unsaid words that have been weighing on my mind since the eighth grade. I wanted to say them. I would have said them right there if Mr. McCarthy didn’t choose the moment to begin his speech.

“As you know today is the start of the new academic year,” he said.

“Trust that fossil to dive into business without pleasantries,” Chantel whispered to Cassandra as her thin hands wrapped in the warmth of mine.

“He’s our fifty-two year old principal, not a fossil. And besides I’m surprised that you’re even paying attention,” Aaron said as he nudged her rather skeletal arm. “I thought concentration was beneath you.”

Aaron was right. Chantel never paid attention, unless she was in the midst of creating a work of art. She hated long speeches. She hated anyone who gave long speeches. She hated anyone who listened to long speeches or thought that they were necessary. Or, at least, I think she did. I’ve never seen her hold a grudge so I assumed she didn’t have any.

“Today we have some new faces,” Mr. McCarthy went on. “We have a new batch of eighth graders, a couple of ninth grader and a twelfth grader who will be joining our numbers. I hope you will join me in wishing these new students the very best of luck….”

It was then that the reason why Chantel paid attention hit me. I saw it all as my heart cracked once, then again and then a million times. Her eyes fixed on the boy who pushed past me on his way to orientation. He was the lone twelfth-grader whose eyes were aimed right back at her.


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