The Exit Plan

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Chapter three

Tristan

I handed her my empty protein bowl as she stopped the car a few meters close to what was indicated as the twelfth-grade parking lot. The brown stone building looked imposing as did the thousands of students dressed in the identical blue attire.

“Why don’t we just get rid of school uniform?” I groaned as I struggled in the most hideous button-down shirt I had ever seen. The pastel hue clothed my arms and did my sun burnt skin some serious injury. I shivered.

“Come on Tristan,” my mum said as she turned to look at me. Her grey-green eyes were bright but there was sorrow carved on her face. “It doesn’t look bad. I’ve seen worse, ragged looking uniforms and besides people love pastels these days.”

“They’re plain,” I said. “I’d prefer ragged to plain.”

“Only you’d have such-uh-unique tastes,” mum said as she realized that a few of the staff had gathered to point at her. A few of them had even taken their phones out to capture an image of her. I knew she didn’t mind. She even rolled down her window and spared a smile.

“Yeah, it’s only me who gets chills when he walks into a stiff school wearing a stiff uniform,” I said. “I wonder if I’d be lonely.”

“No,” she said as she turned around to give me one of the tightest hugs I had ever received in my eighteen years of life. “You’re a special boy and I-I hope you’d be happy here. You never did seem happy back in Johannesburg. Maybe you’d even meet someone you’d particularly like.”

“Thanks mum,” I said as I stepped on the tarmac of the parking lot. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” she said. “Oh, and Tristan, if you do find the perfect girl, make sure she’s of our kind, will you?”

I stepped out as the shimmering blue Mercedes drove out of sight. A few of the middle-aged staff gathered round to stare at me. As Elizabeth Burnham’s son, I did get a few glances. Some of them positive, but most of them fixed their glowers on me like I was some sort of animal that they wished they could shoot. Instead of feeling ashamed, I felt pride. Pride that, despite my mother’s most twisted ideals, I was her son.

At first, I didn’t want to be. I remember crouching under my bed so I could hide the tears of shame that no amount of tissues could do away with. I often wondered what the orphanage was like. I was a few years old, when my mum adopted me, but my mind often dreamt of running away from a woman who only cared about ‘her kind’. Maybe I’d have ended up in the orphanage where I belonged. But I couldn’t do it. I imagined living with no one to pay my phone bill or my finance my travelling. Money is powerful temptation. So I became the racists’ son and she became my mum.

She was kind, however, and loved me like the son she had once lost. And as the years grew into a decade I started to love her too. As my mind went through the memories that it had replayed a hundred times, I met the dreary-looking principle; Mr. McCarthy, bumped into some pudgy boy who spoke about asking a girl out and chatted with a dozen other new kids.

I felt my eyelids droop through the whole process. At least, that was up until some introductory assembly where every new student was forced to stand up on some wooden stage and gaze down at everyone else. I saw a collection of haggard faces. Then I saw her.

She had her lean arms, which were the colour of crushed cinnamon, entwined around the geeky boy I bumped into but her eyes stared straight at me. I felt my pulse quicken as I longed to be the boy that stayed close to her. I saw a sort of unworldly brightness that lay in those russet eyes as they glanced at the stage and the poorly hidden wine cooler in her bag. I saw the the wicked innocence that spoke in every smile she flashed.

Every expression she cast made me want her but the sight of her taunt muscles stretching over her statuesque body and the perky breast that strained against her tight blue sweater convinced me that I didn’t just want her. I needed her. I felt the heat that rushed through me increase in rapid intensity. A part of me wanted to shred her sweater right here while the entire school swooned over our torrid lovemaking. And another part wanted to get to know every crooked corner of her mind.

“Tristan?” a voice said. “Tristan, are you there?” A pale hand danced in front of my face and I heard waves of laughter echo from the audience.

“Sorry Mr. McArthur,” I said, reluctantly taking my eyes off the most gorgeous girl mankind had ever seen.

“It’s McCartney,” the old guy said as he spoke into his microphone. “Haven’t you been paying attention? Why you’re as bad as Chantel.”

“Well, whoever this Chantel is I like her,” I said aloud as the old guy almost dropped his mic. “It isn’t easy to listen to a speech about school rules.”

The audience broke into a large applause and the girl I had stared at gave me a smile that dimmed the galaxies. I felt my spirits lift. The spotlight was as addictive as any narcotic and I was hooked. I remembered the time before I moved to the V&A waterfront. Johannesburg was a big city with big people and as much as I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to stand out. I wanted fame and excitement to chase me as much as I chased them. There were times when the excitement seeped into my soul. I lied to get it, you see. I lied about my mum, about my grades, about the people that I’ve dated until everyone around me thought that I was some ever changing mystery they couldn’t solve. My lies hurt the people who cared for me. My pursuit for excitement felt real but the prize just never seemed to reach me. Most of all, it hurt me. I knew that I wasn’t just seen as some unfathomable work of fiction. I was one. Yet, the applause and amusement of each student brought me away from the void I had previously known. It had bought me home.

Mr. Mcsomething had gone around handing his microphone to every new student asking them to introduce themselves.

“I’m Mackenzie Smith and I’m a ninth-grader who loves biology and band practice a little too much,” a girl who had her hair pinned tight to the back of her head said.

I could tell that it was going to be a boring half hour so, zoning out, I set my eyes back on the girl who caught my attention. As she smiled, I felt the corners of my mouth tug despite myself. If she shook her long hair, my fingers yearned to be among her ebony waves instead of the confines of my own pocket.

“Daydreaming again, Mr. Van Eeden,” the principal said as he came so close to me that I could smell an ordinary concoction of paper and a clean-scented perfume. I took a few paces away from him. “Perhaps you can tell the school something about yourself? Other than the fact that you tend to fantasize, of course.”

“Hey people, I’m Tristan and I suppose I’ll be your average twelfth-grader,” I said as I stood up straight. “At least, I suppose if the average twelfth-grader had been kicked out his school in Johannesburg for starting a fist fight and was brought to a whole new town to start a new life. That’s what I want to do. I want to live a new life. A life filled with everything out of the ordinary and I want to live it here, among the people I will grow to love.”

“That’s very interesting, Tristan,” the old dude said as he patted me on the back. “Mind you control your temper and don’t get into any fights here or we might have to expel you.”

“I hope I won’t,” I said with a smile curling up my face as I looked up at the bespectacled boy who held the dark-haired girl. The thought of avoiding some sort of trouble wasn’t one that crossed my mind. It wasn’t something I even thought was possible.

“I really hope I won’t.”

As the assembly broke up, I squinted around as I looked for the girl who my mind revolved around. And there she was heading towards a colour splashed classroom with perhaps a dozen hangers-on laughing at something she said.

“Hey,” a stout girl with a plain braid and even plainer face said to me. Her voice was barely audible and I wasn’t going to bother leaning in. “I’m Natalie, and I’m assigned to be your student guide…”

The rest of her words were drowned in the chatter of a crowd of ninth-graders as I walked away from her and headed towards the group gathered outside the art room.

“This old German tourist came up to me and said that she ‘vanted to see the vhite sands of Noordhoek so badly’ and I told her that if all she ‘vanted’ to do in life was look at sand, she could just take a look at her shorts since they were filled with it,” the pretty girl said as her scarlet backpack slid off her narrow shoulders.

I felt a tingle of fear as I stood a few meters from the group. It wasn’t the fear of the kids thinking I was some sort of eavesdropping freak but it the fear of coming near so unattainable a girl.

But that fear was a mere tingle as I stepped forward and said, “Why see the sands of Noordhoek when you can gaze at the wreck at haunts its shore? I’ve always wanted to see it.”

“Then you’re in luck,” the girl said as her eyes shone with excitement. “You’ve just met the biggest wreck in Noordhoek. I’m Chantel.”

Could a wreck be this beautiful? I recalled the times I used to avoid my mum by reading long books. I read Tolstoy and Dickens and Shakespeare. I know a lot of people my age think that the work of a bunch of dead guys is hardly interesting but I always wondered how they managed to stay alive in the hearts of so many. What made them live on when their corpses have materialized into the finest dust? Was it their works or their lives which lacked any intricate order that made them immortal? Whatever it was, I always wanted to live in people’s hearts forever. But the truth was I didn’t know if I would. I didn’t know if anyone I knew would but I had a hunch that this wine sipping girl that stood in front of me was one that would be the next great story.

Most of those stories featured wrecks. Wrecked castles, wrecked villages and wrecked people who lived wrecked lives. Those wrecks were old and crumbling and generally miserable. No wreck could be this hot.

“Are you now?” I said as my heart refused to quit its intense drumming.

“Oh, I’m a wreck,” she smirked, drinking out of an opaque water bottle. “But don’t let that frighten you. As you’ve probably noticed I’m extremely easy on the eyes.”

“Oh, wrecks never frightened me,” I said as I edged closer to her. I saw some of her artist friends giggle as I did but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get closer and smell the carnations and the fresh air and the –was that wine?

“They don’t frighten me either,” she said before she took a long sip of whatever was in that bottle before offering to me. “Vant some vine?”

“I vould love some,” I said, putting on my best German accent as a petite girl eyed us, looking rather hurt.

“Oh, that’s Leah, the German exchange student,” Chantel said, turning around to give the girl a deviously bright smile.

“Sorry,” she yelled as Leah smiled and waved back at her.

“How many people do you offend each day?” I asked, feeling confident enough to put my hand on her tiny waist.

“I’ve stopped trying to keep track since I offended Mr. McCarthy by throwing a cupcake from the second floor,” she said, flashing a wicked grin. “I don’t really play sports but I have a very good aim. Mr. Kitching is always trying to get me to try out for the softball and cricket teams, but I have art to create and wine to drink. I’m too busy living to do something dead boring.”

I grinned. Aside from tackling for my old school’s rugby team, I didn’t really play sports either. Don’t get me wrong, I love the team and the rush of triumph that flooded through me every time we held a glittering shield. But something about it seemed small. There would be other matches some of which we would win and some of which we would lose. The continuity of practice, cheering and tackling drowned me in the mundane until I couldn’t take it anymore.

“So anyway,” she continued without stopping for breath. “Mr. McCarthy was pacing around the ground with some investor. He kept boasting about how Westwood is the best school in Cape Town and how nothing ever plummeted down. I’m sure he meant our grades or the school’s rules but whatever it was, I thought it was a load of kudu shit. So I took the red velvet cupcake I was eating and flung it down on his head.”

“Did you get detention?” I asked, wondering why Chantel was still allowed to flash her evil half-smile in the corridors. My old school would have kicked her out for sure.

“Oh, I would have except that the falling cupcake managed to convince the investor to invest.”

“What?” I said.

“He was going to turn down Mr. McCartney’s offer in favour of another school but he felt that the students of Westwood had an unique sense of humour and it would be sad to see all that talent go to waste,” she said as she took another swig of her wine.

“Please tell me you don’t drive,” I said, thinking about how this girl would ever manage to sit behind a wheel if she chugged down a whole bottle of wine. There was a reason my mum drove me to school every morning. It was because I was too much of a drunk to know the rules of basic safety.

“I do,” she said, pointing to the car park. “You see that Mustang? The crimson one that gleams in the sunshine?”

“The one that’s parked crooked,” I asked, gathering that her parking skills weren’t as epic as her aiming.

“Yeah,” she said. “My dad wanted to buy me a Mercedes or a Bentley but I just cried and cried for a cherry-red convertible Mustang with a white leather interior and he gave in.”

“Some dream car?” I said as I ruffled her silky hair. “But I like it. It’s flashy and very noisy, much like its owner.”

“Shut up,” she said as she wacked me on the stomach. It’s a good thing I ate those entire protein bowls for breakfast since she winced as if she had punched a wall.

“So what do you say I race you down to Cape Point?”

“No, sorry,” I said, wishing that I had a car of my very own.

“Chicken,” she chimed, her voice going all high-pitched. “You’re afraid of breaking the millions of rule in school. God, you’re as boring as Will is.”

I didn’t know who this Will was but if he was boring, I definitely did not want to be compared to him.

“You know I hate rules,” I said, praying to a fictional God that she didn’t think I was some sort of coward. “But I don’t have a car.”

“Hmm…” she said as a thoughtful expression crossed her face. “Why don’t you take Aaron’s? It’s that brand new silver-grey Mercedes that’s parked next to mine. I know he’s in Math now and he keeps his keys in the security office and old Mr. Reddy, the caretaker, loves a good snooze as much as I love a good portrait.”

“I don’t know this Ian,” I said but she stopped me.

“His name is Aaron and I didn’t ask you to go beg for his car on a bended knee,” she said. “I asked you to steal it.”

I laughed. A great big one until she arched a thick eyebrow at me. “Are you serious?” I said as I stared at her.

The expression on her face never changed as she told me that she was. And so, feeling the rush of emotion a look from this girl can provide, I let her pull me into the caretaker’s shed.

“Aren’t we going to get kicked out for skipping class?” I asked but Chantel just shook her head. It was like it didn’t matter. It was like nothing else mattered but stealing the keys of that Mercedes.

The shed was clothed in thin layers of dust making Chantel sneeze about a half a dozen times. Dust covered the table and the chairs casting a veil on their dark silhouettes. It even covered the snoozing Mr. Reddy whose snores sounded like the dying warthog. I took the key to the only Mercedes in the parking lot as Chantel stooped close to Mr. Reddy, her ebony tresses were far too close to his face.

“His face looks bitter when he’s sleeping as it does when he’s awake,” she whispered as she pulled out her makeup bag and didn’t give up until his face shone with the colours of the rainbow. “All done. I’ve made him a bigger joke than he already is.”

“It brings out his clownlike features,” I said as I raced her to the car park. “Well, to Cape Point it is.”

I started the engine, rolled down the roof and stamped on the accelerator with all my might as I tried to impress the girl who had driven every empty feeling away from me.

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