Chapter Nine - Switching Worlds
Charlotte pulls into the school carpark. She’s checked her appearance a hundred times. She looks good, but not as if she’s trying too hard. She knows exactly where that line is. The recess bell will go soon. She’ll be able to simply slip in amongst the students and go to class. Hopefully without anyone talking about the other day’s mishap.
The hall is empty. Except for one locker, which is open, hiding the owner’s upper body. But Charlotte already knows whose locker it is. As she approaches, her heels clopping on the floor, the door closes.
And there he is. His red tee shirt is snug on his muscled body.
“Hey,” he says. She can’t quite get used to the way he talks to her, like they’ve known each other for years, as if there isn’t a social chasm between them at all. She adjusts the shoulder strap of her bag and looks around. Thankfully there’s no one to witness this exchange between two people who aren’t even supposed to be in the same social universe.
“Hey.” She can’t bring herself to smile, even though it’s the polite thing to do. “I suppose I should thank you for driving me home.”
“I suppose you should.” His thumb strokes the cover of a leather bound book he’s holding.
“Nothing much.” For some reason she feels compelled to take it. As if some random demon walked up to her and whispered in her ear. She snatches it from his hands easily. He wasn’t expecting that. It’s plain, with no name or title, but she knows without even opening it, that it’s a journal. The book feels floppy and well-worn in her hands, heavy with private words.
“Can I have that back please?” He holds out his hand, trying to look cool about it.
“Seeing as you know so much about me, perhaps I should take a peek at your inner world.”
“You don’t want to do that.” There’s a tight edge to his voice, straining for control.
“Don’t I?” Something inside her hesitates, knowing it’s wrong. She wields power right now over calm, self-righteous Gabriel Murray. The twitch of emotion at the corner of his eyes betrays him. He has a weak spot. And this is it.
“Do you mind?” He says, jaw stiff. She should give it back. She really should. But the power is too delicious, too utterly intoxicating. Charlotte clasps it to her breast. Gabe lunges. She ducks out of his grasp and totters up the corridor, glancing back to grin at him, standing there like a lost boy. A voice crackles inside her mind.
It doesn’t really matter. It’s just a stupid book. He’ll get over it.
The bell rings and doors spring open like trapdoor plants, spawning students out into the corridor. Gabe is rooted at the base of his locker, limp-limbed. Her fingers caress the smooth leather. Feeling triumphant, she walks into the nearest empty classroom. Seating herself she flips open Gabe’s journal. The ink-embroidered leaves part of their own accord and a stillness washes over her. She sucks in a small breath. Her heart is fluttering at the base of her throat. What? Her eyes devour it hungrily.
I’m risking everything to come here,
every blood-red, panicked moment.
Your world is a midnight place
where I pick my way over sharpnesses,
the taste of a wild, soulless wind on my tongue.
There’s a certain rhythm here,
as you stride across this desolate landscape,
metallic fears swinging along beside you,
phantoms of what you’ve lost, hovering.
At other times you huddle behind obstructions,
waiting for the jagged, dirty-blue ceiling to fall in.
Yellow eyes are everywhere -
Sneaky, desperate, incredibly sad and vicious eyes.
No wonder you’re suspicious of everyone
If this is where you live.
You keep everything up top brightly packaged,
With silk ribbons and cellophane.
Look, but don’t open.
Admire, but don’t ask questions.
No one else seems to realize you’re adrift
on this bruised ocean of pain.
I tiptoe across to you, but it’s unstable for me.
I could lose my footing at any time,
I don’t know why I’m so desperate to reach you.
You hold no interest for me,
Stretched thinly across the face of your shallow values.
But I feel compelled to say
That you can’t go on living like this,
cracked fingernails embedded in this landscape.
You’ve tucked yourself away in crevices so deep
that you can no longer see the surface.
But I see soft glimmers of the real you -
something quirky, something joyful,
something so tiny and forgotten.
I search in the bleakness, cup my hands
around those petals of purest you
that spring up briefly - a flash of colour in the gloom.
You keep shrinking away from my touch.
I am compelled to love you, rescue you,
But I can’t wait forever.
You have to show me a sign that this is worth it.
Why should I inhabit this dark place with you?
I’ve been somewhere like this myself, once.
I fought to escape, believe.
No. You must come out into the light, to me.
Release your grip.
Fall into my embrace.
Thick tears fall, splat onto the ink. Charlotte wipes her nose with the back of her hand. Her name isn’t there, but it describes, exactly, her inner world. Ravenous for her blood, it spells out every inch of that vicious landscape. She stares out the window at a powdery blue sky, lips trembling.
It IS her. And he knows.
Don’t be ridiculous! Of course it’s not you! She pushes the voice aside irritably. Shut up. What do you know. Sighing, she closes the journal. Now for the performance of her life. She must pretend she never saw it. She must act as if it hasn’t unglued her. Her fingertip goes automatically to the spot on her cheek, which has begun to tingle. He can’t know about this. No one can know. Not even a Science student with a poet’s heart.
She pushes open the door. He’s standing there waiting in the empty hall, expression grim, arms folded. Now she feels ashamed, an intruder into his private world. But in a quiet corner of her mind she’s glad she read it. Gabe is a whole lot more than he seems. Does that make him more interesting or more dangerous?
“Charlotte, hey! So glad I ran into you!” It’s Becka, clomping towards Charlotte in heels too high. Charlotte flashes Gabe a look, pulls the journal to her side, like she’s carrying a textbook. Nothing of importance.
“Hey, Becka.” Charlotte smiles, showing all her fabulously white teeth. Becka blushes, trying to smile without showing her braces.
“Are you ok, after the other day?”
Charlotte is startled. Is Becka showing genuine concern or getting ready to shove the knife in her chest?
“Um, fine. Yeah. Thanks.”
“English was pretty boring anyway,” offers Becka. Charlotte relaxes a little. Maybe she IS genuine. “Are you going to Abbi’s party tonight? I heard Josh is going. And Corey.”
Charlotte bats her lashes, trying to cover the fact that she’s watching Gabe, standing there. “Might drop in around midnight.” Charlotte keeps her voice carefully nonchalant. Doesn’t she know I’m not invited?
“Oh, great! I can’t wait! Is Tessa going? Of course she is! She’d never go without you! I mean, well, anyway...” Charlotte looks calmly at Becka, wanting this awkward moment to be over. She flicks a glance at Gabe, who has his back to her, digging around in his locker. He’s stalling, waiting for her. But she can’t be seen talking to a geek. Unfortunately, Becka doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. “What should I wear Charlotte? Are you wearing that gorgeous gold Prada dress?”
“Sure,” Charlotte answers, distracted.
“Oh,” says Becka. Her voice is odd. Charlotte realises that Becka has set a trap and she’s walked straight into it. You don’t wear the same dress twice. Not if you’re Charlotte Campbell. Her Fashionista alterego kicks in.
“Actually, I’m wearing a Claudia Hooper. Metallic dark blue. Strapless. Matching Jimmy Stein heels.” Becka’s eyes widen with jealousy, which she quickly tries to disguise as enthusiasm.
“Ooh! That sounds awesome! It’s gonna be so great! I really want Corey to be there. Should I wear my red Angelina Parvan? Charlotte? Why are you staring at that geek?”
“Why not,” says Charlotte, not paying attention. Gabe is walking away, up the corridor. Any second now the bell will ring and everyone will be coming back. She has to give Gabe his journal and get in place, so that she can glide into the classroom as if nothing has happened. Becka is frowning in Gabe’s direction.
“Are you feeling ok, Charlotte? Why are you watching that... loser?”
He’s not a loser! He writes the most beautiful, powerful words I’ve ever read. Her palms are sweaty. The journal is slipping from her grasp. On reflex, she clutches it to her breast. Becka’s eyes narrow. For the first time, since day one of high school, she’s looking Charlotte up and down critically.
“Is that a journal?” Becka’s voice is disrespectful. It jolts Charlotte back to reality. Despite her declaration to her father, Charlotte can’t let Becka ruin what’s left of her social standing. She must squash Becka, put her back in her place. Now. Otherwise the gossip fire will spread. Charlotte stands tall, tips her head back slightly, pouts her lips and looks at Becka like she’s a slug crawling on the footpath.
“It doesn’t really matter what you wear, Becka. You could have a zillion diamonds. All anyone’s going to notice is those ugly braces.” She arches a brow imperiously. “My advice? Forget about Corey. Stay at home and paint your nails.” Charlotte turns away, hearing Becka’s shocked gasp. Gabe is at the bubbler. She goes to her locker and opens it, just as Becka rushes past, sobbing. Charlotte stares at the photo stuck to her locker door of herself, Abbi and Tessa at the year ten graduation. It seems now like that was someone else. The bell rings. Kids start cramming into the hall to get to their lockers, chatting excitedly. Gabe is still watching her expectantly, but she can’t move. No one must know.
You read his private thoughts.
Shame throbs in her cheeks. Everyone is shouting as the countdown to be inside the classroom begins. The clock on the wall screams at her, two minutes to be in class!
“Hey.” It’s Abbi, chewing gum. She wrenches open her locker and shoves a soft cotton jacket inside. Removes a Biology textbook, notebook and pen.
“Hey.” Charlotte smiles thinly. She doesn’t actually want to be friends with this girl any longer. But she needs her. Just as Abbi needed Charlotte.
“What?” Charlotte is trying not to look at Gabe, but it’s like a huge magnet is pulling her to him.
Charlotte looks down, waves a hand. “Yeah.” Who the hell cares? Abbi crosses to the classroom door. She doesn’t turn to wait for Charlotte, but sails inside like it’s her coronation. The hall is emptying. Tessa is rushing towards her, flushed.
“What?” Charlotte’s eyes are on Gabe. He’s turned away and is sauntering towards the physics lab. I have to give him his journal back!
“I said hi. Are you feeling ok? You didn’t hurt yourself the other day, did you?”
“No. Thanks. Listen, you go in. I’ll be there in a minute, I just have to get something.”
“I can wait,” says Tessa, beaming.
“No. You go,” Charlotte waves her hand distractedly.
“All right then.” Tessa grabs a book from her locker and runs, just as the classroom door is closing. She squeezes inside. The teacher flicks Charlotte a disapproving look and shuts the door. Gabe’s hand is on the physics lab door, waiting. The hall is quiet again.
It’s now or never.
She walks straight towards him, resists the urge to toss the book casually and instead hands it over without fanfare. His face clearly asks if she’s read that page.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t even open it,” she says, trying on the lie for size and smiling wanly. “I’m not that much of a bitch.”
“Aren’t you?” He looks at her from under his floppy fringe. His eyes behind those ludicrous glasses, are clear green, etched with black lashes. Her stomach twists. Everything he says and does she will now interpret differently because she knows what he’s really like, under that geek tee shirt. She shrugs.
“Well, I guess I deserved that.” He looks surprised at her honesty. She taps the journal and he flinches. “You shouldn’t keep it at school. You never know who might steal it.”
“I don’t care much for what other people think.” His mouth is tight. His eyes flick around.
Oh yes you do.
“Whatever,” she says carelessly. He lifts the flap of his satchel and slides the journal inside. Charlotte stands there, unsure of herself. He’s trying hard to maintain his dignity, but he knows she read that page. And even if she wanted to she can’t undo the moment she trampled in his private world.
“Come to the library, free period after lunch,” he says.
“Um. All right.” She blinks in surprise.
He spins on his heel and disappears into the lab. Charlotte can see the back of his head through the small glass window in the door.
And then she snaps out of her dream.
You’re late for class! Do you really want to make a grand entrance again? She stands outside her classroom door. She can hear the teacher instructing, hear the scrape of chairs on the floor, the giggling. It used to be a good place, in there. She reigned supreme from her ivory throne by the door, touching those who entered with her golden sceptre, granting them their status. And now she herself will be judged by that same system she helped to implement so thoroughly. She takes a deep breath, pushes open the door.
“So glad you could join us, Miss Campbell.” There’s a titter that catches around the room. Charlotte’s usual seat is taken. By Abbi. But with Becka’s hurried demise, there’s a seat to her right. The number two seat. Without a word Charlotte takes it. Abbi doesn’t look at her, but there’s a smile on her ruby lips.