“Not again, not again.” Ella hunched her shoulders and buried her head into her chest. The jibes still hurt, despite being almost a daily occurrence. ’Ugly, ugly, ugly’…’Bitch, bitch, bitch..’ Ella half-ran, stumbling through the haze of cheap perfume and sniggering looks. She hated Winfield. And she hated the way she looked. Trouble was, the snide and smart insults still stung despite the barrier of snooty indifference she had created to shield herself from the empty headed scumbags whose parents had more money than breeding.
She hurried in through the entrance to the residential block, ran up the stairs to the first floor, sniffing back a tear she desperately did not want to shed. Finally, she reached her room and, once inside, threw her books onto her bed and decided to take herself in hand.
She would not be beaten. She would show them all. She regarded the wall length mirror with trepidation and a kind of magnetic masochistic fascination.
She just had to look.
She had no choice. The compulsion to examine and criticize her appearance had long been a form of addiction, a ceremonial ritual she went through every morning. So were the familiar feelings of loathing and depression that welled up inside her as she stared back at the image in the mirror. Starting as a cold lump in her stomach they gradually insinuated themselves into her mind until they were displayed almost as graphically and painfully as the face in the reflection.
Ella Fallon was no beauty that was for sure. If brains, intellect and intelligence could be captured in a face then she could have been a glamorous centerfold, a rarer beauty even. There was no doubt about that. As it was, she was convinced that she was ugly. She hated the word yet she forced herself to confront it every morning. She needed to generate the necessary emotional charge before making the big wish. The fact was, most people would have simply called her plain and that was because her slightly oversized, bulbous nose, distorted top lip and mousy, straggly hair gave her the appearance of a rejected rag doll.
Bone structure: it was all about bone structure. Ella had tried to convince herself that her cheekbones were sculpted leading to a perfect mouth and a strong chin.
No, as far as Ella was concerned, she was ugly and that was that. Her mind was razor sharp, however. She was a straight A student and more. She also had a streak of basic grit and determination, which had seen her win a scholarship to Winfield, one of California’s most exclusive colleges. But ugly just wasn’t good enough in the post millennium world, with its frantic desire for immortality at all costs and its pathological fear of ageing.
Not that Winfield was much different. The beautiful elite could not tolerate a cuckoo in its comfortable, all expenses paid, nest.
Which is why Ella still carried out the ritual. One day, she knew, the little prayer would come true. Something would happen. She would wake up transformed. She would fall in love.
With a self deprecating snort, Ella turned from the intense contemplation of her features, gazed around her tidy and understated room, picked up a white candle and inserted it into a silver holder. This she placed reverently on a small lace handkerchief that lay on her bedside table, in front of the mirror. Then she took a small packet of salt which she kept just for this purpose and sprinkled a handful around the base of the candle. She knelt, lit the candle, and felt a charge of electricity run through her as the big wish began to build.
Ella stared at her reflection, which wavered in the flickering light of the candle. In her eyes an aura had appeared around her, an angelic halo of beauty through which the vision of an enchanting and haunting face stared back. Deep within her, she focused upon the wish, with an intensity born of long practice. She summoned the very essence of her being to the forefront of her mind, her thoughts burning like living embryos in the purified candle flame.
‘Make me beautiful,’ she muttered. ‘Make me beautiful...make me beautiful...’ Ella intoned the mantra till it reverberated through her soul. She was shaking with emotion at the end, when she could chant no longer.
Slowly she gathered her thoughts together, carefully blew out the candle and noticed with the usual sinking feeling that she looked exactly the same as before. She sighed. She realised no amount of chanting or salt sprinkling or candle flickering was going to alter her physiognomy. She just hoped and prayed for some kind of miracle or for someone who would think she was beautiful as she was.
Sadly, she moved to the window and looked out over Winfield’s manicured lawns, etched like a watercolor in the morning sun. People were moving lazily in the mellow light. In the distance she could hear the football team practising some bone crunching tackles. She could just make out coach Jackson’s voice screaming, ‘Come on, I want war!’
Soon it would be graduation and the long days of academia would be over. Ella knew she was destined to do well. She had a natural aptitude for computer science, in particular the technology of neural networks, but she was just as certain she would never grace the school’s hallowed hall of fame. No, that was reserved for the sons and daughters of senators and used car moguls and film celebrities who contributed conspicuously to the fortunes of the school. Most prominent of these, of course, was Marshall Stockton. He now, virtually, owned the school. As for Marshall’s son, Scott, he would certainly figure prominently in the list of glorious Winfield names. And he would go on to become a successful something or other. After all, he stood to inherit Stockton Industries, one the biggest conglomerates in the US.
If the beautiful elite had a leader, then Scott Stockton was its handsome champion and hero and he played the role to the hilt. With an ego the size of the Chrysler Building and an allowance to match, Scott had it made. The fact that he was an obnoxious son-of-a-bitch who enjoyed humiliating people at every opportunity only burned inside Ella like a flame of vengeful desire.
Ella leaned forward and smiled at the sudden appearance of Ed Leeming. She watched him as he shambled across the grass like a tired horse, a stack of books under one arm, head bent and shoulders hunched in a gesture of self-defense. Another scholarship kid, she thought. In fact, he was the only scholarship student at Winfield other than Ella. This set them apart from the rest. Remarkably, Leeming was another ugly duckling, complete with squint; beetroot mark on his cheek and slightly buck teeth. The beautiful elite, of course, had another target in Ed Leeming.
He was painfully shy, almost withdrawn, although, by some arcane twist of bewitching speed, in a certain light he bore a marked resemblance to the handsome Scott Stockton. But only in a certain light and that didn’t shine too often. Maybe it was just Ella’s imagination. She liked Ed. And she was pretty sure he liked her. Maybe it was just the common ground they occupied that caused her to feel this way.
To Ella, he was simply not ugly. Sure, she recognised the facial disfigurement. She knew all about that after all. No, it was strange. She could see through the surface features, deep into a tortured, introverted but incredibly interesting soul.
She stepped back from the window but kept her gaze fixed on the green expanse of lawn with the fringe of acacia trees and the school gates in the distance and then beyond at the gray and brown hills beginning to smoulder in the dry heat.
She ran her hands over her body, slowly over her breasts and buttocks finally pausing at her groin. She pressed her fingertips harder between her legs experiencing the familiar arousal, which had only once ever been allowed to burst into an all-consuming flame. It had not been the experience she had expected after her consummate reading of the teen magazines she used to scour secretly for tips on lovemaking, or locating erogenous zones, or simply getting a boy to like you. No, it had been a hasty rumble with a local farmer’s son in a stable at home in Virginia.
The memories of her deflowering consisted of a clear picture of a leering, sweating and bug-eyed face staring at her triumphantly through gritted, uneven and tobacco stained teeth; a stab of pain and a momentary spasm of what she later realised must have been pleasure. She could remember wiping droplets of manure-tainted sweat from her face as they cascaded from the farm boy’s forehead. To her eternal shame, he later branded her as an easy lay. It seemed that opening her legs was the only way she was going to get a boy, any kind of boy.
At least, that was the story she was told by every nerd in the neighborhood. When it became clear that she was attracting only the rejects and that she was not going to play ball, or any other kind of game, with them their interest waned and finally dried up altogether.
Ella was jarred from her reverie by the sounds of the football team grunting in unison outside. The explosions of distant breath sounded almost orgasmic to her ears. She shook herself, took a deep breath and began to collect her books and papers for the first class of the day.
Ed Leeming turned and looked out across the lawns. In the distance he could make out the shifting mass of players moving, their shapes distorted in the haze until they resembled figures in a mirage. Ed could hear coach Jackson’s voice from here, echoing across the green sward until it was swallowed up by the soft chatter of students rushing into the elegant colonial-style building, and the crunch of feet on expensive gravel.
Ed was not a great athlete although he had always wanted to be. He had idolised sporting stars like most young boys but a combination of his slight disfigurement and a gammy foot had caused him to be ostracised from serious sport. He smiled to himself as a brief wash of despair overcame him. He could have been a contender, huh! That was his trouble.
He kept telling himself what he could have been. His mother, to whom a place like Winfield and all it stood for was anathema, was always telling him he had his whole life in front of him. It didn’t feel like that to him. Maybe he should never have accepted the scholarship place here. He was a fish out of water, a joke; a freak.
The taunts, jibes and smart remarks still hurt. He was close to genius level in mathematics. He loved numbers. He understood them. They spoke to him. They were his friends. He could see how they worked together, related, and synchronised. It was people he had trouble with.
If only he could have made quarterback instead of understanding transfinite cardinals. Then people would take notice of Ed Leeming; the right kind of notice. One day they would do just that. They would know all about Ed Leeming.
For the moment he hunched his shoulders in his familiar fashion and happened to glance at his reflection in a nearby window just as the sun peeped over the top of the roof. For a second his profile was etched to perfection, caught in a time frame.
The inflamed mark on his cheek was hidden, his squint appeared natural in the sunlight and shadow buried his projecting teeth till they looked just normal. For that brief second he was looking at someone else’s face; someone he knew very well indeed; someone he hated with a fierce passion. Scott Stockton and Ed Leeming were opposites, yet in that brief moment in the spotlight they could have changed places. For that brief moment too Ed imagined just what it would be like to be Scott Stockton, who was a shallow and rampant Adonis figure, totally hedonistic and devoted to his own pleasure, yet with something of his father’s natural acumen and sense of destiny. He was everything that Ed was not. At that brief and fiery instant, with sunlight drawing a bead along his profile, Ed Leeming fantasised that he was Scott Stockton, and yet himself. In other words, he had what Stockton possessed and more.
The sun moved over the edge of the roof drowning the graveled pathway with light, drenching Ed with the full power of its illumination and dispelling the short lived illusion. A couple of girls strolled by, glanced at Ed staring into the window and giggled. Startled, Ed hunched protectively and shuffled off.
Coach John Jackson bellowed his instructions at the towering hulks sweating in the early morning team practice session. Where the hell was his star player, Mr. God Almighty, my father owns the school Scott Stockton? He looked off for a moment over towards the school gate as if expecting to see the insolent and jaunty figure ambling across as if he owned the place. He does, near as be damned, Jackson growled to himself. And he had to admit he was a good football player. He had good hands and split second timing and could weight a pass with a delicacy, which seemed incongruous. Trouble was, the boy was quite simply in love with himself. That was his big problem.
‘He should’ve been born poor,’ Jackson muttered under his breath. ‘Just wait till I get my hands on that arrogant asshole.’
At that moment Scott Stockton was indeed working out. He was also heavily stoned, spaced way out on pure Jamaican weed. He was kneeling on a large bed with an ornate headboard depicting a condor with outstretched wings.
He was naked and sweat was slipping down his body and trickling across his waist and down along his thighs as he ground his hips in regular thrusts.
Before him knelt a woman, buttocks raised like sand dunes. She was moaning quietly, deep in her throat. Scott could not remember her name at that moment but it didn’t really matter. He sucked hard, drawing the smoke down into his lungs. He stared straight ahead, moving his pelvis as though he was on automatic pilot.
Scott’s eyes dilated. He felt his own orgasm rising. When his seminal explosion erupted, he almost swallowed his joint. He just managed to spit it out at the crucial moment.
Later, Scott staggered around the room, picking up items of discarded clothing, chuckling to himself then humming a tune. He dressed himself, watched by the woman on the bed who was now lying with her feet tucked up sucking her thumb.
‘That was great, really was,’ Scott giggled. ‘How was it for...’ He broke off in a fit of giggles. The woman stared, saying nothing. Scott, now dressed, ambled to the door, turned and saluted her, searching for an appropriate exit line. His mind pictured the scene at the football training session he should have been attending, in particular the scowling face of coach Jackson.
‘I’ll be in touch, okay!’ The remark amused him. He turned, walked into the door, swore, opened it and left with a theatrical wave.
Outside it was a high pollen count day. Scott slipped on a pair of shades and vaulted in and slid down onto the red leather upholstery of his lithium supercharged Cobra convertible. He snapped an Eagles micro CD into place and slammed the car into gear. It hummed reassuringly as the first bars of ‘Hotel California’ jingled from the quad speakers. Scott turned up the volume and pushed his foot on the accelerator. The morning sun hung like a giant orange watermelon as the Cobra shot away from the secluded art-deco house, along a private drive and out onto an empty highway.
Up ahead, two roads joined, about three miles outside the small town of Floraville, from where a private road ran on to Winfield College.
Scott glanced over to his right as he came up to the intersection. A black Porsche suddenly appeared out of nowhere, ignored the stop sign, and raced in to run side by side with the Cobra.
The Porsche had its hood down. The driver was about eighteen and swarthy. He grinned over at Scott.
‘Been working overtime have you, Scott?’ he yelled.
‘Dedication, Wayne,’ Scott screamed back and his voice blasted off behind him.
Neck and neck the two cars hit a hundred and twenty, then a hundred and thirty. Both drivers were yelling and screaming and whooping with exhilaration. Up ahead, just before the Winfield junction, a battered green truck wheezed along at around forty. The driver saw the twin pillars of dust in his mirror. He saw two pairs of headlights flashing. He started to move into the center of the road, hesitated, trying to make up his mind.
Slowing to ninety, the Cobra and the Porsche swerved in a figure of eight around the truck and out on in front, missing each other by a fender width. The truck driver slammed on the brakes, swerved and lost control. The old truck toppled on its side and screeched along the heat soaked road in a scream of ripping metal before coming to rest.
By this time the two cars were a memory. All that could be seen ahead was a flicker of tail-lights as they turned off onto the road to Winfield.
Scott Stockton and Wayne Krantz glanced at each other as their cars screamed through the college gates together, scattering gravel like shrapnel and screeching to a halt outside the main college building. Nearby the football team was trooping off wearily, being encouraged by an over anxious John Jackson. They chanted desultorily.
‘Winfield Rockets go to war. We know what we’re fighting for.’
Scott and Wayne jumped out of their cars. Jackson noticed Scott arrive, and was pointedly writing something in a notebook. Angrily he stomped over. Wayne winked at Scott.
‘Looks like you’re in his bad books, old buddy,’ he whispered.
Jackson moved in on Scott, taking his arm forcefully and marching him several yards away from the others. The coach’s lips were quivering as he fought to keep his cool.
‘You mess with me again, Stockton...’ Jackson left the rest of the threat unsaid. Scott stared bleakly back.
‘Sorry, coach. Did you miss me? I sure as hell didn’t miss you.’
‘Don’t be smart. You could be good, even though you’re an egotistical little shit. You won’t miss training again, will you boy? You’ll do it for the team, Stockton, or if you don’t give a damn about the team, you’ll do it for the school. You know how much your father loves this school. You know how much pride he has in the football team.’
Scott looked suitably abashed.
‘Sure, coach. I know how much he loves the team. I know how much he expects from the coach too: all that motivation and stuff. Can’t be easy. A lot of coaches have been and gone, all because they couldn’t motivate the team. Don’t worry, coach, when the chips are down you can rely on me.’
Jackson snarled with contempt, released Scott and strode off. Scott raised one finger at his departing back and returned to Wayne and to the hovering group of girls. Wayne nodded in Jackson’s direction.
‘Don’t worry about him, Scott. Come the fall you’ll be playing the markets.’
One of the girls, Troy, shimmied over to the two boys. She was blonde and pretty. ‘Without your daddy’s money you’d be sucking on air, Scott,’ she said provocatively.
Wayne put his arm around Scott’s shoulders as the two other girls, Casey and Ramona, joined Troy. ‘Weren’t sucking on air this morning, were we, old buddy? Maybe you should give us a try.’
‘Good work out, Scott? We didn’t see you at training,’ Casey smiled.
‘Didn’t even break sweat,’ he replied casually.
‘Give you two a try,’ laughed Ramona. ‘Dream on, boys. Come on, Troy, Casey, we’ll be late.’
The girls moved off whispering to each other, turning back to smile at Scott and Wayne who, with a quick glance at each other, followed the three sets of swinging hips through the main doors and into the building.
Scott glanced over to the right at one of the colonnaded walkways. Bright sunlight and deep shadow combined to produce a monochrome flickering effect, like in those early movies. The throng of students, teachers and staff milling around appeared to Scott’s suddenly addled mind to be dappled by a fierce strobe. A memory of smoke itched inside his lungs. He was disoriented by a brief drugged relapse. The hallucination was riveting. They were all dead. They were all moving on a strip of celluloid, replaying their lives in thirty-five millimetres. But they were going nowhere. They were all just images on some movie reel.
A shiver speared him along his spine, turning his bowels to water. He saw himself in the crowd, not striding with his shoulders back, not stepping out with his usual arrogant poise, but hunched like a dwarf recoiling from a blow. It was him and yet it was not him. For the briefest of instances, Scott Stockton tasted his own death.