Helena glides along the corridor on roller-skates, twisting every so often to avoid a collision or sometimes just leaving a hapless student to scramble out of the way, her hair streaming out behind her and polaroid camera raised in front of her. She snaps blurred portraits of interesting things as she slides past (a girl peeking out, nervous, head tilted, from beneath her fringe – the word slut scrawled across a locker door – Beth’s rolled eyes and hands pushed into coat pockets at the sight of Helena – immaculate pink-polished nails clutching a textbook – a puff of smoke drifting from behind the door of the girls’ bathroom) but lowers the camera carefully when a teacher swings glowering, long-striding into the hallway.
The moment he disappears from sight, Helena lifts the camera back up to eye level, only to be met with the sight of Rudy’s queasy grin through the lens. She jerks backwards as the jocks crowd into her space, Seth standing at Rudy’s shoulder as always, the others grouped loosely behind the twins.
“You takin’ pictures of us?” Rudy asks, tossing his head with a kind of careless arrogance. Helena’s gaze follows the wavering line of his scar up his cheek, across his eye.
“No,” she says, closing her lips around the word as if it is a secret to hold in her mouth.
“Don’t worry,” Rudy says, “We’ve got handsome faces, my brother and I. We won’t break your camera.” He shows her a crocodile grin, wide and mocking and nothing like sincere.
Helena says nothing, but tilts her head to the side and considers him with an unerring stare. She is not afraid of Rudy the way she is afraid of the teachers. He is just a boy. (A boy who sometimes stands in the courtyard flipping a wickedly-sharp knife over and over in his hand. But still, a boy.)
“I’m going to see Gracie,” Mark says, and wanders off. The others drift after him, and Rudy gives Helena one last wide-eyed stare, lifting his eyebrows towards his hairline.
Helena snaps a picture of his cockatoo hair-tuft as he turns away. One of the other boys (Parsons?) sees her do it and catches her eye, but he doesn’t say anything. Helena catches the hint of a smile on his face as he walks away.
Helena sucks her lips back into her mouth, presses down on them as she skates, slowing, into the classroom and sees the teacher talking to one of the girls, pressed too close, too close –
– and Mr Olivier straightens up at the sight of her, walks to the blackboard looking only the slightest bit unsettled. Helena’s camera has slipped away out of sight; she is sinking down, silent, into a seat with her bag shoved between her feet.
The stranger elects to drop Sarah off in front of a huge brick building, and she shoves her way out of the car quickly, her boots slapping unceremoniously onto the rain-soaked ground. She pulls her hood up over her tangled hair to ward off the worst of the rain, lifts a hand in a brief gesture of thanks to the driver as he pulls away. She squints around for a moment and then trudges towards the nearest building and her fastest chance of shelter.
Mr Olivier smiles, full-toothed and entirely too pleased about handing out frogs for dissection. He strolls along the rows of desks, pointing, instructing, grinning, until –
– a pause, a stretching of expectation as he waits for a girl to raise her scalpel.
At last the girl – Veera – chokes out, “I can’t.”
Mr Olivier lets out a low chuckle – (Helena is reminded with stomach-punch, sickening clarity of Tomas – his queasy smile looming closer – his belt swinging buckle-glinting towards her – blood on his hand as he strokes a thumb across her cheek – ) and Veera shrinks into herself, brushes her hair across her cheek to hide a little more. Her body edges involuntarily away from Olivier where he leans over her desk, her eyes darting about the room in a muted, suppressed kind of desperation. Helena can’t quite meet her eyes. She folds her hands in her lap, turns them over once, twice. Presses her fingers together until it hurts.
“Listen, Veera –” Olivier begins, and then breaks off at the sound of heavy footsteps.
Helena looks up, and there she is. Just about Helena’s height, but she looks taller – leather-clad and tangle-haired with the slope of her shoulders reading defiance clear as day and a tilt to her chin which says I dare you.
“Excuse me,” Mr Olivier says, brusque. “If you’re new, please take a seat. I’ll get the paperwork later.”
Sarah shrugs, her eyes flicking between him and the huddled figure of Veera, and then she slopes over to sit in the seat opposite Helena’s, shrugging off her bag and dumping it at her feet. Helena can’t help but stare at her, mouth open a little.
Across the room, Olivier says, “Everyone else in the room can do it.” Veera drops her gaze, on the edge of tears. “Pick up the scalpel, or we’ll have to talk about this in detention.”
“No!” Veera says, sharp, anxious.
“What’s the deal with detention?” Sarah asks, low, across the table.
Helena shakes her head, slight. “He does…bad things.” Then, in a hushed voice, “To girls.” She avoids Sarah’s gaze.
“I’ll do it,” Veera says. “I’ll – I’ll kill the frog.”
“I knew you had it in you to behave,” Olivier says, gloating.
Veera raises the scalpel, hand trembling, and Sarah’s eyes are on Helena’s face, waiting, it feels like, for her to move. At the last second, Sarah shoves off from the desk, marches to Veera and wraps her hand gently around Veera’s wrist. She guides the scalpel out of her hand as Veera looks up in surprise, fear, relief, and Mr Olivier says, “Young lady –”
Sarah scoops up the frog and walks to the window to release it as Mr Olivier repeats ineffectually, “Young lady – Young lady, what do you think you’re doing?”
Sarah walks back past Helena to snatch up her bag as Olivier calls, “Well, I’ll be seeing you in detention, then.”
Sarah scoffs, turns back to face the room with an easy smile. “I don’t even go here.” She swings out the window and jumps to the ground. Olivier stares and Veera looks down to hide the smallest of smiles.
Helena sinks back into her chair filled half with awe and half with disappointment at this sudden departure.
Sarah’s still there when Helena wanders into the bathroom later, leaning against the sink as if it’s perfectly natural for her to be here, in the bathroom of a school she doesn’t go to, talking to Veera and Cosima as if she knows them.
“What else does he do?” Sarah asks. Veera tugs at the strap of her backpack, lips caught between her teeth.
Cosima says, shaky, “He…gets really close, and he touches my chest. And he’ll…rub against me, sometimes.”
Helena looks from Cosima to Sarah, says, raspier than she means it to be, “What is happening?”
“Cosima’s making up shit about Mr Olivier,” supplies Angie, drying her hands.
“It’s true,” Cosima says, lip trembling, and Veera’s eyes flick towards Angie with something like anger. (It’s quiet, but it’s there.)
“As if anyone would want to touch you with that hair,” Angie says, scornful.
“Oh, give it a break, DeAngelis,” Beth snaps, and Cosima looks sideways at her, gives her a grateful, watery smile.
Beside Beth, Alison is spiralling inwards, tightening her grip on herself, one arm crossed over her ribs and the other hand pressed along her jaw. “Mr Olivier wouldn’t do that,” she says, voice fluttering upwards, desperate. “He couldn’t, he – can’t, he’s not –”
“Cosima isn’t lying,” comes a voice from inside the stall, precise and certain. The door swings open and there is Rachel Duncan, poised, spine straight. “It’s happened more than once. It’s happened,” her jaw tightens almost imperceptibly, “to me.”
“You?” Krystal says, bordering on incredulity. “The ice queen?”
Rachel meets her gaze in the mirror, level, cold.
Krystal concedes first, looks away.
“Look, you’re the assholes, for letting him get away with it,” Angie says, throwaway, like a distraction.
“No,” Sarah says, rough, pushing away from the sink, and the movement has so much pent-up energy behind it that Angie backs up a step. “We’re gonna stop this piece of shite.”
Helena asks, “How?” but even she can hear the note of hope in her voice.
Sarah shrugs, as if it’s obvious. “Together.”
Angie snorts. “Give me a break.” She slings her bag over her shoulder, clacks her way out of the bathroom. Krystal rolls her eyes and follows.
Sarah looks around at the rest of them. “You in or what?”
Beth nods first, which means that Alison is in too. Cosima gives her a slow-spreading smile and Veera nods once, quick and frightened.
“Yes,” Helena says. “I am also…in.”
Rachel flicks her gaze towards Sarah, a single glance taking in her scuffed and battered appearance.
She takes one measured breath and says, “I trust that you have a plan.”
Cosima sits on a stool in the middle of the classroom, shoulders rounded in defeat and head turned away from Mr Olivier. He stands up, walks over to shut the blinds. Cosima closes her eyes for a second, tries not to shake. Olivier sits down next to her, leaning in close. He reaches out and brushes her dreads away from her neck, coarse fingertips trailing across her skin. Cosima holds perfectly still, stares at the floor.
“You know, you could do well in my class,” Olivier says, “If you just learned to value the right things about yourself.”
Cosima says, quiet, “I’m a good student…”
Olivier frowns, lets his hand rest heavy on her collarbone. “That’s the problem,” he says. “You think you’re some great scientist.” His hand slides downwards. “You’re a pretty girl, Cosima. You’ll do better in the world once you learn to focus on that.”
The door thumps open, and Mr Olivier moves away quickly. “Veera.”
She stands in the doorway, thumbs hooked through the straps of her backpack and eyes averted, looking half-poised to run. “I – I forgot my notebook.”
Olivier says bluntly, “Well, get it then.”
Veera walks into the room proper, and a beat later Beth follows her in, nonchalant.
“Childs. What are you doing here?”
She doesn’t answer. Alison, Rachel, Helena and Sarah pour in after her, and Sarah slams the door closed behind them.
“What is going on here?” Olivier says, standing.
Sarah says, voice low with disgust, “Don’t let us stop you. Go on with what you were doing.”
“Pervert,” Alison says, sharp and fast.
“C’mere, Dreads,” Sarah says, and Cosima slides off the stool and goes to her side.
Olivier raises his hand to point at Cosima. “That young lady is in detention today.”
“Mr Olivier,” Rachel says, clipped and precise. He turns to face her, bewildered, and Rachel smiles coldly. “We are going to have a conversation.”
“Keep your hands off Cosima,” Sarah says.
“And Veera,” Beth interjects.
“And whoever the fuck else you do this to.”
Sarah lunges forward, slams her knee between Olivier’s legs, then quickly retreats again as he doubles over.
“You fucking little punk,” he splutters, angry. Sarah paces back a step and he pushes forward into the space. “That’s right, you better move. You – you keep on moving!”
“Or what?” Beth says, raising an eyebrow.
“This is outrageous!” Olivier bellows. “This is absolutely – I’m a teacher!” He zeroes in on Alison, following her as she retreats behind a table. “Alison! You don’t believe Veera, you don’t – she’s emotionally unstable!”
“I’m not!” Veera exclaims. “I’m not –”
Olivier storms across the room and takes Veera by the arm with a wordless shout.
“Oi!” Sarah yells, at the same time Alison cries, “Leave her alone!”
Both of them have charged at him, grabbing at his arms, and Helena takes a running leap, screeching, to get her arms around his neck. With his head being pulled backwards, he releases Veera, who stumbles away. Olivier staggers back a few steps and slams Helena into the blackboard. She drops to the floor, scrambling to find her feet. Sarah lunges at Olivier again, but he shoves her away. Beth is there, delivering a swift kick to Olivier’s kneecap while Alison rains blows on him, keeping up a constant stream of, “Eff you! Screw you!”
Cosima backs up against the wall, one hand covering her mouth, watching as Helena grabs Olivier by the hair and slams his head into a desk, hard.
She leans down, hands twisting around his neck, and speaks softly into his ear. “You will keep your little…snake under control, or I will come back and cut it off.”
Sarah pulls at her arms. “Helena…”
She knows my name, Helena thinks, rapturous, and lets go of Olivier’s throat.
“Let’s get out of here,” Sarah says. Then, more urgently, “C’mon, let’s go.”
They pile out the door (and someone is laughing) (and Beth’s hand ghosts along behind Veera’s back, a guide there if she needs it), a scrambling mass bursting out into the empty corridor.
Rachel Duncan stands alone in the room with Olivier, her face impassive, barely watching as the others leave. Olivier slides sideways from where he was half-lying on the desk, letting himself sink down onto his knees. Rachel walks over to him slowly, heels clicking on the linoleum. With the toe of her shoe she shoves him in the chest, the momentum tipping his head back. His nose is bleeding and he gapes at her dully. Rachel stares down at him for a moment, and then she strikes him across the face, hard enough to jolt his whole body.
“You lay hands on me.” Her voice comes out in a hiss. She reaches out and rakes her polished, immaculate fingernails down his cheek, leaving four long welts. Her smile is victorious, ferocious. Vindicated.
“No one lays hands on me.”
Outside, Sarah looks around the gaggle of laughing girls, realising the absence of a coldly smirking one.
“I’m gonna go back for Rachel,” she says. “You guys go on.”
Helena’s head turns to watch her go, disappointed again, until Cosima says, “Dude, you went crazy on him,” pulling her attention back. She sounds…impressed. Admiring, even. Helena grins at her, makes a low growling sound in the back of her throat and bares her teeth.
Beth laughs, head tilting, and one hand drops to Helena’s shoulder for a second, shoving her lightly. “Didn’t know you had it in you.”
Alison twists her hands together. “Did we really just do that? Oh my goodness, oh my – what if someone saw us?”
Veera says quietly, “We should leave.”
“We are in so much trouble,” Alison says, in a voice of dawning realisation tinged with horror. “We are in so much trouble.”
“Just stay calm,” Beth says. “It’s okay, we’re okay.”
“Who is that girl, anyway?”
They all look at each other, elation fading.
“I think we should all…go somewhere, together,” Cosima says, hopeful.
“Oh my lord,” Alison says, “this isn’t a way to make friends, Cosima. This isn’t normal.”
“We should probably all just go home,” Beth says, and Veera nods, a tiny, deflated one-two.
Then Alison says, “Did you call it a snake, Helena?” and Beth snorts while Veera covers a laugh with her hand.
Helena looks between them, cautious, and slowly her hands, twisted tightly behind her, uncurl.
Helena is hunched over her desk, scrawling cartoonish figures across a huge sheet of paper. One of them, dressed all in black, keeps showing up over and over again (some of them are holding hands with little cartoon Helenas, while others just stand at a distance with big, curving smiles). A tap on the window makes her look up, and there is Sarah, half-crouched in the darkness, peering in. Helena feels her face splitting into a grin, covers up her drawings with one quick motion before she scrambles to open the window.
“Hey,” Sarah says, climbing in.
“You came back,” Helena murmurs, delighted.
“You dropped your camera,” Sarah says, shifting on her feet. “In Olivier’s classroom. Seemed important.” She reaches into her bag and produces the camera, passes it into Helena’s open hands.
“How did you find the way to this house?”
Sarah smiles wryly and points at the sticker on the side of the camera. “It’s written right here, meathead.” (But she says this gently, and Helena doesn’t even think of protesting).
“Missus S,” she says, remembering. “When she bought me this.”
Sarah steps back, and Helena watches her look around the room, taking in the scattered mass of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, the pools of brightness from lamps which are the only light source, the hundreds of polaroids pasted across the walls (a shot of some leaves at the base of a tree, the snout and ear of a dog, blurred with motion, a smiling woman in a kitchen holding out a copper kettle, the tail of somebody’s coat retreating out of the frame, another dog – this time in focus, the sky, what looks like Helena’s own hair draped across the camera lens, and on and on and on).
“Your name,” Helena says, with the palpable relief of letting out a pent-up question. “What is it?”
“It’s Sarah. Sarah Manning.”
“Sarah,” Helena says. Repeats it. “Do you –” she halts, starts again. “You live here, yes?”
Sarah shakes her head. “I don’t really live anywhere. Just passing through.”
Helena bites at her lip. “Why did you help us?”
Sarah looks away, pushes a hand through her hair. “This Olivier guy – he’d been doing that to your friends for a while, yeah?”
Helena blinks. “They – they wouldn’t call me friend,” her voice comes out almost a whisper. “If you asked.”
Sarah shrugs one shoulder, half turns away. “They might now.”
Helena tracks Sarah’s trajectory towards the window with something like panic. She blurts out, “Sarah –”
Sarah turns back, a question on her face.
“Sleep here,” Helena says. “Not under bridges.”
Sarah snorts at that, but she’s stopped moving. “Your fam’ly gonna mind?” she asks, sceptical.
Helena shakes her head rapidly. “It is just Missus S here. She…” Helena purses her lips, says as if repeating someone else’s words, “takes in strays. Anyway.”
Sarah nods. “Alright. Thanks.”
“Morning, Chicken,” Mrs S greets her. “What’s got you so –”
She turns at the sound of Sarah’s boots thudding to the ground outside, in time to catch the sight of Sarah crossing the yard and stepping over the gate.
“Who’s this?” she asks, raising an eyebrow at Helena. “Friend of yours?”
Helena lets out an inelegant giggle, shoulders rising up around her ears in a shrug.
Mrs S takes this in for a moment. “Just let me know if she wants to stay again, alright? Can’t’ve been comfortable sleeping in all that leather.”
Helena says joyfully, “She borrowed my t-shirt!”
Mrs S watches Helena bouncing on the balls of her feet, trying to hold back on beaming, and says, “I can see you want to get on out of here. Go on, take this.” She hands over a stack of toast, which Helena gladly balances on one hand, wedging the corner of a slice into her mouth with the other, so that it flaps slightly as she hurries out the door.
Mrs S snorts through her nose and goes back to making tea.
Sarah is leaning against next door’s fence when Helena emerges, and she launches herself lightly off the wood to fall into step beside her.
“You get in trouble?”
Helena shakes her head, swallows her bite of toast to say, “No troubles.”
“She treat you alright? The foster mum?”
“Yes. It is…” she considers. “Safe place. Not like school.” She brightens. “You could stay! On my floor!”
Sarah snorts. “Yeah, I don’t think so. Pretty sure I’d wear out my welcome.”
Helena accepts this philosophically. “I know a place, then,” she says. “An empty house, one half mile away.”
“Yeah? Sounds alright. None of you snoring, that way.”
Helena laughs, spilling toast crumbs onto her jacket.
Sarah rolls her eyes, half-smiling. “Get to school, then.”
Helena bobs her head obediently. “I will see you again, after.”
Maybe it’s her confidence, but Sarah doesn’t argue. “Don’t take any shit,” she says, and Helena nods seriously.
“How could you just do that, and not even tell me?” He sounds annoyed, leaning over Beth.
She opens her locker. “Because it’s not about you, Paul.”
Something in his jaw tightens, but he drops his gaze. “Well, why didn’t you go to Mr Leekie?”
Beth turns on him. “If Olivier did that to you – pressed you against a blackboard, grabbed your balls – what would you do?”
“How?” she demands.
“It just is, Beth. And you know it.”
Beth meets his eyes, defiant.
He holds her gaze for a moment, then sighs. “Alright, I’d kick his ass.”
She nods. “Exactly.”
“Hey…where were you last night? I called.”
“I was with Ali,” she says, looking away.
“Oh,” he says. “Right.”
Beth closes her locker door. “You gonna walk me to class, or what?”
“Yeah.” He leans in for a kiss. “Of course.”
There’s a substitute teacher, and he stands up at the sight of her. “Are you Elizabeth Childs?”
“You’re wanted in the principal’s office.”
There’s a faint “ooooh,” from the rest of the class, and then Paul’s hand on Beth’s back is guiding her towards the door.
“This note,” Mr Leekie says, holding it out, “was intercepted between two students in class. Is there any truth to it?”
“It says we beat up Olivier,” Alison says.
Cosima shrugs innocently. Veera stares at the floor.
“Things got out of hand,” Beth says.
Rachel turns her head minutely to give Beth a glacial stare.
“So it’s true?” Leekie says, leaning forward in his chair.
“He grabbed me,” Cosima blurts.
“So we broke his nose,” Helena hisses.
“Excuse me?” Leekie shakes his head in confusion.
“He was sexually harassing Cosima,” Beth says.
“And Veera,” Cosima mumbles.
“This is a very serious accusation,” Leekie says.
“Obviously,” Alison says sharply, and then covers her mouth.
“What are you girls, hm? Some sort of…gang, is that what you think?”
Rachel meets his gaze levelly. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mr Leekie.”
Leekie looks taken aback, flounders for a second before he settles on anger. “I’m suspending you all for two weeks for your conduct in this office and for assaulting a teacher. I’ll have you escorted out.”
“Mr Leekie,” Helena says, plaintive. “I need to get my art things. First, from the art rooms.”
“I don’t think so,” Leekie says, standing.
“My folio of arts is due tomorrow,” Helena murmurs.
“You should have thought of that before,” Leekie says, crossing to the door and holding it open.
“That isn’t fair,” Beth says.
“Two and a half weeks,” Leekie says angrily.
“What about Mr Olivier?” Alison says.
“You leave that to me.”
“He should be fired,” Beth says loudly.
“Three weeks. Would you like to keep going.”
They file out of the room.
“I can’t go home,” Alison says, fretting. “I’d have to tell my mother.”
“I’d say we could go to my place,” Beth offers. “But, y’know, my dad’s there.”
“I know a place we can go,” Helena says.
“Your foster home?” Rachel says, voice dripping with disdain, and Helena almost gives up.
(But Sarah! Sarah is there.)
“You’ll see,” she says. “There is no parents in this house.”
Beth shrugs. Rachel sighs heavily, but all of them follow Helena when she sets off, hands in pockets, high-stepping over clumps of grass.
The house is huge, rambling, run down. The glass from the windows lies shattered in the greenery beneath them, and the front door swings peeling and open from its hinges. Cosima stares with wonder at the plants encroaching on the house, while Veera pulls her sleeves down over her hands, standing uncertainly in the front room.
Rachel looks at everything with an expression of mild disdain, but quickly moves to the top of the stairs and, once there, lets out a contented breath through her nose, surveying a space which no authority has a better claim to than her own. Helena walks through empty doorways, the smile slowly sliding off her face as she eliminates possible spaces to find Sarah in.
But at last, there she is, sitting on a low, battered coffee table at the back of the house, a row of bottles lined up beside her.
“Hey,” she says, frowning slightly. “You skipping school?”
“We are suspended,” Helena says, giddy with relief. “For taking no shits.”
“What, all of you?”
Helena nods, abruptly worried about the possibility of Sarah’s disapproval.
Sarah laughs. “I would have thought at least Rachel could’ve found a way out of it.”
Rachel rounds the corner, eyes settling on Sarah. “I appreciate the sentiment,” she says. “But Mr Leekie was in no condition to see reason.”
“Leekie’s such an asshole,” Beth calls from the next room.
“He wouldn’t even let Helena get her photography stuff,” Cosima adds, coming to lean on the door frame.
“It is cutoff tomorrow, for arts folios,” Helena says. “Due date.”
“Well then we should go get it,” Sarah says.
Cosima looks at her. “What?”
“We should go into the school and get it. If there’s an, uh – a utility hatch in the roof or the basement we can get in through there. Tonight.”
Alison has appeared in the doorway beside Cosima, as if pulled into the conversation on a string of anxiety. “I would be in so much trouble if we were caught.”
Cosima nods. “She’s right.”
Sarah shrugs. “Helena took that risk for you.”
“Yeah,” Beth leans through an empty window in the wall, on the edge of smirking, “I’m down for a felony.”
(And Veera is laughing behind Beth, a careless, unexpected sound.)
“Beth!” Alison exclaims, scandalised. “Your father is a police officer.”
“So?” Beth shrugs. “That doesn’t stop him from –” she breaks off, glancing quickly away. “…anything.”
“What d’you reckon, Helena?” Sarah says. “We going?”
Sarah drops through the hatch first, boots thudding onto the linoleum. Cosima braces one foot against the side of the hatch before she lets herself fall, and Beth swings down easily after her. Helena hangs by her hands, laughter bubbling up, and swings back and forth a few times.
“Helena,” Alison hisses, whisper-shout, crouched in the space above her, “This isn’t a fun fair!” Beth and Cosima are laughing in the corridor below, and Alison sighs dramatically.
Helena obediently clears the way for Alison, who reaches up to straighten her bangs immediately after she hits the floor. Helena guffaws with her mouth wide, gaze sliding sideways to meet Sarah’s laughing eyes.
A small voice from above says, “I can’t – I can’t do it.” Veera’s shoes dangle from the hatch as she peers nervously down at them all. “Please don’t go without me.”
Beth says easily, “We’re not going anywhere; we’re right here.”
Veera hesitates a moment longer, then bites her lip hard as she pushes off with both hands from the metal and doesn’t open her eyes until she hits the floor. Sarah flashes a grin at her and Cosima pulls her to her feet, the group already scrambling excitedly into motion.
(Rachel has elected to miss this trip, saying only, “I’m quite sure you can manage it without me.”)
They reach the art room, the circle of yellow from Cosima’s flashlight bobbing ahead of them. Moving together, they try not to trip over chairs, Alison shushing them all at regular intervals. Beth is the first to reach the workbench where Helena’s polaroids lie scattered and disorganised. As they begin to gather them up, shoving them hurriedly into an oversized folder, Beth’s eyes settle on a picture of herself, two days ago, rolling her eyes at Helena. She passes it into Helena’s waiting palm, who looks up from it to smile guilelessly at her before she turns away with an avalanche of swinging hair to deposit the photo in the folder. Beth feels something in her lighten, float away. Cosima hefts the now-thick folder, and Veera says, “Is that everything? Is that all we need?”
Helena scans the bench and the shelf beneath it, nods.
“We’re good,” Sarah says. “C’mon.”
The flashlight moves erratically as Cosima manoeuvres the folder under her arm, already jostling her way between two chairs.
There’s a crash from the darkness behind Beth, and then the sound of Alison yelping, “Oh sh – sugar!” followed by shattering glass. The flashlight swings towards the noise to reveal Alison, sprawled on the floor with her feet tangled in the legs of a stool which has evidently toppled, the top half of it now resting partway through the art room window. They are allowed to stare for a fraction of a second before an alarm whoops into life. Veera flinches and covers her ears, Beth says “fuck!” and then Sarah is pulling Alison to her feet and gesturing wildly at everyone to move.
Beth pulls it together enough to help shepherd them across the room, fumbling and crashing their way towards the door. They break out into the corridor, finally able to move freely, and sprint towards the stairs. Helena skids to a standstill by the window, staring out at the red and blue lights flickering across the grass.
“Holy shit!” Cosima exclaims, ducking away from the window and half-falling in her haste.
“Police!” Alison cries, panicked, and then Sarah is grabbing her by the arm, pulling all of them skidding and stumbling towards an alcove between two blocks of lockers. They press backwards into the space, breathing hard. Helena tries to shush Alison’s constant stream of, “oh Christ oh Christ oh Christ –” with little success. Sarah glances at Beth’s bloodless face, peeks around the corner of the lockers. The door of the police cruiser is open now, an officer with a flashlight standing beside it. He walks straight towards them.
Beth puts her hand over Alison’s mouth. The police officer is only a few meters away, getting closer. Cosima closes her eyes.
And then, impossibly, from nowhere, a rock is sailing in a perfect arc towards the window. The glass shatters loudly and Alison lets out a scream muffled only slightly by Beth’s hand. The policeman turns on the spot, swinging the flashlight suspiciously towards the origin of the rock’s trajectory, and then marches off in the direction of the bushes behind the school.
Sarah lets out her breath. After another glance towards the window, she tugs on Veera’s sleeve to jolt her into motion, and then they are all racing up the corridor again, scrambling up the stairs. One by one they boost each other up through the hatch, with Veera being pulled up last by Helena and Sarah, gripping one of her arms each.
Veera pulls the hatch closed behind them, and for a moment there is only the sound of six people breathing in the dark.
“Well!” Alison says brightly, “I’d say that went fairly smoothly.”
Helena falls over laughing.
Rachel is standing in the front room when they get back to the abandoned house, lit from below by what must be thirty candles on surfaces around the room. The others tumble in the door, breathless, exhilarated. Helena whoops at the sight of so many tiny fires, reaches out to pass her hand flicker-fast through a flame.
“Where did you find all these candles?” Veera asks softly, turning in a slow half-circle. Rachel doesn’t answer, only drops her eyes to the flashlight Cosima still holds, her smile slightly mocking.
Sarah pushes a hand through her hair, gives Rachel a curious look. It seems impossible to picture, somehow, Rachel loading up her handbag with candles.
Rachel catches her gaze, sighs gently and murmurs, “You seemed rather inept with the flashlight.” It’s clear that no one but Sarah was intended to hear this, but Veera and Cosima both turn sharply towards her, and Helena is looking at her with wide eyes. All of them know, now, that it was Rachel who threw the rock through the window, back at the school. (None of them say anything, because Rachel would hate it if they did). (Cosima gives her a small smile, and Rachel moves her head very slightly in something approximating a nod).
Slowly they settle around the room, some of them sinking onto the battered old couch that sits askew from the wall, Beth and Alison leaning against it, Rachel perched on the arm. Cosima passes Helena the folder of her photos, and Helena laughs, giddy, hugs it to her chest. Sarah moves to her backpack and draws out a wooden box, flips it open. She sets out a few small items on the sill inside the box.
“What are you doing?” Helena asks.
“Something for tonight. To remember it by.”
Sarah pulls out a needle, holds it in the steady flame of a candle for a moment. The girls are hushed now, the room soft and yellow. Crickets chirp outside, a gentle background to the popping of the candles.
Sarah takes off her jacket and then her shirt, revealing a bare torso. There is a tattoo on her upper arm, with words Helena can’t quite read.
She dips the needle into a little vial of ink.
“This is so I’ll never forget tonight,” Sarah says. “And you, Helena,” (she looks into Helena’s eyes) (and Helena is the happiest she’s ever been), “And you, Rachel. And Beth. N’ Alison. Dreads. Veera.” She looks at each of them as she says their names, and even Rachel is drawn in by her steady gaze, her careless smile. Cosima snorts quietly at ‘Dreads’, but her smile is wide enough that the candlelight catches her teeth.
Veera says shyly, “I am called MK, sometimes. By friends.”
Sarah smiles. “MK.” Veera ducks her head, hiding the curve of her lips.
Sarah puts the needle to her skin, slowly sketching out the shape of a flame, small, on her chest. Every girl in the room is watching her, rapt.
“Fire?” Rachel says.
“It keeps us warm,” Sarah explains, “But it can also burn down anyone who hurts us.” Rachel nods approvingly. Sarah wipes away the excess ink on her skin, lazily pulls her shirt back on.
“Do it to me,” Helena says, pressing forwards. For a moment she thinks Sarah is going to say something – something like, “You sure?” or “Really?” – but she just takes in Helena’s expression for a moment and then gestures for her to come over. Helena shuffles across the floor to meet her, eager as a puppy. Sarah presses her hand against the top of Helena’s chest, frowns slightly and moves it across until she finds Helena’s heartbeat on the right.
“You’re built funny, meathead,” she says, and Helena giggles. She drops her jacket to the floor quickly, pulls her shirt over her head with more self-consciousness. All of them watch the play of the soft candlelight across Helena’s jagged scars, but none of them speak.
She is grateful for that. She is so grateful. She’s safe, here (she knows this – suddenly, inevitably).
Sarah leans over to hold the needle in the flame again, then looks into Helena’s face.
“Hold still, okay?”
Helena nods, a determined promise. Sarah says, “Don’t be scared.”
She shakes her head immediately. “I am not scared.”
Helena doesn’t flinch at the first prick of the needle (on the right, over her heart). Or the second. It barely hurts, binding herself to Sarah. When it’s done, Helena leans her head against Sarah’s shoulder, contented. Sarah looks down at her in surprise, then rests her hand lightly on the mass of Helena’s hair.
“I’m up,” Cosima says, grinning at them across the bank of candles.
Sarah laughs delightedly. “Yeah?”
Helena, it seems, she had expected. Cosima shrugs. “Always wanted a tattoo.”
Cosima has more layers to shrug off than Helena or Sarah did. Helena reaches out to touch the crocheted fabric where it lies pooled on the floor beside her.
Cosima hums when the needle hits her skin, unfazed. She keeps her eyes half-closed until it’s over, and then rocks back on her knees to look down at the tattoo.
“Sick,” Cosima says, and Beth lets out a quiet laugh.
MK, looking down at her hands, says, cautious, “Can I have one?”
Sarah nods. “’Course.”
MK turns away to pull off her sweater and shirt, pushing her hair back into place before she turns back to face them. For some reason, this is not funny the way it was when Alison did it earlier.
MK looks soft and serious as she settles in front of Sarah, and Sarah puts a hand over hers where it rests on the floorboards.
MK closes her eyes tightly as Sarah works, face averted slightly and mouth turned downward a little.
“All done,” Sarah says, wiping away the excess ink. “You okay?”
MK nods, giving her a small smile. She puts her hand over her heart. “Never forget,” she whispers.
“Yeah,” Sarah says. She squeezes MK’s hand gently.
Across the room, Beth and Alison are having some kind of silent conversation. It ends like this: Beth tilts her head questioningly, and then Alison huffs out her breath and reaches into her jacket pocket. She pulls out a small vial, then uncaps it and knocks it back in one smooth movement. Cosima is surprised; Helena is impressed.
Alison crosses the room quickly, drops herself in front of Sarah. She moves as if she is trying to trick herself into doing this before she has time to change her mind. She unbuttons her cardigan, lays it on the floor and puts her folded shirt on top of it.
“Go on then,” she says to Sarah, impatient, as if she has been waiting a long time and is now being inconvenienced.
“You serious?” Sarah says.
Alison nods tightly.
“Alright. Just checkin’.”
Alison squeaks at the first touch of the needle to her skin, and Beth has to come over and hold her hand before her breathing goes back to normal. Helena watches Beth’s face as Alison squeezes her hand tighter and tighter. Helena giggles. Beth narrows her eyes at her, but she’s smiling too.
“Alright, get ya kit back on,” Sarah says, half-laughing at the affronted look Alison gives her.
“Well?” Alison says to Beth. “Your turn.”
Beth hesitates, and then sighs heavily and retrieves a flask from some inside pocket of her coat, takes a generous swig of it. Her hand is shaking as she tucks it away again.
She slowly drops her coat to the floor, even more slowly pulls her shirt over her head. There are heavy, dark bruises across Beth’s shoulders, stippling her ribs and stomach, purple and yellow and green.
Five people see this and don’t make a sound, which makes Alison’s tiny gasp sound louder in the silence. Her hand reaches out halfway across the distance to where Beth sits, as if to touch her. Beth looks up, vulnerable, defensive, but Alison gives her a tiny nod, like it’s okay, like you don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, and Beth swallows, the tension slowly draining from the set of her shoulders. Beth nods too, looking at the floor, and reaches out so that one finger touches the skin of Alison’s wrist where it rests against the floor.
(Alison closes her eyes.) (Alison looks a little bit like someone has just snapped her in two and messily glued the pieces back together).
Sarah props one hand on Beth’s knee while she draws the tattoo, instead of holding onto her shoulder the way she’d done with the others. Beth doesn’t react to the stinging needle at all. (Sarah supposes she’s used to hurting.)
When Sarah wipes away the ink and asks, “You doing okay?” she means more than just the tattoo. Beth takes a shaky breath and says, “Mostly,” and then, “I am right now.”
Beth retreats to sit between Cosima and Alison (each of them takes one of her hands). Sarah turns her head to look at Rachel. Her expression is neutral, but maybe Rachel reads a challenge in her eyes. She stands, the first movement she has made in almost an hour, and walks briskly over to Sarah.
She takes the needle and ink from Sarah’s hands, her body language brooking no argument, and examines the needle closely. Rachel lifts a candle to eye-level and watches flame lick against metal for a long moment, gaze unwavering. Then she sets down the candle and folds herself back onto the couch.
Rachel unbuttons her shirt but doesn’t take it off, and begins applying the tattoo to herself. She must have been watching more closely than she appeared to be, because she has evidently memorised the shape of the lines. Rachel doesn’t look up until she’s finished, and does not seem displeased to find that everyone in the room is watching her. She gives the needle a cursory wave through a candle flame and then hands it back to Sarah.
Helena, curled sleepily against Sarah’s arm, lets her eyes wander around the room. Some of the candles are burning down to stubs now, but the girls’ faces are still lit brightly enough to see their expressions. MK looks pensive, hopeful. She glances at Beth sometimes and her face is complicated when she does that. Alison looks tired, her thumb stroking slowly across the back of Beth’s hand. Beth looks…relieved, or something like it. Rachel is trying to look disinterested.
(It’s hard to be genuinely disinterested when you’ve just spent a night with a group of people committing felonies and giving each other matching tattoos).
All of them drift gradually towards sleep, and none of them are thinking about where else they could be.