‘The worst of it was she was all smiles, like she thought we should be buddies.’ Mehret was finding it hard to swallow any of her lunch, she was trying to tell Sylene how she felt about having Charlotte in her home and it was making her feel as if someone had their hands around her throat.
‘Maybe she is nice?’
‘Maybe she is, but I can’t tell my tummy that. I don’t know why, but she makes me feel queasy.’
‘Like...’ Mehret waved her hand in agitated circles by her stomach.
‘I getcha. Queasy.’ Sylene stretched the word out, as if she was savouring it. ‘Kinda sounds like what it means somehow.’
‘I just stayed in my room and did schoolwork. She either thinks I’m rude or a swot.’
Sylene frowned. ‘What, with the boots and the guns and the helicopters and all? Why would she think that?’
‘Helicopters?’ Mehret wasn’t at all sure what Sylene was talking about, she looked at the ceiling as if for meaning.
‘SWAT, what you said.’
Mehret held in a laugh, she didn’t want Sylene to think she was laughing at her. ‘No, a swot, S W O T, like a nerd, I guess.’
‘Swot, huh?’ Sylene shook her head. ‘New one on me. Where you get all these words from?’
‘I guess I read a lot.’
‘I guess you must. Ain’t nothing wrong with that, I do suppose, but you don’t wanna let everyone know, gotta be careful you ain’t too misunderstood.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I got to thinking, after you was saying how Annabel-Lee got you in her sights. You know how bees are, with bees from another hive? They gets downright ornery, bites off the head and – and stuff. They can tell from the smell that it don’t belong and they just ups and attacks.’
‘Girl, I ain’t saying you smell, but you ain’t from this hive and these bees can tell. Reckon that’s why Annabel-Lee and her...her drones, yeah, want to bite off your head.’
Sylene stood up, she had managed to eat twice as much as Mehret in half the time, usually it was the other way around. ‘Catch you later. Say, can you come by after school?’
‘I forgot, sorry. I’ll ask my father when I get home.’
‘Ain’t you got a cell? Ask him now. Catch him while he busy and you still out.’ Sylene smiled and headed for the door.
‘Cell? Oh.’ Mehret looked down at her half eaten lunch. Why did she never think of calling? She would have to get used to having a cellphone, but she had never lived the sort of life where they were important. Before. ‘Here we go.’
Mehret pulled out her cellphone and called her father. She looked around as she was waiting for him to answer, the hubbub, the scraping of chairs, the laughter, the bickering, it all seemed alien, somehow. So many kids, all a part of it, all fitting in. Mehret sighed, she felt isolated, as if she was in a world just a little removed from the one they were all in, like a goldfish in a bowl. Their voices didn’t seem quite real, like voices heard underwater. The school, the whole city, none of it seemed to have meaning.
‘Hello Princess, where’s the fire?’
Mehret almost jumped out of her seat when she heard her father, she had forgotten she was holding her cellphone to her ear. ‘Oh, nothing is burning Poppa, just, well, can I go see my friend after school?’ Where’s the fire? She realised this was maybe the third time she had used her ’phone since she had been given it, as if it was only to be used in emergencies. She wondered why she used it so seldom, not that it really mattered.
As Mehret followed Sylene off the bus they were greeted with a whistle so loud she could hardly believe it was made without some sort of machine.
‘Hush your lip, Knuckles.’ Sylene shook her head, looked at Mehret and shrugged, her mouth twisting oddly.
Knuckles, if that was his name, looked like a young man rather than a boy. A few years older, man-sized, but he took a couple of paces back from Sylene when she spoke to him. ‘Girl, you never told me your friend was so fine...’
‘I never tell you about my friends at all, because I want to keep my friends.’
Knuckles grinned. ‘Introduce me now, and make amends.’
‘Knuckles, you start that rhymin’ nonsense, you gonna be doin’ it with less teeth than you currently have.’
‘It ain’t rhymin’ it’s rapping an’ don’t you start...’
‘Don’t you start yappin’, Knuckles, ’cos I’ll be rappin’ on your teeth with a hammer if you do.’
‘Gee Sy, why don’t you just shoot me and put me out of your misery.’
‘That rhymed, fetch me a hammer, Mehret.’ Sylene made a strange face. ‘Forget the hammer, where can I get me a gun?’
Knuckles put his hands up and backed away. ‘Taxidermist shop, by the el.’
‘He do guns, but they don’t shoot.’
‘That’s okay, it’ll just take a bit longer.’ Sylene mimed a clubbing motion as Knuckles grinned over his shoulder and ducked around a corner.
When Sylene finished laughing she turned to Mehret. ‘A few years ago he wanted to be a pilot, would you believe? Fly planes, you know? Now he wants to be a gangsta rapper.’
‘Gangsta rap, you know?’
Mehret shook her head. ‘No. Should I?’
‘Not if you like music. It’s kinda similar, though, for people who can’t sing and don’t want to have to learn to play an instrument.’ Sylene smiled and nodded with her head towards her home, they started walking. ‘I don’t dislike it so much as it sounds, but he is so full of hisself. Not like I can say much, though, Naena has me listening to opera.’
Mehret fought back a giggle. ‘Opera?’
‘Yeah, who’d ’a thunk it? Don’t laugh.’
‘I’m sorry, it’s just...’
‘Yeah, tell me about it. So, Knuckles is always making mock, I just likes to get in first. It was better when he was really little, he wanted to be Stevie Wonder, until he found out Stevie Wonder was blind.’
‘I’ve heard of Stevie Wonder.’ Mehret sounded pleased with herself.
Sylene raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.
Mehret was edgy, she liked the room Sylene had, it was big and airy and relaxing, usually. Tonight, though, Mehret couldn’t help but wonder if Poppa had company. Sylene had given her one or two odd looks, Mehret knew she couldn’t be much fun to be with, but they had done a lot of work on their assignment for English and they had decided to discuss a project for the science fair. Mehret because she thought it was a great idea to try and do some real science, Sylene because she was hoping to convince Mehret to use magic, to confound the teachers.
‘It would be a great idea, if I could get anything to work, but I don’t think jinxing it would be much use. That’s the only thing I know I can do.’
‘How about if we build something to not work, then you jinx it. Would that make it work, d’you think?’
Mehret realised she was smiling, was that the first time today? ‘I’m sorry if I haven’t been much fun,’ she said, almost too quiet to hear.
‘Tcha. If I want fun I can go and laugh at boys.’
Mehret didn’t know why she found that so funny, it was something in the way Sylene had said it, but they were still giggling nearly ten minutes later, when Naena called them for supper.
‘You been making mischief?’ Naena flashed a smile at Mehret as she walked up to the table, it was gone so quickly she only half-believed she had seen it. ‘You think I can’t hear?’
‘No Naena what?’
Mehret felt adrift again, what did she mean? ‘Um... No Naena, we haven’t been making mischief, really.’
‘Oh really? Funny weather we had on Sunday, wasn’t it?’
‘Was it? I didn’t notice?’
‘Couldn’t decide if it was winter or summer.’
‘Isn’t that what autumn is supposed to be like?’
‘Don’t try and cheek me, girl. What was you doin’ Sunday?’
‘I was, uh... I was working with Dr Ambrose.’
‘Well someone made a fool of the weatherman. Mind the snake.’
‘Snake? Ooh!’ Mehret moved her foot slowly away from something that looked as if it could wrap itself around Mehret far more easily than she could wrap her arms around it. Do snakes really get that big? How could she have not noticed it? Perhaps because it was so big that it seemed more like part of the building than a snake. Mehret was determined not to be squeamish, if it didn’t bother Sylene and Naena, then she wouldn’t let it bother her. ‘I didn’t know you had a snake.’
‘I’m just looking after him. Him sleep, mostly, come out when he hungry.’
Hungry, a word Mehret understood all too well, why was she always so hungry these days? ‘The food smells delicious.’
‘Well sit down and eat it then, before the snake get it all.’
Mehret wished Poppa could cook like Naena. She felt a twinge of disloyalty, but on reflection she thought that loyalty didn’t come into it, it was a simple matter of fact. Naena could cook better than anyone Mehret could think of. Even the simple things, like the fresh baked rolls, were so good that Mehret couldn’t think how they could be better. Poppy seed and caraway was just so right somehow. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to stand up from the table, she had eaten so much she was almost surprised her chair didn’t collapse.
Mehret became aware of a pressure against her legs, as if a big cat was rubbing against them, she looked down, the snake was there. The food had been so good and she had been so hungry that she had forgotten all about it. It seemed that the snake liked her, she patted the dry scaly side and was surprised how warm it felt. Warm and solid. She stroked it, and a hiss like an old steam kettle sounded under the table. She felt it move again, and a head as long as a horse’s head, and twice as wide at least, dropped itself gently in her lap. For a moment she expected to get squashed and felt close to panic, but she felt no more weight than if it was a bag of sugar, it was a very considerate snake. Mehret stroked it and petted it as if it was a very big and scaly cat. The snake closed its eyes.
‘Naena...’ Mehret knew she had a question, but wasn’t sure how to ask it.
‘What is it then?’
‘Am I bad?’ Mehret was flustered, that wasn’t quite what she had meant to say, but it cut to the chase, in a way.
‘You tell me.’
Mehret swallowed air and looked at her empty plate. ‘I mean, if I put a jinx on Sylene, that’s like a curse, isn’t it? Does that mean I’m bad?’
‘Is the weather bad?’
‘Sometimes, but that isn’t really what I mean. Oh! I guess I mean wicked.’
‘Proper wicked? Not like the children say?’ Naena asked, then, in a voice much louder than usual. ‘You think I let you in here if you wicked?’
‘I don’t know.’ Was Naena angry? Mehret twisted in her seat, she felt her ears warm up as the blood rushed to her face.
Naena fixed her eyes on Mehret. ‘You think I’m wicked?’
‘I don’t know. Are you? I don’t know anything. I don’t understand. I’m stupid and useless and nobody likes me. I wish I was...’ Faster than Mehret could see, Naena had hold of Mehret’s hand.
‘No wishing at my table, please.’ Naena gave a gentle squeeze and let go.
‘Speaking of tables, girly, can you clear it please? Take the dishes out to the kitchen?’ As Sylene rose, Naena turned back to face Mehret, who could feel the weight of her gaze, much heavier than the snake on her lap. ‘Do you really think I would let you in my home if you was a wicked girl?’
‘I... No... I don’t know.’ Mehret shook her head, at the moment there wasn’t much she was sure of.
Naena laughed. ‘Nor do I.’
Mehret looked up, surprised, what did that mean? ‘I don’t understand, am I bad? Because what I did to Sylene was wrong. And there are some girls at school, I’d like to... I’d like to, well, I don’t quite know what I’d like to do, but it wouldn’t be nice.’ Mehret slowly unclenched her hands, her knuckles were pale. She was glad her fingernails were so short, she might have drawn blood.
‘And have you done any not nice thing to these girl?’
Mehret shook her head. ‘I don’t think so. No. Nothing I meant to do, and not like I did to Sylene, I just upset a girl, with paint, accidentally. And locusts, but that was an accident too, really. Anyway, she started it. Sylene said a boy this girl likes is, well... Sylene thinks he likes me.’
Naena gave a little nod of her head, her lips seemed even thinner than usual. ‘We never too young for the green-eyed monster. You been leadin’ him on?’
‘Green-eyed monster?’ Why was nothing ever simple?
‘It what some young whippersnapper call jealousy. You like this boy?’
Mehret looked up. ‘I’ve hardly even spoken to him.’ There was a plaintive tone in her voice, she shook her head like a wet dog might shake itself.
‘That don’t hardly answer my question.’
Mehret realised it didn’t, and she wasn’t at all sure what her answer was. ‘Until last week I didn’t know he had even looked my way. I know nothing about him, except he plays football. I hadn’t really thought about him one way or the other. I guess I don’t have the foggiest notion if I like him or not.’
‘So you ain’t messin’ with this boy for no reason? You not tryin’ to steal him from this other girl?’
‘No, I don’t even know if he does like me, it’s just what Sylene said.’
Naena sat in silence for a moment. ‘So, do you think you are wicked?’ A fleeting smile fled across her face.
‘I don’t want to be.’
‘Then don’t be. Something can be good, like the weather is good, or bad, like the sea is bad, but it takes a person to be wicked. It doesn’t just happen, you have to work at it. Just like you have to work at not being wicked, which is maybe harder.’
‘Thank you, Naena.’
‘What for you thanking me? Not thanking me for doing your thinking are you? Shouldn’t thank me for that, should learn to do your own thinking.’
‘Well, thank you for the food, for starters.’
Naena laughed, short and sharp. ‘You like my food? Someday, perhaps, you can feed me.’
A crash sounded from the kitchen, Naena raised her voice. ‘You listening then, girlie? I mean she can cook for me, what you think I mean? You two go and make your mischief, I’ll do the dishes. A body get attached to her crockery.’ Naena got up, the snake uncurled from under the table and followed her into the kitchen.