Being a human is a complicated game—like seeing a ghost in the mirror and trying to echo everything they do. Or like walking in step, but with someone trying to trip you up—and you're juggling at the same time, with people pelting more and more balls at you. Then, just when you get the hang of it, someone starts flashing a flashlight in your eyes and then yelling in your ear.
I'll be midconversation and listening and responding in all the right places, then someone will say something on the other side of the room—a snatch of something that my brain will pick up. I'll lose the thread for a second, and when I tune back in I've lost my way. And then the other person might—for a split second—look at me oddly or scratch their nose and I'll start thinking, No, Grace, you've lost it, and by then I've fallen even further behind, and I remember that my face has probably stopped making the appropriate shapes (interested, listening, concerned, thoughtful—I have a full repertoire, as long as I don't get distracted), and then I panic.
* * *
And that's where it starts. We're in geography and Mrs. Dawes is talking about tectonic plates and Sarah's sitting next to me and she won't stop breathing and the clock on the wall is ticking slightly out of time with the clock that she's got on her desk and I'm trying to focus on what she's saying but it feels like the walls are collapsing in on me.
And I'm sitting there thinking—I could just walk out. Like people do in films or on television. You see it all the time. They just get up and they walk out the door and there's a slam and they just keep on walking and the rest of the pupils all look at one another in surprise and there are raised eyebrows and the teacher pushes back her chair with a screech of metal on tiled floor and a sigh of resignation and...
* * *
"Obviously we're doing everything we can for Grace. But we have the interests of the other pupils to think of and—well—behavior like this could set an unfortunate precedent."
I'm not supposed to be able to hear Mrs. Miller through the door of her office, but she's got a voice like a strangled crow, even with discretion mode activated.
The rough material covering the chair in the school foyer prickles at the backs of my knees. I run my hand across the wooden arm, tracing the shape of the heart etched into the varnish by another waiting student, sometime in the past. I've watched it fade over the years from a bright scar in the wood to a faded memory of a moment. I run my finger around and around it as I listen.
"Yes, of course. I appreciate your position, obviously." Mum is echoing her words carefully, using the reflective listening skills she's been working on, and that's her oh yes, I completely understand tone, the one she saves for teachers, counselors, support-group workers, doctors, educational psychologists...
"I'll have a word with Grace." I hear her pausing for a moment. "The thing is, her father is away."
There's a pause and a clattering of fingernails on laptop keyboard.
"If you could keep us up to date with information like this, it really would help."
I can feel the atmosphere crackle. I can imagine Mum in that second. Hands balling into fists under the table, back straightening defensively, chin rising.
"Well, I did try to call, Mrs. Miller." Her words sound spiky now. "But it's virtually impossible to get past the school secretary. I'm more than aware that change unsettles my daughter."
When Mum gets angry, she gets more clipped and posh. There's another pause before she carries on. I can imagine them glaring at each other across the desk.
"He's gone for a—well, he's—"
There's another beat of silence before she finishes. "He's on another contract shoot."
(Dad's not a hired killer, incidentally. He's a wildlife cameraman.)
"We've been very busy with end-of-term reports, and we have had quite a bit of contact already this half term regarding Grace and we're only seven weeks into the year." Defensive reply.