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Authors: E.R. Murray

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BOOK: Caramel Hearts
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Chapter Eight

A Regular Little Goody-Two-Shoes

It's late when I sneak out of the house to clear my head. The night air feels crisp and fresh, despite the orange tinge to the clouds hovering above the chemical works. I suck in slow, deep breaths and the tension behind my eyes lessens. I sit quietly on the step until I get too cold and I'm forced to walk to warm up.

Heading for the local shops in the next estate – they should be quiet at this time and if there are any gangs hanging around, I can always turn back – my mind is buzzing with questions. How can I get some ingredients now Hatty's not going to help me? Why did I have to be so stupid and nick off school? Is Hatty really thinking of leaving?

The shops are quiet, and the shutters on the chippie are down. I peer into the small corner store, my hand sheltering the reflection from the street light above my head as I squint – trying to find the baking section so I can see how much money I'll need to get the oats, honey, sugar and rainbow treats.

“Fancy seeing you here.”

I vaguely recognize the voice coming from the next shop doorway, and yet I jump.

“You frightened the life out of me—”

As I turn, my stomach somersaults. “Maddy, hi… sorry, I didn't mean to—”

“You're all right. You're not interrupting nothing. I'm just having a quick drink. Sit down – I could use some company. Want some?”

Maddy jiggles a small bottle of something emerald-green in my direction. I shake my head.

“Regular little goody-two-shoes aren't you?” Delighted with herself, she slaps her knee and laughs, loud and fake. “Oh yeah, I forgot your mam's an alky.”

Sure
, I think.
That's why you broke your neck to tell Jack earlier
. But she seems a bit out of it, so I keep quiet.

“Sit down then,” she says.

I wish I'd stayed at home – or at least gone to the shops earlier. Unable to think up a plausible excuse to leave, I do as Maddy asks and join her on the step, tucking back into the shadows.

“Want a ciggie?”

She offers a blue and white packet. Again, I shake my head.

“I'm gonna get offended if you keep refusing me,” says Maddy, blowing a cascade of smoke rings, thinking she's cool.

I try to read her expression. When she bursts out laughing, I feel my shoulders relax. A bit, but not completely.

“I'm only having you on. Don't look so serious! What are you doing here anyway?”

“An argument with Hatty. You?”

“Now, you should never ask someone their personal business. Didn't your mam ever teach you manners?”

“Sorry, I—”

She laughs in my face. “I'm pulling your leg! Jeez, you've no sense of humour these days, Liv.”

Deciding it's safer to look at the ground, I pick at the rubber around the sole of my khaki Converse. The only decent item of clothing I own.

“Sure you don't want some of this? It's got a good kick.”

The green liquor sloshes around the bottle as Maddy swallows a glug.

“No thanks.”

“It won't kill you. Scared you'll end up like your mam?”

I know if she offers again, I'm going to have to accept. I'm already pushing it.

“Go on – one or the other. I'm not joking this time.” There's a hard edge to her voice. “It's no fun smoking and drinking on your own.”

It's my get-out-of-jail-free card. I take the cigarette and hold it to my lips. I've done this before and know how to look like I'm smoking without actually taking it back. I take a light drag, let the metallic taste fill my mouth, hold it for a few seconds then expel the smoke into the cold night air.

“You didn't take it back. Look, like me.”

Trust her to notice. My heart's thumping as Maddy snatches the cigarette and sucks hard on its tip, relishing the taste. She hands it back to me triumphantly.

“Your turn. Properly.”

This time, the smoke scorches my throat and fills my lungs. The roof of my mouth burns like when you're too hungry to wait for your pizza and you bite into the hot, melted cheese. Only it's a hundred times worse. I start choking, making embarrassing retching noises. Mad Dog snatches the cigarette away.

“That's disgusting. You've soaked the end. Slobbered all over it.”

But she continues smoking it anyway. The way she sucks and blows on the ciggie makes me feel sick. After a while, she finally ditches it. The red embers glow as the butt arcs through the air, landing a few feet away. I watch the red glow fade and disappear, wishing I could do the same.

“So, what's this argument about?” asks Maddy.

I don't know what to say. I don't mind hanging out with her now and again, but Sarah's the only one I share my intimate secrets with.

“Nothing, really. Just getting some space, you know?”

“I've never seen you here this late before. It must be serious…”

I shrug, making a mental note to stay well away in future.

“Fine. Don't tell me then.”

I take a deep breath. I've got to say something. People are volatile when they're half-cut and I can't risk upsetting Maddy.

“Did you see Sarah this lunch time?” I ask.

Of all the things I could say, why did I choose this? Now is not a good time. Maddy puckers her lips and stares into the distance. It's a while until she replies.

“Yeah. I saw her.”

“Only—”

“What, Liv? What's she been saying about me now?”

“Nothing,” I say, quickly retracting any plans to mention the bruise.

“Yeah, well I heard otherwise. She was overheard calling me a nickname – Mad Dog, that's it, isn't it?”

Trembling, I shrug.

“So I had to have a word with her.”

“Just a word?”

“I said so, didn't I?” But the way Maddy's lips press together as she glares at me, I know she's lying. “While we're talking about having words… what was that crap you were telling Jack earlier? About setting the house on fire.”

I'm glad she's dropped the other subject, but I know we're on dodgy territory with Jack, so I try to dismiss the conversation quickly.

“Oh that? I was baking and set the place on fire, that's all.”

“You set the place on fire? Brilliant!”

“Just the oven. By accident.”

“Shall we set this place alight? Burn it up?” She holds her lighter flame close to the shop door. The paint scorches and starts to blister. When I see smoke, I knock the lighter away.

“Don't!” I say.

Maddy laughs and puts the lighter back in her pocket. “Will you make something for me?”

“I dunno if Hatty will let me bake again,” I say.

Maddy raises an eyebrow.

“I bet you would if Sarah asked you.”

My legs tingle and turn weak. I wiggle my toes inside my shoes to make them feel a part of me again.

“It's not that. It's just convincing Hatty…”

“Must be nice to only have baking to worry about. I'd happily swap places.”

She knows damn well Mam's in recovery and I've a lot more to think about than just baking. I open my mouth to say something, but decide better of it. Despite Maddy's bravado, there's a hint of sadness on her face as she stares off into space.

I think back to the times we'd be playing and her brother would come running up to warn her their dad was on his way home so she'd better get there quick. Sometimes she'd invite us to play with her in her garden, and although her mam was nice enough, there was no way we were going near her psycho dad. She always looked so hurt as she hurried off, looking back now and again to where me and Sarah played. I always pretended not to notice.

“You should tell your sister to get lost,” says Maddy after a spell. “That's what I used to tell my brother, before, you know…”

Her voice trails off and I wrack my brains, trying to figure out whether it's her brother's birthday or the anniversary of his death. He was killed in an accident in our first year of secondary school, heading home from rugby try-outs. A motorbike lost control and ran into him. That's when Maddy's mam had a nervous breakdown. She's the same age as my mam but looks ancient, and she's always off her face on pills these days. When she's not, she's scared of her own shadow.

“But what I want to know is…” continues Maddy, stabbing my chest with her finger. I don't let her see that it hurts. “Are you going to stick up for yourself or what?”

“I do. But it doesn't work. She's in charge. And it's not like I can bake without ingredients.”

Mad Dog snorts, slaps her leg and shakes her head.

“So, does Sarah help you bake?” she asks, lighting another ciggie.

I turn my head from the smoke.

“Nah. I've only tried it once. On my own.”

“You make it sound like shagging or sniffing glue.”

I can't help laughing. She's right.

“Here, you and Sarah, you're not lezzers are ya?”

Wishing I could tell Mad Dog where to go – like, who cares about that stuff anyway – I shake my head.

“No. Just mates.”

“I've got loads of mates, me,” says Maddy. “Can't stand hanging out with just one person. It gets on my tits.”

“I couldn't get sick of Sarah.”

“Even though sh-she's a l-loser?”

I feel like a rodent cornered by a hyena, but for some reason I can't stop my mouth.

“What have you got against Sarah these days, anyway? You'd still like her if you gave her a chance.”

Snorting, Mad Dog raises her hand up to my face, fingers splayed.

“No way! I only have cool friends. Now shove off. No offence, but you're starting to get on my tits too.”

I don't need telling twice. I jump to my feet.

“It was nice chatting with you—”

“Wish I could say the same,” says Maddy.

“Right,” I say, quickly turning the corner.

As soon as I'm out of earshot, I leg it all the way home. Tucked safely up in bed, the conversation with Mad Dog plays over and over in my head. I reread the next few recipes and I wrestle my brain for options, but can't find any. Then it comes to me: Mrs Snelling, the school's head cook. She's dead nice and would probably be delighted to know a student was interested in cooking. I decide to tackle her the next day.

Chapter Nine

Some of Us Would Like to Eat Today

As soon as I see Sarah twitching in the dinner queue, I know Mad Dog's nearby. Checking behind me, I spot Maddy on her own, two people down in the line. I smile at Maddy, but she ignores me, and her eyes lock onto Sarah's profile. Taking a step back, I nudge Sarah into my own space in the queue.

“Here, you're in a hurry. Go first.”

Sarah's features relax a little and she smiles appreciatively, but I daren't look in Maddy's direction. She'll see it as me taking Sarah's side again. As we move along the counter selecting our food – burger, chips and beans for me; beef, roast potatoes and carrots for Sarah – I feel my heart beat faster and my palms grow sticky. The counter where the head cook serves is getting close. Mrs Snelling – a short, fat, ginger-haired woman who always laughs too loudly – is my only hope if I'm ever going to continue baking. There's a lot at stake here. I have to handle it right.

When we reach the dessert counter, I act like I can't decide – even though I always choose sticky toffee pudding. Sarah's not convinced.

“It's this morning's double Science,” I say. “It's got my head in a muddle. Grab us some seats and I'll be right over.”

Sarah sneaks a glance in Maddy's direction. She's busy chatting with the dinner lady so Sarah scuttles off. Meanwhile, I flash Mrs Snelling the biggest smile imaginable.

“How are you today, Mrs Snelling?”

Mrs Snelling guffaws and throws up her hands.

“Well, I never been asked that before – not in here anyways.” She turns to the lady in charge of vegetables. “Have you ever heard the likes?” She laughs like a madwoman and slaps a hand on the counter. “I'm very well, thank you. How are you today, missy?”

I can feel the other kids watching.

“Liv… my name's Liv. I'm good too – except…” I leave the sentence hanging, like I've got something really important but difficult to say.

“Except what, dear?”

Mrs Snelling's round, ruddy face is full of concern. It's all going to plan – except for the other kids staring.

“I've a Home Economics project and I'm short on ingredients.”

Mrs Snelling leans back and sets off laughing again. A hush travels along the dinner queue like a Mexican wave. I spot Jack towards the end of the line, fiddling with his cutlery. He flashes me a big smile, and then mimes flicking open a lighter, followed by an explosion. Maddy sees him and giggles, but shoots me an angry look.

“A few more people your age could do with taking an interest in cooking,” says Mrs Snelling, and even though I want to shut her up so I can hurry on, I can't. I need her help. Mortified, I listen. “People say it's lack of education and high unemployment what causes problems, but…” She throws a judgmental glance along the queue that I
hope Jack won't see. “The real issue is that people are losing basic skills. They're not being shown at home, so they don't take any interest.”

Trying to keep smiling, I nod. I'm attracting too much attention. Down the line, they're getting fidgety and several kids step back to see what's causing the delay. Fights start breaking out about who belongs where in the queue.

“What's the hold-up, Liv?” shouts Mad Dog. “Some of us would like to eat today, y'know.”

I keep my eyes averted. I don't want to seem like I'm offering a challenge.

“What ingredients are you missing, dear?” asked Mrs Snelling.

“I'll have to check the recipe – there're just a few things,” I lie.

My face is hot with blushes. Thankfully, Mrs Snelling holds up a podgy hand, ripe with oven burns. I make a mental note to use oven gloves.

“Well, I'd never leave a fellow chef in the lurch! Come back when you're ready – about half three's usually a good time, before I head home – and we'll see what we can do. And here – have an extra-big portion of sticky toffee pudding to keep you going in the meantime.”

“Thanks,” I say, preparing to leg it.

“Can I have an extra-big portion too?” asks Maddy.

“Friend of yours?” asks Mrs Snelling. I feel Maddy's eyes burning into me, and nod. “Then of course you can, dear,” says the cook, laughing once more.

I take the opportunity to make my escape. As I flop into the plastic chair opposite Sarah, I see her cheeks colour slightly.

“I see you and Maddy are best friends again,” she says as greeting.

“I bumped into her last night,” I say, realizing Sarah is wearing her jumper, even though it's a warm day. “How's your arm?”

“Fine. Forget it.”

“I tried to have a word with her… She denied it of course.”

“You did what? She'll kill me.”

“Don't worry. I was subtle. But I knew you were telling the truth this time, not her.”

A strange look crosses Sarah's face. She puts down her fork.

“Wait – you thought I was lying?” she asks, like the idea had never occurred to her.

“Not lying exactly but… exaggerating maybe?”

“That's nice, Liv. Real nice. Speaking of lies… What's all this about doing Home Economics?”

“Supersonic ears!”

I tuck into my burger, using it as an excuse not to talk. Although Sarah's my best friend, she doesn't have to know
everything
– especially when it's something I can't even explain to myself.

“Fine. But when you get that look on your face, you usually end up in trouble.”

Waving my burger in the air dismissively, I stuff my mouth with chips. There's no way this plan can go wrong. It's just a few cakes and biscuits. A way to remember Mam and get back into Hatty's good books. What harm can it do?

BOOK: Caramel Hearts
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