Jack Mutant - Which Way is Down? (part twelve)
By Jane Hyphen
It had seemed to Jack that the first half term of secondary school had passed by with a feeling that all was fresh and uncharted, he himself felt like a new person in those early weeks, too shiny for anything to stick to him. So far nobody had noticed his faults and quirks, they were all too busy taking in the strange environment, forming friendships and alliances and he’d been too distracted to fall fully into his natural state of awkwardness.
As he walked to school treading the mat of slimy autumn leaves, his future seemed set. Those now familiar faces, downtrodden teachers, the gurning caretaker, the hostile catering staff, the heavy routine of nine until three with that wobbly lunch hour in the middle where anything could happen. There were no safe places in Sandpools, no holes to bolt into, if only everyone had a dedicated den into which they could disappear whenever they needed to.
Jack dreaded walking back through the school gates, those fight or flight flutters, feeling trapped, being observed, he dreaded himself, the thought of what might happen, what he might do, faced with the pressure of still, silent classrooms, sitting all day indoors, being normal, being compliant, not really knowing what to say, how to be. All the time aware of how the other kids are primed to pounce on anyone who stands out, especially those who haven’t yet found a way to stand strong as they stand out, those prone to inner-crumbling under the cruel scrutiny of reaction hungry school children. One crumble would be enough to make them hungry for more.
He soon slipped back into his old ways, staying silent, etching out little narrow tracks around the school campus like a solitary wild animal carving out an existence within an incongruous urban environment. Chris had been streamed into all the top groups. Tristan had proved himself to be the guileless mooncalf Jack had always suspected him to be, he still tried to revive the notion of the ‘brethren’ whenever Cromwell Spruce decided to bunk off school for half a day.
Space club was run on Thursday lunchtimes by a short bearded lab technician called Jonas. The first session had been enjoyable if not a little distressing as Jack and fifteen or so other pupils were led into a darkened room, sat in front of a projector screen and shown a medley of rocket launches with a heightened emphasis on the ones that went fatally wrong for the astronauts. Jonas walked up and down in front of the projector with folded arms, frowning hard and making comments about how they would all have to take physics for GCSE if they were serious about life beyond earth and they would have to understand the science of physics very thoroughly if they were to avoid blowing themselves up as they exited the earth’s atmosphere.
There was a single girl in the Space club, Jack had never seen her before, her name was Kayla Nue. It occurred to him as he sat behind her that she rather resembled an extra terrestrial, large elegantly shaped cranium, small frame, big eyes as she spun around now and then, seemingly just to give all the boys filthy looks. After he’d seen her for the first time he suddenly began seeing her everywhere, in the drama studio, waiting in line at the dinner queue, wandering alone in the playground. Even on the journey to school he began seeing her, floating along on her small, alien feet, nibbling a flapjack as she crossed the road, large eyes flashing left and right with an apparent force strong enough stop traffic. He wondered if there were lots of her, did they land in a spaceship somewhere at the end of Tristan’s road and disembark in the dead of night all dressed in Sandpools uniforms?
Chris had noticed her too, he kept mentioning her, casually but a little too often for Jack’s liking, it was as if he enjoyed saying her name. Inside his own head, his private head where no details are ever shared, Jack had claimed Kayla Nue as his own spiritual friend; no words need pass between them, just energy, it was undeniable, palpable. Just glimpsing her around school had a restorative effect on him, unknowingly she gave him an injection of energy, a charge, he could use it to stay awake in assembly but he was aware that it could take over if he let it.
Jack could be prone to obsession, especially since his thoughts often protected him from the reality outside of their confines. It had happened several times before, he had become fixated on things, on counting, on certain television shows, on certain people. Kayla’s spiritual profile and indeed her physical form were the perfect fit for the template of Jack’s obsessional leanings. I must not let this happen, he thought and he made a pledge to himself that each time he found himself thinking of her he would stop, let it go, think about something else.
The system worked well for a few weeks. He avoided the back of her head as they listened to Jonas discussing the Rotten Egg Nebula, like Jack she wasn’t really one for asking questions and contributing to the club although she did once speak to reveal that her middle name was Stella. It was all under control until one afternoon during tutor time just before the end of school when Mr Graham held up an abandoned school tie and shouted, ‘Kayla Nue, does anyone know Kayla Nue?’ The ring of her name sounded like a boom in Jack’s head, it was unexpected, he wasn’t ready.
He felt a rush of hot blood in his shoulders, the back of his neck and up into his cheeks. It was as if his thought suppression had formed a bubble of air in his consciousness and now the sound of her name had formed a pin to burst it. It was Emily Central who noticed, ‘Why have you gone so red Jack?’ she hissed. The other Emilys looked at him and laughed. He bent down and fiddled with his shoelace but his blood boiled with self-consciousness.
Chris glanced at him with concern. ‘You alright Jack?’
‘Yes, I just feel a bit hot, think I’m coming down with flu..’
Mr Graham coughed, ‘Kayla Nue, someone must know her.’
The three Emily’s continued to stare and laugh at Jack. ‘Do you know her Jack, is that why you’re going so red. I’m sure she’s in Space Club. Do you fancy her Jack.’ The Emilys were so perceptive, they never did well in their school work but they all possessed a sort of freaky intuition which was akin to mind reading, nothing got past them.
Jack felt helpless under their glare. He managed to shrug. ‘I don’t know her,' he said.
Emily Central spun around and the others followed, they whispered and laughed then began talking about something else. ‘We do know her,’ said Chris, he raised his hand. ‘I know her,’ he said loudly and Mr Graham handed him Kayla’s tie which he put into his bag.
The bell sounded and Jack walked out feeling thoroughly stupid and blisteringly exposed. He walked home and slowly his feelings of embarrassment were replaced by depression and failure. Why am I such an idiot? He thought as he pictured Chris with Kayla’s tie, I want her tie, I want to inspect it, maybe smell it a little. Does that make me a weirdo? Once again he cringed at his own feeble existence.
Now going to school was going to be hell. He lay on his bed just recovering physically from his ordeal, somehow it had zapped away his energy; his legs felt weak and wobbly, the blood which had earlier rushed to his face seemed to have left his body altogether, he was drained, blanched white. He put on his Adventurine pendant but it didn’t sit well over his collar and tie so he took it off and just held it in the palm of his hand. Perhaps he would be able to wangle a day or two off sick, that would cover it, Chris would believe his excuse about the flu and the Emilys would forget all about it all...or not.
Jack wondered whether his dad would be on the washing up shift. It was twenty past four, Jack was certain the evening shift didn’t start until six, that was unless he was doing the afternoon tea shift. aswell. He just needed to connect with somebody, he picked up his phone, ‘Are you working?’ he texted.
A few minutes passed, then a few more, the silence was gruelling. The ping made Jack jump. ‘Yes but not for much longer. I’m going to be homeless when the hotel shuts for winter.’
Jack’s heart flipped, my dad...homeless! He pictured him on a park bench, wrapped up in a blanket, the image formed readily in his mind. Homelessness can happen to anyone, he’d seen it on the local news. This was a new low, even on his worst day at school ever. His mind raced, perhaps Dad could move back home for a bit, no, Mum wouldn’t have it, maybe Grandad could take him in.