“We’ve found her. We’ve found the Life Giver!”
Keren Archer looked up from her desk, calm and poised, not betraying the all-consuming excitement that was surging inside her. The pale skinned assistant in front of her was practically vibrating, her translucent blue eyes full of triumph. “And the bracelet?”
“Still on. The curse holds.”
Keren Archer nodded thoughtfully, considering the next step in this longed for development. “Thank you, Fawn, bring me everything you have and I’ll start the process for bringing her home.”
Lilly Prospero stood outside the gates of her new school and nervously twiddled the crystal on her charm bracelet. Nerves bubbled in her chest but she tried to push them down as she scolded herself, rubbing her wet palms on her new green school jumper. If she behaved in the right way, spoke to the right people and liked the right things, she could actually become one of the popular kids. She could have friends and fun for the first time in her life. She could be the person she had always wanted to be, instead of the lonely loser she had always felt like. If she didn’t screw it up, and she knew how big an if that was.
Fixing a confident smile to her face, and wishing she was anybody else but her, Lilly stepped inside the school grounds and headed through the crowds of fellow green and grey clad pupils towards the imposing building at the end of the path.
Rifling through her bag, she looked for her welcome sheet, hoping to find the map of the school so she could get to her new form room without making a fool of herself. As she turned the corner onto the playground she walked smack into a red headed girl, knocking the bottle of lemonade the girl was drinking down her front.
“Oh my god,” gasped Lilly, staring in horror at what she had just done. “I am so sorry.”
“What the hell are you thinking?” screeched the girl, her green eyes flashing with fury as she plucked at her now soaking wet sweater. “Are you blind?”
“No, I’m new. I’m sorry. I’m Lilly.” Lilly stuttered, hating herself for talking like an inarticulate fool.
The girl tossed her mane of red curls back over her shoulders and glared at Lilly with eyes heavily adorned with mascara. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.” She spat venomously.
Lilly stumbled backwards and let the girl pass, watching as she stalked away towards a group of girls who stood watching, open mouthed. Scurrying away and starting across the playground towards the cloakroom, Lilly gave herself a little pep talk. She tried to reassure herself that even a poor start didn’t mean hope was lost, she could still get her act together and start her new life with style… If she didn’t screw it up any more. Big if.
As she approached the doors she felt someone tug at her arm. She turned, expecting to see the red haired girl ready to give her some abuse, but nobody was there. She looked around for a moment, confused, then went to keep going before a more violent tug wrenched at her, dragging her to the ground. She cried out in pain and shock as her knees scraped across the tarmac, clutching at her arm where her shoulder had been pulled, a strange feeling of fear creeping through her. She looked around wide eyed, desperately searching for her attacker, but still nobody. She tried not to cry, blinking frantically, her grazed knees stinging and her pride destroyed.
Around her, faces laughed and fingers pointed. The red haired girl was approaching, flanked by her friends, a smirk of glee splashed across her face as she took in Lilly’s sprawled form. They walked past her, stepping over her bag and the scattered debris that had fallen, and walked into the school, laughing.
Lilly sighed in despair. All hope was lost. She would forever be Lilly. Lilly the clutz. Lilly the loser. Lilly the terminal failure. She wanted to cry, but knew that crying on her first day of school in front of everyone would be tantamount to a death knoll for her.
Picking everything up and stuffing it into her bag, Lilly hurried into the school and away from the cackling audience. She rubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her jumper as she sniffed fruitily, and then went to twiddle at the crystal on her charm bracelet but found her arm bare; the bracelet was gone. Cursing her luck, she looked around the floor, felt up inside her sleeve and hunted through the things in her bag, but there was no sign of it. Her heart broke and she felt fresh tears begin to creep their way into her eyes.
“Are you okay?”
Lilly looked up and saw a good looking sixth form boy with thick dark curls and dark brown eyes leaning on the door with his arms crossed, watching her.
“I lost my bracelet,” she spluttered, sniffling in embarrassment. “I’m new.”
“I guessed that. I’d have noticed you before otherwise.” He spoke with an easy confidence, his eyes fixed to hers.
Lilly’s mouth went dry and her heart raced as she tried to find something interesting or witty to say. She failed. Her mind was blank. She wasn’t sure she knew English anymore. Her tongue felt fat. “Do you know where 10D’s form room is?” she asked eventually, then put her face in her hands as she realised she was officially a lost cause.
“Down the corridor,” he said smiling, dimples framing his mouth in an amused smile. He seemed very aware of the effect he was having on her, and he seemed to be enjoying it too. “To the left. Mrs Robinson’s room.”
“Thanks,” Lilly said awkwardly and went to step forward. He didn’t move from where he was leaning and Lilly wondered if she was supposed to wriggle past him or wait for him to leave. She looked at her feet shyly, tucking her bobbed brown hair behind one ear, and when she looked up again he had disappeared. She looked around, wondering where he had gone and feeling both relief and disappointment, then hurried down the corridor and found the form room just before the start of school bell rang.
Pushing open the door, Lilly stepped into the room and was confronted with the red haired girl she had bumped into earlier sitting on a desk, surrounded by her friends.
“You,” she spat, looking her up and down in disgust. “What are you doing in here?”
“10D. My form.” Lilly stuttered as she tried to gather her words and force her hands to stop shaking. “I’m new.”
“You said,” she snarled, rolling her eyes at one of the girl next to her. “Right before tipping lemonade all over me.”
Lilly was aware that all eyes were on her, and none of them held kindness. She hesitated, unsure what she was supposed to do and feeling like an idiot, when behind her the door opened again and a woman bustled in carrying a stack of folders and a hot mug of coffee.
“Look out, look out,” she said, ushering Lilly out of the way, dropping everything except the coffee onto her desk. “You must be Lilly, I’m Mrs Robinson, your new form tutor. If you’d like to take a seat by the window, across from Saffron there,” she said, gesturing to where the red haired girl was sitting, glaring. “We can get started.”
Lilly shuffled towards the desk and sat down awkwardly, determined to keep her head down and avoid too much unwanted attention. Blending into the background was her preferred state, especially when things were already going so badly wrong.
Around her there was chatter and busy movement as her classmates sat in their seats and exchanged gossip with their friends. She heard the words “new girl” far too often for her liking and she sunk lower in her seat, keeping her grey eyes firmly on the desk in front of her.
“We have a new pupil today, ladies and gents,” Mrs Robinson announced, clapping her hands together to summons the attention of the masses. Lilly felt her gut tighten. No, why, no. Please no. “So even though there’s only a few weeks left until the summer, let’s all try and make sure she feels like this is her home. Why don’t you stand up and tell us a bit about yourself, Lilly?”
Around the room faces spun to stare at Lilly. This was it. This was how she was going to die.
“Erm, hi. I’m Lilly Prospero.” She said as she stood and held up a hand in an awkward wave and wished she was anywhere else but there. “Erm… I’m fifteen and we moved here because my mum got a new job. Well it’s not a new job, it’s the same job, just for a new person. Erm, she’s an accountant, she was working for a big company in the city but then got cherry picked by some rich client who wanted a private accountant, so we moved here so she could work just for him. So, that’s why I’m here. Now. Not there. And erm, I like painting and drawing, love it really, it’s my favourite thing in the world. I’m not really good at much else to be honest. So, yeah. Hi. I’m Lilly.” She heard muffled chuckles around the room and quickly dropped to the seat to bury her face in her hands for the second time already that morning.
“How lovely,” said Mrs Robinson brightly. “I’m sure everyone will make you feel very welcome, and you’ll soon feel like you’ve always been here.”
Lilly realised she already did. Another school, another group of people who had either no interest in her or an active dislike. More classes she knew she would be rubbish in and more drudgery she was fed up of before it had even begun. Same reality, new location.
After register was taken, Lilly, trying to memorise her surroundings, started following the crowd towards their first class of the day. Something she was dreading. Maths.
Walking down one of the corridors, Lilly felt her skin prickle, and quickly turned back. Standing in the doorway of a classroom she’d just passed was the curly haired sixth former, a smile playing over his lips as he watched her intently. He flashed her a quick grin and she turned away feeling embarrassed. He must have been smiling in a laughing way, her obvious inadequacy giving him amusement, but something about that natural assumption didn’t sit quite right with her. Shyly, she looked back over her shoulder for a second look, but he had already gone.
In maths she was shown to her new seat, next to a boy named Jake who smiled at her indifferently and started chatting about football to the boy on the desk behind them. One of Saffron’s friends was on the seat across from hers, and she narrowed her eyes at Lilly as she sat down. Lilly looked quickly away and stared at her hands, accepting the sheets of fractions that landed in front of her from Mr Tristan, and tried to focus her mind on the task at hand.
Lilly’s mum was amazing at maths, an excelled in her accountancy work because of it. Her father, the manager of a cleaning products company, spent all day looking at spreadsheets and numbers. For them maths was as simple as speaking English, but for Lilly it was like trying to learn Portuguese. She frowned and started scratching at the paper with her pencil, trying to force the numbers to obey her will, and failing.
After ten minutes she began to look around as boredom started to take over. She let her eyes wander over the display boards and book cases, and check out her new classmates, distracting herself from the painful work she was supposed to be doing. Saffron was tapping away rapidly on her calculator, scribbling answers down, working down the third page of work as though it were no challenge at all. Suddenly, as Lilly watched her enviously, Saffron turned and caught Lilly’s eye.
Without hesitating, Saffron shoved her hand straight in the air and called out, “Mr Tristan!”
“The new girl was just trying to copy from Maisie’s page,” she said, pointing an accusatory finger towards Lilly.
On the desk across from her, Saffron’s friend looked aghast. Lilly’s mouth fell open and she tried to protest her innocence, but found just a strangely strangled squeaking is all that came out.
Mr Tristan came over, looking at Maisie’s page and then at Lilly’s. “Well she’s not making a very good job of it,” he said with a condescending tone as her classmates began to laugh behind their hands. “It looks like you’ll have some catching up to do, Miss Prospero.”
Lilly felt her face redden and she stared down at the work she was doing feeling utterly mortified. She hated Saffron. Hated her. Her confidence, her beauty, the obvious popularity she courted with ease. Saffron had everything Lilly had ever wanted and how she loathed her for it. She wished Saffron could feel a shred of the embarrassment she had been feeling since she arrived at that school. Just once. Just to take her down a peg or two.
Staring at a particularly difficult question, Lilly idly began doodling on the edge of her worksheet. She drew a fluffy round body, beady eyes, and eight long, spindly legs. She smiled at the little cartoon spider momentarily, then forced herself to concentrate back on her work, staring at the calculator and trying to figure out if any of the symbols on it matched those on the question.
“AAAAARGH!” came a scream from across the room. “Help me!”
Saffron fell from her chair, scrambling backwards, panic on her face and her chest heaving as she panted in horror.
“Saffron?” asked Mr Tristan, hurrying over. “What on earth is the matter?”
“Spider! A huge spider!” she howled, ignoring the laughter that was resonating around the room as she thrashed around on her bum, wildly rubbing at her hair in case the offending creature had nested in the curls. “It looked poisonous!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, there are no poisonous spiders in England!” Mr Tristan said dismissively, carefully lifting things from Saffron’s desk and peering around on the floor nervously. “Are you sure you saw one? There’s nothing there now.”
“Certain,” she said, dragging herself to her feet and trying to regain some dignity, smoothing down her skirt and fluffing her hair. “It was there. I saw it.”
As Saffron hesitantly lowered herself back into her seat, Lilly caught sight of a large, black spider scurrying across the floor and out under the door. She grinned to herself, a peculiar sense of vindication filling her, and moved some of the papers on her desk around looking for the spider she had sketched before, but it was gone.
After maths they moved onto history, where Mr Stubbs, who smelled strongly of coffee, reeled off information as though he were a human text book. Then to Geography, where Dr Murray got excited talking about a mountain in Peru. Lilly sat through each class listening and making notes, but struggling to care about the information she was trying to process.
At lunch time, Lilly decided to take herself for a walk around the school grounds, partly to familiarise herself with the place, and partly to avoid confrontation or humiliation. She wandered along, chewing on her egg sandwich and watching the groups of friends chatting and playing ball games. Finishing her sandwich, she shoved the box back into her bag and her sleeve pulled up revealing her bare arm. She looked sadly at the spot where her bracelet should have been and wondered if it might have been handed in at the school office, deciding to go and ask.
As she walked around the building towards the office, balancing precariously on the narrow curb, she spotted the curly haired sixth former leaning against a tree, chatting idly to Saffron who was gazing at him in adoration. He spotted her, stopped speaking to Saffron, and held eye contact with her. She wobbled and lost her balance, stepping heavily onto the road. Saffron turned to see what had stolen the object of her desire’s attention and Lilly darted away in panic, dropping the boy’s gaze and disappearing around a corner. The last thing she needed was to enrage Saffron further, and she had a suspicion that attention being stolen from her would certainly do that.
Panting, Lilly hurried to the school office to enquire about her lost bracelet, but was disappointed to learn it had not been handed in. Sighing she turned away, dully accepting the bracelet was lost and feeling her chest tighten in grief.
“A charm bracelet?” she heard a voice, and looked up to see the history teacher, Mr Stubbs, standing near by.
“Yeah, it was special,” she said sadly, her fingers plucking at the cuff of her jumper where she would have felt the bracelet sitting. “I’ve had it since I was a baby.”
“I see,” he said, a serious look on his face. “And it fell off?”
Lilly hesitated, not wanting to tell the man about whatever had dragged at her arm moments before the bracelet went missing, knowing that a jewellery thieving poltergeist theory was not likely to improve her first day of school impression. “I think so.”
“How unlucky,” he said, shaking his head then looking at her intently, a curious expression on his face that made the hairs on Lilly’s neck stand on end. “Well I’ll make sure to keep my eyes peeled for you, Lilly Prospero. It sounds like it was of great importance.”
Lilly began to feel a little freaked out, and nodded gratitude before hurrying away and round the corner. Once out of sight, she stopped and leaned against the wall of the corridor and closed her eyes for a moment. Even for Lilly, things seemed to be getting weird.
Entering the art room that afternoon, Lilly smelled the paints, chalks and inks, took in the wash of coloured papers and fabrics, the splattered work tables and clunky sculptures, and felt herself relax for the first time that day. Being surrounded by art supplies was her natural state and she couldn’t wait to get started on the lesson, whatever it was it may hold. If every class could be an art class, Lilly would enjoy school more than anything in the world.
“Lilly Prospero?” called the teacher into the crowd of pupils that were swarming into his room. “There you are!” He approached her and held out a trunk like tattooed arm, extending his large hairy hand towards her and gripped her own, shaking it in a remarkably gentle way. “Hogg. Nice to meet you. Please take a seat anywhere, I am told art is your wheel house so I’m sure we’ll get on just fine.”
She nodded and mouthed a thank you that didn’t quite make it out of her mouth. She slightly overwhelmed by the size and volume of the enormous, bald, leather waist coat wearing man that seemed to occupy half the room just by himself. He wasn’t entirely what she had anticipated of a high school art teacher, but she liked him.
“Well, Miss Prospero here joins us on quite an important day,” said Mr Hogg as he held a piece of paper aloft in front of him, peering at what was written there and reading aloud. “The opportunity of a lifetime has landed in our laps. Chief executive of Adamantine Power, Keren Archer, was a pupil at our school not so long ago. AP are having a big overhaul, going green, and looking for a new logo to represent this new start. Instead of hiring a professional from this highly competitive industry, Ms Archer is running a competition for year tens at this very school. The winner will not only get a chance to work with Ms Archer’s outstanding team over the summer, but will be paid the industry standard for their final design.” He stopped reading and peered around the room proudly. “Corporate jargon aside that seems like a pretty damn good opportunity to me.”
Around the room ears were pricking up. Saffron appeared to be quivering in excitement. Lilly felt her heart begin to race. If she won she might get instant access to popularity. Instant respect. Instant acceptance.
“As this is only available to year tens,” Mr Hogg flourished the paper and went on, “you are in a very privileged position. The competition will be run in three stages. The first stage is open to anybody who wishes to enter and will be a landscape picture. From these entries, just three will be selected to move on. The second round is abstract, and two will progress. The third round is a portrait of a person or animal, and from these two pictures a winner will be selected. It is not mandatory, but should anyone wish to enter they can sign their names here.” He held a form aloft. “The landscape entry is due in on Friday.”
Saffron and Lilly were the first two on their feet, and Saffron snatched the pen up before Lilly had even got to the front of the room.
“Think you can win, do you?” she laughed in Lilly’s face.
“Yes actually,” Lilly said, nodding. She wasn’t confident about many things in life, and was miserably aware of each and every one of her flaws, but art was her confidence and art, she knew, could be the key to changing her life.
Saffron looked taken aback by Lilly’s uncharacteristic display of confidence, chucked the pen back on the desk, then stalked back to her seat. Lilly picked it up and wrote in clear, solid letters, ‘LILLY ELIZABETH PROSPERO.’
For the rest of the lesson, she practiced with charcoal sticks, making notes as Mr Hogg spoke, dreaming about landscape ideas for the competition. Something striking, something different. Something that would make her stand out.
When the bell rang for the end of the day, Lilly shoved everything in her bag and made a break for freedom when she noticed the curly haired sixth former leaning against a tree watching her again. She frowned, it was starting to get a little creepy.
“Hey, new girl,” he said, catching her eye and grinning.
“Lilly,” she said, stepping forward hesitantly. “My name’s Lilly.”
“Alex,” he said, offering her his hand, which she accepted and he shook. It was warm and soft. When he let go she felt her skin tingling where his touch had been.
Over his shoulder she became aware of two girls and a boy stood staring at the two of them, whispering rapidly with angry looks on their faces. She frowned in confusion, certain she didn’t recognise them and not able to figure out how she’d already managed to piss off yet more people.
“So, Lilly, meet me tomorrow?” asked Alex, the corner of his mouth creeping up in a funny half smile. Lilly wasn’t sure whether it was a request or a command.
“Why?” she asked. It didn’t make sense that a handsome sixth former would be seeking her company. Of all the girls in the school, why her?
“It’ll be worth your while.” He said confidently.
“But…” she said nervously, it felt like a trap. Or a mistake. Why her? It was weird and made no sense at all, but she decided that even a friend as mysterious and peculiar as this one was better than no friend at all and nodded in agreement. “Okay. Where?”
“By the field. Where I saw you earlier. Lunch time.”
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He waved, a mischievous look on his face. Then he turned and winked at the three who were watching from behind him, and walked away. As Lilly went to leave too, she felt a burning on the back of her neck as three pairs of eyes watched her leave. She tried to walk away slowly and calmly, but as she heard footsteps approach from behind, she dropped all pretence and ran.