Red Tally by Anna L. (Year 10)
Taking a deep breath, you lower your head to the ground and take a nervous step into the school hall. This isn’t scary, you keep telling yourself, this isn’t scary, this isn’t scary. You’re used to this.
Avoiding eye contact with anyone is easy. Don't look up; just keep on walking. Breathe. Still, you feel hundreds of pairs of eyes dart to your cheek. Your tongue tastes of blood. It’s impossible for you to ignore the red welt on your face burning like you’d been slapped with molten iron. The magnet which attracts dirty looks but repels any chance of mutual trust with anyone. Then the whispers start, like the voice of the devil in your head: ‘she’s had that mark ever since I’ve known her’; ‘look at her mark, I’ve never seen what she looks like without it; I wonder what she did’; ‘don’t ever trust her, she’s evil – look, she’s never kept a promise’.
Your face feels so hot it’s a wonder the red mark is still visible. This is nothing new to you. You untuck your hair from behind your ears in an attempt to hide your face and continue trudging through the halls. You deal with this situation every day, but that’s never made it any easier. You know you have to reach your classroom; at least no one can talk about you during lessons. After an age has passed you finally step through the classroom door heaving a sigh of relief. As your heartbeat returns to normal, you allow your muscles to relax.
When lessons begin you realise with a sinking feeling in your heart that you’ve forgotten your pencil case to school. You know what you have to do. You turn to the girl sitting next to you.
‘What do you want, freak?’ she spits, edging her chair away from yours. Your chest rises and falls as you try to calm yourself. It takes a minute for your dry mouth to form the words.
'I’m really sorry,’ you venture, ‘but I left my pencil case at home. Do you think it would be okay if I borrow one of your pens for the day, please? I don’t have anything to write with.’
She looks you up and down sceptically, her eyes finally resting on your cheek. Your face is burning.
‘What makes you think I trust you to give it back?’
You weigh up your chances. You need this. It’s not hard to return someone’s pen. The feeling of being watched is so familiar at this point you doubt it will make a difference.
‘I promise. I’ll give it back.’
Your ears erupt with the sound of chairs dragging across the floor as the whole class spun in their seats to watch as a second red tally scorches itself down your face. You make a point of staring at your desk as the girl next to you grudgingly places a pen on your desk. With a sharp intake of air, you realise this is some kind of sick joke: the ink is red. Your eyes travel slowly up to meet with those of the girl. Ophelia, you think her name is. She doesn’t try to hide her smirk. You turn away but you can still feel her blue eyes piercing you, even though you try to ignore her.
All through the day, you get even more stares than usual, if that’s possible. You get on with your work quietly; you don’t let yourself feel embarrassment, yearning for the end of the day so you can finish with Ophelia’s pen and go home. It finally comes. You call her name as she’s walking out.
She spins round. ‘What?’
You stumble towards her, extending your hand with her pen resting on your palm. ‘Here’s your pen back’ you blurt. As you hand it over you feel an unfamiliar tingling sensation of a mark being erased from your face. It feels good; you almost feel free. Her eyes widen in shock.
‘Wow. I didn’t think I’d ever be getting this back’ muses Ophelia. You shrug. You know that you’ve proved yourself to be trustworthy. Furrowing her brow, she probes ‘What’s your other tally for, then? You’ve never said.’ Her words stab you like a knife.
Time stops. You travel to a time when things were simpler. You're with him. Your best friend. You and Nat can’t stop laughing. You're only six. You’ve been out in the rain for hours, dancing and singing and talking. You’re home: with each other. You’ve never felt so alive. You’re with Nat. You’re happy. It’s beginning to get dark, and it’s a school night, and you don’t want your parents to worry – you know you’ll have to leave each other soon. You both stop laughing and turn to face each other.
‘We should both go home now,’ you sigh.
‘But Rose, I don’t want to’ Nat huffs. You pretend to be annoyed by scrunching up your nose, but you’re not, because you know it’s because he wants to stay with you.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll see each other at school tomorrow!’ You try and cheer him up.
Nat sighs. ‘Fine! But Rose, when we’re older we have to get married so we can spend all our time together.’ This makes you smile. ‘Let’s promise each other!’
‘Okay’, you agree, beaming. ‘I promise.’
‘I promise too.’ Nat repeats solemnly. You both burst out laughing as you watch red marks burn down each other’s faces. ‘Now we have to!’ he grins in delight.
And then you’re back at school, face to face with Ophelia. ‘I promised someone I’d marry him.’ you caution, careful not to give away anything.
‘Oh’ Ophelia was lost in thought for a moment. ‘I’m sorry, Rose. For everything.’
A shiver of gratefulness rushes through you. ‘Thank you. That’s okay. It’s just annoying because nobody thinks I’m trustworthy.’
‘I think you’re trustworthy.’ she stammers. You smile. You know it’s going to be okay. ‘So, what happened? Are you still in touch with him? Are you still friends?’
You hesitate before nodding. ‘In a way.’ You pause before adding, ‘I’m going to see him now, actually. You can come too if you like.’
Ophelia beamed. ‘I’d love to, if that’s okay.’
‘Of course,’ you reply, ‘I’d be grateful for the company.’
Ophelia follows as you amble down the street toward the shop. ‘Just picking up some flowers’, you explain. You return with a selection of red roses. You chat and laugh, getting to know each other as you lead her through the streets. Neither of you mention your broken promise until you reach your destination.
Ophelia scans the area in confusion. ‘This is a cemetery?’ she murmurs.
Chest tightening, you tread carefully to a familiar place. Your vision blurs slightly but you wipe your cheeks and start to replace the dead flowers with roses in Nat’s grave. To remind him of you.
A silence. It seems to last forever. Then, you hear his words from the last day you saw him.
It never stopped hurting and you know it never will.
Blue eyes – the colour of his – brimming with understanding and pity, Ophelia strides toward you. ‘I’m so sorry,’ her voice trembles. I’m going to make it up to you. I promise.’
A feeling of guilt overcomes you as you watch an identical mark to yours slash its way down Ophelia’s distraught face. Identical to Nat’s. You squint, and for a moment you think you see him standing in front of you. You see his familiar smile; his watery eyes, of the day you last saw him. But it’s not Nat, it’s Ophelia. It’s Ophelia. Not Nat. Ophelia. Don’t be stupid, you know he’s gone.
At least, that’s what you keep telling yourself.
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