Tammy stared at the broken window, the jagged glass like the maw of some ravenous creature. The dark interior of the gym started to glow, there was a crackling sound and Tammy wrinkled her nose at the hot, sour, smell that wafted around her. Smoke spiralled up into the night, blotting out the stingy moon.
The whine of sirens jolted her out of her trance.
Anna pulled on her arm, “Jesus Tammy! Run!”
Tammy spun on her heel and ran. Something exploded inside the gym and she shrieked, ducking instinctively. Her pulse thrummed in her neck. She grabbed Anna’s hand and they ran together over the school driveway, through the gates and across the road.
“Quick, down here,” Tammy pulled Anna down a steep bank. They lay against the cold, damp, grass panting. Something skittered over Tammy’s arm, sharp claws pricking against her skin, and she swallowed a yelp.
Sirens tore the air. In the distance the fire alarm sounded at the station. Tammy’s dad would be up, his beeper raising him from his sleep, oblivious to the fact that his only daughter was hiding in the shadows and watching it all unfold. A wave of guilt washed over Tammy and she groaned, burying her face in her hands.
“What have we done?”
“Shit, don’t lose it now. It’ll all be ok.”
The fire truck rumbled past, spraying dirt and stones over them. Tammy coughed and rubbed her stinging eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said when the noise had died down, “I mean…I wanted to but…”
“But what? They had this coming.”
“I guess you’re right,” she brushed her dark hair back from her face, “C’mon. Let’s go.”
They clambered up the bank, laughing as their feet slid on the damp grass, and stepped into the road. A pall of smoke, carried by the gusty wind, spiralled across the night and spread out over the town like the claws of some giant bird.
Tammy crossed the pitch black road carefully. Pain exploded through her foot as it connected with the concrete kerb. She toppled forward, pain shot up her arm and into her shoulder. She gasped and grasped her wrist, tears sliding down her cheeks.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
“What? Are you ok,” Anna crouched down beside her.
“Shit Anna. I think I’ve broken something. Jesus, it hurts.”
“Don’t worry. I’m here, I’ll look after you.”
# # #
“Run Two Tonne! Run!”
Tammy kept her blue eyes focussed ahead. The finish line wasn’t far away now, she could see Miss Jessop waiting, clipboard in hand. All she had to do was keep going.
Her lungs burnt, her breath clawed at her throat and she wheezed painfully. Sweat ran from her hairline, leaving tracks on her smooth, soft cheeks. More trickles of sweat pooled between her breasts, which bounced painfully with each step, and in the small of her back. Her thighs rubbed together, she was sure that a small fire was igniting between her legs as she ran.
Finally she willed herself over the finish line and came to a halt, her joints complaining at the abrupt stop.
“Well done Tammy,” Grace Jessop said with a gentle smile.
“Yeah, good job Two Tonne,” Amelia Grey said, tossing her shiny black ponytail over her shoulder.
Miss Jessop’s eyes swivelled between the two girls. Tammy’s breath froze in her chest, her skin prickled in anticipation and her stomach clenched. She balled her chubby hands into fists and leant forward, trying to will Miss Jessop to say something, anything.
Miss Jessop opened her mouth and turned to Amelia, “You’re up Milly. Head down to the other end of the field please.”
Amelia smiled and sashayed towards the start line.
Tammy’s heart sank, shock buzzed inside her head. The beginning of tears stung her eyes and she turned away quickly. So close to it all ending and nothing had happened. How could Miss Jessop just turn a blind eye?
“Tammy? You can go get changed.”
“Yes Miss,” Tammy replied, trudging towards the change rooms.
Alone in the cement block change rooms she allowed a tear to spill down her cheek, wiped it away and began pulling off her clothes, exposing her pale, spongy, body to the cold air. She spritzed deodorant under her arms and then pulled her clothes on quickly as the change room door swung open and the other girls came in to change, their voices bouncing off the wall.
Tammy kept her head down, stuffed her PE clothes into her backpack and stepped backwards, colliding with someone behind her with a thud.
“Jesus Two Tonne!”
Tammy groaned and looked into Amelia’s brown eyes, “Sorry Amy,” she said. Amelia winced and Tammy remembered that no one called her Amy any more, that nickname belonged to a skinny little girl with grazed knees and calluses on her hands from the monkey bars, not the athletic woman in front of her.
“Just watch it,” Amelia muttered before strutting off and shutting herself in a shower cubicle. The pipes clunked a few times then the sound of running water filled the air and steam played in the weak sunlight coming through the grimy skylight.
Tammy made for the door, letting out a hiss of relief as she emerged into the fresh air.
# # #
“You know what I’d like to do?” Tammy said, kicking her heels against the steep concrete slope of the skate bowl.
“What?” Anna asked pulling the hair she’d been chewing out of her mouth and tucking it behind her ear.
“I’d like to burn the fucking place down. Just watch it go up in smoke, ya know?”
“What? The whole school?”
Tammy narrowed her eyes. Jacob flew down the slope and up the other side, planted his hand on the rim of the bowl and swung his feet into the air. He hung there for a second before bringing the wheels of the skateboard back down onto the concrete. The board slid out from under him and he slid on his arse to the bottom of the bowl.
He stood up and gave a mock bow. Tammy and Anna laughed and clapped.
Jacob scooped up his board, ran up the side of the bowl and sat down next to Tammy with a grunt, “What yiz talking about?” he asked, brushing his fringe from his forehead.
“Tammy wants to burn the school down.”
“Not the whole school,” Tammy protested, her cheeks colouring.
“I just want to get them where it hurts,” she rolled her bottom lip into her mouth, “I want to burn down the gym.”
Jacob whistled. Anna had only introduced Tammy to him a few weeks before but already Tammy knew that was his signal that he was thinking. She waited patiently, taking in his skinny frame and brown eyes from the corner of her eye. Her stomach tickled.
“I reckon I could help you with that.”
“You have really pretty hair,” he said suddenly, brushing a thick curl behind Tammy’s ear. Electricity sparked from his fingertips and made Tammy’s skin tingle.
“She asked how, Jakey. Chat her up later, ok,” Anna said, picking the pink polish off her nails and dropping the flakes onto her lap.
“Lewis showed me how to make a sparkler bomb once.”
“Lewis, your dickhead big brother?” Anna snorted and rolled her eyes.
“He’s alright. Anyway, it was awesome. And the more sparklers, the bigger the explosion and it’d make a nice fire.”
Tammy pulled on a strand of hair, wrapping it around her finger until her fingertip felt prickly and swollen.
“They’d be heaps easy to get hold of too,” Jacob went on.
“Mmmm. Yeah, you’re right,” Tammy said, releasing her finger and wincing as the blood ran back into the nail bed, “Let’s do it.”
# # #
“Can I sit here?”
Tammy looked up from her book. A tiny, bird-like, girl stood at her shoulder, one hand resting on the back of the empty chair while she balanced thick folders in her other arm.
“If you want,” she said, returning to her book.
The girl sat down. She was waiting, it rippled out of her in waves of eagerness. Tammy bit her lip and tried to focus on the words in front of her but they seemed to fade into the paper and she gave up with a sigh.
“Hi, I’m Anna,” the girl said, giving Tammy a broad smile.
“Thanks for letting me sit with you. I don’t know anyone yet,” Anna smiled again. Tammy’s eyes were drawn to a yellow pimple under her bottom lip. She tried to look away but it was like a beacon.
“What? Have I got a zit?”
“Is it massive?”
“A bit,” Tammy rummaged in her pocket and pulled out a crumpled tissue, “it’s clean,” she said proffering it to Anna.
“Thanks,” she held the tissue to her skin and pinched hard, wincing as the pimple burst. “Is that better?”
Tammy narrowed her eyes. The spot was still pink but at least it didn’t stand out like a vegan in a butcher’s shop.
Amelia waltzed into the classroom, her skin glowed and her hair had been carefully straightened. She surveyed the room like a queen, caught sight of Anna and smiled.
“Hi. Are you new?” She asked, stopping in front of Anna.
“Sort of. I live in Danst but mum and dad wanted me to go here.”
“That’s like, half an hour on the bus isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s a bit painful but I’ll get used to it.”
Amelia’s eyes flicked towards Tammy, who stiffened instinctively.
“Look, you seem really nice. If you care at all about your reputation I wouldn’t start hanging with Two Tonne.”
Tammy’s inside burned, heat rushed into her face and she scraped her teeth hard against her bottom lip.
“Two Tonne Tammy.”
Anna’s mouth dropped open. She seemed to be about to say something when a lean boy with dark hair appeared, looping his arm around Amelia’s waist and nuzzling into her neck. Tammy scrunched lower in her chair.
“Hey baby,” the boy said before turning his grey eyes towards the other girls, “Hi Tammy, how’s it going?”
“That’s good. Who’s your friend?”
“I’m Anna,” she stretched out her hand which the boy shook.
“I was just telling Anna that Two Tonne might not be the best person to become friends with.”
“Shit Milly. You can be such a bitch sometimes. Just ignore her Tammy, she’s probably on her rags or whatever.”
Tammy smiled weakly. Luke was brushing his thumb backwards and forwards over Amelia’s hip and Tammy’s own hip tingled in response.
“See you around Anna,” he said, moving away from the table.
“Yeah, it was nice to meet you. Bye.”
“Bye,” Amelia mimicked, “I know a lot of girls are after him but Luke’s my boyfriend so, you know, don’t get any ideas. Anyway, if you want to hang out with my group just come sit with us.”
Amelia trotted away. She was halfway across the room when Anna called out after her.
“Thanks but I think I can pick my own friends and I’d pick Tammy over you any day. As for your boyfriend, you don’t need to worry about me making any moves on him…he’s not my type. I’m more into blondes. Oh, and girls.”
Amelia froze, blood rushing into her face, her mouth opening and shutting like a fish on land.
Tammy roared with laughter.
# # #
“So you’re gay?” Tammy asked, inspecting the contents of her lunchbox. She wrinkled her nose at the carrot sticks her mum and slipped in beside her cheese sandwich and pulled out a muesli bar.
Anna went rigid beside her and said nothing.
“My Aunty Kate is gay,” Tammy went on, “we went to her commitment ceremony last year. Her partner, Paula, she’s really cool.”
“You’re not worried about me making a move on you then?”
Tammy snorted, “You’d need to be into Rhinos to make a move on me, not chicks,” Tammy said, laughing.
Anna wrinkled her brow, “How big do you think you are?”
Tammy shrugged and changed the subject.
“So why’d you change schools?”
“I have a girlfriend at my old school and Mum and Dad thought she was distracting me from my school work. Now I can only hang out with her after school.”
“Your parents are cool with it then?” Tammy said.
Anna shrugged, “Cool enough. It’s not like we pash or anything in front of them. I don’t want to totally freak them out.”
“You could come to my place this weekend, if you wanted. There’s no stress if you don’t want to.”
Tammy toyed with the corner of her sandwich, crumbling the crust between her fingers. Was it a trick? It sounded genuine enough but you never knew. Her stomach tightened but then she nodded, “I would like that.”
Anna smiled, “great!”
# # #
“Tammy? You can go with Alana and Milly.”
Tammy looked up. Miss Jessop was looking at her expectantly, her blue eyes enlarged by her trendy square glasses, bright red mouth slightly open as if she were out of breath.
A tremor moved from Tammy’s feet, up through her legs and spread across her body. Her vision dipped slightly as a wave of dizziness overwhelmed her, static roared in her ears, and she pressed her lips together. She waited, adrenalin rushed through her, colour blossomed in her cheeks and her vision sharpened.
“I’m not going with them.”
Miss Jessop raised her perfectly waxed eyebrows, “Let’s not be silly Tammy. Move over to their table please.”
“No,” Tammy said, louder this time, her mouth set in a thin line, “I’m not going to work with them.”
Miss Jessop crouched down next to Tammy’s desk. The class was holding their breath, their eyes seemed fixed in their sockets. Tammy’s resolve began to sink.
“Now Tammy,” she started in a low voice, “I know you’ve had some differences with those girls but part of growing up is working with people that you’re not necessarily friends with.”
Tammy’s mouth dropped open. Butterflies swooped inside her stomach.
Miss Jessop stood up, “Tammy,” she said firmly, “pick up your stuff and go and sit with Alana and Milly.”
“You must be out of your fucking mind!”
The class erupted into laughter. Tammy kept her eyes fixed on Miss Jessop, fear thrilled through her but she pushed it down.
“Tammy I know you’ve had a difficult time lately but that is simply unacceptable.”
“Oh fuck off,” Tammy spat, “It’s unacceptable for the fat girl to be a bitch but the skinny, pretty, girls can do whatever they want?”
Miss Jessop was as pale as snow, a blue line traced around her lips.
“You know Grace,” Tammy said in a sing-song voice, “part of growing up is realising you’re not in high school anymore and that teachers can’t be in the cool group, no matter how much they want to be.”
“Get out,” Miss Jessop growled, flinging her hand towards the door.
Tammy stood up slowly, picked up her books, and sauntered towards the door.
“Gladly,” she said and disappeared into the corridor.
# # #
“So, are you a lesbian now Two Tonne?” Amelia asked, leaning next to Tammy’s locker.
Tammy kept her eyes down and shoved her books into her locker. She slammed the door shut, twisted the combination lock, and turned away.
“Two Tonne,” Amelia called out as Tammy strode away, “it’s ok if you are. It’s not like any of us would hook up with you anyway, boys or girls.”
Tammy froze. Her stomach rolled over. She opened her mouth, words dancing across her tongue, and shut it again. Laughter cascaded around her as she walked away and went in search of Anna.
# # #
“What’s the deal between you and that Amelia chick, anyway?”
They were sitting on a concrete step in front of an old portable classroom, used now to store old sporting equipment and outdated computers.
Tammy shrugged, “We were good friends in primary school. Slept over at each other’s houses and that. Things just changed once we got into high school. You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” Anna said but she sounded uncertain, her little bow-like mouth was twisted to one side and she tapped her fingernails on the concrete step.
Tammy snuggled down into her faded school windcheater and sighed, “Thanks for having me over on the weekend. Your friends are really nice and your parents are cool.”
“That’s ok,” Anna replied, the concern flying from her face, “they liked you too. What did you think of Jakey?”
“The one with the skateboard and the long hair?”
Anna snorted, “Yes, that one.”
“He seemed really nice. He’s pretty cute in a scrawny sort of way,” she tried to remember Jacob. He’d had nice eyes, big and golden like a crocodile, and he’d smiled at her a lot and asked her a lot of questions.
“Yeah, well, he thinks you’re pretty cute too.”
Tammy’s highbrows shot up to her hairline, “As if.”
“What? He does.”
“He’s probably got plenty of girls interested in him, he doesn’t need to go after a pog like me.”
“He does have plenty of girls interested in him, but he’s interested in you,” the bell rang and the girls rose, shoving their chip wrappers through a gap between the steps and the portable.
“He wanted me to give this to you,” Anna pulled out a folded piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to Tammy who opened it. Jacob’s creased features stared out at her. He was smiling broadly, his hair curling around his earlobes. In one hand he was holding up his mobile and, across his bare collarbone, he’d written his number in thick black pen.
She smiled, “Not afraid to put himself out there, is he?”
“Why didn’t he just friend me on Facebook or whatever?”
“It’s not really his style. He likes to make an impression.”
He’d certainly done that.
Tammy opened the padlock on her locker, swung the door open, and jumped back as her books and folders spilled out onto the ground. Her fingers trembled and blood rushed into her cheeks. She knelt to pick up her belongings, her name floated through the air like a leaf caught in a storm. She bit her lip, salty blood filled her mouth, and forced herself not to cry.
Tammy looked up. Amelia stood over her, something in her hand. Tammy’s heart tightened painfully. Amelia waved the picture of Jacob around in the air so that the growing crowd of teenagers could get a good look.
“Is this your boyfriend Two Tonne?” Amelia said loudly, getting a few chuckles from the crowd.
Tammy inspected her shoes, “No. He’s just a friend of Anna’s. I met him on the weekend.”
“Oh but he’s cute. You’d make a nice couple.”
“We’re going to be late for class,” Tammy muttered, stepping away from her locker. The crowd tightened around her, like a living wall, and a hot knife twisted in her chest, making her gasp.
“What’s wrong Two Tonne? We just want to know about your boyfriend,” Amelia looked over her head and smiled thinly, “Luke? Look at this, Two Tonne has a boyfriend.”
Tammy kept her head down as Luke muscled his way through the crowd.
“Donno’s looking for you all, he sent me to find you.”
“Look, it’s a picture of Tammy’s boyfriend,” Amelia persisted.
There was crackle of paper. Tammy swallowed a lump in her throat.
“That’s great. Now come on, before we all get in the crap. We’re meant to be doing our presentations and he’s getting pretty shitty.”
“But don’t you think they make a nice couple?”
“Yeah, I suppose. Yeah, why not.”
“Yeah, I mean they’re perfect for each other as long as, well, you know…”
“Jesus Milly, what are you crapping on about?”
Tammy looked up. Luke was red in the face, running his hands through his hair. Amelia was looking at her, her big blue eyes framed by clumpy black lashes. Tammy couldn’t look away.
“Well you know the rhyme,” Amelia said.
The crowd held its breath.
Amelia smiled, “Fat and Skinny went to bed, Fat rolled over and Skinny was dead.”
Laughter swelled around Tammy like a wave.
# # #
The principal’s office was warm and quiet. He looked at Tammy and Anna over the desk, his hands steepled in front of him. Miss Jessop and Mr. Donovan hovered at his shoulders, like an angel and a devil, one on each side.
“We take bullying very seriously in this school,” he said at last.
“We’ve spoken to Amelia and she insists that she had nothing to do with what happened. That you two are old friends.”
Tammy’s mouth fell open, a cold chill settled on her skin.
“We are not friends,” she said, her voice coming out an octave higher than usual.
“The thing is Tammy, you don’t make things any easier on yourself,” Miss Jessop interrupted.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, doing things to draw attention to yourself like flashing around a picture of your boyfriend…stuff like that doesn’t help you.”
Tammy froze. Her mind was numb and her tongue felt swollen and useless in her mouth. Words ebbed and flowed around her but they might as well been speaking Chinese for all the sense they made.
“So, I think that settles it then,” the principal said, “just try to keep your head down from now on young lady, keep away from Amelia if that helps…”
“And try not to be so sensitive Tammy,” Miss Jessop added.
Mr. Donovan shook his head but remained silent.
Tammy gripped the sides of her chair, forcing the blood out of her knuckles.
“Is there anything else girls? Then you can go.”
# # #
“You’ve missed your bus,” Tammy said quietly. The school was empty, papers and empty wrappers skidded across the ground, pushed by a cold breeze. Dark clouds rolled overhead and Tammy eyed them, her mood worsening.
“It’s ok, I texted mum and let her know what was happening. She’s coming to pick me up.”
“Do you want me to wait with you?”
“If you like.”
They perched on the kerb, Tammy flicked at the leaves in the gutter with a stick.
“I’m so sorry about everything that’s happened…”
“It’s not your fault…it’s just the way it is…”
“It shouldn’t be, but. We should do something to make them pay…”
Tammy interrupted quickly, “Just leave it ok…things are about as bad as they could get. I just need to keep my head down, high school doesn’t last forever.”
# # #
Tammy sighed, swung her bag onto her locker, and turned around.
“What?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Look, I’m sorry about yesterday. I really am, things got out of hand.”
Tammy shrugged, “Ok.”
“Look, I made you a present…to say sorry. I really am sorry Tammy,” she pulled out a plastic container from her bag and offered to Tammy who eyed it suspiciously but took it with a sigh.
She prised the lid off.
“Chocolate butterfly cakes?” Tammy asked, shaking her head.
Tammy laughed, “We had them at my eighth birthday party. Remember we ate so many that we made ourselves sick…”
“And I had to go home! I know, I remember.”
“Do you…do you want one,” Tammy held the box towards Amelia, her heart fluttering in her chest.
Amelia shook her head, “No, they’re for you. Just for you, ok? I’m sorry,” she turned and began to walk away.
Amelia hesitated and looked back over her shoulder, her smile faltered but then she grinned and with small wave she turned away.
Tammy inspected the butterfly cake and licked her lips. One wouldn’t hurt, she hadn’t had breakfast anyway. But what was the point at stopping at one?
# # #
“Tammy? You’re up.”
Tammy stood at the front of the class. Her heart seemed too big for her chest and beat against her ribs. She straightened her skirt, picked a spot on the wall and focussed on it.
“I did my report on the French Revolution and…”
Her stomach growled.
“…um, and I focussed on…”
Her stomach growled again, louder this time. It sounded like a dog was losing a fight with an octopus in her stomach. Sharp needles pushed into her guts and she clutched at her middle with both hands, bending at the hips to ease the cramps.
“Tammy? Are you ok?” Mr. Donovan asked.
“I…I think I might have a bit of a tummy bug…”
Her words were cut off by another churning rumble and she cried out in pain.
“I think you should go to the toilets Tammy,” Mr. Donovan said gently.
“I can’t move…” she let out another anguished groan, the pain and fear of messing herself freezing her to the spot in front of the class. Their eyes burned in to her, their whispers rose in pitch.
Anna appeared at her side.
“C’mon, I’ll help you,”
“Oh my God! I can’t. I can’t move!”
She doubled over again. Sweat prickled on her brow and she let out a low moan. Tears slid down her cheeks and rolled off her chin, leaving dark marks where they soaked into her jumper.
“Dale, go get the nurse.”
Tammy looked up into Amelia’s steady gaze.
“I hope it wasn’t something you ate Two Tonne,” she said.
# # #
Tammy milled with other students at the school gate. She rubbed her sprained wrist, trying to scratch an itch under the white bandage. Someone touched her shoulder.
“Wow,” Anna breathed.
The gym was a smouldering wreck ringed by yellow tape which flapped in the wind like a streamer at a kid’s birthday party. The roof had crumbled and twisted and lay in the middle of the blackened building surrounded by dirty pools of water.
“Did you know that would happen?”
Tammy shook her head.
The fire had jumped, spreading from the gym to the canteen, to the first block of classrooms. Half the school had been reduced to smoke and ash.
Amelia and her minions were sobbing at the fence. Their mascara had run, they looked like skinny racoons in plaid skirts.
Tammy felt a wave of pity for them. They’re whole world had been reduced to nothing. They’d peaked too soon and now they were going to have to fight for their place in new schools where someone else was already top bitch.
“They’re saying the teachers will be transferred too, just until the school’s rebuilt,” Anna said, squeezing Tammy’s hand.
“Are you going back to Danst?”
“Yeah. It’d be good if you came too.”
“I heard Luke’s going to St. Dean’s.”
“That’s an all boys school isn’t it?”
“No wonder Amelia’s upset.”
“Fuck her. Fuck them all.”
Anna rested her head on Tammy’s shoulder.
The principal called for silence. He looked pale, his eyes were droopy and his shirt was untucked. There was talk that the school would never reopen, that the staff would all have to find work elsewhere.
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of people.