Always the "new girl" Hannah arrives for her first day at school just in time to witness Xan's bizarre proclamation of an earthquake.
Hannah Knight was an orphan. She was not an orphan in the classic sense: her mother was still very much alive but she was so distracted with her work, she took very little notice of what was going on with Hannah, who did not really mind this too much. She was nearly sixteen and of an age when she did not really need her mother the way she had done when she was younger. Things could have been much worse, Hannah knew. She could have lost her father at a much younger age or she could have lost him to some sort of addiction like alcohol or drug abuse in the manner in which she had seen so many adults become detached from life through their addictions.
The radio was playing softly in the kitchen where her mother was busying herself with tidying up when it wasn’t really at all necessary. Since her husband had died, there was little mess anymore. More than that, Hannah was meticulous in the kitchen and had always been so. She abhorred dirty dishes in the sink or dirty towels scattered about. Hannah was fussy about the surfaces too and never let spills remain unattended to. In her previous school she had taken a course in food hygiene and it had changed her life: the kitchen was nothing more than a breeding ground for bacteria that could render one incapacitated from vomiting and diarrhoea for days. Bacteria could even kill an otherwise healthy human being. Items in the refrigerator did not have a chance to exist past their expiration date either. Without mercy or contemplation, Hannah disposed of foodstuffs before any spores had a chance to even look at the tempting bread or cheese. Milk especially was watched with vigilance ever since Hannah learned the hard way to always check for freshness by not only the date on the carton but through a long, scrupulous whiff of the contents. It only takes one accidental swallow of sour milk before a person gets the message that it is always best to check before chugging back chucks of curdled milk.
Water was running in the sink and Hannah imagined her mother was filling the kettle for another cup of coffee before leaving for work. Tucking her legs under her, Hannah leaned back on the couch to think about the long day ahead of her.
New girl. Once again she would be the new girl. She would be introduced to a group of rowdy teenagers who would take no notice of her until she did something embarrassing and then there would be no respite from the attention. In her last school, she had made the mistake of skipping breakfast and her rumbling belly in the English lesson had been a hot conversation for weeks. She became Hannah the Starving Saint. Hannah of the Completed Homework. Hannah of the Don’t Bother Me Because I’m Studying and I’m Not Hungry Anyway At Lunchtime. Before long and even before she had to become isolated from one social group after another, she was a school reject who simply did not fit in anywhere, nor with anyone.
Hannah sat up, uncurling her legs and thrusting herself into a standing position.
Goddamnit, she thought to herself. She straightened her shoulders and re-adjusted her clothes. If she went to school with this attitude she was bound to have her worries verified by reality. I am an intelligent, likeable person, she told herself. I AM an intelligent, likeable person. I WILL make friends this time.
Her mother came in from the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel. Hannah made a mental note to ensure the towel went straight to the laundry basket. Usually, mother and daughter barely acknowledged one another, leaving Hannah to feel as if she were some unwanted guest or a stubborn tenant who refused to leave an affordable accommodation.
To Hannah’s surprise, her mother sat down on the sofa and motioned for Hannah to sit next to her.
“Is that what you’re wearing to school?” her mother asked.
Hannah looked down at her misshapen jeans, worn trainers and faded blouse. Over the past few months her breasts had started on a delayed, uninhibited growth spurt that was physically painful but a delightful relief at the same time. In fact, she could use a better fitting bra and a few new blouses—which she understood and accepted that she would be unlikely to get. Hannah shrugged, knowing there was nothing more her mother would like for her to do than dress in than a crisp, white blouse, neat, black skirt, plain black hose and unadorned black shoes. In fact, she was certain her mother would like for Hannah to dress exactly as she did.
“It’s what all the other kids are wearing,” she said, lamely.
“I see,” answered her mother although Hannah knew her mother saw very little since her husband had died a few months before. At this thought, Hannah felt her eyes fill with tears and she was afraid the tears would spill over, betraying her desire to leave the house for once without her bereavement singling her out.
I am an intelligent, likeable person, she said to herself again. I AM an intelligent, likeable person. I WILL make friends this time.
“This school has a band,” Hannah said, nodding in the direction of her euphonium. “I hear they’re very good on the marching field.”
“Marching field,” her mother muttered, standing. “Blessed musicians walking around in circles when they could be praising God with their talents.”
“Mother,” said Hannah, “I’ll be home at 5 after practice.”
“OK, dinner will be in the fridge,” she answered, not looking at her daughter. “I have a prayer meeting to go to.” With that, her mother waddled to the door, opening, then closing behind her, the only escape into the new world.
The good thing about playing the euphonium, Hannah thought as she walked to school, wasn’t so much the weight of the instrument but how much attention was drawn to its bulk. As she entered the school, she knew that it wasn’t her the other pupils were staring at but at the huge case that she carried. For this she was relieved. She had noticed her blouse gaped now where it hadn’t a few weeks before. Suddenly she felt her breasts were leading her rather than resting complacently beneath her clothes. Even so, she realised that the eyes of high school boys are drawn as if magnetised to breasts of any size, shape or position. She thought it was double-lucky that she could use the euphonium as a type of weapon against anyone who felt they could stare longer than absolutely necessary. Just as she was about to bash the owner of one such pair of eyes straight in the knee caps, she saw he was smiling at her. Not smiling at her out-of-control breasts but smiling into her face.
“Wow,” he said, dropping he gaze to her case, “what’s this? A dead body?” Without asking and before she could protest, he had taken the instrument from her and lifted it as if weighing it up. “It weighs more than you do!” Without a sign that this would be the signal for other boys to begin tormenting her, he handed it back to her, still smiling.
“Thanks,” Hannah muttered. The boy was surrounded by other tall, athletic looking lads who were giving her friendly, welcoming smiles. Hannah braced herself. This was going to end in trouble for her. I am an intelligent, likeable person, she said to herself again. I AM an intelligent, likeable person. I WILL make friends this time.
“Uh Zach,” one them said, pointing down the hallway.
A tall, thin girl with red hair had fallen to the ground and was writhing as if in agony.
“Holy shit!” said the boy who must have been Zach for he abandoned his friend and ran to the girl on the floor. Not knowing what else to do, Hannah ran after him. She knew first aid and as there did not seem to be any teachers around, she thought she might be in pole position to save the girl’s life. That might give everyone something else to think about.
“Xan!” Zach called. He crouched down next to the girl and patted her hand.
“Earthquake, earthquake,” the girl who must have been Xan moaned, turning her head on the cold, tiled floor. Hannah put down her euphonium and kneeled next to Zach. The girl’s eyes seemed to roll in her head and Hannah was afraid the girl was having some sort of seizure.
Around them pupils passed and even stepped over them without comment or second glance. They appeared to be used to pupils falling to the floor.
“Xan, there’s no earthquake,” Zach told her, helping her to sit up. He let Xan lean on his shoulder and patted her hand as if she needed to be reassured of this fact. Xan rolled her head against Zach’s shoulder as if she were some sort of trauma victim. She groaned loudly and put her face into her hands.
“Do you need first aid?” asked Hannah.
“Yeah she needs first aid,” said one of Zach’s companions. “She seems to have lost her marbles.” The group of boys laughed loudly before turning their attention elsewhere. Xan groaned again.
“Do you need help?” Hannah asked again, thinking she should go to the front office to ring for an ambulance.
“Just give her a minute,” Zach said.
“Does this happen a lot?” Hannah asked.
Xan groaned again, a little louder, giving Hannah the distinct impression there was some hamming it up going on. Hannah got to her feet and picked up her euphonium.
“Thanks for your help,” Zach said smiling up at her. “The band room is over there.” He pointed to what looked like the door to a closet. Hannah turned back to thank him but he was so engrossed in helping Xan to her feet that she didn’t think he’d hear her. As she walked to the band room she thought she heard Xan ask what number on the Richter scale the tremors were.