“You going to the disco on Friday?”
“I dunno. The last one I went to was really bad. I ended up sitting in the toilets waiting for my mum to get me.”
“Why don’t we go? We can meet up before and go there together. It might be good, and we can leave if it’s not.”
“Eh, all right. You come over to mine, like, an hour before. Okay?”
There were a few phrases that Erica hated hearing at school. “Tell the class a fun fact about yourself”, “If nobody puts up their hand, I’m going to call on someone” and “We’ll be doing a past-paper today” were all on the list, all for their own reasons, but they weren’t at the top. The one thing she hated to hear was worse than them all, so of course it’s the first thing out of her English teachers mouth, because life just loved screwing her over like that.
“We’re doing group work today. Each group will pick a case study from last week and write the points they’d make if it were an exam. Groups of four or less, okay?”
For God’s sake.
Erica slumped back in her seat as Mrs Bennett started calling out students’ names, filling out the registration as she went along. Some of the girls had immediately turned to their friends and given them a stupid, goofy look, and one loud one even called across the table, “Ellie! Be in a group with me!” It was just group work – why the hell were they so excited? They probably wouldn’t even get anything done.
“All right. Everybody, get into groups, and then I’ll go through each case file and each group will choose which one they want. Move chairs if you have to.”
The sound of chairs being pulled back from tables filled the air, along with a sudden rush of excited chatter. As the rest of her table quickly dispersed to their groups, Erica sighed and flipped through her folder, glancing at old pieces of work with disinterest. As students clustered together in their small groups, the volume of their voices only increased. From where she was sitting, Erica caught pieces of conversations, from greetings to asking about their weekends to holy shit, guess who Nicole stayed with last night?
“Erica?” She paused and turned to look up at Mrs Bennett, who was now standing next to her table with a polite smile. “Everything all right?”
“Have you found a group to work with?”
She gave a lazy shrug. “I’ll just go where there’s a gap.”
Mrs Bennett blinked before getting that weird, soft look on her face, that one that oozed condescending sympathy. “Why don’t you go in one with your friends?”
“I don’t know anyone in here.”
“Everyone’s really friendly. If you asked a group to join, I’m sure they’d let you. You can get to know them, then.”
“Uh, I’m okay.”
“No thanks. I don’t like this class. They’re all two-faced and loud. And apparently a few of them have STDs, if the rumours are true. Not my kind of people.”
When a knock echoed throughout the house, Erica rose from the bottom of the stairs and went to pull the door open. Mackenzie smiled at her from the other side, wearing a loose, orange dress with sandals and no parents in sight.
Erica squinted. “Where’s your mum?”
“At home. It’s only a short walk.”
“Your hair’s messy.”
Mackenzie’s smile widened into a grin, her fair hair falling into her face. “Bit knotty. I couldn’t find my brush.”
“I’ll do it. You always miss the back, anyway.”
“Thank you,” she sang. “You gonna let me in, then?”
“Yeah, obviously. Mum, Kenzie’s here! We’ve got loads of time – wanna play some games for a bit?”
Erica couldn’t even find it in herself to be surprised when she got a phone call home. Not two feet in the house and her mum appeared from the kitchen, looking tired. “I’ve just had a call from Temple Park.” She regarded Erica with a defeated expression. “Another call.”
Erica fought the urge to roll her eyes and instead pressed her lips into a thin line. “Oh.”
Her mum sighed and made a fleeting gesture with her hand, prompting Erica to follow her back into the kitchen. She swung her bag down and sat at the table, leaning back in her chair. Her mum wandered back over to the sink, where she had apparently been washing dishes, and said, “The school’s worried about you. They say you’re anti-social. That you’re rude about other students.”
“I don’t say it to their faces,” she defended. “I’m not bullying anyone.”
“I know. So does the school. But you’re in Sixth Form and you don’t have any friends there. You’re not making an effort.”
“There’s no point. I’ll never see them again after we graduate.”
“It’d be nice to have someone to keep in contact with. Someone to meet up with over the summer.”
“I don’t like anyone in my year.”
There was a brief pause where her mum set the final bowl on the draining board and emptied the sink. She dried her hands and looked at Erica with gentle eyes, and Erica began calculating how quickly she could ditch the conversation. “Does this have something to do with Mackenzie?”
She glared back at her, back rigid and shoulders locking defensively. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Whenever her mum had brought it up in the past, Erica always refused to answer. It usually led to her mum pissing her off to the point where she’d shut herself in her room and give her the cold shoulder until she apologised. But while she had been thrown some shit in English, life apparently decided to now give her a break. “Okay,” her mum breathed, shoulders slumping. “Okay. Well… we can talk about it this weekend. All right?”
“Good.” And with that, Erica grabbed her bag and left the room.
“What did you get? Minstrels or Smarties?”
Erica nodded and revealed her own milk chocolate bar before tearing the wrapper. “Wanna get drinks after this? The teachers have got Coke by the speakers.”
“Oh, I won’t get one.”
“What? Why not?”
Mackenzie offered her a smile, though it looked almost sheepish. “I’ve only got a few pounds with me. Can’t afford it.”
“I’ll get it. Mum gave me a tenner.”
She physically recoiled in surprise, blinking as Erica raised an eyebrow. “No, that’s okay. I–”
“Shut up,” commanded Erica. “Mum told us to split it. It’s fine. C’mon.”
Mackenzie stilled for a moment and Erica thought she could actually see the argument going on in her head. Soon, a wide smile curled across her face and she nodded, blue eyes sparkling. “Thanks,” she said, voice soft.
There was so much emotion behind that one word that Erica didn’t know what to say back, so she gave a brusque nod and left their private corner of the school hall, storming in the direction of the fizzy drinks with Mackenzie floating behind her. They grabbed their drinks and paid, even though Mackenzie still looked a bit guilty when Erica handed over the money.
Erica shoved her away from the dance floor and headed over to where people were sitting on PE equipment, talking over the loud music. “It’s so hot in here. I wish I’d worn shorts,” she bemoaned, picking at her leggings. “Wanna cool off in the toilets?”
“Sure. It’s too loud in here. And I like seeing the school when it’s all dark and empty.”
We should check the classrooms later. One of them might be unlocked. We ca– what are they playing? Is that gospel music? Come on, out!”
When dinner was ready, Erica and her mum picked up their plates and took them into the lounge. They settled down with their food in their laps and turned on the TV, eventually choosing a cooking show to watch. The first fifteen minutes drifted by in relative silence, but Erica could feel that familiar knot coiling in her gut, tightening until it felt like she could barely eat without upsetting the heavy weight in her stomach.
When the adverts came on, Erica shifted to look at her mum, her fork still in her hand. “Mum?”
“Do you think Mackenzie’s okay?”
She watched her mum freeze in shock, her forkful of food still in the air. Her gaze lifted to look at Erica, eyes wide and face pinched, shifting through several emotions in rapid succession: surprise, horror, sadness and guilt. “I…” She paused, staring at a spot on the sofa in deep thought, before heaving out a sigh that left her shoulders sagging in defeat. “I hope so. I really, really hope so.”
“Me too.” Erica’s response was quiet. The knot in her gut constricted suddenly, stretching like a rubber band, and Erica swallowed around the lump that formed in her throat. “I’ve heard stories like it, and seen shows, and… I just… want her to be okay. To be alive.”
But being alive wasn’t the same thing as being okay, was it? If she was alive and they found her, what state would she be in? What would she be like? What would she remember?
“I do, too.” Her mum’s voice snapped her away from her thoughts and she noticed her watching, gaze heavy with pain. “I want her to be alive, too. And she might be. The case is still open–”
“I miss her.”
Those three whispered words made the knot loosen slightly, as if admitting to them helped. Maybe it did. Erica wouldn’t know – she never talked about Mackenzie anymore.
She kept her eyes on her lap as she heard her mum put her food to one side before rising from her seat. She didn’t look up as she sat down next to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and squeezing. “I know, hon. I know.”
That night, she dreamed about her. About the last time she saw her. It came once every few weeks, her brain replaying every detail, burning it into her mind. It haunted her.
But she would never forget it. Forget her.
“It’s so warm,” mumbled Erica, tugging at the collar of her shirt. “Why did I wear long sleeves?”
Mackenzie grinned. “Not sure. I mean, it’s summer.”
“Not yet. We still have two weeks of school left.”
“It’s pretty much summer.”
Erica sighed as they walked down the pavement, the warm air coupled with a burnt-orange sky. “We’re meeting up over the holidays, right?”
“Yeah! We can play on my mum’s computer!”
“And we can go to the corner shop in our pyjamas again.”
Her response was a giggled, “Maybe,” followed by a contended sigh. The rest of the walk was shared in a comfortable silence, which was only disturbed once they’d reached the cul-de-sac where Erica lived.
Slowing to a stop, Mackenzie turned to her with a beaming smile, though something soft and genuine lay underneath the grin. “Thanks for coming with me. You made it loads more fun.”
“Yeah, our school discos usually suck. This one was good, though, since you were there to complain to.” Mackenzie’s eyes lit up and all Erica did was shrug in embarrassment. “And thank you, too.”
“No worries. See you on Monday?”
“See you then. Bye!”
The two shared a brief hug before Mackenzie broke away and carried on down to her house, which lay a few roads away. Before rounding the corner, she turned back, waved, and disappeared.
Erica bit down on her lip as the tears in her eyes threatened to spill over, shoulders shaking. She thought about that day now and again, where she could see her best friend’s smile, her long fair hair falling down her back, her orange dress on her slim frame, the thin scratches on her ankles from when she’d run through thorns in the school field.
Erica didn’t know for sure if she’d ever be found, but she knew one thing for absolutely certain.
She would never forget her. Never.
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