Beatrice loses the fight to stay at home with Hero.
She's not convinced that Leo really would call her parents, but it’s an argument she doesn’t have time for because Hero’s barely left her bedroom since Saturday night. Beatrice can hear her shifting and wheezing through the wall that divides them, and in years gone by that would have been her cue to go and wake the aunts, to tell them that Hero can’t breathe again. Now the aunts are gone and it’s Beatrice who creeps into Hero’s room and curls up at the foot of the bed, watching.
“I just feel,” Hero had gasped, after a bout of this, “like I can’t make it stop."
“I know,” said Beatrice, reaching out to push tangled hair back from her face. “I’m sorry.”
She isn’t sure what she’s sorry for, really, except everything. She can’t fix Hero’s lungs any more than she can go back and stop Claudio. It was all she could do to talk her down on Saturday night, to rub her back and wipe away the trails of her mascara. To ignore the whispers from the onlookers as she babbled nonsense to Hero and waited for her gasps to soften, her heartbeat to slow. To be thankful when Leo came back and sent them away, when he cleaned up as the girls stumbled to bed.
“She can’t go to school tomorrow,” she’d told Leo, as they picked at their stir fry the previous evening.
Leo just nodded and pushed his bowl away. "Yeah. I know."
So Beatrice is alone on the walk to school. It’s not yet spring and the mornings are still cold, mist sunk low over Messina as she trudges down the hill
It's another Monday morning, however badly her own world has been shaken, and so the bell rings and she goes to form and the bell rings again and she goes to Physics. And because it's another Monday morning there's Benedick at the top of the stairs. He’d messaged her yesterday but she didn't respond. There isn’t space for him in her head.
Ben looks as though he might be about to speak, but Ms Brahe is clapping her hands and so Beatrice breaks his gaze, turns inside. The air in the classroom is stale, full of wet coats and deodorant. She drops down at the desk wondering how long one day can possibly last.
It certainly feels like forever. She moves between classrooms with no idea of what she heard there, her mind full of Hero. There’s a problem to be figured out but no rules for how to do it: she has an outcome with no variables, an event without causality. Given that this has happened, what is the probability that it could? And even if Beatrice can do the maths, can diagram the conditions, there’s no confidence that she’ll be able to produce a solution.
The obvious explanation is that Claudio was drunk. Drunk and jealous and making something out of nothing, just like at Pedro’s party. A replicated result. But there are problems with the hypothesis, because they hadn’t been drinking that much. Leo was keeping count. And Pedro is one variable but Robbie - Hero can’t stand Robbie. She’s nicer to him than Beatrice is, because she’s unnaturally nice in general, but she’d still been relieved when he and Meg broke up. That in itself could be misinterpreted, if you were really trying, but why? Hero was the last person in the world to do that, to Claudio or to Meg.
Not that Meg had stuck around to hear that on the night. She must have gone after the boys when Leo did, or not long afterwards, because Beatrice never saw her again. She didn’t see most people again; by the time that Leo came home and cleared the house there were only a few left. Just Ursula and Balthazar and Benedick clustered awkwardly in the living room as Beatrice tried to coax Hero to stop crying, to exhale.
It wasn’t how the night was supposed to end. Remembering the look on Hero’s face that afternoon, the light in her eyes and that stupid grin – Beatrice had made fun of her for it, but that hadn’t stopped her – is more maddening than anything else. There ought to be rules. Nobody with the power to make her cousin that happy has the right to take it away like that. And now Hero’s on her own again, in her room, upset and very possibly not breathing.
The clock on the wall ticks lazily and Beatrice swallows down.
The week doesn’t improve from there. Beatrice is running late on Tuesday morning, with not enough sleep and no Hero to nag her. She has to run all the way from the road to reach History in time, almost tripping over Ben’s stupid legs as she falls into her chair.
Tony twists around from the front row, looks her up and down. “All good?”
Beatrice’s head is pounding and she rests it against the cool table. “Late,” she gasps.
“I didn’t mean -” but his voice is drowned out as the last of the class trails in, taking their seats and complaining about the reading. Beatrice feels the chair beside her being moved and knows that Pedro is there.
She hasn’t seen him since Saturday night, since she sent him after Claudio. Neither of them came back, and she’s heard nothing since. Last time it had been Pedro who worked out the confusion, who dragged Claudio over to their house to sort it out. That part has changed somehow, and she doesn’t know why or when.
When she sits up and opens her eyes he’s watching her, frowning ever so slightly. Tony’s eyes flicker between them. There should be something to say, something clever, but there isn’t.
Apparently that’s what he was waiting for, because he sits down and starts to unpack his bag. Mr Hollingshead has them well trained: everyone knows they have ten minutes to pool notes and come up with something intelligent to say about the sacking of Kororāreka. And unlike Beatrice, Pedro clearly had nothing to distract him from his homework. He looks at the other two and their closed notebooks.
“Did you do any of it?”
Tony shrugs, and Pedro rolls his eyes. Beatrice can feel the blood rising in her cheeks again.
“No, I didn’t,” she hisses. “I was a bit busy trying to keep Hero alive, thank you very much.”
He looks surprised. “Why, what happened to her?”
“She couldn’t breathe, Pedro! Which you’d know if you’d bothered to ask. What do you expect, with Claudio going off at her like that?”
“Right. Well, I guess she feels bad.”
“You don’t actually think she cheated on Claudio, do you?” She remembers now: it’s the truth, okay?
Pedro clicks his tongue and pushes his shoulders back, the way he does when he’s fed up. “I know you think she’s perfect and everything, but what she did was messed up. It’s him you should feel sorry for.”
“Well, I don’t! He should know – like you should know – Hero would never do that! I can’t believe you’re actually taking his side on this.”
Out of the corner of her eye Beatrice can see Tony shuffling his chair away from them.
“You don’t have to take her side just because she’s your cousin. You could just admit you’re wrong; it’d do you some good.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“An excellent question.” The long tweed legs of Mr Hollingshead appear. “Perhaps you’d like to explain this particular academic debate to us all?”
Mr Hollingshead, who was hard going at the best of times, seems to have even less patience than usual this morning. When Pedro doesn’t provide a justification and Beatrice fails to produce any notes on the reading he ejects them both from the classroom. If Beatrice had been annoyed at Pedro for not coming back, for not sorting things out, then now she’s downright furious. She pulls her bag onto her shoulder and turns down the corridor.
“Where are you going? We’re supposed to stay here.”
He’s slumped against the wall looking mutinous. This is probably the first time he’s ever been in trouble, which is why his hands are twisting through his hair and he’s scowling as though he has any right. Beatrice returns her best glare, the one even Leo doesn’t argue with, and leaves.
The library is empty this early in the morning. It’s a far cry from its cousin at St Miranda’s, plastic and coffee rather than wood and mildew. Beatrice prefers it. Back there the librarian, who regarded students as unwelcome intruders in her kingdom, would have had a thousand questions for any student appearing midway through the first period. At Messina, though, no eyebrows are raised.
It’s as good a place as any for her to try and collect her thoughts. Even after Pedro shouted at her, them, on Saturday night, it hadn’t occurred to her that he would believe Claudio’s story. It was so patently ridiculous, and he’s known Hero for as long as he’s known Beatrice. Not as well, maybe. And if he’s going to stick to this then it doesn’t bode well: people follow Pedro, they always have. What if they decide that this is Hero’s fault too?
Not going there , she tells herself sternly, and opens her textbook.
The library is her refuge for that day, and the next. Usually she has a video to edit during Wednesday form time, but not this week. Exams are still far enough away that the place is quiet, with nobody to pester her. If she concentrates hard enough she can stave off the fears that are brewing in the back of her mind, drown them out with bullet points and diagrams. Balthazar comes to sit opposite her for most of their free period but is blissfully silent, scratching away at his own work.
It must be Balthazar who tells Ursula where to find her, though, because she turns up at interval and heads straight for Beatrice’s table.
“How’s Hero?” Ursula doesn’t bother with the preamble.
“Bad.” Beatrice can’t lie to Ursula. “She keeps having those attacks. Where she can’t breathe properly.”
“Like when we were little?”
Ursula doesn’t ask any further. She’s been around for as many of those as Beatrice, probably more. It’s a small group that remembers Hero as she was back then, when any kind of fun came with warnings and time limits. Constant reminders to be careful, not to let things get out of hand.
“She hasn’t had to go to emergency or anything. But she has these attacks, and her blood pressure’s too high, and...” Beatrice trails off, not sure what else there is to say.
“Will you give her my love? She hasn’t - I guess her phone’s been off.”
“I know. Sorry, I should’ve replied.”
Ursula sighs and pulls her legs up onto the chair. “You’re not the only one. Meg’s disappeared too. Are people in your year talking about it?”
“Probably.” And if they weren’t before the argument with Pedro, Beatrice can guess that they are now. “What about yours?”
“It’s all they’re talking about.” Ursula picks up one of Beatrice’s pens, pops the cap.
“They all think Hero did it. And it’s everyone, Beatrice. Everyone.”
It’s only once Ursula says it that Beatrice realises she can hear them too. Just in the minutes it takes to walk between lessons, she can hear them: Hero’s name on the air, and Robbie’s. The whispers that stop when she gets too close, the hurried shh! between friends. Everyone seems to be looking at her. Before this week she’d have been surprised if many of the Messina student body recognised her at all: she hasn’t spent the last four years here, just drifted in at the end. That must have changed too.
By the time she makes it to History at the end of the day she would happily have sunk into the ground rather than walk another metre of the campus. The last thing she needs when she walks into the classroom is Pedro’s eyes on her too, his brow furrowed. Her first inclination is to tell him to fuck off, but Mr Hollingshead is looming.
“Now, do you think we might manage a whole hour without being interrupted by your thrilling personal lives?”
Pedro grunts something that might be agreement. Beatrice nods. The teacher just rolls his eyes.
By Friday, Beatrice is getting used to sliding away. It’s easier not to listen, to sit with one eye on the clock and ready to run. That way she doesn’t have to pretend. She does it at school and she does it at home too, not because she doesn’t want to listen but because there’s nothing there to hear. All she can do is bring things, tea and toast and books, and hope for some acknowledgement.
At this stage her only goal is to make it to the weekend undisturbed so that she has two full days to try and fix Hero. She’s done with the library, the whispers that set her on edge, so at lunch she curls up on one of the benches behind the block that nobody really uses. With her headphones on and music blasting, she doesn't hear them approach.
It's the flash of green that first catches her attention, sun bouncing off the football shirt that Pedro's tossing in the air. He's surrounded by a crowd of people that she knows by sight if not by name, just strolling down the walkway without a care in the world. And there at his right hand is Claudio, laughing at something Pedro's just said and snatching the top from his grasp.
Beatrice’s stomach leaps, quick and wretched. She's managed to keep away from him all week but that doesn't mean she hasn't seen his face. It’s there all the time, in Hero’s eyes as she stares at the wall. Having him this close makes her feel sick. The group moves on past her - Pedro meets her eye but thankfully doesn't stop - and her pulse is pounding so hard that she doesn't even notice when one of them pauses beside her bench. It's only once the chatter is fading that she realises she's cast in shadow.
"Can I sit down?"
He does so, before she can respond. She's done such a good job of keeping out of Benedick's way - outstanding, even, given that they share half their timetable. He sends her messages. She hasn’t read them.
"So, you're just avoiding everyone now?"
She glances up before she can help herself, irritated. "You're not everyone, Benedick."
"Yeah, but I’m right.”
He is, of course, and she hates it when that happens. "Sorry if I don't feel like hanging around with those guys right now. Maybe if they hadn't just annihilated Hero then I'd feel a bit more sociable."
"How is Hero?"
"Like you care."
"Of course I care." There's no sneer on his face, no disdain in his voice, and yet.
"If you cared then you wouldn't be hanging around with them. But hey, it’s all guys together, right? Even when you’re deliberately fucking over girls. Especially then.”
He looks genuinely taken aback. "Hey, stop. It's not like that."
"Oh, really?" This feels better; this feels normal. Arguing with Benedick means life before the party, before anything overheard.
"No. Alright, I’ve hung out with them a bit, but what else do you want me to do? Meg and Hero aren't here, Balthazar's got some music thing and you , you know, stealth mode. Ursula doesn't even talk when you guys aren't around. Believe me, I tried. So yeah, fine, I didn't fancy knocking around like a loner for however long this lasts."
The words spill out of him in a rush until he stops with a sharp breath. It’s almost as if he means it.
"However long this lasts?"
He shrugs. "I mean, there's no way people are going to believe this forever, right? Hero and Robbie ? It's ridiculous, it's just all hyped up with the videos and everything."
Her hand clenches around the strap of her bag. "What videos?"
Benedick looks suddenly wary, his face closing into a frown. "Um. How many Year Twelves do you have on Facebook?"
"Meg, Ursula, some of the others?" She hasn't really been on there since the party, other than to block Claudio from both their accounts. Hero’s relationship status had already been deleted.
"Fuck." He pulls at his hair. "Look, bell's about to go. You coming to English?"
"What did you mean about Facebook?”
"Afterwards, okay? Just don’t run off, like, immediately.”
Reluctantly she nods. He nods back. For a moment she feels like they should shake on it, a promise, but then the bell rings and so she just shoulders her bag again and follows him silently up the path.