Claire views her phone screen. A new message from James.
We did it, Claire Bear! Fine changed to £160.
Claire heaves a sigh of relief. Then her phone beeps again with another text from James.
Sorry I'm not in today. I'm sick. Kept throwing up. Try not to miss me too much ;-)
She rolls her eyes exasperatingly, as the school bell rings.
During lunch time, the entire school becomes hectic with students eagerly rushing out of their dull classrooms. It enables the students to free themselves from the tension of the classroom and prepare them for another two hours of study. Nonetheless, it is the noisiest time of day with everyone cluttered together in the humid canteen, which Claire does not appreciate. As she carries her tray of food, she scans the cafeteria, examining the area for a place to sit. Many students are occupying the circular stools attached to the long rectangular tables, and it seems that there aren't many seats available.
Then Claire spots a familiar figure among the lively crowd. The only figure that has dark pigtails tied together with royal-purple bows, matching her school tie. Her glasses are gleaming under the glow of the amber canteen lights, and her honey-brown eyes are fixed onto Claire. She is sitting typically near the back of the cafeteria, away from the rest of the students, tucked into the far end of the table. Stephanie raises a delicate, small hand and waves it, inviting Claire over to her.
Claire waves back and begins to walk, when suddenly a big moving figure bumps into her forcefully, causing her tray to fly out of her hands. Beans splatter the tiled floor, with fish fingers drenched in them sloppily, and her fizzy drink has spilled everywhere. In that moment, the buzzing of conversation has silenced, like a heart that beats no more, and Claire could sense hundreds of eyes glued to her. She feels uneasy with the immediate change of atmosphere.
"I didn't see you there," barks a distinctly sharp voice. Without having to look, Claire knew the voice belonged to Miss Gay. "I'm in a time crunch, so I have to go."
Click, clack, click, clack. The sound of the stout teacher walking away unapologetically.
Like a spark inducing a heart to beat again, the entire canteen comes alive and rumbles with the outburst of spluttering laughter. Particularly, Courtney and her friends are doubled over and pointing at Claire with their glossy, manicured fingers, their shrill laughter mocking the blonde girl. Tears prick Claire's eyes like crystal shards, threatening to spill over. She wants to run away and hide from the public eye, but she knows that she must clean up the mess. Immediately, Stephanie races over to help her troubled friend.
"Don't worry, Claire. It's an accident. It can happen to anyone," she says reassuringly, as she grabs some paper towels, and the dustpan and brush. Begrudgingly, Claire grabs the broom and she sweeps the floor, feeling bothered by the invisible spotlight on her.
Jack walks past with Okeeno, holding his tray of food. In his attempt to mock Claire, he sways his entire body deliberately, teasing her about his fall. "Whoa! I've got two left feet!" He exclaims, making everyone laugh harder.
Claire's grip tightens on the broom, her knuckles turning white, as her face flushes in humiliation. Just then, a bright, white light flashes for a brief second in her direction. It was coming from Courtney's smartphone.
"I'm gonna caption this pic, 'Clutzilla'," Courtney says, which is followed by her crew laughing as if she is the funniest comedian around.
"You're so bad, Court," Katie says through her giggles.
Claire balls up her fists, irritation radiating from her hot, bothered skin. She won't be surprised if steam escapes from her small ears at this very moment. Then she feels a soft tug on the arm of her blazer, as her friend is trying to grab her attention.
"Come on, Claire, let's go somewhere else," Stephanie whispers.
Claire is sitting in the classroom, her finger tracing the outline of writings carved onto her desk with a compass. The engraved message spells out 'Trapped' and 'Power'. She ponders about the motivation behind this student's vandalism of school property, and the punishment they would have endured if they had gotten caught.
Claire closes her eyes, feeling somewhat at peace, knowing that James is not present. The classroom windows were open, lighting up the environment with the sun's golden glow. She breathes in, enjoying the occasional cool breeze fluttering against her skin. Her mind recalls an event earlier on, during lunch time, when she followed Stephanie into the back of the library.
Stephanie had pulled out a cardboard box from her rucksack. She whispered, "Look what I brought."
Claire peeked inside the box, and she instantly jumped back, falling on her butt. She was greeted by the sight of a big, hairy, black predator slowly crawling to the top of the box. She could imagine the creature's teeth dripping with poison, eager to bite someone's flesh and tear it apart.
"Why did you bring that?!" Claire hissed, picking herself up and backing further away from the box, almost as if she feared the creature would pounce on her.
"I have to participate in this ridiculous activity at form time, Show and Tell. I believe our form is the only one partaking in such a mind-numbingly tedious exercise. There is no point to it - especially in the afternoon!" Stephanie explained, as she picked up the creature in her hand, enabling Claire to have a clear view of the 3 inches high and 4 inches wide beast. "So, I thought to myself, 'How can I make my stubborn tutor regret this?' Yesterday, during class, I witnessed an outburst when everyone was getting all worked up over a little spider. It was rather silly of them, but it gave me an idea. I shall bring in this tarantula to truly give them a fright!"
Claire shudders in disgust at the memory. Despite being a reputable student, Stephanie has always been the risk-taker out of the pair with her odd, wild schemes.
"Clark! I mean, Claire."
Her blood freezes.
She hears nothing.
Nothing but her ears ringing.
There is laughter now.
Are they laughing at her?
Her breath is speeding.
Her heart is racing wildly.
Did she hear that right?
The entire class continues sniggering in the background, amused by the teacher's seemingly innocuous blunder. Miss Gay carries on taking the attendance register, feigning obliviousness to the situation.
"Alright, everyone! Pay attention!" The teacher booms, capturing her students' attention easily. "We shall put the first unit on hold, and focus on the second unit now. I'm aware there are more sub themes to uncover in the first unit, but I decided it would be more interesting if we switched things up a bit."
She looks directly at Claire yet she spoke. Her eyes are a depth of never-ending darkness with a hint of something lurking beneath the surface. Something malicious. The realization makes Claire suck in her breath.
"Now, moving on, this unit will explore the theme, Diversity in Society," Miss Gay continues. "In front of you is my favorite novel of all time. I have specifically chosen this because it really gives you a profound insight into the topic, Segregation."
Claire examines the book with a distracted expression across her pale features. The cover shows two men with half their faces merged together to form one face. One side of the face is black, and the other is white. Written across their faces are the words The Tale of Two Birds.
"We will take it in turns reading a paragraph each. I'll pick readers randomly, so you all better listen carefully," the teacher explains, as she opens up her copy of the book. "Johnson!" Her exclamation makes Claire jump in her seat, startled. "You can read the first chapter in Clark- I mean, Carl's point of view."
There it is again. There are a few quiet snickers around the classroom, yet they are enhanced in Claire's mind, replaying over tauntingly. She feels like she is thrown back in the canteen with the entire student population laughing at her and ridiculing her every move.
The girl opens the book slowly with her clammy palm, her stomach knotting up nervously. She begins to speak in a low, raspy voice.
"Carl was a mid-twenties African-American man. He avoided looking at himself in the mirror, as he didn't feel comfortable... in his own skin..." She takes a sharp inhale, feeling her heartbeat accelerate at a frenzied rate. She reads on, "Growing up in a predominantly white community, he was an outcast amongst his peers. He wanted others to recognize him for who he really was, but the world only saw him as a black man. He caught sight of his reflection on the river one day, and great sorrow pierced his soul. Why was I born this way, God? He questioned," Claire's voice starts to strain. The text is blurry, yet she can still decipher the last sentence. "If only, he could change himself..."
There is a moment of silence hanging in the air. Claire stares down at the text with a crestfallen expression. Her eyes are like a bright, sparkling pool, overflowing with anguished tears that she is struggling to wrestle away.
"Is everything alright, Johnson?"
Claire nods feebly. "M-may I go to the toilet... p-please?"
"You should have gone during your lunch break!" Miss Gay says sharply. Then she sighs, appearing to have a change of heart. "Go on, then. Make it quick."
Claire exits the classroom swiftly and makes her way into the brightly-colored girls' toilets. There is a washroom on every floor of the building, saving her the trouble of walking far. As soon as she enters, her reflection stares back at her through the floor-length mirror plastered onto the wall. The figure is ghastly pale like a corpse, and the longer she stares at the reflection, the more twisted her image becomes through her hazy vision. It terrifies her.
She runs into a small cubicle, as if it is a shelter that can hide her from the truth. A swarm of thoughts are rushing through her mind like a hurricane. It hurts tremendously. With each new thought that flies in and overlaps with another intense thought, it feels like a hundred stabs to her mind and heart. The world spins below her wobbly legs, as she holds onto the walls of the cubicle to prevent herself from tumbling over.
"Calm down," she whispers to herself, attempting to gain control of her vicious thoughts. "You're being paranoid. She's just your teacher. She doesn't know."