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And Home Again

by  shotgun45

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Word Count: 54284
Summary: Ben Smales hates school. Jasmine Adams hates her parents. They couldn’t be more different. But when they run away and accidentally meet for the first time, they begin to realise that they’re not that different after all. They could hold the answers to each other’s problems, but with the police on their trail, can they stay together long enough to find out?

Chapter One

The walk to school usually took just eight minutes, and even though Ben was very much on time he was walking fast, running almost. The dry leaves brushed past his shoes as he hurried along, trying not to stumble over his own feet. The sky was masked by the grey of autumn cloud, and a cold breeze encouraged him to pull the collar of his duffle coat tight around his neck. He checked his watch, and then quickened his pace, which was now almost hectic. Around the corner of Greville Road he came, on to Sycamore Grove, and now the turning to School Lane was in sight. The wind howled around him and he began to feel beads of sweat on his forehead. Without realising, he broke out into a jog, but quickly brought himself back to walking pace, just in case he looked a little too eager to get to school.
Ben wasn’t late, nor did he want to arrive at school particularly early. What he wanted was to avoid the two boys who were usually waiting for him at the school gate. As he turned the corner into School Lane he could now see the gate in the distance and he began to feel his heart beating. He tried to breathe deeply but his chest had tightened right up. The beads of sweat on his face had turned into drips, one of which ran down the side of his face. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. Steam began to appear on the lenses of his glasses, slightly clouding his vision, but he ignored it. The school emerged, towering over the trees in front of him. Ben looked anxiously to the gate.
To his utter relief there was no sign of the boys. He felt as if the weight of the school had been lifted off his shoulders and he began to relax, letting out a long slow sigh as he made his way through the gate. He was safe, for now.
The relief of his escape made him feel a little better, and he thought about his next science lesson. He wondered if today would be the day his class begins the stars and planets project that he’d been looking forward to. But just as his thoughts turned to the day ahead, he heard an all too familiar voice behind him.
‘Oi, Smells!’
That was the snarling voice of Gabriel Johnson, who Ben had been so determined to avoid. Although Ben’s surname was actually Smales, Gabriel had decided to christen him Smells and it had stuck – hard.
‘Hey Smelly, weer talkin t’ya!’
Nick Baker had joined in as well. Ben found himself now walking with the two people on this planet that he feared most, towering over him on either side.
‘Did you forget to put deodorant on this mornin or somet?’ As Nick barked out this lame joke, the two of them began to laugh in a high-pitched, sneering way that made Ben feel sick to his stomach. He thought it best not to reply.
‘Sort us a sandwich, Smells,’ Gabriel demanded, his face screwed up, smiling and grimacing at the same time like he’d just stolen King Size Mars bar from the canteen. Ben had no choice but to do as they said. It was a case of either handing over his sandwiches, or going home with a rather bruised face.
‘Alright,’ Ben said as he took his bag from off his back, opened it, and rummaged around for his lunchbox. He found it, took out the sandwiches and handed them to Gabriel who snatched them from his hand.
‘Cheeeers,’ Gabriel sneered victoriously. ‘These betta be good, Smelly.’
‘Yeah, they betta be good, or else we’ll af to av words wiv ya,’ Nick added. And with that the two boys turned and slithered away.
Ben put his bag back on his shoulders and looked up for a second to see the lines of people making their way towards the school. Luckily, it seemed the sandwich incident had gone unnoticed. He just wished Nick and Gabriel would ignore him like the rest of the people at school did.
Ben had felt invisible for most of his school life, and had begun to accept that he’d always be that boy in the background that nobody really noticed. He just didn’t really stand out in any way. He wasn’t particularly tall or short (although he thought he was smaller than average); he wasn’t fat or thin; he had a normal face with normal glasses, and normal brown hair, although it had been a while since his mum had cut it for him. He was just very average looking and didn’t want to do anything to change that. But for some reason Nick and Gabriel had started to notice him, and Ben had no idea why.
As he trudged the rest of the way towards school it began to drizzle with rain. He glanced upwards at the large concrete fortress of a school which, after four years, still gave him an overwhelming sense of drowning and doubt. Bundringham Secondary School – Ben was in year ten now, but hadn’t always felt so depressed about school. He used to be happy at Bundringham until Lewis had moved to Canada.
Lewis had been his best friend for almost his entire life. They had done everything together from building tree houses in the fields behind Ben’s garden when they were nine, to winning the county science project competition in year eight for their joint project on the causes of lightning. They had spent eleven years by each other’s side without the need for any other friends: there just wouldn’t have been time for them.
A month after Ben’s thirteenth birthday, Lewis’s dad got a job as head of engineering for some car company that he’d never heard of. Ben had thought it was good news, until he found out that the job was in Canada, and Lewis and his family would be moving away before they started year nine at Bundringham. A month later they were gone.
Ben was left with no real friends, and worse was to follow because no sooner had Lewis and his family left for Canada, Ben became ill. His parents told him that he was only feeling unwell because he missed Lewis, but after two weeks he eventually persuaded his parents to make him an appointment with the doctor, who told him that he had glandular fever. Ben was relieved because if he only had a fever then he would be better in a few days, with the right medicine. He was wrong, and spent most of the next six months in bed. He only had the energy to be out of bed for an hour at a time, or perhaps two hours on a really good day. But he quickly became exhausted, and had to go back to bed again.
When he eventually returned to school, it was as if he’d never been there before. Nobody said ‘Nice to see you again, Ben’, or ‘Hope you’re feeling better’. He was generally ignored, and if any of his schoolmates did look at him, it was with a look of hostility. Ben felt like an unwelcome ghost, haunting the school he used to be a pupil at.
Now, standing before the towering, grey building before him, he realised that he’d become used to these feelings. It didn’t bother him anymore that he wasn’t popular, that he had no real friends. As long as he got through the day without being punched or threatened he was content. And so far he had done just that, although it had cost him his lunch.
He began to make his way again toward one of the four glass doors set in the grey concrete that made up the main entrance to the school. The rain had become heavier so that he had to wipe the drops off his glasses with the sleeve of his blazer. As he did so he felt a sharp pain in his ankle. He looked down and saw the empty cola can that had been kicked at him. Ignoring it, he just carried on walking, with his head hanging, through the doors of the school.
Once inside, he found the air to be colder than outside, and it smelt of old leather. The inside of the school reception was very gloomy, despite the fact that the lights were on. He listened to the monotonous murmur of the people around him, talking to each other as they entered the school. Although the noise filled his ears, Ben was still very aware of the silence that was immediately around him. He tried to pinpoint other people’s conversations, but only heard the swearing and laughing. He had always felt very alone on the way into school, since Lewis had gone.
But what could all the other kids be talking about that would interest him? It seemed that all they were talking about was what they got up to with their mates last night, who got drunk, and who passed out where. Or what 18-rated films they watched, and who was harder: Vin Diesel or Arnie. And who’s going out tonight, and where they’re going.
Ben tried to tell himself that he didn’t care about these people, or what they might have done; although he couldn’t help feeling jealous that they actually had stuff to talk about, and could laugh about it with their friends, however stupid it all was.
Trying to put these thoughts aside, Ben gritted his teeth and headed up the stairs to his tutor room.

Chapter Two

As Ben opened the door to room seventeen, he was hit by the roar of shouting and laughing from the other children inside. There was usually pandemonium in the classroom before the teacher arrived, and today was no different. Directly in front of him two boys, Johnny and Nathan, were duelling with chairs, and yelling battle cries. It had begun playfully, but as Ben walked into the room Johnny lurched forward at Nathan, nailing him in the chest with two of the chair-legs. Nathan cried, half laughing and half in pain, and then lunged back at Johnny. But Johnny was small and nimble enough to dodge out of the way. Nathan’s chair struck the wall, inches away from Ben’s face.
‘Get out the way, Smales,’ Nathan shouted.
‘Sorry,’ Ben replied. At least Nathan had bothered to get his name right.
As Ben maneuvered his way around the fight scene he was shoulder-barged by Johnny.
‘Watch where you’re going, Smelly,’ barked Johnny. Nathan laughed.
Ben walked to the front of the class, to the sanctuary of his seat, managing to avoid the crossfire of the paper fight that was being fought across the room. He sat down, let out a long sigh, and reached into his bag for his pencil case and book, amidst the howling of noise around him.
‘Why do you just let them treat you like that?’ came a voice from behind him. Ben turned round to see from whom that question had come.
Sitting on the desk behind him was Nikki O’Connor. ‘Why do you let them push you around?’ Nikki asked again.
Ben had often thought that if the school had a cheerleading team then Nikki would be captain of it. She was the classic attractive, popular girl that you see in so many films. Boys wanted to go out with her and girls wanted to be her. Ben, however, really didn’t like her, and was also confused that she seemed to be sympathising with him. In fact, it was the first ever time that he could remember Nikki O’Connor even talking to him. He looked up at her nervously.
Nikki had long, blonde, tightly curled hair that was always wet in the morning. She smiled at him with brightly coloured red lips, but her lips curled down at the edges making her smile look slightly threatening. Her eyes were green and cold, showing no signs of emotion; but Ben couldn’t help noticing how great her legs looked as she sat on the desk in one of the shortest skirts he’d ever seen. He hated the fact that he found her attractive. He tried not to look at her legs, but instead into her hostile, green eyes.
‘You shouldn’t be such a soft git,’ she announced.
‘She’s right,’ added Emily Forsi. ‘If you weren’t such a wuss then they’d leave you alone.’
Emily was Nikki’s sidekick. She wasn’t as good-looking as Nikki, so to make up for it she was louder and ruder. Next to them sat Zoë Lavel and Jasmine Adams. Emily, Zoë, and Jasmine would come in every morning, sit around Nikki and talk about nothing but boys and famous people. They could usually be found chewing gum and clubbing around the latest issue of Heat magazine. But Ben would never dare tell Nikki what he thought of her and her friends. Firstly, he was too scared; and secondly, Nikki’s boyfriend was none other than Gabriel Johnson.
‘Well…’ Ben croaked. ‘It’s not like I ask for it or anything.’ He was very aware of his palms beginning to feel moist and his throat tightening, making it difficult to talk. He cleared his throat, hoping the next time he spoke his voice would sound a little deeper and more confident. ‘The thing is…’
Before he could finish Zoë interrupted, pointing to the magazine in front of her, ‘Oh my god. Have you seen what Justin is wearing? That’s like….oh my god….that’s like so…’ The others immediately turned away from Ben, and switched their attention to the magazine. Relieved to see that the girls had lost their brief interest in him, Ben turned back around and waited for the teacher to arrive and bring to an end the classroom rioting that was going on around him.
Amid the shouting and the screaming Ben surveyed the classroom. The wall to his right was bare, and painted a light blue colour which reminded him of the walls inside a hospital. The back wall was the same but for some scraps of coloured paper that had been stapled to the wall as part of a display, but were now torn to shreds, and hanging off the wall looking sad and dishevelled. He turned back to the front of the classroom, and to the teacher’s desk where a cup of coffee and a register were waiting.
Ben glanced up at the blackboard on which were chalked some difficult looking maths equations. He tried to solve one of them, but had never been very good at maths. That’s not to say he was bad at it, he would always get decent marks, but he found it difficult to think in mathematical ways. He could remember many evenings sat at home with his dad trying to teach him mathematical rules, but he just couldn’t seem to visualise the problems in his head. He much preferred science, as it was about real life, not just numbers. He found it easy to visualise scientific things like chemical reactions, weather, or genetics, and he was very good at it too: one of the best in his year group according to his biology teacher, Mr Brown.
He quickly lost interest in the long equation on the board, and turned to his left to look out of the window which took up the entire side of the classroom. He could see the stream of late students making their way slowly and reluctantly to the entrance, but he wasn’t watching them. He was thinking about Gabriel Johnson, and his sandwiches. Could he have done anything more to protect his lunch? Maybe he should have stood up to Gabriel and refused to give it to him. He thought about Dan Forsythe, who was sitting behind him.
Dan was the fat kid of the year. He had weighed over ten stone when he was in year six. He was an easy target for bullies which meant that he spent almost his entire school life being called every name imaginable. But Dan had never let any of it bother him. Ever since he’d known him Ben had been amazed at how Dan could just laugh in the face of anyone who called him names. Dan would always have something clever to say in reply which would shut the other person up. He was sure Dan had memorised these lines beforehand, they were that good.
Dan knew that no one would dare lay a hand on him because he was so much bigger than anyone, so he didn’t fear anyone at school. Dan’s attitude had won him much respect over his school years, and Ben always felt a little safer when he was around.
He thought about what Dan would have done in his situation. Dan would have probably made a joke out of the whole thing, and then just walk away. When Ben thought about what would’ve happened if he had done that, he could only imagine getting punched, hard, probably in the face.
He could never do what Dan does. He could never stand up to people like Nick or Gabriel. But he didn’t understand why he couldn’t. He knew he was cleverer than them, and that they’d probably end up working in McDonald’s for the rest of their lives. Why was he so scared of them?
As Ben was considering this question, Mr Glutridge rushed into the room, late as usual. The clamour gradually died down to a dull murmuring, and after a quick swig of coffee Mr Glutridge picked up the register.
‘OK, quieten down,’ Mr Glutridge said. ‘That’s quite enough, thank you very much.’ The noise gradually began to die down and Ben’s classmates returned slowly to their seats.
‘Right then,’ said the teacher as he picked up the register and thumbed to the appropriate page.
Mr Glutridge was a tall, thin man about fifty-five years old; at least that’s what Ben had guessed (it’s almost impossible to find out any teacher’s actual age). He almost always wore the same beige jacket with the same green trousers that sat way above his hips thanks to a tightly set belt. Today was no different, except that he was wearing a light brown tie instead of a dark brown one. Ben noticed these things.
Mr Glutridge had greasy, rapidly thinning, grey hair that was neatly combed over his oval-shaped head. He was an English teacher, and read the register in a deep rasping voice that reminded Ben of actors he’d seen doing Shakespeare. Every name on the register was said very slowly, very deliberately, and in a low rumble that reverberated around the room. It made Ben’s own voice sound whiny and pathetic in comparison, and he didn’t look forward to hearing his name being read out.
‘…Rachel…Brian…Darren…’ As his name approached Ben cleared his throat slightly. ‘…Benjamin…’
‘Yes,’ he said scratchily. Sounded OK, he thought.
The register was finished and all that remained was for Mr Glutridge to make his usual announcement: ‘OK, now off you go straight to class, no dawdling or hanging about this morning. I want you straight there and on time. You may leave.’
The din of noise arose again and the class gradually filtered out of the door and into the long, thin corridor that led to the stairs. Ben walked along with his head down, looking at the shoes his dad had shined for him that morning, despite Ben’s protests. Ben had memorised the number of steps from his tutor room to the stairs: twenty-three. He counted the steps in his head as he walked along. After the twenty-third step he was at the stairs and began to make the ascent to the third floor, to the science department.

Chapter Three

The train of students bustled up the stairs and slowly made its way into room three for first lesson: physics. The large physics room consisted of seven tables, each of which almost spanned the entire width of the room leaving just enough space either side to walk down. Ben made his way quickly and quietly to his usual spot on the front row, in the furthest seat to the left. This was where he sat for most of his lessons, as many as he could at least. He wasn’t sure why he sat in the same place. He thought that perhaps he felt safer sitting near the teacher. But that made him feel a little too pathetic, so he decided that it was so the teacher could hear him better if he ever chose to say anything, or, more likely, if he was made to say something.
Ben thought it much safer to keep quiet during lessons, in case he said something that people could tease him about afterwards. He’d learnt this last year when the teacher had rhetorically asked the class what they wanted to do for homework that week. Without thinking, Ben had blurted out something about the exercise at the back of the textbook, on radio waves, that had caught his eye. As soon as he’d said it, he realised that he’d just sentenced the rest of his classmates to an hour-long homework task. Ben didn’t mind, he was fascinated by radio waves, but Gabriel did mind, and after class pinned him up against the wall outside the classroom, demanding an explanation for the homework suggestion. Ben couldn’t offer one, so took a jab to the stomach for his troubles.
From that day on he decided to keep his mouth shut in class unless absolutely necessary, and even then he was very careful about what he said.
Ben sat down in one of those high science-room chairs that would give some people mild vertigo, and began to unload his textbook, exercise book, and pencil case from his bag. As he was doing so another boy pulled out the seat next to him and sat down.
‘Alright Ben,’ the boy said in a loud voice. This was the voice of Mike Rudge, who sat next to Ben in every lesson they had together, except French, which Ben had to endure on his own.
‘Hi Mike,’ Ben replied flatly as he continued to unload from his bag. Mike didn’t bother to get any books out. Instead he started drumming loudly on the table with his large hands, the left one, Ben noticed, was wrapped in a bandage. It wasn’t a perfect rhythm by any stretch of the imagination, but Mike carried on regardless of that, and regardless of the shouts of ‘Shut up, Mike’ from the back of the class. Eventually he stopped, turned to Ben, put his fists up and jabbed him in the arm. Ben was perfectly used to this. Mike used him as a human punch-bag all the time. It didn’t bother him, it was all friendly, and the punches didn’t really hurt. Mike threw a few pretend punches, and then jabbed Ben again in exactly the same spot as last time. This time it did hurt.
‘Jeeez Mike, you’re gonna give me a dead arm,’ Ben said.
Mike let out a loud rasping laugh with his head tipped back and his mouth wide open. Then he brought his fist down smack against the desk. Ben had no idea why Mike liked punching things so much. He only put up with him because Mike was the only person who would talk to him in lessons. He didn’t particularly like him, nor did he like Ben all that much (if the punching was anything to go by), but they kept each other company, and this made it less likely that they’d be picked on by the more popular kids in class. For both of them, sitting together was more of a survival tactic than a friendship.
Presently, Mike saw that the teacher was late and dived into his bag to bring out the latest issue of his favourite mountain biking magazine. Ben knew what was about to follow: Mike would flick through the magazine pointing out what was ‘mint’ and what was ‘dodgy’, and he would try to act interested when instead he couldn’t really care less. Ben hated bikes, and had done ever since his paper-round. He gave it up after just six days when he was knocked off his bike by a lady in a car that was almost as old as she was. His mum decided that a paper-round was too dangerous, and he hadn’t ridden a bike since.
‘Ah, yes,’ Mike said with enthusiasm. ‘Ben, you gotta check out the forks on this one.’
Ben reluctantly leaned over to see what Mike was vigorously pointing at. ‘What’s so special about them?’ he asked.
Mike punched the desk, hard, three more times. ‘What’s so special? They’re proper mint these are. Most bikes have yer basic alluminium suspension forks cost around a hundred quid but these got nitride-coated steel stanchions and magnesium sliders they’re proper mint.’
Another thing about Mike is that when he gets going he’s one of the world’s fastest talkers, and when he’s talking about bikes it doesn’t take much to get him going.
‘,’ Ben said. ‘The brakes look pretty good on that one too,’ he added, pointing to the picture.
‘Nah,’ Mike replied, letting out a huge belch as he did so, ‘they’re dodgy I used to ‘av’em those the five-hundred series but they’re well dodge you gotta get the seven-hundreds the disc brakes they’re mint. I got those last week for forty-five quid you’d usually pay about a hundred an’ twenty but my mate was getting some new ones so let me ‘av’em for forty-five. Mint.’
At that point Mike whipped the magazine shut and stuffed it back into his bag. Mrs Patterson had arrived and the physics lesson was about to begin.
Burdened by the large pile of exercise books in her arms, Mrs Patterson strode across the classroom. ‘Right everybody, text books out. I want you to look at the homework exercise.’
Ben immediately turned to page fifty-two. He remembered doing the homework and felt almost excited at the prospect of finding out how well he’d done.
‘What page is it Mrs Pa’erson?’ yelled Nikki O’Connor. Mrs Patterson’s eyes immediately darted in Nikki’s direction.
‘If you’d bothered to do the homework, Nikki, then you would know wouldn’t you,’ she replied.
‘I started it, but I got stuck,’ Nikki said.
A few giggles escaped around the classroom, mainly from Emily, Jasmine, and Zoë, her sidekicks. It was generally well known that Nikki was not very clever. Not that she gave herself a chance; she didn’t even try. She liked being the stupid one, and she knew people liked her that way. She probably could do well at school, but for some reason she’d chosen not to. She liked the attention that her dumbness gave her, and people laughing didn’t bother her either. She knew they were laughing with her, not at her, and she too found herself quite funny.
Ben, however, did not find it funny. As far as he was concerned, her stupidity was just an act which always got her out of trouble. Mrs Patterson wouldn’t punish her for not doing the homework, because Nikki was expected to be bad at school. If anything, Mrs Patterson had sympathy for Nikki, and believed her show of stupidity, and would let her get away with it every time. But Ben knew that if he were to miss a homework, there would definitely be a detention-slip waiting for him afterwards. So far though, Ben had got through year ten without a single detention, a record he was particularly proud of. He’d had one in year nine, but that was Mike’s fault and Ben didn’t really like thinking about it.
‘Page fifty-two, Nikki,’ Mrs Patterson said, sighing as she did so. ‘I want you all to read through the exercise again while I hand your books back.’
Mrs Patterson was not a teacher to be messed with. This could be told instantly by looking at her fiery red hair that she often swept back with her left hand. Her temper matched her hair. Ben had seen this first-hand when Dan Forsythe had broken a thermometer by trying to take the temperature inside his shoe, with his foot still in it. Mrs Patterson had thrown a textbook onto the floor and started shouting at Dan, furiously waving her arms around. Then she kept the entire class behind for twenty minutes after the lesson, and spent the entire time telling the class how important thermometers were.
Since then the whole class, Ben especially, had been very careful about staying on her good side, so as not to ignite a repeat performance. And Mrs Patterson did have a good side. She could be very calm and reasonable; some might even say nice…on a good day.
Mrs Patterson was tall, and had long limbs which she used vigourously whenever she was describing some complex form of physics. Her voice was soft when she would talk to just one person, but when she addressed the whole class her voice became louder, deeper, and almost coarse.
One thing that was generally agreed about Mrs Patterson was that she had the worst dress-sense of any teacher, and even Ben could see this. Today, for example, she was typically sporting a brown tweed jacket over a slimy-green blouse with a red velvet skirt, and just to finish it off, purple shoes. She looked ridiculous. But the students never dared say anything about it. In fact, they hardly batted an eyelid these days as all the jokes had already been made, and had become so old that they didn’t really take any notice of what she wore any more. They just accepted every ridiculous outfit as if it were perfectly normal.
With all the textbooks handed out, Mrs Patterson retained her position at the front of the classroom, raised slightly above the students because of the platform there. Ben opened his exercise book and saw that he’d got seventeen marks out of twenty for the homework exercise. That pleased him. He glanced over at Mike’s book: he’d got eleven. That pleased him even more.
‘Right then,’ exclaimed Mrs Patterson as she picked up a textbook and thumbed to page fifty-two. ‘As you know, the homework was all about forces and dynamics. We’ll go through the questions one at a time…err, Nikki, stop talking please…and after we’ve done so you must correct your mistakes. And remember, you must show your working.’
I’ve heard that a thousand times, Ben thought.
Mrs Patterson went through every question of the exercise, presenting each answer with mind-numbingly long explanations. But before she revealed the answer to each question she would ask for a volunteer to have a guess at the answer.
‘So question one: what is the equation to calculate pressure?’ There was silence. ‘Anyone?’ Still silence. Ben didn’t dare speak, even though he knew the answer. ‘OK, Dan, what did you put?’ Mrs Patterson tended to pick on Dan since the thermometer incident.
‘Force divided by area,’ said Dan Forsythe in his tight, wheezy voice.
‘Very good, Dan’ said Mrs Patterson dryly, giving Dan a rather cold look. Then she went on to repeat in about five-hundred words what Dan had successfully said with four. The lesson continued in this way until question fifteen.
‘OK, question fifteen: what is the equation to calculate force?’ Mrs Patterson asked. Again there was silence.
‘Ben? Do you know the answer?’ she asked.
Ben froze in his seat as soon as he heard his name. Suddenly he could feel the eyes of everyone behind looking at him, as if their stares were burning holes through the back of his blazer. He cleared his throat slightly.
‘Err,’ Ben stammered. Then the answer came to him in a flash. ‘Mass times acceleration,’ he said.
‘Yes, that’s – ’ Mrs Patterson began.
‘But that’s not quite right,’ Ben continued, ‘because it’s Newton’s second law of motion. And he said that the acceleration produced by a force when it acts on a body is proportional to the force, and also that the direction of the acceleration is the same as the direction of the force. So really the answer should be that force is proportional to mass times acceleration.’
As soon as Ben stopped talking there was silence. Then he heard a few sniggers behind him, and a voice saying, ‘what the…’ He thought about what he’d just said and immediately realised he’d gone too far.
Mike leaned over and whispered, ‘What was all that about, you sad git?!’
Ben just shrugged his shoulders.
‘Well, thank you for that mini physics lesson, Ben,’ said Mrs Patterson. ‘You’re quite right.’
Ben could feel his cheeks reddening.
‘Perhaps you should all read whatever Ben has been reading, and you might get homework scores like his.’
Ben just stared at his desk and waited for the next question.
‘On to question sixteen then,’ continued Mrs Patterson.
Ben spent the rest of the physics lesson quietly cursing himself for his explanation of question fifteen. He hated talking in class, but when he was forced to do it, and when it was about something that really interested him, he just couldn’t help it. As soon as he’d been asked the question, he’d forgotten about the rest of his classmates, and just wanted to let Mrs Patterson know what he knew, to show her how much he cared. And so that she might go easy on him if he ever forgot to do his homework.
Now that he’d finished speaking, it dawned on him what a swot the other kids would think he was. At least Nick and Gabriel weren’t in his class for physics, though. They were the only two people who ever really bothered him.
The physics lesson eventually ended after an hour of solving yet more equations; they weren’t going to start the stars and planets projects yet it turned out, much to Ben’s disappointment. As they were packing their books away Mike turned to him and said, ‘So you wanna be a physics teacher then Ben?’ No sooner had he finished saying Ben’s name he landed a right into his ribs, and laughed loud and heartily.
Ignoring the jab, Ben replied, ‘No, not really. People say those who can do, and…’
‘Alright dick ‘ed,’ Mike interrupted. ‘See ya later.’
Mike turned to leave the classroom, but after a few steps turned back again to Ben and said, ‘Oi Smelly, have you done the maths homework?’
‘Errrr,’ Ben knew immediately that the answer was yes, but didn’t want Mike to think that he always did his homework so religiously. ‘Yes, I think I have.’
‘Alright if I copy yours? I didn’t get time last night,’ said Mike with a big cheesy grin on his face that told Ben he’d thought about doing it, but had decided to read another bike magazine instead.
‘Yeah, OK,’ Ben replied. ‘Do you want to meet outside the canteen at break?’
‘Yep, cheers geezer,’ Mike replied, before he turned round and headed out of the classroom, letting out another astonishingly loud belch as he did so.
Ben left the classroom quickly too, in the hope that no one would comment on his little speech earlier in the lesson. They didn’t, but he already had a feeling in his stomach that this was going to be a long, long day.

Chapter Four

Ben went straight to his next lesson, which was geography. The lesson (on climate change) passed pretty uneventfully. No one said a word to him, and he spoke to no one either. It was something of a relief to be completely ignored after all the attention he’d given himself in physics. He felt much more comfortable just sitting and listening to others. That’s how he preferred to learn: with as little interaction as possible. That way he could be happy on his own, and not worry about what others thought of him, or what he thought of others.
When Lewis had been around, it’d been easy for Ben to forget about others. People at school in those times had just accepted that he and Lewis were in their own little world, and just left them to their own devices. Even Nick and Gabriel had left them alone. But now that Ben was on his own it was much harder.
Even though he was still largely ignored, sitting on his own in lessons he couldn’t help thinking that people were talking about him. Every so often he would think he had heard his name being mentioned, although he wasn’t sure he had. He also started to notice the looks that people gave as he walked past them. These looks were puzzled, slightly sneering, and unfriendly. But again, he thought that he could just be imagining it all.
Ben had hardly acknowledged the existence of his other schoolmates when Lewis was around. He hadn’t needed to. But nowadays, although he didn’t really know why, he almost always felt vulnerable. And despite his wish to remain anonymous, he couldn’t help looking around at other people and wishing that he had at least one friend, just to keep him company. There was Mike, but he didn’t really count. Ben often thought that his life might be a lot better without Mike’s punching and belching.
It eventually came to break time and he met Mike inside the main hall, outside the canteen which was situated inside the hall itself.
‘Cheers for this, Smelly,’ said Mike as he pulled out his maths book and began copying Ben’s work.
‘No problem,’ Ben replied. ‘I might have got a few wrong though,’ he said. Although he didn’t think he actually had.
‘Don’t matter,’ Mike replied. ‘Hey, to pay you back maybe I’ll let you borrow one of my mags one day. I know you want a better bike than that pile of rust you got now!’
Ben just smiled and didn’t know what to say. As Mike began copying the work Ben looked around the hall. The chatter of all the students talking filled his ears. It was always the same at break times. The same people, standing in the same places, seeming to have the same conversations.
In the corner by the canteen, shunning the rest of the hall, were the clever kids. They were mostly girls, but a few boys too. Ben had spoken to a couple of them before, but didn’t really know any of them. They would always stand up very tall with their bulging bags strapped firmly to their backs at all times. Despite this a number of them were still carrying books and folders as well. They would always walk around in large groups in a defensive formation to stave off any attack, be it verbal or physical, from any of the louder and more confident kids. Their uniforms always looked immaculate, and their hair neatly brushed. Ben also thought that most of them probably carried calculators in their pockets, in case of a mathematical emergency.
Ben then turned his attention to the east side of the hall, the bottom half of which was a series of glass windows and doors. He looked out through the window at the playground beyond and watched the sporty, athletic boys playing football. He could hear the shouting and swearing from inside. As he watched, a tall lanky kid tried to tackle Johnny Crane (the chair-dueller), but tripped him instead. Johnny got up and immediately grabbed the tall guy by his shirt and threw him to the ground. A cheer arose from the other players and the game went on.
In the opposite corner of the hall stood the ‘well’ard’ kids, as they liked to call themselves. Nick and Gabriel were always the centre of attention, with their mates vying for recognition and approval. As Ben watched, Gabriel pointed his finger at Dave Cookson and said something with the same screwed up expression with which he’d demanded Ben’s sandwiches. Dave had long, dishevelled hair tied in a ponytail. His shirt was hanging out, and his tie was nowhere to be seen. He reached into his pocket, and brought out a cigarette, which Gabriel snatched out of his hand and stuck behind his ear. Ben knew that that would be smoked behind the bushes before the next lesson. The other boys in that corner just stood there with their hands in their pockets, looking threatening. Nick patted Dave on the back, rewarding him for his good service.
In the middle of the hall stood Gabriel’s main squeeze, Nikki O’Connor, surrounded by her admirers. Most of the girls were chewing gum, as usual, and there wasn’t as much talking within the group as there was elsewhere. Every so often one of them would glance over at the well’ard gang to see if they were being noticed. They loved any attention they got, which is why they wore their short skirts and shirts that were three sizes too small. But, although they wanted to be noticed, they didn’t want anyone to know they did.
As Ben was looking over, he suddenly made eye contact with Jasmine Adams. Jasmine was typical of the girls in the group. She wore high-heeled shoes, black tights, a short skirt and a tight, white shirt. Presently, with a flick of her neck, she turned away from Ben in a snap, and by the look on her face she seemed disgusted that he should be looking at her.
As he looked around, Ben wondered which group he would fit into best. He couldn’t play sports to save his life, so fitting in with the football crowd was out of the question. He didn’t have the attitude or the confidence to be in Nick and Gabriel’s crowd, so that just left the clever kids. But these people infuriated him. They were do-gooders. But they only did good for the sake of doing good. They did their work religiously, and did it very well, but for what? They didn’t really care about their work, he thought, they just did it to please their teachers and families.
Although Ben saw little wrong in that philosophy, he hated the fact that these people thought they were so much better than everyone else, just because they got better marks in meaningless subjects like maths. Yes, they could do long equations but did they ever stop to think of why they were doing them, and what good it would do them? What good will a maths equation be to them in ten years’ time? They were just sheep, being led through school, doing what they thought was right without thinking about why they were actually doing it. And what’s more, they’d be looking down on everyone else as they did so.
‘Cool. Cheers, Smelly,’ said Mike, handing back Ben’s maths book.
‘That’s OK,’ Ben replied.
‘See ya later,’ said Mike as he walked over to where Nick and Gabriel were standing.
For some reason Mike was still trying to make himself popular with that crowd, seemingly without success. As Ben watched, Mike walked up to them and was soon taking heavy punches to his left arm courtesy of the colossal Nick Baker. Mike was still laughing though, loud and clear.
With break-time all but over, Ben began to make his way out of the hall, to avoid the rush of the crowds which would be cramming through the doorway in about a minute’s time. He walked along the corridor, to the tall staircase, and went on his way to the next lesson.
The rest of the morning went by without incident for Ben. Sitting down to lunch, his spirits were lifted slightly by the thought that there were only two lessons left that day: maths and PE. He didn’t like maths. Not only was it a subject that he found totally uninteresting, but it was also one of the few lessons that he shared with Nick Baker and Gabriel Johnson.
As he entered the maths room he felt nervous, but he did have Mike sitting next to him so he wouldn’t have to face them on his own. He and Mike sat at their desk on the back row, furthest to the right. Ben hated sitting there, but he had no choice: that’s where he’d been put by the teacher, Mrs Organ. They sat down and Ben took out his maths book, textbook, and pencil case, removed his pen, pencil, and ruler from the case, and laid them on the table. At that point Nick and Gabriel strode in, both grinning menacingly.
‘Alright Gabe,’ said Mike as Nick and Gabriel made their way to the back row. Gabriel ignored him and sat down on top of the desk next to Ben and Mike.
Ben suddenly felt very uncomfortable and realised that he needed to go to the toilet. Seeing that the toilets were right next to the classroom he thought he would nip out now and be back before the teacher arrived. He got up and made his way to the door. But before he got there, in walked Mrs Organ.
‘Going somewhere, Ben?’ she asked.
Ben hastily replied, ‘Just going to the toilet, if that’s alright.’
‘Hurry up then,’ said Mrs Organ impatiently.
Ben went, and was back in his place before the lesson had even begun.
‘OK everyone, ssshhhhh, ssshhhhh,’ said Mrs Organ. ‘Right. Textbooks out, and turn to page one-hundred and twenty, please.’ She was a small woman, but possessed a voice louder than you’d think was possible for someone of her size.
Ben opened his textbook, picked up his pen, but then had a feeling that something was wrong. Something was missing.
Realising what it was, he turned to Mike and whispered, ‘Have you got my ruler?’
‘Nope,’ Mike whispered back.
Ben always knew when Mike was lying, it was painfully obvious. But this time he was pretty sure that Mike was telling the truth. Strange. He was sure that he had taken it out of his pencil case. He checked inside the case again, but it wasn’t in there. Then, for some reason, he glanced over his shoulder to where Gabriel was sitting. Sure enough, on the table in front of Gabriel was his ruler.
Ben felt his stomach churn. He was torn between fear of Gabriel and anger that he had stolen his ruler. He wanted his ruler back badly. The ruler itself didn’t mean much to him, but the thought of Gabriel owning one of his things gave him a raging burning sensation inside. He began to imagine what Gabriel would do to his ruler; he visualised Gabriel bending it in one hand until it shattered in to a thousand tiny pieces. He couldn’t let that happen. He needed to get his ruler back. It was all he could think about. He must get it back. He had to save it.
But how could he get it back? Should he just ask Gabriel for it back? Or should he try and steal it back? Maybe Gabriel had just taken it as a joke. Ben went over all these possibilities throughout the lesson. At one point, he looked over to Gabriel. Gabriel looked back at him, and just grinned smugly.
He had to get his ruler back.
As the end of the lesson drew nearer, Ben became more and more nervous. Against all his natural instincts he knew he would have to say something to Gabriel; he couldn’t just let him have his ruler. He hated Gabriel so much that the thought of letting him get away with stealing something of his disgusted him. He turned to look at Mike, but Mike just stared down at his exercise book.
But if he made Gabriel angry Ben knew he would be in big trouble. Gabriel would be waiting for him at the gate after school, no doubt; and being targeted by Gabriel’s gang was terrifying enough for anyone, let alone Ben.
‘OK, no homework this week,’ Mrs Patterson announced. ‘But remember that you have a test next lesson on long division.’ And with that she picked up her bag and walked out of the classroom.
There was only one thing Ben could do. He turned to where Nick and Gabriel were sitting and, with his palms sweating and heart pounding, said, ‘Err, Gabe, I think that’s my ruler you’ve got there.’
Gabriel looked at Ben with an empty glare and just grinned. He turned to Nick who was doing the same. Then he looked back at Ben and said, ‘Nah, that’s my ruler, Smelly.’
‘No,’ Ben replied, trying to show neither his anger nor his fear, ‘it was on my desk and you took it while I was out of the room.’
Gabriel laughed in his sneering, oily way, and replied, ‘Dunno what ya talkin’ about, Smelly. Oi Mike, did you see me steal Smelly’s ruler?’
Mike looked over, shook his head, and said, ‘Nope.’
He was lying.
The fact that Mike was siding with Gabriel made Ben even more furious inside. He felt like he could explode with anger, but only his fear of Gabriel kept him calm. He could feel his chin slightly wavering, but he was too angry to cry.
‘You bastard,’ Ben spluttered. And without thinking he grabbed the ruler from Gabriel’s desk, turned, and ran out of the classroom, not daring to look back.

Chapter Five

Ben immediately regretted what he’d said. He didn’t know why he’d sworn at Gabriel, he hardly ever swore, and got a severe telling off from his parents if he ever did. He felt an overwhelming sense of dread when he thought about what he’d just done. Not only had he just insulted the hardest and most feared boy in school, but he’d also stolen something from him as well, and then to top it all he ran away!
Even though what he’d stolen actually belonged to him, he knew that wasn’t how Gabriel would see it. If he was to think of a top ten list of things never to do, then calling Gabriel Johnson a bastard would be right up there pushing for first place. He felt as if the world around him had changed, as if everything looked and felt different now. Things would never be the same after what he’d said because now he was a wanted man. Gabriel would be furious, and he would want to get revenge.
Ben was sitting outside on the concrete floor at the back of the technology building where he knew Gabriel never went. He felt sick. He looked at his ruler that he was still clutching in his hand. Yes, he was glad to have it back, but at the same time he thought about all the trouble this ruler had just caused him. All this over a ruler, he thought – it’s crazy.
Break-time was nearly over, and then he would have to face PE. He was comforted slightly by the thought that Nick and Gabriel often didn’t do PE because they’d deliberately forget their kit. When this happened they’d be sent to an empty classroom to work on their own; but as soon as the teacher would leave they’d be out of the classroom and behind a bush lighting up cigarettes. Ben was praying that today would be one of those days.
He looked at his watch. Two twenty-four. The bell would go any second now. Other students began to appear from the path to his left, walking past him to get to their last lesson. Ben kept his head down to avoid attracting any attention to himself. Then the bell went.
With all the reluctance in the world he slowly got up, put the ruler in his bag, and started walking towards the changing rooms. His whole body felt very heavy and his legs felt particularly sluggish. Butterflies were whirling in his stomach; all he could think about was the look on Gabriel’s face before he’d grabbed the ruler and run away. He tried to think about the fact that in just over an hour he’d be home and safe. But right now home seemed a long way away.
As he approached the PE block, Ben joined the many other students queuing to get through the single door that led inside. The voices around him were loud and intimidating. Everyone, especially the boys, seemed to get hyperactive just before PE, and there was a lot of shouting and name-calling beforehand. Ben tried to pick out the voice of either Nick or Gabriel through the noise, but to his relief he didn’t hear them. Once inside, he made his way to the boys changing room, which stank of a mixture of deodorant and sweat, as it always did.
The changing room was made up of benches which ran around the outside of the room, and a double row of benches down the middle. There was barely enough room for everyone to get changed, and the lack of space often resulted in a lot of pushing and shoving to try and make room. Ben could remember one fight in particular between Dan Forsythe and Johnny Crane over whose stuff was taking up the most space. Both had ended up on the floor with Johnny in a headlock and Dan on top of him. Luckily the teacher had broken it up before Dan’s eighteen-stone frame had cracked any of Johnny’s ribs.
Once inside the changing room Ben made his way to his usual spot at the front, on the left-hand side. He looked around the room. Quite a few boys were already beginning to get changed, but no one it seemed had even noticed him come in. As Ben began to get changed, in walked Mike Rudge and sat down next to him. He was grinning manically.
‘Well you’re a brave man, aren’t you?’ Mike said, and laughed out loud.
‘What?’ Ben replied. Although he knew exactly what Mike was talking about.
‘Calling Gabe a bastard!’ Mike laughed. ‘Boy, I wouldn’t want to be you right now!’
‘Why not?’ Ben asked sheepishly.
‘He’s really angry at you, Ben. Says he’s gonna kick your ‘ed in.’
Ben turned to look at Mike, and saw that he was no longer grinning. In fact he’d never seen Mike look so serious as he did now. And although he didn’t think it was possible, he now felt even worse.
‘I doubt he means that,’ Ben replied. ‘Come on, it’s only a ruler!’
‘Yeah, but he says you’ve insulted his entire family,’ said Mike.
‘What? But that’s ridiculous,’ said Ben with a hint of desperation in his voice. ‘Anyway, why aren’t you getting changed?’
Mike held up his bandaged left hand and said, ‘Got a note.’ At that point the PE teacher, Mr Phillips, walked into the changing room.
The changing room had gradually been filling with people as Mike and Ben had been talking, and almost everyone had crammed in now, but Ben saw no sign of Nick or Gabriel. He was now changed into his kit, which consisted of a white t-shirt, socks, and black shorts; all of which had been ironed and folded perfectly by his mum. She thought Ben should look his best on every occasion. Right now, though, the last thing on Ben’s mind was how he looked.
Suddenly he heard laughter from just outside the half-open changing room door. He knew that laugh: it belonged to Gabriel Johnson. The next few seconds seemed to go past in slow motion. He looked up at the door as Nick and Gabriel walked in. He knew he shouldn’t have looked at them, but he just couldn’t help himself. To his surprise though, both Nick and Gabriel just ignored him. Looking straight ahead, they made their way to the back of the room and began to get changed.
Ben was confused. On the one hand it was bad news that Nick and Gabriel would actually be doing PE this week. But then on the other hand they hadn’t given him any evil looks as they’d walked past; maybe they’re just going to forget the whole thing. Perhaps they too thought that it wasn’t worth the hassle over just a ruler. The teacher then came in and announced that Ben’s group would be doing football, and that included Nick and Gabriel as well.
PE was definitely the worst lesson of the week as far as Ben was concerned. Firstly, he really didn’t like sport in general and never had done. His parents were the same, so sport was something that Ben had just never shown any interest in. But after being forced to do it throughout his school years, this disinterest had turned into an outright dislike of sport. Ben thought the only time he should run was if he was being chased, or maybe if he was late for something.
Secondly, he was also convinced that his body just wasn’t designed for sport. Whenever he tried to do any it seemed his legs and arms wouldn’t listen to his brain, and he’d end up missing the ball, or falling over, or being judged leg-before-wicket, whatever that meant.
The third reason he didn’t like PE was the effect it had on the other students. As soon as their uniforms were off and PE kits on, they would act as if all school rules had suddenly been lifted, and they could do pretty much whatever they liked. They could punch, kick, or swear, without the teachers even noticing. Usually the teachers were nowhere to be seen anyway (being a PE teacher must be one of the easiest jobs in the world, Ben thought). Even some of the quiet kids would start messing around during PE, but Ben just tried to keep out of people’s way and tried not to look stupid. With football this was particularly easy: you just had to go where the ball wasn’t and you should be guaranteed a trouble-free lesson. OK, he wasn’t going to get picked for the team, but that was the last thing on his mind.
Ben made his way out of the changing room and started to walk towards the football pitch. As he did so, he was quickly joined by two other boys either side of him.
‘You’re not runnin’ away from us, are you Smelly?’ Nick asked.
Before he could answer Gabriel said, ‘What d’ya think ya doin’ insultin’ my family, Ben?’
Gabriel had used Ben’s first name and it made the comment even more threatening. Gabriel really was insulted.
‘I…look…I didn’t mean to insult your family,’ Ben said. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Can’t we just forget it happened?’
Ben was terrified. At that moment he felt like he had insulted Gabriel’s entire family, living and dead. He wanted nothing but to let Gabriel know how sorry he was, and to beg for forgiveness and mercy. He knew the charges, had pleaded guilty, and was waiting for the jury’s decision.
‘Forget it Ben. You’re gonna get battered,’ Gabriel said, and pushed Ben hard. As he did so, Nick stuck out his leg and Ben couldn’t stop himself falling straight to the floor.
Lying flat on the muddy grass, he heard the laughter of Nick and Gabriel as they ran off, and then the sniggers from other kids who ran past him. Ben was winded, but still somehow managed to haul himself up off the ground. He was back on his feet now, and as he looked up again, everything around him seemed to be moving in slow-motion. Without thinking, he carried on jogging towards the football pitch, wiping his muddy hands on his t-shirt as he did so, and trying to pretend that nothing had happened.
The teams for football were decided by the two captains: Johnny Crane and Gabriel. The teacher had picked these two to be captains because they were both in the school team, and were probably the teacher’s favourite players. Johnny picked his mates to be on his team, and Gabriel did the same. Ben was the second-to-last to get picked, and ended up on Johnny’s team. He wasn’t sure if this was good or bad, but was pretty sure he could avoid Nick and Gabriel for the duration of the game. They’d be concentrating too hard on the match to worry about him.
Ben was right: Nick and Gabriel did concentrate on the game. They began like wild bulls in a fight, charging up and down the pitch, tackling ferociously and yelling at anyone who wasn’t pulling their weight in the team, or not passing to one of them when someone else had the ball. Ben was glad he’d ended up on Johnny’s team, and (cleverly, he thought) had taken up a position on the left wing, where the least action was.
He was finding avoiding Nick and Gabriel really quite easy, and so far it seemed they had forgotten he was on the pitch. He turned his thoughts to how he was going to make a quick getaway after the match. He knew he had to avoid meeting them at the school gate, otherwise he was history. He could try leaving without getting changed possibly… But just as he was pondering this idea he realised he’d taken his attention away from the game for a second. Suddenly he saw the ball in mid-air, flying towards him on the left wing.
He saw the ball very late, and all he could do was stick his leg out in its general direction. But typically, sticking his leg out had brought the ball out of the air and under perfect control. So there he was, in acres of space on the left wing, with the ball at his feet. He had no choice but to start jogging towards the goal with the ball. He looked behind him, and wasn’t really surprised to see Nick and Gabriel running towards him as fast as they could. Now he was being chased.
Ben started running. But he had no idea what to do with the ball. He could hear shouts of ‘yes then’ and ‘square it’, but he didn’t know what squaring it meant. Nick had almost caught up with him now, and Gabriel wasn’t far behind. Ben looked around frantically, trying to find someone he could offload this ball to, which right now seemed like a giant magnet, pulling Nick and Gabriel towards him. He had to get rid of it.
Then he caught a glimpse of Johnny running alongside him, so he kicked the ball as best he could in Johnny’s direction. Just as the ball left his foot, Nick came sliding in from behind and before Ben knew what had happened, he landed flat on the muddy grass again, in front of Nick, who was already laughing. Ben looked up to see what had happened, but only saw Gabriel running full pelt towards him. Gabriel leaped into the air and landed with both feet on Ben’s right ankle.
‘Owww,’ Ben yelled. He couldn’t help crying out. The pain had been so sudden and so great.
‘That’s for calling me a bastard,’ Gabriel said. ‘And if you think that hurt, wait till we catch you after school.’
With the sentence laid down, Nick and Gabriel ran off chasing the ball again, and Ben was left lying on the floor in mild agony.

Chapter Six

Thoughts were rushing back and forth through Ben’s head as he hobbled back to the changing room. Was his ankle broken? Who should he tell? Would he be able to avoid Nick and Gabriel at the gate? Before he could think of an answer, another question appeared, forcing aside the last one. Every step on his right ankle was making him wince with pain. This is why he didn’t play sports, he thought, so he wouldn’t have to go through this sort of pain.
He tried to collect his thoughts and deal with one question at a time. OK, who should he tell? He quickly decided that telling any teachers would almost definitely make the situation worse. Gabriel would know immediately that Ben had grassed, and would get even more angry (if that was possible). The teachers’s intentions were always good, but they never realised the seriousness of the situation. And they didn’t understand that it wasn’t always possible to ‘just keep out of their way for a while’ or ‘just lay low’. Laying low when Nick and Gabriel are after you is impossible. They weren’t stupid. They knew when the teachers’s backs were turned. Eventually they would find him on his own, without a teacher in sight, and then it would be too late.
No, he couldn’t tell any teachers. What about his parents? He wasn’t sure if his parents would understand either, but he decided that it would be best to put this question to one side and deal with it when he got home, if he did ever make it home. He would have to get out of the gate before Nick and Gabriel got there. How was he going to do that when he could barely walk?
He was back in the changing room now. Luckily, none of the students or teachers had returned yet. He still had time to make a quick getaway. He gingerly began to remove his football boots and socks (the right boot seemed to take an age to come off, and it felt as if his whole foot would come off with it). He compared his two bare feet. The right ankle was visibly larger than the left, and had four large stud-marks in the side of it. He knew he didn’t have time to think about that now and he tried to get changed as quickly as he could. As he pulled his trousers on, he took out his watch from the pocket. Three twenty-seven. He had about a minute until the others would start to arrive back.
Thirty-nine seconds later he was changed and ready to go. He started limping out of the changing room, but as he did so he was greeted by the rest of the football group coming the other way. There was no way of getting outside before everyone had gone past, so he stepped to one side and turned to face the wall so as not to draw any attention to himself. It worked. To his relief everyone walked past him, seemingly too busy arguing about the final score of the game to pay any attention to him. Even Nick and Gabriel must have walked right by.
Ben started to limp towards the door again and was soon outside. He knew he didn’t have long. Nick and Gabriel wouldn’t really bother getting changed; they’d be out of there as fast as they could. Although it was excruciatingly painful, Ben was hobbling towards the gate as fast as he could. He turned round, but saw no one following him. Around the languages building he went, and onto the driveway. The gate was in sight now.
He couldn’t ever remember feeling the kind of fear he was feeling now. He’d seen films like Scream (at Lewis’s house, Ben’s mum wouldn’t let him watch it at home), and seen characters being chased by a crazy man with a knife. That had seemed scary then, but it was nothing compared to how scared he was now. He forced himself to forget about the film and concentrate solely on reaching the gate, which would mean reaching freedom.
The gate was getting ever closer; it must have only been twenty-five yards away, and still no sign of anyone behind him. Ben began to feel that he was winning, that he would get away with it, and make it back to the safety of his home. He had to. He just couldn’t imagine what would happen if they were to catch him. The thought was so incomprehensible that surely it couldn’t happen.
Then he heard the scraping of trainers on gravel, and he quickly realised that there was someone running, fast, behind him. He turned round. In fact there were two people. The impossible suddenly seemed very real. Nick and Gabriel were running full pelt towards him. Ben panicked, and ran.
He was going as fast as his throbbing, possibly broken, ankle could take him. Soon he reached the gate, but he could still hear shouting behind him.
‘Oi! Come ‘ere!’ Nick shouted. ‘You’re dead, Smelly!’
Ben couldn’t really feel the pain in his ankle now. His whole body had been overtaken with fear. He just ran, and ran as hard as he possibly could. He knew they were behind him, and he didn’t dare look back. He just kept running. He got to the end of School Lane, but could still hear the noise of running feet behind him and the heavy breathing as they desperately tried to catch up with him. He carried on down Sycamore Grove, still not daring to look behind him in case he lost his balance and fell, and that would be it.
Ben kept running, he didn’t know how. The end of Sycamore Grove was now in sight. He was beginning to feel the searing pain in his ankle again, and his lungs were burning too. But then he realised that it had been a while since he’d heard any noise from behind. Could he risk looking back? It was too tempting. He turned to look behind, just in time to see Nick and Gabriel disappear around the corner of School Lane, and head back towards the school gate.
Ben had never been so relieved in his life. He was safe. He stood for a while with his hands on his knees, hunched over, panting, just trying to get his breath back. He wanted to jump around punching the air to celebrate his freedom, but he settled for just being able to breathe again.
Eventually he regained his composure and began to hobble home again. The sun was low in the sky and shining brightly in his eyes making him squint as he walked along the pavement. With Nick and Gabriel gone, Ben’s thoughts now turned to what he should tell his parents, his mum in particular. He knew she would be waiting for him when he got home and would notice immediately that he was limping. Should he tell the truth, or try and make something up? He hated lying though, mainly because he was no good at it, and was jealous of people who could just lie their way out of any situation. He’d have to tell her what happened. But would she understand? He doubted it.
It seemed to Ben that his parents were still living in the nineteen-seventies, and had no real idea of how the world worked today. It had taken Ben almost two years to persuade his parents to buy a computer for the family. But last year, when they finally decided to get one, they got a second-hand machine, which was almost as old as he was, and could barely muster up the power to play Solitaire. They refused to upgrade their old cassette player to CD, and even laughed at his suggestion that they might swap their video player for a DVD player. He’d long since given up hope on both fronts.
They had no clue either when it came to school stuff either. He’d told them a million times that he was allowed to wear trainers to school (as long as they were black), but his mum insisted on buying him ‘nice, smart leather shoes,’ and his dad insisted on polishing them every Sunday, so that he’d be the ‘smartest boy in the class’. They didn’t understand that anything that would make him stand out from the other kids was bad. When he told them he just wanted to blend in with the others so he wouldn’t look stupid, they just didn’t get it. They had no idea why he’d want to deliberately make himself ‘look tatty’.
In short, they were an embarrassment. He loved them very much of course, in the way that any kid loves his parents, but sometimes he found it difficult. Especially when they would turn up at parents evening in matching cardigans and tell all his teachers how good he was at home, and how much they loved him. Ben had even thought that the teachers may have been laughing at him at parents evenings. He just prayed that no other kids overheard what his parents were saying.
To make things worse, his parents were avid church-goers as well. Ben didn’t really mind this, but last year there had been an open service in the town centre, which they’d forced him to come along to. He’d just stood there as he watched his parents singing with all their might and waving their hands in the air just as a group of boys from the year above walked past, recognised him, and laughed hysterically. Again, his parents had been the cause of his embarrassment, and again, they’d had no idea why he’d been so embarrassed, even after he’d tried to explain it to them.
With these memories fresh in his mind, Ben reached the front door of his home and rang the bell.

Chapter Seven

‘Hello, dear,’ said Ben’s mum as he walked through the door. She was wearing her usual old jeans and faded black t-shirt (which was now almost grey). ‘How was school today? There’s some tea in the pot if you’d like some, and I was going to make some crumpets as well.’
Ben wasn’t hungry, but he did pour himself a cup of tea.
‘So, how was school today?’ his mum asked for the second time.
‘It was OK. I’ve got some maths homework to do, so I’m going to go and do that now.’ Ben picked up his tea, and walked out of the kitchen, trying to disguise his limping (which he thought he was doing pretty well).
‘Benjamin? Why are you limping like that?’ his mum called out as he left the kitchen.
He’d have to tell her. ‘Oh, yeah…I….I just got hurt doing PE, that’s all.’
‘Oh my goodness, you poor thing. Let’s have a look then.’ And before he could do anything she was rolling up his trouser leg and taking off his shoes and socks.
‘It’s really not that bad, Mum.’
‘My gosh, what are those?’ his mum asked, looking at the stud marks in his ankle. ‘It’s all swollen up. We’re going to have to take you to a doctor. Can you move it? Is it broken? It might be broken. Oh Benjamin, what were you doing?’
‘It wasn’t me,’ Ben replied, ‘it was Gabriel Johnson.’ He hadn’t meant to say that.
‘You mean someone did this to you deliberately?’
‘Well…yes. You see…I stole my ruler off him, and he got angry…Look, it’s fine. I’m OK. It doesn’t actually hurt that much.’ And with that he pulled his ankle from his mum’s grasp (which was considerably painful), and hobbled upstairs to his room.
As he got to his bedroom he heard the sound of his mum coming up the stairs after him. He knew his explanation hadn’t exactly been a great one. He’d have to try again.
‘Benjamin?’ his mum called. ‘What do you mean you stole your own ruler?’
She was in his room now as well. Ben sat down on his bed, and his mum stood with her hands on her hips in that way that suggested she wanted an explanation. But the last thing Ben wanted to do was re-live the day’s events. All he wanted was roll over on his bed, bury his head in his pillow, and go to sleep. But he knew that his mum wouldn’t let it rest until she’d had her explanation.
‘It’s nothing, Mum, really. He just stole my ruler, then I stole it back, then he jumped on me in the football match.’ As he said this his bottom lip started to quiver, and for some reason looking at his mum’s face and telling this story made him want to burst into to tears.
‘You can’t just go jumping on people’s ankles like that,’ his mum said. ‘Look, I’ll make a doctor’s appointment for you, then I’ll phone the school and we’ll get this all sorted out.’
‘No, wait,’ Ben quickly replied. ‘it’s really not that bad. I’m sure it’s not broken, and actually it doesn’t really hurt that much any more.’
‘Benjamin, I will not have my son being assaulted at school. Something has to be done,’ she said.
‘Just don’t phone the school. Please.’
‘Look, we’ll discuss it with your father when he gets home. Can I get you anything? A crumpet perhaps?’
‘No thanks, I’m not hungry,’ Ben said.
‘OK, you just rest that ankle, and we’ll let the doctor have a look at it tomorrow. And it looks like your hair could do with a cut too, perhaps I’ll do that later for you.’
Before Ben could protest again, his mum had left his room and gone downstairs. He began to feel tears in his eyes, but he was determined not to cry. Only pathetic losers cry, and he wasn’t going to be one of them. He wiped the tears away and lay down on his bed. The good news was that he was still alive. The bad news was that he would have to go to school again tomorrow.
There was no way Nick and Gabriel would have forgotten about today, and there seemed to be no way of avoiding them either. Ben started to feel the sickening feeling in his stomach again. If his parents were to meet the head teacher then Gabriel would find out about it, and everything would be worse. He had to persuade his parents not to phone the school. But to do that, he had to persuade them that phoning the school wouldn’t be helping him, but actually be putting him in more trouble. How was he going to convince them? They wouldn’t understand. They’d think that as soon as they’d let the teachers know what’s going on, everything would be OK, and that the teachers would somehow protect him. But that just wasn’t how it worked, and they just didn’t get it.
An hour later Ben heard the sound of the front door close and realised that he’d been asleep. It was now twenty-past five and his dad was home from work. If there was any hope of stopping his mum from phoning the school then it would come from his dad. Ben could hear them now, talking downstairs, probably about his ankle, and about Gabriel. He waited for about ten minutes, and then slowly and gingerly manoeuvred himself off the bed, and made his way downstairs.
His parents were sitting at the kitchen table, each with a cup of tea in front of them. He noticed that their faces showed concern.
‘I hear you’ve had a bit of a run-in, Benjamin,’ his dad said.
‘Nah, I’m OK, really.’ He knew he wasn’t OK, but to be OK he had to first make them think that he actually was. This was getting complicated.
‘Now, your mother’s just phoned the school and arranged a meeting with your head teacher for tomorrow morning. Don’t worry, we’ll have this all sorted out in no time.’
‘You did what?’ Ben couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. ‘You phoned the school? But it was just a tackle in a football match!’ he was shouting now. ‘You’re going to make everything worse! They’re going to kill me!’
‘Look, Ben,’ his mum said, in a caring tone, ‘we know you’ve had problems with this boy before (Ben had mentioned once that Gabriel called him “Smells”), and it wasn’t a tackle, was it. It was an assault (why did she keep calling it that?), and we’re going to make sure that they don’t hurt you again.’
‘I can’t believe you did that without telling me,’ Ben replied. ‘I’m not going.’
‘Yes you are Benjamin,’ his dad said firmly. ‘It may seem hard at first, but we need to get this bullying sorted out before something…’
There it was. Bullying. Ben had never considered it to be bullying before. He just thought that he would get picked on when he was in the wrong place at the wrong time; and that in some way he deserved it. But bullying, bullying was organised and deliberate.
Were Nick and Gabriel doing this deliberately? The thought that they’d picked him out for a reason, that they actually wanted to bully him, suddenly made the whole situation seem a lot more grim. If he was the chosen target then there’d be nothing Ben could do to stop it. They were going to make his life a misery, whatever he said or did.
‘…before you get seriously hurt,’ his dad finished.
He’d said those last two words so coldly that Ben began to think the worst. What did he mean? Knives? Guns? Is that what it could get like? Ben had heard of kids getting killed by other kids in American schools, but they were always killing each other over there. He was sure that this type of thing didn’t happen in England, especially where he lived. But perhaps it did, or was about to start.
‘There’s nothing the teachers can do,’ Ben said. ‘They’ll just make it all worse.’ He couldn’t work out if he was scared or angry. All his feelings had merged together to form one very weird sensation that made him want to start ripping his own hair out.
‘Oh, nonsense,’ said his dad. ‘That’s what they’re there for. They deal with situations like this every day, don’t they, dear,’ he said, turning to Ben’s mum.
‘Why, yes, of course they do. It’ll be fine, Benjamin, you’ll see.’
Ben, realising that there was no winning arguments like this with his parents, went back up to his room. He was beginning to realise that nothing he said to his parents would make any difference. They were determined to meet the head teacher tomorrow, and nothing he could say would change their minds.
He lay down on his bed, and thought about how things would have been if he’d just let Gabriel have the ruler. He longed to go back in time and do things differently. It seemed so unfair that just one small decision had changed his life so dramatically. The tears started to appear in his eyes again, and this time he couldn’t hold them back: he was crying. He was a sad, pathetic loser, and Nick and Gabriel were going to make his life even more miserable. And there was nothing he could do to stop it; even his own parents couldn’t help. Not only that, but they were actually making things worse. He was done for.
The tears eventually stopped, and Ben’s sadness slowly turned to anger. What right had a complete idiot like Gabriel Johnson got to ruin his life? He’d only taken back what was his! But then he remembered what he’d said to Gabriel afterwards. Maybe Gabriel did have a right. Maybe it was his own fault. All of a sudden, his anger turned to fear. He was haunted by the thought of Gabriel waiting for him at the gate tomorrow morning with a knife in his hand. Ben groaned as he tried desperately to remove the image from his thoughts.
Only one thing was clear: he couldn’t go to that meeting tomorrow. Nothing good could possibly come from it. He imagined how great it would be to go to sleep and wake up two days later; then his parents would have forgotten all about the meeting, or realised that it wasn’t the best thing to do after all. Maybe Nick and Gabriel would find someone else to pick on, and they’d forget all about The Ruler Incident. If only he could disappear for one day, or just skip it completely, then all his troubles would be gone. Missing one day in a whole lifetime wasn’t a big deal, he’d be around for all the rest. Just one day. Ben was lying with his eyes closed, half asleep, dreaming about missing out tomorrow, when suddenly it hit him. He knew what he could do.
What if he wasn’t around tomorrow? What if he really did just miss out one day? It was simple: all he had to do was run away for a day! He didn’t even have to go far, just to the fields that backed onto his house. As long as he was out of sight he really could miss the day. As long as he left a note to tell his parents he was OK, that he’d be back tomorrow. He could sleep rough for just one night, surely. Plenty of people sleep on the streets every night, he was sure he could manage sleeping in a field for one night. He would come home tomorrow evening and everything would be back to normal. The plan was so simple, yet so brilliant that he couldn’t help smiling. One of those smiles that you can’t stop because of the sheer satisfaction. He had the answer. He was saved.
Without further ado, Ben was off his bed and rummaging around in his cupboard to find his old rucksack that he’d used when he went camping with Lewis a few years ago. It was on the top shelf, next to his sleeping bag. He took some clothes too: a jumper, some trousers, a t-shirt, a pair of socks, and a pair of underpants. The clothes were just spares; he would go in his school uniform so that if anyone were to see him (which he doubted they would, but you can never be too careful) he could say that he was on a school trip or something. Clothes and a sleeping bag: what else would he need? A torch - very important. He’d been given a really cool torch by his grandma for Christmas last year. It was the size of any ordinary torch, but had the power of 1.5 million candles! He fetched it out of his cupboard, then tried to think of what else he’d need.
He would only be gone for a day, and he’d probably be asleep for most of the time, but he’d need something to stop himself getting bored. So he opened his desk drawer and pulled out his set of Super Snakes Top Trumps and put those in the rucksack as well. As he did so he felt his stomach rumble, and suddenly he realised how hungry he was, which then made him realise that he’d have to take some food with him as well. But how would he get any food without his parents knowing? If they discovered his plan, it would all be over and he’d have no choice but to go to school the next morning. He had to make sure they didn’t find out what he was doing. All of a sudden he heard footsteps coming up the stairs.
As quickly as he could, he flung the rucksack back into his cupboard, slammed the door shut, then jumped back onto his bed, wincing in pain as he did so. All the excitement about his escape had made him forget about his ankle.
There was a knock at the door.
‘Yes?’ Ben said.
‘It’s only me,’ said his mum. ‘What was all that banging about, Benjamin? You didn’t fall did you?’
‘No, Mum, I didn’t. I told you, I’m fine,’ Ben replied through gritted teeth. He loved his mum very much, but he didn’t really like her that much right now. ‘Is that all you wanted to say?’
‘Now there’s no need to be rude, Benjamin. I just came up to tell you that dinner will be ready in an hour.’
You came all the way upstairs to tell me that, he thought? Dinner’s at the same time every night, why would it change? He knew his mum was just checking up on him, and it was irritating. Why couldn’t she just say so, instead of being all Sherlock Holmesy about it?
‘OK, same as always then,’ Ben replied.
‘Yes, dear. Now you get some rest.’ And with that she left.
Ben immediately got out of bed again and got his rucksack out of the cupboard. He had all he needed except for some food and a drink. Maybe he could just go without it. It’s only one day after all. But as soon as he said that he was suddenly hit by the strange feeling of being hungry and thirsty at the same time, as if his body was telling him there’s no way he was going to go without food and drink for a whole day. He’d have to get some. But how? Then he remembered something.
He looked at his watch. Yes. It was five fourty-five. He knew that both his mum and dad would be sitting in the front room watching Neighbours, they never did anything else at this time. If he was quiet, he could sneak into the kitchen without them knowing.
It worked perfectly. Even with his bad ankle, he managed to creep downstairs, past the living room, and into the kitchen without attracting any attention to himself. All that practise of being invisible at school had finally paid off! He filled a small, plastic bottle with blackcurrent juice and slipped it into his trouser pocket. Then he grabbed some crisps from the cupboard, which he stuffed into the other pocket, as quietly as is possible with crisps. Then he walked to the other side of the kitchen, and opened the fridge. There was some cheese; some wafer-thin ham; and some old, manky looking chicken. He didn’t fancy the chicken, and definitely didn’t have time to make a sandwich, so he shut the fridge again.
Ben stood in the centre of the kitchen, trying to think. What else could he take? Surely crisps weren’t enough. Then he remembered the Penguin bars his mum had bought yesterday, and he grabbed a few from the cupboard. Next to them were three tins of tuna. That’ll do, he thought. How many should he take? It didn’t really matter if his mum realised he’d taken them, so he took all three.
Now on tip-toes, he crept out of the kitchen, put one foot on the stairs, then realised he’d need something to eat the tuna with. Back he crept into the kitchen, pulled open a drawer, and took a fork. Then, as he was about to creep back upstairs again, the doorbell went. He was in trouble.
Of course: it was Thursday. The milkman always came on a Thursday. How could he forget? He knew his mum or dad would have to walk past the kitchen to get to the front door. Would they see him through the glass of the kitchen door? He looked around for somewhere to hide, but there was nowhere to hide in the kitchen. For a second he thought about trying to climb into the fridge, but quickly dismissed the idea and wondered if he was driving himself mad with all this creeping around. All he could do was stand very still and hope for the best.
It was his mum that answered the door, and on her way seemed not to notice him in the kitchen, as he stood there frozen, clutching his fork, tuna, and Penguin bars. The episode between his mum and the milkman seemed to last forever. He heard his mum laugh, in that fake but polite way, and remembered that she always had to ask how his children were, and he’d always reply politely, and then she’d politely laugh, even though what he said was never funny. Eventually Ben heard the front door close, and he held his breath, not daring to move a muscle.
He watched as his mum walked right past the kitchen without so much as a glance in his direction. He gave it a few seconds before creeping back out of the kitchen and back upstairs, carefully missing out stairs four and seven which creaked every time they were stepped on. Once he was in his room again he put all the food into his rucksack and zipped it up. Then he took a piece of paper and scribbled his leaving note: Dear Mum and Dad, I’m going away for a day, but don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I’ll explain everything when I get back tomorrow. Please don’t worry about me, I’ll be back safe and sound. Love, Benjamin.
He hoped that he wouldn’t have to explain a thing, that his actions would explain themselves, and his parents would realise that meeting the head teacher wasn’t the right thing to do. He left the note on his bed, put on his jacket, and then pulled the rucksack onto his back.
A strange sensation suddenly came over him: he was about to run away from home. He’d heard about lots of kids who ran away from home, but these had been kids with real problems. He’d never imagined that he would ever have to run away. Were his problems really that bad? He tried to convince himself that he wasn’t really running away, just going on a trip for a day, no big deal. Deep down though, he knew it was a big deal.
Presently, he took a deep breath and began to creep back downstairs. As quietly as he could, he opened the front door, slipped out, then closed it behind him. He walked around the back of the house to avoid the front room window, and into the garden. When he reached the end of the garden, he stood and looked out to the green fields beyond. This is it, he thought. He looked back at his house, which suddenly looked a long way away.
‘Come on, Ben,’ he whispered to himself, trying to muster up some courage. Forcing his body round again, he took a deep breath and clambered through the bushes that lined the back of the garden, emerging into the field beyond.

Chapter Eight

Jasmine Adams was not in a good mood. Things were bad at home, she was used to that; they’d been like that for a while now. School, though, was where she was supposed to enjoy herself. Today, however, had definitely not been enjoyable. It had started badly when she’d woken up to the sound of her parents arguing, and her brother crying (not a great way to start the day). From what she’d gathered, the argument had been about cereal. Something about why her mum hadn’t bought the right type of muesli. Her dad had been so cross at this, he refused to eat any breakfast at all. This had made her mum angry, and this had upset Arthur, her baby brother. The arguing continued, and was still going on when Jasmine left for school.
The arguing had got worse in the last month. They used to argue about pretty important things like bank statements, and fixing the car, but now the arguments seemed to be over ridiculous little things like cereal, and they seemed to be even more angry with each other now. The silences between them after the arguments were longer now as well, which Jasmine took to be a bad sign. She’d begun to get used to going up to her room at about five o’clock every evening now, so that she wouldn’t have to be around when her dad got home from work, and so wouldn’t get caught up in the inevitable arguments that were to follow. Arguments which usually started with the question of why her dad was late home again.
Life at home really wasn’t much fun, but going to school gave her the chance to forget about things at home. She enjoyed going to school. She had a good group of friends, she seemed to be generally well-liked, and she was getting pretty good marks (well, OK marks). When she was at school she could pretend that everything at home was OK, that she had nothing to worry about.
Today, however, had not been like that.
At first break she’d made the mistake of asking her best friend Nikki what she would do if her parents split up. Jasmine knew that her friends didn’t usually talk about this kind of thing, but she thought she would slip it in, just to see how they would react. Well, the real reason she asked was that the morning argument had scared her, and she wanted to know if it was normal to be scared at the thought of parents splitting up. She hadn’t got the reaction she was hoping for. Nikki had said that her parents split up ages ago, and she preferred things that way. Then Zoë Lavel had chipped in, adding that she wished her parents would split up so that she could go on two holidays next summer, and so that she’d get double pocket money.
The other girls just laughed when Zoë said this, especially Emily. Jasmine had laughed as well, trying her best to sound convincing, although she wasn’t sure she had. To make matters worse, when she turned round to hide her fake smile, some weird kid was giving her evils across the hall. Some kids can be so bloody annoying, she thought.
It was obvious that Nikki, Emily, and Zoë weren’t going to take her seriously, and didn’t get the hint that she might actually be having problems at home. But it wasn’t their fault, it wasn’t like they were laughing at her deliberately. She should just stick to talking about less depressing things like who’s fitter: Jude Law or Justin Timberlake. Hmmm, tricky one, she thought.
Jasmine thought herself lucky to have friends like Nikki, Emily, and Zoë. Actually, she couldn’t imagine what her life would be like without them. How would she know what to wear? Or what music she should try listening to? She could talk endlessly with them about not that much, which she’d always seen as a sign of a good friend. She loved the fact that they were always on her side, and would try and agree with her, whatever she said. Her friends helped her to forget all of the stuff going on at home, which is why she’d immediately regretted bringing the subject of parents splitting up. This was one issue that her friends definitely wouldn’t be able to help her with.
As Jasmine made her way home from school, swinging her bag back and forth as she walked along, she couldn’t stop her thoughts turning to what this evening’s row between her parents would be about. She soon realised that thinking about it made the whole situation seem worse so she tried to take her mind off it by getting her mobile out of her bag and checking for text messages.
Whenever she wanted to take her mind off something, she would usually get out her mobile. In fact, if she ever found that she had a spare few seconds, she would check for messages. She never went anywhere without her mobile. A while ago she’d left it in a boyfriend’s car and had to go without it for almost two days. She’d managed to get through both of those days, but promised herself that she’d never make the same mistake again.
Looking at her phone now, she saw that she didn’t have any new messages, so she read through a few old ones instead.
Once she was home, she flung her bag down in the hall and collapsed onto the sofa, relieved that the school day was over. She was alone in the house, and was enjoying the moment of silence and peace, something that she didn’t get to do very often. But her tranquility was soon evaporated by the thought that her mum would be home any minute now. Jasmine decided that she wanted to do everything she could to try to put her in a good mood so that she’d have nothing to moan or shout about, and maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be any arguing between her mum and dad this evening. Firstly, this would mean making sure the house was in tip-top condition for her mum’s arrival.
She picked up her bag and threw it upstairs (she’d deal with that later; she just wanted it out of sight for now), and emptied the kitchen bin. Then she saw a couple of bowls and plates on the kitchen table, which she rounded up and put in the dishwasher. She arranged the cushions on the sofa neatly, and threw away the tissue and sweet wrappers that were down the side it. Then she tidied away the few of her brother’s toys that were scattered around, and finally made a pot of tea. Surely her mum had nothing to get angry about now. Exhausted, she collapsed onto the sofa again and waited for her mum to get home with Arthur, her baby brother.
A few minutes later she heard the key in the lock, and prepared herself to give as happy a welcome as she could muster, despite the day she’d had.
‘Hello!’ she said cheerfully as her mum walked into the living room, clutching Arthur under her arm. Jasmine smiled as convincingly as she could.
‘I’ve had the worst day at work, you wouldn’t believe how pig-headed some people can be,’ her mum said with a look on her face that could have curdled the milk. This wasn’t going to be easy.
‘Well, I’ve tidied, and made some tea,’ Jasmine said, hoping that her mum would forget her work. ‘Do you want a cup?’
‘No, I want a bloody cigarette. Be a good girl and make Arthur some dinner, I’m going outside.’
This was not good. Her dad hated the fact that her mum still smoked, despite her promises to quit after Arthur was born. At least she did it outside now, but her dad would find out, and there’d be another argument exactly the same as the one last Thursday.
She picked up her brother, who was looking a bit lost seeing his mum go outside, and asked, ‘So, what do you want for your din-dins then?’ Her brother just gargled a bit, hiccupped, and flapped his arms up and down a few times.
Jasmine picked out one of the jars of food from the cupboard, and went to find a clean spoon, when she heard a key in the door again. Moments later her dad walked in with a furrowed brow, and let out a long sigh.
‘Hi Jaz,’ he said. ‘Where’s your mum?’
‘Err…outside,’ she replied. She had to tell the truth, there was no point lying about it.
Her dad threw his head back, and his arms out (Arthur did the same, but her dad didn’t notice), ‘Don’t tell me she’s…’ And as he said this, her mum came back in.
‘Did you get the tomato puree?’ her mum asked, looking at him sternly, as she closed the back door behind her. No ‘hello’, or ‘nice to see you’. Straight onto puree.
‘You’ve been smoking again, haven’t you,’ her dad replied, ignoring the puree.
‘You forgot the puree. I ask you to do one thing and you forget. Can’t I trust you with anything?’
They weren’t even having the same conversation; this was not going well. Jasmine sat down in the living room to get away from the argument, but found that she could still hear every word.
‘I dunno how many times you’ll promise to quit before you actually do,’ her dad said. ‘Meanwhile our baby’s lungs are being clogged up with smoke. And no, I didn’t get the tomato puree. I forgot. I had more important things to think about, not that you’d know what that feels like.’
‘Well maybe you should try cooking a meal for once, maybe then you’ll realise how important it is.’
‘Look, I’m the one who pays for the food, isn’t that enough? Your salary barely covers childcare, so I think I know exactly how important your job is, and maybe you’re better off without it. At least we’d all get fed, and maybe Arthur would have more of a mother.’
That was it. Jasmine knew that there was no going back now; this was going to be a big one. She shut her eyes and wondered if there was anything she could do.
‘Don’t you dare come between me and my career. And don’t you bloody dare call me a bad mother!’ her mum was really shouting now. ‘You selfish pig, calling me a bad mother! What kind of father are you?’
As her mum screamed this last sentence, Jasmine heard a bang and a smash: the noise of a mug being thrown against a wall, and breaking. Enough was enough. Jasmine marched into the battle scene, picked up Arthur, who was crying, and barely fighting back the tears herself shouted, ‘You just don’t get it do you! You’re both as bloody bad as each other! I hate you!’ And with that she walked out crying, with Arthur in her arms, and marched upstairs.
With tears still in her eyes, Jasmine put Arthur in his cot, and then went into her own room and lay on her bed. Why were they doing this? Couldn’t they see what effect it was having on her, and even worse, on Arthur? Obviously not, because she could hear them still going at it downstairs. She could only make out the swear words (which were louder than the others), and she knew this one was going to last a long while.
If they were going to split up, like Nikki’s parents, then Arthur would grow up just like Nikki had done. And the thought of Arthur turning out like Nikki scared her. He would end up resenting both his parents, and then, if they did ever all get together for Christmas or something, it would feel awkward and horrible. No one would know what to say, and if they did it would most likely turn into an argument.
If only they knew what they were getting themselves into. Maybe they didn’t see it how she did. Maybe they hadn’t thought about what would happen if the family was to break apart. That’s the problem: they can’t see past their own petty squabbles. She had to make them see the bigger picture. She’d tried getting involved, trying to calm things down, but these efforts had just been met with, ‘not now, Jasmine, stay out of this’.
She couldn’t stay out of it. There was no way she could just stand and watch them ruin her brother’s life, she had to do something. But talking to them made no difference, she just couldn’t get through to either one of them. If only there was some way to show them what effect it was having. That’s the only way they’ll realise.
It had to be some kind of protest that would make them notice her, and then maybe listen to what she had to say. Maybe she could refuse to eat anything. She’d heard of prisoners on hunger strikes who eventually got what they wanted doing this. But then she remembered that this year she’d given up all snack food for Lent; three days later, however, the temptation of a box of raisins had been too great, and that had ended that. No, she definitely couldn’t fast for long enough to make any kind of difference. What could she do then?
The shouting downstairs was making it almost impossible to think. She wished she could just run off and hide, and come back when they’d finished so that she could think about this properly, otherwise she was never going to stop them rowing.
Hang on, maybe that’s it. Maybe she could run away. It didn’t have to be for long, just a day or so. She could leave a note, they’d know she was safe, but her being gone might make them see things differently. She could come back the next day and they’d be so relieved to see her they’d forget all about their arguing. Then they could sit down and talk about it properly. It was the perfect plan!
Although, it did mean sleeping rough for a night, a thought which rather horrified her. She’d never even been camping before; she thought hotels were the only possible alternative to her bed. But she had to make a sacrifice for her parents’ sake, for Arthur’s sake. She’d do it, even though it meant missing a day of school. School was the last worry on her mind right now.
She started to look around her room, trying to think of what she’d need to take. Clothes first. There was no time to change, but she’d take some spare clothes for tomorrow. She opened her wardrobe, took out some jeans, a top, and some underwear. Her make-up bag, she’d take that, and a hairbrush. As she picked the brush up from her desk, she saw her dad’s credit card there which she’d borrowed to buy a CD over the internet. He wouldn’t notice if she took it, he had so many of them. And besides, you never know when you might need it.
But what was she going to put it all in? She didn’t have a rucksack, and her school bag was barely big enough for her pencil case. But she did have a big Morgan shopping bag. That would do, it even had poppers on the top to seal it: perfect.
She packed it all in, threw in her phone and some gum, and there, she was ready to go. But hang on; was this really the right thing to do? Maybe she could just stop eating after all, just with the occasional box of raisins. No, dumb idea, that wouldn’t work; she had to do it this way. Now, a note. She took a pen and piece of paper and wrote: Dear Mum and Dad. I don’t know if you’ll even care, but I’ve gone. I don’t know how long for. I hate your fighting, it’s out of order now. Maybe you’ll listen to me when I get back, you certainly didn’t before. For what it’s worth, I love you both. Take care of Arthur. Jasmine xx
She knew she wouldn’t be gone long, but she didn’t want them to think that. Placing the note on her desk, she picked up her bag, and closed the door behind her. She sneaked across to Arthur’s room and poked her head around the door. He was asleep. Quietly into the room she walked and kissed him gently on the forehead. Feeling the tears in her eyes again, she quickly slipped out again and made her way downstairs. There was no way her parents would hear her, they were still far too busy hurling insults at each other. She walked straight past the kitchen unnoticed, and slipped out of the front door.

Chapter Nine

With the afternoon sun shining low in the sky, Ben began to walk across the field, towards the footpath that would take him northwards, away from home. As he made his way over the long grass, he felt a strange buzz of excitement surge through him, as if he were walking into a strange new world, leaving behind all of his troubles. Even the pain in his ankle started to fade as he was walking.
He reached the footpath, and began walking northwards. To his right were two green fields ending in a row of trees which stopped him from seeing what was beyond. Just to his left, a thick row of bushes ran alongside the path. They were a lot taller than he was, and his only clue as to what was beyond them was the occasional mooing sound that would emerge from that direction. In front of him, the footpath rolled over several fields and dipped downhill, below the horizon. Ben had walked this way before, but only when he was very young, ten or eleven he guessed. He knew the path continued for quite a distance in the same direction over the fields, but he couldn’t remember if he’d ever reached the end of it before.
His plan was to carry on walking until it got dark, and then hopefully find a sheltered place to sleep for the night; under some trees would be best, in case of rain. He should have checked the weather forecast before he left, he thought. But looking up at the sky now, Ben could only see a few wisps of cloud, and it was cirrus cloud, which meant it probably wasn’t going to rain tonight.
As he was looking at the sky, he saw a smear in mid-air, and realised how dirty his glasses were. He stopped for a second, took his glasses case out of his pocket, got the little duster inside, and began to give them a clean. As he looked down at his glasses, memories of home come flooding back. He’d be about to sit down to a lovely hot dinner now, if he were back home. But he wasn’t. In fact, he suddenly felt a very long way from home, and somewhat guilty that he’d left. He looked back in the direction of his house, but the view was obscured by bushes at the end of the field.
He mustn’t look back, he thought. There was no way he could go home now; he’d be back where he started, except with muddier shoes and a lot more explaining to do. No, there was only one thing for it: he had to go on and stick to the plan.
He turned to face northwards again and looked out across the seemingly endless rolling fields. Putting his glasses back on, he sighed, and walked onwards. With the next few steps, he felt the pain in his ankle again; a sharp pain that shot up his right leg with every other step. Each time he trod down on it, the pain would remind him of the football match, and of Gabriel. The thought of Gabriel, and how angry he was, made Ben feel even more determined that he had to go ahead with the plan, and avoid that meeting tomorrow.
Although Ben thought he was doing the right thing, he just couldn’t help thinking that his parents might feel let down. He didn’t want to upset them, and knew that it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t understand. But they didn’t realise how wrong they were; they thought they were helping, and that’s why they’ll feel let down. Ben couldn’t help feeling guilty, but he knew he had to put his parents out of his mind, however they might be feeling. They could all sit down tomorrow and talk about things properly, without meetings or teachers. But for now, he just had to keep walking.
The pain in his ankle had faded again, but had been replaced by an aching across his shoulders. He didn’t know if he’d packed too much, but the rucksack on his back felt very heavy indeed, and the straps seemed to be trying to pull his shoulders to the ground. Hunched over, he kept walking along the path until he reached a stile. Carefully, wary of his bad ankle, he manoeuvred over the stile (which was a lot more difficult than he thought it was going to be), and jumped down into the next field. He winced with pain as soon as his ankle jolted on the ground, and then continued onwards.
The fields seemed to glow in the golden evening sunshine, as Ben made his way slowly along the footpath between them. There was an autumn breeze blowing, but between gusts he felt the warmth of the sun on his face, and somehow it made him feel better about things. The ground was soft under-foot after the morning rain, but was rapidly being dried out by the late heat. He reached the end of the second field, gingerly clambered over the stile at the end of it, and emerged into the third. As he started walking again, he saw appear in the distance the tops of trees, all across the horizon.
His memory stirred, and he remembered the woods at the end of the fields. He’d been there once with his parents long ago, but although he could just about recall climbing one of the smaller trees, he could remember little else about the woods, and how far they went on for.
The trees were soon in full view. The only thing between Ben and the woods was a large iron gate; the bolt on which was old, rusty, and stiff. But with a bit of force Ben unbolted it, and pulled it open. Closing the gate was even more difficult, but he eventually managed it, dutifully bolting it again before he went on.
Ben looked up at the tall trees in front of him. Half of the leaves were still on the trees, and the other half were now on the ground in front of him, some of which presently tumbled across his feet, carried by a gust of wind. The wood beyond went on for as far as he could see, and a lot further, he guessed. On either side of the path that led into the wood were two large Weeping Ash trees with long drooping branches that hung lazily from the hidden trunk. They seemed to Ben to be the guardians of the wood, and he wondered if they would let him pass. The leaves on the long, flowing branches blew gently in the breeze, and it seemed they were gently ushering him through, into the wood.
Ben began down the path that led past the Weeping Ash trees, and into the wood. He immediately noticed that it became a lot darker as the tree-tops enclosed above him. And the smell of the air changed too – it was fresh, damp, and slightly spicy. The path through the wood was not straight, but wound this way and that; not only sideways, but sloping up and down as well. It would barely be wide enough for two people walking side by side, and much of it was covered by dry, fallen leaves. Ben also had to be careful where he trod because every so often the roots of a tree would be sticking out above ground, just waiting to trip someone up.
It was quiet in the woods, which made every single sound that could be heard very clear. The loudest noise was made by Ben’s feet. With each step there was a light thud accompanied by the slight rustling of leaves. When the occasional gust of wind came, it would whistle through the tops of the trees, and every so often Ben would hear a bird chirping somewhere above him. There were no other sounds that he could hear, which meant that he was alone in the wood, thank goodness. Ben looked at his watch: it was a quarter to seven. He would carry on until it got completely dark, he thought, and then stop to rest for the night.
Ben continued down the path which veered to the left for a few paces, then turned back to the right, and then turned back again where it split off into two directions. He stopped as he decided whether to take the left, or the right path. He couldn’t see very far either way, as the trees and bushes blocked his view. But he decided in the end that it really didn’t make any difference which way he went, so he went left for no particular reason. On he strode, stepping over a tree-trunk that had fallen across the path some time ago, it seemed, and carried on for a while until the path split again.
This junction seemed very similar to the last one. He wasn’t going in circles, was he? No, surely he couldn’t be. This time he went right, just to make sure, and continued until he saw a huge fallen tree-trunk by the side of the path. As he walked up to the trunk, he saw that it had a large chunk missing that looked like it had been cut out deliberately, because it made a perfect seat. Thinking this was too good an opportunity to miss, Ben took off his heavy rucksack and sat down in the fallen tree-trunk.
Then he realised something: he was really hungry. He took out one of the tins of tuna and his fork, and began his makeshift dinner. For some reason the tuna tasted a lot better than he thought it would, and Ben quickly finished it. Still hungry, he took out a Penguin bar and ate that too. He decided that chocolate and tuna don’t really go very well together, but right now he didn’t care too much about that. He finished off the meal with a few swigs of blackcurrent, and then began to stuff the left-over things back into his bag. As he did so he heard a crack from somewhere behind him.
Ben froze, and first of all wondered if he’d imagined the sound. No, he hadn’t, because now he could definitely hear the light thudding and rustling of footsteps. The sound was getting louder, and it appeared to Ben that whoever or whatever was making the sound was getting closer. He sat there, hoping that he wouldn’t be noticed. Maybe it was one of his parents searching for him; or perhaps it was a teacher walking their dog. If it was, he would have no idea how he’d explain what he was doing there. Just as long as it wasn’t Nick or Gabriel. He’d be done for if it was them, there would be no escape: he was miles away from home and would never out-run them with his rucksack on his back. He would really get it. He just hoped it was someone he’d never seen before, who would take absolutely no notice of him.
The sound of the thud and rustle of footsteps got ever closer, and still Ben was frozen to his seat in the tree-trunk. Moments later, though, the waiting was over, as Ben saw the figure of a person in the corner of his eye, walking along the path in front of him. The figure stopped as it saw him. The first thing he noticed was the skirt and tights: it was a girl. As he looked up he realised the girl was wearing a Bundringham School sweatshirt. Then he looked up further, and after a split second, recognised the girl in front of him. It was Jasmine Adams.
Ben didn’t know what to do, but he automatically gave a little wave with his right hand and said, ‘Hi.’

‘Hi,’ Jasmine quickly replied. She knew she shouldn’t have stopped walking. In fact, she knew that going into the woods in the first place had been a bad idea. Her shoes were covered in mud, she’d almost been sent flying when she tripped on a stupid tree-root, and now this! The only reason she’d gone this way was because she was sure that she wouldn’t see anyone she knew in the woods. But now she had, and not only had she seen someone from school, but she’d stopped, and even said hi to him. She looked at the boy in front of her. She recognised him, but wasn’t sure if he was in her year. She certainly didn’t know his name.
‘What are you doing here?’ Ben asked.
Then Jasmine remembered. It was the weird kid in her year who’d been staring at her this morning in the hall. This was the kid who was always wandering around on his own and talking to himself. Why was he trying to talk to her? And why on earth was he sitting in a tree?
‘Do I know you?’ said Jasmine, pretending not to recognise Ben at all.
‘I’m Ben. I’m in your year at school.’
She looked back at him, thinking how pathetic he looked, sat there in the tree. ‘Oh, yeah. Right,’ she replied.
Jasmine looked down at her fingernails, not knowing what to say. All she knew was that she wanted this unfortunate conversation to end as quick as possible.
‘What are you doing here?’ Ben asked innocently. ‘On your own, I mean.’
Jasmine replied, ‘I’m…I’ve gotta go…see ya.’ And as she said this, she turned her back on Ben and disappeared through the trees.
Ben was left alone again, with only the trees for company. It then suddenly dawned on him what a strange situation it had just been. What was a girl like Jasmine doing wandering around in the gloomy woods all on her own? What was weirder, though, was the fact that in the same day he’d spoken to both Nikki O’Connor and Jasmine Adams! Both, as far as he could remember, for the first time ever. This was turning out to be one of the most eventful days since Lewis had left for Canada.
Seeing nor hearing no sign of Jasmine, Ben picked up his rucksack and began on his way again. He looked at his watch: six minutes to seven. It really was quite dark now under the trees, and he began to look forward to reaching the end of the wood, and hopefully finding open fields again. He carried on down the twisting path, occasionally brushing aside the odd bramble with his sleeve, or ducking underneath low branches across the path. He couldn’t help thinking again about his parents, and what they must be thinking. They would definitely have read the note by now, and would probably be worried sick, but also really angry. He felt almost as worried about seeing his parents again as he did about seeing Nick or Gabriel. At least his parents weren’t going to try to kill him though.
Now all Ben could think about was the different ways in which Nick and Gabriel would try and kill him. Would it be quick, like with a gun or something, or would they want to torture him slowly? Maybe they would tie him to a tree and leave him to starve to death. He might not have to wait too long to find out because as he was thinking these things he heard more thudding and rustling of footsteps.
Ben peered through the trees in front of him and realised that he could see a figure moving in the distance. Without thinking, he took a few more steps closer to get a better look. It was Jasmine again. She’s probably lost, Ben thought. As he watched, Jasmine was making her way quickly through the trees, occasionally looking back behind her. Why was she going so fast? She was almost jogging, and nearly stumbling too. Through sheer curiosity, Ben moved in Jasmine’s direction. As he walked slowly forward, he saw two large, dark figures hurry past where Jasmine had just been.
Ben stopped where he was. Again, questions started flying around in his head. Were they following her? Is that why she kept turning around? Was she running away? Ben wondered if he really had seen what he thought he just had. He had to stop and think, because he’d never seen anything like this before. Was he jumping to all the wrong conclusions? And who were those people following her? They were definitely men alright, and big men too. But were they really following her?
What should he do?
What he really wanted was to turn around and walk in the other direction, as fast as he could. He’d spent his whole life trying to avoid situations like this. But his curiosity took over, and Ben found himself slowly creeping towards where the men had hurried passed.
It seemed he had decided to follow them.

Chapter Ten

Ben quickly joined the path that he thought he’d seen the two men go down. Soon enough, he saw them in the distance, dressed in dark clothes, and hunched over as they skipped along. They were darting between trees and bushes, almost running now. Ben started to jog, and the pain returned to his ankle. He listened for any sound of Jasmine, but heard none; he hadn’t seen her since she first rushed passed him. The two figures were just about visible in the distance, as Ben jogged down the winding path, trying to make as little sound as possible. But they quickly vanished out of sight again.
Ben quickened his pace, and didn’t care so much about the noise his feet were making on the leaf-covered path. If he’d paused for a second to think what would happen if the two dark figures had stopped and come after him instead, then he probably would’ve turned back already. But he wasn’t thinking. He was just running, and waiting to see what was going to happen. He soon saw a clearing of trees, slowly emerging in the distance. But just before Ben got there, he stopped.
He could see it clearly. In the middle of the clearing, Jasmine had stopped and was stood backed up against a large Oak tree. Her shoulders were heaving as she tried to catch her breath. Ben peered out from the large bush he was hiding behind, and saw the two dark figures slowly approach her.
At this point, Ben suddenly thought that perhaps Jasmine knew these people, and that maybe they were just chasing her for a joke. He’d heard a rumour from Mike last term that Jasmine had a twenty-year-old boyfriend; perhaps one of the men was him. Still curious, Ben continued to watch from behind his bush, trying to make out what was going on through the gloom.
Suddenly, Jasmine sprang away from the tree, but one of the large figures grabbed her arm, and pushed her firmly back up against it. Ben immediately decided that these were no friends of hers, and this was no joke. She was really in trouble; and this realisation left Ben flooded with fear again, just as he had been earlier that day. OK, so it wasn’t his life that was in danger this time, but should anything happen to Jasmine, he’d have to go through the rest of his life knowing that he could have done something to help her.
So that’s what he had to do: something to help Jasmine. But what on earth could he do to help her? He didn’t have a mobile phone to call anyone (his parents didn’t believe in mobiles). He wasn’t exactly going to be able to scare them off: they’d just laugh at him. This was really bad, he thought. He couldn’t remember ever feeling as helpless as he did now. What would Lewis have done, Ben wondered? He always seemed to know what to do in these sorts of situations. Ben remembered one time when he and Lewis had been walking along with their bikes when some older boy ran up and grabbed Lewis’s bike right out of his hands; but Lewis had immediately grabbed a stick that was lying on the ground, thrown it at the bike, and it’d caught in the spokes, jamming the wheel, and thrown the bike-thief right over the handle-bars.
Ben wished Lewis was with him now.
Then he had an idea, which, at first, seemed ridiculous, but was really the only thing he could think of.
Ben took the rucksack from his back, opened it, and pulled out his torch. He paused for a second, took a deep breath, then turned the torch on and jumped up from behind the bush. He ran towards the two dark figures, holding his torch in front of him, shining it towards their faces. As he was running he found himself croakily shouting, ‘Haaaaaaa!’
Somehow it worked. The two large men turned to face Ben and immediately shielded their eyes from the light. Ben carried on running towards them. The closer he got to them the more petrified he became, but he didn’t stop. He was only a matter of yards away from them now and still he found himself shouting. The men seemed confused and kept glancing at each other worriedly through their fingers. As Ben came within spitting distance of them, one said to the other in a gruff voice, ‘Leg it!’
In a flash, the men sprung from the clearing and back into the darkness of the trees from where they’d come.
Once the men were out of sight, Ben turned to see Jasmine still leaning against the large Oak tree, her head down, and her arms hanging by her sides.
‘Are you OK?’ Ben asked, out of breath but rather relieved to still be alive
‘Yes, I’m fine…thanks.’ Jasmine said quickly. ‘You can stop shining that bloody thing in my eyes now, y’know.’
‘Oh, yeah, sorry,’ said Ben, as he switched off his torch.
‘What was that “haaaaaaa” all about?’ Jasmine asked as she took her hair band out, and then tied her hair back up again.
‘I dunno,’ Ben replied with a small shrug of his shoulders. ‘I suppose it was the scariest noise I could think of.’
Jasmine rolled hers eyes skywards. ‘They really must have been wusses then,’ she said.
Ben didn’t know if he should stay to see if she was alright, or just go, and leave her alone. He still couldn’t quite believe that he was talking to Jasmine Adams, he felt almost star-struck. Not only that, but he’d just saved her from two, big scary men. Maybe he should just check if she was really OK.
‘Are you really OK?’ Ben asked.
Jasmine groaned as she bent down to pick up her rather large bag.
‘I mean, did you know those people?’
‘Yes,’ Jasmine replied, ‘as a matter of fact, I was about to ask them if they wanted to come over to my place for tea after they’re done assaulting me.’
Ben thought about this for a second, then decided that she probably wasn’t being serious.
‘So you didn’t know them then,’ he said.
‘Oh my god,’ Jasmine groaned, ‘are you always this annoying?’
‘I’m just asking if you’re OK,’ Ben said.
‘And as I said, I’m fine,’ said Jasmine. ‘I’m glad you scared them off and everything, god knows how, but I would appreciate it if you would just point me in the direction of town so I can get out of this bloody place.’
‘It’s that way,’ Ben said, pointing back into the woods, in the same direction the two men had just gone.
‘Shit,’ said Jasmine, slouching her shoulders so that her bag slipped down her arm. ‘That’s just my luck. I can’t go back that way; what if those pigs are still out there? Oh, this is just the worst day of my life. It doesn’t get any worse than this.’
‘Why don’t you just go back another way?’ Ben suggested, trying to be helpful.
‘Oh yeah, great, I’ll just go another way! What a great idea! I’ll just forget about the fact that I’ve been lost in this damn place for nearly two hours, and that there are two guys somewhere out there who probably want to kill me! Find another way – good plan!’
‘Sorry,’ Ben said, feeling more than a little embarrassed, ‘I’m only trying to help.’
‘Look, the only way you can help, Tom, is if you….’
‘It’s Ben.’
‘Ben. Whatever. The only way you can help, is if you could somehow magically…beam me out of here.’
There was a brief silence, broken only by the sound of a bird chirping somewhere above them.
‘I don’t really think I can do that,’ said Ben. ‘But I don’t know where I’m going either. I was going to head in that direction until I get out of the woods,’ he said, nodding in the opposite direction to where the two men had run. ‘You can come with me, if you want. You don’t have to, but if you wanted to I wouldn’t mind, I mean.’ Ben blushed slightly as he said this. He felt like he’d just asked her out on a date, and the thought of asking Jasmine Adams to do anything with him seemed completely ridiculous.
Jasmine sighed, looked at her watch, then up at the sky, and then replied, ‘No, look, thanks for the offer and all, but I really don’t want any company right now. I’ll be fine. I’ll get out of here eventually.’
‘OK,’ said Ben, ‘See you then.’ And with that, Ben turned away from Jasmine, and headed back towards the trees again, continuing northwards, away from his home.
Jasmine closed her eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and then began to walk back into the woods, heading south, back towards town. She still felt a bit shaken up after the two men had attacked her. Going into the woods on her own was one of the worst ideas she’d ever had. Not only had she been spotted by that weird kid from her year, but she’d also been physically threatened by two big, horrible men. She tried to look on the bright side: at least she was OK, she thought, and had managed to get rid of that annoying kid, who seemed like he’d never leave her alone.
Now all she had to do was just get out of this place, as quick as she could, and then try to find a place to stop for the night. Were they still out there, though, waiting for her? She looked out at all the trees in front of her and realised they could be hiding behind any one of them. She couldn’t shift the thought of the two men from her mind. Every couple of steps she took, she looked behind to check she wasn’t being followed. She continued on, going quicker all the time, when suddenly she heard a crack of a branch that seemed to come from the path ahead. Then a rustling of leaves. That was it. She wasn’t going to hang around to wait and see who that might be. She turned, and ran back towards the clearing.
There was no way she could continue on her own this way, it was way too dangerous. What if those guys wanted to do more than just steal her bag? It wasn’t worth the risk. She came to the clearing and saw the figure of Ben through the gloom amongst the trees. She couldn’t quite believe what she was about to do.

Ben wasn’t at all surprised that Jasmine had decided to go on her own. In fact, he felt a bit stupid even suggesting that she might carry on with him. It was a crazy idea; she wouldn’t be seen dead with someone like him, not in a million years. And she obviously had enough of her own troubles to think about.
Anyway, enough about Jasmine Adams, he had to continue on with his plan. It was so dark now that he could only see clearly for a yard or two in front of him, so he decided to switch his torch on permanently. The end of the woods must be pretty close, he thought, and once he got there he would find a safe, sheltered spot were he could lay his sleeping bag down and try to get some sleep.
As the thought of sleep played on his mind, Ben began to hear footsteps behind him.
He couldn’t believe his eyes when he turned round to see Jasmine standing there, in the torchlight.
‘Hi,’ said Ben, not hiding his surprise.
‘Would you stop shining that thing in my face, for god’s sake…’ said Jasmine.
‘Sorry,’ said Ben, pointing his torch down to the ground. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘I really don’t know,’ Jasmine replied. ‘But it’s not safe back that way. They’re still out there, those…guys. Look, I would appreciate it if you could just show me the way out of this place. Please. Then I can get back to town. And then I’ll leave you alone. I promise.’
Ben looked at her, standing there with mud on her shoes, her hair all dishevelled, and a look of pained desperation on her face. He smiled, and said, ‘Sure. It’s this way, I think.’
They began walking again, along the path, in the ever-darkening gloom.
‘Did you see those men again?’ Ben asked.
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Did they hurt you?’
‘Jeeze, I said I didn’t want to talk about it.’
Ben and Jasmine walked on through the wood without saying much to each other. Every few minutes, however, Jasmine would ask if they were nearly out of the wood yet. Ben just shrugged his shoulders every time, casually adding ‘I dunno’. They followed the torchlight along the seemingly endless winding paths, through trees, bushes, brambles, over logs, and under branches. It was nearly nine o’clock before they finally saw a road, through the trees ahead. It turned out to be just a farm road, probably only used by tractors. Across the road were fields for as far as the torchlight would show.
‘Here we are then,’ said Ben.
‘About time too,’ said Jasmine. ‘I’m never stepping foot in a wood again. Ever.’
‘Hmm,’ agreed Ben, and smiled.
‘So, how do I get back to town then?’ Jasmine asked, as she carefully removed a small twig from her hair.
Ben shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.
‘What?’ said Jasmine, seeming quite alarmed. ‘But you said you were going to lead me back to town. What, were you lying or something?’
‘No,’ Ben replied, ‘you said to get you out of the wood, and I did, we’re out. You didn’t say anything about going back to town.’
‘Oh, I don’t believe this,’ said Jasmine. ‘This is perfect. Can this day get any worse? What am I going to do? What am I going to do?’ she repeated, looking all around as she did so, as if the answer to all her problems might actually be in sight.
‘I don’t know,’ said Ben. ‘Where do you live? Maybe I could help you get back home.’
Jasmine sighed and groaned at the same time. ‘I don’t want to go back home. And don’t ask why.’
Ben was about to ask why, but thought better of it. ‘So where do you want to go?’ he asked instead.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Just somewhere away from anyone else.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Ben replied.
‘Look, how many times do I have to tell you that I don’t want to tell you anything, so just stop asking, OK?’
Ben thought about this for a moment.
‘No, I don’t mean tell me about it,’ he replied. ‘I meant that I know what you mean.’
‘Trust me, you don’t know what I mean,’ said Jasmine, ‘You have no idea.’
‘I think I do,’ he said. ‘I can’t go home either.’
‘And it’s dark now as well,’ Jasmine continued, ignoring him. ‘This is perfect. My whole plan is ruined.’
‘What plan?’ Ben asked.
‘Right, that’s it, I’m going,’ she announced. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing hanging around a nosey…weirdo like you. I’m off.’
‘OK, bye,’ said Ben, who was a little confused.
With a dramatic sigh, Jasmine span around and began walking along the farm road. After a few steps, she turned round again, and marched purposefully back.
‘If you think you can just send me off in the dark all on my own again, then you must be one of the stupidest, most inconsiderate boys I know,’ she said.
‘Sorry,’ replied Ben, ‘you don’t have to go.’
‘Look…well…I.. what are you going to do?’ Jasmine asked. ‘Where are you going?’
Ben couldn’t believe that Jasmine Adams had just asked him what he was doing! ‘I was actually going to stay here for the night. You know, find somewhere sheltered and hidden, and try to get some sleep.’
‘Right. Fine. Let’s do that then…if we have to. I suppose there’s no choice, is there,’ said Jasmine.
Ben couldn’t quite believe what he’d just heard. Did he just imagine it, or did Jasmine Adams just agree to spend the night with him? He’d never felt so excited in his life! But he tried to act normal, and just play it cool (not that he’d ever played anything cool ever before).
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Cool.’ And just shrugged his shoulders.

Jasmine followed Ben across the mud-road and into a field. If going into the woods was a bad idea, she thought, then following this annoying little weird kid could be even worse. But she knew she didn’t have a choice. This kid was the only thing to protect her from whatever, or whoever was in the woods. It may be humiliating, but she had to stay with him, she couldn’t go on alone. How could she when she didn’t even know where on earth she was!? What a day.
She came to the end of the field, where Ben had stopped. In front of them was a large bush where two fields met, and beyond the bush was a tall tree with overhanging branches.
‘This will be a good place,’ Ben said, pointing to the gap between the bush and the tree. ‘Enough room for both of us, and we’ll be hidden, and sheltered if it rains.’
‘It’d better bloody not rain,’ said Jasmine, giving the sky a threatening glance.
‘I don’t think it will, not tonight,’ said Ben. He was about to explain why, but thought better of it. ‘Is your sleeping bag in there?’ he asked, pointing to Jasmine’s large bag.
‘Sleeping bag? No, do I need one?’ she asked.
‘Well, I’ve got one,’ said Ben.
‘Oh god, I’m gonna freeze, aren’t I?’
‘Nah, it’s OK, you can have mine. I’ve got my coat,’ said Ben.
‘Is that OK? Are you sure?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, I’ll be warm enough,’ he said.
‘Thank you. That’s twice you’ve saved my life today,’ said Jasmine, with half a smile.
Ben smiled back and gave her the sleeping bag.
In a short while they were both lying down, facing away from each other, trying to forget the day’s events.
‘Why are you here again?’ Ben asked once more.
‘I really don’t want to talk about it,’ said Jasmine sleepily. ‘What about you? You haven’t told me what you’re doing. ‘
‘I don’t really want to say either,’ said Ben. ‘It’s a bit embarrassing.’
There was a long silence, and not a sound could be heard for miles; all was peaceful and still, for the first time that day.
‘Good night,’ said Ben.
But Jasmine was already asleep.

Chapter Eleven

Ben was asleep, dreaming.
He found himself standing on a railway line in the middle of nowhere. He could see for miles around him: fields, paths, and trees. Looking along the track, he saw, in the distance, a train coming towards him. Calmly, he decided to step off, but for some reason he couldn’t. He could move his arms and his head, but not his legs, they were frozen stiff. The train was approaching. Ben furiously tried to shake his legs into action. He twisted his body and swung his arms, but he could not get off the track. The train was getting ever closer, and started to let out a shrill whistle. Still Ben tried desperately to get off the track, but whatever he tried he just couldn’t move. The whistle of the train got louder and louder, as the train got closer and closer. The ground beneath Ben’s feet began to tremble. Soon the whistle was so loud that it was screaming. The train was just yards away. Then the sound changed slightly, and the screaming sounded different. The train was right in front of him, and Ben just closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable. But instead, he suddenly awoke.
The screaming, however, hadn’t stopped. Ben turned round and saw that it was coming from the girl lying nearby. Then he remembered: Jasmine.
He leaned over and lightly shook her until she stopped screaming. Then she too woke up.
‘Are you OK?’ said Ben, sleepily.
Jasmine looked around, seemingly confused.
‘What?’ she said, still half asleep. ‘What’s going on?’
‘You were screaming. Was it a nightmare?’ Ben asked.
Jasmine sat up and rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands. ‘Leave me alone,’ she said.
Ben decided to leave her to wake up properly. He lay back down on the ground, and tried to remember exactly why he was there. His side hurt. It hadn’t been at all comfortable, sleeping on the ground, and now it was tricky to find a position to lie in that wasn’t painful.
He slowly recalled the events of yesterday: the ruler; Nick and Gabriel; his ankle; and the meeting with the head teacher. With these thoughts, Ben began to feel the churning again in the pit of his stomach, as it dawned on him again what trouble he was in. He rolled onto his front and buried his head in the grass. Yesterday, he’d thought that he might feel better after having a night’s sleep; but he didn’t. He looked over at Jasmine. He still couldn’t believe that the girl next to him was Jasmine Adams. She was lying down as well, staring at the clouds in the sky. Ben rolled over again, and closed his eyes.

Jasmine looked over, and saw that the kid she was with had gone to sleep again. She felt very strange. She was still trying to convince herself that the dream she’d had about the two men coming back was just a dream. It still seemed very real, and she couldn’t forget it. A shiver ran through her side as she lay there. At least she wouldn’t be asked any more questions about it, now that the boy was asleep again. She decided that the best thing to do would be to get up, get changed, and try to forget about yesterday.
She was right; she did feel better once she’d changed out of her uniform, brushed her hair, and began to put some make-up on. The sun was shining now as well, which made everything seem a little better. The fields looked greener, and the leaves on the trees glistened in the light. Whatever happens, she thought, today has to be better than yesterday.

Ben opened his eyes, and immediately saw that Jasmine was up, and that she’d changed, and was now very carefully putting on some sort of make-up. He watched as she finished doing what she was doing, and sat down on his rolled-up sleeping bag as she put her make-up back in her bag. Then she looked over at him.
‘Good morning,’ she said.
Ben was struck by how cheerful she sounded, he certainly didn’t expect it.
‘Morning,’ he replied.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve got anything to eat, have you?’ she asked.
‘Yep,’ said Ben, sitting up. ‘I’ve got crisps, Penguin bars, and tuna.’
‘Tuna?’ said Jasmine, scrunching up her nose.
‘Can I have a Penguin, please?’
‘Yep,’ said Ben, passing her one, and taking one for himself.
‘Hmmm,’ she said with her first bite. ‘You can’t beat a Penguin first thing in the morning!’
They both smiled as they finished off the chocolate bars.
‘So tell me, Ben,’ said Jasmine, ‘what are you doing here? You’re missing school, you know.’
Ben looked at his watch. Nine twenty-four. It was true, he was missing school. He felt nervous just thinking about it. He tried to forget it, along with all the other thoughts that were at all school-related.
‘I don’t want to say,’ he said, looking at the ground. ‘It’s kind of embarrassing.’
‘Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad,’ said Jasmine. ‘Did you forget to do your homework or something?’
Ben didn’t find this funny. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I…had a meeting to go to.’
‘A meeting?’
‘Yeah, with my parents and the head teacher.’
‘Whoa!’ said Jasmine. ‘You meeting the head teacher, come on, I’m not going to believe that!’
‘It’s true,’ Ben replied. ‘But I can’t go. No way.’
Jasmine was still grinning, ‘Oh, that’s funny,’ she said. ‘Do you even know where the head teacher’s office is? I doubt he knows who you are, I certainly didn’t.’
Although she was probably right, Ben still found her remark a little hurtful, especially the part about her not knowing who he was. But why should she know who he was? He was pretty much a nobody at school anyway. But hearing her say it sounded worse than when he said it in his own head. He didn’t know what to say in reply, so he just looked down and started to play with the grass in front of him, ripping it out of the ground, and watching it blow in the breeze as he let it fall again.

Jasmine watched as the boy started to mess around with the grass like a baby. Maybe she’d offended him. But so what? She was just thankful that Nikki, Zoë, or Emily weren’t around. If any of them saw her with this sad-act kid she’d never hear the end of it. She really should try and ditch him as quick as she could. Although he had helped her out last night with the two evil men, and let her borrow his sleeping bag. She should at least talk to him a bit, she thought; he looks so helpless and pathetic.
‘OK,’ said Jasmine, eventually. ‘You’ve got a meeting. Why don’t you want to go? What’s the meeting about?’
‘I don’t want to say,’ Ben replied.
‘Oh, come on!’ said Jasmine. ‘OK, let me guess. You don’t think you get enough homework. You have too much free time in the evening, and you want some more homework to do. Is that it? Is it?’
‘No,’ said Ben, ripping out some more grass, and letting it blow away in the wind.
‘You’re finding lessons too easy and you want them to be harder. Is that it?’
‘Shut up,’ mumbled Ben, lying back down again, facing away from her.
Jasmine laughed, but had a feeling that this time she’d really offended him. Oh well, after today she’ll probably never have to speak to him again anyway.
She decided that she should phone Nikki, to see what she was doing after school. Maybe if she told her about the two men from last night then she might get some sympathy out of her. As long as Nikki didn’t find out about Ben. Was that the boy’s name? Yes, she was pretty sure it was. Anyway, she wouldn’t say anything about him to Nikki. No way. Nikki would laugh in her face, and then tell everyone else that she’d been hanging out with him. The thought of it was almost unbearable.
She took her phone out of her bag. It seemed that the boy was asleep again, or just ignoring her. She dialled Nikki’s number and waited for a reply. But there was nothing. Maybe she’s in a lesson. In that case she’d have to leave a message, or maybe text her. She waited for the answer machine but there was still no sound. Then she looked at her phone and as she did so, just caught a glimpse of the ‘low battery’ signal before the phone switched itself off.
Jasmine gasped when she realised what had happened. Then it dawned on her: she was in the middle of nowhere, miles away from home, with a complete stranger (well, some kid from school), had no food, only one change of clothes, and now, to top it all off, her battery was flat. With her head in her hands, Jasmine tried to think of how her situation could be any worse, but she was struggling. She felt lost without her phone. She was completely alone for the first time since her thirteenth birthday when her parents had bought her first mobile. Ever since that day there had always been someone she could call or text if she wanted to. Now she had no one. She was totally stranded.
Jasmine shivered as a cold breeze blew, and noticed that the sun was no longer shining but was now hidden by a great chunk of cloud. She let out a long, deflated sigh.

‘What’s wrong?’ Ben asked. He thought it would be best to say something to her, despite the risk of just being insulted some more. At least she wasn’t ignoring him like she did at school, he thought. At least she was talking to him, even if it was just to take the mickey out of him.
‘My phone’s battery just died on me,’ Jasmine replied, in a voice that suggested her entire family had just died.
‘Oh. So?’ said Ben, not quite grasping the seriousness of the situation.
‘What do you mean “so”?’ she exclaimed. ‘It’s a big bloody deal. I can’t call anyone to let them know where I am. Not that I even know where the hell I am. Oh, god. Look, can I just borrow yours, please?’
‘I don’t have a phone,’ said Ben.
Jasmine looked at Ben with a bewildered look on her face. ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Really? No, you’re lying, right? You must have one.’
‘But everyone’s got one,’ she said.
‘Not me,’ said Ben, now feeling a little embarrassed.
Jasmine looked up to the sky, and then off into the distance, muttering, ‘I don’t believe it.’
Ben didn’t understand why Jasmine seemed so upset that her phone battery had run out. But then he didn’t really know what it was like to have your phone battery run out.
‘You could just look for a public phone box,’ Ben suggested, trying to be helpful.
‘Oh, you just don’t get it, do you.’ Jasmine replied, shaking her head. ‘Never mind.’ And with that she stood up and walked over to the tree, leant against it, and started to stroke her hair (she did this when she got stressed about things).
Ben thought it best not to mention her phone again, it seemed it was too painful for Jasmine to talk about. He tried to think of a way to change the subject.
‘So,’ he said, ‘you still haven’t told me why you’re here.’
‘I know,’ she said with her back turned to Ben.
‘Well, I told you why I was here. It’s only fair you do as well.’
With a roll of her eyes, and a swish of her hair, Jasmine turned round to face Ben again. She had a stern look on her face. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘I had an argument with my parents, and I’m not going back until they give me some respect,’ she explained. ‘End of story.’
‘Oh,’ said Ben. ‘But that doesn’t really explain why – ’
‘I said: end of story.’
‘Oh, OK,’ said Ben. ‘What are you going to do then?’
Jasmine let out another long sigh and looked skywards again. ‘I really don’t know,’ she said. ‘But I’m not going home. Not until they’re prepared to listen.’
‘Sounds pretty bad,’ said Ben. ‘You think they’ll start to listen just because you’ve been away for one day?’
‘Jeeze, thanks!’ Jasmine wailed.
‘Sorry, I was just saying...’
‘What about you?’ asked Jasmine. ‘You think that just being here today that you’ll never have to go to this meeting, or whatever it is. Don’t you think they’ll just re-arrange it for another day?’
Ben thought about what she’d just said for a second, then suddenly felt very stupid. He hadn’t thought of that. In all his excitement with his plan, he’d never considered that his parents could just arrange a meeting on another day, or on any day for that matter.
‘No. I didn’t really think of that,’ he said sheepishly.
‘Nice one,’ said Jasmine. ‘And you’re supposed to be the clever one.’
‘Not really,’ Ben replied. And then there was silence again. Ben had a knack of ending conversations. He didn’t know how he did it, but it just seemed to happen whenever he said something like that.
‘This is so stupid,’ said Jasmine, finally. ‘We’re both stuck out here, with no food, no friends, and no phone. And we’re missing school. I don’t know what I’m doing here, this is just so stupid.’
‘I know,’ Ben agreed. ‘But I don’t want to go back either,’ he said, biting on his bottom lip. ‘No way.’
He wished, deep down, that he could go back. Back home to his warm, comfortable room. He wished he could just lie down on his bed and read, or something, even just talk to his mum and dad again. But he couldn’t.
‘Maybe I should just head home,’ Jasmine said to herself. She pondered on this thought for a second.
‘If you want to go back, then just go,’ said Ben suddenly.
‘I do,’ Jasmine replied. ‘But I can’t. I don’t know where my friends will be; I can’t go near school in case a teacher sees me; and there’s no way I’m going back home. And I’m really, really hungry. Do you have any of those chocolate bars? Or some raisins perhaps?’
‘Raisins?’ asked Ben, wondering if he’d heard right.
‘No, but I’ve got some crisps.’
‘What flavour?’ asked Jasmine.
‘Cheese and onion.’
‘Oh, I do have some tuna left,’ said Ben, reaching into his bag.
‘Nah, no thanks,’ said Jasmine, clearly disappointed.
Again there was silence as the two of them sat there, without a clue what to do. Ben tried to think of what Jasmine wanted. He had a feeling that she was getting annoyed with him, and that she’d want to get rid of him and be on her own. But then, on the other hand, perhaps she wanted his help. It seemed that she didn’t have anyone else to help her. Then something else occurred to him.
‘We must be quite near to Tidsbury,’ he said.
‘Tidsbury?’ said Jasmine, not knowing what he was on about.
‘Yeah, the village Tidsbury. It’s around here somewhere, probably just over those fields.’
‘So what?’
‘There’s bound to be a shop there,’ Ben explained. ‘We could get some food, and a drink, and decide what to do. It can’t be that far.’
‘But it means going further away from home,’ said Jasmine.
‘You want to go back that way?’ Ben asked, looking back towards the woods.
‘No, I suppose not,’ Jasmine replied with a helpless expression on her face.
‘Fine,’ she said, ‘let’s go and get some food, I’m starving. It’s not too far, is it?’
‘No, it shouldn’t be,’ said Ben. ‘I’ve only been there a couple of times, but I think we’re pretty close.’
‘Come on then,’ she said. ‘It’s gotta be better than going home.’
‘OK,’ said Ben, and he quickly packed up his things.
Soon after, they began walking along the path at the edge of the field.
‘You’d better not tell anyone at school about this,’ said Jasmine.
Ben smiled. ‘I won’t,’ he said.

Chapter Twelve

As Ben and Jasmine walked along the edge of the field, the sun broke out from behind a cloud, and they felt the warmth on their faces again. But before long the cool breeze quickly blew another cloud across, blocking out the sun, and a chill was once more in the air.
‘It’s Ben, isn’t it?’ Jasmine suddenly asked.
‘Yep,’ Ben replied.
‘What’s your surname?’
‘Oh, so you’re the one they call Smelly.’
‘Thanks for reminding me,’ said Ben glumly.
‘That must be really annoying,’ said Jasmine.
‘Oh well, sticks and stones…’
Ben didn’t reply.
‘I’m Jasmine Adams.’
‘I know,’ Ben replied.
‘Yeah, everyone knows who you are.’
‘Oh,’ replied Jasmine, smiling with surprise, and feeling quite proud of her popularity.
‘Do you always wear those glasses?’ she asked.
‘Well, I only need them for reading actually,’ Ben replied. ‘But I just like wearing them.’ He didn’t mention that he actually wore them because Clark Kent did.
‘Take them off a second, I wanna see what you look like without them.’
‘OK,’ said Ben taking off his glasses. ‘Well?’
‘Actually, you probably look better with them on,’ said Jasmine.
‘Oh, OK,’ he said, and he put his glasses back on.
‘So how far away from this village are we then?’ she asked.
‘Well, these fields probably go on for a while, then when we find a road there should be a signpost to it somewhere.’ Ben replied.
‘How long’s it gonna take?’ asked Jasmine.
‘Dunno. Not too long, I reckon,’ replied Ben as he kicked a large, round, grey stone. The stone rolled ahead of him, and as he reached it again, he kicked it again. Ben wondered how long he could keep kicking this stone along for. If his kicks were good and straight then he could go for ages, he thought. Maybe even all the way to Tidsbury. Again he approached the stone, and kicked it carefully with the side of his shoe. The kick looked good, but just before it stopped it veered to Jasmine’s side of the path. Ben watched as Jasmine approached the stone, hoping she would kick it back, but she just ignored it, and Ben’s idea was ruined. He thought about going back for the stone, but didn’t think Jasmine would be too impressed. Anyway, she was far to eager to get to the village, and Ben thought it best to try and concentrate on remembering how to get there.
They reached the end of another field, and stopped at the stile in front of them. Jasmine asked Ben what it was.
‘It’s a stile,’ Ben said.
‘Style? Doesn’t look very stylish.’
‘No, a stile with an “i.”’
‘Oh. How does it open?’
‘It doesn’t,’ said Ben, not quite beliving what he was hearing. ‘You climb over it like this,’ he said slowly climbing over.
‘Well that doesn’t look easy. Is there another way around?’
‘No. It’s really easy, I promise.’
‘OK, but if I fall and break my neck then it’s your fault.’
‘OK,’ said Ben.
‘Can you take this?’ asked Jasmine, passing her bag over to Ben. ‘Right, here we go.’
Jasmine slowly and carefully got herself up onto the first step of the stile, and stopped.
‘What do I do now?’ she asked, flicking her hair away from her face.
‘You just…climb over. It really is easy,’ said Ben.
‘To you maybe,’ muttered Jasmine under her breath. She delicately climbed over the stile, and onto the step on the other side. Ben put his hand out to help her down, but Jasmine dismissed it.
‘I’m alright, I’m doing it,’ she said.
Ben waited as Jasmine slowly climbed down into the field.
‘I did it!’ said Jasmine excitedly, giving herself a little clap. ‘Told you I would!’
‘Yes,’ Ben replied. ‘Well done.’ And on they went across the field.
They walked in silence for a while, until Jasmine suddenly asked, ‘Do you actually like school?’
Ben thought for a second about this question. His immediate reaction was to say no, but he knew if he said this then Jasmine would ask why, and he really didn’t want to have to answer that.
‘It’s alright,’ said Ben.
‘Is that it?’ replied Jasmine. ‘I love school, I think it’s great. Well, except for the lessons.’
‘I like the lessons,’ Ben said, ‘they’re the interesting part. Y’know…they’re cool.’
‘I find them totally boring, most of them. I like PE though, and history, but the rest are rubbish, especially chemistry. I can’t deal with all those chemicals and formulas. No thank you.’
‘I suppose they can be a bit boring sometimes,’ said Ben, just trying to agree with her.
‘So why don’t you like school?’ Jasmine asked.
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘No, not exactly – but the way you said it made it sound like you did.’
‘Nah, it’s OK,’ replied Ben, hoping this conversation was going to end soon.
‘Oh god, here comes another one of those stile things,’ said Jasmine.
The next stile Jasmine managed to overcome with a little less difficulty, but with the same drama as before. They walked through the next three fields, mostly in silence, only interrupted by Jasmine asking how far they were from the village. Ben didn’t know.
As they gazed towards the end of the fifth field, they saw a row of tall trees.
‘Do you think it’s behind those trees?’ asked Jasmine.
‘Could be,’ Ben replied, doubtfully.
Moments later, they reached the trees and discovered a road on the other side. To their right, in the distance, they saw what Ben thought was a signpost, so they began walking that way along the road, towards the sign.
Either side of the road was a row of trees that enclosed above them as if a tunnel had been dug through the wood. This meant that it was darker along the road, and the air was cool and still. They saw no other signs of life: no houses, no cars, no dogs, nothing. There weren’t even any markings on the road itself.
‘This better tell us where to go,’ said Jasmine, as they approached the signpost. ‘I’m seriously hungry now.’
Ben squinted through his glasses, trying to read the signpost ahead of him, but it seemed that Jasmine was the first to make out what it said.
‘Oh great,’ she said. ‘That’s just great.’
‘What does it say?’ Ben asked.
‘Please drive carefully,’ Jasmine replied. ‘Please drive bloody carefully, I don’t believe it! I thought you said there’d be a signpost!’
‘I thought there was. I thought this was it,’ said Ben, looking confused, and feeling a little embarrassed.
‘Well that’s terrific, isn’t it. Now we’re lost again, we’re even further from home, and I’m dying of starvation!’
‘Sorry,’ said Ben, ‘I really thought we’d see a sign. Maybe there’s one further on.’
‘How much further? We can’t carry on all day, we’re lost enough as it is, and I still can’t believe my battery ran out!’ said Jasmine, stamping her foot on the concrete.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Ben again, ‘but I think we must be pretty close, I do kind of recognise this road.’
‘No you don’t,’ said Jasmine, ‘you’re just saying that to make me feel better.’
It was true, Ben didn’t recognise the road at all.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘there’s no point waiting around here.’ And on they went along the road.
They’d been walking for about a hundred yards or so when Jasmine asked, ‘What’s it like getting everything right all the time? School must be pretty easy for you.’
‘What makes you think I’m so clever?’ said Ben, who was quite surprised considering Jasmine had only this morning said that she didn’t even know who he was.
‘Cos I know your type. I know that every time a teacher asks you a question you get it right. I know the type of people you hang out with.’
‘Do you?’
‘Yeah, and that reminds me, what were you doing staring at me in the hall yesterday?’
‘I wasn’t staring,’ said Ben, ‘I was just…looking around.’
‘Never mind,’ said Jasmine smiling and noticing that Ben looked quite embarrassed.
Ben watched Jasmine take something out of her bag: it was her mirror. She began to dab her nose and cheeks with some sort of powder, trying to see every possible angle of herself in the mirror. Ben wondered why on earth she needed to put make-up on: they were on a dark road and hadn’t seen a single other person all day! But still she felt the need to put on make-up – crazy. Then Ben saw something else.
‘Is that a signpost?’ he asked, pointing into the distance, and squinting through his glasses.
‘Hang on,’ said Jasmine as she dabbed a few more times, then shut the mirror. She looked along the road. ‘Err…yes! I think it is! This has to be it.’
‘Can you read it?’ asked Ben.
‘Hang on…it says…welcome…to…’
‘Welcome to what?’
‘Hang on, I said. It’s…err…Tids…bury! That’s it! Tidsbury! That’s the village, isn’t it?’
‘Sure is,’ replied Ben, feeling quite relieved.
‘Thank the lord,’ said Jasmine. ‘Hey, we’re not lost anymore!’
A short distance after the sign, the trees at the side of the road were replaced by small bungalows, and suddenly everything was light again. Each bungalow had its own front lawn. and they were very green, and well pruned, with arranged flowers, and the occasional rock garden. Everything about the place looked neat, tidy, and organised, almost like a model village, Ben thought to himself. On into the village they walked, heading towards the centre in the hope of finding some kind of shop.
Their luck was in, as they soon came across a small coffee shop on the corner of a road.
‘Oh, I’m saved,’ said Jasmine, as she saw the coffee shop, and she began to skip towards the entrance.
Once they were inside, they sat down at a table in the corner (hoping they wouldn’t be noticed) and were soon approached by the waitress who was ready to take their order. The coffee shop was empty but for an elderly couple, sitting by the window, minding their own business.
The waitress was a large, middle-aged woman, wearing a dirty, white polo shirt underneath an even dirtier, saggy old apron. Ben tried not to breathe through his nose as he sat waiting for Jasmine to order some food. He also hoped that the waitress didn’t ask him why he wasn’t at school. Perhaps he should have changed out of his uniform as well as Jasmine, he thought.
Jasmine read the menu as the waitress waited to take her order, but she was finding it difficult to concentrate. She couldn’t stop thinking that she might be recognised, that someone might see her out with Ben, and tell Nikki, or Emily, or even Zoë. If they did, then her social life, as she knew it, would be ruined. She looked back at the menu again, and tried to concentrate on what she was reading. She was extremely hungry.
‘Do you have any raisins?’ she asked.
‘Raisins?’ said the waitress, as if she’d never heard of them.
‘Yeah, y’know the ones in the little red boxes. Have you got any of those?’
‘No, no raisins, sorry, love,’ the waitress replied. ‘You could ‘ave a Chelsea bun, they ‘ave raisins in ‘em.’
‘No thanks,’ said Jasmine. ‘I’ll have…a…ham salad baguette, please, and a…flapjack, and a…coke, please.’
‘OK,’ said the waitress, writing down Jasmine’s order on her notebook. ‘And for you young lad?’
‘A cheese sandwich, and a Fanta please,’ said Ben.
‘OK, that’ll be ready in a few minutes,’ said the waitress, who then shuffled back through the door at the back of the café.
‘What’s the obsession with raisins?’ asked Ben, who couldn’t help grinning.
‘Shut up, I like them, OK?’ protested Jasmine. ‘You know the ones I mean, in the red boxes, right?’
‘Yeah, I know the ones,’ said Ben, still smiling.
Jasmine looked around at the bare white walls and the rickety wooden tables with metal legs. It was like being back at school again, she thought. The smell of the place reminded her of the school canteen as well, and for some reason this made her feel somewhat uneasy, and she wasn’t able to relax. Then she saw, in the corner, an old-looking payphone, and she quickly decided that she should call home. She knew her parents wouldn’t be there, so she’d just leave a message for them. She went over to the phone and put some money into the slot.
She was right, no one was home, so she left a message saying that she was alright, she was with a friend, and that they shouldn’t worry about her. She still felt angry at her parents, but tried not to show it in her voice as she left the message. She hung up the phone, and walked back to the table. As she saw Ben sitting there in his school uniform, she smiled to herself about the thought of him being the friend she was with. It was ridiculous. This kid wasn’t her friend, she’d tried to get rid of him, but they’d just ended up together again. It was quite funny, actually.
As Jasmine sat down again, Ben got up and went over to the phone to call his mum. He’d never been away from home for this long before, without his parents not knowing. He didn’t know how they’d react and he was nervous just thinking about it. He put some money in and dialled the number.
It was ringing.
‘Hi Mum,’ said Ben, ‘it’s me.’
‘Benjamin! Where are you? Are you OK?’
‘I’m fine…how are you?’ asked Ben, not really sure what he should say in this sort of situation.
‘I’ve been worried sick! Where are you? We were supposed to meet your head teacher this morning.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ Ben replied, ‘that’s why I’m not there.’
‘We’re going to meet him tomorrow instead,’ she stated. ‘It’s all been arranged. Now, when are you coming home?’
Ben suddenly felt very angry. Jasmine was right, they had rearranged the meeting. Once again his parents were taking no notice of him.
‘I dunno,’ he said.
‘What do you mean you don’t know? You’ll tell me young man, I want you back home right now.’
‘I’ll be back soon, and don’t worry, I’m not alone.’
‘Not alone? Who’s with you?’ asked his mum sharply.
‘Just…a girl’
‘A girl?’
‘Yeah, I’ll speak to you soon Mum, good bye,’ and Ben hung up the phone before his mum had another chance to protest.
Ben felt a lump in his throat as he put the phone back on the receiver. He’d never spoken to his mum like that before, and she’d sounded pretty upset. But she obviously hadn’t got the message about the meeting. She still didn’t understand, neither of them did. When were they going to see it from his point of view?
Ben walked back to his seat by Jasmine. Amongst all his sad and angry feelings, he still felt tingle of excitement when he thought about Jasmine. He still couldn’t believe she was with him, and telling his mum that he was with a girl felt pretty good. He shouldn’t get used to it though, he thought, this was probably the last time she’d ever talk to him, without it being an insult.
Ben sat back down in his chair.
‘You alright?’ asked Jasmine. ‘You look upset.’
‘You were right,’ Ben replied, ‘they arranged another meeting.’
‘Who? Your parents?’
Ben nodded.
‘With the head teacher?’
Ben nodded again.
‘Oh, that sucks,’ said Jasmine. As she did so, the waitress came over carrying their food and drinks.
‘There y’go,’ said the waitress. ‘Enjoy.’
‘Thanks,’ said Jasmine and Ben in unison.
Jasmine launched straight into her baguette, but Ben had lost his appetite, and only nibbled on his sandwich.
‘What ya gonna do?’ asked Jasmine with a mouth-full of food.
‘Just…not gonna go,’ Ben replied.
‘What, you’re just gonna stay away from home?’
‘Suppose so, yeah.’ Ben really didn’t think he had any choice at the moment.
‘Wow,’ said Jasmine. ‘Didn’t think you were such a rebel.’
‘I’m not really,’ Ben replied, folding his arms. ‘It’s just…if I go back they’ll make me go to the meeting.’
‘Well, why don’t you just go?’ Jasmine suggested. ‘I don’t see what the big deal is.’
‘It doesn’t matter. I doubt you’d understand…’ Ben trailed off as he finished the sentence, looking out of the window as he did so.
Jasmine continued to eat her sandwich at an astonishing rate, and every little bit of salad that fell from the baguette onto the plate she immediately picked up and put into her mouth. She seemed to be really enjoying the meal.
‘What did your parents say?’ asked Ben, trying to switch the attention away from him.
‘Nothing, I just left a message,’ Jasmine replied, just glad that no one had been home.
‘Will they be angry?’
‘They probably haven’t even noticed yet,’ said Jasmine, looking down at the table.
‘What? That’s crazy,’ said Ben.
‘You don’t know my parents. Sometimes it’s like I don’t exist.’
‘Is that why you ran away, because your parents ignore you?’
‘I didn’t run away, and no, that’s not the reason,’ said Jasmine.
‘When are you gonna go back?’ asked Ben.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Jasmine, looking up at the ceiling. ‘I can’t stay away forever.’
‘You gonna go back home then?’
‘What’s it gotta do with you?’
‘Sorry, I was just asking,’ Ben replied. ‘It’s just…if you’re going to go back, I wanted to make sure you know the way, that’s all.’
‘What do you mean know the way? Aren’t you going back?’
‘No, I’ve got that meeting, remember?’
‘Yes, yes I know about the stupid meeting, I didn’t know you weren’t going back to Bundringham; I thought you’d go and stay with a friend, or something.’
Ben didn’t say anything. He just looked down and ate his sandwich.
‘Not that my friends would help me out in that sort of situation,’ said Jasmine, stroking her hair. ‘They don’t deem to care much about that sort of thing.’
‘What sort of thing?’ asked Ben.
‘Forget it.’
‘So are you gonna go back then?’
‘Well, I can’t, can I,’ Jasmine replied. ‘I’d have no idea how to get back. I’d be lost in few seconds.’
Ben smiled at this thought.
‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do.’
‘You could phone one of your friends,’ Ben suggested.
‘Nah, I don’t have their numbers,’ said Jasmine. She wished she could just phone one of her friends. But she knew they couldn’t really help – they just didn’t seem to understand serious stuff like this. ‘Anyway, I don’t really feel like talking to them now.’
‘So what shall we do then?’ asked Ben.
Jasmine looked out of the window while she considered this. ‘We could just walk around the village for a bit. See if there’s anything interesting here.’
‘OK,’ said Ben, cheering up a bit at the idea.
After they’d finished their meals, and Jasmine had checked once more that her mobile battery really was dead, they paid the waitress and left the coffee shop.
Walking through Tidsbury, Ben couldn’t help noticing how small everything looked. The houses, the paths, the cars; everything in the village seemed just a little bit smaller than in Bundringham. And everywhere was very quiet. Ben wondered if anyone actually lived in the village, there seemed to be little sign of any life at all.
They walked past a small church and before them was a round village green with a small white fence outlining the edge of it. Inside the fence were a number of benches all facing inwards. They were all empty apart from one where an old lady sat. She was huddled over and holding a small bag that every so often she dipped her hand into and scattered a handful of something over the grass. Ben couldn’t see what it was, but the crowd of small birds around her seemed very interested in it. The old lady sat still, watching the birds peck at the grass. She looked like she hadn’t moved from that spot for many years, and she didn’t even look up as they walked right past her.
Ben glanced up at Jasmine who gave a crooked smile and muttered ‘weirdo’ under her breath. Leaving the green and the old lady behind, they continued down another road lined with small houses.
‘Doesn’t it feel weird, not being at school,’ said Jasmine.
‘Yeah, it does,’ replied Ben.
‘But it’s great though, just thinking about all those poor suckers sitting in lessons, and we’re here just walking around.’
‘I’d be in maths now,’ said Ben. ‘I’m so glad I’m not there.’
‘You don’t like maths?’
‘No. Hate it.’
‘Oh, I thought you’d be really into maths.’
‘No,’ said Ben, almost laughing. ‘Why would you think that?’
‘I dunno. Just did.’
Around the corner they came, onto another road which looked almost exactly the same as the last.
‘I feel like I should be ill,’ said Ben.
‘Because I’m not at school. The only time I’m ever not at school during the day is when I’m ill.’
‘You’ve never just had a day off?’ asked Jasmine.
‘No, well…not really. Have you?’
‘Couple of times,’ she said. ‘Not for a while though.’
Jasmine reached into her bag and produced her mirror, just for a quick touch-up. ‘What?’ she asked, glaring at Ben. ‘What are you smiling at?’
‘Nothing,’ said Ben, smiling even more.
‘I was just checking, OK?’ Jasmine sighed. ‘Boys. Got no idea.’
‘We’re in the middle of nowhere – no one’s going to see you,’ said Ben, who was still grinning.
‘You never know,’ said Jasmine. ‘Hey, what’s that?’ she asked, pointing down the road.
‘What’s what?’ asked Ben, squinting through his glasses into the distance.
At the end of the road was what seemed to be a shop with a house built on top of it. As they approached, they saw that outside the shop was a small tent. Suddenly Jasmine seemed very excited.
‘It’s a camping shop!’ she exclaimed.
‘Yeah. I think you’re right.’
‘Come on then! Let’s go!’
‘OK, but what for?’ asked Ben.
‘Well, if we’re not going back home then I’ve gotta get me one of those sleeping bag things, haven’t I? Come on!’
‘They’re pretty expensive y’know,’ said Ben.
Jasmine put her hand in her bag and, in a flash, whipped out her dad’s credit card. She held it out for Ben to see. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ she said, grinning madly. ‘Are you ready to do some shopping?’
‘Well you certainly are,’ said Ben.
‘I know!’ said Jasmine, skipping towards the shop.
Ben couldn’t believe that Jasmine Adams was getting so excited when she was spending time with him. It was fantastic! And now it seemed they were going to stay another night together somewhere, wherever that might be. Ben had never felt this important before, and this was all because of a girl that he didn’t even really like, or at least he thought he didn’t – now he wasn’t sure. Although he thought that this might all be just an act from Jasmine. He couldn’t think of a reason why she would still be talking to him, let alone spending a whole day with him. But who cares? He wasn’t at school, and he was determined to enjoy not being there.
‘Come on!,’ said Jasmine, who was at the shop entrance now. ‘I wanna buy stuff!’
‘OK, OK, I’m coming,’ said Ben catching up.
And when he had caught up to her, she led the way into the shop, still clutching her dad’s credit card, and grinning with excitement.

Chapter Thirteen

Ben hated shopping.
It was hardly surprising considering the amount of times his parents had dragged him around Tesco’s without buying anything that he suggested. It wasn’t that he didn’t like getting new things, but the fact that to get anything new you had to compete with hundrerds of other people to do so. Ben had noticed from an early age that people act differently when they’re shopping. Something seems to take over; to them it’s not just shopping, but a competition to get the best stuff. Ben could remember a time when his mum had taken him to a sale at BHS, and as he’d been walking around, he was knocked into a pile of cardigans by a huge lady racing to grab the last pair of flexifit jeans. Shopping was definitely something Ben tried to avoid.
But shopping with Jasmine seemed to be quite different. Just looking at her beaming smile as she looked around in awe, thinking what she might buy, made Ben feel almost as excited as she was. The inside of the camping shop smelt like an old tent after it had been rained on. It was actually a lot bigger than it looked on the outside; Ben guessed that it must have been almost as big as the school hall. The shop seemed to be divided into several sections, and in each one the shelves were overflowing with equipment and supplies. In fact, there was hardly any room to walk around there was so much stuff inside.
‘This is amazing,’ said Jasmine enthusiastically. ‘There’s just so much stuff.’
‘I know, it’s really cool,’ said Ben.
Ben began to wander around the shop, just trying to take in all that he could see. There were gas stoves, gas lanterns, pots, pans and other cooking things; there were flasks, rugs, sleeping bags, coats, boots, torches, and tents. It was a camper’s paradise. Neither Ben nor Jasmine had much interest in camping of course; and if they’d been there with their parents they’d probably find the place completely boring, but instead there was something really exciting about looking at all the equipment. Ben couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, but he knew it was something about the thought of escaping, and surviving out in the unknown.

Jasmine couldn’t believe how excited she was at the thought of shopping in a camping shop. Sure, she loved shopping more than most things, but she’d never been in a camping shop before. Camping, walking, and pretty much any outdoor activity was, as far as she was concerned, for sad old boring people who had nothing better to do. Anything that meant getting cold, wet, and probably lost was out of the question for her. But for some reason, looking around the place now, she felt really excited. But then the thought of doing anything instead of going to school had to be quite exciting.
Before they’d reached the shop, Jasmine had been feeling a bit down. Not just about her parents, her phone, and having to hang around with someone like Ben, but because she just felt so far from home, and there didn’t seem to be any way of getting back. Ben seemed to be determined to carry on going nowhere, as long as it wasn’t back to Bundringham, and it seemed that she had no choice but to follow him, despite what Nikki would say if she ever found out. She’d never been away from home this long before, without her parents knowing, and it just felt weird. Although it wasn’t like her parents really cared where she was, they were probably too busy thinking of new ways to slag each other off.
So it seemed that she was stuck with Ben for now, following him into nowhere, for no real reason except for not going back home. But at least she had her dad’s credit card, and they were in a shop, so why not have some fun? She could afford just about anything it had to offer, and if she was going on this trip, she might as well buy some stuff to make it interesting. Looking around the shop, Jasmine tried to think about what might make her feel happier about the trip. The first thing she thought of was staying warm, and for this she would need a sleeping bag.

Ben had always wanted a penknife, and as he looked at the fifteen or so on the shelf in front of him, he wanted one even more. He thought that he’d found the perfect one: it had three different knives in it, a mini saw, a pair of scissors, a couple of hook-shaped things, a screwdriver, and even a hole punch! But after paying for lunch at the coffee shop, he only had two pounds and twenty-three pence left.
‘What y’lookin’ at?’ said Jasmine, who had skipped across from the other side of the shop.
‘This penknife,’ said Ben. ‘You won’t believe how many things it’s got!’ And Ben proceeded to list every attachment to Jasmine, while she stood there trying not to look bored.
‘Oh, you’re so sad,’ she said when he’d finished. ‘Do you want it?’
‘Yeah, but I’ve only got a couple of pounds, and it costs ten.’
‘You can have it if you want,’ said Jasmine.
‘Can I?’ said Ben, feeling like Christmas had come early.
‘Sure, it’s not my money,’ Jasmine said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
‘Wow, thanks,’ said Ben, grinning as he took his new penknife from the shelf.
‘OK, but you have to come and help me choose a sleeping bag,’ said Jasmine. ‘There are millions of them.’
‘OK,’ Ben replied, following Jasmine.
As Ben walked across the shop, he glanced across to the counter, behind which was a tall, old man peering at them over his glasses with a cold stare. Ben knew what he was thinking; it was the middle of the day on a school day after all. Ben looked away from the man, and walking straight past him, set his eyes on the rack of sleeping bags that hung from the ceiling, against the back wall of the shop.
‘I really can’t decide,’ said Jasmine. ‘What do you think?’
Ben looked down the long line of sleeping bags. ‘What about this one?’ he said, pulling one out.
‘Nah, too cheap,’ said Jasmine.
‘It’s only a sleeping bag,’ said Ben.
‘Yes, but I want a good one,’ Jasmine explained.
‘OK, what about this one?’
‘Too expensive,’ Jasmine said, twirling her hair around her finger. ‘My dad would kill me if he found out I’d spent eighty quid on a sleeping bag!’
‘OK,’ said Ben, looking down the long line again. ‘This one?’
‘Green’s really not my colour,’ said Jasmine.
Ben looked at her in astonishment. He didn’t know what to say to that, so he just carried on looking.
‘I like this one,’ said Jasmine, pulling out a blue one.
Ben looked at it. ‘You’ll probably need a thicker one than that, in case it turns cold.’
‘Really? You don’t think that’s a bit fussy?’ Jasmine said.
‘No, I don’t,’ said Ben. ‘What about this one?’
‘Camoflauge? Are you kidding? I’m not in the army, y’know!’
‘No. Sorry. I don’t know, how about this one?’ said Ben, who was quickly losing interest.
Jasmine looked at the one Ben was holding. ‘I do like purple,’ she said. ‘How much is it?’
‘Forty,’ said Ben.
‘Hmmm’ said Jasmine, biting her lip in deep thought.
‘Oh, please just get it,’ said Ben.
‘Hey, don’t rush me when I’m shopping. This is important!’
Jasmine held the sleeping bag, and stroked it a few times.
Eventually she smiled and said, ‘This is the one.’
‘Good choice,’ said Ben.
Jasmine pulled the sleeping bag down from the rack, rolled it up, and hid it behind the others so no one else would buy it while they were looking around the rest of the shop.
‘Did you see the food section?’ asked Ben.
‘No. Is there one?’ Jasmine replied.
‘Yeah, look,’ he said, leading Jasmine to a small section of the shop stacked high with shelves of food.
‘Wow,’ said Jasmine, ‘there’s just…oh my god – raisins!’
About three shelves up, right in front of Jasmine, were rows and rows of little red boxes of raisins, which she immediately grabbed a handful of, and then another handful. ‘I think we’re going to need a basket,’ she said.
‘I’ll get one,’ said Ben, who couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone get so excited about food before, and that’s including the time when big Dan Forsythe had smuggled a Big Mac into a chemistry lesson.
When Ben returned from the front of the shop with a basket, Jasmine emptied her handfuls of boxes into it, and threw in a few more: Ben counted eleven in total.
‘That should keep me going for a while,’ Jasmine said with a smile.
‘Yeah, about six years,’ replied Ben.
‘Shut up,’ squealed Jasmine, ‘or you’re not getting the penknife.’
‘Sorry, it’s just that raisins aren’t – ’
‘Hey, look at this,’ said Jasmine, reaching for a can from the top shelf. ‘Self-heating meals,’ she read from the label. ‘Ready in minutes.’
‘Shall we get some?’ asked Ben.
‘Why not?’ said Jasmine, pulling a couple down and putting them in the basket. ‘If there’s anything you want, y k’now, just stick it in the basket.’
‘Oh, OK,’ said Ben, who immediately turned to the chocolate Hob-nobs.
Jasmine added some cans of cola and some crisps at which point they decided that they probably had enough food for now.
‘This is so cool,’ said Jasmine. ‘What else do you think we should get.’ She looked around with her eyes wide open clutching the basket in both hands.
‘I dunno, a compass might be useful,’ Ben suggested.
‘What, for like circles and stuff?’
‘No, for directions. Y’know, north, south…’
‘Oh yeah, silly me. Do they have them?’
They did have them – about twenty different ones, in fact. Ben picked one up that was also a magnifying glass and a calculator. Putting it into the basket, he noticed that something had caught Jasmine’s eye.
‘I want a whistle,’ she said.
‘OK,’ said Ben. ‘What for?’
‘I don’t know, but this one looks nice.’ And she put an orange whistle into the basket. ‘Hmm, what else can we get?’
Jasmine wandered through to the back of the shop again, and Ben went over to look at the only side of the shop that he hadn’t yet seen. It was full of tents. Ben walked around looking at the different sizes of tents and thought how cool it would be to have his own. He wouldn’t have to worry about the weather, and he could put it wherever he wanted. It would also mean that he could stay away from home for as long as he wanted, until his parents agreed to cancel the meeting.
He thought about suggesting the idea of getting a tent to Jasmine. Then he realised it would be like asking her to sleep over in his bedroom! There was no way Jasmine Adams would want to spend the night in a tent with him. The idea now seemed so ridiculous that he knew he couldn’t possibly suggest it to her. Ben went back to the main part of the shop, and over to Jasmine who was frantically waving something at him – she’d obviously found something else to buy.
‘Check this out,’ she said with the same excitement in her eyes that she’d had ever since she stepped foot into the shop.
‘What is it?’ Ben asked.
‘It’s an inflatable pillow, dummy. Do you want one?’
‘Err…’ Ben was still thinking about the tent idea. ‘No thanks,’ he said, deciding that he definitely shouldn’t mention it, in case she took it the wrong way.
‘Suit yourself,’ said Jasmine. ‘Is that everything? Shall we go and pay?’
Ben wasn’t sure if they had everything they needed, but had to admit that because they didn’t know where they were going, or for how long, they had no sure way of knowing what they’d need. He thought they should get a rug, and Jasmine suggested buying some matches; so when they’d found the matches, and a rug that went with Jasmine’s outfit (she insisted it was important), they finally made their way to the counter, collecting her sleeping bag on the way.
As they approached the counter, they saw that the old man behind it was speaking to someone on the phone.
‘No,’ he said, not paying any attention to Ben or Jasmine, ‘they’re not there yet.’ He paused, slowly nodding his head. ‘Well it don’t really ma’er, the weather’s gonna to be pretty good for the next few days, no rain forecast as I’ve ‘eard it.’
Ben and Jasmine looked at each other and smiled at hearing the weather report.
‘OK, Reg,’ said the old man, ‘I’ll speak to you on Tuesday. Ta-ta.’ He hung the phone and turned his attention to Ben and Jasmine. Once more he peered over his glasses which rested on the very edge of his nose. He didn’t look too impressed. ‘Shouldn’t yous two be at school,’ he said in his gravelly voice, squinting at them as he did so. ‘And how comes only one of yous is wearing a uniform?’
‘Well, you see…’ began Jasmine, stroking her hair.
‘It’s wear-what-you-like day,’ Ben interrupted. ‘But I forgot. And we’re here to get some things for the…for the school play we’re…doing.’
The old man’s grim frown suggested that he wasn’t convinced by Ben’s story.
‘Yep, the teacher’s waiting for us outside,’ said Jasmine. ‘So if you could just hurry along we would really appreciate it,’ she said with a big smile, leaning forward over the counter slightly.
‘Very well,’ said the old man reluctantly, and he started to take the things out of the basket, looking at each item with an increasingly puzzled expression. And then he came to the raisins.
‘You really need all these for a play?’ he asked, squinting even more.
‘Yes,’ said Ben, ‘for the crew.’
‘Oh, and one of these as well,’ said Jasmine, handing the man a packet containg a bubble-blowing gun. ‘We need this for the scene with…’
‘The bubbles,’ said Ben. ‘Good thinking.’ And he gave Jasmine a look. If she wasn’t careful she was going to make the old man suspicious. He might even think to ring the school, and Jasmine hadn’t even tried to pay for the stuff yet! This wasn’t going to be easy.
‘Right,’ said the man, ‘that’s eighty-three pounds twenty-two altogether.’
Both Ben and Jasmine couldn’t help smiling when they heard the total amount. They’d just spent over eighty pounds on camping stuff!
Jasmine handed her dad’s credit card over to the old man, who looked at it, then looked back at Jasmine, and then looked at the card again.
‘Are you old enough to have a credit card?’ he asked, obviously thinking that she wasn’t.
‘Yep, I’m a sixth-former,’ Jasmine replied with another one of her smiles.
‘Hmm,’ grumbled the old man as he ran the card through the machine.
Ben watched nervously as Jasmine signed the receipt and gave it back to the man who seemed to take an age looking at the card and at Jasmine’s attempted signature. Eventually he gave her back the card, and handed over the back of goods and the sleeping bag.
‘Thank you,’ said Jasmine.
‘Thanks,’ Ben added, and they made for the exit as quickly as they could without actually running.
Jasmine was giggling as they hurried out of the shop, and when they were outside she burst into laughter. Ben laughed too, but was really just relieved to be away from the creepy old man.
‘We did it!’ said Jasmine. ‘Hey, that stuff about the play, that was great, that stupid old git believed everything!’
‘I know!’ said Ben. ‘But how did you get away with the whole credit card thing, that was amazing!’
‘Thank you,’ said Jasmine, doing a little curtsey. ‘Let’s just say it wasn’t the first time I’ve forged my dad’s signature.’
Jasmine reached into the bag of goods that Ben was holding and pulled out the bubble-blowing gun.
‘Why did you buy that?’ asked Ben.
‘Cos I wanted it,’ said Jasmine breaking into the packet. ‘Look how cool it is!’ she said pulling the trigger and sending a flurry of bubbles into the air.
‘Great,’ said Ben, confused at how Jasmine could be so excited about a few bubbles.
‘I know,’ she said, reaching into the bag again and pulling out a box of raisins, which she immediately opened and began eating. She offered some to Ben, but he didn’t want any.
On they walked through the village, with Ben carrying the bags and Jasmine eating her raisins and firing the occasional round of bubbles. She hadn’t felt so happy since the night before the muesli argument. The shopping had almost completely taken her mind off her parents, and her mobile, and what her friends would think of her if they could see her. She didn’t know where she was going or how she would get back, but she didn’t care anymore. She was far from home now, and far from all the problems she had there.
‘Do you reckon that guy suspects us?’ asked Ben.
‘Suspects what? We were just buying a few things,’ Jasmine replied.
‘So you don’t think he’ll ring the school or police or anything.’
Jasmine thought about this for a second. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Why should he? It’s not his problem. We’re just paying customers, and anyway, he probably doesn’t even know which school we go to.’
‘But our parents could have called the police,’ said Ben.
‘Stop worrying, relax. So what if they did call the police? They’re not gonna find us. How they gonna know where we are when we don’t even know.’
Ben tried to work out what that meant, it seemed to make some sense.
‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘Do you know where we’re going? We’re almost out of the village now.’
‘You know we might be lost again pretty soon.’
‘Yep,’ said Jasmine as she finished the raisins and reached into the bag for her make-up.
‘But you know what?’ she said. ‘I think I want to be lost again.’
‘Really?’ said Ben.
‘Yeah, if we’re lost then it’s harder for someone to find us, and if someone finds us then we have to go back home, right?’
‘So as long as we’re lost, then we don’t have to go back,’ she said, dabbing her cheeks.
‘I never thought of it that way,’ said Ben.
‘Now who’s the clever one, eh?’ she said, snapping her mirror shut, and smiling smugly at Ben.
‘Jasmine?’ said Ben.
‘You missed a bit.’

Chapter Fourteen

As Ben and Jasmine turned a corner and began down another road of small houses with neatly trimmed gardens and pristine pathways, something in the distance caught Ben’s eye. There was a car parked ahead of them, about fifty yards away, on the other side of the road. Its engine purring quietly. The fluorescent blue and yellow stripes along the back immediately told Ben what sort of a car it was.
‘Is that a police car?’ asked Jasmine, as soon as Ben had realised himself.
‘Yes it is,’ Ben replied.
‘Why would a place like this need any police?’ Jasmine asked. ‘The only people that live here are like a hundred years old!’
‘I know,’ Ben agreed, ‘it does seem kind of strange.’
‘And what are they waiting for?’
‘Or who are they waiting for,’ Ben added.
‘They could be waiting for someone,’ said Ben in a whisper. ‘They could be waiting for us.’
‘Why are you whispering, they’re not gonna hear us, y’know,’ said Jasmine loudly.
‘Ssshhh, we shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves,’ Ben said. He wasn’t going to tell Jasmine, but since he’d started at Bundringham, He’d had a recurring dream about being brought home to his parents in the back of a police car. He would be escorted to his front door, and then be made to look up at the faces of his parents as they saw him standing there with the policemen. He could see they’re faces vividly in his mind, and he never wanted to have to see those expressions in real life.
‘You’re crazy,’ said Jasmine. ‘They’re not looking for us – no way. I can’t believe you would think…do you really think they might be looking for us?’
‘Yes,’ said Ben, still whispering, ‘I don’t know about your parents, but there’s a pretty good chance that mine might have called the police.’
‘Wow – so they really could be looking for us! I’ve never been chased by the police before!’
‘It’s not funny,’ said Ben.
‘Sorry. What should we do then? Turn round?’
‘No, that would look way too suspicious. They’ve probably already seen us.’ Ben had his hand in his pocket and – as he always did when he was nervous – was rolling the corner of a tissue between his finger and thumb.
‘So what do we do?’ asked Jasmine, now whispering as well.
‘Just walk past. Act natural. It’s all we can do. They might not be looking for us.’
‘OK,’ whispered Jasmine.
They were only a few steps away from the car now and, as Ben looked through the rear window, he saw the helmets of two policemen, above the headrests. He looked away from the car again and tried to keep looking straight ahead. It was hard: for some reason he had the urge to look directly at the car, but he knew that would look way too suspicious.
They were level with the car now, and as Ben walked past, the urge to look through the window and directly at the two officers was like a burning pain in his neck. Instead, he glanced the other way, up at Jasmine. It seemed that she was having no problem looking straight ahead. In fact, she didn’t look bothered at all. Ben wished he had her confidence that they weren’t about to be arrested and driven home.
They were past the car now, and the burning in Ben’s neck had gone. Now he was just listening for any sound of a door opening or the engine revving.
‘What do we do now?’ asked Jasmine.
‘Just keep walking.’
‘Are you scared?’ she said.
‘No, I just…look, just don’t do anything suspicious, OK?’
‘What, like turn around?’
‘Yes!’ said Ben, raising his voice slightly.
‘Like this?’ asked Jasmine, as she turned around and looked behind her. ‘Maybe I should shoot them with my bubbles.’
‘Jasmine!’ Ben quietly squealed.
‘Err, it’s moving.’ Jasmine said.
‘What is?’
‘The car.’
Ben glanced over his soldier. Jasmine was right, the car had slowly crept away from the curb, and was rolling quietly towards them.
‘Oh god,’ said Ben.
‘What do we do?’ asked Jasmine, who seemed to be getting just a little worried now.
Ben knew he had to think quickly. He knew he had to decide if they were actually being followed. If they were, they would have to make a run for it and try to hide somewhere. If they weren’t, then running from the police would probably be a reason to actually make the police follow them. Ben could hear the car’s tyres scratching on the concrete behind him, and he realised that there was only one option.
‘Jasmine, when I say “run” we run, OK?’ Ben whispered.
Ben immediately broke into a run, and Jasmine followed close behind. Running wasn’t easy for either of them, with all the stuff they were carrying. Ben began to think back to yesterday when he was in almost exactly the same situation with Nick and Gabriel. But out-running two kids is one thing; out-running a car is a bit trickier. As they came to the end of the road, Ben knew that he would have to find somewhere to hide as soon as they got round the corner, if they were to stand a chance.
Around the corner they came and Ben looked all around for somewhere to hide. He saw trees, lamp posts, and a post box, but none of these were any good. He started to panic. This road was exactly the same as the last, there was no way of finding anywhere to hide, except for running through someone’s front door, and Ben decided was breaking and entering wasn’t the best plan right now.
‘This way!’ said Jasmine suddenly, and she quickly turned and ran towards a gap between two houses.
Ben followed, wondering if she’d somehow heard his breaking and entering plan. But the gap between the two houses turned into an alleyway that led them away from the road.
‘Come on!’ said Jasmine excitedly. She was leading the way and not daring to look behind to see if Ben was following.
Ben was following, and just before he turned the corner of the alleyway, he took one last look behind him. As he looked back at the road, the police car slowly rolled by and Ben found himself staring straight into the eyes of one of the policemen in the car, who immediately picked up his radio and began speaking. Ben was locked in this stone-cold stare for what seemed like an age, but eventually the car passed put of sight. Looking round, Ben saw that Jasmine had turned the corner in the alleyway and was now out of sight. He stirred himself once more, and followed the trail of bubbles that Jasmine had left down the path.
Ben quickly joined Jasmine at the end of the alleyway which opened out into a large field of grass.
‘Lucky I saw that path, eh?’ said Jasmine as she re-tied her hair.
‘One of them looked at me,’ said Ben.
‘The policemen.’
‘So? Like…how?’
‘Like he was looking for us. He kind of frowned…and then said something into his walkie-talkie thing.’
‘Oh, that’s not good,’ said Jasmine reaching into her bag for her little mirror, and then opening it.
‘There’s no time for that now,’ said Ben. ‘We have to keep going. I think we should make for those trees over there,’ he said pointing to the far side of the field.
‘Jeez, relax will you,’ said Jasmine. ‘Let me just…’
‘Come on,’ insisted Ben, ‘they could be coming down this alleyway right now! Do you want to be arrested, or what?’ As Ben finished the sentence he began walking along the edge of the field, towards the trees in the distance.
‘Fine. I’m coming,’ said Jasmine, dabbing her forehead. ‘Y’know, just because he looked at you, doesn’t mean he’s going to arrest you. You really should just chill. Ben? Wait up!’
Ben had carried on walking, leaving Jasmine behind, but she quickly skipped along to catch up. As she did so, she couldn’t help checking over her shoulder just to be sure that they weren’t about to be arrested; but there was no sign of the policemen.
‘They’re not following us,’ Jasmine said.
‘I think it’s best if we get under cover,’ said Ben. ‘They’ll never find us in those woods.’
‘No, and we’ll never find our way out either. Are you sure we need to hide? I really don’t like woods.’
‘Well, I’d rather be there than in the back of a police car,’ said Ben.
‘Fine. You’d better not let me wander off and get attacked like you did last time.’
‘But you…’ Ben began, but then realised it was pointless. Instead, he checked his watch and saw that it was nearly half-past three. The whole police car thing had shaken him up a bit. And the danger still wasn’t over. Whether or not his parents had called the police, and whether or not it was them they were looking for, Ben couldn’t rest easy. He wanted to be hidden, to put some barrier between him and anyone who might be chasing him. He felt vulnerable walking along the open field, which was why he was rushing along, making for the safety of the trees as quick as he could.
‘Wait,’ called Jasmine.
Ben turned round to see the Jasmine had stopped a short distance behind him and was pointing straight ahead.
‘Do we have to go past those?’ she asked.
‘Go past what?’ Ben asked, and he looked round in the direction Jasmine was pointing. He hadn’t noticed the dozen or so cows at the end of the field, between them and the woods, but Ben couldn’t see what the problem was. ‘Those cows?’ he said.
‘Well, yes, we do I suppose. What’s the problem?’
‘What if they stampede or something? And they could be bulls y’know, and those things are crazy. They stab people with their horns.’
‘They’re not bulls, they’re cows, and can you hurry up because I don’t think it’s a good idea to be out in the open like this,’ said Ben, feeling increasingly impatient.
Jasmine still wasn’t moving. ‘How do you know they’re not bulls?’
‘Because…bulls have shorter tails,’ Ben said.
‘Is that true?’ asked Jasmine.
‘Well, no, but I really don’t think they’re bulls.’
‘Do you promise? ’Cause I don’t want to be in a field with a herd of bulls.’
Ben didn’t think there was any point in explaining that you just don’t get herds of bulls. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said. ‘Anyway, you can just shoot them with your gun.’
‘Yeah, bubble ‘em to death!’ said Jasmine smiling and firing out a few more bubbles.
‘OK, let’s go,’ said Ben.
‘Wait,’ said Jasmine again, ‘I’ve run out of bubbles, I need more bubble juice.’ And she put down her bag to fill her gun with more liquid.
‘Oh, come on!’ said Ben.
‘You said I needed my gun, so you’ll have to wait.’
Eventually, Jasmine was ready and she caught up to Ben again to continue along the field. The woods were clearly in sight now, but so were the cows, three of which stood right next to the path up ahead.
‘They’re watching us,’ said Jasmine.
‘Just don’t do anything to scare them and they’ll just ignore us,’ said Ben.
‘How come you’re suddenly an expert on bulls?’
‘They’re not…just try and ignore them.’
‘How am I supposed…’ Jasmine began, then suddenly she grabbed Ben’s arm. ‘Look, that one’s moving!’
Ben tried to reply, but with Jasmine holding on to his arm, he couldn’t think of what to say. He felt excited, but very awkward. Seconds later the cow ahead stopped moving and Jasmine let go.
‘Just try and take your mind off them,’ said Ben.
‘Oh, and how am I supposed to do that? They’re huge, they could trample us any second!’
‘I don’t know, just think about something else…like…shopping or something.’
Jasmine slapped Ben on the arm.
‘Ow,’ said Ben, the slap coming as quite a shock.
‘That’s for being condescending,’ said Jasmine.
‘I was only trying to help,’ Ben protested.
‘Well, you should try a little harder then, shouldn’t you,’ she said with a swish of her hand, flicking a wisp of hair away from her face.
They were right by the cows now. The woods were only twenty or so yards away. The three cows that stood near to the path were stood perfectly still. Occasionally their tails twitched, or their heads turned slightly, but on the whole they weren’t doing much, and Ben wondered if they could really see him and Jasmine at all.
Jasmine, however, wasn’t convinced. She was almost tip-toeing now, past the cows (or bulls to her), stroking her hair like mad and not taking her eyes off them. In one hand she gripped her large bag, and in the other she gripped even tighter her bubble-gun. Then one of the cows took one small sidestep towards the path. That was enough fo Jasmine. She ran, letting out a high-pitched squeal for help as she did so.
Ben couldn’t help giggling when he saw Jasmine run away from the cow. The Jasmine he knew from school would never have run away from anything! He was still giggling when he caught up with her at the edge of the woods.
‘Stop laughing – it’s not funny,’ she said as Ben approached. ‘That thing was looking at me, and then…then it…lunged at me!’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Ben. ‘I just didn’t imagine you’d be scared of anything.’
‘I’m not. It’s just that I don’t like bulls, that’s all.’
‘Aren’t you scared of the woods, y’know, after yesterday?’ said Ben.
‘Oh thanks very much!’ said Jasmine, throwing her arms up into the air. ‘Let’s remind me of that. Oh yeah, I was attacked in the woods yesterday, and could have been killed. Let’s talk about that then, shall we?’
‘Sorry,’ said Ben, ‘I didn’t think…’
‘No, you didn’t,’ said Jasmine, with her hands on her hips.
Ben looked back across the field. There was still no sign of any policemen coming after them, but Ben wasn’t convinced they were safe yet.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘we should keep going.’
Jasmine pulled her hairband out, letting her hair fall across her face, and muttered something under her breath. Reluctantly, she followed Ben into the wood.
They trudged along the path, under the trees once more. The trees were different to the ones in the last wood. There were more of them, Ben noticed, and although these trees were shorter, and thinner they were more tightly packed together. This meant that the path was also thin, and a lot more windy. In fact, in a lot of places there was virtually no path at all. The only way of knowing where to go was just by avoiding the prickly bushes, and trying to find something that looked like a path again.
‘I can’t believe we’re in the woods again,’ muttered Jasmine.
‘At least no policemen are going to see us here though, that’s the main thing,’ Ben replied.
‘I suppose. Still don’t like it though.’
They came to a small clearing, with one tree in the middle. It looked uncannily similar to the place where Jasmine had been confronted to the two men, but Ben thought it best not to mention this. He didn’t, and soon they were back amongst the trees again.
‘OK,’ Jasmine suddenly said, ‘if there was one person from school you could choose to be attacked by two filthy big smelly men, then who would it be?’
‘Gabriel Johnson.’ Ben said this without even thinking, and immediately wished he hadn’t. He’d been thinking about yesterday: the two men, and about school. Jasmine had caught him off-guard.
‘Oh, not Gabe! Why?’ asked Jasmine.
Ben didn’t know what to say, but he was baffled that Jasmine was standing up for someone like Gabriel. He had to say something, just as long as he didn’t give her any hint of what happened yesterday.
‘I don’t know,’ said Ben, ‘I just don’t really like him that’s all.’
‘Why?’ asked Jasmine.
‘Well…it’s just…he’s got a bit of an attitude, I suppose.’
‘That’s not true! Well, I suppose he can be a bit of a git sometimes, but he’s actually quite a nice person. Once you get to know him.’
Ben couldn’t believe his ears. To hear someone call Gabriel Johnson nice was like someone saying that maths was interesting – wrong. He actually felt offended by what Jasmine said. In a way, it was like she’d double-crossed him by siding with Gabriel. She obviously had no idea what an idiot he was. She’d never seen him do PE, and I bet he’d never called her names or tried to steal her sandwiches. But there was no way Ben could try and point out to her what Gabriel was really like because as soon as they were back at school, she would probably tell Gabriel what he thought. And that would mean big trouble.
‘What about you?’ Ben asked. ‘Who would you have attacked?’
Jasmine looked up at the sky and pouted her lips. She was thinking.
‘Probably…Mrs Patterson. She’s a witch.’
Ben wished he’d just said a teacher – that would have made things a lot easier.
‘I don’t think she’s that bad,’ said Ben.
‘That’s because you probably suck up to her. She’s really mean to Nikki. She once gave her a DT (Ben realised later that that meant detention) for dropping her pen on the floor. She’s well out of order.’
‘You mean the time when she threw her pen at Johnny?’ asked Ben.
‘You see,’ said Jasmine, ‘there you go again, siding with the teachers, it’s pathetic!’
Ben didn’t reply. His dad had often told him that if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all. Ben never really listened to his dad’s “words of wisdom” (as he called them), but now they seemed very appropriate. Jasmine was beginning to really annoy him. Not just the fact that she was trying to defend Gabriel, but that she kept going on about how he always sucked up to the teachers, and how school was so easy for him. She had it so wrong. It was her that had it easy, not him. She didn’t have to fear for her life when she went back to school. She had no idea. He wanted so much to tell her about Gabriel, and the ruler, and the football match, and the threats, but he couldn’t. Anyway, she probably wouldn’t believe him, or she’d just say that he shouldn’t suck up to the teachers so much.
‘Giving me the silent treatment, eh?’ said Jasmine. ‘Did I offend you?’
‘No,’ said Ben, ‘but…’
‘But what?’
‘Nah, it’s nothing.’
‘Can you get me out another box of raisins, pleeease?’ said Jasmine, as sweetly as she could.
‘Yeah, OK,’ said Ben, reaching into his bag as the sound of helicopter blades began to break through the trees above them.

Chapter Fifteen

Jasmine slowly ate her raisins one by one, as Ben wondered if it was safe yet to leave the wood. The chopping sound of the helicopter blades had faded, making it easier to think, and the edge of the wood was in sight now. Ben was pretty sure that they’d be OK. If the policemen had decided to follow them they would’ve chased them down the alleyway. The chances that they’d be waiting for them on the other side of the wood were slim. Anyway, they were probably too busy with real criminals like murderers, armed robbers, and joyriders; they weren’t going to waste their time with a couple of school kids. That’s what Ben hoped at least.
‘Well, we’re almost out of the wood now,’ said Ben.
‘Good,’ said Jasmine, firing some bubbles at an unsuspecting tree. ‘I hate woods.’
As they emerged from the trees they saw the dark orange sun ahead of them, slowly sinking into the horizon, sending sprays of red light into the clouds above it. They were out of the wood and were faced with more fields for as far as they could see. But these weren’t like the fields they’d been in before. They were far more hilly, and whereas the previous fields had always looked like they’d been cared for by their farmer, these fields looked wild and untamed. The grass was long; the ground was uneven; and every so often there was a rock standing on its own, as if it had fallen from the sky unnoticed; or a branch lying on the ground but no sign of the tree from which it had come.
Ben had opened his chocolate Hob-nobs and was now on to his second in quick succession. He wanted to be friendly to Jasmine and say something to make her feel better about being there with him, but was finding it harder and harder to know what to say to her. In fact, he still just wasn’t used to being around her. Sometimes he felt guilty just looking at her for too long. At school, if he ever looked at someone like Jasmine for more than a second or two he’d get a cold glare in return, as had happened in the canteen yesterday; although yesterday seemed like ancient history now.
When they’d been in the shop earlier that day, there was a point at which Ben began to think that perhaps he and Jasmine weren’t that different after all; but then he’d glance up at her, into her eyes, and realise that she was a lot older than he was. Not just in years, but in other ways as well. And it didn’t help that Ben was realising that Jasmine was probably the prettiest girl he’d ever actually met. He didn’t like admitting it to himself in case she found out somehow, but nevertheless it was true. At school he’d never really dared to think about Jasmine in that way, or any of her friends for that matter. But whether it was the fact that they were miles away from school now, or just seeing her long dark hair being blown gently by the breeze…things were just different.
Anyway, it didn’t matter what he thought of Jasmine. What mattered was the question of why he was walking aimlessly across a field in the middle of nowhere. Ben was reluctant to start thinking again about Gabriel, his parents, and the meeting; and before he could do so he noticed something else. The silence between he and Jasmine had been the longest yet. Ben glanced over his shoulder to see how far they’d come since either of them had spoken, but it was further than his squinting eyes could see.
The silence seemed to be getting louder and louder. Ben wondered if he should say something just to stop himself feeling so uncomfortable, but he couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound stupid. He thought that maybe if he ate another Hob-nob then Jasmine would make some remark about how many he’d had or something. Ben pulled the biscuit from his bag and soon it was eaten, but there was still no word from Jasmine. He had to say something, even if it was stupid. He broke the silence.
‘You’re in my class for maths, aren’t you?’
For a brief moment Jasmine didn’t react, she just carried on looking down at the ground and twirling a strand of hair around her finger. Then suddenly she seemed to awake from her thoughts and she looked back at Ben.
‘I dunno,’ she said, ‘I’m in Mrs Organ’s class.’
‘Yeah, me too,’ Ben replied. ‘You know we’ve got a test next week.’
Jasmine groaned. ‘Can’t you just forget about school? I don’t care about maths tests.’
Ben agreed, but wasn’t sure that he could forget.
‘Think about it: for just one day we get the chance to forget about lessons and timetables and stupid tests.’
Ben thought about this for a second, and then Jasmine continued, ‘I don’t know about you but I’m just enjoying a day where I’m not constantly waiting for a bell to ring to tell me what to do and where to go. We don’t have to do anything if we don’t want to. Don’t you love that?’
Ben did, in a way, and he wanted to forget all of those things, but they just kept popping back into his head. It’s hard to forget about tests and meetings, no matter how hard you want to banish them from your thoughts.
Jasmine looked at Ben and saw the pained expression on his face. He obviously wasn’t able to forget about school. It’s sad really, she thought. He should try and see it her way: no school; no teachers; no friends; no rules; they were free from all of that, and it felt so good. For once she actually felt quite relaxed.
‘Would you talk to me like this at school?’ asked Ben.
‘No way!’ said Jasmine, scrunching up her eyebrows and smiling at the same time.
‘Didn’t think so,’ said Ben quietly.
Ben wasn’t really surprised that Jasmine thought this, but he didn’t think that she’d actually want to admit it.
‘It’s not that I don’t like you,’ said Jasmine, ‘or that I wouldn’t want to talk to you…it’s just…we’re just…different. We have different friends and stuff.’
He didn’t seem to be buying it, but it was true, they were very different. Her friends were nothing like his friends (whoever his friends were). She tried to explain this to Ben, and explain that it wasn’t his fault, it’s just the way things were at school.
‘But you’re talking to me now,’ Ben said.
‘Yeah, but that’s different,’ said Jasmine, flicking her hair away from her face.
Jasmine was getting a little annoyed that Ben just wasn’t accepting the plain truth. She had to make him see it from her point-of-view. So she asked him, ‘What do you think my friends would say if they saw me talking to you?’
‘What difference does that make?’ said Ben, pushing his glasses back onto the top of his nose.
This was getting silly. It made a huge difference. Perhaps he just didn’t get how important her friends were. She cared a great deal about what her friends thought, and it’s not exactly like they would hate her for talking to Ben at school; it’s just that she and her friends were on a different level – social level – than he was.
But when she tried to explain this to Ben, it was met with that same old annoying I-just-don’t-get-this face.
And Ben didn’t get it. Yes, he could understand that they had different friends (well, her friends were different to Lewis), but what did she mean by ‘different social level’? Ben had never noticed any levels at school, although he knew that there were some people that he was more likely to talk to than others. For example, he didn’t really like Mike or Gabriel (understatement of the century in Gabriel’s case), but he would talk to Mike when he had to. So did that mean Mike and Gabriel were on different levels? That just seemed too confusing to be true.
The thing was, Jasmine’s friends just didn’t think he was good enough to talk to her. They didn’t know him at all, but they would’ve already decided. So even if Jasmine wanted to talk to him, her friends wouldn’t, and would probably try to stop her from doing so.
So Ben asked her, ‘Who cares what your friends think? Shouldn’t it be your opinion that matters?’
Jasmine thought about this for a second.
‘Well, yeah,’ she said, ‘but it’s more complicated than that.’
‘I don’t get it,’ said Ben, and he really didn’t.
What Ben really didn’t understand, thought Jasmine, was that there was actually nothing to get – that’s just the way school works. It may be unfair, but a lot of things are unfair at school: like how all the teachers suck up to people like him, and how she and her friends always had to take the blame for everything bad that happened in class – even if it wasn’t their fault. He just had to accept that things are different at school. It was fine for them to be talking now, as long as –
‘Just don’t tell any of my friends what I’ve just said. It’s just between us, OK?’ said Jasmine.
‘OK,’ said Ben, stepping over a shallow stream that trickled across the field.
Jasmine didn’t step over the stream. It seemed that she hadn’t seen it because she put her foot straight into it. There was a splash. And then a gasp. And then Jasmine realised what she’d done.
‘Oh, what? Where did that come from? I’m soaked!’
‘Sorry, I thought you’d seen it,’ said Ben, trying to hide his smile.
Serves her right, Ben thought to himself. Although it really was getting quite gloomy now, so it was no surprise that she hadn’t see the stream in time. They should probably start thinking of finding somewhere to sleep if it was going to be pitch black in just an hour or two. Ben suggested this to Jasmine but all she was worried about was how and when she could dry her foot.
Ben didn’t have a clue where they were going to sleep. And as he tried to think about it he found it hard to forget what Jasmine had said. If they went back to school tomorrow she’d pretty much ignore him and pretend that none of this had happened, that they’d never met in the woods at all. It meant that whatever he did wasn’t good enough. He could never have a friend like Jasmine, no matter what he did because the ‘school rules’ just wouldn’t allow it.
But did he need friends like Jasmine? She was pretty obsessed with herself and her friends and staying ‘cool’ all the time. All that stuff had never interested Ben; but now he was wondering if it should interest him. Would having friends like Jasmine make his life any better? Would Nick and Gabriel start to respect him? He wasn’t sure. The trouble was, despite how annoying Jasmine was being, he was really starting to like her, although he hadn’t really worked out why.
Darkness had fallen upon the fields around them, and the setting sun had dipped beneath the horizon and out of view. They could just about make out the shapes of trees and hedges in the distance, but Ben knew from yesterday that in less than an hour’s time it would be almost completely dark. They needed to find a place to sleep.
They reached the top of yet another hill and stopped where they were when they saw what lay before them.
‘Now there’s no way we can get across that,’ said Jasmine with her arms folded.
The river in front of them ran right across the field for as far as they could see. It was accompanied by two rows of broad trees that ran along each bank. Ben and Jasmine walked closer to the river and quickly realised just how wide it actually was.
Ben walked between the trees to the edge of the bank and looked down at the running water below. He picked up a small twig that lay on the ground beside him and dropped it into the water. As soon as it splashed down it was carried away swiftly by the flowing tide, zipping past the rocks that stood up from the riverbed. Ben watched his twig as it disappeared off to his left and wondered where the river would take it. He didn’t even know if his twig was going towards Bundringham or not. Either way Ben wished he could follow. He longed to be taken away by the river as well, it didn’t matter where, the river could decide.
Ben looked up again from the water and into the field beyond the far bank of the river – something had caught his eye. In the murky distance stood the outline of a tall building. Ben peered through the trees, and as his eyes became more accustomed to the dark, the outline of the building became clearer. The building had sails, four of them.
‘Look,’ said Ben, pointing across the river and into the gloom.
‘What…I don’t…oh, yeah. Is that a windmill?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Yep.’ Ben had already decided that this would be the perfect place to sleep. As long as they could get in, and as long as no one else was in there of course. All they had to do was get across the river.
‘Great,’ said Jasmine. ‘So what?’
‘We could sleep there, if there’s no one inside. It’d be perfect.’
‘I dunno, it seems pretty risky.’
‘Come on, it’d be warm, and dry, and…’
‘I suppose it would be dry in there,’ said Jasmine, swaying back and forth, and seeming to warm to the idea. ‘But how are we going to get to it?’
Ben had no answer. They walked along the edge of river, trying to figure out a way of getting across. Ben suggested climbing down and wading through the water but Jasmine just laughed, and Ben wasn’t too keen on the idea either. He wasn’t sure exactly how deep the water was, and judging by the speed of Ben’s twig the current was quite strong. Then a smile appeared across Ben’s face as the answer to their problem emerged from the darkness.
It wasn’t clear whether the tree-trunk had fallen across the river, or whether it had been deliberately placed there. That would have been quite a feat: the trunk must have been ten meters long and its base was almost half as tall as Ben. Nevertheless, Ben was convinced that getting to the other side would be easy and they’d be at the windmill in a matter of minutes.
Jasmine wasn’t so sure. She looked at the tree-trunk with the same expression she’d given her phone when the battery ran out. She couldn’t imagine herself getting onto the trunk, let alone somehow getting all the way to the other side. It looked impossible.
‘Forget it,’ she said. ‘I’ll never get across that.’
Ben didn’t like the defeatest tone in her voice. She was giving up way too easily. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘it’s only a tree, and it’s not even that far. It’ll be easy, I promise.’
Jasmine knew it wouldn’t be easy, and she also knew how wet she would get if she fell off the stupid thing. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ve already got my foot wet, I’m not gonna risk getting my whole body soaked for a stupid windmill. Have you any idea what that would do to my hair?’
That made Ben furious. He tried not to show it, but he was. It wasn’t asking much to get across the tree. She could take all night if she wanted to, as long as they knew where they were going to stay. It seemed like they’d found the perfect place to sleep for the night and she wasn’t going to take one tiny risk because of her hair!
‘Look,’ said Ben, trying to be calm, ‘the windmill is the only place we can see to stay. It’s getting dark. All it takes is just one tiny risk. It wouldn’t even be that hard: I’ll go first, then you do as I do and you can take as long as you like.’
‘I’m sorry, it’s just too dangerous. There’s no way I’d be able to get across there, look how high it is!’
Ben looked. It wasn’t that high.
‘Why don’t we just keep walking along the river until we find a bridge or something?’ suggested Jasmine.
‘Because that could take hours, and by then it’d be pitch black!’ said Ben, almost shouting.
‘Look, I’m sorry, Ben, but I’m just not prepared to do it.’
Ben was getting sick of Jasmine’s attitude, and he knew that he was right. She was just being a spoiled, stuck up, pathetic wimp and he’d had enough.
‘Fine,’ said Ben, with his teeth gritted. ‘You do what you like. I’m crossing here and going to the windmill. You do whatever you want. I don’t care anymore. In fact, I don’t even know why you’re still here. Why don’t you just go back to your spoiled little life with your spoiled friends and your poncy parents.’ Ben paused for breath, and then continued, despite the tears beginning to appear in Jasmine’s eyes, ‘Did you get that? Or am I on the wrong social level for you to understand?’
Ben immediately turned away from Jasmine and towards the fallen tree-trunk. He didn’t wait to see Jasmine’s reaction. He didn’t want to. He knew that he’d gone too far, that he’d been way too mean. But he couldn’t take it back now. He was still furious. Sitting down at the foot of the fallen tree, he adjusted his rucksack and put the bag of shopping in front of him. He began to pull himself slowly across the trunk, pushing the bag of shopping forward before pulling his own body, a few inches at a time. He glanced back in Jasmine’s direction and, through the trees, caught a glimpse of her slowly walking away with her bag in one hand, her bubble-gun in the other, and her head down. Ben eventually drew his eyes away from her and continued slowly along the tree.

Chapter Sixteen

Jasmine wiped the tears from her eyes but they were quickly replaced by fresh ones. Ben’s outburst had come out of nowhere and she was still in shock at what he’d said. Had she really been acting spoiled? Or been that unreasonable? She really didn’t think so. He’d been totally out of order. But she didn’t understand how she could have made him that angry.
Jasmine looked on through the gloom, searching for some way of getting over the river. Then something occurred to her: why should she follow a loser like Ben? Why should she listen to him and do everything he says? Just yesterday she wouldn’t have cared one bit about anything a kid like Ben would have to say. So why was she getting so upset over him now? It’s not as if she liked him particularly, in fact he was bloody annoying most of the time. He’s a wimp, and he doesn’t know where he’s going or what he’s doing. It was pathetic. He was pathetic. This whole journey had been a bad idea from the start. Jasmine wished now that she could go back home.
The thought of home sent all the other thoughts in her head rushing around like numbers in a lottery machine. She was angry with Ben, she knew that. But she was also angry with herself for being in this stupid situation. Then throw in being scared, lonely, and confused and you’ve got a right mess. Jasmine didn’t know what to think, or who to blame, or what to do. And it was getting darker.
Maybe Ben was right. Maybe she should have gone home a long time ago. She’d never really wanted to follow him; she hadn’t really had a choice, had she? She could have gone straight back home after the attack in the woods yesterday, but instead she’d followed him. Suddenly her plan looked pretty pointless. She thought about how angry her parents would be with her for being away for so long. And if her parents were angry with her, then no doubt they’ll get angry with each other. In the end, her whole plan to make her parents like each other again would probably just make them hate each other even more.
Jasmine fired a few more bubbles into the air and watched as the breeze carried them away. It didn’t make her feel any better. She was lost and alone and her plan was ruined. She’d given up wiping the tears away now, and just let them roll down her cheeks and drip onto the grass as she walked slowly on. There was still no sign of any bridge, and she knew that she had to consider just turning around and trying to make her way back home, wherever that was.
The whole situation brought back an early memory, one that she’d tried to forget, but was now replaying clearly in her mind. She was eight years old, and her dad had taken her to the park where she played happily for hours. She was on her favourite swing when he finally told her that it was time to go home. But she really didn’t want to go home. She remembered her dad trying to pull her out of the swing but she held on tight and wouldn’t get off. Eventually he said that he would go without her, and off he went, leaving her sitting on the swing.
The image of her dad walking away was etched in Jasmine’s mind as she walked along. He did eventually come back to her, but not for what seemed to Jasmine like hours. Hours of sitting on the swing, feeling like the loneliest girl in the whole world, and wondering if she’d ever see her parents again.
The memory soon faded, but the loneliness remained. Only this time it wasn’t her dad that’d left her, it was Ben. She couldn’t help missing him, no matter how annoying or pathetic he was. But she was walking farther away from him, and there was still no sign of a way to cross the river. And it was getting ever darker.
Ben had nearly reached the other side of the bank. He was close enough now that he picked up the bag of shopping and carefully tossed it onto grass ahead of him. Then he slowly dragged himself the rest of the way and climbed off the tree, onto the bank. Picking up the bag, Ben glanced back, as he had done a number of times while crossing the river, to see if there was any sign of Jasmine. There wasn’t, so Ben continued on in the direction of the windmill at the other end of the field.
The guilt that Ben had for sending Jasmine away was like a burning pain, beginning in his throat and spreading all the way to the bottom of his stomach. He didn’t understand why he’d got so angry at her. Yes, he was tired, and yes, he was angry with his parents and Nick and Gabriel, but why take it out on Jasmine? He began to think of what would happen if she told Gabriel what he’d said to her, but then that thought seemed unimportant when he pictured her walking alone in the dark with no idea where she was.
Ben thought about going back to look for her. In fact, he really wanted to. But he knew it would be pointless. It was almost completely dark, the batteries in his torch wouldn’t last much longer, and the windmill was the only thing visible from a distance. Maybe Jasmine will cross the river further down and reach the windmill. If she did then Ben would have to be there waiting for her.
Ben stopped, took his new compass out of the bag, and pointed it in the direction he’d seen Jasmine walk. It was north-west. He wasn’t sure what good it would do knowing it, but he felt a bit better anyway.
Ben put the compass back in the bag and headed towards the windmill again. He just hoped that he could get inside and that no one would find him in there.
As Ben approached the windmill he began to notice just how old and rickety it actually was. He guessed that the building itself was about as tall as his house, but with the sails it was a lot taller. The sails formed an X shape, and standing on tip-toes Ben could almost reach the bottom of one of them, but not quite. The wood on the sails seemed to be rotting, and the years of wind and rain had stripped a lot of the white paint from them. A smooth gust of wind then swept across the field, and the sails of the windmill groaned and creaked as it blew through.
The building itself was made of stone and painted in what looked in the gloom to be a greeny-grey colour. Ben walked around the back and saw a heavy-looking wooden door at the building’s base. It seemed to be the only way in. Ben stood at the door, trying to find the courage to knock. There was no sound coming from inside but that didn’t make Ben feel any less nervous. He could imagine opening the door and being faced with a crazed farmer with a gun and a man-eating dog that was begging to be let off its chain so it could rip off one of Ben’s legs.
Ben shook his head to get rid of the image, and put his fist up to the door. He counted to three, and then knocked twice.
There was no answer.
Ben waited, and listened for any sound of movement from within. There wasn’t any so he knocked again on the door, three times. The knocks were greeted with nothing but silence. Ben began to be convinced that there was no one inside. And by the look of it, there hadn’t been anyone around for a long while.
Half-way up the door, on the right-hand side, there was a metal handle in a loop shape. Ben twisted the handle one way but it didn’t budge. He twisted it the other way and the handle turned, and seemed to lift a latch on the other side of the door. He pushed lightly on the door and it opened slightly. Ben couldn’t believe how easy this was. He’d already started to think up a complex door-unlocking device involving rocks, string, and a couple of matches. But those thoughts disappeared as he pushed a little harder and the door swung open before his barely-believing eyes.
Ben was about to take a step into the windmill when he heard a loud fluttering of feathers. Almost immediately a bird shot out of the darkness, screeching as it flapped its wings above Ben’s ducking head. Ben had never moved so quickly in his entire life. His heart was still pounding as he looked over his shoulder to see the bird fly off into the distance.
He slowly got up from his crouched position and tried to work out if he was still in any danger. It was just a bird he told himself, and at least that meant there was probably no one else inside. He took a tentative step into the windmill.
‘Hello?’ his voice croaked as he broke the musky silence that seemed to have settled inside for quite some time. There wasn’t a single sound in reply.
There was no sign of any more birds, or for that matter of the farmer or his rabies-infected dog. But then again Ben couldn’t really see much. It was a lot darker inside the windmill than it was outside; he stood in the doorway waiting for his eyes to become accustomed to it. Soon shapes began to emerge. The first thing Ben was able to make out was the side of a wooden staircase. The stairs began on the left side of floor and led up to a hole in the ceiling by the wall on the right-hand side. Moving forward a couple of steps into the mill, he saw that behind the wooden stairs was a large pile of hay that hid most of the back wall.
To his left stood a three-legged wooden trough that looked older than the windmill itself. Looking at the rotting wood, Ben was amazed that the thing was standing at all. He peered inside and saw the powdery remains of some sort of animal feed that would have no appeal to anything except the woodlouse that was crawling around excitedly inside.
Ben turned round again and for the first time saw the back of the door. On the latch he’d opened hung a large padlock that had been left unlocked. Ben wondered if it had been left deliberately, or if whoever owned this place had just forgotten to lock it. Just to be safe though, he unhooked the lock from the latch and placed it on the ground, next to the trough.
Ben walked over to the only side of the windmill that he hadn’t yet explored, but found it to be empty, except for an old pair of green gardening gloves that were covered in mud (at least Ben hoped it was mud – whatever it was it didn’t smell, that was the main thing). He couldn’t resist trying them on, and if they’d been two or three sizes smaller, they’d have been a perfect fit. After wriggling his fingers around in the gloves a few times, Ben took them off and left them on the floor where he’d found them. Then he walked over to the large pile of hay and fell lifelessly onto it.
Ben lay half-buried in the hay and closed his eyes as the strains in his feet and legs began to ease. He didn’t want to move. The hay felt like a bed of feathers and Ben could imagine spending days just lying where he was, in the middle of nowhere, dreaming about fields and cows and windmills.
But he knew he couldn’t.
Jasmine was still out there on her own and Ben knew he had to do something to get her back. He wasn’t sure if she wanted to come back of course, but he decided that questions like that could wait until he’d found her. At least then he wouldn’t feel the guilt burning in his stomach and chest as it was doing right now.
Somehow Ben lifted his tired body from out of the hay, walked out of the door and around to the front of the windmill. As he looked out across the field, he wondered if he’d fallen asleep on the hay, because what little daylight remained when he’d first reached the windmill was now almost completely gone. He couldn’t even see the river in the distance any more it was so dark. Ben felt his stomach sink. How on earth was he going to find Jasmine when he could only see a few meters in front of him?
The torch.
Ben went back to fetch his torch out of his rucksack. He turned it on but before he’d even got outside again the beam was visibly fading. He held the torch out in the direction of the river, but as he looked out hopefully, the beam faded even more until it barely shed light onto the ground by his feet. The battery was dead and the torch was no good to him now.
Ben knew he had to come up with another plan, and it didn’t take him long to do so. In fact, it was obvious really. It was just a question of what to make the fire with, and how much wood he would need. He just hoped that wherever Jasmine was, she was still close enough to see it.
Just yesterday, Ben wouldn’t have dreamed of breaking into someone’s windmill, stealing their trough and setting fire to it. But for some reason, as he was dragging the trough onto the grass outside the mill whilst wearing the gardening gloves, he wasn’t even thinking about the rights and wrongs of what he was doing. All he knew was that he was doing what he had to. He had to get Jasmine back. He had to give her a sign to follow. He had to make a fire. No other thoughts went through his mind. Instead, he began kicking at the remaining three legs of the trough to make his fire with.
The wood must have been rotten as the first leg came clean off after two kicks, and the other two needed only a single kick to send them tumbling off. Ben was left with three long planks of wood, which he broke into six by standing on the end of each plank and pulling the other until it snapped in half.
Then he laid down a couple of handfuls of hay from inside the mill to form a small pile. Around this he leaned the six planks up against each other in a circle, so that the ends all met in the middle above the pile of hay. It took a while to get all the planks to stand up without toppling over, and when it was done Ben rushed to find the matches before the whole thing collapsed again.
It was lucky that Jasmine had suggested buying matches, and she would’ve loved to be the one to actually set the fire alight, Ben thought. He paused with the matches in his hand and took one final look across the field. But it was pointless. All he could see was darkness.
The first match was blown out by the wind as soon as Ben struck it, and the second blew out before Ben could reach through the planks. He struck a third, and guarding it from the breeze with a cupped hand, slowly drew it towards the hay inside the makeshift wooden frame. The hay immediately caught fire, but the flames quickly disappeared and were replaced with nothing but smoke. Ben tried another match but it had exactly the same effect – just more smoke.
Ben was about to give up on the fire idea when he remembered something that his dad did every time they’d had a barbecue at home. Ben lowered his head to the ground and blew gently into the hay. Flames immediately leaped up into the air, and Ben snapped his head back before he set himself on fire. Then he sat back on the grass and watched with delight as the flames engulfed the hay, and then the wood around it.
In minutes the fire was burning handsomely, and Ben felt the warmth from the flames on his tired face. If only Jasmine had seen him make the fire. There was no way she could fail to be impressed – no matter how hard she tried!
The wood crackled, and the orange flames danced to almost twice the height of the planks that were now black at their ends. Ben lay down on the ground near to the fire and closed his eyes. The image of the flames appeared on the backs of his eyelids, and Ben smiled at the thought of what he had created. But the smile soon faded again when the image of the flames was replaced with the image of Jasmine, walking alone, crying. It’d been well over an hour since they parted company.
Ben forced the image out of his mind and slowly felt himself drifting away into an uncomfortable sleep.
The next thing he heard was the sound of his own name, calling him from a distance. Was he dreaming? Ben roused himself from his sleep and was pleased to see the flames still burning in front of him. Then he heard his name again. No, he definitely hadn’t dreamt it, and he couldn’t help smiling when he realised who the voice belonged to.
‘Jasmine?’ Ben called in reply.
‘Ben, is that you?’ came a voice from the darkness.
‘Yeah. Where are you?’
Then Ben saw her, emerging from the gloom, walking towards him. Her hair covered most of her face, but Ben could see the tears glistening under her eyes and down her cheeks.
Ben got up and walked towards her. He was so pleased to see her that everything he thought of saying just seemed pointless. Instead, he found himself just opening his arms with a sorry smile. Jasmine said nothing either and just dropped her bags. She opened her arms too, and curled them around his neck.
Ben held her tightly and stroked the back of her head as she sobbed gently on his shoulder. He could feel tears in his own eyes, and just about managed to whisper a strangled ‘I’m sorry’ into Jasmine’s ear.
‘Me too,’ she stammered, between sobs.
They stayed like that for another minute or two. It seemed like hours to Ben, and although he was so relieved to have her back and so happy to be holding her, he still felt awkward and couldn’t help wondering if he’d held on for too long. Eventually they released their arms, at the same time it seemed, and Jasmine wiped her tears with a tissue.
‘Is that the best you could do?’ she said smiling, and pointing at Ben’s fire.
‘You saw it, didn’t you?’ Ben replied.
‘Yeah, but it looked massive from far away. Now it just looks…small. Did it take long to make?’
‘Ages,’ said Ben, deciding that it was OK to stretch the truth a little. ‘Come and have a look inside the windmill.’
‘You found a way in?’
‘Yep. Follow me.’
Ben, feeling like the proud new owner of the mill, led Jasmine to the door around the back, and showed her in. He decided not to tell her about the bird.

Chapter Seventeen

‘I can’t see a thing in here,’ said Jasmine, standing just inside the doorway of the windmill.
‘Wait a few seconds,’ said Ben, and she did.
Jasmine took a couple of steps forward into the mill. The first thing that hit her was the smell inside. It was a mixture of her dusty loft at home and the inside of an old dustbin. The air was thick and difficult to breathe. To Jasmine everything just felt dirty. Her eyes soon began to adjust, and the shape of the stairs appeared before her. She followed the stairs with her eyes up to the ceiling. ‘Is that a hole in the ceiling?’ she asked.
‘Yeah,’ Ben replied.
‘Have you been up there?’
‘No,’ he said. And not for all the Penguin bars in the world would he be tempted to, he thought to himself. ‘But it’s a cool place, don’t you think.’
Jasmine glanced across to Ben and saw how excited he looked about discovering the mill. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings by saying how dark, dirty, and smelly the place was; or how she couldn’t wait just to be outside again. So she just smiled and agreed that it was pretty cool.
Ben smiled back at her, feeling proud that he’d found somewhere for them to sleep, and happy that Jasmine seemed impressed too. But now it was definitely time to eat something.
Ben picked up the bag of food and his sleeping bag. He suggested that Jasmine might want to use hers to sit on as well while they ate. Moments later they were sitting around the fire on their sleeping bags, just about able to see each other over the flames which were down to a gentle flickering. Their faces were bathed in a warm orangey glow, and as Ben browsed through the bag of food, Jasmine held her hands out to the fire to see how close she could get them before it got too hot.
‘OK,’ Ben said, holding a can in each hand. ‘Do you want the beef stew or spaghetti bolognaise?’
‘Stew, please.’
Ben carefully threw the can over the fire and Jasmine, much to her own surprise, caught it. Then he took a can of cola and threw one over to Jasmine. This time she dropped it, but seemed to be quite happy to leave it on the floor beside her. ‘So what do we do with these then?’ she asked, looking at the can of stew.
‘Well, it says that just shaking them for two minutes will heat them up, then you just tear off the top and eat them.’
So after two minutes of a lot of shaking and giggling, Ben and Jasmine opened their cans and, with a plastic fork each, started digging in.
‘What do you think?’ asked Ben, after a couple of mouthfuls.
‘Not great.’
‘I know,’ he replied. ‘Anyway how did you manage to get across the river?’
Jasmine sighed gently when she heard the question. The last thing she wanted to talk about was her walk along the river. But anyway, she told Ben about the bridge she found further down. What she didn’t tell him was just how far down it actually was, or how she’d never been so scared or lonely in her entire life before she actually found it.
Ben looked down and wondered if he should apologise again for leaving her, and for saying all those nasty things. He still felt guilty, and if the look on Jasmine’s face was anything to go by, she was still pretty upset about the whole thing too.
‘Can we just forget about everything that happened earlier?’ asked Jasmine.
‘Yep. Good idea. I am sorry though; I said some really mean things that I – ’
‘Let’s talk about something else,’ Jasmine suggested.
‘OK,’ said Ben, relieved to get off the subject. ‘Is your stew cold? Mine’s definitely getting colder.’
‘Yeah, mine too. Maybe we didn’t shake them for long enough.’
‘So, what kind of music do you like?’ Jasmine asked, leaning forward slightly on her sleeping bag.
The question took Ben by surprise – no one had ever asked him what sort of music he liked before. He told her that he didn’t listen to much, but this wasn’t good enough for Jasmine, who said that he must listen to some music. Which was true, Ben did listen to the radio sometimes.
He tried to think of the songs he’d heard recently that he liked. One was by a rapper called Jaze (although Jasmine insisted he was called Jay-Z) and the other was a song by Pavarotti that he’d heard on the classical music station.
‘What, the fat opera guy?’ said Jasmine.
‘Yeah – his new song’s really good.’
Jasmine couldn’t help laughing to herself. ‘Oh, you’re so weird!’ she said. Ben obviously had no idea when it came to music. Although it was quite sweet actually – just as long as he never told anyone at school that he liked Pavarotti!
‘What about you?’ asked Ben. ‘What music do you like?’
‘Oooooh, let me think,’ said Jasmine, wrapping her arms around her legs and resting her chin on her knees. ‘Well, I like most pop, a bit of rock: Avril Lavigne – I think she’s cool. I’m quite into trance at the moment as well.’
‘Trance?’ said Ben, screwing up his face, as if he’d never heard the word before.
‘Yeah, it’s a type of dance music.’
‘Does it put you into a trance?’ Ben asked, with a grin across his face.
‘No.’ said Jasmine. ‘But, I suppose, when I listen to it I stop thinking about certain things.’ She’d never thought of it like that before, but it was kind of true.
‘Like what?’ asked Ben.
‘Just stuff that I don’t want to be thinking about.’
Ben thought this whole trance thing sounded pretty crazy. ‘So you listen to music to put you in a trance so that you don’t have to think about bad things,’ he said.
‘Kind of, yeah. Doesn’t everyone do it?’
‘I don’t.’
Jasmine felt pretty stupid, but she couldn’t be the only one listened to music to make themselves feel better. ‘So what do you do when you’ve got bad thoughts and stuff,’ she asked.
‘I used to tell stuff to Lewis, before he moved away (Jasmine had no idea who Lewis was, but she let Ben continue). He pretty much always knew the best thing to say.’ Ben paused, spinning his fork around in his can. ‘What about your friends? Don’t they help sort out stuff like that?’
Jasmine let go of her knees and looked down at her hands that were now resting in her lap. ‘No, not really,’ she said. ‘We don’t talk about that stuff.’
‘Why not?’
‘I dunno. I guess my friends are just better at making me forget about problems rather than fixing them.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘They still care about me though,’ she said, looking back up at Ben. ‘But they’ve probably all got problems of their own. That’s why we all listen to the same music, I suppose – it helps us all forget that kind of stuff.’
‘So why didn’t you just put some music on instead of running away?’
‘I dunno,’ said Jasmine. ‘Probably because there isn’t any music loud enough to make me forget this.’
‘Forget what?’ asked Ben.
‘The reason I’m here,’ she replied.
Ben could see that Jasmine was uncomfortable talking about it, but he had to find out what the reason was. Perhaps he could help her. So he asked, ‘Is it something to do with school?’
A gust of wind blew, and the sails of the windmill creaked and groaned.
Jasmine shook her head.
‘At home?’
She nodded.
‘Is it your parents?’
Jasmine nodded again and looked down at her hands. She was rubbing her fingers nervously and beginning to feel tears in her eyes again, but she was determined not to cry this time. She didn’t know why she was saying all this stuff to Ben. But she’d been dying to tell someone. Just for someone to understand and tell her she wasn’t stupid, or overreacting.
‘I think they’re gonna split up,’ she said.
Ben smiled sympathetically. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘It’s their own fault,’ said Jasmine. ‘They’re as bad as each other. All they do is argue over the stupidest things. Yesterday it was puree.’
‘Tomato puree?’
‘Yeah, I know – crazy. It started with my mum smoking outside, which my dad hates; then dad comes in like he’s James Bond and sees her smoking; and then they argue for the next ten hours.’
‘But it doesn’t mean they’ll definitely slit up,’ said Ben.
‘No, I suppose not,’ Jasmine replied, but she was far from convinced.
‘James Bond is really cool,’ said Ben quietly.
Jasmine agreed with a nod and a quiet ‘hmm’.
Ben asked her who her favourite Bond was.
Apparently it was Pierce Brosnan. She said it was because he had more screen presence than Sean Connery and better comic timing than Roger Moore. And also because she thought he was much better looking than the others.
Ben was both shocked and thrilled by her James Bond knowledge. But he didn’t agree. He thought Timothy Dalton was easily the best, despite Jasmine’s look of disgust. It was simple: The Living Daylights was the best Bond film ever. Timothy Dalton had all Roger Moore’s charm, he was as cool as Sean Connery, and could take Pierce Brosnan in a fight any day.
‘What about George Lazenby?’ Ben asked.
‘Rubbish,’ said Jasmine.
Ben agreed, smiling to himself. Then a question popped into his head that he had to ask. ‘So, what do you reckon your parents will do about you running away?’
Jasmine sighed deeply. ‘Probably have a right go at me, and then start yelling at each other even more.’
‘They might not. It might make them stop.’
‘That was the whole idea,’ explained Jasmine, ‘but I’m not sure now. I reckon this whole trip has probably just been a huge waste of time.’
Ben didn’t know how to reply. He wanted to tell her that it hadn’t been a waste of time, that her parents wouldn’t be angry; but he didn’t know her parents, perhaps she was right.
‘My parents are pretty annoying a lot of the time,’ said Ben. ‘They don’t argue much, though. I suppose I’m lucky.’
‘But I bet my parents are more embarrassing than yours. Did you see them at the last parents evening? They were wearing matching cardigans. Matching!’
‘That’s pretty lame,’ said Jasmine with a hint of a smile. ‘But at least they’re together.’
That was true. Ben started to realise that actually he was lucky to have his parents. They might be boring and embarrassing, but he couldn’t even remember the last time they’d had an argument.
‘Is there anything else to eat?’ asked Jasmine, as she turned to face Ben again.
Ben showed her the crisps they’d bought from the camping shop, and they each took a pack; if anything to get rid of the taste left by the cans of not-so-self-heating food. Then he walked back to the mill and grabbed two handfuls of hay. When he returned, he set about placing the hay on the fire, carefully arranging it as if he was an expert on campfires.
‘It’s my brother I worry about most, y’know,’ said Jasmine, after she’d finished her second mouthful of salt and vinegar crisps.
‘You have a brother?’
‘Yeah. He’s only two, and if my parents split up he’ll end up just like…’ She wanted to say Nikki, but she stopped herself. ‘It wouldn’t be good for him, that’s for sure.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Ben. ‘At least he’ll still have you as a sister. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. I really wish I did sometimes.’ Ben paused for a second while he ate another couple of cheese and onion crisps. ‘It might be better for him if your parents do split up.’
Ben looked up and immediately saw the dismayed look on Jasmine’s face: she looked like she was about to jump through the fire and strangle him. ‘No, wait – listen,’ he said. ‘It would be better, I think, to grow up without all the arguing, even if your parents live in separate houses. Either way, they’ll still love you.’ As Ben said this he found himself blushing and was thankful that Jasmine probably couldn’t tell with only the fire for light. He couldn’t believe he was giving lectures on family to Jasmine Adams – what’s more, he was actually making some sense!
‘I guess so,’ Jasmine agreed. ‘Still sucks though.’
Ben finished his crisps, folded the packet into a small triangle, and put it in his bag. Then he turned back and looked at the fire. ‘Do you think we should put some more wood on the fire?’
‘What would happen if I blew bubbles into it?’ asked Jasmine.
‘They’d probably burn.’
‘Oh,’ Jasmine replied.
‘You gonna try?’ asked Ben.
‘No. My bubbles are far too precious to be burned,’ said Jasmine, as if Ben had suggested she throw herself into the fire.
‘You could toast some raisins,’ Ben suggested.
‘Are you insane?!’
They both started to giggle, and it probably could have been heard three fields away.
‘I don’t think it needs more wood,’ said Ben, eventually.
There was silence. Another conversation that Ben had somehow ended. But he didn’t mind. He felt so comfortable now talking with Jasmine. He was pretty sure that she didn’t hate him. In fact, she seemed to be enjoying herself, and Ben was beginning to think that in some way she might actually be starting to like him. It was funny, because only yesterday he’d been convinced that someone like Jasmine Adams wasn’t capable of liking him, and that someone like her would do anything to force herself not to like him. But things seemed to be different now. She was different, and, what was even stranger, so was he.
‘So, you gonna go to that meeting tomorrow?’ Jasmine asked.
‘What meeting?’ said Ben. Then he remembered. ‘Oh, that.’ With all his thoughts taken up by Jasmine, he’d completely forgotten about the meeting.
‘I still don’t really see what the big deal is?’ said Jasmine, with a concerned ruffle of her eyebrows.
This reminded him how different school was for Jasmine. She knew Nick and Gabriel, but it wasn’t the same Nick and Gabriel that he knew. The ones he knew would be sitting in the meeting thinking only about how they were going to get their revenge. This was the Nick and Gabriel that Jasmine seemed to have no idea about. It was about time she knew the other side to them.
‘Don’t you get it?’ Ben began. ‘As soon as I get out of that meeting they’re gonna kill me!’
‘Who are?’
‘Nick and Gabriel! They hate me enough as it is, what’s it gonna be like when they watch me grass them up to the head? And with my parents sitting there as well. I’m gonna have to move schools.’
‘Oh, come on, they’re not that bad,’ said Jasmine.
Ben took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, but it didn’t seem to work.
‘Yes they bloody are! I can’t believe you don’t realise! Do you want to see what Gabriel did to me?’
Ben rolled up his trouser leg, pulled his sock down, and showed Jasmine the stud marks on his ankle.
‘Ouch,’ said Jasmine, looking like she could feel some of Ben’s pain. ‘Did Gabe really do that?’
‘Yes! And if I hadn’t ran away from him and Nick after school then it probably would’ve been a lot bloody worse!’
Ben was angry. Angry with his parents; angry with Nick and Gabriel; angry at Jasmine; and angry with himself. He’d kept this anger in the pit of his stomach over the last two days, and now it was gushing out like a waterfall.
‘Look,’ said Jasmine, ‘have you tried to be friends with them? All they want is some respect, I’m sure you and Gabe could be friends, y’know, you can be pretty cool sometimes. I reckon he’d like you.’
‘What?’ said Ben, screwing up his face in disbelief. ‘Are you kidding? Friends…me and Gabriel…you know that’s never going to happen. It’s like you said before, it’s just one of those things – one of those school rules you can’t do anything about. Me and Gabriel could never be friends. We’re too different. And why would I want a friend like him?’
‘OK, so you’ve not got that much in common,’ said Jasmine, as Ben looked to the sky. ‘But have you tried just ignoring him then?’
Ben put his head in his hands, and wondered how Jasmine could be so naïve. She was starting to sound like his parents.
‘Have you ever tried to ignore Nick and Gabriel?’ Ben asked. ‘Do you reckon you could, if you wanted to?’
Jasmine pondered this question for a moment. ‘Good point,’ she said. ‘It would be pretty difficult.’
‘Thank you,’ said Ben, relieved that someone was finally seeing it his way. ‘You should try living your entire school life in fear and see how you like it.’
‘You live your entire school life in fear?’ asked Jasmine.
‘Well, no not exactly,’ said Ben. ‘But how would you like it if the only people who gave you one bit of attention were the people that wanted to beat you up?’
Jasmine didn’t know what to say, so Ben continued: ‘I’m either completely ignored, or being threatened by Nick and Gabriel. It’s just not bloody fair, I haven’t done anything to deserve it.’
Jasmine looked up at Ben’s face and was pretty sure she could see tears in his eyes. She couldn’t imagine that Nick and Gabe would actually be so bothered about this kid that they’d go out of their way to beat him up. But Ben seemed to be quite upset about it all. She knew that Nick and Gabe sometimes gave some kids a hard time, but she never thought it would affect them like this. She’d just assumed that these kids went home, turned their computers on and forgot all about it.
‘So Nick and Gabe are the reason you’re out here, in the middle of nowhere,’ Jasmine said.
‘Basically, yes,’ Ben replied.
‘Wow,’ said Jasmine, sitting up suddenly. ‘I had no idea they bothered you that much.’
‘Well, they do,’ said Ben.
Jasmine thought about what he’d said. If they were giving kids like Ben a hard time at school, she was pretty sure she knew why. She didn’t know if she should say anything though, it could get her into a lot of trouble. She looked up at Ben. He was rubbing his eyes behind his glasses as if he was trying to erase bad memories.
‘Y’know,’ she began, ‘life isn’t all that rosy for them either.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Ben, pushing his glasses back onto his nose.
‘Well, Nick, for example. He has a pretty tough time at home.’
Ben was sure that whatever Jasmine said, he wouldn’t feel any sympathy for either of them – they deserved whatever they got.
‘Yeah. I shouldn’t be telling you this but he practically has to look after his younger brother on his own. His mum died when he was nine, I think, and his dad spends most of his time down the pub, or in court. It’s not easy for him.’
Ben just stared at the floor.
‘And Gabriel,’ Jasmine continued, ‘his dad’s in jail for killing his mum.’
‘Seriously?’ Ben could hardly believe what she had said.
‘Yeah. Beat her to death. He used to beat up Gabriel pretty bad too. Did you ever see some of the bruises he came to school with last year?’
‘His dad gave him them – scary. But Gabe always used to say that it was only because of the booze. He pretended not to be bothered, but we all thought he was lying. He was scared to go home after school, he hated his dad.’
Ben was speechless.
‘You can’t tell anyone about this,’ said Jasmine, leaning forward with her eyes open wide.
‘No – no, I won’t,’ Ben stammered. He didn’t think he could even if he tried, it was so gruesome. Gabriel’s dad had murdered his mum. Ben kept repeating it over and over in his head.
‘I know it’s not exactly an excuse to bully people,’ Jasmine said, ‘but it might be part of the reason why they do it.’
‘Yeah,’ muttered Ben in agreement, but he hadn’t really heard what Jasmine had said. All he could think about was how stupid he felt. He’d never dreamed that Gabriel’s life could be worse than his, but it was – much worse.
They sat in silence then for what seemed like an age. The fire continued to spit and crackle but the flames were gradually dying down to a flicker of orange around the black wood.
It was Jasmine that finally ended the silence.
‘Can you believe that all this stuff has made us end up in a field next to a windmill in the middle of nowhere?’
Ben smiled at the thought. ‘Crazy, isn’t it.’
Jasmine smiled back, and said, ‘You should just go to the meeting. Ask your parents to let you go alone, and go and sort out this stuff with Nick and Gabriel. They can be reasonable sometimes, y’know. And if they’re ever angry, you know that it’s not really you they’re angry at.’
‘OK, I’ll think about it,’ said Ben, although thinking about it was the last thing he wanted to do right now. ‘And you shouldn’t worry about your parents. Just look after your brother, he’s lucky to have you. And talk to your friends, I’m sure they’ve got things that you could help them with too.’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ said Jasmine.
Ben checked his watch. It was getting pretty late, and Jasmine suggested going inside to try and get some sleep.
‘Do you wanna play some Top Trumps first?’ Ben replied.
‘Do you have some?’
‘Yeah, Super Snakes.’
‘Cool,’ said Jasmine, ‘I’m wicked at trumps.’
That’s what you think, Ben thought to himself as he reached into his bag for the deck.
The game went on well into the night, and it was Ben who eventually won (by the length of a South American Boa Constrictor). Although he admitted to Jasmine that she’d put up a firm fight. Jasmine ignored this and pelted him with bubbles instead. They put out the fire with the last of the cola, and moved into the windmill where they got into their sleeping bags and collapsed onto the large pile of hay. They were both exhausted and were asleep almost as soon as they’d closed their eyes.

Chapter Eighteen

Ben stirred as a cool breeze blew against his face, but it was the hissing and crackling noises that actually woke him. The first thing he saw was a beam of bright daylight that filled the inside of the windmill. He immediately put his hand across his face to shield his eyes from the light; then he realised that the door must be open. He heard the crackling and hissing again. And then a voice.
‘Yep, we’ve found ‘em sarge.’
Ben looked towards the door, squinting in the sunlight. He reached for his glasses, and only once he’d put them on did he see the two figures standing in the doorway. The voice spoke again.
‘Wakey, wakey, rise and shine.’
It didn’t take long for Ben to realise that the figures in front of him were police officers. But once he had, he felt a pain in his stomach that he thought could only be caused by a firm punch from either Nick or Gabriel. Ben didn’t know what to say or do. He felt sick.
‘Good morning, young man,’ said one of the officers. ‘We’ve been looking for you.’
‘Really?’ said Ben, still half asleep, and still hoping that this was perhaps just another one of his nightmares about being taken home by the police.
‘Oh, yes. You are Ben Smales, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said Ben. This was worse than the nightmare. Ben wanted to panic and run, but his body was frozen stiff.
‘Then I take it this is Miss Jasmine Adams,’ said the officer, pointing to Jasmine.
‘Yes,’ said Ben again. He could now see the officers clearly for the first time. One was a tall, broad, grey-haired man whose immaculate uniform looked like it was new on this morning. He was the one doing all the talking. Ben noticed the end of his truncheon, glinting in the bright sunlight, and hoped he wouldn’t accidently give him a reason to use it. The other officer was a shorter woman with brown hair tied in a ponytail, and an equally immaculate uniform. This time it was the woman who spoke:
‘We’ve had a call from your parents, son. Said that you’ve run away. Is that true?’
As Ben was deciding what to say to this, Jasmine began to wake up next to him. She stretched out her legs inside her sleeping bag and then her arms above her head, yawning as she did so. Then she opened her eyes.
Through her bleary gaze, Jasmine was just about able to make out the two police officers in front of her. And as soon as she had done she couldn’t help letting out a gasp. She immediately sat up on the hay and tried to figure out just what on earth was going on. Why were there two police officers there? Where did they come from? Was she in trouble?
‘What’s going on?’ said Jasmine, wearily.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Ben.
‘I’ll tell you both what’s going on,’ said the man. ‘We’ve come to take you two stowaways back to your parents. They’re worried about you, OK?’
The man’s voice was loud and intimidating, but he didn’t seem angry. His mouth was thin and stern, but Ben thought he could detect some sympathy in his eyes. Maybe they weren’t in as much trouble as it seemed.
Ben heard the hissing and crackling again, and realised that it was coming from the walkie-talkie of the female officer. She ignored the noises and spoke intead:
‘Get your things together then we’ll drive you home in the car.’
Ben felt a lump in his throat when she mentioned home, but without thinking about it, he found himself immediately swinging his legs out of the sleeping bag and climbing off the hay. He still couldn’t believe that his nightmare was going to become a stark reality. Jasmine climbed out of her sleeping bag as well and, without speaking, they both gathered their things and stuffed them into their bags. When they had packed, Jasmine produced her hair brush from her bag and began to brush her hair.
‘No time for that, I’m afraid, young lady,’ said the male officer.
Jasmine threw him a piercing glare and dropped her brush into her bag. Then, with a dismissive roll of her neck, she flicked her hair back and made a one-handed ponytail while she reached into her pocket for a band to tie it back with.
‘Are we in trouble?’ Jasmine asked bluntly, as she tied her hair.
‘Not with us your not,’ said the man. ‘But I hope you’ve got a good story to tell your parents.’ Then the policeman turned to his partner and gave her a smile that suggested he knew what Ben and Jasmine were in for when they got home.
Jasmine ignored this and just picked up her bag, ready to leave. Ben was ready too, and the officers led them outside.
Ben found himself once again squinting in the bright sunlight that now surrounded him. The officers were up ahead, leading him and Jasmine further across the field, away from the river. Ben looked at his watch. Eleven forty-five. He’d already missed another half a day of school. He thought he should probably try and say something reassuring to Jasmine, but nothing that sounded good came into his head. They reached the end of the field and the officers led them through a gap in the bushes.
Before he got there, Ben looked back at the windmill. He’d only been there one night but he knew he was going to miss the place, and wanted to see it just one last time. There it stood in the middle of the field: tall, old and unmovable. Ben almost felt sorry for the windmill. He wished he could stay longer. In fact, he wished he could live there, appoint himself the new mill-master and make those old, cracked sails turn again in the wind.
‘Come along, kid,’ said the policeman, and Ben tore himself away from the image of his working windmill and trudged through the bushes onto a road, along which the police officer’s car was parked.
The back of the police car smelt like a classroom, and neither Ben nor Jasmine enjoyed the ride home. They didn’t say anything to each other, instead choosing to look at the window and wonder at how far they’d actually come on their two-and-a-half-day journey.
Soon enough, the roads began to be familiar to Ben, and unfortunately that meant they were getting ever closer to home, and to his parents. But just as Ben was thinking the worst about what his parents would do to him, the police car slowed to a stop.
‘OK, Miss Adams, you’re home,’ said the lady officer.
Ben looked out of the window and marvelled at the house they had stopped outside. It looked brand new, in fact all the houses on the road did, and they all looked very similar. Jasmine’s house was huge. It seemed like a palace compared to his own house, Ben thought.
Jasmine got out of the car without saying anything. Before she shut the door, she gave Ben a fleeting smile, and Ben tried to muster up one of his own in return. He sat on his own in the police car for what seemed like hours before the police officers returned again.
As they pulled away from Jasmine’s house, Ben wanted to ask the officers all sorts of questions: Was Jasmine upset? Were her parents angry? Were they arguing?
But Ben didn’t ask them any questions. He felt too nervous to talk. He actually found himself closing his eyes as they approached his house. Although his dad would be at work, his mum would be there, and she was going to be furious. Ben knew that he just had to accept this, and prepare himself for the shouting and crying that was to follow.
But what was to follow wasn’t shouting or crying, it was worse.
The car soon pulled up outside Ben’s front door, and the police officer opened the door for Ben to step out of the car. As Ben led the two officers along the path that led to his front door, he thought about running. Just running away – it didn’t matter where. But Ben knew that his running was over, and now he had to face the consequences. He got to the door and rang the bell.
He felt like a stranger on his own doorstep.
Behind the door were the faces of both his mum and dad; just as they had been in the nightmare. Without saying a word, they both spread there arms around him and held him tightly. Ben didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know if they were hugging him just because they were relieved to see him, or whether they really meant it. Eventually they let go, and his dad ushered Ben into the kitchen with an expression on his face that Ben had never seen before. His dad then went back to his mum to quietly thank the police officers.
Ben dropped his bag onto the floor, sat at the kitchen table, and waited for his parents to join him. Soon enough he heard the front door close and the sounds of his parents’ footsteps as they approached the kitchen. Slowly, and without speaking, they sat down to the table. Ben didn’t want to look up. He just wanted to listen to what they had to say and get the lecture over and done with. But still there was silence. Ben grew even more uncomfortable, just wishing that one of them would say something. The clock in the corner of the kitchen ticked loudly. It was the only sound Ben could hear, and to him it was deafening. Each tick seemed slower and louder than the last. This was like torture, Ben thought.
It was his dad who finally broke the silence.
‘We’re sorry, Ben,’ he said.
This wasn’t at all what Ben expected, but nevertheless he replied, ‘I’m sorry too.’
For some reason then, tears began to form in Ben’s eyes, quicker than they ever had done before, and before he knew it, he was sobbing. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but it was something to do with the thought of his parents being sorry that made him so upset. After all the worry he must have caused them, it was they who were sorry.
Ben’s mum put his arm around him and handed him a tissue.
‘You’re OK, and that’s the main thing,’ his mum said.
Ben tried to speak, but found himself just forming a lopsided smile instead, as another tear rolled down his cheek.
‘Ben,’ his dad began, ‘we’re disappointed that you felt you couldn’t talk to us about whatever has been bothering you. You obviously thought it was easier to run away than to talk to us, and that makes us feel terrible, doesn’t it?’ he said, turning to Ben’s mum.
She nodded back, barely able to keep the tears at bay herself.
‘You shouldn’t have gone like that, you know. We’ve been worried sick,’ his dad said.
‘I’m sorry,’ Ben spluttered, ‘it just seemed like the best thing to do.’
There was an awkward silence, followed by a question that Ben knew was going to take a long time to answer.
‘Just where did you go?’ asked his mum.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, Ben told his parents the story of his walk to the woods, meeting Jasmine, and everything else that happened after that. He knew they wouldn’t be satisfied, so it was no surprise when his dad asked what exactly it was that had driven Ben to leave home in the first place.
Ben didn’t have the energy for any kind of argument, so he found himself telling the story just as it happened, including what he’d called Gabriel just before he stole his own ruler back. Both his mum and dad looked shocked to hear him say something like that, but they let him carry on with the story regardless. He told them about losing his sandwiches; the stolen ruler; the PE lesson; the chase after school; and then the meeting, and why he just couldn’t go.
By the end of his story, the faces of Ben’s parents had turned a pinky shade of white. Ben could tell just by the way in which they glanced at each other that, not only were they shocked by what he’d told them, but that they weren’t really sure what to do about it. It was the first time that Ben could remember his parents being unsure about something important like this. In a way, Ben was pleased to see them stuck for what to say to him. It felt like a small but significant victory against them; but he wasn’t sure whether this victory was going to help him in the long-run.
‘I want to go to the meeting,’ said Ben, quite out-of-the-blue.
‘Well, that’s great,’ said his dad. ‘It’s the best way for us all to sort this out.’
‘But I would really prefer it if you let me go alone.’
Jasmine led the two police officers along the path to her front door, gritting her teeth in defiance of whatever her parents might yell at her. She knew she was going to have to endure some shouting, either at her, or between her parents, and she wanted to make sure that she was prepared for it. But then there was Arthur too. A bubble of sadness rose from Jasmine’s stomach and into her throat as she realised that she hadn’t given her brother a single thought for the entire journey home. She’d been so preoccupied thinking about what her parents might say, and what she should say in reply, that Arthur hadn’t entered her thoughts. And she had missed him so much.
Jasmine reached the front door and rang the bell. Her mum quickly opened the door; a half-burnt out cigarette was hanging loosely from her lips, her hair was a mess, and she was wearing the clothes that she only wore for her once-a-year spring clean. She didn’t look good at all.
Jasmine didn’t really have a chance to see the expression on her mum’s face before her arms were locked around her neck and shoulders, squeezing her tightly.
‘Thank god,’ her mum said, and then repeated it three more times.
‘Hi Mum,’ said Jasmine.
Jasmine’s mum thanked the police officers with Jasmine still in her arms, then she shut the door behind her, and walked Jasmine into the living room.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ asked her mum. She looked like she wanted to be angry with Jasmine, but just didn’t have the energy. Instead, she sounded just tired and upset. The ashtray on the table in front of her was overflowing with cigarette butts.
‘Where’s Arthur? Is he OK?’ asked Jasmine, as a tear fell from her cheek onto her lap.
‘He’s upstairs asleep. And he’s fine. Now, please answer my question.’
‘Can I go and see him?’
‘I said he’s asleep, now stop changing the subject and answer the damn question.’
‘I went to the woods,’ said Jasmine.
‘For three days?!’
‘Yes,’ she said, wiping another tear from her face with her sleeve. ‘Where’s Dad?’
Her mum’s expression suddenly changed. ‘He’s at work,’ she said. ‘He knows you’re OK.’ She had a strange look on her face. A look that suggested to Jasmine that her mum was thinking something that she didn’t want Jasmine to know about.
‘Why did you go to the woods?’ her mum asked. ‘Who were you with? Why didn’t you phone?’
She lit another cigarette.
‘Do you have to do that?’ Jasmine asked, waving the smoke away from her face with her hand.
‘Yes. After what you’ve put me through, young lady, I do.’
‘Fine,’ said Jasmine, letting out a long sigh as she did so. Then she began the story of going to the woods; meeting Ben; being attacked by the two men; going shopping in the camping shop; and almost everything else (she left out the part about the bulls; and the disagreement with Ben at the river). Her mum puffed nervously on her cigarette as Jasmine told of her journey. Occasionally Jasmine paused as she told her story, each time expecting a barrage of questions to come from her mum; but she was silent. For the first time Jasmine could remember, she talked while her mum just listened. No disagreements, no questions, no sarcastic comments, just listening.
Eventually Jasmine reached the point at which the police found Ben and her, and her story was finished. She sat in silence, waiting for her mum’s reaction. Her mum stubbed out the cigarette, leaned forward, and took hold of Jasmine’s hands.
‘I’m so sorry, Jaz,’ she said. ‘It’s been a difficult time for your dad and me, and I know it’s difficult for you too.’
Jasmine nodded as tears once again formed in her eyes. Her mascara was running all the way down her cheeks, but she didn’t care.
‘I just wish you could have talked to one of us before you took off.’
‘But you were fighting,’ Jasmine said bitterly.
‘We had an argument, I know, but you should have just waited til we calmed down a bit. We both have very stressful jobs, y’know. It’s not easy for us either.’
‘I know,’ Jasmine sobbed, ‘but you always just say I’m getting in the way, and that I should stay out of it. You never listen. Neither of you do.’
‘I’m sorry if you think that, but that doesn’t mean you should go running off with strange kids. You almost gave me a heart-attack.’
Jasmine just looked down at the damp tissue she was holding.
‘Look,’ said her mum in a hushed voice, ‘there are gonna be some changes around here that I think will make life easier for everyone.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Jsmine, looking up at her through teary eyes.
‘Your dad won’t be coming home tonight. He’ll be staying with unkle Garry.’
‘Why?’ squeaked Jasmine, although deep down she knew the answer; she just didn’t want to believe it.
‘We both think it’s best if we spend some time apart, to give each other a break, and to give you and Arthur a break too.’
Jasmine dropped her wet tissue to the floor and drew a fresh one from the box on the table. The news didn’t come as a surprise, but that didn’t stop the tears. She put her arms around her mum, who hugged her back, and they stayed that way until Jasmine’s eyes were dry again.

Chapter Nineteen

It was strange for Ben to think that only yesterday he’d woken up inside a windmill, in a field somewhere; and as he walked along the path on his way to school he felt that something had changed. He wasn’t early today; he was on time. And for once he wasn’t rushing to get through the school gate; he was just walking.
It was a grey morning, but the sun was beginning to break through the cloud ahead of him, and in the distance Ben saw the school gate. His heart began to beat a little faster as he approached it, and he saw Nick and Gabriel standing there with their cigarettes half hidden in their curled up hands. Ben was nervous, but he knew what he was going to do.
Ben tried to walk naturally, with his hands in his pockets and his teeth grating against each other. His eyes were focused on an invisible spot about five feet in front of him; he kept walking. He was at the gate now, and could clearly see Nick and Gabriel, but in the corner of his eye, he wasn’t looking at them. Ben wanted to run right past them as fast as he could, but he didn’t. He kept walking calmly, despite how difficult he was finding putting one foot in front of the other in an orderly fashion.
He was level with them now, and he heard one of them whispering to the other, in that sneering, slimey way of theirs. But Ben ignored it and walked straight past as if they weren’t there, and continued down the rest of the school driveway towards the entrance.
The usual herd of school kids were all trying to get through the front doors at the same time, laughing and shouting as they did so, but this didn’t concern Ben today; he had other things on his mind. Things that were more important than just what someone else was saying or thinking; things that concerned him.
Registration was the same as always. There was the usual clamour of noise, throwing of paper missiles, and shrieks of excitement. Except that today Johnny and Nathan weren’t duelling with chairs, they were arm-wrestling at a table. As Ben walked through the classroom, he glanced around to see if Jasmine had arrived yet, but there was no sign of her. This was hardly surprising, Ben thought to himself. She was probably brushing her hair or putting on some make-up. He smiled to himself just thinking about it.
Ben sat down and waited for the form tutor to arrive. No one had welcomed him back, or asked where he’d been. In fact, he didn’t think anyone had actually noticed him arrive at all. But that didn’t matter. The form tutor, Mr Glutridge, had just walked through the door, and the day was about to begin.
Mr Glutridge put down his mug of coffee and picked up the register.
‘OK, quieten down,’ he said.
Then he began to read the register in the deep, rasping voice that he used to conduct every registration. Ben waited pensively for his name to be read out, and when it was he answered as he always did. To which Mr Glutridge replied: ‘Nice to have you back with us, Ben.’ And he gave Ben a quick glance.
Ben replied with a quick smile and then looked down at his desk, hoping that Mr Glutridge wouldn’t announce to the class where Ben had been for the last two days. But he didn’t.
Before Mr Glutridge had finished the register, the door at the back of the classroom opened. Ben turned round to see Jasmine trying to sneak in without being noticed. She didn’t do too well.
‘Good morning, Miss Adams,’ boomed Mr Glutridge. ‘Nice of you to finally join us.’
‘Sorry I’m late,’ said Jasmine quietly and with a quick smile.
Ben’s gaze followed Jasmine who, looking just a little embarrassed, made her way to her seat and sat down as quick as she could. She didn’t look in Ben’s direction at all, so he turned round again and waited for registration to finish.
All that was left was for Mr Glutridge to say: ‘OK, now off you go straight to class, no dawdling or hanging about this morning. I want you straight there and on time. You may leave.’ And registration was finished.
Ben got up to leave and couldn’t help glancing over to Jasmine. She was already in conversation with Nikki and Zoë, and Emily quickly joined them. Ben followed them out of the classroom, not sure whether he wanted Jasmine to turn round and say hello to him. But she didn’t anyway, and Ben and Jasmine went their separate ways to their first lesson.
For Ben, that was biology. And it was lucky for him that it went by without incident as his mind really wasn’t on the lesson. The meeting with Nick, Gabriel, and the head teacher had been arranged for first break, and it was all Ben could think about.
As he watched the teacher trying to explain the diagram of a human lung that he’d drawn haphazardly on the board, Ben thought about what he should say in the meeting. He’d already done the hardest thing: to convince his parents that it was best for him to go without them. It hadn’t been easy. It took a lot to convince them that he wasn’t just not going to go. They thought that the only way to be completely sure that he did go was to go along with him. But he promised them and, just to be sure, said that he could ask the head teacher to ring them to let them know he was there. Ben had no intention of actually doing this, but just suggesting the idea to his parents convinced them that he was actually going to go.
That was the first part; the next thing was to decide what he should say to Nick and Gabriel. Should he stand up to them and insist he was right? He thought about what Jasmine had said to him about Nick and Gabriel, and realised that standing up to them would probably just make them more angry, even if it wasn’t actually him they were angry at. No, maybe that wasn’t the best thing to do. But he didn’t want to appear too pathetic either – that would make them angry too, probably.
This wasn’t going to be easy. He was going to have to look confident, and Ben knew that didn’t come easily. And then there was the head teacher. There was no telling which side he might take, or what he might say.
Before he knew it the biology lesson was over, and Ben found himself heading out of the classroom, towards the head teacher’s office. It was a long walk from the science department to the head’s office, and before he’d even reached the languages department he could feel the sweat under his arms and in the palms of his hands, which were placed firmly in his pockets. His throat was dry; his head felt light; and his stomach felt like a washing machine on its final spin. Then, just as he turned the corner onto the main corridor, he saw Jasmine walking towards him.
Walking alongside her were, as usual, Nikki, Emily, and Zoë, and they were all giggling about something. Ben looked up at Jasmine as she approached, and thought to himself that she looked different somehow. As he did so, Jasmine glanced back, but then immediately averted her eyes to the ground. As Ben got closer, she looked up again, but only into the distance, way over Ben’s head. They walked past each other, and to anyone watching, it was as if they’d never even met each other before.
It wasn’t as if Ben expected Jasmine to run up to him and give a big hug in front of all her friends; but to be completely ignored by her made him feel lonelier than ever. He remembered the time when they were in the field, before they’d reached the river, and Jasmine had told him how things would be different at school. That, because of her friends, she would feel differently about people like him.
He’d hoped that she might have changed her mind about all those things after their journey together, but it seemed that she hadn’t. And, as far as she was concerned, he was no more than just another face in the crowd.
It was a shame, but Ben knew he had to put those thoughts out of his head because he was at the head’s office now, and about to enter the meeting that he’d been dreading for the past three days. Ben knocked on the door and heard a voice from within telling him to come in.
Ben had never been in the head’s office before, and the first thing that struck him was how big the place was. It was almost the size of a classroom, although it looked so much more organised. The desk in the far corner was huge, and on it were neatly arranged stacks of paper. Behind the desk was one of the biggest leather swivel chairs that Ben had ever seen, and sitting in it was the head teacher, Dr Henry.
‘Have a seat, Ben,’ said Dr Henry, pointing to the three empty seats that were arranged in a semi-circle in front of his desk.
‘OK,’ said Ben, sitting down in the one furthest to the left. It was the first time Ben had got a good look at his head teacher from close range; he’d only ever seen him before in assemblies, or walking along the corridor. In fact, Ben wondered how Dr Henry knew his name: he must have been given it by someone else, he thought. Dr Henry wasn’t looking at Ben, he was reading something in a file, and Ben could guess that it was probably about him.
There was something strange about the way in which Dr Henry was holding the folder. Then Ben realised what it was: his hands were huge. They must have been twice the size of his own, Ben thought. In fact, everything about Dr Henry seemed to be larger than average: his nose, his mouth, his whole head in fact. Then Dr Henry stood up and pulled another folder from the shelf behind him. He was as tall as Ben expected and dressed in an expensive looking black suit. As he sat down again, the leather chair squeaked and groaned, and as Dr Henry peered through his oval glasses at this folder, he let out a deep sigh.
He wasn’t that old, Ben thought, but the lines on his rather red face made him look experienced; as if running the school for the last seven years had been an uphill struggle. At that point there was a loud knock at the door.
‘Come in,’ said Dr Henry, barely moving his lips.
In walked Nick and Gabriel, noisily dropping their bags onto the floor and sitting down in the two seats next to Ben. They seemed very familiar with the place, and were acting like they’d done this before. As they sat down, Ben smelt the smoke from their clothes, and it made him feel even sicker inside. He’d always had the image in his head of being in the meeting with the two of them. But as Ben glanced at them now, they looked even more confident and threatening than he’d ever imagined.
Dr Henry casually stood up and, without saying a word, held a bin out to Gabriel. Gabriel promptly spat out his chewing gum into it and Dr Henry sat down again. They’d done that routine a few times, Ben thought.
‘OK, boys,’ Dr Henry began, ‘I’m told we have a bit of a situation here.’
Gabriel let out a quiet but noticeable snort, seemingly in protest at having to be there at all.
Dr Henry continued, ‘I’ll make one thing clear: this school is one big community, and no one should feel isolated from that community. You all know that the school will not tolerate bullying or any behaviour that undermines our school community.’
Ben wondered if Dr Henry realised that he sounded more like a politician than a head teacher. Was he up for election at the end of the term?
‘Now, Ben, we’ll start with you,’ Dr Henry continued. ‘Tell me what’s been going on, from your point-of-view.’
This was the bit that Ben had been dreading. In the corner of his eye he saw Nick and Gabriel turn towards him slightly, in expectation of what he might say about them. They knew that Ben could land them in real trouble, just by telling the truth.
‘Well,’ Ben began, ‘it’s my own fault really. I swore at Gabriel in a maths lesson, so I suppose I deserved what I got.’ Ben was petrified inside, but to his surprise his voice came out calm and almost confident.
‘Is that true, Gabriel?’ asked Dr Henry. ‘Did Ben swear at you?’
‘Yeah,’ Gabriel quietly replied, looking down at his shoes.
‘But that’s no excuse to stamp on someone’s ankle, is it?’ Dr Henry said. ‘That could’ve been very nasty indeed.’
The room fell silent, but the air inside was still thick with tension.
‘OK, boys,’ said Dr Henry, ‘I want you to apologise to each other, and then we can forget the whole thing.’
Ben turned slightly towards Nick and Gabriel, looked them both in the eyes, and said, ‘Sorry, guys.’
‘Sorry,’ grunted Nick and Gabriel in unison, both still looking down at the carpet.
‘OK,’ said Dr Henry again, ‘off you go to your next lesson, and just try to keep out of each other’s way in the future, alright?’
‘OK,’ all three of them muttered as they stood up and picked up their bags, ready to leave the office. Ben let Nick and Gabriel walk out ahead of him, and as they did so Gabriel turned round slightly and seemed to give a slight nod. Ben wondered if this was at him – a nod of thanks perhaps for not landing them in trouble. Anyway, whether it was at him or not, he hoped that at least he hadn’t given Nick and Gabriel any more reasons to come after him. And in the circumstances, that was probably the best he could hope for.
Ben walked out of the office, and off in the opposite direction to Nick and Gabriel. He felt relieved that it was all over. OK, in a way, he had let them get away with it, but he knew that he was partly responsible himself for everything that happened, even though it was only a small part. But after what Jasmine had said about Nick and Gabriel’s lives at home, Ben didn’t want to give them yet more things to worry about. So, all in all, he felt that he’d done the right thing; although he wouldn’t find out for sure until the end of the day, when he would see whether or not they would want to meet him again at the school gate.
The rest of the day went along as any typical school day did: in chemistry, Dan Forsythe broke two test-tubes and burnt a hole in his trousers with sodium hydroxide; in French, Nikki O’Connor had forgotten to do her homework, but got away with it; and in English, Ben had to sit through the latest edition of Mike’s mountain biking magazine, as he pointed out everything that was ‘mint’ or ‘dodgy’. Soon enough it was half-past-three, and the bell went.
Ben walked casually to the gate, not expecting Nick and Gabriel to be there, but ready to run nevertheless. As Ben approached the gate, he could see some people waiting there, but he didn’t want to look up to see who they were; instead, he kept his head down and passed straight through.
His muscles all seemed to relax at once as he began walking down School Lane; but moments later he felt a tap on his shoulder. Ben’s heart sank into his stomach. He knew he had to turn round, but he didn’t want to see what was behind him. He turned round.
It was Jasmine.
Ben let out a huge sigh of relief and smiled back gratefully at Jasmine.
‘Hi, Jasmine,’ he said.
‘Can I walk home with you?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Sure,’ Ben replied. He knew that would mean going the long way home, but he really couldn’t care less about that.
‘So how was the meeting? Did you go?’
‘Yep, I went on my own in the end.’
‘Oh, cool – you persuaded your parents not to go then.’
‘Yeah, it wasn’t easy, but they agreed in the end. It went OK actually. I said sorry for swearing at them, and they seemed OK about it. Dr Henry just said to keep out of each other’s way.’
Jasmine smiled. ‘Hah, typical,’ she said.
‘I know,’ said Ben, smiling as well.
‘Don’t worry about Nick and Gabriel, I’ll make sure they give you some respect.’
‘Thanks,’ said Ben, and then he realised, looking at Jasmine, what was different about her. It was her make-up. She wasn’t wearing any; or if she was, not much of it. She looked so grown-up, and really pretty.
Ben continued, ‘I thought I wasn’t ever going to speak to you again after you blanked me in the corridor.’
‘Yeah, sorry about that. But I took your advice though.’
‘Yeah, about my parents – I talked to my friends about it, and they were really cool.’
‘So what’s going to happen with them then?’ asked Ben.
‘They’re gonna split up for a while,’ said Jasmine.
‘Oh, I’m sorry about that.’
‘No, it’s cool – that’s what Emily’s parents did, and they got back together a month later. So I think it could be a good thing for everyone, y’know.’
‘I hope so,’ said Ben.
There was silence then for a little while as they walked along the road, thinking about things: things at home and things at school. Some things certainly had changed a great deal.
‘Y’know,’ said Jasmine, ‘about the last few days.’
‘I just wanna say I had a really good time, and…I’m glad I met you in the woods that day. You certainly taught me some interesting things, Benjamin!’
‘Thanks,’ said Ben, blushing slightly, and not quite believing his own ears. ‘I had a great time too. I’m actually not that scared of you anymore either!’
They both giggled, and Ben realised that she probably thought he was joking.
‘So can we be friends?’ she asked.
‘Sure,’ said Ben. ‘Within reason.’
‘Of course,’ Jasmine replied with a smile. ‘We wouldn’t want to harm your reputation, would we.’
‘No we wouldn’t,’ said Ben, grinning all over his face.
At that point Jasmine stopped, and Ben realised that they were standing outside her house.
‘Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, Benjamin.’
‘I guess you will,’ said Ben.
With a little wave, Jasmine turned round and headed to her front door. Ben watched her as she opened the door and was greeted by her baby brother, who she picked up and, holding his little hand, made him wave Ben goodbye. Ben waved back and then, with a smile, Jasmine shut the front door.
Ben finally headed for home then, pleased that this day was over. His mum greeted him as he came through the front door. The tea was made and the crumpets were on the grill.