Chapter Fifteen

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Ex's and Oh's

My hands are tight fists as I step through Pine's doors, and the pain of fingernails digging into my skin tethers me to reality. The crumpled-up paper burns through my bag and into my hip as I try to concentrate on breathing, but my throat is tight and my lungs dry up with each breath I attempt to take.

I look at the tide of people swelling in waves around me, but their faces all roll into one and I recognise nobody. I can't find Eden's pink jumpsuit, Ellie's red hair or even Riley's knitted brows.

Taking a deep breath, I try to calm myself down, but questions crash into my mind like freight trains. Who left me that note? How do they know what happened? Why am I still standing here?

Now more than ever I want to go back to my room and call Mum, but she's probably settling down for dinner and, if I know anything, it's to not get in the way of her and food.

The faint, coppery taste of blood fills my mouth and I suddenly realise I've split the inside of my lip. This is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Tears sting in my eyes, burning hot as they roll down my cheeks. For a moment, I think that Ellie's hard work is going down the drain but then shake my head. What I need is to worry about myself for a change, and it's this that makes me turn around and step towards the exit.

I shuffle past a group of rowdy second years, but just as the cool air meets my skin, a pair of hands grip my arms like pincers and pull me back into a hug. I don't even need to open my eyes to know who it is – the sweet scent of perfume already tells me.

Amy's hug, as usual, squeezes the air out of my lungs. Her body is warm against mine and the faint, bitter smell of alcohol tells me she's been drinking.

'I hope you weren't about to leave,' she says, pulling my shoulders back to an arm's length.

Her blonde hair bobs in the slight breeze and those make-up covered cheeks flush with red as she looks me over.

'What's wrong, Hails? As your senior mentor, I demand to know you're okay.'

I blink away the tears and look at her for a second. Amy wears a white blouse with black jeans, and her hair is deadly straight with not a single strand out of place.

There's a slight slur in her voice, but she still speaks just as quickly as the day we met and her brows are the most expressive pair I've seen.

A crease appears between her eyes, and I shake myself from my thoughts.

'I'm fine,' I say quickly. 'Just having a moment.'

'You're fine?' She juts her chin, and the narrowing in her eyes tells me she doesn't believe a word. 'Then why are you crying?'

I wipe away the remaining tears with my fingertips. 'Like I said, I was having a moment.'

She looks at me for a second too long. 'You know you can always talk to me, right? I know I don't seem like the talking type, but it's literally what I'm here for.'

For a second – a very brief, minute second – I debate telling her everything, to spill my guts to senior-mentor-Amy just because I need someone here who knows what happened. But then, with a sinking feeling, I remember that someone already does.

Every time I blink, I see the note. Those words are imprinted on the inside of my lids, haunting me in both reality and fiction.

Who wrote it? Better yet, who managed to get so close to me as to plant the paper in my bag?

My nostrils flare, but I force a smile at Amy. Around us, people cheer as more drinks are brought out.

'I know,' I say, 'and I promise I'm fine.' There's a pause as I take a deep, heart-steadying breath. With Amy here, it's not like I can leave now. 'Shall we go inside?' I ask.

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