12. Christmas and Year Nine
“Merry Christmas, Cas!”
I slowly awoke from my sleep to find Dexter standing over me, a large grin planted on his stupid face. “What time is-”
“Six thirty, everyone else is already up, and breakfast is ready!”
Dexter pulled my covers off of me in an attempt to get me out of bed and I begrudgingly obliged, pushing myself up with my elbows. From my bed, I could see that it had snowed outside overnight, a thick blanket of white that wrapped itself around our house. It never snowed at Christmas, not in England and definitely not in the south. A few years ago this would have excited me - I would have been bundled up in my coat, scarf and gloves before anyone else had even woken up. But now it just seemed like an obstacle, blocking me from escaping the house. Despite this house being much larger than the old one, I felt equally as cramped. Maybe even more - Mum never left the house anymore, and seemed to be hanging around in any room I wanted to enter like a trapped wasped. It was like she wanted to leave, but couldn’t. The window was wide open, yet she still couldn’t get out.
“I’ll be down in a minute, let me rejoin the conscious world first.” My throat was dry, and as I blindly reached for my glasses on my bedside table I almost knocked over the glass of water I had put there last night. Trust me to get ill on Christmas morning. A throbbing pain became apparent as I stumbled out of bed to my feet, and even with my glasses on my vision was hazy.
“Cas, you look awful. Are you okay?”
“I will be when you stop talking.”
He followed me closely as I made my way down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen, where the rest of the Graham family sat round the table. Dad cheered as I entered the room.
“Look who’s decided to grace us with her presence this fine Christmas morn.” Mum gestured to my plate, as I took my seat next to Dad. Christmas breakfast consisted of croissants and homemade jam, which I usually would have gobbled up without a second though. But looking down at the buttery, flaky pastry and sweet, sugary jam, my stomach lurched.
The whole family had their eyes on me as I threw up all over the table.
I hadn’t intended to spend Christmas in the bathroom, but my body could barely go ten minutes without having to empty itself. My bones felt so weak, and I couldn’t prop myself up enough to even stay knelt over the toilet.
“She needs to go to the hospital, Heather. She’s got food poisoning, and at this rate she’ll have no fluid left in her body and need to go on a drip!” I heard Dad warn Mum as they stood outside the bathroom.
She tutted. “Maybe she shouldn’t have overindulged herself at Rose’s party yesterday. Have you noticed she’s been putting on a lot of weight lately? She’ll overtake Emma at this rate.”
“You can’t be serious? She’s thirteen, Heath, she’s going through puberty, It’s only natural that her body will change. And I thought you hated people calling Emma fat?”
“I didn’t call Emma fat, and I am not spending my Christmas in the hospital. I’m spending it at home with my family, in my pyjamas.”
At that moment, I threw up again, and as I leant over the toilet bowl, everything started to go blurry.
The hospital was busy. I hadn’t expected it to be busy, but then I’d never been in hospital on Christmas day before, so what did I know. Dad had driven me in eventually, after I’d collapsed onto the bathroom floor in a pale heap. Mum hadn’t come with us, but obviously she had the twins to look after. It was Christmas, afterall, and she wanted to spend it at home.
A nurse fiddled with the IV that was attached to the back of my hand. “There we go, that should be better now. What a shame you have to be here on Christmas! Have you opened any of your presents yet?”
I shook my head, too weak to speak.
“Well, maybe your mum could bring some in for you when she visits. Your dad’s back from the toilet now, I’ll let you rest and come back later.” She disappeared to the otherside of the ward. Dad sipped coffee from a paper cup.
There was a guilty look on his face, like he wanted to apologise for something. “Cas, I, er - can I tell you something? I can trust you to keep a secret, right?”
He took a seat on the edge of my bed, jogging his knee up and down. That was something he always did when he was anxious. After a deep breath and a few more sips of coffee he turned his head to look at me. “I think your mum is sick. Not sick like you, but up here.” He tapped his temple with his forefinger. “You heard her earlier, talking about your weight and that. You’re not fat, Cas, don’t worry about it. But that’s not the only thing.”
That wasn’t what I had expected him to say. Mum wasn’t sick, she had always been like that. She was just blunt, and honest, increasingly so lately. If I’d had the energy to reply, I would have told Dad he was worrying over nothing.
“I woke up one night, back in the old house, and she was holding a pillow over AJ’s head. Not smothering him, but thinking about it. How could she even think about doing that? She’s a mother,AJ was just a tiny little baby.” He gulped, turning his head away from me as he tried to hold back tears. “I’m sorry, you shouldn’t have to worry about this, just - just forget it.”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to grab Dad’s shoulders and shake them until he snapped, until his eyes fell from their sockets and made a mess on the pristine white floor. How could I ‘just forget’ that my mum had apparently tried to murder my baby brother? His words buzzed round in my head, my headache growing worse with every second. Mum wouldn’t do that.
They seemed to be growing more and more distant with each passing day. I spent three nights in hospital recovering from a nasty bout of food poisoning thanks to Auntie Rose, and when I arrived back home having missed Christmas, Mum barely acknowledged my existence. She barely acknowledged Dad’s either, despite his constant efforts to please her.
“They’re gonna get a divorce.” Journey stated one afternoon as we helped AJ and JJ build their first snowman. She lifted JJ up to the head and he pressed two cool black pebbles into the snow for the eyes.
Dexter flicked some snow off of his gloves towards her. “Journ, you couldn’t even spell divorce, let alone spot when one was happening.” There was an uncertainty in his voice, and the word divorce came out higher than the rest.
“At least I’m not still getting voice cracks at eighteen years old!” She scooped up a fistful of snow and lobbed it at him, but he ducked just in time.
“Yeah, because you’re a girl, and girls don’t get voice cracks, dipshit.”
“Shh!” I gestured to the twins, who were innocently rolling around in the snow. It wasn’t even that deep, barely more than an inch, but it was the most I’d ever seen in one go.
“They didn’t hear me.” Dexter kicked a lump of snow at me, and it hit me square in the face. At first he laughed, but then he approached me and helped wipe it out of my hair. “You probably shouldn’t be out in the cold, anyway. You just got out of the hospital.”
“Yeah, but with food poisoning. I’m fine now.” I cautiously looked round until, making sure Journey and the twins were out of earshot. “Do you really think they won’t get a divorce?”
His eyes couldn’t meet mine. “I don’t know. I heard them arguing the other day, something about internet search histories and debt and mortgages. I stopped listening after I heard the slap.”
“What? Who slapped who?”
Still unable to look into my eyes, he shrugged dismissively. “If I’m honest, I can’t wait to get out of here. I’m on track for a full time engineering apprenticeship at this rate. I’ll get a nice little flat with my mates - you can come and visit. Maybe not Journey, but you and the twins for sure.”
“Why do you sound so scared?”
He didn’t answer me, and instead dropped to the ground, grabbed a fistful of snow, and struck Journey right in the back of the head.
The Christmas holidays slipped by in a fraction of a second and before I knew it I was back at school. I could barely keep focused on my work, thoughts of abuse and divorce trying to make their way past the more rational ones. There seemed to be much more important things to think about than enzymes and catalysts and the digestive system, or whatever Mr. Johnson was trying to drum into us.
My thoughts were disturbed by a sharp elbow in the ribs. “Cas!”
I looked to the left of me, and Katy Marshall nodded towards the front of the room where Mr. Johnson stood. He was glaring at me, unamused.
“Welcome back to the classroom, Castle. Now, I’ll ask you again. Which enzyme catalyses the breakdown of fatty acids?” There was a smug look on his face, like he expected me to give the wrong answer.
Without glancing down at the textbook, I answered. “Lipase, sir.”
“Very good,” he replied, a hint of disappointment in his voice now he couldn’t have a go at me for not listening. “Right, there should be some exam questions on the next page in the textbook, if you take a look…”
The room slowly began to fill with the quiet murmur of teenage chatter, and I flicked over to the next page in the textbook. Katy smiled at me. We’d become somewhat friends since the beginning of year nine, both having no one else to sit with in lessons or at lunch.
“Have you seen the new girl yet?”
“Huh?” I wasn’t really in the mood to talk to her, and instead started to answer one of the exam questions in my book.
She insisted. “The new girl in our year. She’s American!”
“No, I haven’t seen her. I didn’t know there was anyone new in our year. And who on Earth would move from America to Bluevale Ridge?”
“Well, you wouldn’t know, would you? Anyway, her name’s like, Miriam or something. Really pretty. Like, really pretty. Are you listening to me?”
I was trying not to. “There’s a new girl called Miriam and she’s American and you think she’s pretty.”
“I don’t think she’s pretty, she is pretty. And I was just thinking, like, since you’re gay, that maybe you could, like, go ask her out or something.”
The word gay stuck out like like a sore thumb, as cliche as it sounded. It hung in the air, hovering in the silence that followed.
“What makes you think I’m gay?”
Katy scrunched up her face in confusion, tilting her head a little. “Because you are, aren’t you? I just always thou-”
“I’m NOT gay!” I snapped. The room fell silent. One of the boys wolf whistled, and I felt my cheeks flush red with embarrassment.