Fall from India Place Page 12

“Whatever you say, Miss.” He winked at me and then swaggered out of the room as if life was one big joke. It was all a pretense. I saw through his crap.

Although I felt we had a rapport, I did worry about whether my advice and encouragement were penetrating the barriers he had built up around himself. I knew all about building walls. Sometimes you needed those walls to keep folks out because letting them in broke down the glue that was holding essential pieces of yourself together… but there were times when you needed to learn when to let those walls down, to let people in because they were the glue that held you together.

Perhaps I’d have a better chance at getting through to Jarrod if I were better at recognizing the difference myself. I’d learned quite young that there was a massive divide between theory and practice.

Sometimes I just couldn’t quite pull myself out of theory.

I had my reasons.

I reached down for my bag, ready to pack up and return home to do my marking there. Shoving a folder into the large handbag, I heard a crinkle and knew exactly what had happened. I’d crumpled the photograph.

Hands shaking, I reached in and tugged at the photo, pulling it out and smoothing it flat with the tips of my fingers. Why had I kept it? Why had I brought it to school?

Staring at the photograph of me – the younger, cockier, romantic sixteen-year-old me – as I smiled into the camera for the selfie I’d taken with my friend Marco, the boy I’d fallen for hard, I wondered not for the first time where that version of me had gone.

It was funny… I sometimes wondered if I lost her because of Marco, and yet I think I hadn’t found her until I met him.

I couldn’t explain how I knew there was something wrong when Marco texted me to meet him. It’s not like he hadn’t done that before. I’d met him several times at a library to help him with his Higher English work – a course he didn’t need to take because he already had an apprenticeship with a joiner in Edinburgh. That didn’t seem to be enough for Marco, though. It was like he was challenging himself, trying to prove to himself he could do what other people told him he couldn’t. He’d surprised me over the last year and a half with his quiet determination.

It wasn’t always about schoolwork. Sometimes he texted me to meet him at a shop or a restaurant only to spend the next few hours wandering the streets of Edinburgh with him, me chattering away while he mostly listened. That kiss, that impulsive kiss, so long ago was never discussed. He’d avoided me for a month after that kiss. But kissing him and being rejected had actually been somewhat liberating. Okay, it hurt like hell and I felt humiliated, but after a while I began to realize that the world hadn’t ended. I’d done something for me, something brave, and I’d made it out okay. It had changed my perspective. I spoke up in class now, and I stood up for myself and for my friends against petty name-calling. I entered my short story in the junior writing competition my English teachers had urged me toward, and I joined the debate team.

That was sort of why Marco started speaking to me again. I, of course, missed the bus after my first meeting with the team, and when I walked outside, there he was. He never said a word to me about the kiss. He just pretended like it had never happened.

As long as I got to spend time with him, though, I was able to shove my disappointment deep down inside myself.

Usually I was filled with excitement when on my way to meet him. However, this time I was filled with a sense of foreboding as I walked in the early dusk toward Douglas Gardens.

The small gardens that ran alongside the Water of Leith were empty. Except for the large figure sitting on a bench.

“Marco?” I asked quietly.

He gave me a nod as I approached, and as I got closer his features came into better focus, as did the red swelling under his left eye. I sucked in a breath and hurried toward him, sitting down close. Without thinking I reached a hand toward his face, my fingertips tracing the skin just underneath the developing bruise.

“What happened?”

He looked lost. I felt a painful ache in my chest for him. “Some people are afraid of me. Because of my height, my build, the rumors, my reputation.” His mouth quirked up at the corner in disdain. “And some see it as a challenge. Me as a challenge.”

Infuriated for him, I lowered my hand to rest on his shoulder. “What did your uncle say when he saw?”

Marco snorted. “Hannah, who do you think did this?”

I didn’t know what I wanted to do more: cry for him, or bring a world of pain down on his uncle. There would never come a time when I would understand how an adult could abuse a child under their protection because I’d never known anything but absolute love and devotion. I knew Cole had suffered at the hands of his mother and Jo at the hands of her father. I’d felt helpless upon hearing that. I felt helpless again.

“Has he… has he done this before?”

He shook his head. “And probably never will again. Aunt Gabby went ballistic at him. She told him she’d leave him if he ever touched me again.”

I squeezed his shoulder. “I like your aunt Gabby.”

That got a smile out of him. “Yeah, she’s cool.”

“Did you tell your grandparents what he did?”

“Hannah —” He smiled sadly. “Nonno pretty much hates me. He could give a crap. I was bad news in Chicago. I hung around guys that were getting into really ugly stuff. That’s why my grandparents sent me away.”

Intrigued, I leaned forward. “Why do you think your granddad hates you?”

My mum’s dad had died before I was born, but my dad’s father was still alive and he always showered me with love the few times a year I got to see him. I couldn’t understand a grandparent hating his grandchild.

“I’m half African American. My Italian grandfather can’t stand the fact that his precious daughter slept with a black guy.”

My lips parted in shock. “He’s racist?”

Marco shrugged. “My dad could have been Japanese, Jewish, or Mexican and it would have pissed Nonno off. What mattered was that my dad wasn’t Italian and my parents weren’t married when my mother got pregnant. Nonno is really old-fashioned and a total traditionalist.”

You could call it whatever you wanted. There was no excuse for mistreating a child ever, and for it to be based on simple genetics? I was furious for Marco. “Was he awful to you?”

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