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19 The sting

The next day they met on the wall again. This time Luke was crunching on a crisp red apple as she sat down beside him. It was good to see he’d got his appetite back.

She’d copied the rules down inside the back page of one of her exercise books and left the original version back in her bedroom, carefully folded and slotted into a letter her aunt had once sent her on special perfumed stationery. Sniffing it closely, she’d still been able to detect the faint fragrance of roses.

Strangely, when she’d copied the verse, her writing had taken on some of the qualities of the original writer’s – it was more controlled, loopy and decorative than usual, almost as if she’d been possessed by someone else. It had felt sort of spooky and a chill had run down her spine as she’d been writing.

‘Your handwriting’s neat,’ Luke commented, nodding appreciatively. ‘Mine’s so bad I often can’t read it myself.’

‘Yeah, it’s weird,’ – she had to stop talking as some sirens drowned out her words – ‘it is neater than normal,’ she conceded, feeling slightly uncomfortable as she remembered the sensation she’d had when writing it the night before. There was a tickly kind of prickling on the back of her neck.

‘Right. So we need your dad to get a better job.’

‘Without it backfiring somehow.’ She thought this point could not be stressed enough. Things often seemed to go wrong if you weren’t careful what you wished for or maybe how you wished for it.

‘Uh-huh. So you’re not wishing ill upon anyone, in fact, you’re wishing for plenty, in a way.’ His brow furrowed as he ran his index finger down the list of dos and don’ts. ‘That’s not relevant. Neither is that.’

Elisha felt comforted by his logical analysis. She bent down to pull up the unelasticated socks that had congregated in untidy crinkles round her ankles and scratched at an insect bite just under her knee, making the area red and inflamed. Her Mum always told her not to scratch them but she just couldn’t help it. To stop herself, she sat on her hands and turned her attention back to Luke.

‘Wish forward. Never back. Mmm. Maybe it could be said to be wishing back because he did have a good job before …’ He took another bite of the apple. She couldn’t help thinking that Luke tended to consider everything a bit more carefully than she did. She wondered if it was a skill he’d learnt while poorly.

‘Yes, but I don’t want him to get the same job again. I want him to have a different one, where he doesn’t have to work so hard.’

‘Well then, that’s probably okay, I guess.’

The bell went for the start of class and they both jumped like someone had poked them in the back. Luke just laughed but Elisha had immediately thought ‘heed the bell’ and started to worry about time being up and the hell demons bit.

‘Sit next to me for the story this afternoon,’ Luke urged, as they got up and started heading back to the school building. Elisha nodded quickly and smiled, watching him chuck the apple core into a big yellow cylindrical bin, almost hitting a wasp that was buzzing round it.

Suddenly from across the asphalt, Jasmine ran up to her, yelling – well, screeching really – ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you all over all break!’ She sounded really angry and very upset.

Elisha realised that they had sat in a rather out-of-the-way corner to puzzle over the rhyme. It had seemed natural enough because they hadn’t wanted to be disturbed.

‘Why? What’s wrong?’ she asked, for immediately she could see that something was definitely wrong. Jasmine’s face was streaked and wet with tears; her eyes were red; and she looked distressed to the point of anguish.

It had to be something to do with Steph because she wasn’t there and the two girls were nearly always together. ‘What’s happened?’ Her voice came out as a kind of shriek as the panic infected her. ‘Has something happened to Steph? Where is she? Hrmph!’ she went as Jasmine barrelled into her, holding her in a tight, desperate embrace, sobbing and gasping for breath at the same time.

Elisha felt guilty for not being with her friends when they needed her. She wasn’t doing any good turns for anybody else, just worrying about her own problems. As usual. Even though her aunt had warned her not to be selfish.

Jasmine started to stutter out a breathless explanation as Elisha patted her rhythmically on the back as she’d seen people do in movies. Luke looked at her over her friend’s head, his expression bewildered and troubled, like he’d just been assigned some really unpronounceable word in a spelling test.

‘It was a wasp.’ Jasmine took in a big breath. ‘She started to scream and I told her not to hit out at it. I tried to get her to calm down but you know what she’s like with wasps.’

Elisha nodded. ‘Yes, I know. So did it sting her?’

‘It stung her on the arm, just here,’ Jasmine indicated a place on top of her forearm.

Feeling a bit relieved that it was only a wasp sting, Elisha held Jasmine away from her with one arm and rummaged for a tissue in her satchel with the other. ‘Here,’ she handed it to her friend, who wiped her face roughly before blowing her nose noisily. Her beaded braids swung over her face.

Luke looked impatiently at them. ‘The bell’s gone already, you know,’ he prompted, evidently thinking this was a lot of fuss over a wasp sting.

Elisha made a face at him and asked Jasmine: ‘But she’s okay now? Is she in the nurse’s office?’

Elisha had only been there once herself – it was a small clinical room that smelt a bit like a hospital, only mixed with pee, and boasted an iron bed with a mattress covered in plastic, a green first-aid box with a white cross on it mounted on the wall, a sink and a desk and chair where the nurse sat when she was in there. There was a small toilet next to it. It was the kind of place where you instantly felt ill, even if you’d been all right before. She’d been feeling dizzy and lay down on the bed but the plastic cover had made so much noise each time she moved and had smelt so funny and rubbery that she couldn’t wait to get up again.

‘She’s been taken to hospital. Mr Saunders took her in his car because they said the ambulance would take twenty minutes. Elisha, she’s allergic to wasp stings. She nearly died. I couldn’t do anything to help her. She couldn’t breathe; she started to have convulsions or something. I was so scared!

‘Veronica ran into the office to get them to call 999 and Josie went to get the nurse but she couldn’t find her. Just as well Ronnie was there …’ Jasmine stopped to gulp in air, ‘I don’t know what would have happened.’

Even in the middle of her anxiety for her friend, Elisha felt annoyed that Veronica Atkins, of all people, should have come to the rescue. And a little jealous as well.

‘The bell went ages ago. What are you lot doing out here?’ Miss Clements folded her arms and stood over them, looking stern. ‘As if it’s not bad enough falling asleep during assemblies …’

‘Their friend went into anaphylactic shock,’ Luke explained, a little contritely now that he realised it was more serious. Both girls turned their heads to him in astonishment at the word he’d used. ‘She got stung by a wasp.’ He’d spent so much time in hospital that he knew pretty much everything other kids came in with.

Miss Clements frowned and nodded sympathetically. ‘Oh, yes, Stephanie. Well, she’s at the hospital by now. I’m sure she’ll be all right.’ She put an arm round each of the girls’ shoulders. ‘Come on now. Let’s go inside and get to class. Mr Saunders will let us know what’s happening as soon as he can.’ They started walking together. Glancing back at Luke, the teacher said, ‘You too, Luke. There’s nothing we can do about it at the moment.’