God was it cold! A biting wind had got up since Annie left the hairdresser’s. She pulled the hoodie tight over her head, wishing she’d thought to bring a scarf. She glanced around, worried someone might spot her. Being inconspicuous had always come so easy, but now she wanted to remain unnoticed she felt like everyone was watching.
She shook her head. This was ludicrous. It had been less than two hours since Kard cornered her. Yet there she was, her hair newly cropped, hugging the walls, jumping at every shadow. This story was too big to contain. She needed to confide in someone before she went raving mad. But there was only one person she trusted.
She’d have to find a phone. She groaned. So few public phones were left. All her friends had cell phones, but not her. Her mother was against. Of course she was. Anyway, what use would a cell phone be to her? The cost would be beyond her means. The first public phone she found was broken, the second had no handset but the third worked. She dialled Ayana.
“You got time for a drink?” she asked. “But not around here.”
“Sure,” Ayana replied, sounding surprised. They always met somewhere near home. “But why not…?”
Annie cut her off, “At Marcie’s.” She heard Ayana suck in a sharp breath, but her friend agreed making no comment.
Normally Annie wouldn’t be seen dead anywhere near Marcie’s. The joint had a bad reputation. Girls at school whispered that it was the sort of place girls went to pick up other girls. Of course, they had been quick to add that none of them had ever been there. Annie was unsure if the stories were true, but if they were, it might deter would-be spies and Kard’s henchmen from following her there. Then she remembered Ayana’s spy was a woman. Too late. She had no more change to phone back and fix another rendezvous.
Marcie’s skulked in the shadows at the end of a short alley boarded by disused shops. The only light in the growing dusk came from a red neon on the wall depicting a pair of lips pursed for a kiss under which was written Marcie’s in flowing script. She headed for the light, shooting a look at every darkened doorway, half-expecting a rabid girl to jump out and grab her.
To reach the entrance she had to skirt an upturned bin. Cats had feasted on fish bones which lay strewn across her path. A fishy smell was thick in the air. Seeing the door resolutely shut, she was tempted to turn and run. She tried to peek in the only window, but the curtains were tightly drawn. Don’t be silly, she chided and, steeling herself, she turned the handle and pushed open the door. What if she bumped into someone from school? The rumours that would spark. She almost shrivelled up at the thought.
The interior was bathed in red light and surprisingly small, almost cosy, like a den, with round tables seating two or three. To her relief, she could see no one, but, judging from the clink of cups, somebody was there. She squeezed past the door and pushed it shut. Behind the bar-like counter was a slender boy wiping mugs. “What can I do for you, Sweetie?” he asked in a voice that was neither boy nor girl. So much for this being a place reserved for girls.
Annie blushed. Then realising why she blushed, she blushed even more. The boy continued to wipe mugs as he sized her up. When she didn’t answer, he smiled saying, “Like the hair.”
“A hot chocolate,” she stammered, rummaging in her pocket for her purse.
“This one’s on the house,” he said, setting milk to heat with proficient gestures. “To celebrate your first visit.”
She wanted to tell him he’d got it all wrong. That she wasn’t like that. “I’m not …”
“I know,” he said as if confiding in an old friend. “It’s alright.”
She retreated, balancing her free chocolate as she wove between the empty tables to a tiny alcove at the back of the room. She leaned back in her seat so the boy couldn’t see her, pulled out a mirror from her purse and examined her hair. The alarmed face looking back at her was almost boyish. At any other time she might have relished the change, it was daring and it did suit her, much to her surprise. Ayana had been right, boys could be pretty. But this change was not chosen. It had been forced on her.
Looking around, she could see that a part of the room, which had been hidden from view, extended to form a small auditorium with a stage and an upright piano.
The sound of the door opening had her head whipping back to see who it was as she pulled her hoodie tight around her face. Ayana. She let out a sharp breath of relief. The girl strode to the counter, not in the slightest intimidated by her surroundings, and greeted the boy as Kevin. Annie was shocked. To think she’d known Ayana all those years and not once had she mentioned she visited Marcie’s. Kevin and Ayana were deep in conversation when the boy nodded in Annie’s direction. Ayana turned and, spotting her friend, smiled and waved. Annie waved back, feeling self-conscious.
“Kevin was raving about your hair,” Ayana said grinning as she slipped into the alcove next to Annie. “Let’s have a look.” Without waiting for permission, she pushed back the hoodie and stared at her friend with an appreciative look that verged on hungry. It left Annie troubled. She was reminded of the look Kard’s grey-suited woman had given her. She wiped a hand over her face as if that would scatter unwelcome memories.
“Wow,” Ayana said, gingerly stretching out a hand to run her fingers through the pixie cut. “Magic,” she whispered as if speaking to herself. At her touch, waves akin to electricity rippled down Annie’s spine only to wash back up in a fountain of emotions. Instinctively, she drew back. The place must be getting to her. Or maybe it was the nightmare with Kard. She burst into tears.
Ayana slid her chair next to Annie’s and, wrapping her arms around her friend, cradled her, rocking her backwards and forwards. The warmth of her friend’s embrace had her feeling even more uncomfortable. Ayana was a regular at Marcie’s. What if she had misconstrued Annie’s invitation to meet there? She tensed and pulled free of the girl’s hug.
“What’s up?” Ayana asked.
“I was molested,” she whispered.
Her friend looked shocked. “By whom? Where? When? Have you told the police?”
Annie shook her head. Typical Ayana. A flood of questions. Now that she had a chance to speak, she was tongue-tied, unsure what to say. It would probably sound far-fetched. Absurd even. Had she overreacted? She shook her head again, in denial this time.
“Tell me,” Ayana encouraged.