“The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass can deform spacetime to form a black hole. The boundary of the region from which no escape is possible is called the event horizon.”
“Nice work today.”
Alice looked up with a start. The classroom was empty, the corridor outside echoing with shouts and scuffles as the school moved from one lesson to the next. Mrs Gallagher, her maths teacher, was standing over her, holding out an exercise book.
“Just try to keep your working out a bit neater next time, all right?” she said.
Alice took the book from Mrs Gallagher and opened it. The pages were dense with sums and equations in a scrawled, spidery handwriting that looked almost, but not entirely, like her own. She looked up.
“Go on.” Mrs Gallagher nodded her head towards the door. “You’ll be late for your next lesson.”
Alice packed her bag, left the classroom and ducked into the crowds outside. As she pushed her way down the corridor she checked her maths book again. She couldn’t remember doing any of this. She couldn’t remember the lesson at all. She closed the book and squeezed between the bodies. She needed to see Sarah.
“I can give you five minutes,” Sarah said, as she ushered Alice into the tiny room they used for counselling. “Then you need to get to your lesson, all right?”
Alice nodded and sat down in the green chair by the door, her bag between her legs. There was barely room to move in Sarah’s office: most of the floor was taken up by the two chairs, one green, one purple, and the rest of the space was occupied by a miniscule desk littered with folders and files, and a battered filing cabinet with a wilting pot-plant balanced on top of it. The walls were covered with blu-tacked pictures, drawn by the other students who saw Sarah for counselling: some were bright and colourful, all rainbows and smiling puppies; others were grey and black and red, half-formed sketches of bad dreams. Alice had never done a drawing for Sarah. She preferred numbers, puzzles, things that fit together and could be completed. Numbers made sense.
Sarah sat down in the purple chair and crossed her legs. “So,” she said, folding her arms across one knee, “what can I do for you?”
“It happened again,” Alice said, still looking at the drawings. “Just now, in maths.”
There was a pause. “Okay,” said Sarah. “Tell me about it.”
Alice shrugged. “I just … missed the lesson. All of it. I did the work, but I can’t remember doing it.”
Sarah reached for her clipboard. “Mind if I take some notes?”
Alice shook her head. “No, that’s ok.”
“So …” Sarah’s pen hovered over the page. “When did it start? What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I remember … break time. And I remember coming into the block.” Alice frowned, searching her memory. “We came into the classroom … And that’s it.”
“Do you think there could have been anything that triggered it?”
“What work were you doing?”
“Quadratic equations. It’s where you work out two solutions to the same problem. I like it, but it’s too easy.”
“Do you have the work with you?”
Alice reached into her bag and handed over the book. Sarah flicked through it, then smiled and handed it back.
“Doesn’t mean anything to me,” she said. “Maths was never my strong subject. Is it all correct? Your work? Did the teacher look at it?”
“Yes.” Alice checked the page. “It looks right.”
“Are you sure?”
Alice nodded firmly. “Yes, I’m sure.”
“All right, then.” Sarah scribbled a few more notes, then put the clipboard aside. “Alice, I want to be straight with you,” she said. “We’ve been seeing each other for … what? Eight months? I think we’ve made some progress, but there are still some things I think we haven’t really addressed. One of them is these episodes you’ve been having — these blackouts, or whatever you want to call them. Some children do have something similar to these — we call them ‘absent seizures’ — but yours seem to be longer than usual, and most children wouldn’t be able to carry on with their work while they were having one. I’d like to get you checked out, if that’s all right, just to make sure everything’s okay. There’s a specialist I know who I could refer you to. Would you mind?”
Alice shook her head. “No, that’s fine.”
“Great, I’ll call your mum.” Sarah made a note, then paused, biting the end of her pencil. Alice waited. Sarah always bit the end of her pen or pencil when she was deep in thought.
“The other thing,” Sarah said eventually, “is the reason we started these sessions in the first place. I know you haven’t wanted to talk about what happened — and that’s fine,” she added quickly, seeing Alice’s face tighten. “We don’t have to talk about it right now. But I do think it would be a good idea if we at least dipped our toe into it. We have another session next week, on Tuesday. Do you think we could begin then? It doesn’t have to be much, just a quick chat. But I think it would help. All right?”
Alice nodded, trying not to let the dread show on her face. It was the last thing she wanted to talk about, but since she had started seeing Sarah she had known it would have to come up sooner or later, and avoiding the subject had been getting harder and harder recently.
“All right,” Sarah said, making another note. “You’d better get back to lessons now.”
Alice shouldered her bag and stood up. “What if it happens again?”
“The seizures? Let me know straight away,” said Sarah. “It doesn’t matter what lesson you’re in. Just tell the teacher you need to see me. They’ll let you go.”
“Any time, Alice. Go on. Get to your lesson now.”
After she had gone Sarah sat in silence. She read over her notes again, biting her pencil. Then she put down the clipboard and picked up the phone.
The shout reached Alice through the loud chatter of the after-school bus stop crowds. She turned away, trying to shrink into the crush, but it was no good. She had been seen, and now they were pushing their way through the smaller children towards her: Keyana, Shanelle, Debbie, Mary and Bushra. It was always them — the pretty girls, the popular girls, the girls who always had the latest phones and wore the latest trainers, who always had money (from older boyfriends, if the rumours were true), who always got their way and never did what they were told, by teachers or anyone.
“I haven’t got any money,” she said quickly, as Keyana stepped up to her and looked her up and down. Alice kept her head lowered and avoided eye contact. “I haven’t got any food. I left my phone at home, and there’s nothing in my bag you would want.”
“Yeah?” said Keyana. Bushra and Debbie flanked Alice and yanked the bag from her shoulders, twisting her arm painfully. They handed the bag to Keyana, who unzipped it and peered inside. “Mind if I look anyway?”
She reached in and started plucking items out, tossing them carelessly on to the wet pavement. No-one stepped in to help; the younger students moved away, and the older ones watched and smirked. Alice watched as her books slapped into puddles and the contents of her pencil case skittered away underfoot. When the main compartment was empty Keyana started going through the side pockets; they were empty, apart from Alice’s bus pass. Keyana held it up and looked at the photo.
“Were you always an ugly tramp, then?” she sneered. The other girls laughed and shoved each other, amused by their leader’s joke.
“Can I have that back, please?” Alice said, and immediately regretted it. Better to have kept quiet. Always keep quiet, then nothing bad could happen.
Keyana snorted. “What, this?” she said, waving the bus pass under her nose. “I don’t think they’d let you on with this, anyway, love. They don’t let dirty tramps on buses, do they?”
There was a rumble from further down the road, and Keyana looked round as the crowds surged towards the approaching bus. She glanced at Alice and smiled, and then, as the vehicle pulled up to the bus stop, she sent Alice’s bus pass sailing under its wheels with a casual flick.
“Have a nice day,” she sneered, and turned and barged on to the bus with the other girls in tow.
Alice waited until the bus pulled away, then slowly sank to her knees and began to pick up her soaking wet belongings. All things considered, it could have been worse. She reached into the road and picked up her oil-smeared bus pass. Her only mistake had been speaking out. Next time she would keep quiet. Keep quiet, and nothing bad could happen.
Mum was cooking when Alice arrived home; a waft of spices and stinging pepper greeted her as she opened the front door. Mum was always cooking these days. She cooked more than they could eat; they froze the rest, or they gave it to the church, or they ended up throwing it away after a month.
Alice suspected that the cooking was because of Mekala. She had heard that sometimes people did that — started cooking, or took up a hobby; anything to distract them from what had happened. Alice had not taken up a hobby. She had her puzzle books, and they always helped her when she was worried.
She slung her bag down by the door and went into the kitchen.
“Hi,” she said, jumping up on a seat at the counter and taking an orange from the fruit bowl.
Mum looked up from a steaming pot of rice. She had her hair in an afro, tied up in a colourful headscarf. Her face was drawn; she had not slept more than a few hours a night since it happened, and it showed.
“Hi love,” she said, attempting a smile. “How was school?”
“Ok,” said Alice.“I had to see Sarah again today.”
“She called me,” mum said. She turned to another pot, this one full of spiced chicken, and began to stir. “Said she wants to see me. I think she’s going to arrange an appointment with a doctor. Are you worried?”
Alice shook her head. “Not really.”
“OK then,” said mum, still stirring. “But if you do get worried, or confused, or you’re not sure about something, you know you can come to me or dad, right?”
“Good girl. What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to finish this orange,” Alice replied, idly arranging the segments in a star shape on the counter top. “Then I’m going to do my homework. What time’s dinner?”
“About five-thirty,” said mum. “I’ll call you.” She looked up from the pot and tried to smile again, but it just made her face tight.
Alice smiled for her instead, ate the orange segment by segment, then hopped down from the stool, grabbed her bag, and went up to her room to start on her homework.
An hour later dad came home from work, and he and mum had a long conversation in the kitchen, one of the ones that involved a lot of shouting and banging, and sudden long silences. Alice was used to these conversations now. They were happening more often; almost every day for the past few weeks. She concentrated on the Industrial Revolution and waited for the conversation to end.
When eventually the noise died down she packed away her books and made her way downstairs. Dad was sitting in the living room, watching TV. He looked up when she came in, and tried to smile.
“Hey, love,” he said, patting the sofa beside him. She sat down and let him put his arm around her. He smelled of day-old aftershave and sweat. She had always liked that smell. “How was school?”
“It was ok. I had to see Sarah again. Mum said she’s going to take me to see a doctor.”
“I know. Your mum told me. How do you feel about it?”
“I feel fine.” It was the answer she always gave: the safest answer. It usually made people stop asking questions.
“Well, so long as you’re okay I’m okay.” Dad kissed her on the top of her head, and she buried herself in his side and watched TV.
Ten minutes later Mum appeared at the door, arms folded, her face unreadable. “Dinner’s ready,” she said, and disappeared.
Dinner was quiet, but Alice didn’t mind. It was better than the noisy dinners, the ones that ended with either mum or dad storming out and the front door banging. When they were done Alice helped mum wash up while dad went to watch TV, and when the washing-up was finished she went up to her room. As soon as she closed the door she heard dad get up and go into the kitchen, and a few minutes later the shouting started again.
She took out her puzzle book, put in her headphones, and let the music drown out the argument.