domingo, 1 de julio de 2018

PROJECT MEDUSA 5-8

I practised on my telekinesis as often as I could. Before and after school and even at break times, I’d go out to the trees by the playing fields and attempt to move whatever was out there – sticks, stones . . . even the bench again.
It was hard at first, especially without Jack there to remind me about my breathing. But the more I worked at it, the better I got. I found the idea that I had to stop trying so hard really weird – but I knew now how that felt, and after a few days I’d got into the habit of holding what I wanted to do much more lightly in my mind.
I kept my practice sessions completely secret. I’d always got on with everyone at school but I knew how anything – let alone something weird like telekinesis – could turn the most popular person into a big-time freakshow.
That meant I didn’t hang out with my friends so much. Apart from Ketty, that is. I made sure I still saw as much of her as possible. We were still best friends, after all . . . even if she was going out with stupid Billy Martin. Every time I saw her, I made sure I listened out for something expensive that she might like. Not that Ketty was particularly interested in material things. She was more into running than owning stuff.
Still, there had to be something she really wanted. I didn’t have any idea how Jack was going to help me use my telekinesis to make money, but I wanted to be ready to buy something good once he had. My plan was to hand it over, then, once Ketty could see I was just as able as Billy to give her stuff, ask her out myself.
It was Friday, the day before I was due to meet Jack again, and I was in a good mood. It was taking me a couple of minutes to get the right breathing going but, once I had, I could move whatever I wanted, for a few seconds at least.
Having just managed my first bit of telekinesis in the dorm – lifting my pillow off my bed – I headed outside. A group of us were meeting out the front of school to get the bus to nearby Hanmore Park and go to the movies. Ketty was already there, chatting with Lola and Lauren. I could see Billy hovering nearby. Ignoring him, I went over to the girls.
Ketty was in her normal going-out gear of jeans and trainers. But something was different. Lola and Lauren were ooohing and aaahing beside her, pointing at her hair . . . no, not her hair . . . I got closer . . . at her earrings. I did a double take. Ketty hardly ever wore jewellery and these were long, silvery earrings that glittered as they peeked through her dark, curly hair.
Lola caught me staring. ‘Hey, Nico.’ She giggled.
Ketty turned. ‘Hey.’ She made a self-conscious gesture towards her ears. ‘They’ve got diamonds in them . . . what d’you think?’ she said. ‘I got them off Billy.’
Unbelievable. My heart slid into my shoes. What kind of teenage boy buys his girlfriend diamond earrings?
I forced a smile. ‘Cool, babe . . . though it’s kind of crazy giving you nice stuff like that. I mean, they’ll fall out as soon as you start running.’
Ketty’s face flushed. Lola sidled up to me.
‘She’s not going to wear them when she’s running, Nico,’ she simpered. ‘Anyway, now she’s got Billy, Ketty’ll probably stop going running quite so much.’
Ketty and I exchanged glances. I knew from previous conversations that none of Ketty’s girlfriends understood why she liked running so much. To them it was just something tiring and boring that made your body all sweaty and your hair look crap. For Ketty, though, running was everything. She said it made her feel good about herself in a way nothing else did.
I got that. But nobody else seemed to.
‘If Ketty stops running, I’ll eat those earrings, babe,’ I said.
‘Nico!’ Lola giggled.
Ketty just smiled. A minute later, she drew me aside.
‘Lola fancies you, you know,’ she said.
I shrugged. I kind of knew that already. It didn’t matter. Lots of girls behaved like Lola around me, all giggly and nervous. I wasn’t interested in any of them.
‘Hey, listen,’ Ketty went on, breathlessly. ‘I’ve just found out about this Youth Marathon. Well, it’s really a halfmarathon but that’s still over thirteen miles. It’s perfect for me.’
‘That’s great, babe,’ I said, transfixed by the way her eyes were all lit up and shining.
‘Not really.’ Ketty’s face fell. ‘It’s in Scotland and the closing date to enter is this coming Monday and it costs forty pounds to sign up. Then there’s the fare to get there and finding somewhere to stay . . .’
I opened my mouth to say something sarcastic about Billy picking up the tab, but then it suddenly occurred to me this was my ideal opportunity. I could research the marathon and buy everything Ketty needed!
‘How much d’you think the whole thing will cost?’ I asked, as lightly as I could.
‘A couple of hundred quid.’ Ketty made a face. ‘I asked my mum and dad. They said they didn’t mind me going, but it was too expensive for what it was, and wouldn’t I rather have a laptop . . .’
Better and better.
I made a sympathetic face back. Ketty had often complained to me how her parents hated her obsession with running. Not that she saw them very often. They lived and worked abroad and, since Ketty had joined Fox Academy at the beginning of the school year, I knew she’d only seen them once, at Christmas.
‘What about your brother?’ I asked.
Ketty talked about her older brother a lot. I’d never met him but, as far as I could tell, he was the only family member she was really close to.
‘Yeah, I tried Lex too,’ Ketty sighed, ‘but he said he was skint until next week and I need the registration money by Monday.’
I nodded. Billy was watching me over Lauren’s shoulder, a slightly aggressive expression on his square-jawed face. I caught his eye for a second and smiled.
Diamond earrings, my arse. I was going to buy Ketty something she really wanted.
It was a good evening after that. I mean, I had to endure the sight of Ketty and Billy with their arms round each other. But Ketty talked to me and her girlfriends just as much as she talked to him. I had no idea how to ask her how much she liked him, but I was confident it was less than he liked her.
The next morning I told Tom I had another date with my mystery London girl and asked him to cover for me again. He agreed, but only after teasing me about her.
‘What does she look like, then?’ he said.
I described Dylan, telling Tom quite truthfully that she was one of the fittest girls I’d ever met. I didn’t add that I hadn’t really fancied her. In fact, I exaggerated what we’d done quite a bit – just to wind him up. Tom swallowed the whole thing and made me promise to text him a picture of her. I forgot about it as soon as I reached the tube station where we were meeting, of course.
Ten minutes passed, and I was just starting to wonder if Jack had forgotten our arrangement, when a screech of brakes at the corner made me look up. My mouth fell open. Jack was pulling up, in just about the coolest car I’d ever seen – a sleek, black Aston Martin DB9.
‘Nice wheels,’ I said, trying to sound as if I rode in cars like this most weekends.
Jack grinned. ‘Hop in. We’ve got a football match to get to.’
Football? To be honest I wouldn’t have expected Jack to be a big fan of the game. He hardly looked like your average supporter. Today, as before, he was wearing a stylish suit with an open-neck shirt and designer sunglasses.
The Aston Martin zoomed away.
‘Who’s playing?’ I asked. ‘And, er . . . I thought . . . I mean, how is this going to make us any money?’
‘You’ll see.’ Jack shot me a mysterious smile. I shrugged and sat back as he asked about my week and how I liked boarding at Fox Academy. I gave him a swift outline of how boring life at school was. Then I plucked up the courage to ask a question that had been on my mind since last weekend.
‘Why are you doing all this?’ I said. ‘Helping me, I mean?’
‘Several reasons.’ Jack glanced sideways at me. ‘I was part of the original project so I feel involved. But it’s mostly because I want you to have a chance to fulfil your potential – and I know Fergus won’t let that happen.’
‘Why does Fergus hate what I can do so much? I mean, he actually called my abilities “evil” . . . said my mum would have hated them. He even tried to make me promise that I wouldn’t use them any more.’
Jack was silent for a few moments, then he pulled the car over and parked. ‘There’s something I didn’t tell you last weekend,’ he said, his blue eyes bright and intense. ‘Something that explains Fergus’s reaction. But it’s not going to be easy for you to hear.’
‘What?’ I said, feeling nervous.
‘There was a problem with the Medusa gene. That is . . . d’you remember I told you it was embedded in a virus before it was injected into your umbilical cord?’
I nodded. ‘You said that was normal in gene therapy.’
‘It is, and William did all the necessary tests on the viruses he used, too – but the procedure is always risky.’ Jack hesitated. ‘Sometimes when you inject a gene code into what appears to be a harmless virus, the presence of the gene code makes the virus mutate . . .’
‘Mutate into something harmful?’ I frowned. ‘But I’m fine.’
‘I know.’ Jack sighed. ‘You were immune, but the viral DNA also seeped into the bloodstream of the carrier.’
‘The carrier?’ I stared at him, blankly.
‘The person carrying the baby injected with the gene synthesis.’ Jack shook his head. ‘In other words, your mother.’
A cold wave washed over me. ‘But . . . but my mum died of cancer,’ I said.
Jack nodded. ‘Yes. A cancer caused by the virus that the Medusa gene was embedded in.’
I froze. ‘But that means the gene . . .’ I could barely bring myself to think it, let alone say it. ‘That means my gene, my powers . . . that means I killed her.’ My voice was hoarse.
‘No.’ Jack shook his head again, more vigorously. ‘No way. It was an accident. Or, if anyone’s to blame it was William Fox. That’s why Fergus felt so responsible for you . . . because of what his brother had done. And that’s why he hates the gene inside you. But that’s like hating the wind for becoming a hurricane.’
‘But even so . . .’ My voice was strained. ‘Even so, if I didn’t have the gene she wouldn’t have died.’
‘No.’ Jack shook his head. ‘That’s not how your mum saw it, Nico. I met her twice – once before you were born, at that Christmas party; and once when you were a baby and William was dead. That second time, she knew that the Medusa gene . . . that it was going to kill her . . . and she saw the fact that she was going to die as a sacrifice she was making for you, so that you could be special. Your mum was proud of that sacrifice. And you should be proud too. You can’t let Fergus stop that sacrifice from counting. You should make the most of what you can do . . . of who you are . . . for your mum’s sake, if for nothing else.’
Jack smiled reassuringly, then revved up the engine. As we sped off, I tried to think it through. It was hard not to feel it was my fault Mum had died. And yet, Jack was right. I hadn’t asked to be injected with a gene wrapped inside a virus. Just as William Fox hadn’t known that the virus would kill Mum.
At least Jack had had the courage to tell me the truth, which was more than Fergus had done.
And if Mum had given her life for the Medusa gene the least I could do was make the most of its power.
Jack said nothing more as we zoomed round a series of streets, finally pulling up outside Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. We went inside and Jack led the way to brilliant seats – they must have cost a fortune – in one of the directors’ boxes.
Arsenal were playing a charity friendly against a Championship side I’d never heard of – Sweeton United. I tried to put what Jack had just told me to the back of my mind. At first I kept going over what he’d said but eventually the football sucked me in and I settled down to enjoy the match.
I forgot about my telekinesis – and Jack’s plan for me to use it to make money – until the game was nearly halfway through. The home team, clear favourites, had already scored two goals.
Then Jack leaned over and whispered in my ear. ‘You know, I’ve got a bet on at six to one that Sweeton will win three-two.’
I stared at him. Why would he have made such a specific – and unlikely – gamble?
Jack raised his eyebrows. ‘Shame there’s no one here who could help them score.’
My heart thudded as I realised what he was saying.
Did I dare do what he was suggesting?
I stared at the pitch. The ball was near Arsenal’s goal, being successfully defended by one of Arsenal’s best centre backs. Without really thinking about it, I directed the ball away from his feet, towards the Sweeton striker. It bounced off his shin and into the goal.
The Sweeton fans erupted in cheers. Jack punched me on the shoulder. ‘Nice one!’
I stared at the pitch, too shocked to respond. Had I really done that? The striker looked as shocked as I felt. The scoreboard at the far end registered the goal. I had done it. I grinned.
‘Two more like that, my son, and we’ll be quids in.’ Jack laughed, as the whistle blew for half-time.
The second half started well for Sweeton. Clearly buoyed up by their earlier goal, they scored ten minutes into the half without any help from me. Then Arsenal got the ball and all of a sudden I was leaning forward, intent on the play, making sure the ball swerved and swung away from the goal whenever it got too close. I was totally in the match, in the moment, only barely aware of Jack sitting beside me, watching me.
The score remained at two-all for a long time. I was so focused on the game that it was a shock when he leaned over and said, ‘Only five minutes to go, Nico.’
That meant only five minutes for the winning goal to be scored. And the run of play for the past half an hour had definitely been with Arsenal. Panicking, I lurched forward in my seat, willing the ball to move down the pitch. Of course, as soon as I started trying so hard, the ball refused to move. I glanced at the clock. Only three minutes to go. Two minutes . . . Ketty’s face flashed in front of my eyes, Billy’s diamond earrings dangling from her ears.
I had to make this work. I couldn’t let Billy buy her away from me. I had to show Ketty how much I cared about her . . .

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I looked at the clock again. Only one minute of the match remained. A hush descended on the football stadium, as if the crowd had given up and accepted the two-all draw.
I had to help Sweeton score. But there was less than a minute to go and the ball wouldn’t move for me any more. I could feel the panic swirling inside me. And then Jack put his hand on my shoulder.
‘Breathe,’ he whispered.
I breathed in, then out. My body released its tension. I focused once again on the game. The midfielders from both teams were fighting over the ball in the middle of the pitch. I waited for a Sweeton player to get a touch. Then I breathed in and lifted the ball. Yes. It soared all the way down the field. I breathed out. The ball bounced and swerved, just shy of the goal. Pushing away the anxious knot in my gut, I tried again.
This time the ball flew into the crowd. Crucial seconds passed while a new ball was produced. A corner. I glanced at the clock again.
Oh, crap. We were already in extra time.
‘You can do this, Nico,’ Jack whispered.
I breathed in as the Sweeton player stepped up to the corner flag. Breathed out as the ball rose into the air. My eyes held it as it curved. It was going to miss the goal. The crowd were chanting a countdown.
‘Ten. Nine.’
I leaned with the ball, every fibre of my being flowing with it through the air.
‘Eight. Seven. Six.’
Just a little push. The slightest touch. I nudged the ball with my mind, my hands mirroring the movement.
‘Five. Four. Three.’
Wham! It thudded into the back of the net.
The Sweeton supporters roared. The final whistle blew.
I sat back, out of breath, exhausted.
The Sweeton player who’d taken the corner looked completely shocked that he’d scored. He was soon buried under his cheering team mates.
‘Nico?’
I turned. Jack was open-mouthed, an expression of awe on his face. ‘That was amazing,’ he said. ‘I honestly didn’t think you’d be ready for that.’
My heart sank. ‘So you were kidding about the bet, then?’
‘Not at all.’ Jack leaped up from his seat. ‘I just meant I was prepared to lose the money. But you did it. Come on, let’s go and collect our winnings.’
By the time we got back to Jack’s mews house I was starving, but triumphant. Jack swung the car into the garage where I’d practised with the tyre the previous week. He parked up, then produced a thick wedge of ten-pound notes from his wallet. I waited while he counted out forty pounds.
‘My original bet,’ he said, tucking the money into his pocket. He held out the rest of the cash to me. ‘For you. That was awesome, Nico. Amazing. You’re a complete bloody natural.’
I stared at the money, suddenly unsure. ‘How much is there?’ I stammered.
‘Well, I bet forty quid at six to one, so you work it out.’ Jack grinned and offered the cash to me again, but I shook my head. Now that the money was in front of me, it felt somehow wrong to take it.
‘I don’t know . . .’ I rubbed my sweaty hands down my jeans.
‘Don’t know what?’
‘Um . . .’ I thought back to the football match. ‘What I did was . . . sort of cheating, wasn’t it?’ I stammered.
Jack pursed his lips. ‘Well, I suppose if you call giving the ultimate underdogs a fighting chance against a big shot team with more money than they know what to do with then, yes, it wasn’t particularly fair. But life isn’t. Come on.’
He offered the money again, but I shook my head. We stared at each other for a few moments. Jack frowned.
‘It’s . . . I mean . . .’ I hesitated. ‘I’ve got no problem really . . . I mean Sweeton scored one of their goals all by themselves . . . It’s just . . .’
‘Just what, Nico?’ Jack said, his voice tight. ‘Were you listening to what I said earlier? Your mother died for your gift. She would want you to use this amazing ability you have. She hated the fact that she was going to leave you all alone in the world. I know she would see what you did today as a small step towards helping you survive.’
I stared at him. ‘Even if it meant cheating?’
Jack’s eyes blazed. ‘Using your talents to get ahead isn’t cheating. It’s just common sense . . . making the most of the cards you’ve been dealt in life.’
I held up my hands. ‘Okay, okay, keep your hair on,’ I said. ‘This is all just really new for me.’
Jack smiled. ‘I know. I’m sorry. I should give you more time to adjust.’ He folded over the stash of bills in his hand. ‘Look, you don’t have to take it. I’ll give it to charity.’
‘Er . . .’ I stared at the money, working out how much must be there now that Jack had taken out his original bet. ‘That’s got to be two hundred and forty pounds,’ I said. That, surely, had to be enough money for Ketty to enter the marathon and find somewhere to stay in Scotland.
Jack chuckled. ‘The boy can add up.’
I swallowed. My throat was dry. Jack held out the money again. ‘Go on, take it,’ he said. ‘You can always give it away later.’
Well, giving it away was exactly what I was planning. I took the cash and shoved it into my pocket.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
Jack got out of the car. ‘No, Nico, thank you.

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We went inside, to the kitchen, where Jack made me a large cheese sandwich. I was sitting at the table, wolfing it down, when Dylan walked in, carrying a shopping bag.
‘Hey.’ She smiled at me . . . a cool, slightly aloof smile.
Jack looked up. ‘Hey, Dylan. What d’you buy today?’ He turned to me. ‘Dylan’s only in London with her relatives for two weeks but I’m not sure there’ll be anything left in the shops by the time she goes home.’ He laughed. ‘I’ve had to give her a key so she has somewhere to stash it all!’
Dylan rolled her eyes and took some sort of floaty green top out of the bag. She held it up in front of her. ‘Like it?’
I grunted, feeling a bit embarrassed.
‘Lovely,’ Jack enthused. ‘A great colour for your eyes.’ Dylan shrugged, but you could tell she was pleased he liked the top. ‘How did he do?’ She pointed to me, though her question was clearly directed at Jack.
‘Brilliantly,’ Jack said. ‘He has an amazing gift.’
I frowned. What was Jack doing? My telekinesis was private.
Dylan turned to me, twisting her long, red hair round her hand. ‘So what’s your thing?’
I stared at her. ‘My thing?’
Jack cleared his throat. ‘She means your psychic ability, Nico.’
My mouth fell open.
‘It’s okay,’ Jack went on, quickly. ‘Dylan knows all about the Medusa gene.’
Dylan glanced at him. ‘You haven’t told him?’ she said.
Jack shook his head.
‘Told me what?’ I put down my cheese sandwich. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Er . . . when William Fox created the Medusa gene,’ Jack said, ‘he didn’t just implant the synthesis in you.’
I stared at him. ‘You mean there are others?’
Jack nodded. ‘Three others, all your age.’
‘Where?’ I turned to Dylan. ‘Who?’
Dylan’s face curved into a mysterious smile. She picked up a box of matches off the counter.
‘Well, I tracked down a boy called Edward O’Brien a couple of months ago, but he wasn’t interested in my help.’ Jack shrugged. ‘There’s a girl out there somewhere, too. I’m still trying to find her, but it’s not easy. I don’t even know her name. You see, William destroyed all his scientific notes before he died. The identity of the four babies implanted with the Medusa gene was in those.’
‘So how are you going to find her?’
‘Fergus knows who she is. William told him before he died.’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘Well, Fergus knew about you, didn’t he? And I know he’d spoken to Edward O’Brien, ages before I tracked him and his family down – frightened the wits out of the poor boy.’ Jack shook his head.
‘Oh.’ My head was reeling again. It hadn’t occurred to me for a second that there might be other people with the same ability as me. A knot of disappointment curled itself up in my chest. If I was honest, I’d kind of liked being the only one who could move objects without touching them.
‘So did this boy – Edward whoever – have telekinetic powers too?’ I said, flatly.
‘No.’ Jack shook his head. ‘He didn’t tell me much, but I’m sure of that. Anyway, William was adamant that the gene didn’t work in isolation . . . that character traits, environmental factors, all sorts of random elements would determine how the Medusa gene developed. It’s highly unlikely all four of you will have the same abilities.’
‘So what other ways might the gene . . . come out in someone?’ I asked.
Jack and Dylan exchanged glances.
‘Most likely in some way that reflects other aspects of their personality,’ Jack said. ‘At least, that was William’s theory. There aren’t that many options . . . Mind-reading is one though . . . as is being able to predict the future.’
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘That’s amazing.’
Jack nodded. ‘All four of you are likely to have a distinct and incredible psychic talent.’
‘You only told me about two of the others,’ I said. ‘A boy called Edward O’Brien and a girl you don’t know anything about. Who’s the fourth?’
Jack glanced at Dylan. She was still holding the box of matches. She drew one out and struck it. She gazed deep into the flame, then held up her finger.
‘Dylan’s the fourth teenager with the Medusa gene,’ Jack said, softly. ‘Dylan?’
Dylan glanced at me out of the corner of her eyes. ‘If I see danger coming, I can protect myself from getting hurt. Watch.’
I stared, as Dylan slowly moved her finger into the fire. She held it there for several seconds, her expression impassive, then slowly withdrew it. She held the finger up so I could see it clearly. It was unmarked.
I realised I’d been holding my breath and let it out.
‘Never fails to bowl me over.’ Jack grinned at me.
I nodded, feeling I was expected to say something.
‘How did you do that?’ I asked Dylan.
She shrugged. ‘Jack showed me how to focus on my breath. I just do that, and it feels like my body gets this protective coat – like a second skin.’
‘Does it only work when you know you’re in danger?’ I said, genuinely interested.
‘At first it did, but now I can do it whenever I want.’ Dylan smiled coldly at me, her slanted green eyes narrowing like a cat’s.
I nodded, wondering if she always sounded that arrogant.
Jack leaned forward. ‘Nico, I wonder if you would consider doing a favour in return for me . . .er, helping you develop your own abilities.’
My hand unconsciously went to my pocket. I felt the thick edge of the folded ten-pound notes. ‘What’s that?’ I said.
‘You have better access to Fergus’s papers and computer files than anyone else in the world,’ Jack said, intently. ‘As I explained, he undoubtedly knows who the fourth person with the Medusa gene is – but the girl herself is probably developing her abilities with no idea about what’s going on. You know how terrifying it was for you when your telekinesis started. Imagine living with that for months . . . even years. I have to find the poor girl, even if it’s just to pass on the information about the Medusa gene, like I did with Edward O’Brien.’
I nodded.
‘Of course, if you don’t want to go through your step-dad’s things I’ll understand,’ Jack went on. ‘But you are – without doubt – in the best position to do it.’
My hand fingered the bundle of notes in my pocket again. This money was my passport to Ketty. And Jack had helped me to get it. The least I could do now was help him help someone else. Anyway, Fergus didn’t deserve my loyalty after keeping quiet about the Medusa gene all these years.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘No problem.’

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‘For you.’ I handed over the envelope.
Ketty opened it, a puzzled expression on her face. She drew out the Youth Marathon entry confirmation.
I bit my lip, waiting for her response. I’d gone online and booked her onto the marathon as soon as I’d got back from Jack’s. It had been straightforward enough to fill out the entry form – I knew Ketty ran about three miles a day, which was above the entry requirement.
I’d printed it out and posted it with the necessary forty pounds cash and now, three days later, here was the confirmation that she was actually signed up for the race.
At last Ketty looked up. It was morning break and we were standing in the entrance hall. People were rushing past us in every direction, but all I could see were Ketty’s golden-brown eyes.
‘Wow, Nico.’ She looked up at me, full of wonder. Then she wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t understand . . .’
‘There’s nothing to understand.’ I shrugged. ‘You said you wanted to enter the marathon and I’ve registered you.’ I pushed four fifty-pound notes into her hand. ‘This should cover all the other stuff you need – travel and food and staying in the designated youth hostel. You’ll need your parents’ permission to go, but you said before they were only objecting to the cost, so that shouldn’t be a problem.’
Ketty’s mouth fell open. ‘But . . . but where did you get all this money?’
I shrugged. ‘Been saving for ages,’ I said.
Ketty raised her eyebrows. ‘Don’t lie to me, Nico. This is loads of money. We both know you don’t have any savings or get this kind of allowance.’
Crap.
‘Okay, okay.’ I sighed. ‘If you want the truth, I won it on a bet and I thought you could use it more than me.’
‘You’re kidding.’ Ketty frowned.
‘You’re welcome,’ I said, sarcastically.
Ketty’s face softened. She reached up and kissed my cheek. I could feel myself reddening and coughed to cover my embarrassment.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s amazing you’ve done this . . . like I said, I just don’t understand . . .’
I rolled my eyes. ‘I bet you don’t give Billy such a hard time when he buys you something.’
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew I’d said something wrong.
‘Billy’s never bought me anything,’ Ketty said.
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Really? What about your new phone and those fancy earrings you were wearing last Friday.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Ketty took a step away from me. ‘The phone was a giveaway with some bank account Billy’s parents set up for him. He’d just got a new upgrade, so he let me have the mobile from the offer.’ She shook her head. ‘And the earrings belong to his older sister. I was borrowing them because Billy offered . . . Just for the night. I didn’t really want to, but he kept going on about them. You should know they’re not my kind of thing at all.’
‘Oh.’ My throat felt tight. Ketty was looking at me like I had ten heads.
‘Is that what this is about?’ She frowned. ‘Trying to look big by competing with Billy Martin?’
‘No . . .’
There was a long pause. The school bell rang right above our heads. Ketty looked at her shoes. ‘Anyway, me and Billy . . . we’ve just been linking. We’re not going out or anything.’
‘Yeah?’ My heart leaped. I tried not to look too excited. ‘Well, whatever – this money’s got nothing to do with him.’
‘So where did you get it?’ Ketty paused, then her eyes widened. ‘You didn’t steal it, did you?’
‘No.’ I stared at her, astonished. ‘No, of course I didn’t.’
Ketty jutted out her chin. ‘Where did it come from, then? And don’t give me any rubbish about winning it on a bet. Proper gambling’s illegal if you’re under eighteen and no one at school has this much cash to lose.’
Panic swirled in my chest. My mind was blank. Part of me wanted to tell her the truth – but I was terrified she’d think I was a total freak.
‘Okay,’ I said. I could hear the desperation in my voice. ‘I won it doing a trick . . . in a talent competition.’
Ketty screwed up her forehead. ‘What sort of trick? Like that stupid twig-moving thing you tried to show me a couple of weeks ago?’
‘No . . .’ I cast around for something . . . anything that would sound convincing. Stick as close to the truth as you can. ‘It was a trick, er . . . using balls.’
Ketty shook her head. ‘Nico . . . I’ve known you for months . . . you can’t do any tricks – with or without balls.’
The panic in my chest spread like fire. Breathe. Breathe.
‘I can,’ I said. ‘I mean, it wasn’t a magic trick or anything . . .’
Ketty put her hand on her hips. ‘Tell me, specifically, what you did then.’
My mind spun. I lighted on the only trick-related activity I could think of involving balls. ‘Juggling,’ I said.
‘Really? You can juggle?’ Ketty frowned. ‘Well enough to win a talent contest?’
‘Yeah, I juggled with seven balls.’ The claim blurted out of my mouth before I could stop it.
Ketty raised an eyebrow. ‘Show me.’
Oh God. Oh God.
‘I’ll show you later,’ I said, frantically trying to buy myself some time.
‘Right.’ Ketty looked away, her face a picture of disbelief.
We stood in an awkward silence.
Shit. This was so not how I’d imagined this moment. Ketty was supposed to look up at me with big, grateful eyes and I was supposed to put my arms around her and . . .
‘I don’t think I should take your money,’ Ketty said, stiffly. ‘Seeing as you’ve now given me three versions of how you got it.’ She held the two hundred pounds and the entry form out to me. ‘Here.’
‘I’m not lying to you about the juggling, I promise.’ I remembered what Jack had said to me after the football match. ‘If you can’t use the money then give it to charity,’ I said.
‘I don’t know.’ Ketty hesitated. ‘I really want to run in that marathon but . . . do you promise you didn’t steal it?’
‘Yes.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘I told you . . . I won a talent competition by juggling with seven balls. I’ll show you . . . we’ll go out on Saturday night. Yeah?’
Crap. Crap. Crap.
What had I said ‘Saturday night’ for? That was far too soon.
‘Okay.’ Ketty bit her lip. ‘But I won’t need all of it.’ She handed me back fifty pounds. I had no choice but to take it. She pocketed the entry confirmation and the rest of the cash. ‘Thank you.’ She stared up at me.
Oh God, that wasn’t how I wanted her to look at me. Her eyes were all wary and suspicious.
‘Ketty?’
‘I’ve got to get to Art.’ Ketty tucked her hair behind her ears, all self-conscious. ‘Er . . . thanks again . . . see you later . . .’
She turned and walked away. I sagged against the wall. watching her go and feeling like crying.
What had I done? I’d given Ketty all that money but, if anything, she seemed to like me less than she’d done before. Plus, even though she wasn’t with Billy, I couldn’t tell her how I felt myself. Not yet. First I had to prove to her that what I’d said about doing tricks was true. Proving my honesty and impressing her with my skills was obviously far more important than spending a load of money on her.
Which meant – and how had this happened? – learning to juggle with seven balls.

By Saturday night.

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