Ante has snapped under the relentless bullying from Florence and thrown pepper in the other girl's face. Now in deep trouble for her action, she has fled the scene and is hiding in a part of the Northwell School out of bounds to pupils. But Florence is on her trail.
Click. Her heart jumped. The main door opened again and someone with light footsteps walked to the bottom of the stairs. Too light for a teacher. Someone who knew exactly what she was looking for and where to find it.
‘Ante. I can tell you’re up there. It’s no use hiding, you know. Not after what you’ve done. You might as well come down now and save me the trouble.’
She pressed herself back against the wall, gripping the wooden panelling to stop herself shaking. Keep calm. She’s bluffing. She won’t really come up here.
‘Fine. If that’s the way you want it.’ The stairs creaked.
Ante looked around her. No escape. The oak-panelled wall rose straight ahead. To the right, the corridor that led to the staffroom: it might be empty, all the teachers being at lunch, but she couldn’t be sure. Suddenly her eye fell on a door she hadn’t seen before, cut into the panelling at her side. Seizing the handle, she slipped through, closing the door behind her.
For a minute she couldn’t think where she was. Gradually shapes and lengths of darkness sharpened into the outlines of a wooden balcony sticking out half-way up a huge room, no, a hall... of course. The assembly hall, the oldest part of the school, dating back hundreds of years apparently, long before Dr Northwell arrived on the scene. And this must be the organ loft, now used only to hold the lights for school plays and concerts.
Her body tensed. She was no safer than before; Florence could find the door any second. Deeper into the gloom, that was her only hope...ouch. Those damn lights! She grabbed at the balcony rail for support and – it moved under her hand. Shrinking back, she scrabbled behind her for the wall. The blood beat in her ears as she flattened herself against the plaster. That had been a close one. Best keep away from the rail.
‘Ante.’ A crack of light appeared. ‘You’re in here, aren’t you? Come on, Ante, I know you are.’
Don’t move. Don’t even breathe.
The crack of light grew. ‘Congratulations, scholarship girl. You just got yourself expelled.’
Against the brightness of the landing the blonde head wore a halo of gold. Ante bit her lip, feeling the skin tighten under her teeth.
‘Did you really think you could attack me and get away with it?’ Stepping forwards, Florence peered into the darkness. ‘Thought you could barge into Northwell School and have everything your own way, just like at St Dunstan’s?’
Sweat trickled down Ante’s neck. In the blackness behind her eyelids Florence lunged at her, nails aiming for her face. Wincing, Ante struck the back of her head on the wall.
‘Because I have news for you.’ The voice became sweeter than ever. ‘Things have changed since we were little. You got away with it then. Not anymore.’
Florence’s hand was on the rail. Ante inhaled sharply.
‘There you are,’ Florence cried. ‘Think I can’t see you?’
She walked forwards. Ante, trembling, watched the hand move along the rail. I should warn her. She opened her mouth but no sound came out.
‘Scared of me, are you?’ jeered Florence. The rail moved slightly but she didn’t notice. ‘You should be,’ she added softly, letting her hand bear more weight as her feet squeezed past a spotlight.
Ante gasped. I must warn her! But it was as if her throat had closed and she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t form the words, and the image flashed across her mind of this hand creeping towards her freezing suddenly, of something happening to prevent–
Crack. A tremor seemed to go through Florence. The smile vanished from her face. And in that moment Ante saw what she hadn’t seen before.
They were not alone. Next to Florence, intense, grey eyes gazing straight into Ante’s, stood the dim, shadowy figure of a boy. No time to think who he was or how he’d got there.
‘Get back from the hand rail,’ she cried, her voice suddenly free. ‘It’s not safe!’
The next moment came a crash and a scream and the sound of old, dry wood breaking into splinters. For a split second Florence’s face, white as death, seemed suspended in the air; then something hit the floor below with a sickening thud.
Dizziness swept through Ante. Her legs gave way. She fell against the wall but the wall itself seemed to be sliding away from her, sending her toppling backwards. A shape rushed past her, followed by a hard edge scraping the length of her shin, like the bottom of a door swinging back into place – then all was darkness.