It was supposed to be a secret, I thought.
We were sitting at the breakfast table. Valerie had placed my plate and blue mug on the counter. The silver kettle was beginning to bubble quietly. I looked at Valerie's hands. She had a newspaper in front of her and one hand curled around a coffee mug. She was wearing the grey, wool jumper that was the same colour as her hair.
Valerie had talked about 'consistency' the first morning after I moved in. She had called me for breakfast every day, all summer. I sat in my chair for ten minutes and looked at everything and breathed in and out. Valerie had stopped trying to speak to me as soon as I entered the room. I always woke up, very tense, with my muscles aching. Valerie always read the theatre reviews section of the paper first. I liked that it was the same each time. We were learning about each other.
That morning, it was worse. White noise filled my head. I looked at a triangle patch of yellow light that fell across the table. I trailed my fingers back and forth along the grooves in the wood. Valerie was watching me, but pretending to read the paper. I stared into the dark blue of the carpet. I knew that time was passing. I was taking too long to orient myself. I didn't want her to ask me what was wrong, so I forced myself to stand up.
I went to the counter to make my toast. Unfortunately, this was Valerie's cue. She leaned back in her chair.
"Good morning." Her tone was always bright. "How did you sleep?"
Bad, I thought.
The 'no talking' rule only lasted so long. The rest of my time with Valerie was her trying to get me to open up. She didn't understand. I couldn't talk at all. It sometimes felt like I was dragging words up from the bottom of my stomach. It took me too long to get my thoughts into a sentence. It was easier not to try. So there was no way I could tell her what I'd overheard. I just had to deal with it myself.
I shrugged. I focused on putting two slices of bread into the toaster.
"Are you excited about today?" she said.
I didn't know how to respond. I still didn't feel awake, so I tried to count, to get everything in focus. Three hanging plants next to the window.
"Alfie?" Valerie said.
Seven animal magnets stuck to the fridge - Dog, Lion, Elephant…
"It's okay to be nervous," she said.
There were twenty-seven books on the bookshelf. I waited for the toast and the silence seemed to stretch forever. The supermarket from yesterday had been in my dreams.
Bright Star House.
I was sure I heard somebody say it.
"Rachel said the kids from the Bright Star House are coming to our school!"
I stopped walking in the supermarket. Valerie bumped into me. The metal shopping basket hit my elbow. I flinched so hard my feet moved an inch. I couldn't hear properly - or I could hear everything - the din of voices and the wheels of trolleys squeaking. I stared at the grainy, white floor.
Valerie put a tentative hand on my shoulder and I couldn't stop myself flinching again. She took her hand away. Did she hear it?
"Alfie?" She was speaking very quietly, standing to my left and leaning down. Her head ducked forward as she tried to meet my eyes. Her gaze was always so insistent. I stared at the tiny threads of her cardigan knitting together. "Are you okay?"
She continued to say something else, but I couldn't listen. My breathing sounded loud in my ears. It was difficult to focus on what she was saying. I looked at my shoes, focusing on the red laces.
"Would you like to wait for me outside?" she said. She didn't hear it.
The laces started to blur. I blinked and nodded.
"Okay," she said. I forced my feet to move, counting the steps to make it easier. One, Two, Three, Four… I watched my shoes take a step and it was like watching something on TV. I watched the bodies moving, pathway open and I walked quickly back through the supermarket and out the door. Leaning against the wall outside, I looked at the tarmac and breathed carefully. What if when I walked into school, people could tell on sight? Bright Star House -
The toaster popped. I jumped. Valerie was watching me. I focused on buttering my toast, spreading it very thin.
"All that studying this summer paid off," Valerie said into the silence. "So you don't have to worry about catching up with the other students."
I felt so guilty. She was trying so hard. I took a deep breath and said, "Great." I felt my face going red. My palms were damp. "Thanks," I managed hoarsely.
I took a bite of my toast, almost choking. It felt like a sponge in my mouth.
"And some of your old friends will be at school today too!" Valerie's voice had brightened in response to my small offering. "Do you know a girl called Mary? She's your age, I think. A boy called Ed who will be in the year above you."
I didn't recognise the names, but I nodded. When I had been at Bright Star, we had used different nicknames. I didn't have any friends there anyway. The memory of Volt rose unbidden, leaning over me, his black eyes glaring. Well, maybe I had him. I wondered if he would be there - with a new name. The camoflage didn't matter. Everybody will know where we came from - what we can do.
Valerie clapped her hands together. "This is exciting, Alfie - a new beginning."
I so desperately wanted that to be true.