The Paper Chase

By Keith Wadsworth

The Envelope

Jess leaned forward and, with elbows on knees, she rested her chin on her clenched fists. It was her favourite sulking pose. If it was for public consumption she would add a good loud sigh as she did it. Here in the park the sigh would have been wasted so just the chin on fists would do for any passers-by to get the message. It also meant her neck snuggled down just a bit further into her scarf: she wouldn’t admit it, but it was cold.

She was stuck in one mighty great sulk. She knew she sulked, like big time, but if anyone dared to say she sulked they’d be cut off her Christmas card list. She never sent Christmas cards but you get the point. To be honest she didn’t know quite what she was sulking about but that was often the case. She could list a whole bunch of good reasons to sulk, most of which anyone would excuse her for, but quite why she was in a strop that day she couldn’t put her finger on. She’d sneaked out through the kitchen back door after she’d put her breakfast things in the dishwasher. She was supposed to say if she was going out, even just to the park, but you can’t be in a sulk AND do things right, can you? That doesn’t work. It was Saturday and no one would notice she wasn’t around until tea-time so she’d got plenty of time on her own, to think. Well, to sulk really.

It’s funny how you can’t think when you want to think. Jess wasn’t sure what it was she wanted to think about anyway. She knew she wasn’t happy but couldn’t come up with a good reason for feeling that way, that day. She’d lived at Grimley House for three years and couldn’t honestly say it was bad, despite its rather unfortunate name. The carers were okay. The food was edible. She got on with plenty of the other kids. Most came and went between foster carers and couples who were going to adopt them but Jess seemed to be there longer than most.

In fact, only Danny had been there longer than she had and he was off the wall – fun, a bit loud, rebellious, whacky, sometimes argumentative, and difficult. No one was going to have him, it seemed, but she quite liked him. Liked him a lot, in fact. He cheered her up and she admired his independence, his ability to manage for himself. Mind you, if she’d been there almost as long as Danny, was she seen as being like him? A sulker, maybe, but not a Danny, surely.

Thinking wasn’t working and the view of the ground between her feet soon became boring so Jess lifted her gaze. She found herself looking underneath the roundabout a few yards away. She hated that thing. She hated feeling dizzy, could never understand the kids who would spin themselves round, fall over when they stopped and giggle uncontrollably about it. Do me a favour, she’d think. Who wants to feel even more out of control of your life than you already are, feel vaguely sick and laugh about it?

Her eye caught sight of a piece of litter under the roundabout. Litter really got on Jess’s nerves. She sometimes had to share her room with a passer-through and one thing they got to learn pretty quickly was don’t make Jess’s room a mess. Mess with her room and mess with Jess.

The guilty bit of paper fluttered as the chilly breeze found its way under the roundabout. It can’t have been there long: it looked white and clean. It stuck out because the park was otherwise litter-free: the kids from Grimley House came over with black sacks and litter pickers every now and then and cleaned it all up. It was their bit for the community they were told. Jess moaned every time they had to do it but, secretly, she was pleased they did.

Try as she might, she couldn’t take her eyes off the bit of paper and eventually, checking that no one was watching, she got up from the bench and wandered across to the roundabout. Several more checks for onlookers were needed before she felt confident to kneel down and reach under the roundabout for the paper – not a very cool thing to be caught doing, after all.

Certain that still no one was about who could possibly set it spinning, Jess sat on the roundabout, holding what turned out to be an envelope in her hands. There was writing on it: it wasn’t a kid’s writing so Jess felt sure it wasn’t part of a game.

Open if you dare

She turned the envelope over. It was sealed. She wriggled her little finger into the gap where the glue doesn’t reach but she stopped and turned the envelope over again. “Open If You Dare”. It looked like a grown up’s writing, even and joined up. She turned it to the back again and tore the seal open. Inside was a folded piece of paper which she slid out and opened. The writing was the same as on the front: neat, adult. She began to read:

So, you dared. And now your life changes in ways you can’t begin to imagine. You may be glad you found this. Or you may wish you never had.

Jess turned the paper over and peered into the envelope to check there was nothing else. No: that was it. The obvious thing was to screw it up and toss it in the bin but somehow the writing was too ‘serious’ to do that. It couldn’t be particularly for her because it didn’t have her name on it. Anyone could have found it. It was just someone messing about. But it wasn’t scribbled: no one from Grimley could write that neatly, not even the staff!

Strangely, ‘sulk-pose’ no longer seemed necessary but it was definitely getting colder sitting there and Jess wasn’t sure how much longer you could maintain the ‘needed to think’ excuse for sneaking out. The message in the note didn’t scare her but it certainly puzzled her: “You may be glad you found this. Or you may wish you never had” was curious. Why glad or regretful? Who wrote it? How did it find its way under the roundabout? She slid forward until her feet were beyond the wooden step and back on the ground, stood and ambled towards the waste-bin, envelope and note ready to be scrunched and thrown away. But instead, she pushed both bits of paper into her puffer-jacket pocket and headed for Grimley’s garden gate and back to the warm, noisy indoors.

“Where ya bin, Jess?” It was Danny. Who else!

“Mind yer own,” she called back with a smile she couldn’t help with him.

“Bin sulking?”

“Get lost!” How DID he make her smile, even when she was trying to be angry with him? But then she did like him, despite herself.

If you liked Chapter 1 click on the download link below to view all chapters.

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