Death smells of macaroons.
Amelie was slumped over the kitchen table, face in a plate of meringues. Spearmint-green flakes stuck to her left cheek. Her glazed irises remained fixed upon a vase of spiky dahlias, cut and arranged by Grace that very morning. Every tangerine petal was bug and blemish free; my sister was well known locally for her green fingers.
My body sagged and my A level folders fell onto the floor.
“About time, considering this is all your fault,” said Grace, appearing from the pantry in a veil of chlorinated steam. She threw a ball of latex at me.
Shit! This was really happening.
I peeled on the gloves, unable to stop gawping at Amelie’s violet lips.
“Would you believe it?” continued Grace. “I ran out of black sacks. Had to nip out and get some more.” She took a step closer towards me and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Where have you been?”
I reached into my tunic pocket for my phone. Grace cocked her head on one side so that her marmalade curls parted, revealing a tiny sliver of snowy hair against her scalp. She narrowed her eyes for a second then flapped her hands about her temples. “Never mind. You’re here now.” She leaned forward and pecked the top of my forehead. “We’ve got lots to be getting on with. You can start by bagging her up. The packing tape is in the top drawer of the dresser.”
Grace wafted out of the room, her strappy sandals clicking across the hallway.
For some reason Amelie wasn’t wearing any shoes.
After I finished, I stared down at my handiwork; a black shiny parcel criss-crossed with brown tape. Grace stood there, leaning on the mop, her toe tapping to some hidden melody within her mind.
“We’ll put her in the utility room for the mo.” It was as though she was talking about an old hat-stand that was going to the charity shop. We lifted Amelie’s shrink-wrapped body and set her down in front of the dirty clothes hamper.
Suddenly all the emotion of what I’d just done came flooding out of my body and I only just made it to the loo in time. I flushed then rinsed the vomit off my tongue with cold water from the washbasin. As I stared into the mirror Grace appeared behind me in the doorway, her reflected head perched upon my shoulder like a parrot.
Once again, she was Emily and I was Cassie and, in that moment, I could hear my heart thudding. I didn’t want to go back there.
“Don’t skimp on the soap. Oh! and by the way, we’re meeting Tom for supper at the pub. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
I wasn’t going to be able to eat a thing; my throat felt as though someone had scraped it several times with a butter knife, but I knew I’d have to pretend there was nothing wrong or Grace would fly off into one of her epic rages.
After I scrubbed my nails, I went into the kitchen and placed my phone on the worktop. Grace snatched up my hands in her own marble palms; eyes narrowed as she examined my fingers. Then she gave a small sigh and let them out of her grasp. She curled a stray lock of hair around her index finger and with her free hand she scrolled through my phone conversations. My speech board was full of silly chatter with Flo. We were trying to decide what to wear to Monarchy Day.
“Why did you tell Mr Briggs that you needed a homework extension?”
I reached for the pad and typed: I left my book at Tom’s.
There was a brief pause and she stared at me.
“Why are you crying?”
I put my fingers to my eyes, surprised by my wet lashes. I rubbed the tears away with the heels of my hands, but it was too late. There was a flash of movement, a thwack then warmth as the sting spread across my cheek.
“Do I have to remind you why we are doing this?” asked Grace, her voice soft and sweet.
I shook my head, trying to blink the moisture back into my eyes.
She re-tucked the stray curl behind her ear. “Do I need to tell you whose fault it is that a girl is dead?”
I placed a hand on my chest and hung my head, waiting for another slap, or worse. A few moments passed and, when I dared to look up, Grace was smiling at me from the hallway. The evening sun poured its golden light down through the lantern window, magnifying Grace’s jagged shadow and imprisoning it behind the spindles of the bannister as though she were a caged beast.
“Come on. Tom will be waiting.” Grace’s almond-shaped eyes sparkled in the gloom.
She slammed the front door and linked arms with me, leaning her head on my shoulder. “You know Mrs Hutton? The woman with a backside the size of a mountain range.” I forced a smile. I hated serving Mrs Hutton; she always spoke to me as though I was stupid and made a point of counting any change I gave her twice. “Well, she came into the café today and started telling me how the cheese scones she’d bought from me tasted a bit bland. Apparently, they weren’t up to my usual standard. Of course, I feigned horror and said I’d add more mustard powder to the mix next time.” Grace arched a pale eyebrow. “Anyway, when she turned to flounce off, I saw her skirt was tucked into her knickers.” Grace’s tinkling laugh rose into the sky. “Of course, I didn’t tell her. Silly bitch. She must have walked the High Street with her puckered thighs and parachute pants on display.”
My face ached from the effort of keeping my smile fixed.
“You want to know how I did it?” asked Grace. She flicked her crimson nails at the branch of an untidy sapling which dared to trail into our path.
I nodded and sang an Abba song in my head. The loud words in my thoughts drowned out her voice although I definitely heard her say plastic bag.
I had liked Amelie. She was one of the quiet ones in the upper sixth who hung around with the cool gang but never seemed to make it out from the side-lines. She always looked a bit lost when she was with them; as though she was trying to shrink into her blazer lining. But when she was on her own in the café, she was polite and chatty. She never displayed the awkwardness that most kids did around me. I guess Grace chose her because of her invisibility and, of course, there was the added bonus that she looked like Flo.
But I was the one who had got to know Amelie really well because, for the last six months, I was the one who had been stealing from her. I also knew that every Friday, during term time, she left the café, straight after the teatime rush, and took a short cut home along the dirt track which skirted Cupid’s Wood and ran parallel to our garden fence.
We strolled along the mesh of narrow country lanes until we got to The Bell and Bottle. It was a hot summer’s evening and the car park was busy.
As we walked across the dusty gravel, the hum of voices and laughter coming from behind the box hedge grew louder. The metal archway which joined the jade walls together was wrapped in clusters of sunny roses and, as I went under, the top of my bun caught on a stem. I paused to untangle myself and spotted Tom’s bike propped up against the wall, its basket full of schoolbooks, just ripe for the taking. When would he learn? Free at last, I stepped into the b.