She thought it prudent to raise eyes upwards.
"Dear God, forget what I said about the brakes failing."
Her mood lightened a milligram, but Holly was still annoyed with the morning: the first day of July, and the first day of extra tuition. When her father saw her grades he booked her into a catch-up course in the city, and killed summer.
The logjam on the stairs left her waiting at the bottom, where she spotted Amanda Jenkinson sitting at the back. Surely Amanda wouldn't need summer study, she always got top marks. A sliver of satisfaction pierced Holly’s gloom.
Once upstairs, she took a careful look up and down the seats. He was there, as she'd been warned, staring out the window with his earphones in. Stephen Adams, nineteen, gorgeous.
She smoothed her hair, and headed for safer territory. Sheryl and Judith commandeered the full front row, spreading their bags to repel the unwanted. She plopped down beside Sheryl and threw sideways glances at the two girls checking their phones. Deep sighs said zero messages, all their friends tucked up in bed, exams passed or their parents unable to afford private tuition.
Holly hadn't looked at her inbox since the first volley of messages. She steeled her nerve and opened the most recent text. She entertained a brief hope of an "only joking, lol" apology. The tension returned to her shoulders as she scrolled through a vindictive mix of threats and curses, all variations on the same theme. Don’t get on that bus.
She jumped as Judith called across to Sheryl. “Got any vids on that thing?”
Sheryl had unzipped a small black case to reveal a dark screen and unmistakable logo. “We can download anything we want, the bus has WiFi."
Holly grabbed the machine from her classmate, and launched a browser. Sheryl didn’t complain, but Judith rolled her eyes. “You could ask sometimes, yeah?”
Holly gave a grudging explanation. “I saw Amanda Junkbum downstairs. Don’t ya want to know if we’re stuck with her all summer?”
Judith shrugged, but leaned across the aisle to watch.
Holly logged into Facebook to check where Amanda was going. She only friended Amanda after Career Day the previous year, a useless event as far as Holly was concerned as she already knew she’d be a film director. To everybody’s surprise, Amanda’s mom came to talk about technology courses, with goodie bags filled with t-shirts and pens and the cheat codes for a game app that everybody was playing. Amanda’s mom was the CEO of the app company. Suddenly Amanda got popular. Holly friended her just to see who else was sucking up. It set her teeth on edge to see the boys flocking to perch on Amanda's wall.
Holly pulled up Amanda’s Facebook page, hoping to see a sad status update about D grades.
"Tomorrow I arrive," Sheryl said.
The three girls scanned the comments on Amanda's wall looking in vain for English. The messages bore exotic names: Guillaume, Arnaud, Luc.
Thumbnail photos of tanned young men grinned up at them. "They're hot. Who are they?" Judith breathed.
Sheryl giggled. "Amanda, you sly fox." She started translating as best she could.
"Meet you at the airport."
"Need you here. Won't win without you."
"We will be heroes with the XS 3D."
Sheryl stopped, puzzled by the abbreviations. Judith pointed at one long message in the middle of the screen. "Click on that link, let's see what websites her boyfriends are recommending."
Boyfriends. The bile rose in Holly’s throat.
The links slowly loaded, crammed with flashing images advertising "Call of Duty", "Red or Dead", "Assassin's Creed".
"Amanda's a hard-core gamer," Sheryl laughed.
Holly shook her head, digesting the content which was thankfully in a language she understood. This wasn't a fan site gushing over the latest releases. This was the hub for a competition run by one of the biggest gaming companies in the world, inviting teams of high school students to Paris to present demos of their own games.
Holly’s two companions urged her to hit the back button, and return to the good-looking guys. They were bored by a whole lot of technical jargon they couldn’t follow.
"Demos can be run on any of: (a) Intel GMA (b) Radeon 4670 (c) Zotek 3D-Force."
Holly got it. She recognized the graphics terminology from her favorite blogs on video and animations. The girls perked up when she flicked back to Amanda's Facebook page and scrolled down the page.
"Le 3D-Force, c'est le bomb!"
Holly grimaced. She had spent months building a YouTube channel, ten thousands views already, editing her friends’ cell-phone videos with special effects and animation. But here was Amanda Junkbum, off to France, bringing a 3D game. Amanda would win the competition outright with her French gang, and return triumphant at the end of summer.
As Holly brooded, Judith stretched out her arm to click on the screen. Holly angrily pushed her hand away, then stood up abruptly and tossed the machine onto the startled girl’s lap.
"Take it. Leave me alone."
She marched a few steps down the aisle before she realized she could hardly walk out of a bus and slam the door behind her. She dithered, feeling foolish, thankful that all the passengers were dozing, reading, or gazing out the window.
Like Stephen Adams, Lillian's guy. He had a smile on his face, his head swayed and his lips whispered along to a song in his earphones. Holly was lost at the sight of those lips, as lost as she had been when she let him kiss her.
Last day of term, exams over, everyone laughing and joking down in Baileys Field, the older lads rolling a keg of beer out the back of a Ford sedan. Stephen was those guys, older than most of them; he was dating Crazy Lil who'd been kept back two school years and got meaner each time. Holly near lost her mind when he draped an arm around her shoulders and placed warm lips on her own. It took Sheryl to have the sense to pull her away, looking frantically around the crowd, expecting a wrathful dervish to whirl down upon them. Stephen watched them back off, a calm smile on his handsome face.
The long summer days in a small town should be the perfect opportunity for payback; between the mall, the park and the fields, there are only so many places for a girl to hang out. Who told Lillian that Holly would escape to Dublin every morning? And worse, take the same long-distance bus as Stephen? Holly figured every classmate for a suspect. Well, maybe not Sheryl, but definitely Judith.
The barrage of text messages started late that evening. The worst were from Lillian, but her friends were a near match in viciousness. Amongst the commentary on her character, the instructions came through loud and clear.
Don't get on that bus.
Holly half-expected an assault at the bus stop, but Lillian’s anger didn't propel her out of bed so early. She knew her return would be a different matter.
She had nine hours before coming back to the meanest girl in the town. She gazed in despair at Stephen, who sat head tilted to the side, looking lazily out the window, still murmuring the words to a favorite song. He could be a model from a music shoot, he was that gorgeous.
A sharp jolt shot through her. She took out her phone and activated video recording. Bringing both hands to her face as if she was about to sneeze, she looked surreptitiously at her view finder as she set the focus on Stephen.
Seconds later she tiptoed down the middle stairs of the bus and stopped at the last step to peek around. Amanda was head down, stuck in a book. Holly walked softly toward her and raised her cell phone.
Three seconds of filming Amanda's fringe wouldn't do.
"Hey, girl. What's the story?" she called in as friendly a tone as she could muster.
Amanda looked up and smiled in surprise, then raised her eyebrows. Holly clicked off the recording and nodded curtly, turned on her heel and went back up stairs.
Judith had moved seats to sit beside Sheryl and the two girls were browsing the web. The new seating arrangements suited Holly, she didn't like to be watched while she worked. She grabbed the iPad off Judith's knees.
"Sheryl, I gotta use this."
She ignored their whines and fished a USB key from her bag, packed with video software downloaded from sites best not mentioned around her Arts teacher. She copied the software to Sheryl's iPad and transferred the ten seconds of video footage from her smart-phone.
Footage and editing software: everything necessary to get to work. It was a one hour journey to where the three girls would hop off for summer school. Holly didn't need an hour to complete her work, she was done in forty minutes.
She looked across at the two girls sharing double earphones hooked into Sheryl's iPhone. She felt a stab of envy, but no qualm at interrupting. Sheryl was always impressed with her videos.
"Move, Judith, I want to show Sheryl something," Holly said loudly.
Judith looked up, lips pursed, shaking her head and pointing at her ear. Holly gripped her upper arm and pinched the soft flesh hard. Judith yelped and scuttled across the aisle. Sheryl stiffened and looked away as Holly sat down beside her and settled the iPad on her knees.
"Watch this, it's hilarious."
The face of a smiling Stephen Adams fills the screen. The camera pans out and sitting close beside him is Amanda Jenkinson. Slowly Amanda raises her head and grins at the camera.
A caption scrolls at the bottom of the screen.
"Guess who I’m doing this summer."
Stephen turns his head toward the girl and gazes dreamily at her. His lips murmur and she arches her eyebrows teasingly at the viewers.
The caption changes.
"I won't tell if you won't."
And that's a wrap. No cartoon cupids overhead. No Hollywood explosions. Her arts teacher kept harping on about "less is more". For once, Holly had aimed for subtle.
Maybe that was why she didn't hear any appreciation from Sheryl, who simply gawped at the screen. On her left, Judith was equally wide-eyed and equally silent. Holly shrugged off a moment’s disappointment. Never mind these two, they weren't the audience she had in mind.
"You're not gonna...she'll get killed...," Judith stammered and fell quiet, rubbing her arm. Holly kept focused on the task in hand. There was one final step to complete.
She switched to the browser the two girls had been using when she'd gone for her little walk. It was still logged into Sheryl's Facebook. She felt a twinge of regret and wished it was Judith's account instead. She found Lillian on Sheryl's friend list and jumped to her page, pausing to consider what she would write on Lillian's wall. Or rather, what Sheryl would write on Lillian's wall. Then she swiftly typed:
"OMG!!! Guess what I found? Check it out at YouTube - Amanda_Luvz_Stephen!!!"
The message materialized with Sheryl's little picture beside it. Sheryl gasped, hand to her mouth.
"It's just a bit of fun," Holly snapped. But she swiftly closed Facebook and flicked back to the YouTube page.
The progress bar continued onward. 61% complete. 62%. 63%. Nothing more to be done but wait.
Holly could feel Sheryl shuddering and she caught Judith's head-shakes out of the corner of her eye. She slumped defiantly in her seat. The bus moved slowly through the rush-hour traffic. Three sets of eyes stared at the screen.
85% complete. 86%. 87%.
The blue block crawled pixel by pixel toward a wicked journeys end.