Mrs Baird is late for the last lesson of term, so Ruth passes the time by reading the chapter in her textbook about punishment in Ancient Rome.

Vicki Plummer, who last week started a rumour about Ruth that caused Alice Watkins to clear her desk and go to sit with Fran Hubbard, sits on her desk with her legs crossed, filing her nails and bragging to her mates about having done it with a boy she met at the pool hall on Friday. When Ruth looks up Vicki shouts across the room, asking if she’s ever done it. Vicki’s mates cackle, as though this is the most hilarious thing they have ever heard.

Ruth returns to her reading. The Romans were notorious for their cruel and unusual punishments. She imagines cutting out Vicki’s tongue and stapling it to the chalkboard.

Alice and Fran are doing a quiz in Jackie magazine called ‘What Kind Of Friend Are You?’ Fran reads out the questions and Alice answers them. She gets mostly ‘c’s, which means she is loyal and trustworthy and will stick with her friends through thick and thin. Unless someone starts a rumour about them, thinks Ruth.

Mrs Baird arrives and says the staff Christmas lunch ran on a bit. She sounds more cheerful than normal, and Ruth wonders if she’s pissed. She makes them push the desks back and arrange their chairs in a circle. Whenever Ruth tries to slot in the chairs on either side slide together as smoothly and firmly as lift doors. Mrs Baird rolls her eyes and tells Ruth to for goodness’ sake come and sit next to her, as though it’s Ruth’s fault. Vicki, on her other side, shuffles her bum as far away as she can until she’s practically sitting on Sarah Simpson’s lap.

They’re going to pass a sentence round the room, whispering it into each other’s ears. It has to be in Latin, to make it educational. Mrs Baird tells Alice to start. She strokes Fran’s hair back and, lover-like, nuzzles the words on their journey. Ruth watches them ripple round the circle, so full of sadness that feels like fear she thinks she might vomit it all out onto Vicki’s pixie boots.

She is sure of one thing. If the rumour had been about Alice, she would not have cleared her desk and gone to sit with Fran. Not ever. No matter what the rumour had been. She would have stuck with her through thick and thin.

Vicki reluctantly breathes the now cigarette scented sentence into her ear. It has become mangled into something about a dog taking a table to the forum, but Ruth isn’t really listening. She leans towards Mrs Baird, but her eyes are fixed on Alice.

“Et tu Brute,” she whispers.

Author Bio: Alison Wassell is a short story, flash and micro fiction writer from the north west of England. She has been published by Reflex Fiction, Retreat West, Bath Flash Fiction Award, Litro, NFFD and The Cabinet of Heed. She has no plans whatsoever to write a novel and wishes shorter forms were taken more seriously. Find her on Twitter at @lilysslave.

Photo by Aleix Ventayol on Unsplash.

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