The four girls moved closer, backing their classmate into the cave's water-stained wall. "Did you think you were being clever today?" Fau questioned, carefully articulating each syllable.
Her head was tilted to the side, the hair from her short, brown bob concealing half of her face. She used her long, slender fingers to meticulously roll up the crisp sleeves of her school shirt.
"Fau, I was just answering Mr. Hunt's question." Deborah countered, the tremble in her voice betraying her stocky, short posture and puffed out chest.
She pushed her rounded glasses further onto her freckled nose with one hand, clutching a shield of textbooks to her torso with the other.
All was silent but for the mounting rustle of leaves outside, the forests' drumroll.
"I was just answering Mr. Hunt's question", Fau mocked, leading her posse in roaring laughter that split through the cave's quiet.
"You're fucking lying!" she snapped, pointing an accusatory finger in the hostage's face, "You wanted to say my name, to tell him that poor little Deb gets bullied by Fau.
Why didn't you just do it!?". A chorus of agreement rippled among the other girls. They were tense with anticipation, passive spectators to a show they had helped create.
"I didn't say anything Fau! I just answered his question, but I didn't say your name!", Deborah insisted, her eyes watering under an unsteady frown.
Fau stared at the girl in front of her, the black discs in her eyes focusing like the lens of a camera. A heavy stillness, and then it came.
She lifted her hand, pulling the atmosphere into suspended strain before lashing with full force down on her face.
Deborah let out a stifled screech on contact, her glasses tore across the cave's floor, scraping towards the entrance.
Fau loomed over her classmate's recoiling body. She reached slowly into her skirt pocket and pulled out a crumpled Marlboro cigarette pack.
Gradually peeling back the lid, she dragged one cigarette from the safety of the group to her lips and raised a lighter to meet it.
With one swift movement of her thumb, Fau set flame to her cigarette, the light illuminating her indifferent face.
"If you ever tell anyone about this here," she began, contaminated breath leaving her body with every word, "it will be the last thing you do Deb. Do you understand?" she warned.
Without lifting her head, Deborah nodded, one hand still cradling her assaulted cheek. "Go", Fau ordered her.
Laughter bounced from wall to wall as the group watched the wounded girl scramble past them towards freedom.
The shrill cackles continued into the evening. They blasted music from their phones and squawked about their latest teenage victories whilst finishing each other's cigarettes.
A dense cloud of smoke moved around them, the toxic vapour masking their fragility.
As the sun's light began to fade, one by one they left, chained to house rules despite their claimed independence. But Fau stayed. Fau didn't want to go home. She couldn't go home. Not yet.
Her mother wasn't asleep yet.
She slowly moved herself to the cave wall, her body sliding to the ground. It was damp, cold. The smell of rotted wood and wet soil filled the air. She lit another cigarette and waited.
She knew it would come. It always did when she was alone. Fau, the voice in her head gradually sung itself into being. Fau's muscles tensed as the pit in her stomach began to churn.
She feigned ignorance and slowly dragged the smoke from her cigarette into her lungs, feeling its noxious mist fill her chest. Fau, Fau, Fau.
Are you a scardey cat? A weak, pathetic, scardey cat? "Fuck off", Fau answered, steadying the fear that was leaking into her consciousness, "I'm not fucking scared".
Liar, the voice hissed, its whispers forcing her into vigilance. Liar, liar, liar, liar! The words reverberated in the corners of her mind, setting her nerves ablaze and quickening her breath.
Fau shook her head violently, reaching into her skirt pocket for her earphones.
She tugged on the soft wires, tearing them from their place of rest, scratching the edges of the phone socket as she forced their entry. Fau stared at the screen waiting for it to light up.
Nothing. She tried again, praying more force would produce different results. Nothing. The voice was laughing hysterically, louder and louder, racing through humiliation to anger.
You can't do anything right! You're a fucking failure Fau. A failure! Everyone leaves you. Everyone hates you. You're disgusting. A failure. Even your own mother hates you.
Hates you! "Shut up!" Fau screamed, her guttural cry startling the forest birds nearby into flight.
She felt her throat begin to swell as tears traced routes through her make-up, veins of reality against her mask.
She looked down at her arm holding the earphones and slowly brought a shaky hand to her rolled sleeve.
Bit by bit she pulled the material back further, wincing as she came face to face with her experience of a mother's love. Fau looked down at the bruise, a sprawling nebula of colour and pain.
Running her fingers over the stain she pressed down gently, flinching as heat pierced her arm. See? Your mother hates you, Fau. She wants you to disappear. She can't stand the sight of you.
"Shut up!" Fau screamed, pushing again, harder, deeper, her nails breaking the skin's surface.
"Are-, are you okay?" a small voice said. Fau froze; she already knew who it was.
"What the fuck are you doing here Deb?!" Fau snapped, using the back of her hands to brutally wipe away the tears, her chest heaving. Deborah was staring at Fau's arm, wide eyed, immobile.
"Uh, my, my glasses fell off when-", she stuttered, raising her gaze to meet Fau's, "I'm looking for my glasses." Fau's eyes were red and swollen.
Stained with mascara around the edge, their black discs fixed on Deborah; mesmerising to look at, terrifying to be seen by.
She leaned back against the cave wall, cringing as she carefully pulled her shirt sleeve down.
"There" she said, nodding her head towards the cave entrance opposite herself.
Deborah quickly turned to where Fau had indicated and hurled an uncontrolled "Thank you", out of her. She placed her hand on the cave wall to steady herself and kneeled by the spectacles.
Fau watched Deborah linger on the ground, her head tilting from side to side.
"What? Are they broken?" Fau asked, her curiosity not undetectable in her aloof questioning.
"No, it's not that, it's-", Deborah rose to her feet slowly, glasses in one hand, a small sand coloured object in the other.
She turned to Fau, the corners of her mouth and eyes curling upwards into a calm smile. "Here", she said, gently tossing the item towards Fau who winced as she caught it with outstretched arms.
Fau pulled the chilled object to her chest and opened her hands. It was a mushroom. She gently manoeuvred the toadstool between her fingers, savouring its earthy scent.
The umbrella shaped dome felt damp against her fingertips, a velvet, cool surface. Its underside was ribbed with delicate, soft gills, lined in perfect patterns.
They bent to the will of their observer as Fau moved the back of her nails along the rows, like keys on a piano.
"We use it for cooking, me and Mum. She likes foraging on her walks around here", Deborah continued tentatively, "It was growing on this piece of deadwood. It's edible, this one".
Fau could feel Deborah's stare on her, on her smudged mascara and swollen eyes, on her collapsed limbs sprawling the cave ground, on the patches of blood seeping through her white shirt,
but she didn't care. She was captivated by this object that had created life from death. It was as sturdy as it was flexible, as resilient as it was fragile.
"Would you like to come? for...dinner?" Deborah lost her footing for a second, the shock of her own proposition causing her to stumble while upright.
Fau stopped, Deborah sighed; acknowledgement falling through the girls. She slowly went on, "if you want. We could cook the mushroom, or something. Or whatever, you don't have to.
Just, you know-" Deborah paused and suddenly began to fidget in her pockets, looking for something Fau knew didn't exist.
"I don't need your pity." Fau countered, staring at Deborah through bloated eyes, her glare a challenge.
Deborah stopped fidgeting, took a deep breath, and walked calmly towards the bent figure on the cave floor. She lowered her torso and gradually stretched her hand out to Fau.
"It's not pity", she answered, her eyes were soft, her voice welcoming, "it's dinner".
Fau stared at Deborah's outstretched invitation, the sun's last light forming a warm aura around her.
She began crying, uncontrollably, and through breathless sobs whispered the word, "okay", as she took her redeemer's hand.