After about an hour on the road, the bus finally arrived in front of an enourmous rectangular building. The words "Brightwell Sports Centre" were painted in thick white letters across a navy blue sign that hung above the entrance and all around it were painted images of various famous sports people who had visited the centre over the years. Allie sighed exasperatedly and reluctantly heaved herself back across the seats and into her chair. Here goes nothing, she thought, gritting her teeth against the jarring impact of her chair bumping against the bus stairs as Miss Phyllis and the driver lowered her gingerly down the steps.
Reclaiming her sports bag from the untidy pile inside the bus, Allie pushed herself along at the back of the mob of giggling girls as they entered the building. The glass door slid apart seamlessly and the group soon found themselves standing in a large reception area. Five staff members stood in front of a large desk at the far end of the room, three women and two men, all lean and well muscled. One, an older man with grey hair and a sharp-featured face that reminded Allie distinctly of an owl, stepped forward and shook Miss Phyllis' hand.
"Welcome ladies," he said, "Welcome to Brighwell Sports Centre. My name is Tim and I have the pleasure of being in charge of your activities schedule for today. My team and I will endeavour to make your experience as enriching and fun as possible."
Yeah, thought Allie sardonically, like that's going to happen. About the only enrichment I'll get out of this is the chance to examine the benches and a crash course in boredom. Really enriching.
As Tim proceeded to rattle off a long list of rules and safety regulations, Allie let her gaze wander around the room, taking in everything from the wares available in the sportsware shop right through to the remarkably vivid photographs right through to the mounted cabinets on the walls, all full of various sporting trophies and medals. As she looked around, she caught sight of the image in one of the spotlessly polished mirrors hung around the area. Her classmates stood in a semi circle in front of her, all fidgeting and whispering behind their hands, tossing their heads and wiggling in excitement. Behind them sat another figure, dark blonde curls falling in front of her eyes, pale-skinned and slimline. A perfectly normal looking girl, until you looked below her waist and saw the two mishapen lumps where her legs were supposed to be, a pair of identical bulges beneath the purple school skirt. Allie's gaze locked on that of her reflection and she saw her own dejectedness mirrored in the cold acrylic. She was both the girl in the mirror and the one outside, and yet always on the outside. Always excluded. Always alone.
Allie looked away, turning her attention back to the group as Tim lead them away down one of the long corridoors. Allie pushed herself off to follow them, but found herself faced with one of the staff members Tim had introduced earlier. She was young, with dark chestnut hair held back from her face in a low ponytail. A pair of inquisitive brown eyes peered out from an olive complexion and her small pert mouth was parted in a friendly smile:
"Hello," she said, her voice soft and musical, "You must be Allie?"
Allie nodded, chewing her lip nervously. Oh no, she thought, here we go again. The woman looked at her thoughtfully, dark eyes locking on Allie's smoke-grey as if she were searching for something. Eventually, the woman turned and gestured for her to follow:
"Follow me. You will be following an alternate program from the others today. Don't worry, I think you'll find you're in for a very pleasant surprise. My name is Cam by the way."
Wordlessly and in a state of growing nervousness, Allie wheeled herself after Cam as they made their way through another coridoor, away from the still audible noise of Allie's classmates.
Oh heck, she thought bitterly, just when I thought this day couldn't get any worse. Alternate program sounds rather like some sort of cushy sympathy-fest to me. Perhaps it's a self-help group or something equally useless. When will these people understand that I don't want all this attention? Was this the surprise Mum was talking about? Well, I'm certainly not enjoying it!
However, despite her mental irritation and beneath the rolling black waves of anger, frustration and worry that flooded her mind, Allie was dimly aware of a tiny speck of light. Like a candle-flame at the bottom of a dark cavern, some small part of her looked past all the potential disaster and gave her something she had not felt in a very long time.