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I stare at a crack in the corner—it spreads out like a web, across the wall and ceiling, it begs to be filled, closed back up so water doesn't seep through it's jagged edges. I can't help but compare it to the fissure that was etched in my aching heart. I tried to surround it in ice. I thought that I could freeze it so that no one could ever break it again. But it was like a rose dipped in liquid nitrogen, it only made it easier to shatter.
His desk is behind mine and I can hear him whispering to her. They're perfect together, but she doesn't know what he's done. The dam breaks and tears threaten to flood, but I've learned how to freeze them, too. And they burn, icicles in my eyes, but they don't dare slip through. The teacher drones on, and I stare at the empty page before me. Finally, the bell rings and students form a stampede in the hall, slamming lockers and sneaking kisses. I wait until it's empty, and sneak out the back.
I lean against the back of the library, glancing around before taking out a cigarette. I place it to my lips and light it, relaxing as the smoke fills my lungs. I know what it does to my body, and that's the reason I do it. I don't expect anyone to understand. I let out a stream of smoke and watch it curl up and over the building. Gabe turns the corner and smiles, raising an eyebrow as he saunters towards me.
“Gabe, no.” I whisper, pushing him away. He's caught me between his body and the wall, planting kisses all over my face and neck. It's a hot day and the bricks are scraping the back of my arms. I push at him and tell him no, but he knows I'll eventually give in.
I walk home the back way, tugging at my shoulder bag, empty except for one notebook and a pack of cigarettes. The streets are defiled, people laying under trash asleep, drunks retching over the curb. I open the creaky gate. The grass on both sides of the sidewalk has died and the lawn is littered with broken toys that have been there since my little brother was born. I drop my cigarette and crush it under the tip of my sneaker.
The door has been left cracked open again, and mom is passed out on the couch, a cigarette dangling in her fingers, about to fall on the stained carpet. There's already a cheap bottle of wine on the coffee table, just within her reach. I put out the cigarette and move the wine to the kitchen. At least she'll have to move. I grab a can of chicken noodle soup and throw it in a pan, then light the stove.
Toby is in his room, playing on a video game system that I know he didn't buy. I toss a bowl of soup at him and go to my room, where I lie on my bed until morning comes, never really falling asleep. I hear mom at some point, yelling at me about her wine and the beer that Toby must have hidden. I don't say anything, she wouldn't come back here.
Morning comes and I go through the normal routine, shower, brush teeth, jeans and tank top, bag. Mom has locked herself away in her room. I give Toby a piece of dry toast and walk him to school. I smoke my morning cigarette and meet Gabe at the usual place. He smiles and tugs, begging, calling me baby. I don't have the strength to resist him anymore, and I make myself numb.
I sit through class, waiting for that bell to ring.
At lunch I go behind the library. I slip down the wall and lean my head back, closing my eyes, and relaxing for the first time in weeks. A shadow spreads across me, blocking the sun. “Gabe...” I say, screwing open one eye. But it's not Gabe. A girl, she's wearing green cargo pants and a black sweatshirt, despite the eighty degree weather.
“Alex, right?” I nod. “Tia.” She smiles a little, but it looks strange on her, like it doesn't belong. Tia sits down next to me. She's blackened her eyes and lips, bringing the inside out. I hand her my cigarette, but she waves it away. I shrug. She stares at me, her ice-blue eyes filled with sympathy.
“I know what he does.” She whispers, her voice breaking, her intense eyes filling with tears.
My heart melts, the crack expanding, tears spilling over, and I find myself hugging this stranger—connected to me in a way that I didn't realize anyone else was. We lean away from each other right as a figure comes around the corner. Gabe's face goes white as he stares at us. Anger replaces the normal numb feeling and I look up at him with more courage than I thought I had.
“Get away from us, Gabe.” His eyes flick between the two of us and he shakes his head.
“Big mistake, Alex.” He shifts back and fourth on his feet, his hands clenched at his sides, the knuckles white and shaking. I stand, looking up into his eyes, no longer intimidated by his football player body or the full four inches he had over me.
“No. You are the mistake.” I miss his hand, swinging forward and striking me across the face. I gasp, grabbing my cheek. My fingers touch warm blood, bubbling up from a gash on the bone under my right eye.
“Hey!” I turn and see someone else, a guy. Someone I had seen before, but he had never spoken. “Keep your hands off of her!” Gabe only laughs.
“Oh? And what are you going to do?” The guy steps up to Gabe. He has curly brown hair and green eyes, and he seems a little awkward. And it does't take Gabe long to mess up his face.
“Oh!” I gasp, covering my mouth with my hands. Gabe grabs his shirt and leans back, readying himself for another blow.
“That's enough!” I scream, grabbing Gabe's arm. He growls at me, but throws the guy away from him. He hits the wall and slides down it. “Stay out of my business.” Gabe stalks away, without a bruise. I lean down next to the guy and place a hand on the side of his face. His nose was bloodied, his right eye was blackened and his lip, bleeding, was already beginning to swell. “Thank you.” He smiles a little, but winces.
“No problem.” He uses his arms to pull himself up, then leans his head against the wall. Tia rummages through her bag and finds a t-shirt and water bottle. She soaks the t-shirt and hands it to the guy. He sighs, dabbing at his wounds.
“You're Alex. We have Algebra together.” I nod.
“You're...Isaac?” He nods, then groans. I take out a cigarette and light it.
“You really shouldn't do that.” Isaac says, right as I'm about to place it to my lips. I look down at it, and realize, I don't want to—I don't even like it.
I flick the cigarette from my fingers and watch it skid across the gravel.