February 26, 2008
My legs continue to push me forward, and my black shoes hit the soggy cobblestones again and again. Finally, a green metal door looms ominously through the sheets of dripping rain, and I slowly approach it. My blue-tinged hands press against the cold surface. A blast of cool air hits my face as I step inside and scrape my damp feet on the rough, black mat. Mom’s elbow sticks me in the lower back like a misguided safety pin; my head jerks up. Folds of leathery skin meet my gaze and words of welcome spill from between sagging lines and cracked lips. I instinctively grasp her outstretched hand, which is sprinkled with brown age spots, and plaster a sweet, simpering smile onto my face as meaningless, polite statements slip between my teeth. The woman I now know as Mrs. McCormick, a Carey Baptist College secretary, toddles down a hallway to produce the required paperwork, and Mom turns to leave. As she says goodbye and whips her black hair over her shoulder, my hardened and brave facade dissolves, and my throat clenches with urgency. Words almost get caught in my throat, but somehow manage to escape.

“I’m scared.”

Her arms envelop me, and my unmanageable hair creeps out of its perfectly tied ribbon. I nestle my head into the safe, little place between her chin and chest. It’s a tight squeeze. Her words drift like falling leaves to my ears.

“Just be you, and everything will be fine.”
The suggestion lingers like an echo. It fades away as she travels back along the rusty red cobblestones, becoming smaller and smaller, just a speck of dust floating past the tan bricks.

Good advice. But there is simply no “me” anymore. I am a million miles away, wrapped up in A+’s, lacy socks, crisp collars, perfect curls, a next door neighbor just three bunny hops away, bookshelves and the boy who has sat at my table every year. Everything I know is gone.

Mrs. McCormick returns and presents me with a schedule. The paper wilts beneath my sweaty fingertips, and her soft, ever-present smile begins to grate on my strained nerves. If I can’t be happy, who should be? She ushers me down another green carpeted hall, and I keep my eyes trained on the tips of her black leather covered heels. We come to another lobby, and I give the room a cursory glance. Everything is green. I drop my bag next to a sprawling cluster of identical backpacks, and Mrs. McCormick slowly twists the bronze doorknob to Classroom 8.1. Pencils cease to scratch while the monotone voice of the teacher slowly withers and dies. Every teal sweater-covered body looks up, and 24 pairs of eyes bore holes into my face. There is no Deanna waiting in the back of the room, or Jackie whispering from the seat next to the window. It’s only me and 24 strangers.

It’s barely the end of the first week, but I can’t bear to hear another whisper about what Darleny did with Kyle at the party or what drug Grace did this week. I’m trapped, pinned to my spot on the scorching pavement with a PB&J in my hands. Almost every one of their mumbled stories and crude jokes fall without comprehension on my virgin ears. I pretend to understand, and my laughter is fake and shallow, hiding my confusion and wide-eyed horror like a mask. My brain pounds out its warning like a drum. Go. Leave. Now. But I can’t. They are the only thing I have. I wear my skirt rolled up to mid-thigh, my shirt untucked and draw circles of black around my eyes. We parade around in a pack, stopping and talking to those deemed worthy of our smoldering presence. I learn to bat my eyelids and laugh at everything. Darleny shows me that standing sideways will make me look ten pounds lighter and advises me on how many buttons to leave open on my shirt. I follow the rules of the pack, and do as I’m told, but my insides always twist uncomfortably whenever I pull on my ripped tights, or when wandering eyes drift over my exposed flesh. I hate them, but I need them.

Another week has come and gone and the teacher scrawls another problem on the board, her red marker squeaking as she drags it up and down the shiny surface. A ray of sunshine pierces through the window and shines across my classmates. It illuminates the
stray hairs protruding from slick ponytails and buzz cuts, making halos around each bent head. The glare of the light on the board pinches my eyes closed, and I look back down at
my standard issue planner. Only 351 days left in this place. I mark the last day with a red X, the day I will be traveling back to myself. The bell rings, and I stay hunkered down in my seat. The brown paper crinkles as I open the sack and draw out a bottle of water. I’ve made excuses to stay inside for lunch. I begin to drink slowly, slurping the cool water silently. The teacher pokes her fork into her green lettuce and crunches it loudly.


Startled by the sudden voice next to my desk, I cough violently and almost spray my algebra homework with a mist of water.

“Uhhh . . . hi,” I stammer back, glancing up.

“I’m Ashleigh,” she offers in return with a genuine smile.

I didn’t notice her before. She is about my height with thick curls the color of melted caramel and ruddy cheeks that glow on their own. She is definitely not like Darleny or Grace.

“Would you like to eat lunch with me and some friends?”

My eyes widen in surprise, and I search her face intently. She is not particularly pretty or amazingly unique, but her eyes have confidence, and her smile is fearless.

“I would love to; thanks for asking,” I finally say, and my first real smile in weeks twitches the corners of my mouth.

We plop in front of the building on a scruffy piece of grass that is more like dirt. The sun beats down unrelentingly, and I scan the people sitting next to me. Two boys sit
Touby 5
cross legged to my left, their tousled heads bent over a sheet of music and their sun- browned fingers plucking out notes on honey-colored guitars. Three girls plop animatedly next to Ashleigh and begin talking about a book they just finished reading.
“So, Mackenzie, what do you like doing?” A skinny blonde girl asks. I begin to answer.

“Well, I really like reading and soc . . .”

With a sudden realization, I stop. I don’t like soccer. I just play because everyone back at home does.

“I like to sing,” I add softly.

“Really? That’s awesome! You should do choir, plus Ben and Jake always need someone to sing in their band.” Her bony fingers spring excitedly in the direction of the two guys strumming on the guitars.

“Well . . . I don’t know, I mean . . . I’m not that good or anything.” I mumble into my lap.

“I’m sure you’re great,” Ashleigh interjects, patting my shoulder. I smile slightly. I think I will do choir and join a band. No one thinks it’s weird.

“Thanks,” I reply and reach down to tuck in my shirt.

One more day. The red X stares up at me from the planner. I’m leaving tomorrow. The bell rings and I gather up my books, running to catch Ashleigh as she meanders out of the classroom.

“HEY!” I yell, and plop my books into her arms. “I have to go to the auditorium for the choir performance. You’ll be there right?” My voice trails off as I race across the grass.
“I’ll be there. Good luck girl!” Her words catch the wind and soar over my head, just beating me to the auditorium door.

I hustle into the cool, dim room, scamper to the stage, and jump into my spot at the end of the first row. Students file in and hushed conversations grow quiet. We begin to sing; our voices fly to the ceiling in perfect harmony.
The time comes. Clutching a microphone in my hand, I step from the riser and turn to face the crowd. I am wearing my skirt at regulation length. My shirt is crisply tucked in, and my face is plain. The song starts, and the notes wander away from my mouth, falling and rising with the choir behind me. My head has never felt so light, and a grin is permanently etched on the planes of my face. Someone snickers, but I don’t even care. I close my eyes and sink into the velvety, black melody.

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