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A thin stream of light has poked throughmy curtains, its straight path cutting across my face. I sit upgroggily, glancing at my clock. 6:43. Six plus four plus three.Thirteen. It’s going to be a long day.
I stumble into thebathroom, locking the door behind me. My little brothers have yet tolearn the fine art of knocking. I jiggle the handle, opening the lock,and then lock it again. I do that a few more times, just to be sure. Ipick up my toothbrush and carefully apply toothpaste. One, two, threedrops. Three is a good number. Three is safe. The third drop slides offthe bristles and lands in the sink. Sighing, I rinse the toothbrush inhot water and start over. One, two, three.
I’m late toschool again. A brother touched my glass of orange juice, the side ofhis fist rubbing against it as he reached for a napkin. My mother beggedme with her sad brown eyes to ignore it. I didn’t look at her as Ipoured the full glass into the sink.
I spin the lock on mylocker one, two, three times before opening. Carefully, I arrange mybooks in height order, facing the same way. My jacket drapes over myalgebra textbook. I readjust it, only to find it rubbing corners withShakespeare. The bell rings and everyone around me rushes to class. Imove to follow, then stop, as if tethered by a leash. Resigned, I turnback to my jacket.
Math is first period. The teacher gives me adisapproving look as I slink into my seat, ten minutes late. He hands mea test, making it clear that I will not receive any extra time. I studythe first problem: 2x + 3 = 25. I know the answer without even needingto consult my calculator. X = 11. My hand hovers over the paper, mypencil shaking. Eleven. Eleven is cold. Eleven is dangerous. I writedown 12. My heart stops pounding. Twelve can be divided by three, 12 issafe.
We have a new student teacher in English. She’sbeautiful, with soft brown skin and piercing blue eyes. Her hair isshort and curly, pushed back with a headband, the sort of thing thatmakes most people look babyish. On her, it looks funky and professionalat the same time. She writes her name in loopy cursive on the board.Miss Johnson. I close my eyes and imagine myself as she must be,carefree and confident, all her problems solved by the right pair ofshoes and a double mocha grande. I wish I could leap out of my life andparachute gracefully into hers. I’d be fine landing anywhere otherthan where I am.
At midnight, my mom comes into my room. I amsquinting at my homework rubbed raw with eraser marks. She begs me toturn off the lights and go to sleep but the letters won’t let me.The bottoms of seven R’s dip beneath the soft blue line, and noneof the T’s seem to be crossed in the center. Reaching in my drawerfor a new eraser, I get back to work.
The next day I hurry toget to English early, securing a seat in the front row center. I breathea sigh of relief that Miss Johnson is still there. Good things usuallytend to slip through my fingers. I knock three times on my desk. I seethat my mind has not done much to fabricate the woman I spent most oflast night thinking about. Smiling, she starts writing notes on theblackboard. I try to keep up, but the O’s keep bumping into theP’s, so I put my pencil down and content myself with watching hertalk, attempting to commit everything to memory.
Somewhere inthe middle of the lesson, Miss Johnson is done writing notes. She placesthe chalk on the tray, carefully aligning it with the other pieces.Largest to smallest. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a wipe,furiously scrubbing chalk from the creases of her large hands. Althoughno on else notices, my shock blazes in strobe lights flashing above mydesk. Her blue eyes see me staring. They also see my pencils, lined upperfectly. Largest to smallest. They see the way my hands are rubbedraw, like hers. At the end of class she pulls me aside.
“I’m here when you’re ready,” she says.I rush away without saying a word. Maybe she knows. I knock three timeson the door frame. Maybe not.
I am supposed to be babysitting,“supposed” being the operative word. Everything was goingfine until a brother threw up. He looked so pale and helpless as he satthere crying. I am his big sister. He needs me to take care of him. Ihaven’t left the shower in an hour and a half.
My momdoesn’t yell at me. She comes home and surveys the situation,which includes brothers sleeping in their clothes in front of the TV,and a mess fermenting in the kitchen. I am still in the shower. When Ifinally emerge, she just looks at me with those sad, tired brown eyes. Ishake my head, and she leaves.
Now I am in English, hiding inthe back row. Miss Johnson doesn’t have sad brown eyes. Hers are astrong blue. An understanding blue? I stare at my desk, afraid to findout.
The math teacher called today. My mother doesn’tunderstand how I can be failing math. I used to be the star student. Itell her it’s a difficult topic. She tells me I’m adifficult student. A dam inside of me breaks and suddenly I am crying,telling her that she’s the worst mother ever. I rant about herleaving me with the brothers. About how she won’t buy me a cellphone. About how I can’t have my own TV and am forced to wait for“Power Rangers” to end to watch my shows. I don’tmention why she never asks me why I’m like this. It doesn’teven cross my mind to ask her why she hasn’t done anything tohelp.
I have been thinking a lot about what I said to mymom. I’ve been thinking even more about what I didn’t say. Ididn’t sleep all night. My room has never been cleaner. I musthave napped for a while in the morning, though, because I open my eyesand it’s 6:21. Six plus two plus one. Nine. There is no strongernumber. I know what I have to do.
Today in English I can hardlystop fidgeting. I rap my desk in intervals of three, but even the divinenumber seems to have lost some of its power. The bell rings and I walkover to Miss Johnson, then abruptly change direction and start towardthe door. No, I can no longer deny I need help. Gathering all mycourage, I walk to her. She senses what I am about to do and puts downher book. For a moment I look into her eyes. There’s no mistakingthat there is anything there besides understanding. They welcome me.It’s usually hard for me to find things to say, but she hasalready given me my parachute. She smiles. I find myself smiling back.
“I’m ready,” I say.