“Everybody give a round of applause for our jazz band!” The principal’s wheezy voice crackles through the microphone. Even from the back of the auditorium I can sense the heat of his breath. Sweat glistens on his forehead. I dutifully join in applauding with the other two hundred and fifty students who crowd Dover High School’s small auditorium.
I count my claps. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. The applause dies down when I reach fifteen. Fifteen is an unlucky number. By now, the auditorium has fallen into a bored silence. When the chorus’s voices begin to float through the audience, I’m sure no one is listening. All I can think about is fifteen. January 15th was the last time I saw her.
I look down at my hands in my lap. Slowly, I lift them and clap one more time. Sixteen. Lisa McClay whips around her head of stiff brown curls to give me an accusing glare. I hide beneath an expressionless face and look down at my lap.
I have known Lisa McClay since first grade when she moved to Dover with her mom. They came all the way from New York to escape Lisa’s dad. Despite coming from the North, Lisa and her mother possessed a truly Southern attitude that allowed them to fit perfectly into our well-oiled community. On January 15th, Mrs. McClay baked me a green bean casserole.
I self-consciously glance at Lisa. Her attention has already left me as she gossips about a more pressing matter.
The chorus finally finishes their last song. This time I don’t clap. I want to escape the auditorium’s worn green walls. I want to escape Dover. I want to escape myself.
“We’re leaving now.” Lisa’s voice drags me back to reality. I nod. Before I stand, I tap my foot twice. One, two. I tap once for each of them. I tap my foot to forget. “Hurry up,” she says.
I quickly join the line of students leaving the auditorium. Everyone is talking as we file into the hallway. They seem to talk more now to make up for the time lost during the assembly. I don’t. I feel disconnected. When they left me, I began to lose myself.
I break away from the crowd to go find my backpack in history class. The blue carpet of the hallway is worn. My mom grew up in Dover. I picture my mom walking on the same blue carpet, wearing her favorite cowboy boots.
I have to tap my fingers against my thigh five times when I visualize my mom. One, two, three, four, five.
Each tap comforts me. Even in this hallway, I can almost smell her vanilla perfume. I can picture her blonde curls and the way her smile always lit up a room. It’s no wonder my dad was so in love with her. On January 15th, my mom was driving.
I reach the history room and snap my fingers twice before I walk through the doorway. One, two. I walk in and swing my backpack over one shoulder with a confidence that surprises me. Before I can sneak out of the room, Mrs. Garris catches me.
“How are you, Lenna?” Her voice is so friendly I can’t help but feel comforted. The history room feels like an oasis in the middle of a blue rug maze.
“I’m doing well, ma’am. How are you?”
“I am wonderful, thank you.”
As I smile at her, I try to embody my mom’s happiness. When Mrs. Garris’s gaze returns to her desk, I turn and walk away. Two snaps as I leave the classroom. One, two.
The rest of the school day passes in a blur of snaps, taps, and memories. At 2:17, I am finally free to leave.
Every day I forget how long it takes to walk home. By now, my back aches from the weight of my backpack, and the sunshine soon makes me feel uncomfortably warm. Cars fly past. I wonder about each one. Who’s inside? Where are they going? I pray they get there safely.
Five snaps when I cross the road. One, two, three, four, five. Then I have exactly eleven steps until I reach the house. I count out loud under my breath. One, two, three, four, five, six ….
At six steps I start to think about school. I remember Mrs. Garris and her nice smile. Her friendliness reminds me of my mom. Once I start thinking about my mom, I can’t stop. It overwhelms me from my head to my toes. I lose count of my steps. Even though I am in front of the driveway, its black pavement calling out to me, telling me I can fight this, I turn around. I have to. I walk back to the corner. This time, when I count my steps, I force myself to forget. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. Eleven is complete. Eleven is finished.
Counting as I go, I walk up the four wooden porch steps of my Aunt Birdie and Uncle Scott’s house. Aunt Birdie loves to describe how that house was a surprise wedding gift. Back then, the young couple felt like they were moving into a mansion. Now the old white cottage has more of a homey feel. When I reach the forest green door, I snap two times – one, two – before entering.
As soon as I enter the kitchen, I am struck with the overwhelming smell of something burning. My Aunt Birdie loves to bake, but despite all her hours in the kitchen, she never seems to produce anything edible. I prepare myself for her overwhelming cheerfulness, her face-splitting grin, her overbearing hug and torrent of questions. I prepare to meet Aunt Birdie as one would prepare for battle: I make sure all the gates are closed.
I am surprised to see Uncle Scott baking. He is up to his elbows in flour and I swear I see chunks of butter stuck in his thick red beard. Uncle Scott looks up from the recipe. “Why, hullo, Ms. Lenna.”
He looks out of place in the kitchen. I can only imagine him building houses with a hammer in hand. The spatula clashes with his rugged appearance.
“Hello, Uncle Scott. What are you up to?”
“Oh, I’m just baking.”
“Well, I see that!” I gesture to the mess in the kitchen. Uncle Scott smiles sheepishly before glancing at the recipe card in his hand.
“It’s your Aunt Birdie’s forty-third birthday, so I figured I might as well do the baking today. Except I’m not turning out to be any better of a baker than your Aunt Birdie herself!”
I give a knowing smile to Uncle Scott as I excuse myself and head for the rickety staircase. I forgot it was my Aunt Birdie’s birthday. Forty-three is an unlucky year. In my head, I pray for Aunt Birdie. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. I count the stairs as I head to my bedroom.
When I open the door, I feel like a stranger. The blue walls seem to glare. I notice the glow-in-the-dark stars from seventh grade still stuck to the ceiling and the unopened boxes piled in the corner. I sit down at the desk and fumble around for a pen and a piece of paper.
My mom died when she was forty-three. It was January 15th. She was driving with my dad in our old Chevrolet pickup truck. They were coming to pick me up from a track meet. She died because of me.
I start to cry. No amount of tapping or counting can stop me.
After my mom died, my dad and I came to live with Aunt Birdie and Uncle Scott. Their noise filled the emptiness inside our hearts. As the light streams in through the bedroom window, I notice the paper has become soaked with tears. It doesn’t matter. I start to write anyway. Dear Aunt Birdie and Uncle Scott ….
When I finish, I fold the letter and leave it on the bed. Then I walk over and open the rusty window overlooking the backyard. As I swing my legs over the edge, I look through my tear-filled eyes at the flowers, the sun, and the trees. It really is beautiful. Life is beautiful. But I can’t fight this guilt, sadness, and emptiness that consume me. One jump.
My legs still swinging in the air, I imagine my mom’s smile. People always say that I look like her. I don’t think so. She was more beautiful.
I can hear Uncle Scott fumbling around in the kitchen and Aunt Birdie singing in her bedroom down the hall. My tears keep falling. One, two, three. I count my breaths. One, two, three. I have to be strong. I have to be stronger than my dad.
Slowly, I pull myself away from the window. I see her smile. Stumbling and disoriented by my tears, I go back to the bed and pick up my letter. I walk over to the closet and open its sunny yellow doors. I fumble around beneath piles of shoes and sweatshirts until I find my mom’s old cowboy boots. Before I put them on, I smell their worn leather and hold them tightly against my chest. The boots securely on my feet, I reach into the depths of the closet. Underneath all the junk is an old Nike shoebox.
I open its lid. The sun catches its contents in the light. I open my hand to look at my crumpled letter. Then, tears still in my eyes, I add it to the fifteen others.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.