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Author's note: Please pay CAREFUL attention to the dates (in bold)!
Chapter 1: sitting alone she tells of her past
February 13th, 2005
I SIT ALONE at the table. My pulse flutters as I hear footsteps; I shake my hair down to hide my face as my breath turns into short, shallow pants. Someone is coming. I see a pair of sparkling red flats, so shiny I can see the pale moon of my face in the reflection. A pair of grungy sneakers slouch along next to them, dark leg hairs illuminated in the fluorescents. I glance up to see the faces that match these shoes. They are both looking at me, the strange girl crouched awkwardly on the table, backpack a blue, bulging lump sitting next to her as she waits for the bus. They are both looking at me, Ainsley of the long blond hair and her boyfriend, the ne’er - do – well basketball player – Luke O’Grady. Their eyebrows rise and smirks twitch up the corners of their mouths. They know me well enough to know that I would never mistake the upward curve of their lips for friendliness. I tell myself, You are just as good as them, but that is their power: they know you are afraid of them, of what they could do to you.
They move away, slowly, heads together, muttering, Ainsley’s cawing scraping the insides of my ears, where strange, delicate organs force me to listen to every rumor they have ever spread about me. Tears well in my eyes, like they do a hundred times a day; I am unhappy. I want a friend, someone I could tell anything and they’d sympathize.
In gym today, I stood alone in a corner, while around me, people bunched into groups of laughing, chattering friends. I moved towards them, wanting to blend with them like a shade of paint slightly off – color. Their heads snapped up, eyes shining with hostility, and I moved away from them, murmuring “Sorry” to no one, for no reason.
The coach snapped at me. “We’re a team!” she enthused, spreading her arms wide. “We’re all friends here. We need to work together, Anna, you need to get that. You just sit – alone – in that corner. Nobody’ll hurt you -” her eyes travel in a slow circle around washed – out irises – “nobody’ll make fun of you! We’re a darned TEAM. Come on, Anna, you need to be part of this.” Her voice strained against patience. She slapped her broad thigh briskly, as if she was telling a disobedient dog to heel.
I shrank before their derisive stares, inching into their circle. My face flushed red; their laughter, although I only imagined it, roared in my ears. In my mind I screamed at the coach: DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? I AM TRYING, I TRY SO HARD EVERY DAY…BUT THEY DON’T WANT ME. THEY HATE ME. I WANT TO BE PART OF THEM, BUT THEY ARE THE ONES WHO WILL NEVER ACCEPT ME.
After class, I ran to the locker room, while the other girls took their time, tossing their hair and squealing for the boys playing basketball in the corner. I stared at myself in the mirror, its glass oily with fingerprints. My hair stuck straight up with static, my eyes were smeared with tears.
But despite that, I wasn’t ugly. I knew from experience that if I wore a little makeup and did my hair I could easily be pretty. I wasn’t fat. I didn’t have any mental or physical problems. I was friendly. I was funny.
Why did they hate me so much? What had I ever done to them?
“I don’t need them,” I told my reflection. “I never wanted them, anyway.” If you say it enough, it’ll come true. I hated myself – I hated myself, for merely wanting them to like me, for keeping myself up at night thinking of Breakfast Clubbish - type ways they would finally see me for who I really was. A sob caught in my throat. The girl in the mirror blurred and became a dark stranger standing before me. The harsh lights of the school, the fluorescents that bared my every flaw, flickered momentarily. The world seemed to tilt around me, and then I was falling off the edge of the mirror, diving into the cold vat of water pooling in the sink, plummeting with a whoosh into a basin of my own tears. The salt burned me away, and as I died, faces danced before me, grinning, long blond hair swinging, polished pink smiles curving around white straight teeth while giggles and whispers… “Who’s that?…Loser…” rebounded off the damp white walls and reverberated through my ears, thrumming in my brain until they became a song I couldn’t get out of my head.
I clutched the cold porcelain of the sink, staring at the mirror until everything came back into focus. “It’s just me, myself and I, now,” I whispered to myself, hugging my body close to me.
“You’re on my side, right?” I asked myself, smiling weakly.
The face that hovered in the streaked and stained glass smirked and splintered into shards, pieces of myself looking out from a shattered mirror. Shards of glass ripped at my throat, and I locked myself into a stall, trying to cry as quietly as I could.
STARS FLICKER OUTSIDE. The bus does not come, and still I sit waiting, cars’ headlight illuminating damp circles of pavement. Rain falls. Nine o’clock, and it is dark and silent and deserted. Piles of untouched homework weigh my backpack down.
I get up and walk the nine miles of hills home. I have never liked the dark. My heart races, I swing around at any innocent sound. I think the reason people are afraid of the dark is because anything could be hiding in the shadows. I imagine the flash of an ax, the low rustle of a rattler sliding over damp leaves, the feel of strange flesh on my neck. The houses stand like slabs of cold stone, silvery in the moonlight.
My house is bright and TV blasts through the door. High shrill laughter bubbles through our yard, the sound of kisses. It’s Annette and Rogers from White Roses, my mother’s favorite soap opera. The door is unlocked, its rusty chain rattling as it swings open begrudgingly.
I know my mother has had one of her bad days the instant I walk in. I can tell the signs from a mile away by now. Her eyes are too bright, big and shiny, like aluminum – covered coins. They glitter and sparkle, outlined in eyeliner as she whirls through the house, painting. Painting. The lime - colored paint spashes and splurts on the carpet, on the floor, but she continues, streaking green over the walls maniacally. I fight a sob. Not again.
I walk over to her, speaking in a low and reasonable tone, like a snake charmer trying to hypnotize a cobra. My hand drifts onto the paintbrush. “Mom…it’s midnight. Let’s go to bed. You can finish in the morning.”
“No,” she pants, wild – eyed. “I have to finish.”
She spins away from me, twirling and whirling like a ballerina, but it is a frantic dance, her hands jerking around and her eyes terrified…of what? Paint slaps the wall with a wet sucking sound.
“YOU stop!” she screams to me, a green stripe on her cheek. “I have to finish, I HAVE to! Get out of here. Get OUT NOW!” True fury burns in her eyes and she starts over to me, her paintbrush held aloft like a knife, one hand clutching the can. I back away, my body stiff and frozen. There is one second…one second when I know, with a spurt of dread, what will happen. The paint tips, and a deluge of green spills out in slow motion, puddling on the carpet like thick pea soup. We stop and gaze in disbelieving silence for a moment.
“Look what you made me do!” she screams, sobbing like a little kid. Her arms swing and jerk awkwardly, like a Barbie doll’s. She collapses onto the table and cries, hands shaking, the folds of flesh on her neck quivering. Tears splash the dirty dishes I haven’t had a chance to do yet. The green paint spreads farther. The walls are half blue, half green.
“I’m sorry,” I say softly, to no one, for no reason.
MY ROOM IS nestled at the far end of our house, a glorified closet barely large enough to hold a cot. But it is there I run, flipping myself onto the bed and snapping the lock. I relax in the feeling of safety.
My little brother, Damiel, is already waiting for me. I feel regret when I turn on the lights, looking at his small, round face, untrimmed hair flopping over his eyes, his mouth pursed seriously. He’s only ten years old – he shouldn’t look like that. He wears a pink shirt, a hand – me – down from me. Downstairs, we hear soft weeping before we chase the sound away with talk of our own.
“Dad sent you a letter,” Damiel says, holding out a thick envelope. He looks at it reverently, and this unsettles me. I take it from him and slit it open.
My father has sent a new check. I hold it for a moment, savoring the crisp, cool power of having money in my hands. A note slides from the same envelope when I lift it towards the trash can, and I gasp and snatch it back. Only one sentence, in his sloppy handwriting: REMEMBER OUR DEAL SEE YOU SOON DAD.
“Is he really coming?” Damiel asks, trying to read it upside down, but I flip it over and slide it out of view. He looks at me, hoping I’ll give him the answer he wants, so he can have a little hope. I give him the same answer I always do, knowing that it’s not true but not wanting to crush him any more:
“I don’t know.”
I made the deal with my father years ago, in tenth grade. It was when he and my mother were fighting again. They’d been arguing for years, big blowups started by small disagreements, he threatening to move out if she didn’t get help, etc., etc. One day, he just gave up. Silence hung in the air, all of us trembling with the fury of my mother’s last insult. He knew the charade, he was supposed to scream something obscene and stomp out the door so that we could chase after him. I knew my part and I played it well. Dusty was too young to understand that it was just an act.
My mother stood waiting, an angry grin on her face, as she waited for him to make his move. Her hands hovered above a heavy plate, trembling with anticipation. He said: “You know what? You’re right. I don’t care what you do any more.”
The air rushed in a whoosh from my mother’s mouth, her face sagging in shock and terror. She had been too narrow – minded to understand that the game could take a different turn. He walked outside, slowly, not running, not dragging his feet, just walking, and then he climbed into the car and drove away. I yelled after him, begging him not to leave, but the car turned a bend and disappeared.
I stood motionless, staring after the car with dry eyes. He had left me behind. I had not wanted to go with him, had not wanted to leave Damiel or my mother– but I had thought that he loved me enough to try to entice me into his car, to keep me. But he had gone from us with exhilaration in his eyes. He had –
No, it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t my fault. It was my mother’s fault. She had driven him from the house, from me, with her strangeness, the little things, like her flicking tongue and her twisting hands, that set her apart from everyone else. It was her fault that he was gone. I hated her. I was never going to live with her again. I was going to get a job and leave to find my father –
No, it wasn’t her fault. It was his. His deception, his lies, his cheating – did they think I was so innocent that I didn’t know what they fought about? But how could he lie to us, cheat on us? How could I love him if he really did that? And yet I did love him, even when I found red lipstick on his jacket when I was eleven, even when he screamed at my mother. I liked our time together. Damiel had been too intelligent for my father, but I was his favorite, “Daddy’s little girl.” My father had loved to hunt, and I was the one he took with him. I liked the smooth feel of his black, streamlined gun, like a snake in my hands, the sharp report that threw me back into the leaves. I never missed a target except when it was living. My father shot at deer, and I was sick, every time, when I saw that geyser of blood, that ripping hole in the heaving body, the horror and pain in the animal’s eyes. I did not like killing. After he left, I hid the gun – from my mother, I told myself.
HE CAME BACK on a snowy Christmas Eve two years later, unexpected, unannounced, bearing armloads of presents and even a tiny little tree. We set it up and, for a little while, we watched the lights twinkle and the ornaments shimmer when they caught the candlelight. My mother cooked something, a concoction of gravy and rice that she presented proudly. My father praised the mess and ate an astonishing amount of it. They went to sleep in the same bedroom that night, his hand on her leg as she giggled and swatted at him, her voice bubbly with wine.
The house breathed out a secret that night. At six I woke up, body tensing when I heard soft, stealthy footsteps. The January air etched a pattern of frost onto the windowpanes; the locks rattled with the wind. For a moment I thought I’d imagined it, but then another creak: the sound of someone slipping away - for a second time.
He was carrying his shirts, his suitcase, fully dressed. His face puckered into an “O” of shock when he saw me. Something more – guilt, maybe – flickered on his face.
“I need to go, Anna,” he said, starting down the stairs. He broke into a jog, slamming through the door. I raced after him, shivering, my skinny chest bobbing up and down, my feet flaring with pinpricks of agony as I ran through the snow. “Wait!”
He hefted his things into the trunk, moving with quick jerks of his head and hands. “What?”
“Are you coming back?” I thought I knew the answer, but I asked him anyway, knowing that I shouldn’t trust anything he said, but wanting the little glimmer of hope he could give me if he lied.
He stopped and looked at me, his face lined with exhaustion. “Look, me and your mother – we can’t - ”
“She’s sick, Dad! It’s not her fault! And what about us? We’re your kids. We don’t have any money. We can’t live with her like this!” I was filled with anger and pain, that my father, the man who had always been the rational adult in my family, who had always given me presents and hugged me good night , could care so little about his children as to leave them to a sick woman who had once been his wife. The egg of illusions cracked open before me, reality oozing from its slimy insides.
“I need to go – “ He swung into the driver’s seat. The engine rumbled to life, spraying mud and snow into the morning. I did not run after him.
“If you leave,” I said quietly, “I’ll tell the police.”
He exhaled a big, contemptuous breath, his eyes rolling into his head. “Pfft! Tell them what?” A laugh gurgled in his throat.
“Tell them about Mom. About her problem. And then I’ll tell them that you left even when you knew Mom was sick and you’ll have to come back here and go to court- against me. And who will win?” I tilted my head and looked at him. “The little girl, or the man who abandoned his sick wife and children?”
He grew blue – pale, his thick tongue moving spit across his lips. “You wouldn’t, Anna.” But doubt showed in his eyes even as he said it.
He got out of the car and came towards me. He knelt to my eye level, face suddenly kind and filled with false promises. “Look, Anna. I’ll make you a deal. A check, for a thousand bucks, every month. You don’t tell anyone besides Damiel, if you can get the kid to shut it – not friends, not your mom, not anyone. A thousand bucks – hell, that’s generous. You can get a job. You can survive. I’ll come back soon, see how you’re doing. You wouldn’t tell the police – not your own father!” His face as glib as a merchant’s tongue, changing in an instant from beneficent sincerity to a wounded, accused look.
I stepped away from his repulsive, clutching hands. Power buzzed through my mind like a high. I did not speak for several seconds, letting him beg me with a dog’s pleading eyes.
I knew he’d keep his promise. For those few seconds he waited, his face echoed his thoughts: If I’m far enough away, it’s not my problem. So I did not run after him that day, or cry even when my mother and brother did. But sometimes I wonder: at what price?
FOR YEARS, I ached to start school. I envisioned a paradise of admirers and friends, of first loves and adoring teachers. There was no one my age on our block, and even if there had been, we would likely never have spoken. The houses at that part of town were neighborhoods unto themselves, secluded places with broken furniture and untrimmed grass whose inhabitants did not even know each other by name.
“You’ll have friends when you go to school,” my mother said. This was before her oddities escalated into something more. She was still pretty them, blond curls framing a face I, a little girl, thought was more beautiful than anything in the world. Damiel was still just a baby, a pink whining thing that disgusted me, even though I never told my mother. I sat on the laundry room floor, watching her fold shirts with quick, methodical movements, doing my best to distract her before Damiel’s wail – the wail I dreaded – took her away from me again.
“Your teachers will love you…” she continued.
“Really?” I asked her. I was caught up in this dream, in a world where everyone worshiped me, and I felt the soft attachment of their love.
She stopped what she was doing and looked down at me, her face falling into the soft wrinkles of motherhood. “Of course they will,” she said, smiling, as if it was the silliest question she’d ever heard. Her arms reached for me, and I nestled against the warm hump of her shoulder. “Who couldn’t love you, Anna?”
BATES ELEMENTARY SCHOOL was nothing like I imagined. The gates were forbidding things, spiked and rusty with age, but I smiled for my mother’s sake, noticing her eyes on me in the rearview mirror. The building was a flat grey headstone, names and dates etched upon it. Children and parents flowed into it, lips and tongues expelling nervous words that blended into the cries of both.
“Do you want me to come in with you?” my mother asked.
I tried to bring back the smile, but it drooped into a wail. “Y – yes,” I whispered, fighting tears. I hated myself for my childishness, but beyond the big double doors was a shadowy tunnel that was sucking everybody in, and I was afraid to go by myself.
“Okay,” my mother sighed, checking her watch. She was busy that day, I think – I can’t remember very well, and I felt my face burn red with anger and shame as she took my hand, briskly. Harsh fluorescents outlined every wrinkle of my mother’s face. She looked old to me, for the first time. The click of her heels echoed down the deserted corridors – everybody else had already found their classrooms. I would be entering with my mother, like a baby, and already I could feel the condescending burn of other children’s stares. I closed my eyes against this reality, so different from what I had imagined.
502. Here it was. I stepped in. Heads swiveling, soft snickers, fingers sticking into the clothes I had picked out so carefully for this day. The teacher’s lipstick bled into the frown lines circling her mouth. She smiled, sternly. “Hello. I’m Mrs. Tuttra. In future, try to arrive on time, Mrs….your name…?”
My mother flicked her fingers at me in a hurried wave and disappeared, walking away, abandoning me.
“Anna Marshowley,” I whispered.
“Speak up, please. Anna, what?”
“Oh, Marshowley. Yes, sit down.”
I looked around awkwardly, and finally sat with a girl with long brown hair. Giggles circled the room, but she smiled at me, her teeth jagged and encased in purple braces. “Hi, I’m Mary.”
“Anna,” I murmured, my face still red.
“We’re going to get to know each other,” Mrs. Tuttra announced, her high voice swooping and falling like a stage actress’s, her hands fluttering as if smoothing out air disturbed by children’s breath. We gathered into a circle. The thick ridges of the rug left a red pattern on my legs.
“I’m Lily…Lily Amperlett,” one girl stuttered. “I like…horses.”
“I’m Amber Whickchiss. I like Mrs. Tuttra.”
“My name is Robert, but I like to be called Rob.”
Mary’s turn came. Her heart kicked, feebly. Dozens of eyes stared at her, unblinking. She forgot her own name, lost in the harsh whistle of air that streamed from her lips.
A soft murmur of laughter rose around me. Only I did not laugh, while Mary stood before us, red and miserable. Happiness and guilt rose inside me – happiness that they had found another person to laugh at, that they had forgotten about me, guilt because Mary had been kind and yet I was gleeful at her humiliation.
“Mary,” Mrs. Tuttra prompted her. A small, derisive cough pushed its way through her painted lips.
“Mary Wilson,” she stuttered. “ I like…”
She paused, silence stretching like a long glob of gum before it snaps. I sensed the danger and froze. Mary had been kind to me, but now she needed someone to replace her as the current clown.
Her eyes fastened on me, desperate, like two hungry sky - blue leeches.
“I don’t like girls whose…whose MOTHERS come in with them!”
A gasp. “Mary!” But it spun away like a piece of driftwood on a black tide, swirling deep into a whirlpool that sucked greedily at my secrets. That was when I first heard the roaring laughter of a class, loud and syncopated as a single organism, while in its center I was the only one whose eyes remained dry, for why should I laugh with cruelty at myself?
THEY DID NOT exactly tell me I couldn’t sit with them; but you could feel it coming off them, like waves of frigid air. I sat down at an uninhabited table that day, while the rest of my class ate together, sharing secrets and telling poop jokes with the social genius of five – year olds. I had gone from being the scapegoat, to being accepted, to being the scapegoat again. As I ate alone, staring down at my green beans, I mulled over the situation with faint bewilderment. How had things come to this? I had had such good plans, I had smiled and said hello, I at least had remembered my name when my turn came. But none of that mattered, I was to learn quickly, in the skewed philosophy of first – graders.
RECENTLY, I WAS selected to help tutor elementary – school kids in math and science. We got special permission to leave class, eat out, hand our homework in a day late...I and two other girls were assigned to Mrs. LaFargue’s first – grade classroom. The other volunteers cooed over the kids, over how cute they were, over how sweet they were…But I walked past them, helped them detachedly, feeling a faint sort of dislike. I could only remember my first day of first grade, of sitting alone, while that girl Mary had ridiculed me. I wondered who was the outcast in O’ Fargue’s classroom, but I never found out. What would I have told her, anyway? No comforting words, no reassuring advice… nothing but dim dark truths.
THE GREEN BEANS were soggy, limp and puce with overcooking. I put another one in my mouth, tried to find a watch. I hadn’t learned how to tell time yet. The big people were getting up, slinging purses over their shoulders, surreptitiously sneaking doughnuts from behind the backs of the frizz – haired lunch ladies. I got up to dump my tray out, and I was staring at Ainsley Peters. I didn’t know it was her, then, but I recognized her from my class. Hope bubbled in my belly. Maybe they’d decided to take me back. “Hi,” I said.
She smiled at me, a little sadly. “I just wanted to say…I think they are mean,” she said. “I did not laugh.”
Later on, even after I grew to hate her, this is how I would know she couldn’t be all bad.
THE FIRST TIME Ainsley Peters invited me over to her house, I didn’t know what to say. I still do not know whether she did it out of pity, or true friendship. But whatever it was, it was kind, and I was grateful. We took the bus together on a cold March day, slush melting into puddles on the roadside and blades of yellow grass peeking tentatively out from snowdrifts. Her house was a neat yellow one in a good neighborhood. Trimmed grass, neat grey slates, modern kitchen. I wished for this. Our shoes clacked on the linoleum. Ainsley called, “Mom?”
I wondered how they would react to me, her parents: a dark child, uncombed hair, ugly clothes, so clearly at odds with their golden, laughing daughter.
“Hi, Aine.” A guy came down the stairs, grinning. He was handsome, I remember, with just a faint grey tinge of stubble lining his jaw. “And this is Anna? Nice to meet you. I’m Mr. Peters , Anna’s dad – Lily’s just upstairs.”
A woman, blond like Ainsley, came down the stairs, swatting at her husband with a load of towels she was about to put in the washing machine. “Bill, you liar.” She said it playfully, though, not like my parents, who would yell and throw things, eyes going dark with murderous rage, in the years to come. She turned to us with a wide smile on her face. “I’m sorry, Ainsley – my husband’s like a second kid.” She stuck out her hand in a friendly gesture.
“Hi,” I said, offering the wrong hand. My face burned as they laughed, not unkindly.
“Guys, do whatever you want,” Bill said. “Just stay down here so I can see you.”
For that entire afternoon, my life was comparatively normal. We didn’t speak of school. We sat and colored, drawing funny faces on the tips of our fingers; had a fashion show with Ainsley’s sisters’ hand – me – downs; ate lumps of cookie dough until Ainsley’s mother chased us laughing from the kitchen. Ainsley lived an enchanted life: beautiful clothes, a huge yard, a house with so many corridors and closets it was like a maze. I was in awe of her, but I resented her, too. Why couldn’t God have shared her luck with the rest of us?
Ainsley was kind, but she was silent when she heard anyone talking about me; she had too strong a sense of self- preservation, of her own precarious popularity, to defend me. And I was the outcast. I was the class joke back then, the one no one spoke to or looked at. I hate myself when I think of it: how I was too cowed to stand up to any of them. But that day, Ainsley and I didn’t speak of this, as I have said. We colored, and pranced across an imaginary runway, and cooked burned cookies, and we managed to forget about all of that, for a little while.
TIME PASSED. SLEEP wiped the minds of my class blank, and I was momentarily forgotten as ‘the girl whose mother came in with her,’ with the indifferent mercy of children. I miss it, sometimes. Clothes didn’t matter then. Sex didn’t matter then. I had a flash of the future to come, once, when I saw the ring of girls, girls gathered around the gaptoothed seven – year - old smiling charisma of Luke O’ Grady, golden boy - blonde and brown and black heads like the woolly heads of lambs kneeling at a shepherd’s feet. By eighth grade he would have slept with all of them – or at least, that was what he bragged to his friends in the shower, while his voice reverberated around the gym, a still-high voice that not even the damp hollowness of the locker rooms could disguise.
My mother’s illness worsened steadily throughout middle school. By sixth grade, she and my father were fighting whenever he was home. In the middle of the night, I’d wake from pleasant dreams and hear them screaming at each other. Damiel would be sobbing in the dusty cot in the next room. He had used to be a small, pink thing that irritated me; now I took comforted in his warm, damp weight leaned against me, in his innocent questions I knew all too well the answers to. We’d creep downstairs, the steps creaking beneath our feet, listening to the sharp, shrill screeches of our mother and the angry rumble of our father’s voice, insults tossed back and forth while china splintered against the white walls. The shards would still be there the next morning, glittering like blue stars in the carpet.
I escaped with Ainsley. I relaxed in the homey kindness of her family. I grew almost addicted to her life: I wore her clothes, listened to her music, pretended that her siblings were mine. We moved through the Bates school system together, and we grew, like everyone else: the girls turning long – legged, sloughing off baby fat, the boys becoming lean, their hands, feet stretching and sprouting dark knuckle hair. We were at her house one day in April, drawing mustaches on all the magazine models, when the doorbell sounded: a high, thin chime.
The sound of voices, geniality on Bill and Lily’s part, high manic babble on someone else’s – my mother. My face grew red; I pressed my marker to the paper viciously. I prayed that she had taken the sour – smelling medicine the doctor had prescribed this morning. She had barely ever met Ainsley; as her illness spiraled downwards, I kept her away, like a vicious dog you keep chained in the shed, asking my father to pick me up instead. But he had left on a “business trip” only a few days ago, and I’d been forced to turn to her. She hadn’t taken the medicine, I knew: she was two hours early.
Ainsley lay back, idly scribbling a beard on a blond model. . “Is that your mom? She’s super early.”
“I guess,” I said, turning away from her. Ainsley had everything else; why couldn’t she have been the one stuck with this woman?
“Ann – aa?” Lily called. Her voice was strained with forced politeness. “Your mother’s here for you.” They could tell there was something wrong with her. Their concern was taut in their voices, the blue veins that snaked down Lily’s pale wrists standing out. I was angry towards them, though I knew it was totally unreasonable, and I went to stand defiantly beside my mother, daring them to judge her. Their eyes rested on me.
“Hey! Mrs. Marshowley, it’s nice to meet you,” Ainsley said, behind me. My mother’s tongue flicked between her lips, like a snake. “Hello, Ainsley. How nice you look – what a gorgeous shirt! Where’d you get it, I’d like to buy one myself – as you can see, I’m a bit messy even at thirty - five.” She laughed, a high, unnatural laugh, gesturing wildly at her shirt, stained with paint and food. “Honestly, how’d that mall trip with Anna go? I was jealous of you girls myself – I remember when my friend Tammy and I - ” She talked on, her hands flying in wild gestures. Ainsley stepped away, her hands curling up, her eyes cloudy when she looked at me. Her face closed to my mother’s chatter with the distance people keep from abnormality. She would be furious that I had never told her all these years, had brushed off her innocent questions with vague, sharp retorts.
“I just remembered - I forgot something in Ainsley’s room,” I said desperately. I edged away from my mother’s arm, that lay over my shoulders like a clammy wet sock. I needed to talk to Ainsley, tell her that I was nothing like my mother. She had to forgive me.
“How could you never tell me about your mother?” Ainsley hissed. My mother and her parents waited downstairs, Bill and Lily not even trying to make small talk, my mother trying too much. I cringed at the sound of her shrill voice, her laughter at things that would never be funny. “I’m sorry,” I said, cowering beneath her anger. “It’s – I think it’s a really personal thing, and - ”
“What’s wrong with her, anyway?” Ainsley’s voice was sharp with spite. “Raised you too long?”
A jolt of anger rocked me backwards. “She has bipolar disorder.” I quelled the feeling. Time enough to get angry, later on, when Ainsley had forgiven me.
Ainsley laughed. Her eyes shone like my mother’s did, bright and hard. Her voice was glazed over with anger. She did not let it go, didn’t let my apology take the sting off my never having told her, truly, about my mother. “Talks weirdly, made you,” she said, “no wonder your mother’s a complete retard.”
The room fell quiet for a moment. The insult was tossed out into the air, glaring and ugly. Fury swallowed me, and Ainsley took a step backward, recognizing it on my face. Her features were squashed into a hard pellet of meanness, pimples rising on her red and angry face like a thousand flaws. I felt the shine of madness come into my own eyes.
“Don’t you ever say that again,” I hissed at her, my mouth going so dry with adrenaline the last words scraped across my throat like sandpaper. “Don’t you ever.” My fingernails dug into my palms. I imagined pinning her against the wall, slapping her over and over until she begged me to let her go. I had said things like that about my mother before, but I would never let another person make fun of her, not even Ainsley.
“Don’t you insult me in my own house,” Ainsley said. She regained her confidence, the derision in her voice cutting me down. She advanced on me, breathing through bared teeth. Her voice trembled dangerously. “Get out of here. I never want to see you again.”
“I hate you,” I said to her, the last word I ever spoke to Ainsley Peters. I was surprised by how badly I wanted to punch her, hatred sharpening my muscles into steel springs coiled with energy. And I almost did.
Her face was simple and shocked, her mouth open. And in the end I didn’t hit her. I took my mother and left, and we never went back.
AINSLEY PETERS. I hated her, would never forgive her for saying that about my mother, and yet I thought about her every day; is it possible that there is a sort of adoration in fixed and unmovable loathing? I had prayed in my heart after our fight - let her grow up ugly – but she was destined to be one of those pretty, popular, bubbly blondes who walk school halls in miniskirts and leather boots, flanked by a giggling entourage, surrounded by a translucent bubble of laughter and gossip. And I hated her for it, for she did not deserve it, not any of it. How was this fair? I hated my life. I did not want to believe this was real. I hated God even more. I was the one stuck with the crazy mother, the runaway father, the jeering classmates; she was the one who was beautiful, rich, smart, and popular. But I wondered: does the personality come with the looks? It didn’t seem to matter, and that’s how I knew I would willingly, no matter how much it went against my principles, cast off my sad, deflated life for her charmed one, gladly floating forever among the gardens of Hades, where beautiful jewels and poisonous fruits grow rampant as weeds.
SHE HATED ME as well; joined the ranks of people – a few, only – who still jeered at me. She hated me, and she was popular: the friends I’d made since elementary school slipped from my side, and went to hers. Her open, laughing mouth, slicked with gloss and liner. My secrets buzzed throughout the school like flies, biting at my skin until I was as disfigured as a leper. I would never have gone to a teacher, or the principal. I knew what would happen: they would deny it, backed up by all their friends, connections stretching from the skateboarders to the starving artists, and I would be tossed from mouth to mouth, spat out like bad gum.
She was more immoral than I, although the fight, I knew with a twinge of guilt, had been both our faults. I would never have told her secrets, but she was willing to air the stained hand – me – downs of my life on the school’s public clothesline. And she did. Rumors, true and untrue, made people avert their eyes from me, ignore me in the bustle of the afternoon, made me go home and weep into my pillowcase every night. “Stupid, fat, mean and ugly, Anna Marshowley,” they chanted to me, when I was walking, head bowed, in the ceaseless echo of the hallways. She saw my stained eyes in the morning and smiled.
IN EIGHTH GRADE, I came home one day, and my mother was home from work early. She sat crying at the table, swirling her sorrows in a big glass of wine. My father had drunk most of it before he left. This was one of the last bottles, and she kept pouring a little more into her glass each time she downed some.
I stood silently, staring at her.
“You lost your job.”
She nodded mutely. Something in her brain flipped, and she was on the ground, screaming like a little child: “I didn’t do anything!” She hugged the floor, rolling around and weeping in low, choked sobs, her wails dying into the carpet. I felt disgust for her, for this big, overgrown kid I was expected to mother. Her mouth was stained cherry red, clusters of wrinkles sagging at her eyelids, bagging at the corners of her mouth. She looked years older than she should.
“Get up,” I said to her halfheartedly. I was too tired to get down as I should have, too tired to plead with a God whose rules did not seem to apply to my mother. I was hungry. I went to the fridge and rummaged around, my back tensed towards her. I could feel her staring at me, in disbelief, anger sliding onto the planes of her face. I had always coaxed her back into passivity before. She crouched on all fours, staring, like an animal.
“You’re a bad daughter,” she spat. “Worthless, ugly. You can’t even help your own mother, you selfish little brat. How can you just watch me do this, and not care?”
I turned, food sliding from my grip. “Because you do it every day!” I shrieked at her. I brought my foot down on the carton of strawberries that had slid to the ground until it was just a bloody pulp. I wished, for a moment, it was her face. “You do this every single day of my life, every day! Our lives are so screwy that this is NORMAL for us. I am so sick of being your caregiver! I never wanted your screwy mind! I never wanted you! I wanted a normal mother who could actually function! I wanted a halfway normal life! I come home, cater to your SELFISH needs instead of your own son’s! I…I wanted a normal mother! I wish you were dead, so you could be replaced… I wish I could forget you ever existed.” My mouth twisted in a smile, and I relished the words springing like ugly toads from my lips. I was happy, that she should finally understand what a burden she was to me, a burden like a horse kept in a house, untrained and wild. There was silence. And then the dam broke, my mother crying, curling into herself, the deep rolling moan of her sobs barring me from comforting her. And my happiness turned sour, mixing with guilt until it was dissolved in my mother’s tears.
She refused to see a doctor. All of us made a circle around her one day, begging her, pleading with her to go, while she glared at us like a cornered wolf, a pan – one of the last – held up threateningly. Then she’d crumple, crying, all her anger collapsing like a big dark tent around her body. Her bones jutted through thin, powdery skin; I could feel them grind and crunch when I hugged her. “Please don’t make me go…” she cried, clinging at our hands. “I’ll be better, please…I don’t want to be like this…” At those moments, I felt guilt for every bad thing I had ever thought about her, said to her, said to anyone. I saw myself, forty years later, standing around a lily – strewn coffin – gazing down at my mother’s face, wrinkled and spotted with age, the remnants of the perfume she had worn puffing from her papery skin – changed, but still HER; and I saw her lowered into the ground, dark dirt scraped over her while others went home as the sun fell and sank into deep blackness ; and I saw myself, reliving every moment of my life when I had screamed at her, called her a freak, a crazy woman, seen hurt like a handprint across her face and been fiercely glad that I had hurt her as she had hurt me.
Chapter 2: hopes fly and smash
February 14th, 2005
IT IS VALENTINE’S Day today. I wake, up, roll out of bed, dress with more care than usual. Stupid, I know, but each year I harbor a gleam of hope on this day – hope that someone would see through the façade of rumors, into me. There are many girls named Anna in the school, many girls who have boyfriends. They call to each other throughout the day: “Annaaa! Annnna! Annie!” High screeching voices, like birds’ mating calls. I never turn around. I have learned that those voices are never calling for me.
But today there is something waiting for me – a box, red ribbons wrapped around two plump cupids embracing. It sits on my desk, the girls around me eyeing it jealously, the boys looking hungry. Both incredulous. A tiny spurt of disbelief makes my hands shake as I open it, nudging the ribbons off with care, picking chips of silver filigree from the ground. I tuck the card – To Anna, from George - into my pocket, carefully. Who was George? George Francoile, sweater – wearing exchange student? George McWeeney, dating Ainsley’s friend Jennabee? The girls snicker, assuming the former, but for once I do not hide from their laughter, their prying, sharp eyes.
There are chocolates inside, dark and delicious – looking. I lift one to my mouth, slowly, proudly, wanting everyone to see my triumph.
From far away, I hear a stifled giggle. Ainsley covers her mouth, her shoulders shaking, her friends laughing, too. Heads turn, understanding; the teacher enters with a bang, the door blowing shut behind her. It is too much for me to process. Slowly I look at the candy again, searching. I feel raised edges on the bottom, under my fingers; frosting, piped to form a word. FATSO. I look at the rest. UGLY. MEAN. DUMB. HAIRY. NOT. HUMAN. I feel panic rising in a thick liquid up my throat. The teacher is flustered, searching for something; they all have time to stare at me and get in one last, silent giggle, before the class begins. We should have known, the girls’ faces say, pink and flushed at their stupidity, their almost fatal social fumble; who would ever really give her something like that?
I am silent, sad for a few days; then I let the memories slough off my mind like dead skin. I am not angry at them. They have played jokes on me so many times that I am numb and dead to their cruelty. No, I am angry at myself; for being fool enough to believe that anyone could ever want me.
I WAS UNWANTED and poor; Ainsley was pretty and rich - so naturally she and Luke O’ Grady, the basketball star, began going out. Luke O’ Grady was hot. That was the general consensus of every girl in my grade. Even I, the outcast, blushed when he passed, even though he never acknowledged me. At night I dreamed that he defied the standards of popularity, set by the brassy blonds who ruled the school, and asked me out. We’d kiss under the stars and make a new life together – a life undisturbed by mentally ill mothers or runaway fathers. In those dreams, I brushed off my life as if stepping out of grungy sweatpants, and into a model’s runway outfit.
He asked out Ainsley Peters two years after my father left for the first time, in tenth grade. Strange to say, his parents were devout Catholics, understandably distraught by Luke’s failing grades and the long queues of girls who followed him like panting puppies. The couple’s celebrity status shot up when it became known that Luke and Ainsley were lying to both sets of parents: Ainsley had told her parents that Luke was a glasses –wearing nerd who was taking college courses in calculus; Luke’s mother and father were thanking God nonstop for sending their son Ainsley – a girl they believed to be virtuous and pure as hell. Middle school, mid/ dle/ school/; noun: flaunting things ordinary people would be ashamed of. They walked the halls hand in hand, golden hair floating around their faces, blue eyes staring serenely ahead with the blank look of models, plastic as Barbie and Ken. They skipped class to kiss in closets, grades plummeting while their egos soared to unfathomable heights. I admit that I was jealous, although I knew that he would never have dated me in real life. I was almost sixteen, and I had never been kissed.
The only time I ever saw them apart was when Ainsley came to history class one day, half an hour late, her hair wild and a zit blooming like an unwanted flower on one cheek. A blue bruise was swelling on the other, puffing from her skin like rising dough.I saw Ainsley wincing as she touched it, gingerly. But then her friends swarmed around her, buzzing with fresh gossip, and she put on another face for them, smiling, rolling her eyes as she explained that she’d slipped. I know – how stupid of me, right? Dutiful chorus from the followers: hahahaha…you’resofunnyainsley…And I wondered: how much had she ever told them?
My only encounter with Luke O’ Grady came a year ago, in eleventh grade. He was in my math class, but he fooled around every period, and when I saw the red marks covering his tests and papers I knew his grades were not good. The teacher, Mr. Walson, told me to go work with him. I was good at math. I liked lining up all the numbers, squashing them into an incomprehensible equation, and seeing what came out of it. I heard snickers as I stood and moved to the desk next to him, trying to walk nonchalantly, as if I was not going to sit next to the boy I had liked for years, as if I was not grungy Anna Marshowley, going to help golden Luke O’Grady. What irony! His friends were clustered tightly around him, a big, lopsided circle of sweatshirts and cell phones. Ainsley reclined next to him, whispering into his ear, her tight pants creeping places they shouldn’t have been. She was the only girl there. They watched me approach, lazily, like crocodiles lying in wait.
“So, Luke,” I said to him, awkwardly. I pulled a worksheet out of my backpack, spread out the wrinkles on the desk, over and over, because I did not know what to do. He did not answer, his fingers flying across the keyboard of his phone. I looked helplessly up at Mr. Walson, and the teacher came over, snatching the phone from him with a sharp “You’ll get this back when you can behave.”
Luke glared at me. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked. “You just got my phone taken away.”
“Dog,” Ainsley said, low.
“I…I..didn’t mean to…” I stuttered, swallowing, struggling not to cry. I no longer wanted him to kiss me. I just wanted to get through this without him yelling at me. Is that too much to ask, God? I asked the blue sky silently, dimmed by the glass of the windows.
Luke sighed, rolled his eyes. His friends snickered, and he turned to me. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.
Grateful, I breathed out a silent sigh and pushed the worksheet towards him. “This is an extrema, see, it has a larger curve than the …” Stupid me, I really thought he was going to let it go. Luke stared out the window, his eyes unfocused, Ainsley kissing him, moaning. She glanced at me and whispered something I didn’t want to know. His arm went around her and they slid down on the seat, the drone of my explanation dying away.
“Do you want to try this one?” I asked Luke.
“Huh?” he said.
I stared at him, unsure how to respond. The warning signals went off again, and I saw a tiny smile slide onto Luke’s face, a glance at Ainsley.
“You know, Anna, I’m really bad at math. I’ll never get this, no matter how hard I try.”
I said, uncertainly, “I’m sure you will, if you just try this problem…”
“Nope. I never will.” He laughed, mocking self- deprecation. “But, you know, my friend Carter here has a D. He’s real smart, just doesn’t work hard.”
I stared at Carter, a boy with shaggy brown hair and slitted eyes. He was staring at me, his lips slid back from pointed teeth. A chuckle went up around the circle surrounding Luke, like a signal. Luke stretched, in his element. No longer crocodiles, they were wolves, circling.
“Why don’t you help him instead? Plus, you know, it’s no secret…..we all know that you have feeeelings for him…”
Red blood rose up my face. I tried to run, but I was frozen, my feet locked in place, a thousand eyes staring at me, hoots rising, thick and choking as smoke. From behind Luke, Ainsley smiled at me, her eyes hard and blackened with mascara.
“I…I don’t have f – f – feelings for him - ”
Luke said, “That’s all right, Anna, it’s nothing to be ashamed of…for a normal person, anyway…”
Around me, kids laughed, talked, texted, but I was trapped in this world, trembling as their laughter sliced at me.
“Carter’s really a cute guy…look at that smile…anyone would like him. You’re really lucky, Anna, he likes you too – don’t you, Carter? You’re really, really lucky – especially with a face like that, he’s by far the best guy you’ll ever get…if you ever get another…”
They laughed, long, lazy chuckles, eyes pinning me to my chair with callous amusement.
Mr. Walson was busy, helping someone else. I tried to call out to him, but I was hollow, their words had scraped away skin, muscle, sucked blood from my veins. I would stay there for a long time, visit that world in my nightmares for years to come. I fell far out of love with Luke O’Grady, in a few devastating instants.
Chapter 3: cruel fingers flying
COPIES OF TEXTS, confiscated by Mr. Wattlebund, vice principal, on February 17th, 2005:
lukogradee214: wat r u doing. in history class so boring. Mrs. Lifepper dosent shave her legs.
Ainsley _#!: Gross ! in math class. AM (Anna Marshowley) my partner..useless at math. Such gross clothes. Y ME???
lukogradee214: better u than me
Ainsley _#!: shut up
lukogradee214: would you rather
Invite AM to a slepover
go out with stinky sonny
kiss mr. weissman
Ainsley _#!: Whose stinky sonny
lukogradee214: Guy on my basket ball team. Stiiiinks never showers in AM’s and my science class…maybe that’s where the smell come s from haha
Ainsley _#!: Go out with stinky sonny DEFIINITELY
lukogradee214: I dare u to take a picture of her in the locker room take a picture of AM in the locker room
Ainsley _#!: Girls locker room????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ainsley _#!: no way. gross ugh uck gross
lukogradee214: send it around dto people have fun
Ainsley _#!: LOL ill think about it…byeeeeeeeee
Chapter 4: lies midway between us
February 15th, 2005
GYM NEXT DAY. Clothes stripped off, air polluted with the sour tang of sweat and blood and grease. Perfume sprayed frantically, puffs of sweetened air making asthmatics cough. Shirts and pants and skirts hang around our feet like colorful puddles. Last – minute makeup streaked on for the boys who shoot jockstraps at us while we scream and pretend to be angry. I roll my eyes and am the first one out there. I am fed up with the hypocrisy of it all, of “looking natural” after half an hour with jars and tubes of concealer and lip gloss. The rest of the girls emerge eventually, switching their hips and shaking down their long hair for the guys who watch, like art critics studying the legs of a living Madonna.
Gym goes slowly. It’s volleyball time. I duck, hands flying to cover my face, whenever the round shadow of the ball looms in my vision. My teammates groan and glare. The coach’s meaty hands twitch, like she’s thinking about using them on my face. Trudging back into the hungry, sweaty hole of the locker room, no one speaks to me. Not that they normally do, anyway; too afraid of coming under the wrath of Ainsley and her groupies.
I am stripping off my sweaty shorts, alone, in the most private place I can find among the maze of lockers, when I hear it. The click of a camera, a bright flash at the edge of my vision. I shrink into any available corner, glancing around, clutching my clothes to me. I wish for the skin of a chameleon, to blend into the chipping grey paint on the walls.
It’s Ainsley. Ten feet away, hidden away from her friends, her blond hair escaping from a harried ponytail. Her hands freeze around a sleek black video camera when she sees me watching her. She steps backwards, unconsciously. Her lips part and her hands open, the camera clattering to the floor like a sacrifice. Even her eyes widen, so I can read the horror and fear scrolled across the backs of them. I do nothing. She is caught and she knows it. She is in danger, of losing everything that is important to her.
The camera lies midway between us, its red eye blinking.
She looks at me, judging the set of my hands and the tensing of my muscles. Then she leans forward and snatches the camera, quick as a whiplash. For a moment, we stare at each other.
“I’ll tell,” I say. I clear my throat, but it comes out hoarse as if I have cried, for days.
She stares at me, her teeth biting down on her lip in a snarl.
“You tell,” she hisses, thrusting her angry eyes into my face, “and I’ll tell everyone. About your mother, you crazy little brat.”
Chapter 5: you will never know for sure
Feburary 16th , 2005
NEXT MORNING. SCHOOL. Freezing air blasts snow through my thin shirt. There wasn’t money for a coat this year. Dusty and I shiver, waiting for the bus. There is something sacred about a winter morning – the air filters down through snow – dusted trees, pale sunlight striking treebark. The bus screeches to a stop in front of us, spraying slush. We climb on. Kids look up from their phones, snicker, whisper. My hands tingle with fear. My heart springs from my chest, kicking like a snared rabbit. I shrink into a seat, picking at the holes in its pleather cover nervously.
The kid in front of me does not look up when I pass by him, slump into a seat. He is fascinated by something playing on his iPhone. His thumbs flash across his keypad, the blips and bleeps echoing through the bus like electronic laughter. I feel the absence of a phone in my own hand. I look away until we have driven past my house, past the long rows of grimy apartment buildings smeared with graffiti, past the neighborhood of shacks whose rundown planks shake in the wind. My breath fogs the mirror until I can only see the pale outlines of house and field. The blond hairs rise on my arms. From cold, I first thought.
Next to me, Damiel gasps. He tugs my shirt.
“What?” I snap.
He points to the kid in front of us, still glued to something on its phone. His eyes grow round and large, smeared into spots of brown behind the lenses of his glasses. His body shrinks into itself, curling into a small hunched shape. He presses against me, his hand crushing my wrist. I lean forward and crane my neck, trying to see. I feel my mouth drop open and horror floods my body. Frozen, I cannot move.
It’s a video of me, changing, the long length of my naked pale legs, the white flash of my back and torso exposed to all. And it’s on YouTube. I’ve gone viral.
CAN’T TAKE IT anymore, have to tell someone. I fly throughout the crowd like a duck scared up by dogs and hunters, a fresh wave of tears coursing down my face with each jerking sob. People stare. Not all laugh, some look upset across the twisted, blurred line of their features, but no one does anything. I run past all, not caring. I imagine Ainsley, with a bolt of anger so strong that I stop in my tracks. If she saw me cry it would make her happy, no doubt. I see that slow, pink smile spreading, parting her lips to reveal perfect white sharp teeth. Why are they so cruel? Even revenge has a limit, but they have none.
The office is open. Secretaries flutter when they see me, hands twisting, painted nails glittering as they cluck and whisper to one another. “Principal Edwards will see you now,” they say, vapid blue eyes flashing to and from my face as if they are afraid to stare at me too long. They have the scared, excited look of people in a zoo jabbing at an exotic animal, which roars and beats at the big sticks they wield but can do nothing. No conservation laws that protect me yet – the rare Anna Marshowley, captured and stuffed in high school.
TWO PEOPLE FACE Principal Edwards. One is a boy – tall, broad – shouldered, handsome even in a uniform. The other is a girl, somehow like him, even though she is slim and jangly, the big gold bracelets that twine around her tanned arms clinking and clanking as she gestures. Her hands fly towards the light in the ceiling, like two scaly – winged insects soaring to meet their doom in the fluorescents. Their words are soft, secretive, turned towards the principal with an air of confidentiality. Edwards nods somberly, taking down notes, his hand smudged silver with pencil lead. The girl and the boy reach for each other, their hands touching -
I enter. Their heads turn in a perfectly syncopated movement, a brief flicker of surprise in the way their bodies tense and their fingernails dig into the desk. Their hands slide back to their sides, as if they’ve been caught doing something wrong. The girl’s nail polish flakes away, small shiny pieces glittering in the carpet. Ainsley and Luke. I do not know what exactly it is that they are doing here, only that it will harm me in some way.
Principal Edwards rises, his face hard to read. “Anna. Please sit down.”
I sink into a soft chair, not knowing what else to do. But I do not acknowledge him. I stare at Ainsley. She turns away, briefly, her eyes dropping and losing the luster of triumph.
“I’d like to discuss this..incident,” Edwards says. His feet shift, twitch uncomfortably. He coughs, a soft sound falling into silence.
“They - ” I begin. Ainsley’s eyes sting my skin. So I do what I always do, cowed as usual. I drop my head, let a curtain of hair fan around my face, and shut my mouth.
“Do you have any idea how much you have embarrassed this school?” Edwards demands. His voice cracks across my ears, but I have lost the meaning. What is happening?
“What – what do you mean?” I croak. My voice is thin and whispery, only a few words squeezing pass the lump in my throat. “How is any of this my fault? They, they, Ainsley did – Ainsley and Luke – they – Ainsley took a video - ”
“Please don’t take me for a fool, young lady. I am well aware of what young people nowadays do with their…partners.” His face has twisted, creases wrinkling his forehead as he spits nonsensical things at me.
“But – Ainsley took a video of me in the locker room and – somehow – Luke and - ” Tears well up again. I am useless, ugly, unloved, everything they have ever said about me. It’s my fault. I close my eyes against the tears and swing my eyes towards the ceiling, hoping the light will drive the cry back into the hollow parts of me.
“Ainsley and Luke have just informed me of your actions.” He rifles through the papers on his desk, a blur of flapping pages. He finds what he’s looking for and holds it up, one gnarled finger jabbing emphatically at the school handbook. It flips open. RULES.
“Do you KNOW what you have done? Are you aware of the embarrassment you have caused yourself and this school, a good, Catholic school? You do well here and have abided by our rules always before, and yet I have never seen a more horrific display of disrespect for this school and its rules! Anna, this is going to mean expulsion!” He is fuming, panting, his face red and snarling. Then suddenly, his voice becomes low and sad. “So much wasted…” He turns toward the window, the stripes on his shirt damp with sweat.
“Just tell me,” I plead. “What did I do?” I am past crying. There is a quality of unreality to this scene. A humming disbelief numbs my brain. I have imagined the reverse a thousand times. Me, with power over the kids I hated the most…How is this happening? What about justice? What about all those books about the mean kids who get their comeuppance, and the bullied kids who become super – successful and popular? I loved those books. I imagined that the same thing would one day happen to me.
“You know what you did. You – “ He continues talking, but it fades away into a thin string of words that have no meaning.
“What did I do?” I am screaming, on my feet, yelling at all three of them. It infuriates me that I am the one breaking down, that I know if Ainsley were put on trial a jury would decide in her favor, even though the pretty blond girl sitting in that chair, as smooth and composed as she has always been, is the devil himself. “What did I do, to deserve this? I yelled at you once, Ainsley – big deal! Why are you so cruel? Don’t you feel any remorse, any regret, at all? Do you realize what you are? You’re monsters. Good – looking, rich monsters. You are bad people. And this is a Catholic school, so I’m assuming you believe in God. And if you believe in God, then you two are going to spend a long time in that hot place underground. You won’t need a tanning bed there , Ainsley.”
I am shorter than both of them, but I have the sense of towering above them, of being a giant capable of squashing two insignificant bugs. This is what it must be like, being them – who wouldn’t want it? Power floods through me – the second time in my life I have felt it, this sense of exhilaration.
I HEAR THE soft murmur of phone talk, and hope that today is a good day for my mother. What if they find her out? I try to care, to protest, but I am drained. Luke and Ainsley are gone, and I am waiting for my private conference with Edwards. I am expelled. Expelled, unless I can convince him otherwise. I am expelled. No hope of scholarships, college, a job. I feel strangely tranquil about the whole thing. The halls are quiet now, the air tingling with the resonation of the late bell. People will be texting, news of the video bouncing from Twitter to Facebook and everything in between. It will never die, even when I do. It will live on, in the darkest recesses of social media. One of the kinder secretaries gave me an orange after my stomach started rumbling. I can still taste the sweetness of each piece, thin skin bursting and juices trickling down my throat. The long coil of peel lies next to me, brittle now, and breakable.
A secretary ushers me in to Edwards’s office, her long lined face somber and disapproving. I hate her, too, cast her on the burning pyre with Luke and Ainsley.
The door shuts with a soft creak, and I look up. Edward sits down at his desk, his mustache quivering indignantly. I can see the blue veins, twined around his wrists, popping out. His patience is brittle.
“Anna,” he says, exhaling. “Anna.”
Yes, I know my name.
“This morning, I was approached by Ainsley Peters and Luke O’Grady. They informed me that you had taken a video of yourself unclothed to give to your boyfriend. “
“What boyfriend?” I say. My teeth grind together, but I force a reasonable tone into my words. “I have never had a boyfriend. Did they give you any proof?”
“Yes, they did,” Edwards says. “They produced an empty chocolate box from Valentine’s Day that you had left in a classroom. The tag said To Anna, from George. Let’s try to get through this without another tantrum, Anna. Now. The two, Ainsley and Luke, said that your boyfriend, once he had received the video, uploaded it to that You - YouTube site you kids use. Ainsley said that you bragged about sending the video to your boyfriend in gym class. You also mentioned that your boyfriend often uses social media. Ainsley was concerned that your boyfriend had other intentions, so she went on MiBoob - ”
“YouTube,” I interrupt.
“– and, after discovering the video, brought the matter to myself and the other school officers.”
Ainsley had thought, after I saw her, that I would tell. She had recruited Luke – I didn’t know why – and they had gone to Principal Edwards and created a story. They had made sure I would not be believed. They had thought of everything, even the chocolate box. They were monsters. I close my eyes in despair.
“Do you have anything to say in your defense, Anna?” Edwards’s droning voice probes at me experimentally.
“It’s not true. None of it is.” I look straight at him. “These kids – they’ve tormented me for years. They’ve never let me have a normal life. Ainsley and Luke have always had it in for me. I saw Ainsley taking that video of me in the locker room. I don’t know why she would. She must have thought I would tell someone - ”
No, Ainsley had misjudged me. I would not tell anyone – ever - about my mother.
“ – so she made a story up to make sure I wouldn’t be believed.”
“Do you have proof?” Edwards’s flat, cold voice falls onto me.
“You could confiscate their cell phones,” I say desperately. “Ainsley might have the video - ” But I know it’s useless. Ainsley wouldn’t forget that. She must have have erased it, forever, its horrid contents now drifting in oblivion. I have nothing.
“Beyond the confiscation of their cell phones – which we’ll do - do you have any proof?” Edwards asks again.
“No,” I say.
WHEN I WAS little, a girl who had lived in our neighborhood disappeared. Her picture sprang up in the papers, day after day. She was blond. She had blue eyes. She was ten years old.
“Poor thing,” my parents said.
She was found dead in Angel’s Creek two days later.
They caught the man who did it – a local salesman, a grinning, evil man, who had snatched her away from her life with the promise of candy.
I never want to die like that, I said to my mother after the community had cried itself out.
You never will, she replied. What stranger could ever hurt you?
I retain a childlike fear of darkness – and therefore, death. I imagine death as nothingness – no color, no sound, no movement, no feeling, no sight, no nothing.
I do not want to live.
But I do not want to die, either.
The video is being watched, people laughing at me throughout the world– never knowing that I cry over it in a dark corner. Luke and Ainsley kissing, amid loving parents who will never know how much I hate their children. Maybe they never guessed how far I would go. My mother. My father.
Let him take care of himself for once.
INSTRUCTIONS TO MYSELF:
Walk into your house, through a yard bitten by the stakes of a decrepit picket fence. You are not a stranger – but somehow, the neighbors’ children still stare at you, then disappear, caught by the snap of the door. Boys look and leer, but you are not afraid. For once in your life, you are not afraid.
Cut your foot on an old beer can, its aluminum shards ripping through soft skin. Ignore the pain, the blood – keep walking. Something you couldn’t do.
Turn the door handle. Your mother dances noiselessly in the room, to the hypnotic hum of the TV. Her sweat hits you, spots the half - blue, half - green wall. Damiel is still not home. He bounces on the bus, quiet to the chatter of the other kids, thinking – about what? What does he want to do with his life? Ask him. You never asked him before, busy as you were with your own problems; conceited in your own misery.
Go upstairs. You stomp childishly. You like the sound of your thick heels on the wood.
There is a box hidden underneath your bed. Take it out. Take a minute to sift through its contents: the ribbons from old birthday presents, old art projects, grey with dust and shedding glue. Scattered bits of bad poetry. An old diary. You think about looking in it, reading up on old lives, but then you put it back.
At the bottom, you will find a black gun with a single bullet.
NIGHT AGAIN. MY mother dances downstairs, her arms and legs flailing without music. My father lies with another woman in another city. Damiel snores in the next room.
I wonder what he is dreaming.
I turn over the gun in my hands. Black and smooth, like a snake coiled comfortably around my fingers. I wonder what they will discover in Ainsley and Luke’s phones. Maybe I should wait until tomorrow, the 17th – But then I stop myself from hoping: Nothing, no doubt; and I will end up sitting here anyway.
I hear the smooth wood of the chair flowing beneath my thighs. I smell my mother’s heavy breathing clouding the rooms. I see the scent of cigarettes from the woman who lived here before us. I feel the bright glow of the supermarket blocking the stars.
So, what is it to be? Live, and go on enduring silence broken only by gossip? Die, and be forgotten beyond a newspaper article, my body decayed and broken into dust?