The back-handed blow knocks me to the floor. I look up at her, determining in a nano-second whether I should stay down or get back up. I scramble to my feet, cringing
slightly in anticipation of the next strike, guaranteed to come if I read her wrong.
I didn’t. She turns away from me with familiar disgust.
“Clean up this mess you made, Kate,” she grumbles,kicking at the plate filled with the remnants of her lunch that had been knocked to the floor from her side table as I fell.
She turns back, threat in her pose.
“You sassing me?”
“No mom, I’m sorry.” I hate the wheedling in my voice, but I am as helpless against that as I am in changing the tide of my life.
I scoop up the food scraps with my hands, piling them back on the plate and set it aside. I wipe a couple of the prescription bottles that had tumbled into the mess with the front of my shirt. I set the fallen bottles back on the table in their precise spot within the cluster of small brown bottles.She knows just what is in each one by their location.
Unbidden, the picture I have hidden under my mattress slides into my mind. In it, my mother stands in the backyard with me and my father, laughing and loving and looking young and beautiful—and very pregnant.
I was nine-years-old at the time, getting ready to start fourth grade, which was exciting because it meant that I was on the up-slide to being what I thought was the coolest of the cool—a sixth grader, oldest class in the school. The day the photo was taken my father had brought home an early birthday surprise for me. My birthday isn’t until February, but Dad couldn’t wait. He wanted me to have it early so I could enjoy it before the snow fell.
As I carry my mother’s dirty plate into the kitchen, I glance out the window at the long-ago birthday surprise. It’s a swing-set, one of the sturdy, steel, A-frame kinds that you normally don’t find in a backyard, but rather at a public playground. It was made to last for a very long time—even now it looks nearly the same; only the dulled shine gives away its age. Three swings hang from long thick chains. The burly men who delivered it made sure to cement the poles deep into the ground so that it wouldn’t tip over. I was told I had to wait three days to swing on it to give the cement a chance to harden.
Three days is an eternity to a nine-year-old. In three days, I learned, an eternity of changes can occur. I quickly and as quietly as possible wash the plate—the dishwasher long ago quit working and the idea of paying a repairman or buying a new one is as foreign as a trip to the Taj Mahal. As soon as I’m finished I silently slip out the back door.
I’m well aware of how pathetic it is to have your only escape, your best friend, be an inanimate object—and a child’s play toy at that—for someone who is seventeen years old and getting ready to begin her final year of high school. But it’s all I have, so I hurry over, ignoring the light rain that begins to fall as I plant my feet into the well worn dirt, and shove off as hard as I can with a slight jump. The wind blows past me from both the speed as well as the storm kicking up. It cools the raw spot on my jaw that will leave me with a bruise to start the school year tomorrow. Not that it matters. A pre-bruised punching bag doesn’t make a difference to most of my tormentors.
As I sail higher, I feel the release of tension, the world fading away. I’m eased by the rush that comes as I push myself higher and higher. My mind empties as I give myself over to sensation. The only interruption comes when I hear my father stumble into the house—early tonight—and the yelling starts. Even that I can push away with little effort; I’ve had years of practice.
Luckily, there is no tell-tale sound of fist against skin when the yelling stops. My mind registers this in relief because it also means there’s a good chance I won’t have to be on the receiving end of her anger anymore tonight. Sometime later, I become aware of lights being turned off in the house. It doesn’t occur to either of them to wonder where I am, or to even check my room to see if I’m there. I don’t have a problem with that—their lack of concern and attention long ago stopped being painful and became a positive thing if it means being invisible.
I continue to swing in the cool night air, hair damp now from the light rain. I wait for the peace to settle completely before letting the swing slow and then stop.
A deep breath, gathering courage, then I slip into the house as quietly as possible, not wanting to call attention to my existence.
I pull open my bedroom closet, and blow out an exasperated breath at the lack of options before me. Tomorrow I’m officially a senior; seems like that should qualify maybe just one new outfit, one thing that isn’t a thrift store second that’s worn out and ill fitting. I allow myself a two minute pity-party, then pull out the least worn items to put on in the morning.
I hate the first day of school.
Actually, I hate every day of school, but as this is the first day of my last year of high school, it somehow seems worse than all the others. There’s a palpable excitement in the air from the other seniors, knowing that after this year they can start their real lives. I don’t have a real life so this year is more frightening than all the rest—and that’s saying a lot considering how every previous school year has been for me.
“Look out, freak.”
I stumble but don’t fall as I’m shoved to the side by one of the juniors. I see a couple of the sophomores look over in interest. Time will tell if these newbies will join in the game, or if they’ll take pity and leave me alone.
I turn away from them and see Jessica Bolen coming down the hall, surrounded by her groupies. That’s a really good reason for me to turn and head in the opposite direction. She hasn’t noticed me yet, so I make a quick retreat down the nearby stairs, even though it means I’ll have to hustle to make it to my first class. Tardies are something I avoid with a passion, not wanting more attention than is absolutely necessary.
Jessica is my main…nemesis, I guess, though there had been a time when we were friends. The summer before Middle School I had suddenly blossomed. My breasts began to emerge, I grew several inches, and suddenly nothing fit me. Shirts were too tight and pants too short. My mother couldn’t be bothered by something as trivial as a growing daughter in her mad world, so I became a thief. In the early morning hours before either of my parents had risen from their inebriated states I would sneak in and take a dollar or two from both my dad’s wallet and my mom’s purse whenever there was a dollar to be had. That was how I funded myself a “new” wardrobe; three shirts, two pants, one bra, three pairs of panties and one pair of battered shoes from the local thrift store. It cost twelve pilfered dollars and a great deal of guilt.
Though the clothes fit better than any other choice I had, they still marked me. Whereas in Elementary School I had been able to silently morph into a wallflower, unnoticed and largely left alone, Middle School saw me become a target. It was Jessica Bolen who really started it, set the tone of what my life has since become—at least as far as school is concerned. For some reason she had begun to dislike me at the end of the previous school year. It had been close to the end of the year when she began saying derogatory things about me to my classmates, though there really wasn’t enough time for the gossip to develop into more than a few lazily aimed barbs by her followers.
She had also blossomed over the summer and when school began she walked in as a confident, blonde beauty who had all of the guys noticing her—even the eighth graders and several of the freshmen. With her new confidence came a streak of cruelty and a perfect target for her to hone her skills on—me.
The first day of Middle School, I walked in wearing my second-rate clothes, and searched out the small group of friends I’d had in Elementary School, which included Jessica. As I approached, Jessica turned from where they stood in a circle, talking.
“What are you doing here? You don’t belong with us,” she sneered at me. I looked to the others, waiting for them to… what? Defend me? Instead, they all began laughing at my expense, and I turned away, humiliated.
Apparently she had overheard her parents talking about my family, and so the year began with her spreading rumors of my alcoholic father and drug addled mother. I couldn’t even defend myself because no one knew as well as I did how true the rumors were. Of course, she didn’t know the whole story and there was no way I was going to enlighten her and give her more ammunition. Not that she needed it since my clothes gave her that.
With her crushing any iota of self worth I might have pretended to have left I didn’t fight back when she called me names, or knocked my books out of my arms, or tripped me when I carried a tray of food in the lunch room. It was surprising how quickly the other students caught on to her games and joined in. Those who didn’t join in soon avoided me like the pariah I was so that they didn’t catch any of the bullets coming my wa
Every day since then has been a game of survival, like today, as I rush to get out of her path. I’ve learned to avoid areas where she or any of her friends might be, which is difficult since most everyone is her friend—or at least pretend to be.
I had hoped that High School might change the way things were for me in Middle School. I mean, the kids are older and more mature, right? While the teasing, shoving and name calling isn’t as intense as my Middle School experience, it’s still here, around every corner it seems. My blonde hair has grown long over the years. I’m grateful for that because it makes a nice veil to hide behind. Unfortunately it also provides an easily grabbed handle for those wishing to pull it.
I guess I can always hope this year will be different. It’s while I’m hurrying to my second period class of the day, walking with my head down but also observing those around me at the same time on alert for the warning signs of danger, that I see him.
I stop cold where I am, getting bumped into from behind, but not shoved. I even hear a mumbled “Excuse me,” though probably because they didn’t realize who they’d bumped.
I’m frozen as I stare at him, mouth agape. The sight of him brings back a flood of memories that I had forgotten. He had gone to my elementary school; I had known him from the first day of Kindergarten. I’d liked him in an innocent childlike way because he was never mean to anyone. He was the kind of kid that others flocked to naturally, popular without trying or even caring if he was. He made everyone feel as if they were his friend. I had admired that about him. Especially during those years when my life had gone dark and he had still treated me kindly.
He’d sat with me at lunch when I sat alone, which naturally brought others to my table as well. He’d always invited me to play kick ball when he saw me sitting alone, even though he knew I would decline. When I started to notice boys as something other than a complete annoyance I had thought he was the kind of boy I might really like—maybe even love —as more than just a friend.
The end of sixth grade made me think he might see me as something more as well when he gave me a special valentine—a card he had made and not just one of the cheap, small paper ones everyone else passed out. The remembrance of that brings a remembrance of my first kiss—my only kiss—in the coat closet. How bold I’d been. How nice his lips on mine had been. How much hope I had gleaned from such a simple thing.
My cheeks flush as I think of him holding my hand at recess, sometimes, after that kiss. We’d never kissed again, though I’d wanted to. I think we’d both been too shy and uncertain to make the first move.
He’d moved that summer. I didn’t know, of course, until the next school year started.
Now here he is again.
He’s grown, changed but there’s no doubt it’s him. He’s tall, though he’d been close to my height when I’d last seen him. He stands taller than most of those around him and I’d guess him to be about six feet or so, maybe a little more. He has dark blonde hair, short on the sides and standing in odd spikes on top of his head, which I understand when he reaches up absently and runs his fingers through it. Rather than looking messy, though, it has a startling effect, looking as if he’s spent hours getting it to look like that. His jaw is strong, square, masculine. The promise of the cute boy has become an amazingly gorgeous young man.
He laughs at something someone says and my stomach tightens in recognition. His smile is the same as I remember it, disarming and beautiful.
I stand here staring at him, forgetting to keep my usual watch for elbows or feet thrown my way, so when an elbow comes, I’m unprepared. It sends my books scattering across the floor—loudly—which catches his attention. His eyes meet mine and I see a flicker of recognition in their dark depths, a perplexed smile at the corners of his mouth. Horrified, I quickly scoop up my books and flee down the stairs, humiliated that he should have caught me staring, even worse having him see the new sport I’ve become.