Authors: Kate Larkindale
I’d never told anyone before. It was something I’d been carrying around since I was seven and overheard Mom talking to a friend of hers in the kitchen. It had been said in an offhand way, but even at seven I’d understood what the heavy, coal colored words meant.
“Mom didn’t want me, either,” Bianca said, her brow wrinkling as she studied me. “But once she had me, she did.”
I gave a choked little laugh. “Well, my mom didn’t, I guess. She thinks I’m broken. She doesn’t even believe in synesthesia, thinks it’s something I invented to get attention or something. And now you’re being lumped in that same basket. I’m so sorry.”
Bianca hugged me again, and I relaxed into her. No one had ever held me so ferociously, protecting me from anything that might hurt me. I wanted to stay there forever. In Bianca’s arms I could pretend Mom didn’t exist, that Jules wasn’t dying, and that my friends hadn’t turned on me.
A girl could dream.
ow far I was from a dream world became obvious at school the next day. I spun the dial on my locker and tugged the door open, releasing a cascade of small objects and drifts of paper that scattered across the floor. It made no sense. What was all this stuff? My locker should have had a few books in it, maybe some smelly gym clothes, not this avalanche. I bent and picked up one of the crumpled twists of paper, dropping in again when I read the word printed in block letters across it: ‘lesbo.’ Whoever wrote it had pressed so hard the pen had poked through the paper in several places, leaving tiny rips. I picked up another, reading the words ‘pussy eater.’ Stuck to the crumpled page was a small foil-wrapped chocolate cat.
“Stupid bitches.” Bianca bent and scooped up all the crap that had tumbled to the floor. She dumped it into a nearby trashcan without even looking at it. Giggling broke into my consciousness as shiny bursts of pink. I looked up and found a small crowd gathered at the end of the hallway, Hannah and Mel among them. They leaned into one another as they tried to stifle their laughter. Had they filled my locker with that poison? My best friends? The girls I’d shared hundreds of sleepovers with, whispering secrets until the wee hours. The girls I’d run to when I got my first period during gym class. The ones who knew my love of cows and always managed to find me some new cow-shaped novelty for Christmas and birthdays. Or, should I say, my former best friends?
“You?” I held up a final stray scrap of paper, this one with the words ‘muff-diver’ scribbled across it.
Hannah shook her head, choking on the laughter that stopped at the sound of my accusation. Mel took a little longer to react to the sudden silence. The whole hallway seemed to hold its breath. I stood there and glared at my friends. No, not friends. Strangers. I didn’t know them anymore. My friends stood by me. They supported me, no matter what choice I made. Those girls standing there weren’t my friends.
“Come on, Bianca,” I murmured, turning and striding up the corridor toward homeroom. For once I didn’t have to battle to get through; the crowds parted to let me by.
Bianca’s locker was assaulted, too, a lewd picture from a girlie magazine glued to the front with elephant glue. She looked around when she saw it, checking to make sure there were people watching before pressing her face to the metal and ripping the center of the photograph off with her teeth. I smiled. If only I could have that confidence. A couple of kids in the hallway clapped, but the smattering of applause died away before it amounted to anything.
“Gotta love eating pussy,” Bianca said a little too loudly as she tore the rest of the picture down. It was bravado though. I could see from the way she pressed her lips together that the picture had shaken her. I wanted to touch her, to comfort her, but knew it would be opening myself up to whole new line of abuse.
“Kids are such jerks,” Bianca said at lunch. “Anything that’s different scares the hell out of them. It’s so boring.”
“Maybe… But you’re used to being different.” I couldn’t shake off the insults as easily as she seemed to be able to. The attention made me squirm, made me long for my days of anonymity. I’d make a terrible celebrity.
“I’ve always been different.” Bianca shrugged. “It just seemed easier to advertise it, you know?” She shook her long black skirt.
I couldn’t help but smile. It was different, but different in a way that was kind of the same. There were two other kids in school who wore funereal clothing, whose faces glittered with piercings.
Stepping out of the sanctuary of the art room into the crowded corridor was a shock. The noise hit me like a punch to the gut, colors of every hue seething through the air. I stood in the doorway for a moment, steeling myself to plunge into the melee. I pictured myself stepping into armor and used that image to block out the battering on my senses.
The art room was on the other side of the school building from my next class, biology, so I had to cross the main foyer to get there. The first thing I saw when I reached the atrium was a long table behind which sat several of the cheerleaders, Jenna Malone among them. A long strip of paper hung from the front of the table, announcing that they were selling tickets to the Winter Formal. Something jumped in my gut, and I clutched my books tighter to my chest. I had to walk right by the table to get to the entrance to the science wing.
I pushed through the messy queues of kids waving money at the harried-looking cheerleaders. I had money in my pockets. It would be so easy to buy the tickets. To surprise Bianca with them. It was irresponsible, I knew, but once the idea popped into my head, it wouldn’t let me be. I paused and crumpled some of the bills in my pocket. Did I want to go? My heart cried yes even as my head reminded me about the trouble I’d invite. The image of my locker sprang up before my eyes, but I forced it back.
“Uh…two please.” The words tumbled out before I had even finished the thought. Jenna took the two ragged twenties I pulled from my pocket without looking at me. She thrust the heavy cardboard tickets in my direction then froze.
“Yeah?” I tucked the tickets into the pages of my biology text.
Jenna tugged on her hair. “How’s Jules doing?”
“She’s coming home soon.” I tried to level my voice, to keep it from trembling.
Jenna’s face relaxed into a smile. “That’s great! I knew she’d get better.”
I forced myself to smile back. “Have you been to see her lately?” I knew she hadn’t. No one who saw Jules could think she was getting better.
Jenna shifted and toyed with her hair again. “Uh…not for a while, no. It’s been so crazy, you know? With cheerleading and organizing this dance and all. And—” She stopped and looked away, her cheeks reddening. “Well, the hospital kind of gave me the creeps. But I’ll come see her at home. You let me know when she gets back, okay?”
I nodded, already working my way through the crowd. The bell rang, and the crush toward the table intensified. I pushed forward, ducking and weaving to get away. I plowed into someone who gasped and dropped an armload of books.
“Oh! I’m so sorry.” I crouched down to pick up what I could before it got trampled on.
“Livvie?” Mel crouched next to me, stacking the books in her arms as I handed them to her.
“Sorry,” I muttered, sliding the last one onto the pile. “Wasn’t looking where I was going.” I straightened up and started toward the science wing.
Mel’s hand on my arm stopped me. “I saw you buying tickets. Are you seriously going to go to the dance with…with her?”
I looked at her, tilting my chin upward with a bravado I didn’t feel. Already, only minutes later, buying the tickets felt like a bad idea. But I wasn’t telling Mel that. “Sure. Why not?”
She gaped. “You’ll get creamed. Honestly, Livvie. You think what those notes said was bad? You should hear what some people are saying about you two.”
“I don’t need to hear anything more.” My words froze as they passed my lips, taking on a brittle blue edge before tumbling to shatter on the floor between us.
“I know you’re mad at me, but please, Livvie. Don’t go to the dance.”
I stared at her for a moment, the late bell blaring in my ears. “I’ll do what I want.” Spinning on my heel, I pushed past her and dove into the bio lab.
Ten minutes before the end of class, someone hurried into the lab and handed a note to the teacher, Mr. Beckett. I glanced up at the bright orange sound of the door slamming shut, but turned back to the leaf I was examining.
“Olivia Quinn?” Mr. Beckett’s voice broke my concentration.
I looked up, squinting at the teacher in the artificial glare of the overhead fluorescents.
“You’re wanted in the principal’s office.” He waved the note and gestured to the boy who had delivered it. “It’s almost the end of class, so take your stuff.”
My heart pounded. The principal’s office? I’d never been called to the principal’s office before. What had I done? I gathered my belongings as fast as I could and followed the boy out the door. Behind me I heard the low murmur of chatter as the rest of the class speculated on why I was being summoned.
“Um…” I hurried after the boy. His legs were long and I had to trot to keep up. “Any idea why Mrs. Wolfson wants to see me?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Just the messenger.”
I racked my brains. Maybe it was spending the lunch hours in the art room. Maybe that was against the rules.
I stopped suddenly, my feet rooted to the floor. Jules. That was the only reason for them to call me out of class. A block of ice formed in my stomach, chills radiating from it to every extremity.
“You okay?” The boy looked back over his shoulder.
I nodded and forced myself to keep walking. My knees shook so much it was hard to stay upright, but I managed by trailing my fingers along the wall.
“Well, see ya.” The boy waved toward the open door of the office.
A wooden bench sat along one wall of the office. Two boys slouched there, both with torn clothes and bruises swelling on their faces. Every couple of minutes one hissed something at the other and the secretary, Ms. Bower, glared. I sat on the other end of the bench, my books clutched so tight to my chest I could only draw in shallow breaths. How long was I going to have to sit here?
Someone else walked into the room, the clanking of silver buckles a familiar bright, crimson.
“You too, huh?” Bianca threw herself down on the bench beside me, covering my hand with hers.
“What’s this about?” I whispered.
She shrugged. “I think maybe—”
“Olivia and Bianca?” Ms. Bower peered at us through her bottle-thick glasses. “Mrs. Wolfson will see you now.”
I peeled myself off the bench, glad to find my shivering had stopped. Bianca flashed a nervous smile in my direction then stepped over the sprawled feet of one of the brawlers to open the door to the principal’s office.
Mrs. Wolfson raised her eyes from the haphazard stacks of paper obscuring her desk and offered us a tight smile. “Sit, please.” She pointed to the two straight-backed wooden chairs across the desk from her.
We sat. I wanted to hold Bianca’s hand, but thought better of it. The fluttering birds had invaded my stomach again. It took all my effort to keep my knee from jiggling up and down, my feet from shifting itchy patterns across the floor.
Mrs. Wolfson frowned at a slip of paper before turning her eyes back on us. “It has come to my attention that the pair of you intend to attend the Winter Formal. Is this correct?”
Bianca shot me a bewildered look. I think I managed to keep my face impassive, despite the muscles that leaped around in my left eyelid. I knew what this was about now. Mel, or Jenna, or any one of the kids thronging around that ticket table in the atrium had turned me in. Probably Mel. So much for surprising Bianca.
“So what if we are?” Bianca met Mrs. Wolfson’s gaze.
The principal cleared her throat. “It’s not the actual going to the dance that is the problem. It’s been indicated to me that you intend to go as…as a couple.” She coughed and removed her glasses, wiping them with a torn shred of tissue before replacing them on her nose. “The school cannot allow this.”
“Why not?” The words burst from my mouth, huge and scarlet against the muted gray walls. Anger crept into my gut, overpowering the flapping wings of the birds and replacing them with something bubbling and hot.
“It’s not appropriate. We cannot be seen to condone such…such…such behavior.” She flushed and removed her glasses once more.
Bianca leaned forward and rested her elbows on the edge of the wooden desk. Her eyes narrowed to slits, and when she spoke the words exploded from her in a barely audible yellow hiss. “It is not unnatural to love someone. And when you love someone, it’s not unnatural to want to express it, you bigoted old cow!” With that she leaped to her feet and stormed out, skirts swirling in a cloud behind her. I followed her, running to keep up as she swept past Ms. Bower and the two thugs in the office.