Authors: Jesi Lea Ryan
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction
The doorbell rang. I scooped up my heavy backpack and opened the door. Bryan stood on the stoop, leaning his lanky frame against a post. Time must have faded his image in my mind, because the guy standing before me, grinning with one up-turned corner of his mouth, was gorgeous! The dark of his eyes and hair were accented by a pair of black plastic framed glasses, making him appear studious, but cool at the same time. He radiated calm and strength, but also a hint of nervousness. My shoulders relaxed and I responded with an echoing grin.
“You’re wearing glasses,” I commented.
“Only when I drive,” he replied. "Ready?"
I nodded and pulled the door closed behind me.
We drove the couple of blocks to school. His car was a older model Lexus, a little nicer than the average high school student. We didn’t talk much. The air between us felt thick and awkward. He tapped his long fingers on the steering wheel, and I knew he was as anxious as I was.
Bryan found a parking space in the middle of the lot. He shut the ignition off, but neither of us made a move to exit the vehicle. He removed his glasses and folded them into a case which he then tossed up onto the dashboard. My chest tightened with nerves, and I drummed my fingers rapidly on my leg. It was only a few minutes before the bell and students, alone and in groups, made their way purposefully to the doors.
"Maybe I shouldn't have made you do this," Bryan said. "You don't have to go in. I can take you back home if you want."
"You're not making me do this. And as tempting as it is to go back to bed, getting back to regular life is the best thing to do.” I took a deep breath and let it out with a shudder. “I'm just glad I don't have to do it alone."
Bryan's expression softened and he reached over to pat the back of my hand. For a second, I thought he might take hold of it, causing me to suck in a quick breath. But he didn't. The touch was gone as quickly as it was given.
"Let's go," he said as he retrieved his bag from the backseat and opened the door.
My head grew dizzy as I climbed out into the crisp morning air. My stomach ached. The bell rang as we were approaching the building, but Bryan was content to let me walk at my own pace, without hurry. He accompanied me all the way to my government class. I could hear Mr. Steele in the classroom taking roll.
"Thanks, Bryan," I said. "I really appreciate your help."
He patted my shoulder stiffly. "I'll be right here when you get out of class."
"You don't need to walk me to all of my classes," I said with a nervous chuckle.
"I know I don't have to, but my American history class is just two doors down. No big deal.”
Bryan lifted his hand in a wave and strutted off down the hall. I waited until he disappeared into his classroom. As soon as he turned the corner out of sight, my fear came back. Roll call was over, and the principal's voice poured out of the intercom speakers for the morning announcements. I thought I might be able to slip into my seat before anyone noticed. I was wrong.
As I rounded the doorway to sneak down the aisle, I bumped into the metal garbage can, knocking it over with a clunk on the hard tiles. Twenty-one heads looked up at once. Upon recognizing me, their collective eyes shot down to the tops of their desks. The tension in the room jumped up so sharply, my lungs constricted. Suddenly, my neck broke out in a cold sweat, and my cheeks flared. I leaned over to right the garbage can and my bag slid off my shoulder, breaking the strap with the weight of too many textbooks.
"Good morning, Cady," Mr. Steele said, picking up his attendance book to mark me present. "Class, pay attention to the announcements."
The students turned back toward the front. I clutched the broken strap of my bag and slid into my third-row seat.
I remembered nothing of the teacher's lecture. Instead, I obsessed over my discomfort. It was hard to describe, but the room felt nervous…twitchy with my presence. It wasn't like anything I'd ever felt before. Several times I felt eyes watching me, but when I glanced around, all I saw were kids bent over their papers, scribbling notes or doodling in the margins.
I jumped when the shrill bell rang out, ending first period. I really needed to chill out. I shook my head at my idiocy and stepped into the river of teenagers flowing up and down the hallway.
Someone touched my arm just above the elbow. I looked up to see Bryan. He smiled and asked, "How was it?"
I glanced around and noticed people looking at me as they passed by. "Awkward."
"Well, awkward is okay. You know you can do it now. With each class, it’ll get easier."
We merged into the traffic walking left. I wanted to stop at my locker to drop off the broken bag and the textbooks that I wouldn’t need. The crowd of students felt more oppressive than it ever had before. Flickers of hot and cold brushed my body, causing a sheen of cold sweat to dampen my skin. I felt my forehead, but didn’t detect a fever, just a dull ache forming between my eyes.
When we rounded the corner, I felt like someone socked me in the chest with a baseball bat. Before me was Lony's locker, looking as if Hallmark threw up all over it. Photos and cards were taped in over-lapping layers so no metal was exposed. What didn’t make it on the locker itself leaned neatly along the base of the wall. A vase with wilting roses stood on the floor with a hand-made sign sticking out which read, “Gone to the angels.” Teddy-bears and Beanie Babies with blank eyes and mocking smiles stared up at me from the floor.
"Oh, my god..." I whispered, my face draining to white. Kids passing by between classes stared at me, making my skin crawl.
Bryan clutched my arm and steered me into an empty classroom. "I'm so sorry, Cady."
"What is that? A shrine?" I shouted, my voice breaking like a twelve-year-old boy. I started to hyperventilate, the air in my lungs heaving in and out, in and out.
Bryan pulled me into his arms, his hand patting my hair. My tears soaked into the cotton of his White Stripes t-shirt, leaving dark gray blotches.
"I'm so sorry. I had no idea that was there. I never come down this hallway."
I didn’t wrap my arms around him; rather I drew them in tightly to my sides, my fists balled up clutching his shirt. I hadn’t noticed how cold I was until I was snuggling against him, basking in his body heat. Maybe I should have been embarrassed, but at that moment, all I could focus on was his calm warmth. He could have been anyone, I just needed to be held.
"It's okay, Cady," he whispered. "You stay here. I'll go get the janitor to take it all away."
As soon as he drew away, an irrational wave of anger rolled through me that even Bryan's calming influence couldn't touch.
"How could they? Don't they realize she was
sister? That my locker is right there, too? It's bad enough I have to live down the hall from her empty bedroom. Do they expect me to step around that —that
between every class?”
A small rational part of me knew I was being a bitch, that those students lost someone too, but my emotions were out of control with selfish need. I started pacing and Bryan just stepped back and watched.
Mr. Small, the computer arts teacher, poked his head in to see what all the shouting was about.
"Oh, Miss Day! Is everything alright?" He snatched a box of tissues from the window sill and held them out to me as if he didn’t want to come too close.
“It's fine," Bryan assured him, "She just wasn't prepared to see that memorial at her sister's locker."
"Oh, well... I guess I can call the custodian and have it removed."
"Forget it!" I said. "I'll do it myself."
Before they could stop me, I went out into the hallway and plucked a poem off of the metal. It was some sappy thing that struggled to rhyme. I ripped it and let the pieces float to my feet. I could feel the eyes of the crowd on my back, boring into my skull. A cold cloud of grief wafted around me. Without realizing it, my fingers started ripping the pictures and notes stuck to the locker with Scotch tape. My pinky ran along the edge of a Post-It which read “I’ll miss you,” slicing a tiny, painful cut in my skin. As I was shaking my hand, my foot knocked over the vase of flowers, spilling gunky water and soaking the largest of the teddy-bears.
Around me, kids stopped and stared, ignoring Mr. Small's pleas for them to keep moving. Murmurs wrapped around me, “Whoa! Cady’s losing it.” “Think we should try to help?” “I miss Lony too, but what a drama queen!” Their anger blended with mine until I shivered and all I could see was red. I tore at a photo of Lony standing in her cheerleader uniform, her pom-poms in the air as she stood on the shoulders of her teammates. When it was shredded beyond recognition, I moved on to a group shot of Lony and Cane with a bunch of their friends piled on top of each other on a couch in some anonymous basement rec room. The confetti of Kodak paper fluttered to the floor like a ticker-tape parade.
Bryan placed a tentative hand on my shoulder. His touch poked a hole in my anger, letting it diffuse, slowly, until it was gone altogether. My fingers stopped frozen in mid-rip. I looked down at the mess around my feet. My jaw dropped and my wild eyes latched onto his in shame. Just as my knees gave out, Bryan caught me and lowered me to the floor in a heap of limbs. He pulled me onto his lap and turned my sobbing face into the crook of his neck to shield me from our nosey classmates staring and whispering excitedly. The disdain they felt for me was tangible. The bell rang for second period, and a few more teachers arrived to usher everyone along to their classes.
I couldn't look at the mess. My body curled up and huddled into Bryan's as if I could make myself small enough to disappear. He stroked my hair and rocked me gently.
A janitor in a denim uniform showed up with a push broom and a large, rubber garbage can. He waited off to the side quietly, unable to clear the mess away with us sitting in the middle of it.
Once the hall was mostly empty of students, Mr. Small crouched down and whispered something to Bryan.
I felt his head bob in a nod. "I'll take her home now." Bryan bent his mouth to my ear. "Let's get you out of here."
As Bryan helped me to my feet, I caught a pair of green eyes, blazing with molten hatred staring right at me, causing my body to jerk in shock. Cane Matthews stood across the hall. It was the first time I’d seen him since the funeral. His face appeared to have aged, gray smudges spread beneath his eyes and his jaw clenched tightly. He bent down and picked up a torn photograph of Lony that had been taken over the summer at cheerleading camp. His gaze softened slightly on the photo, but when he looked at me again, I felt a stab in my gut. The icy pain rolled off Cane so thickly the air felt like water, making my lungs heave for breath. I shivered uncontrollably.
Bryan relieved me of the broken backpack without a word, took my hand. “Ignore him. Come on.” He steered me toward the doors.
I felt Cane’s glare on my back the whole way down the hall and out the front doors.
Bryan offered to stay with me, but I made him go back to school. I spent the rest of the day in my pj's huddled in bed with the covers over my head.
The doorbell rang around 3:00, but neither my mother nor I made a move to answer it. Just after dark, I woke from a nap to someone knocking on my bedroom door.
"Can I come in?" Aaron's guff voice called from the hall outside.
I yanked the covers down from the tent I had made with my pillows to block out the harsh afternoon sunlight.
"Yeah,” I croaked. “Come in."
Aaron stepped into the room and glanced around. It had been a long time since he had been in my bedroom. My brother and I have never been very close. He was only fourteen months older, but he’d always held himself apart from us. I'm not sure if that was because we were girls or because he felt excluded by our twin-ness.
He didn't turn on the light, just wandered over and sat down by my feet.
"I heard what happened this morning."
"I don't know why I freaked out like that,” I groaned.
Aaron nodded in sympathy. In the light emanating from the hallway, I could see dark smudges under his lower lashes and hollowness in his cheeks. All at once I felt guilty for not being there more for him. I hadn't given much thought to the fact that he also lost a sister. My hand snaked out from beneath my peppermint-colored comforter and squeezed his. After a moment, he squeezed back.
"I would have warned you about the locker if I'd known you were going to go to school this morning. I couldn't look at it either."
"I shouldn't have flipped out like that. Lony had tons of friends. They have a right to mourn her the way they need to."
Aaron just bobbed his head and mashed his lips together.
"How are you, Aaron? Do you want to talk about it?"
He let out a whoosh of air. "Oh, I don't know, Cady. I imagine I'm feeling about like you are right now; sadness, anger —mostly at myself for not spending more time with her —with you both. And then this house... I’ve been kind of thinking about going to stay with Dad for a while."
“Have you told Mom yet?"
“Are you kidding?” He said with a raised eye brow, the metal bar through it glinting in the low light. “She's so doped up there’s no talking to her. I don't think she's taken a shower since the funeral. Besides, she probably wouldn’t even notice if I left."