Rain pelted my back as I ran toward the school. It was probably a good thing since my clothes hadn’t been washed, but they were the only semi-clean clothes I had. With everything else I had to help out with at home, I had forgotten about laundry. You’d think it would kill old man Angelson to put a load in the machine, but Heaven forbid the man do anything around the house besides yell at his sweet wife and boss around his foster kids.
Once my feet hit the front steps, the rain stopped and the sun peeked out from behind a dark, black cloud. I rolled my eyes and adjusted the strap on my backpack, then trudged in squishy, wet sneakers all the way to my locker.
The hall was already bustling with students half an hour early, but if I swapped out my books and headed to the science lab, then I’d have plenty of time to dry off and sit in silence before my first class. The row of lockers was painted in rainbow colors, and Jeffrey Amos never missed a chance to tease me because mine was pink. I couldn’t have cared less, but to Jeffrey, it said I was a girlish short of man who deserved constant torment. Evidently, Jeffrey had not graduated from kindergarten where things like that mattered and girls had kooties.
I twirled my lock and popped it open, exchanged my books, and said a prayer Jeffrey was not there yet. No such luck. The moment I slammed my locker closed, he popped his doofus head around the corner and grinned. I had no idea what he had planned for me, but I got out of the hall as fast as possible. Fortunately, I was not the only person he blessed with his torment, and a small freshman got the brunt of his attitude instead of me.
Several students stopped to take in the scene, but not one offered any help to the poor soul—including me, but that was because Jeffrey was just taunting the kid. Me, he would stuff into a gym locker full of sweaty uniforms and lock it closed for half the day. And that would be after punching me in the face. Don’t get me wrong, I felt bad for the kid, but I had to look out for myself. No one else would.
As I turned the hall headed to the science lab, I got a whiff of something floral and sweet. I knew that scent, and if my nose was working properly, Georgette was just around the next turn.
I slowed and took the turn but she was still closer than I had anticipated and bumped into me.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said with her sweet smile, then stepped aside so I could pass her on the way to the only classroom where I would find peace for a short time before my awful first class—world history.
“Yeah,” I mumbled and ducked my head, tucked my strap even tighter, and shuffled to class.
“What’s his problem?” I heard Ally, Georgette’s best friend, say.
“It’s okay, Ally. Tell me more about your date with Nathan.” Georgette’s tone was still upbeat but just beneath the sickly sweetness there was something else. It was… I couldn’t pin point it, but it almost made me want to turn around and apologize. Almost.
Inside the lab was peaceful, dark, and cold. I liked it in there, because even when Mr. Stevenson came in, he didn’t throw me out. Once, he told me he was adopted and he understood how it could be, but that was all he said on the matter. I assumed he had a happly life with his adoptive parents and didn’t actually understand, but maybe he knew other kids who didn’t have it so easy. Either way, he took pity on me and let me hang out in his classroom every morning.
I checked on my science experiment, which was doing much better than everyone else’s, then took a seat at the back of the classroom. In fifteen minutes, the warning bell would ring and I’d have to head to class, but until then, I buried myself in a novel of the graphic variety. Kyle, my foster father, thought they were a waste of time, but graphic novels and science were the only things that kept my attention for more than a few minutes.
Zombies were taking over earth when someone entered the room and chuckled. I knew that sarcastic, sadistic laugh—Jeffrey. He slammed his bag down on the first desk and sauntered toward me. I knew for a fact he didn’t have any science classes during first period, so he undoubtedly came in to mess with me. My jaw clenched on its own, a byproduct of years of abuse at his hands.
“You escaped this morning, but don’t get used to it. What are you reading?”
Jeffrey snatched my book and checked the cover before tossing it into the wastebasket against the wall.
“Look, I’m not looking for—”
“Shut up,” Jeffrey snapped.
“I don’t have to,” I said, biting my tongue even as the words fell out. I’d pay for them, for sure.
Jeffrey shook his head and grinned, then reached for my shirt collar. He had a good grip on it despite my effort to shrink into my seat. I wasn’t a small guy by any means, but messing with him meant taking on the entire rugby team, and I wasn’t interested in living in a full-body cast. He pulled his fist back, cocked and ready to pound my face into a fine powder when someone cleared her throat.
“Is everything okay?”
I peered around Jeffrey’s fist to find Georgette standing in the doorway, her long read hair spilling over her shoulders. She had a pretty green dress on, not that I paid much attention. It was just… hard to miss.
Jeffrey released my collar and smoothed it over. “No, nothing wrong. I was just talking with Simon.”
“Mmm, I see. Well, you should get to class. If you’re late again, you’ll get detention,” Georgette said with that sweet smile again. Did she do anything without smiling?
He shot a nasty look over his shoulder, grabbed his bag, and pushed past her, bumping her into the wall as he did. It was rude, and I almost said something to him, but that would only bring him back into the room where he would smash my face in whether Georgette was present or not. Instead, I sighed, zipped up my bag, and yanked it off the floor.
“You shouldn’t let him treat you so—”
“Yeah, thanks. I didn’t need rescuing,” I said with a lot more edge to my tone than I’d meant to exhibit. I was embarrassed because, well, I’d been saved by a girl. No, that wasn’t it. I wasn’t ashamed to be rescued by a girl, but it was that girl that made it awful. I never wanted anyone to see me weak, least of all Little Miss Perfect.
She kept staring at me with big brown eyes, but she stepped aside when I got to the exit.
“Sorry,” she whispered. I froze. It was officially the most she had said to me since… maybe kindergarten or first grade. “I just… I’m tired of seeing him bullying people. I didn’t mean to…”
Her voice faded as she stared at the science projects lining the wall. I didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged and shifted my weight between my feet. Topics of conversation flooded my mind, but none of them made sense since we never talked. I mean, asking about her parents was ridiculous, and I already knew she was doing great in every other aspect of her life since it was regularly on display on the achievement boards outside the principal’s office.
“Uh… Your… Your project looks good,” I mumbled.
Her warm eyes lifted to mine. “What was that?”
I pointed across the room to the row of projects. “Yours is coming along nicely.”
She chuckled, but her heart wasn’t in it. Something was bothering her, but I didn’t know how to ask about it, or what to do about it if she did tell me. My poor hear slammed against my chest, probably loud enough for her to hear, and my voice was hiding from her. Everything I said slipped out in a whispered, throaty series of mumbles and grunts.
“It’s not as good as yours. I think you’ll win the prize this year. It’s movie tickets I think,” she said as she filled a watering can. I watched as she poured a small amount of water over her flowers, but small as it was, it was still too much. She’d chosen to propagate a rare species of violet, but I knew for a fact overwatering would cause root rot. Georgette bit her lip and studied the plant, then sighed at the sickly leaves. “I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong.”
I licked my lips and started to speak, but only a stutter escaped. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled, then turned her attention back to the plant. She snipped a few yellowed leaves, then sighed and turned around.
“I, um… think you might be watering it too much,” I said, grumbling again.
Georgette looked at the sickly plant then back to me. “Really? The soil was bone dry.”
“Uh, yeah, but that kind of plant likes dry soil.” I shrugged, having nothing more to offer on the matter.
Georgette studied her plant, then glanced at mine. “What made you decide on the stargazer lilies?” she asked.
I shrugged again. “Dunno. I think they’re pretty, I guess. Um…” I dropped my bag and walked closer to my project. Only the first few leaves had protruded from the soil, but the lilies were slow growers. Once it bloomed, though, it would be a beautiful shade of navy. “It’s difficult to tell now, but once it grows, you’ll see how rare it is.”
“Really? What will it look like?” she asked, leaning toward me as I pointed to my plant.
“Wait!” she said, her hand pressed against my bicep. “Don’t tell me. I want to be surprised.” She smiled—this one was real, I could tell.
I wanted to smile back at her, but there was a good chance every muscle in my face was so accustomed to frowning or scowling, they didn’t know how to do anything else. I opened my mouth to respond, though I wasn’t sure what to say, just as the bell rang.
“Oh… I guess it’s time to get to class, “ Georgette said, then stepped away from me as a few students entered the room.
I picked up my bag and headed toward the door without so much as a goodbye because, well, what would I say? See you later was out of the question since we never hung out. Goodbye felt like the end of something when nothing even began, and—
“Huh? What?” I asked, jerked from my wandering mind. Georgette’s hand was on my arm again, gently holding me back.
“You forgot this,” she said and handed me the graphic novel Jeffrey had thrown in the trash. “It’s um… It’s a pretty good one.” Her face flushed as she turned and hurried toward her class, leaving me confused.
“What?” I asked aloud, still trying to figure out if she had read the book before, or was simply judging based on the cover. Who knew, but the morning interaction with Georgette had garnered more attention than I desired, especially since that attention came in the form of a high school idiot bully and his two closest friends.
I was yanked from my confusion by Devlin, Jeffrey’s second on the rugby team but first-hand when it came to smashing people’s faces in so Jeffrey didn’t have to get his hands dirty. Devlin dragged me across the hall and into the bathroom where he promptly dropped me on the ground. Jeffrey kicked me in the gut, forcing the breath from my lungs, while Devlin kicked me in the back. From outside, Chris laughed as he stood watch. It was all so humiliating I wanted to stand and fight back, but to do so would mean I’d face even more backlash, the kind that could land me in the hospital if I wasn’t careful.
“Next time I come for you, don’t let a little girl stand up for you,” Jeffrey said along with a barrage of curse words unfit for anyone’s ears.
I shielded my abdomen and curled into a ball, protecting myself from his barrage of kicks. None were hard enough to cause any real damage, which I suspected was on purpose so he didn’t actually kill me. Chris’s knock on the door told them someone was coming, so Jeffrey yanked me up from the ground and socked me in the jaw. I hadn’t been expecting it, so I didn’t protect my face. My head snapped back and smacked against the cinder block wall upon which a slew of profanity and obscene images had been drawn.
“We’re not finished here,” Jeffrey said, then followed Devlin out the door. Two seconds later, the late bell rang.
I sighed and slid to the floor in a heap. Physically, I knew I could take Jeffrey. It was Devlin, the sociopathic jerk, I was worried about. He could plow me over like a stalk of corn in a turbine, and I had no desire to suffer through it. I gathered the contents of my spilled bag and tucked it over my back, then headed out of the school.
My appearance wasn’t fit for class, not unless I wanted to be sent to the principal’s office where I would flounder around without a reason for my bloody face. No way I’d tell the principal what happened, not unless I wanted to lose all my teeth and gum my food for the rest of my life.
Instead, I went to the one place I knew I could go without getting scolded—not much, anyway. Once I escaped the parking lot without getting caught, I walked a few blocks toward Charlie’s local office. I knew she’d be there since she was working hard to convince City Council to develop more after school programs for kids, especially those whose parents had to work late, leaving them alone most of the time. Charlie was nothing if not a woman on a mission, so I had no doubt those programs would come to fruition, even if they took a while.
I pushed her door open and smiled at the receptionist before signing in and taking a seat in the waiting room. I saw Charlie every single day, mostly because if I didn’t come to her, she would just show up on my doorstep with a stack of paperwork for me to fill out as penance for missing our therapy sessions.
A heavy wooden door clicked open and Charlie popped her head through, peering at me.
“Simon, what are you doing here so—what happened to your face?” she asked, pushing the door open all the way. She grasped my chin and turned my head right then left, observing my busted lip. She sighed and pointed toward the door. “Come on, let’s talk about it.”
I followed her into her office and flopped on the sofa. “Not much to talk about. Same bullies, different day. I just didn’t want to go to class with a bloody face.”
“That’s what water is for, Simon. You could have washed your face, visited the principal, and then—”
“We both know it’s not that easy, not for kids like us,” I said, shaking my head.
Charlie pursed her lips and glanced at a photo of her kids laughing with her husband. “No, I guess it’s not. Let me place a call and see what I can do.”
“Won’t do any good, honestly. I’m not the only victim, but no one will stand up to him so what’s the point? If you call and make a big deal of it, then I’ll just end up with a busted lip and two black eyes the next time.” I pointed to my face, hoping she’d take mercy on me and skip the phone call to the principal’s office.
She leaned forward and pushed her coffee mug out of the way. “Look, I’m not going to keep letting this slide. One day, Simon, he will go too far. Maybe it won’t be you, but someone will end up seriously hurt, and will you be able to live with yourself after that?”
I swallowed and let my gaze fall to the plush gray carpet. She was good at that—making me see a situation from a different perspective, and that view usually involved a shift in morality. I groaned.
“Fine, do what you need to do, but please try to keep my name out of it?”
“Of course, now, let me show you what I found.” Charlie pulled another stack of scholarship and grant applications from her desk and dove right into her spiel. “These are for local trade schools. Now, I know what you’re thinking. No one thinks electricians, plumbers, and other skills are important, but obviously they are. And the market is expanding, so it’s an option if you want to work with your hands.”
I did want to work with my hands, but not as an electrician or a plumber. I wanted to do something with science, but I didn’t know what.
As Charlie prattled on, I pretended to listen while I tried to think of what I wanted for my future. I never really got past the survival part, but that was fair. I had no idea where I would go when I turned eighteen. Sure, Charlie wouldn’t let me end up on the street, but fending for myself wouldn’t be a walk in the park, especially not if I wanted to stay in school, too.
I constantly skirted the line between dedication to finishing school and complete lack of interest in anything having to do with learning. However, I knew if I tried to drop out, then Charlie would show up at my house every morning and drag me to school where she would probably sit beside me during every class until the last minute of the day.
She spent the next twenty minutes going over everything, making sure I was okay with what she wanted to do, then let me sign the paperwork. I didn’t want to refuse the help just in case I never did figure out what I really wanted, but also because Charlie was the only person who really cared about me at all.
Once I left, I was sure she had applied to every trade school within a fifty mile radius. The clouds had cleared, so I figured I’d get a jump start on mowing our neighbor’s lawn, trimming the hedges, and fertilizing the grass. Winter was coming, and soon my summer jobs would diappear with the first frost. If I was lucky, I could convince some people in the neighborhood to pay me to string lights on their house, or maybe load trees for the farm that always sold Christmas trees on the corner.
Just as I turned the corner and set foot onto my street, the clouds descended again and it started raining. I grumbled, screwed again. So much for lawn work. I passed our neighbor’s house and pushed open the front gate that led to the smallest brick house on the street—barely enough room for a married couple, the Angelsons managed to cram themselves and four foster kids in two bedrooms. I mostly slept on the sofa and left the bedroom to the little kids, but since they were all at school and I wanted to sleep my troubles away, I wandered down the hall and pushed the door open.
Steffi had left her dolls on the floor, so I picked them up and put them on the crooked bookcase. After that, I moved Tucker’s toy cars to the windowsill and hung up Leo’s wrinkled shirts. Our foster mother must have done a load of laundry before heading to her first shift at the diner. Once the room was tidy, I pulled my novel from my bag and fell onto a princess sheet-clad twin bed and cracked it open.
A slip of paper fell from inside, fluttered around the room, and landed on the stained carpet. The writing was familiar considering I saw it at least a dozen times a day—Georgette’s.
Page 41 is my favorite scene. Let me know what you think once you get there. We can swap favorite books if you want.
I stared at the note and reread it a dozen times. Not once had I ever seen a graphic novel in her hands—no, it was always something classic or trending—but the idea of her reading something I liked made my lips feel strange, almost like… Yep, they were trying to curve into a smile.
The book was wrinkled from its stint in the wastebasket, but still readable, so I flipped to page 41 without caring that I was setting myself up for spoilers. I read over the scene once, twice, three times, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was so great about it.
I read the note Georgette had put in the book one last time, then stuffed it back inside like a bookmark and tried to pretend I had already graduated, left the town behind, and would never have another bad day again.
Of course, the problem with dreaming is that, eventually, you must wake up. At the time, I had no idea how hard life was about to smack me in the face. I just never saw it coming, not like that, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It turned out, there was an important lesson to be learned from page 41… I just wasn’t looking deep enough.