I took the seat Mrs. Mullins indicated, across the desk from her.
Chaos spilled across her desk, which was piled high with papers and folders and a huge bowl full of candy. She sat down across from me, and rested her hands in her lap.
“So, Sam. Talk to me. Why did you skip gym?”
I opened my mouth. I tried to say something, but I didn’t know what. There was nothing I could say. So I looked at the desk, avoiding her eyes.
She frowned. “Not ready to talk? I’m patient.”
“Please don’t make me go,” I whispered.
“I’ll have a very difficult time going to the principal and asking him to let you out if I don’t have a reason.”
I looked down at the floor.
“Did something happen to you in gym last year?”
I shook my head.
“Is there something you’re afraid of?”
I looked down at the floor again. Of course there was. I was afraid of everything. Of them seeing me. Of having to change in front of the boys in the locker room. I was afraid of the possibility of dealing with bullies, of the certainty of being terrorized.
Here eyes bore into me, like she was studying me, like she could see me. I slid my hands into the pockets of my hoodie and hunched over.
“Well, then. Let’s look at your schedule.”
She turned to her computer and began typing. A moment later, she said, “You just transferred here?”
“From Fairfax County, Virginia.”
She nodded. “I see you’re taking advanced placement classes. That’s good. You don’t have any physical education credits at all, though.”
I swallowed and said, “At my old school you were exempt if you were in music theater.”
“I see. Well, it’s a graduation requirement here, we require two semesters. You could put this year it off, but you’ll end up with no choice for next year.”
I closed my eyes.
“Sam… talk to me. Is there something going on at home?”
“Do you have any brothers and sisters?”
I looked away. “I had a sister.”
I swallowed, and said, “She disappeared almost two years ago.”
Mrs. Mullins’ face froze in place, impassive, lips in a thin line. “Disappeared?”
“They never found her. I don’t know if she’s alive or not.”
“Were you and your sister close?”
Were we close? She was my hero. My protector. She was the only person who knew my secret. She was the only person in the world who called me by my name. The only person who accepted me and loved me for who I am, not for … whatever it was they thought they saw. Brenna dominated my memories; she was all that mattered to me. Her disappearance left a gaping wound. I didn’t have words to answer her question, so I answered with a simple, “Yes.”
She sighed, and said, “Sam…I’m so sorry. Can you tell me what happened?”
I shrugged. “No one knows. She … she snuck out after bedtime. It was her sixteenth birthday. And she … never came home. They found her car fifty miles away.”
Mrs. Mullins closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “It must have been a nightmare.”
I nodded. “It was,” I whispered. “It still is.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Are you in any kind of therapy?”
I shook my head. “No. I know my parents talked about it. But there’s no money. My dad lost his job not long after she disappeared.”
A frown briefly appeared on her face. “What was your sister’s name?”
She sucked in a breath. “Brenna Roberts. I remember seeing her in the news.” Yeah. Everyone in the country saw her in the news.
For a few moments she seemed to study me, putting a pen in her mouth and chewing on it unconsciously. Then, abruptly, she said, “Stay here.”
She walked out the office, closing the door behind her. I stared up at the ceiling. All day long I’d been fighting tears. I wasn’t prepared to deal with kindness. I almost wanted Mrs. Mullins to come back and tell me to tough it out, that I had to go deal with gym, that I needed to stop acting like a scared little girl. Because her empathetic eyes, her kindness, it made me feel like … it made me feel vulnerable.
But I waited.
Her questions brought back to mind those first terrible weeks after Brenna vanished. I stared off into space, trying not to think of it, but stuck as always at that moment when my Mom said, “Sam, have you seen Brenna?”
I jerked in my chair when Mrs. Mullins returned to her office. She gave me a warm look that mystified me and returned to her seat, then turned and began typing on her computer without a word. I sat up straight, watching her.
A moment later, her printer began warming up, and spat out a sheet of paper.
She lifted it off the printer and said, “I spoke with Principal Higgins about your situation. And, though I’m not qualified as a physical education teacher, she agrees that for this semester, at least, you don’t need to be assigned in the regular gym class. You’ll report to me for first period.”
She handed me the paper. The schedule was the same as before, except for the first period line, which read Physical Education. Mullins, Patricia.
I couldn’t stop myself. My hand raised to my mouth, stifling a sob, and my eyes watered uncontrollably. I shook, hard, staggering back into my seat, and whispered, “You didn’t have to do this.”
She gave me a warm smile. “I did, actually.”
I sniffed back snot that was threatening to run down my nose, and asked, “Why?”
Her eyes stayed on me, and she said, “Sam … you seem a little lost. If I can help, I will. So for now, relax, read a book or something until second period. Tomorrow you and I will go for a run, so bring gym shorts. I’ve been needing to get more exercise anyway.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. I didn’t know how to react. Mrs. Mullins had punched a hole right through the protective distance I normally maintain, and it shook me up. A few minutes later the bell rang. I shot out the door as if I’d been launched, and made my way to my second period, AP Biology.
It was on the third floor, which was stifling hot, despite the overworked air conditioning. Made worse by the fact that I was wearing baggy clothes and a sweatshirt. The other kids in the hall, mostly juniors and seniors, gave me odd looks as I approached the classroom. They mostly wore shorts and t-shirts.
I made it to class in time, and the teacher waved me in. According to my schedule his name was Mr. Bernard. A short, balding man, the teacher looked almost bizarre in khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
“Everyone take your seats,” he called out as the bell rang.
I scanned the room. All of the tables were occupied by two students, except for one at the very back of the room. A gangly red-headed girl sat alone. I froze for just a second, then Mr. Bernard said, “Go on, take a seat. I’m pretty sure she won’t bite.”
I felt my skin flush, but I didn’t need any more attention called to me today. I went to the back of the room and slumped into the chair next to the girl without saying anything.
Mr. Bernard took a position at the head of the class and began speaking. I studied the red-headed girl out of the corner of my eye. She was pretty. Extremely pale skin scattered with freckles, blue eyes. Her hair was a tangle, tied in the back in a ponytail which ended just below her shoulders. She wore a sleeveless and threadbare baby blue shirt, which accentuated how washed out she was and how tiny her bony arms were.
Bruises marked her left arm just above the wrist.
“I’m Hayley,” she whispered.
“Sam,” I replied. I tried my best to sound natural. But what’s natural? What’s normal? Was it being a jerk like Jake Fennel, or Cody Hendricks? If it was, I didn’t want to be that. I never wanted to be that. Ever since middle school, it was like they just sought me ought, a magnetic attraction, but I attracted cruelty instead of love, brutality rather than care, scorn instead of respect. And I didn’t know why.
But Hayley glanced over at me, swallowing, and I realized she was nervous. She licked her lips, then whispered, “You from around here?”
“No. I’m new.”
“Me too.” She stopped speaking as Mr. Bernard approached us, handing out papers. When he got to our table, he gave each of us a two page syllabus. I scanned it. By the time I was finished reading, he was back at the front of the room talking.
I wanted to say, Maybe since we’re both new, we should stick together. But my throat closed up, chest tight, and I could feel my pulse at my temples. I hadn’t had a friend, someone I could trust, since Brenna disappeared. The one or two times I’d tried hadn’t gone well. Everyone had their own little group, their own ways of doing things.
She whispered, “Can I see your schedule?”
It was crumpled up in my pocket. I took it out, smoothing the paper. She studied the paper for a second. “We’ve got three classes together. And lunch. Want to hang out?”
Was she kidding? I studied her for a second, for signs of cruelty, signs that she was going to turn around and use dumping on me as a way to get in with the popular kids. But it didn’t seem likely. Her clothes were cheap, and one of her shoes looked extremely worn, the threads coming out at the seam. The popular kids wouldn’t have anything to do with her.
I tried to squash the brief hope I felt. I tried not to sound too eager. I tried not to sound like I cared. “Sure.”
I almost held my breath. But she didn’t laugh. She didn’t do anything horrible at all. But as class broke, we headed to third period together. As we walked down the hall I caught a glimpse of Cody Hendricks. He was hard to miss, because he stood a full head taller than most of the other students crowding the hallway. I kept my head down.
“Where did you go school before?” Hayley asked.
“Fairfax County, Virginia. You?”
“Birmingham. I moved here to live with my dad.”
My eyes darted to her bruised forearm before I could stop them, but I didn’t think she caught it. “My dad lost his job and had to move here for a new one.”
She looked at the numbers above the doors, then back to her schedule. “This is it.”
So we sat through US History together, then split up for fourth period. I’d only known her two hours, but I didn’t want to leave her behind to go to my pre-calculus class. Not that I had a choice.
We waved, and I walked downstairs and finally found the pre-calculus class. I kept my eyes to the floor as I made my way to the back of the classroom and slid into a seat, so it wasn’t until I was seated and opening a notebook at my desk when I saw the girl from the bus. The black haired girl with too much makeup, the girl who had called her boyfriend out like a guard dog.
I pretended to not look at her, even as I examined her. She wore what appeared to be a Prada skirt, which probably wasn’t, with a sleeveless white t-shirt. She hunched over in her seat, leaning to the right, whispering to another girl with long blonde hair, perfect in this heat and humidity.
The two girls giggled, and I wondered if they were laughing at me. Then I realized they were looking at a phone in the dark-haired girl’s hands. The blonde giggled again. Something on Snapchat or Facebook or Instagram I imagined; something embarrassing about someone else. I’d seen their type before.
All the same I couldn’t help but sneak glances at the girl. I wanted to know her name. I wanted to know more about her.
Why? So I could humiliate myself again? So I could be rejected again? I’d made a friend already today, and that was more than I had expected or even dreamed of. Don’t push it, Sam.
The teacher entered the classroom. She was a doughy looking woman with rough mottled skin and a dress that appeared to sewn from a floral tablecloth. Her hair was gray and curled into one-inch ringlets. She wore a cheap looking necklace and large garish rings on several fingers. This was our precalculus teacher, Mrs. Watson.
She stomped around the room for the next twenty minutes describing the rules of her classroom. No whispering, no talking, no laughing. No trips to the bathroom. Cell phones, if seen, would be confiscated. The dark-haired girl looked away from the teacher and rolled her eyes.
The dark-haired girl didn’t put her phone away. Instead she held it in her lap, barely hidden by the desk. Mrs. Watson would have to be a complete idiot to miss it, but she said nothing. Either she didn’t enforce her own rules, or she enforced them for one for some kids. I’ve encountered that before and I wouldn’t make any assumptions about how things operated here until I saw it with my own eyes.
Mrs. Watson took the roll. Each of the 25 students in the room said, “here,” when she called their names… including the dark-haired girl, who I knew now was named Ashley Prichard.
Ashley. It was a beautiful name, laden with the flavor of the coast, of Savannah and Charleston and the old South. It was a fitting name for a truly beautiful girl, a girl who is probably as poisonous as she was lovely.
Ashley’s friend was named Caitlin Ludlow. She didn’t have the flawless beauty of Ashley, though she was attractive. Her nose and chin seemed out of proportion to her small eyes. I rolled the names over my tongue silently. Caitlin and Ashley. I should avoid those two.
Everyone went quiet when the name Sam Roberts was called out, and everyone turned to look at me. I shrank in my seat. “Here.”
For the next twenty minutes I held my breath, hoping to not make any mistakes or gaffes that would call attention to me. I was able to escape from the class with a minimum of contact, trailing after the last students left.
Hayley was waiting in the hall when I exited the classroom. When she saw me her face lit up with a smile.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.