I stood at the bus stop on the first day of school, arms crossed over my chest, looking at the ground. I was trying my best to not shake, to not freak out or do anything to draw attention to myself. Three other teenagers waited for the bus, a boy and two girls, and I stood a bit behind and away from them. They knew each other, obvious because of the easy banter between them and the fact we were in rural Alabama and they’d all known each other since first grade. I wore jeans and a too-big sweatshirt, and even though it was close to ninety degrees, I kept the hood of my sweatshirt up.
For the last few months we’d lived on this small street. Beyond the houses were fields. Cows grazed in the closest field, and throughout the summer, whenever the wind blew in the right direction, I could smell the stink from the field. In the distance rolling, tree-covered hills towered over the fields like chaperones at an elementary school dance.
Mom pushed me all summer to get outside. Go meet people. Make friends. Like that was a possibility. I’ve never been much in the making friends department, especially after Brenna vanished. But now? Here? Friends? Seriously? The fear so palpable I wanted to hurl. The bullies and assholes would see right through me and make me their target. Again.
In the distance, the straining, high-pitched sound of the school bus approached on the road across the fields to the south. The others at the bus stop stirred, and one of the girls looked over her shoulder at me, with a look that carried a mix of curiosity and contempt. Our eyes met for the barest of seconds, and I looked away and swallowed.
It would be nice to have a friend.
The bus showed up, almost full. I began to shake. I kept my arms crossed over my chest and inched my way toward the bus, following the two girls and the boy onto the bus.
The other three headed for the first open row, but the bus driver stopped me.
“Stop. You new?”
I nodded, trying to get a grip on my shaking.
“What’s yer name?”
“Sam,” I whispered.
“Sam.” A little louder.
“Alright, Sam. You won’t know none-a-this cause you’re new, but you fill in the next open seat as you get on the bus, startin’ from front to back. No fighting, no yelling, no bullying. Ya hear?”
“Where’d you learn your manners?”
I coughed, and said, “Yes.”
Without turning away from me, he said in a loud, but conversational tone, “Children, how do you respond to your elders?”
In a loud shout, most of the kids in the first four rows shouted, “Yes, sir!”
I froze, unable to breathe, my stomach twisting so hard I needed to run for the bathroom, or home, or anywhere but here. I wanted to be invisible. Instead, the bus driver had called me out in front of everyone on the bus. Shaking so hard I could feel the fear all the way to my toes, I said, “Yes, sir.”
“Go take yer seat, Sam.”
I nodded, trying to stop myself from hyperventilating. Then, as his face shifted to irritation, I said, “Yes, sir.”
After I spoke, he looked away and put the bus in gear.
The yessir routine reminded me of Grandpa. Not Mom’s dad, but Dad’s. He was a Marine, a stocky, red-faced man who kept his white hair cropped short and always looked ready to strap on combat gear and wade into battle. Brenna loved Grandpa and used to be really close to him. I loved him too, of course, but we’ve never been close.
I made my way between the rows of seats. The first open seat was about fifteen rows back. I made it past the first three before I heard someone mutter, “Freak.”
Hair hanging in my face, I watched my feet to make sure no one tried to trip me, and slid into the seat next to the boy from the bus stop.
“Don’t mind Mr. Elliot. He’s kind of a dick.” The statement came from the boy sitting next to me. The two girls from our stop sat across the aisle.
“Thanks,” I muttered.
“I’m Billy,” he said.
“Sam,” I replied.
“Y’all just moved on Hubbard Lane, right? Few months ago?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“How come I ain’t never seen you?”
“I don’t get outside much.”
“You got any brothers or sisters?”
The question froze me. Everyone at Fairfax High knew Brenna had disappeared. It had given me a few months of reprieve from bullying, a legacy I’m sure Brenna hadn’t calculated on. Somehow, in the two years she’d been gone, no one had asked me this question. Now, alone in a strange place, I didn’t know how to answer. If I said yes, it would lead to questions. Where was my sister? Was she going to school? If I answered that would lead to even more questions, more visibility, more everything.
“No,” I said.
“How come y’all moved to Oxford?”
“My uh, Dad, he’s managing the Waffle House.”
“Oh yeah? You get any free coupons or anything?”
“I guess. I never asked.”
The bus stopped at a crowded corner. As they filed in to get in the seats behind me, one of them said, “Hey Billy, who’s the freak?”
Several of the girls, all of them dressed more or less alike, two rows up from me, burst into laughter. One, a raven-haired girl who wore a blue halter, caught my eye. She wore too much makeup… the foundation and blush caked on, lashes clumped together. Without the makeup, she’d have been beautiful: the kind of beauty I wanted to touch.
I tried to look away, and couldn’t.
Then she called out, “What are you looking at, freak? Cody!”
Billy, next to me said, “Jesus, Sam, what are you doing?”
I blinked and looked away from the girl. “Sorry.”
But I was too late. A hulking kid, six feet tall, stood and moved down the aisle.
“You bothering my girlfriend? You some kinda perv?”
Fear twisted in my stomach. Jake Fennel all over again, but twice as big. He stared at with me with undisguised disgust, and said, “You ever look at my girlfriend again, you’ll die.”
I swallowed and squeaked out, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I didn’t.”
“Faggot.” He turned around and started to swagger back up the aisle. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I was premature, because the moment I relaxed he spun around again, swinging a fist. I didn’t have time to raise my arms, or react, or do anything before his fist hit my left ear. The hit was sudden, a shock, and set my ear ringing. My eyes watered, and I wanted to curl up and die. He hadn’t hit hard enough to hurt… just to humiliate. He gave a short contemptuous laugh, then walked back up the aisle away from me.
The bus driver didn’t say a word.
Billy, sitting next to me, said, “Helpful hint. Don’t mess with the populars. They’ll make your life miserable.”
Like it wasn’t already. “I wish they’d just leave me alone,” I said.
Billy gave a sound of disgust and shook his head. “That’s Cody Hendricks. And he’ll leave you alone as soon as he finds someone else to mess with.”
I filed away the name for future reference. Cody Hendricks. Would Cody be my reason to want to die?
I’ve never been popular. I had two friends in middle school, but as high school started they’d drifted away, and for the first few weeks of high school, Brenna had been the only protection I’d had. And then she was gone. I was out of school the first couple days after she went missing, but when I went back on Wednesday, a bubble of empathy surrounded me. Her picture had been in the news and everyone at school knew she’d disappeared.
The bubble disappeared just like she had. By sophomore year I became a target for the bullies at school again. It didn’t help that by that time, Dad had been in jail and lost his job. Everything in our life had changed. Everything.
My parents were so numb they didn’t even notice the day I came home bloody and bruised from a run-in with Jake Fennel. I kept a low profile through the rest of sophomore year. We didn’t have the money for me to participate in any clubs or other activities in school, so I kept my head low, rode the bus to and from school, and hoped for the best.
Then Dad found a job. In Alabama. My parents had long since stopped making mortgage payments, and we got thrown out of the old house, so they rented the dump we’re living in now. All summer long, I’d been dreading the day school started. Terror in the pit of my stomach, nightmares, shaking fits. Because I wasn’t like other kids.
When the bus arrived at the school, I watched in a numb silence as the crowds of teenagers headed toward the entrance. They were all there, masses of them, jocks and cheerleaders and druggies and geeks and no one like me.
I made it off the bus with no further mishaps and edged my way through the crowd of laughing and yelling. I kept my arms wrapped around me, my backpack on my back, hair in my face. At the entrance I scanned my schedule. Homeroom, then gym.
A fresh wave of anxiety hit me. I’d managed to get out of taking gym when we lived in Virginia. I didn’t think I’d get away with that here.
The school was huge, mazelike. I was supposed to go to room 204, but it wasn’t at the end of the 200 hall. “Do you know where 204 is?” I asked a boy who walked by me like I wasn’t there.
“Get to homeroom, young man,” a teacher called out. Her voice echoed in the now empty hall.
“204?” I asked, waving my schedule. She pointed down the hall. I ran.
When I walked in to homeroom ten minutes late, everyone looked up. Too stupid to make it class on time.
I tried to just slink into the class without anyone noticing, but that was impossible. I was halfway to the back when the teacher, a gaunt old woman with skin almost as grey as her hair, called out, “You there. What’s your name?”
I turned around, and quietly said, “Sam Roberts.”
“Speak up, I can’t hear you. Come here.”
I said my name, louder this time, and approached the desk. The woman peered at me over the top of thick bifocal glasses. I would have pegged her age at approaching seventy.
“I couldn’t hear you back there. Are you sure this is the right homeroom? What was your name again?”
Someone had written the room number on the whiteboard underneath the name “Mrs. Givens.” I double-checked it against my schedule and gave her my name for the third time.
She frowned. “Oh, there you are. Sam Roberts. Well, you don’t look like a junior.”
Behind me, muffled laughter. Heat rose on my neck, my face. I didn’t want to turn around, to see them looking at me, pointing, wondering who I was and why I was new around here. I didn’t want them noticing the gaping hole where my sister used to be. I didn’t want them to notice the gaping hole where I used to be.
When Mrs. Givens let me go, I kept my eyes on the floor as I turned and walked to a seat in the back row. I wanted to cry. To be alone. To go home.
I’d been afraid before. But not like this. The dread that filled my body was worse than anything I’d ever experienced before. My cheeks were numb and my lips were rubber, and I struggled to hold my breath together, to keep from crying.
Mrs. Givens talked for several minutes in front of the class. Joining clubs. The Bible Club met on Monday, the Conservative Club on Tuesday, the Intelligent Design Club on Wednesday, Sons of Confederate Veterans on Thursday, and Football on Friday. Okay. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But the Bible Club did meet on Monday. This was a very different world than suburban Washington, DC.
Noise erupted from the room when the bell rang. Laughter, joking, horsing around. I kept my distance, I kept my eyes to the floor, and I got out of there as quickly as I could.
The gym was at the opposite end of the building, near the front office. I made my way to the back stairwell and waited until the traffic died down. No teachers in sight. I sat down, and slipped a paperback out of my bag, and started to read.
The book was a good one, about a girl in high school in San Francisco who fell in love with the captain of the baseball team. They were friends, but he didn’t see her that way. I read up to the part where she was going to tell him how she felt when I heard the loud clicking of heels coming up the stairs.
I panicked. It had to be a teacher, or one of the vice principals. As the heels echoed off the steps, I put my bag over my shoulder, forgetting to zip it up. When I stood, the bag opened and dumped out, scattering my notebooks all over the steps. Stupid!
Heart hammering, I scrambled to gather my things and get out of there. But I was too late.
“Excuse me, young lady, why aren’t you in class?”
I jerked up, my eyes widening.
It was a black woman in her thirties. She wore a conservative brown suit with a string of pearls around her neck and a beautiful ring with a large stone decorated her left ring finger. Her hair was straight, long and shiny. Her eyes opened wide when I faced her.
“I’m sorry. Young man. Why aren’t you in class?”
I opened my mouth and tried to speak, but nothing came out.
She blinked and said, “What’s your name?”
“Sam,” I said. “Sam Roberts.”
“Well, Sam, what class are you supposed to be in right now?”
“Gym,” I whispered.
“And… why aren’t you there?”
I tried to answer. I did. But I didn’t have an answer, not one I could explain to anyone. Going to gym meant undressing in front of other people. It meant being in a locker room and maybe showers with a bunch of guys. I couldn’t go there. I just couldn’t. And when I tried to explain it, to say something, anything, I just started to shake again.
Her eyebrows pulled inward, mouth turning down in a sad expression. “Why don’t you come with me. I’m Mrs. Mullins with the counseling department. What grade are you in, Sam?”
“Eleventh,” I said.
She looked surprised and said, “Well, that’s perfect. I’m the eleventh grade counselor. Let’s go talk.”
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.