I lean forward and take another sip of my cocoa before glancing up at Spencer. “I remember the first time I had this.” She doesn’t respond. “You remember?”
“Of course I do,”
She sounds sort of offended. I nod. That was a ridiculous question. Of course she remembers. She’s not the one that bailed…
“I’d never forget that day,” she adds.
“It was a good day,” I respond with a sad smile.
She raises her glass in mock salute. “To better times,” she says a little bitterly.
I sigh and raise my own glass before taking another sip. I’d never tire of the taste.
“I still don’t know what happened to my hoodie…,” she says off-handedly.
I swallow my cocoa very hard and it scrapes all of the way down. I can’t help the cough that follows. She’s watching me carefully, but she’s not going to get anything out of me.
“You okay…,” she asks sweetly.
I narrow my eyes at her. She’s still fishing.
She rolls her eyes. “Are you ever going to tell me what you did with it?”
I don’t play innocent very well, but I give it the good college try.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about…”
She scoffs and takes another draft from her mug.
“Whatever,” she says with a casual shrug of her shoulders, but I know that it’s still eating her alive.
A few quiet moments pass.
“God, you were such a spaz back then…,” she says out of nowhere.
That’s not how I remember it. I frown at her, which makes her chuckle, and I remember just how much I used to love the sound of it.
It’s not diminished.
“Me…,” I ask incredulously.
She nods and I snort.
“You’re still hung up on that hoodie, and you’re calling me a spaz?”
She shrugs again and I shake my head.
God, if anyone was a spaz, it was her.
I’d like to go ahead and take a poll: for all of you looking at the screen, how many of you are girls?
Don’t be shy now. Go on, raise a hand if applicable.
A little higher, please…
Okay, cool. Most of us are the fairer sex.
Now, I’m going to ask you another question: how many of you wear make-up?
Wow, okay the numbers just went to about half, and I can see at least one gentleman holding his hand up in the back.
To each their own…
This is good though. I wouldn’t mind some male input on the subject too.
Alright, one more: how many of you have had a person in your life sit you down and try to expose you to the glorious world of frilly girlhood?
Okay, guys too. So it would seem, gender aside, that we’ve all had that one sadistic person in our lives, be it the bestie or the mom or the flaming gay boy with more fashion sense in his little finger than the entire lesbian collective.
And this means that you already understand the fear of someone coming at your forcibly exposed eyeball with a sharp, pointed stick covered in bat shit.
That’s real fear…
Breathe… it’s over now.
Nothing is more painful, except maybe childbirth, or so I hear.
And what makes the pain worse is the indignation that follows. Usually it’s your own fault that it happened, even though you had absolutely no control over the flinch that caused said terrible pain, stinging, and endless watering. Your eye just saw it coming and flipped the fuck out of its own accord.
And rightly so…
Okay, so now you probably want to know why I’m going on and on about this and asking all of these crazy ass questions. And you really want to know how this has anything to do with Spencer being a spaz, right?
Well, I’m going to tell you.
So, it was summer, and kids love the summertime. There are a trillion different reasons why: week long sleepovers, sleeping late, no homework, parents aren’t home for most of the day, swimming weather, later curfews…
I mean, I could go on forever.
But if you want to simplify it, break it down into two easy words, the answer is simply: school’s out.
Some guys even wrote a song about it this one time.
Summertime is this magical break in the year where kids get to run the fuck amuck.
And they love it.
Well, as someone who’d never stepped foot in a public school, I just didn’t get it. Spencer, however, had been talking about nothing else for more than two weeks and making all of these grand plans for how we’d spend her magical three months off. And, I mean, hey, she was happy so I was happy for her, but it just didn’t make any sense to me.
It was a day like any other day, especially for me.
I wasn’t going to have a summer. I still had to do my home schooling with Christine, and I was fine with that. I was determined that within another six months, I would successfully complete all of the appropriate placement tests so that I could start school the following August with Spencer.
I studied all of the time, cramming two years of education into one year’s time, but I loved to learn, especially if it was computers or music, so it was all good.
Hell, I was learning to program and it wasn’t even required. I just liked it. I felt like a goddess sitting there in front of my computer screen throwing in commands and then specifying what they would return. I was master of my domain, my world, and no other could defeat me.
Of course, nothing would ever come close to music, not even programming. But, that’s why I was trying to combine the two, and the results would take me places that I had never dreamed of.
But, I’m getting off topic here…
The point is: I hadn’t experienced the whole summer syndrome thing yet.
So on this day, the first day of summer, Spencer was bouncing off of the fucking walls. We’d spent all morning doing nothing because there was nothing to really do. The ocean was a day away; we couldn’t go anywhere alone, and anyone who could take us was working or busy with their own life.
We were twelve-years-old, it was three pm on a Friday, and we lived in Ohio. There was literally nothing that we could do and nowhere that we could go.
All of her grand plans had gone right down the drain. It wasn’t a very good start.
This left her wired for sound but no one was listening. I’d tried to talk her into a movie, preferably horror – my favorite, her least favorite – but she just couldn’t sit still. Her pacing was making me crazy, and frustrated, but I wasn’t entirely devoid of empathy.
Come to think of it, if I had been more apathetic, I might have saved my eye, but… ce la vie.
So, after suggesting everything under the sun that might help her burn off some of her excess energy – well, everything but flat out jogging in place – and having all such ideas shot down as too boring, we were at a stalemate.
I then decided that she could pace and freak out all that she liked. I was going to watch some television. I immediately flipped it to fearnet, only to quickly flip it to Nickelodeon when I caught Spencer’s disapproving glare in my periphery.
I sighed. Invader Zim it was…
I was able to follow along pretty well, despite the fact that, with Spencer pacing, it was like watching television through a strobe light. Every few seconds she’d pass in front of the screen, only to turn and do it again. She had a good rhythm going though, so it was okay. I could anticipate.
Then she began to sort of just stand in front of the screen. It had to be on purpose.
“Spence, come on, just chill, would you?”
There was that glare again. But, this time, she finally slumped defeated onto the futon next to me. That was much better. The show continued and I felt less nervous now that she was being still, but about every minute or so she would sigh dramatically.
I tried to ignore it, but after about ten minutes, I was going to have to either figure something out to appease her or smother her. I rolled my eyes when the answer finally came to me. I didn’t like doing it, mainly because Spencer always chose the same songs. And while I loved all of the attention that she gave me, it somehow felt, really, really personal sometimes, like overwhelmingly personal.
But… desperate times and all that.
I turned off the television and made my way over to the corner of my room. I could feel her eyes tracking me curiously the whole way, until I finally stopped, stooped, and came back up with Al.
She brightened immediately, turning and tucking one leg under the other to get comfortable and give me her full attention.
I sat down on the futon facing her, propping the guitar up on my bent knee and settling it into my comfort zone. I looked at her and I could tell that she was more than ready, but I wanted her to squirm, to really earn it this time.
I took my sweet fucking time tuning the guitar with harmonics until they were absolutely perfect, but in all reality, the guitar was already tuned. Then, I sat there in silence, waiting just a while longer because I loved to torture her.
Finally, I could go no further, and I was forced to let her off of the hook.
She bounced a little.
I rolled my eyes a lot.
I pulled the cappo from the head and settled it on the second fret. This little clamp was a life-saver. It allowed me to play any song within the parameters of my vocal range. It was especially helpful with male lead songs, just like this one. I started strumming the chords in the appropriate succession and singing out the silly lyrics that were actually incredibly sweet, if not too sweet.
How she loved this movie though…
And while I would never admit it to her, I loved it too.
“I want to make you smile when you’re feeling sad, carry you around when you’re arthritis is bad. All I wanna do, is grow old with you.”
I chanced a look at her to see that she’d relaxed considerably.
I thanked all that was holy…
“I’ll make you medicine when your tummy aches, build you a fire if the furnace breaks. Oh, it could be so nice growing old with you.”
She leaned her head against the backrest of the futon, an almost wistful expression gracing her youthful face.
She was such a sap…
“I’ll miss you, kiss you, give you my coat when you are cold. I’ll need you, feed you, even let you hold the remote control…”
We always smiled at that part. I wasn’t sure if she found it cute for the obvious joke that it was, or if like me, it was because no matter who was holding the remote, I never got a say in what we were watching anyway.
I slowed the tempo for the last part, making the notes ring softer and sweeter, and meeting her eyes to over-exaggerate the sappiness of it, as well as to relieve some of that tension that I was talking about earlier.
“So let me do the dishes in our kitchen sink, put you to bed when you’ve had too much to drink. Oh, I could be the -“
I stopped playing, as was tradition.
And she said, “Girl,” as was tradition.
And to complete this tradition, I finished the final notes.
“That grows old with you. I wanna grow old with you.”
Okay, so normally, about this point, she’d clap excitedly and then sing my praises to the heavens before requesting another, but something was different. That wistful expression was still on her face, her head still resting on the backrest, and she was quiet, too quiet. An awkward silence fell, and she kept staring at me. After a few long minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore.
She breathed deeply and lifted her head, her left hand snaking out to brush a haphazard lock of hair from my eyes.
“You’re really beautiful…”
I felt my eyebrows climb up my forehead. No one in my life had ever said that to me. I certainly didn’t believe it. I mean, I wasn’t ugly. I was just me, a tomboy.
There was nothing special to see here.
My new clothes, even though they fit, were still just a little baggy, and I wanted them that way. I never wore anything that wasn’t jeans and a tee-shirt and a pair of chucks, and I never did my hair or nails or any of that other girly stuff.
I did natural.
I did me.
I think the most feminine thing about me was that I had begun to shave my legs and underarms, but that was pretty much it. Spencer though, she was the epitome of feminine. She liked frills and bells and whistles.
“Thanks,” I replied timidly, not really sure what to say but feeling the need to say something if for no other reason than to just fill the silence.
And then, she went and scared the shit out of me.
She shouted… for no reason.
“OH MY GOD!”
I jumped so high in my seat that I nearly dropped Al…
That was seriously not cool.
She grabbed my arm and began to pull me out of the house, guitar still in hand.
“Spencer, what’s going on?”
“I know what we’re going to do,” she said cryptically.
I waited until we were nearly across our connected lawns for her to complete that thought, but she didn’t.
“Well, what is it?”
The grin that she turned on me could only be described as predatory. And then she said the words that I’d learned to fear when they tumbled from her mouth.
She only said that when she knew that I wouldn’t approve. Her silence was a tactic, a good one on her part. She knew that all she had to do was get me past the point of return on a venture before I realized that I didn’t want to do it.
What she didn’t know was that, while I’d hate it, I’d do it anyway just to be with her. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to complain.
“Spence,” I whined.
But it was useless; I knew it, so I resigned myself to my fate, which was her bathroom. Al was placed on her bed on the way in, I was promptly seated on her toilet, the switch flipped on the radio behind me, and the crate-sized container on the counter was pulled open with a flourish, little trays and secret compartments fanning out and filled to the brim.
I looked from it up to her, beyond confused.
And once I’d said it, I’d somehow made it real, because that’s when it finally clicked. I stood immediately, holding up my hands in the hopes that they might create some sort of force field that she wouldn’t be able to penetrate.
“Spencer, no… no, no, no. That’s not my thing. You know that…”
But this was a small space and she was blocking the exit, and my force field was made of dead hopes and unfulfilled dreams.
I found myself re-seated and watching her face get closer and closer to mine. She then shut off my peripheral vision by bracing her arms on my shoulders. I felt boxed in, trapped, and entranced all at once.
Because I was.
“Have you ever even tried make-up?”
“Well, no. But…”
She snapped back up, extremely pleased with herself, and my shoulders slumped. I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t like it. I liked being clean, especially my face, hair, and fingernails. It was compulsory. I never wanted to feel grubby again. I’d had enough of that in my lifetime. And make-up would make me feel dirty; I was certain of it.
But she wasn’t going to relent.
Oh well, I resigned myself, I could always wash my face a few hundred times. And what was a little humiliation among friends? First things first, Spencer pulled out two hair ties, pulling both of our manes up off of our necks and out of our faces.
That I could handle. I loved having my hair played with.
Then she picked up a bottle of runny paste that looked like melted skin.
“This is concealer.”
What were we concealing, exactly?
She smeared it all over my face.
Oh, okay, my face…
And this was what I was worried about. I immediately didn’t like the feel of it. I felt like a birthday cake getting iced. It felt so thick that I was surprised that she didn’t use a butter knife.
“You don’t need a lot of concealer because you have awesome skin. So, I’m just going to put on a light coat and then remove the excess with a clean cloth. That gets rid of streaks too.”
Her voice and her knowledge on the subject combined with her overly-excited demeanor, and I immediately thought of a perfume counter saleswoman.
As if to solidify this strange alternate universe of Spencer’s existence, she scrunched her face up. “You really don’t want those.”
Once she’d coated me, she wiped off the excess, and I had to admit that I couldn’t tell that I was wearing anything after the rag did its job. In fact, my skin felt softer. She then put a layer of powder on, and cleared the excess again.
“This just gets rid of shiny spots.”
I didn’t know that my skin was shiny…
I got that tingling sensation in my nose as the powder made a cloud around us. You know the one where you need to sneeze but it won’t happen? Of course, no sneeze was forthcoming.
God, that was the worst…
Just sneeze already…
When she’d finished I swiped at my nose to relieve the sting, and my face didn’t feel any different at all, so whatever. The next part was actually kind of nice. I just closed my eyes and let the brush tickle over my eyelids.
It took her a good ten minutes though.
“There you go,” she said finally.
And then, everything went down a fucking hill of doom.
When I first saw that torturous device she called an applicator, I thought that it looked like a miniature battle mace. And I’d swear that she’d swung it a few times like Xena doing tricks with her sword. Then she dipped it in this black goop, and the smell made me scrunch up my nose.
“That smells disgusting, Spence.”
That was disconcerting…
“Okay, I’m going to put this on your eyelashes, but you have to hold very still.”
I nodded and then her words registered and I snapped away from her.
“You’re going to put that thing in my eye?!”
She giggled. “No, silly, I’m just going to brush it on your eyelashes.”
I felt like something was very wrong with the world when people felt the need to comb their eyelashes.
She bent down and leaned in very close. “See mine?”
Somewhere in my mind I registered that her eyelashes were thick and dark. But mostly, I’d never been this close to her face before. I mean, she was maybe an inch away. I could even feel her breath.
It was the irises, not lashes, which had me mesmerized. Normal distances had been hiding the little yellow flecks scattered in the shattered crystal of blue, and the outer rings were darker, giving them even more depth, which was surprising because they were already unfathomable.
She pulled away and again tried to put that thing in my eye, but I snapped away. Only this time, I hadn’t even meant to.
“Ash, seriously. You can’t move.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
She leaned back and lowered her voice. “Do you trust me?”
Yowza, that was a loaded question. I mean, first off, who was asking? I wouldn’t trust a salesman with a chunk of chewed gum.
My immediate answer was no; the truthful answer was yes; and then somewhere between the two was: yes, just not with my eyeballs. I copped out, nodding my head once. This seemed to please her.
She took my chin firmly in one hand, and I fretfully watched the orbitoclast get closer and closer. The bristles made contact with the lashes and while it felt weird, it was painless. She got through the entire eye without any issue, smiling when she’d finished.
She patted my cheek.
“See, not so bad.”
‘Halfway there’ was all I could think.
It was almost over.
She employed this same tactic on the other eye and got through the top part without issue. But I was sort of distracted this time. I liked the way that she was leaning in close and the way that she chewed on her lip in concentration. But when she tried to move from the top lashes to the bottom, my eye registered the movement as an attack and…
Of course, this drove the stick right into my eye, grazing those sharp bristles right across the lens. I cursed, loudly, but even over my own pain and vocal recriminations, I still heard sweet, innocent Spencer Carlin say the ‘f’ word.
My eye refused to open; the sting was an unnatural hell; water poured from it like a leaky faucet, and I had one of my hands over the whole socket to shield it from further assault, but all of that was forgotten as I trained my one good eye on her and stared in slack-jawed wonder.
I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her correctly.
But then, she was giving her guilt away, and it was so damn cute. Her cheeks were flaming; her eyes were round; and she had a hand clamped over her mouth.
Now, don’t misunderstand, Spencer said things like ass or hell, maybe even the occasional damn, but she had to be supremely provoked. Mostly, Glen was the cause. And even then, it was few and far between. In the whole of our two years together, I’d heard maybe four.
But at that moment, she had been channeling me. She’d said fuck at least five different times in quick succession.
And she’d said it like she meant it.
And it was loud…
It was awesome!
I was speechless; she was speechless, and after a moment, we both started laughing.
“God, Spence, you should have seen your face!”
She shoved my shoulder. “Shut up.”
I was wearing a shit-eating grin and she was looking at me with dismay. “I’ll never live that down, will I?”
“Hell to the nizz-o!”
She sighed in resignation and began to rummage through her torture tools while the image of her shocked face and the sound of her voice played over and over again in my mind.
I wanted to remember this moment with intense clarity. Mostly so that I could recount it with intense clarity.
“So, are you going to tell me what that stuff was anyway? It burns like… battery acid.”
It was her turn to grin.
“Guano,” she said.
I’d never heard of it.
She delivered that little bit of late information with a little too much joy. I wanted to gag, and I considered it, but when she started laughing I knew that I’d been had.
I narrowed my last functioning eye at her.
“You’re twisted, Spencer.”
She chuckled again but finally explained. “It’s just wax and dye, Ash.”
I sighed in relief and rubbed at my still stinging eye. It was only just able to open again.
Spencer smacked my hand away. “Don’t ruin my work!”
I stared at her incredulously. “But it hurts…”
She crossed her arms over her chest, completely unaffected by my suffering.
“Beauty is pain,” she said seriously.
And with that, she grabbed another stick from the counter, this one longer and thinner. She took off the cap and again, if you can even believe it, started coming for my eyes!
That was it. I’d had enough. I was putting my foot down.
“Don’t even try it,” I said menacingly.
She stopped, training those pathetic, puppy-dog eyes on me, and began a full-fledged pout.
“No,” I said more forcefully.
Her lip drooped a little more.
God help me…
It took effort, but I maintained.
She raised two fingers.
“Last thing for the eyes. Girl scout’s honor.”
I gaped at her.
“There’s more after the eyes?!” And as an afterthought, “And since when are you a girl scout?” I chortled. “I mean, you don’t hike or sew, and you can’t build a fire to save your life…”
She wasn’t amused.
She tried again…
I was going to stand and run away, but there just wasn’t room. As if to mock me, the radio playing in the background started a Godsmack song. Spencer grabbed my chin, and I knew that I was trapped.
I squeezed my eyes shut and braced. I’d never let her break me. Never!
And then, she let me go.
I didn’t trust it, so I cracked one eye open and glanced at her. She was capping the stick.
Okay, that one wasn’t so bad.
I exhaled. This was exhausting.
She grabbed a little tube of something very faintly pink and pulled out another fucking stick, if you can believe it.
“Just your lips, I promise.”
I watched her very carefully. I didn’t want any surprises and she was losing trust by the second. But true to her word, she swiped the applicator over my lips a few times, dabbing in some places. She then made a show of rubbing her lips together and I instinctively mimicked the action. The gloss I really liked. It tasted kind of fruity.
Smiling, she stood to her full height and nodded in self-satisfaction.
There were not words for how much that meant to me. Spencer took my hands and pulled me up, and before I knew it, I was in front of the mirror and having a crisis.
I didn’t even recognize myself.
“Wow,” I said.
“No lie,” she agreed.
My eyes looked… I don’t know, smokey, my lashes fanning out attractively and the eyeliner framing it all off to make my eyes really stand out. She put her hands on my arms and rested her head on my shoulder from behind, smiling at me in the mirror.
I was more focused on her face though.
“So are you, Spence.”
Her smile broadened and so did my heart.
“So,” she said, pulling back. “Now we need to work on the hair.”
I glared at her in the mirror and she chuckled as she left the room, but then, as I looked at my face again, I found that I really, really liked how I looked. But more than that, I felt feminine and almost… empowered somehow. I smiled at myself, feeling truly good about being me for another first of my life.
Yeah, I was totally a girl, and no make-up could give or take that away, but more than that, I wanted to be. The make-up just accentuated how I already felt, what I already was, and I felt emboldened.
Well played, Spencer. Well played…
I shake my head.
“You were the spaz, Spence. I was the hot one.”
“You’re so full of crap, Davies.”
I lean back in the chair and fold one leg over the other, and she mirrors my pose.
“I’ll start,” she says.
I nod curtly.
“Your first day of public school.”
Fuck, she would go there…
So, I’m fairly confident that if I were to tell you that I’m a giant nerd, maybe even a geek, that you wouldn’t be surprised.
Right, okay, so we’re on the same page.
I always had been and I always would be. But who says that a gerd, yes gerd, can’t be hot? Well, Spencer opened up an entire world for me that night in her bathroom. As a result, we’d spent most of that summer shopping and I learned what it meant to be In control of how people perceived me. I got a haircut, long layers and wavy auburn curls with a few highlights, and it only magnified the person that I was becoming: strong, confident, and unashamed.
I learned the finer points in skin and hair care, and of course, applying mascara. But eyeliner, well, what rock star would be complete without it? So, I found that fine line between rocker and princess. And in the process, I found myself.
There was still the gerd part in there, but she really only reared her head when I was reading or sitting at my computer. I had a very fashionable set of thick-rimmed reading glasses and a very uber leet Alienware laptop. I was all set, for the most part. I just had one last thing to do to keep moving forward in this life that I was making for myself, that Spencer was opening up for me: public school.
Okay, well, it shouldn’t be a shock for me to tell you that within that same year of self-discovery, not only did I qualify to start at the grade befitting my thirteen years of life, I’d qualified for the advanced classes. But with this came a problem: if I went into the advanced classes, I wouldn’t get to see Spencer at all. Well, except for lunch and study hall, but that wasn’t nearly enough. That was what I was looking forward to about public school. There was absolutely no reason for me to be in that place if I couldn’t be with Spencer.
But, Christine had said that I needed to learn to socialize.
I didn’t need any other friends.
I didn’t want any other friends.
And Spencer rarely hung out with other people. I mean, we practically lived together. But the placement tests had already been tallied. I didn’t have a choice. And this is what I was talking about before when I’d mentioned all of the ways that I do and don’t fail at life. I’m intelligent, I’m thoughtful, I’m hygiene and fashion aware, and I’m talented.
But the emotions…
I just never could get a grip on them.
And I thought that I was having a panic attack.
I wasn’t going to make it through this day.
I glanced over at Spencer with acute longing, needing reassurances, but she was staring out of her window with still droopy eyes. She was so not a morning person and I found her inherit grumpiness charming. But I was going to need her this day, and I was going to be completely denied.
And it was all Christine’s fault.
I looked at her face in the rear-view mirror accusingly. She’d put her foot down when I’d tried to opt for the average classes. And now I was soon to be stuck in an unfamiliar place and unfamiliar situation, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
It had me vibrating with nervous energy.
Just then, something hit me softly in the back of the head. I turned to Kyla in the back of the suburban to find her wearing a strange expression and looking out of her window too.
She wasn’t a morning person either.
I reached behind my head and felt around my neck, but couldn’t find whatever it was.
“Hm,” she looked over at me.
“Do you see something in my hair?
She scooted closer and I turned away to make this treasure hunt easier for her. I heard her gasp and just as I was about to turn around to ask what she’d seen, she put her hands on my shoulders to stop me.
“No, Ash. Just… hold really, really still, okay?”
My heart started to pound.
What was it, a spider?
I hated spiders…
I felt her rooting around in my hair with a very delicate touch and my anxiety doubled.
She understood the plea in my voice and quickly distracted me by tearing several hairs from my scalp.
“OW! What the hell, Spence!”
“Ashley – language.”
I glanced up to Christine’s sharp eyes in the mirror.
She and I had come to an agreement about… certain things. There were things long engrained in me, like my mouth, which just weren’t going to change. And so long as I didn’t do it with other adults or at inappropriate places like school or a pulpit – like I’d step foot near one of those anyway – she wouldn’t get onto me about it anymore.
But in front of Kyla, who was only eight and still had a chance at a less crass vocabulary, it just wasn’t acceptable.
And I could agree with that.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, reaching a hand back to my aching head and looking to Spencer accusingly.
And that’s when I saw it.
In her hand sat a clump of sticky, pink gum, a matted collection of my hair still sticking out of it.
For the first time in my life, I wanted to kill my sister.
I turned back around to gawp at her, my already frazzled nerves barely holding on by a thin thread. She was still looking out of the window just like before, but there was something else that I hadn’t noticed then. She was sucking in her lips and screwing up her face. She looked like that old man in the denture commercials.
I mean, she was always kind of weird, so facial contortions weren’t entirely unexpected. But this… she was trying to hold something in.
That little shit!
I’d kill her…
No, death would have been too easy. She needed to suffer… A devil appeared on my shoulder and whispered sweet, dark nothings into my ear.
“Kyla,” I cooed sweetly, low enough that Christine wouldn’t hear.
She wouldn’t look at me.
I took the gum from Spencer and held it up. “Do you see this?”
She still wouldn’t look up at me but she nodded, clamping a hand over her mouth to hold it together.
“Any idea how it wound up in my hair?”
She shook her head.
I checked to be sure that Christine wasn’t listening before I leaned close to her over my seat, signed my soul over to Satan, and – to my everlasting shame – sought to hurt her.
“Squishy Cat…,” I whispered menacingly. “You’ll never see him again.”
Her terrified eyes snapped to mine.
“Ever…,” I punctuated with a dark purr.
Of course, she immediately burst into tears. And these weren’t the irritating cries of a child throwing a tantrum. These were real, fat, mournful tears.
I turned back in my seat just in time for Christine to ask what was going on. Kyla continued to sob and I couldn’t speak because I wasn’t sure what had just happened. I mean, that was so MEAN of me, but I was spazzing and she just, she threw gum into my hair!
Who does that?!
Even Spencer was gaping at me in shock.
You see, Squishy Cat was Kyla’s pet ferret. She’d fallen in love with the smelly rodents during her stint in foster care, and so long as she cleaned his cage every day and took care of him, Christine allowed her to keep him.
She loved Squishy Cat.
They were two peas in a pod.
He was her family, and I’d just threatened to murder him.
“Kyla…,” Christine prodded. “What’s wrong?”
I turned again, warning flashing in my eyes.
And she knew that I meant it. If I could murder Squishy… well, what were her chances? Besides, she and I had a pact born of mutual respect that only the two of us could ever possibly understand.
We were family. We didn’t rat each other out.
It was kind of like the mafia.
Christine knew that neither of us were going to give the other up, so she did the only thing that she could when faced with a bond that fierce.
“You’re home tonight after school, both of you. No television, computers, phones, friends… nothing.”
Kyla sniffled and I groaned.
And I saw the warning flash in Christine’s eyes before she focused back on the road.
Could this day get any worse?
I slumped in my seat. I felt like shit for what I’d just done, I was pissed at my sister for getting me grounded, my stomach was all tied in knots, and I thought that maybe I was going to hurl. But Spencer, finally getting over her shock, decided to cut me some slack. She took my hand and squeezed it, and she didn’t let go until we finally got to the school.
This was it.
We got out of the car – well, Spencer pulled me unwillingly from the car – and Christine bid us a good day, but all I could do was nod mutely. Wickliffe high, home of the Blue Devils, was an older, rectangular, brick monstrosity of muted colors. It had no character whatsoever. It just sort of sat there, all depressing and massive, kind of like Suzanne Summers.
And now that I’d finally arrived, after all of that hard work and anticipation, I didn’t even want to be here. Nothing was going as planned, this day couldn’t have started any worse, and the only tether I had, the hand still holding my own, would be disappearing soon.
Like, very soon.
Wait, where was she going?
I sort of snapped out of it in time to see her walking away from me. I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten inside, or how I was standing in a doorway dodging mass amounts of noisy bodies, but I was.
I couldn’t see her anymore.
Panic squeezed my throat.
And then I heard her.
“Ash, it’s okay! Just stay put after class, and I’ll find you!”
My eyes finally landed on her some fifteen feet away. She was walking backwards, but then, she was gone, leaving me terrified and alone. I turned to the door and took a deep breath. I was a survivor, right?
Couldn’t I just run away?
Yes, I could. One of these labyrinthine corridors was bound to lead to the outside.
If I ran, she’d come looking for me and then there was also Christine to think about. I physically shuddered at the thought of being kept away from Spencer for more than a day. I mean, one was terrible enough.
A shrill sound filled the air and my heart went into my toes. On instinct, I ducked inside the door, worried that maybe I’d set off some sort of alarm or something. I was just glad that I hadn’t dropped to the floor to take cover or screamed bloody murder, not that it would have mattered because I was inside of a room full of people, and all of them were staring at me anyway.
Why were they staring at me?
I closed my eyes and gulped. I didn’t forget clothes this morning, did I?
I couldn’t bring myself to check…
“You must be Ashley,” the woman who somehow magically appeared in front of me said.
She put her arm over my shoulders to bring me with her to the front of the room.
Why did she have me up there at the front facing the rest of them?
Was this some sort of first day hazing?
Would there be blindfolds, sanguinism, and chanting too?
“Everyone, this is Ashley. She’s new, so let’s make her feel welcome.”
Not a sound.
Their expressions were as stupid as my own must have been.
At least I was among my own kind.
To my everlasting relief, the teacher escorted me to an empty chair and allowed me to sink into it, extremely low, like I was doing an impression of a puddle.
The teacher called for us to turn to a page in a book, and I panicked again.
No one said that I’d need, like, books, and… stuff!
That’s when I noticed that I was clutching something hard to my chest. In fact, my knuckles were white. I placed the book and notebook on the desk in front of me stupidly, wondering how I’d gotten these things.
Spencer, it must have been Spencer.
There was even a pen resting securely in the binder rings of the notebook.
She was the truest friend ever.
The teacher was droning and her marker was squeaking against the whiteboard, and I found that I was in the calm of the storm.
The worst was over, right?
Except I had to do this four more times today…
I pushed that thought aside, choosing instead to just take this moment to calm myself. And it was just starting to work when the shrill noise returned and nearly dumped me from my seat.
People started filing past me like cattle and I hurried to get my things together.
It was Spencer time.
I was so very ready.
I stepped outside of the door and waited, albeit awkwardly, as instructed.
I turned at the sound of my name to see a really tall boy. The fact that he was talking to me was odd enough, but then I recognized him. I just couldn’t place from where…
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
Nope, not a clue…
I was fumbling and he knew it. It made him smile and hold out his hand.
“Aiden, I met you over the summer when I stayed with Glen.”
That clicked. “Oh, right. Yeah, sorry…”
I took his hand for a moment.
“No worries,” he said, and I felt relieved.
Now that I remembered him, I recalled meeting him. I only saw him briefly because Spencer was staying with me that night and we were in a hurry, but he was really nice for those three whole minutes. He seemed to remember me just fine though.
I began to feel a little better, especially since Spencer was finally here.
“Hey, Spencer,” Aiden greeted her casually.
She smiled back at him and it was everything that I could do not to tackle her and lick her face.
She turned her attention to me. “How’d it go?”
“Fine,” I said automatically.
It could have been true. I mean, I wasn’t bleeding or anything. She smiled brightly and linked her arm through mine to pull me… somewhere. Aiden fell in beside us.
“Who do you guys have for study hall?”
“Simpson,” Spencer replied.
“Perkins,” he smiled brightly.
“Oooh,” Spencer winced. “She’s kind of mean.”
He shrugged. “She’s hot.”
Before I knew it, we were standing in front of a long line of lockers and Spencer had released me to open one of them. She listened to Aiden go on about his schedule while dutifully pulling the book from my hands and replacing it with another.
“Sup, guys,” Glen came bounding up to us.
He attempted to tussel my hair like the ass that he was but I swatted his hand away.
“Ashley, look at you, all matriculating and stuff!”
His hand came swinging down for a high-five and I was only barely able to get one of my own in the way to narrowly deflect it from my face.
“Alright..,” he continued in a creepy, cocky voice and Spencer rolled her eyes at me in sympathy.
It was about this time that Clay showed up with another girl.
“Hey, guys,” he said.
“Hey,” everyone chorused.
“I’m Chelsea,” the girl stepped forward and shook my hand.
“Ashley,” I replied, and when she smiled, it seemed genuine.
We started moving again, all at once and all together, without anyone saying a word. It was like everyone just knew – like collective telepathy. Even I had done it.
It was a little creepy.
“So, you guys are never going to believe what happened to me just now…,” Glen started.
“Another girl told you to go away,” Aiden guessed.
Aiden was alright…
Glen gave Aiden a bored expression. “You wish you had my game.”
Aiden scoffed. “And then you woke up.”
Glen grinned rakishly. “Oh, I’ve got game, alright. That’s what I was about to tell you: I have a date with Madison Duarte this weekend.”
“You’re lying,” Aiden accused.
“Nope, check it.”
He dangled a torn piece of paper with a phone number in Aiden’s face.
“Whatever, man, I still don’t believe you.”
Glen shrugged smugly. “Hate the game, not the playa.”
“Glen, word is that Maddison’s a man-eater,” Clay pitched in.
“Good,” Glen grinned. “Cover me in syrup and give her a fork.”
This banter continued and I found myself at a loss. I mean, I understood their innuendo just fine. I was naïve, not stupid. I had put things together a while ago. But, by my estimation, sex was just gross. I had never considered dating anyone, let alone having sex. But apparently, to those who had been in public school for their whole lives, it was as common as air and as important as breathing.
Spencer had never talked about anyone or anything even remotely like that with me, and she was my whole world up until this point. I looked over at her, trying to gauge her reactions to the conversation at hand. She wasn’t fazed, so this was obviously nothing new to her. I found myself wondering why she’d never talked to me about it. I found myself sort of wanting to talk to her about it.
The shrill noise returned, only this time I didn’t embarrass myself, and everyone began to break off until it was just me and Spencer. She stopped at a door and turned to me.
“You’re doing great,” she reassured me.
I blew out a breath and smiled because she was.
“Thank you, Spence…”
She knew that I didn’t just mean the compliment.
“Anytime… Now, same deal as before?”
I nodded eagerly. “Sounds good to me.”
“Cool,” she said, spinning me by my shoulders and shoving me in the door.
“Spencer,” I scolded when I regained my footing, but I was too late. She was already swallowed up by the hallway traffic.
“Later, Ash,” she called out in a sing-song voice.
She would so pay for that.
This class was no different. Some of the faces were more familiar now and I managed to actually pay attention to the teacher and take notes before the banshee of a bell called out in anguish. By lunch time, I was feeling pretty good, and to my surprise, I sort of liked having other people around. I mean, I got to be with Spencer no differently than before, but the others added a lot to the conversations and mainly gave us something to laugh at.
And I liked everyone well enough.
Aiden was really nice and he liked to tear into Glen with a vengeance. What wasn’t to like there? There was only one thing that I didn’t really like about him, though I wasn’t even sure why: every time that he spoke to Spencer, I just felt… protective.
It was the way that he smiled at her and looked at her. He wasn’t mean at all, just… maybe too nice. But then he wasn’t any different with me, so I wrote it off to jealousy over sharing my best friend. I was adjusting, but I wasn’t used to group dynamics yet.
Now Chelsea on the other hand, was fast becoming one of my favorite people. And in all honesty it’s because she was so much like Spencer. She didn’t join in with the guys when they trashed-talked someone. And I got the feeling that if you needed something she’d be there in an instant with no questions or recriminations. She was also an artist, which kind of sky-rocketed my approval of her.
All in all, I felt that things were going well, much better than the way that they had started. There was only one person that I had yet to meet, and that was about to be remedied. Chelsea had, at mine and Spencer’s insistent pleading, finally handed over her sketch pad for our perusal when a voice interrupted Glen and Aiden’s endless basketball litany.
“Hey there, handsome.”
We all looked up and I noticed Spencer roll her eyes.
“Hey, Madison,” Glen said excitedly.
This girl exuded confidence, which was all well and fine, but everything about her also screamed condescending, predatory, and whore.
She was wearing a cheerleading outfit that left little to the imagination. Which, I decided, was just fine by me as well – maybe a little too fine – but then she opened her mouth again.
She gave Glen a Cheshire grin. “Why don’t you come sit at my table today?”
She stuck out her chest for him a little. Line of site had its merits. This in and of itself wasn’t a terrible thing to say or do. I mean, it was an invite, right? No harm there. But it was the way she said it that made my cackles rise. As she said the seemingly innocuous words, her eyes swept over each of us with a look of undisguised disgust. I glanced at Spencer to see that she’d crossed her arms over her chest, so I mirrored her pose.
Then, Madison spoke yet again.
“That is, if you still want to get together this weekend.”
Okay, so now this was what, a power play? She wouldn’t date Glen if he hung out with us… lesser people?
Glen seemed to deliberate for a moment, looking to us like a deer caught in the headlights. I smiled smugly at this girl. We were his friends and family. She’d just overplayed her hand.
Glen removed himself from the table so fast that he nearly did a face-plant. And he didn’t look back once except to Aiden with a little ‘I told you so’ expression on his face. I watched in shock as he then sped away happily with that bitch hanging from his side like a cancerous growth. I looked to everyone else to see if I was the only one upset by this. I mean, I already knew that Glen was an ass, but this was just… too far.
“I don’t know what he sees in her,” Spencer said, as always coming through for me.
Chelsea and Clay wore their agreement with Spencer’s words on their faces, but Aiden, his head was on a swivel watching Glen and Madison stride away. We all stared at the back of his head until he finally faced forward and whistled lowly. It took almost a full minute for him to notice that we were all looking at him.
“What,” he asked defensively.
Clay laughed and Spencer shook her head.
“She’s hot…,” Aiden shrugged with a roguish smile.
“She’s a bitch,” I blurted and they all looked at me.
What, it was true!
“You don’t even know her,” Aiden defended.
“I don’t want to know her,” I explained.
“Uh oh, is someone upset to see Glen with the hottie head cheerleader,” he teased.
Wow, I knew that he was just teasing me, but we really didn’t know each other well enough to tease like that. I didn’t know what to say and I felt… gross. A few awkward moments passed, no one saying anything, and I glanced over at Spencer. She seemed… pensive, but it only lasted a moment before the bell rang.
We each dumped our trash, and I immediately linked my arm through Spencer’s expectantly. She helped me exchange my book again, and I was even more delighted when I learned that this was study hall and she wouldn’t be leaving me. She was quiet the whole way there, but I didn’t think too much of it until, while in the middle of my studies, she passed me a note. I smiled. This was another first. I almost felt like a bonafide teenager.
I glanced at the teacher at the front of the room to see that he was fighting off sleep and opened it quietly.
“Can you even believe Aiden,” it asked in her large, round script.
I picked up my pen and wrote a reply.
“Yeah, I didn’t know what to say. I mean, I don’t even know him.”
I passed it back to her and waited patiently for her to read and return a reply, watching the teacher the whole time.
“Yeah, he’s an idiot sometimes. I mean, you don’t like Glen… like that… do you?”
Wow, what was going on in her head?
“Ew, gross! No way!”
She chuckled a little loudly when she read that one and the teacher’s head bobbed sharply, waking him. I pretended to be enthralled in my reading as he scanned the crowd with shrewd, beady eyes. It didn’t take long for him to relax again and I smiled over at Spencer. She had brightened considerably and all was right with the world.
This school thing wasn’t so bad so long as I had her.
And I did.
How did I know? Well, she was smiling back at me.