This is it.

Focus. Breathe in, then out. In, then out. In, then…

Then maybe the word useless will stop flitting around my brain.

I duck my head and wonder if anything My Therapist (whom I need desperately and is helping to get my life Back On Track) told me about can actually be applied in real life. It's doubtful, unless I suddenly forget how to breathe and am forced to do the "in-out" chant in my head.

Mom must mistake my head duck for something more sinister than cursing out My Therapist silently (per usual) for being, in general, ineffective. She reaches over and pats my knee, steering the car with only one hand. I want to tell her that I'm taking Driver's Ed. this year and that she's setting a bad example, but then she says, "I know you're nervous, Melinda."

Me:

[Thinking: "Gee, what gave it away? It's only going to be the most awkward school day of my life, since last year culminated with my holding a piece of glass to Andy Evans' throat and then screaming bloody murder. But it's not like anyone will remember that, and it's not like Rachel/Rachelle/She-who-used-to-be-my-best-friend-but-who-shall-remain-nameless-as-of-now spilled the entire story about him raping me, resulting in about a million messages on our machine the entire summer that I erased before you or Dad could see them.

But It isn't like there's a swarm of man-eating butterflies slamming their skulls into my stomach lining or anything."]

Mom takes her hand back and taps impatiently on the steering wheel. She says, not looking at me, "I can come and get you if you feel too… well. If you do. Just call me if you want."

And my mother sweeps in to take the Eloquence Award in a landslide victory.

I nod to let her know I heard, then stare out the window again. We're rolling into the parking lot of good ole Merryweather High. Don't I love the memories it holds.

Mom wants to walk me in. I make a face at the window that I hide with my hair and manage to talk her out it (though the "talk" part might be stretching it. More like moan pleadingly). She finally sighs and tells me okay.

I open the car door and pull my schedule out of my backpack. Mom idles behind me, waiting for me to make the first move.

Deep breath.

I can do this.


Wrong.

Wrongwrongwrongwrong.

I so totally utterly completely wholly cannot do this.

People are staring. I can feel a thousand pinpricks in my back, covering my long-sleeved, thick-fabric jacket that I'm wearing even though it's not even close to cold yet. My feet manage to trudge down the hallway with very little interference from my brain; my eyes come up only high enough to slide over the numbers stuck to classroom doors.

English Lit, room 119. I am exactly twelve rooms away. I can make it twelve more rooms.

A tiny girl with hair the color of a stop sign steps to the side when I walk by her. I wish I'd been informed that rape was contagious.

I reach English Lit after counting seven that's her!'s, three sharp-edged fingers stabbing points at my face, and five—

holycrapcanyoubelieveshe'sactuallyinschoolandlastsummeratthatpartywithandyevansherapedhernowayandhetriedagainbutshetriedtoslithisthroatnofreakingway

ohmygodmovewhereisshelookoverthere…

And so on and so forth.

I also make it to English Lit without being stopped/talked to/poked curiously (although it came close on that last one). I slide into my seat at the back of the classroom, the first one there, and wonder if I should invest in earplugs.

It takes a few more deep-breathing-god-this-is-useless moments for me to look up at the teacher. She doesn't seem to notice that I'm here. I appreciate the novelty.

I press a hand over my chest, right on my heart. The fluttering, quivery presence of it makes me feel nauseous.

I take out a piece of paper and doodle oaks and pines and weeping willows until the first bell rings and other students start to trickle in.


Our English Lit teacher has a name that is long, Polish, and hard to pronounce in a way that doesn't sound like a particularly bad word in English. She tells us to call her Mrs. W.

I haven't looked up from my tree-filled paper since the final-"you-better-not-be-in-the-hall-after-this"-bell rang. But that hasn't stopped people from looking at me. I fold the paper into careful squares and slip it into my pocket, wondering when lunch is.

Mrs. W is so skinny that just my fingers look thick in comparison to her. She stands at the front of the room, tells us that this is a writing intensive course, passes out a syllabus, and spends the rest of the period trying to learn our names while she takes attendance. I gnaw on my fingernail and take out a new piece of paper.

"Hey. Melinda?"

Oh God. My teeth catch my bottom lip, but I someone manage to not bite hard enough to draw blood. Barely.

Me: "Hi." Clear throat. Cough the word up. "Rachel."

Somehow the room has dissolved into a sea of what did you do this summer? Mrs. W. is typing on the computer at her corner desk. People are moving around and pushing their desks closer together. I am stuck.

Rachel/Rachelle: "Actually, Raquel. It sounds totally French, right?"

Me: [Nods.]

Rachel/Rachelle/Raquel: "Everyone's been talking about you. Why didn't you answer the phone this summer? I called like a million times."

Me: [Shrugs.]

I should say something. My Therapist said I should work on talking more. Opening up. Accepting friendships.

I want to keep on drawing.

Me, after a long silence: "How are you?"

Lame.

But I guess Rachel/Rachelle/Raquel (I'm going to have to shorten that soon) doesn't care. She leans farther over my desk so that I have to look up to see her eyes. During the summer she chopped her hair to her chin; it's not very flattering. Not that I would tell her that. "Great! Awesome. Oh, Mel, check this out—" And she pulls her shirt up just high enough for me to see the tiny purple stone embedded in her belly button. Lovely.

Me: [Thinking, "How does that not hurt like hell?"] "Oh. Um. Nice."

Rachel/Rachelle/Raquel: "I know! I just got it last month. Love it."

I fall back on my standard response. Nodding. I feel like a bobble head, but what else is there to say?

Rachel/Rachelle/Raquel stands over me for another few seconds. I'm not sure if she's waiting for me to say something or gearing up to say something herself, but I only count five ticks of the thin hand on the clock over the dry erase board before she tugs her shirt back down and says, "Cool, see you at lunch," and turns back to her friends all gathered in the corner.

I put my head down after she's gone.

After that, Mrs. W has to call my name three times before I raise my hand. That's because she calls me "Melissa" each time. I don't correct her. My throat's too dry.

I want to go to lunch.


135 minutes later, I get my wish.

Pretty much the only good thing about being a sophomore is having the ability to navigate the school on autopilot. I don't have to think about the way to the cafeteria, which is definitely fortunate since if I did I would probably forget all of the Absolutely Vital Significant Crucial Essential Information about my classes. My world will crumble without a compass for Algebra II. People may perish if I can't find a two-pronged folder to hold my papers from Health. And God forbid I even think about forgoing the black ink pens in French I.

My backpack is heavier than normal with the weight of the lunch Mom insisted I bring. I had planned to "forget" to pack it, but no luck. She packed it for me.

Hello kindergarten. When does the recess bell ring?

Heat climbs onto my face the second I walk into the cafeteria, chewing on my lip and with my hands shoved in the pockets of my jacket.

Every. One. Is. Looking.

God, why, why, why do I not have a tight little group of friends I could shield myself with? Why didn't I answer one phone call over the summer? Why couldn't I laugh and talk with Rachel— with Rachelle— with Raq— ugh, with R cubed? Why couldn't I have said, "Oh, hey, is it okay if I sit with you at lunch?"

I wince as the sharp point of my tooth breaks through my lip's skin. My Therapist has been trying to get me to stop, but I can't help it. I slide over to a table at the edge of the room, at least a dozen seats removed from the collection of Drama-Rama kids it houses at the other end. Okay. I can eat my lunch, draw a little, go to my last three classes, wait out front for Mom, the end.

Breathe, Melinda.

I'm pretty sure I'll develop a hunchback if I keep bending over like this. But it keeps my hair (mostly) over my face. Not that it stops me from hearing the hissing strings of voices slithering over in my direction, but it's easy enough to pretend there's cotton stuffed in my ears.

This is a thousand times worse than last year.


"Hey, Melinda."

David Petrakis is standing across from me.

It takes me a second to realize that I can't see him clearly because of my hair. I brush it impatiently behind my ears, because his voice was never on my answering machine this summer and he is not staring at me like the word rape is bruised onto my skin.

I think this is what it must feel like to by dying of thirst and suddenly find a ten-gallon bottle filled to the brim with water. Refreshing.

I haven't said anything (but maybe he expected that). He sits down in the seat directly across from me, lunch tray coming down with him.

David: "Can I see your schedule? Maybe we some have classes together."

Without thinking about it, I reach into the dark depths of my backpack and rip it from the anchors of two thick pink erasers. I push it across the table. David takes hold of it and takes a bite of his mashed potatoes at the same time.

Me: "Do we?"

It is two syllables, four letters in all. Probably too quiet, given our esteemed location, and a little throaty. I cough, rub my knuckles against the fabric of my jacket.

David looks up and nods. Smiles.

David: "All the afternoon classes— I'm sure Driver's Ed.'ll be fun. We can crash into things together."

It hurts my chapped, kind-of-still-bleeding lips, but I smile too.

It's a start.


TBC...