My mother dropped me off in front of the steps.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
I turned to look at her. My mom's careworn, lined face. The frown lines, the red eyes. I traced the outlines of anxiety, worry, pride. Love.
"Yes." I said. "I have to do it. At least once. I don't understand why – yet – but I know I have to."
"Okay." She sighed. Since that night all those weeks ago, when I had turned up on the porch, shivering and soaking and dripping all over the wood tiles, she'd been different. Softer, somehow. Less antagonistic, more understanding.
Maybe it was because I'd sat down and talked calmly to her about what had happened. Maybe it was a dawning realisation of just how much I'd changed. Maybe she just felt bad about Lou dying. But anyhow, she'd been different.
Because I was different.
All around us, kids were yelling and shouting. I didn't listen to them. They were playing ball, talking to each other, chatting on their phones. Unconcerned with me.
For the first time, I realized it was true.
"Can I call you if I need something?" I asked. I felt foolish, but I really needed a backup plan. This could all go horribly, horribly wrong.
"Of course." She said. "You know that."
I smiled. "Thanks."
I watched her put the key into the ignition, drive away.
I love you, Mom. I thought.
Walking up the steps was the second most hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I knew I had Her with me, though. I quickly stepped past the groups of popular underclassmen and jocks, making my way into the relative calm of the lobby. It was sunny out and I could still trace the beams on the inside, thrown down by high windows.
I stepped through them hesitantly.
Walking to my locker was less of an ordeal than I had expected; people turned to whisper to their friends as I went past. I ignored them. There were no direct comments. People seemed too afraid to talk to me.
They're scared of me.
A thought that would have made me laugh a month ago now just made me sad.
I pulled out my books. English, biology, trigonometry.
What happened to Trig?
Well, absolutely nothing. He's probably still there, in that weed-filled apartment. Making a living selling drugs and going to parties every chance he gets. Just like the rest of the people there – trying to find a meaning in life through absolutely nothing at all.
I felt no loss, just a deep kind of sympathy. A few weeks ago, I'd been just like them.
I wonder how I can help them. I mused on my way to biology. If I could just show them what I know now…that all of this isn't important. That being a teenager doesn't last forever – that those painful years of feeling like a freak do come to an end, if you want them to.
People like Trig, and Lou, and me – the "good crowd" Lou talked about – we were just set on a road to never grow up.
Lou, thank you.
She'd shaken me out of my old state of mind – a calculated angst in which everybody was an enemy and no-one understood me. I'm not saying that's not how it was – but the reason things were like that was because I'd made them so. I'd never been able to understand that before.
How could I have?
I was too wrapped up in my own misery. Hating everything in my life, but lacking the realisation required to change it.
Gaining the classroom door, I took a deep breath. The customary group of guys clustered around the door fell silent as I approached. Danny was there. I nodded to him briefly.
Then I slipped inside and sat at the back.
The lesson passed. Mrs Craven didn't make a big deal about me being back. The others ignored me.
Trigonometry passed in very much the same way. I paid attention, took notes. Worked hard, just like my mother wanted. Not for her, but because that's what I was there to do. It was, after all, a school.
Danny came up to me after Trig.
I was surprised. Focusing on putting my books together into one pile, I frowned up at him. "Hi." I said cautiously. He looked exactly the same. Wheat-coloured hair above pale blue eyes. I turned to go.
"Can I, um…talk to you for a second?"
My heart sank. Whatever this was, it couldn't be good.
"I'm kinda busy, Danny…"
"It won't take a minute." Something in his voice arrested me. I looked up to see him standing there with a desperate look on his face.
"What's the matter?"
He looked around hesitantly. "I can't talk here. Will you come with me?"
I sighed. I thought I knew what was going to happen – some prank, some trick designed specifically to humiliate me. Me, the weird freaky suicide girl. "Okay." Best get it over with, if I intended on staying at this school for much longer.
"Great." His forehead smoothed out in relief. "Come with me." He lead me round the back of the school. I saw the group of my ex-friends sat by the steps, their usual hangout. They all stared at me. I stared back. I saw that Helen McBride had been bumped up to be included in the popular group.
I refused to think about it.
"So where are we going?" I asked, purely to distract myself. "Is it far?"
"No, not far…" he muttered.
I swallowed. We were right at the back of the school now, near the gym. The patch of dense rubble and weeds wasn't claimed by any clique – but there was a guy I vaguely recognized from trig standing there. Waiting for us.
Danny came to a halt. "Abby…"
"Yes?" I raised my eyebrows.
"…well?" I asked.
He struggled for a second.
"What?" I asked impatiently.
He took a deep breath. "I'm gay."
"….." I stared at him in shock. "You're…you're…"
"I'm gay." He said it again, this time a little more easily. "I'd like you to meet Brandon, my boyfriend."
"Hi." Brandon said.
I stared at him in utter disbelief. Then, as what the implications of what he'd said sank in, I found myself starting to grin. "You're gay!? Hahaha!" suddenly, it all made sense. "You're gay! And you didn't want anyone else to know!?"
Suddenly ashamed, he looked down at the ground. "Pretty much, yeah. I'd appreciate it if you didn't, you know, shout it around. I just thought you ought to know."
"Why?" Because I'm so much of a social outcast, I don't matter. I thought. Of course.
Danny shrugged. "I dunno…I just…well, I guess I thought you were just like the other, silly girls I have to get along with. But, well. I heard about what happened. I'm sorry about your friend."
I closed my eyes momentarily. "It's okay." I forced myself to give him a shaky smile. "Why don't you just tell everybody?"
Brandon started to laugh. Danny himself shook his head. "Are you kidding? Can you imagine what would happen if coach Metcalf found out about this? He'd kick me off the squad!"
I felt my throat tighten. "They can't do that." I said.
"Yes, they can." Suddenly serious, he stopped and looked me in the eye. "I'm sorry for stringing you along, okay? I just have to pretend, you know, to date cheerleaders and stuff…"
I shook my head, grinning. "Yeah, that's fine. In case you were wondering, I was only pretending to be interested in you, too." I realised that sounded harsh, and quickly backtracked. "I mean, you're really good looking and stuff, but, I…"
"It's okay." He smiled at me. "I know I wasn't the only one pretending."
I laughed. "Yeah. High school makes us do some stupid things."
"It sure does."
Unable to help it, my eyes flickered over to Brandon. And is he okay with that? All the hiding, the lies? Seeing your boyfriend make out with some cheerleader? "Why don't you just tell them?" I asked again. "I mean, okay, so you'll not be on the team. You won't be popular anymore. But…at least you'll not be living a lie anymore."
Brandon took a step forward. Fixing Danny with an intense look, he muttered, "She's got a point, you know."
Danny swallowed. "No…it's not that. I…I really love football. Really. I want to do it for the rest of my life. I can't just give it all up."
He's found it. I realised suddenly. He's found his meaning in life.
"Okay." I said, understanding. "Don't worry, I won't say a word."
He laughed. "You know, that's the first time I actually believe a promise a cheerleader's made me."
I laughed. "I'm not a cheerleader anymore."
He shrugged. "Figures." He looked at me for a second. "You're too nice for that. I'm really happy for you, Abby."
So much for no-body understanding me. I laughed. "You're smarter than you look."
"I believe the word you're searching for is 'perceptive'."
I grinned. "Maybe so."
We walked back into Trig together. It didn't bother me that he left us as soon as we got in the room. That was life – he'd made his choices. And I made mine.
"C'mon, let's grab a seat." I said to Brandon.
We sat at the back of the class and took notes. Occasionally, he would help me out with my disastrous equations. I found myself really genuinely liking this guy.
I didn't watch the cheerleaders, clustered around the front of the room. I knew what they would be doing. What I'd been doing, a little over a month ago. They sat gossiping, flirting, chewing gum, texting under the table when the teacher wasn't looking.
I'm free. I thought. I'm free.
I'm not broken anymore.
I've fixed myself.
I am me.
Abigail Elaine Richards. No subtitle. That's all I am.
I tried to keep my mind on Trig. At lunch, Brandon and I sat together. We talked a bit about math. He really liked it – to my utter disbelief. How on earth could someone like something that complicated? He laughed, and said it was easy, really.
It was so easy to talk to him. I could feel myself giving way, for the first time in years not censoring my speech, not calculating how every single sentence would be received and what it meant. I just…talked.
"I could get used to this, you know." I said.
Brandon scooted fries round on his plate. "To what?"
"Friendship." I said.
Physics was after lunch. I sat, confused, wishing I had Brandon there to help me out. I'd never been too good at science, and now, with my resolution not to charm the teachers…
I felt my mind wandering. I'm not going to do that ever again. I thought. I'm never going to compromise my moral integrity. Never, ever again.
I knew, now, what it felt like to have a soul. I wasn't letting go of that in a hurry.
Thank you, Lou, for making me see. Thank you for letting me see…
But what about that glimpse of my true destiny I had been given during my time in the hospital ward?
Tears were dripping down on the desk, staining my notebook.
Maybe it's not too late!
The bell rang for the end of Physics. I started putting my things away, dimly aware my cheeks were wet. Through the hustle and bustle of thousands of students, I started making my way out of the classroom. A few corridors along, I had English.
Eric was sitting alone, as usual. A novel lay open on the desk in front of him – I surreptitiously checked the cover. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
"Mind if I sit here?"
He turned, startled, to see who was addressing him. I saw recognition flash through his blue eyes. "Sure."
Tucking my hair back behind my ears, I sat down beside him. I brought out my books and sat ready, poised for notes.
Eric sat perfectly still beside me, his beautiful hands folded neatly together. He kept his eyes trained on the page in front of him, but I could tell he was getting up the courage to talk to me.
"Do you have a pen?" he finally asked.
I met his eyes. And I smiled.
"Sure." I said.