CH 2 – An Act of Kindness
I hurried down the hall and up the flight of stairs to the second floor. Passing three closed doors, I found the one that would be home to my first period class – English. I placed my fingers on the handle and closed my eyes for a second, taking a big breath. With a sharp exhale, I opened the door and was greeted with absolute silence.
I scanned the room, not really meaning to, but as a leftover habit from walking into a classroom and looking for my friends. I was immediately sorry that I did. Every person was staring at me. Most faces held tight eyes and tighter lips, some just looked curious, but every head was in my direction. As my eyes flicked over the back of the silent room, I noticed that I was wrong, not everyone was looking. One head was still down, the owner of it doodling on a notebook in front of them. A slight curve of my lip registered my recognition of bathroom girl in the back row. She was oblivious to the sudden tension in the room and was just doing her own thing. Watching her was soothing and my eyes lingered for a few more seconds before returning to the front of class where a person was awkwardly clearing their throat.
"Lucas, um…go ahead and…take a seat."
Ms. Reynolds was our English teacher and she was giving me nervous glances, obviously not sure how to deal with me. I wondered for a moment if she expected me to break down and start blubbering right in front of her. Her pale eyes glanced over my features, never settling on one, as she adjusted and readjusted a stack of papers in her hands.
"I'll…um…let the tardiness slide…just for today. I'm sure…I'm sure you're…having…"
She let her thoughts die out and I was momentarily amused by the irony of an English teacher struggling to put her words together. Was I having…what? A hard time? A horrid morning? Well, sure, of course I was. What else was today going to be for me but a nightmare? It's not like any of the "Ghosts of High School Past" that were going to pop up as I walked throughout the school today were going to be pleasant for me. It wasn't like the student body was being warm and welcoming. Today…today was just going to suck.
I didn't say any of that to her though. I adjusted my backpack and started walking to the only available seat, in the very back row. I wouldn't make Ms. Reynolds look bad in front of her class, that wasn't my style. Besides, I liked her. Every guy in the school "liked" her. She had started working here right after college and as a result, she looked (and was) not much older than the students here. She kept her light brown hair cut in a stylishly short pixie style that Lil used to rave about and her clothes were always the newest, latest trends, which Sammy used to ooh and aah over. As for Darren and me…well, let's just say she filled out those "trends" nicely.
Forcing thoughts of my friends to the back of my mind, I walked past a member of my football team. Will McKinney. He and I'd had a friendly competition for the past two years over who was going to be the quarterback for that year. I'd beat him out both years, but he'd been jovial about the loss, jokingly saying that he'd just break my leg one day and move up from second string. Today was apparently that day.
His foot came out right as I walked by and, like a moron, my toe caught the edge of it. I tripped over him and as if that wasn't bad enough, he raised his foot once he'd jostled me so that I couldn't balance myself. I went right down to the floor, smacking a desk along the way with my hand and banging my knee painfully on the hard ground. Great.
Ms. Reynolds scolded Will up and down and started swiftly coming down the aisle to help me stand. The entire class sniggered as I stood on my own before she could get to me. A teacher helping me to my feet really wasn't what I needed right now. I shrugged it off and looking behind me at her concerned eyes, told her I was fine. With a glance at a smirking Will out of the corner of my eye, I finished walking the two seats to the open desk in the back row. Will bumped fists with the other member of the team in the room, Randy Harlow. They both laughed while students around them congratulated them on making me look incredibly stupid.
Sitting down, I cast a quick glance at the person beside me. Bathroom girl. What was her name again? That's right…Twain fans…Sawyer. She'd finally looked up when she'd heard the snickers in the room and was eyeing me curiously. I turned my head and stared at my desk again. She wouldn't have to be curious for too much longer…someone would tell her.
I could feel her gray eyes staring at me and I had the feeling she was going to ask me if I was alright, but at that moment Ms. Reynolds resumed class.
"Okay guys, like I was saying, there is going to be a grief counselor on staff full time this year, so if any of you need to talk about…" I looked up at her as what she was saying registered with me, and she looked at me at the same time, "well, anything, someone will be there for you." She said that solely to me and I felt my breath quicken in a way I was getting used to. God, I didn't want to lose it here.
I broke eye contact with her, staring back down at the fake wood grain laminated onto my hard metal desk. I focused on breathing in and out like a regular person, not letting this panic attack take me over. Ms. Reynolds voice continued describing the counselor's duties and how we'd each gone through something tragic a few months ago and the school wasn't going to overlook that. I wished they would. I wished everyone would overlook it, so I could get through a few seconds in peace. But I wasn't the only one hurting…and some people did actually want to talk about it. I heard a few sniffles around the room and felt hot stares lighting up my body.
I wanted to run.
Clearing her throat and sounding like she was on the verge of tears herself, Ms. Reynolds went on to the next order of business. I hoped it was something mundane, like a change in the dress code or something. It wasn't. Today was just not my day.
"In light of the recent tragedy, the school has decided to implement a much tougher policy on illegal substances. No drugs, no alcohol, no weapons…on or off campus. Any offense will result in immediate suspension. A second offense will lead to immediate expulsion." A buzz went around the room and I raised my head to stare at her, disbelieving. It was understandable that the school would be tough on that stuff on school grounds, but the school was going to try and stop high schoolers from partying off campus? Because of me? A few harsh words were muttered and more than a few harsh looks were sent my way.
She raised her hand and the buzzing quieted, if not stopped. "Now, this isn't to punish, this is to discourage. We want you all to be safe." She extended her slim hands to the side, like we were all in this together. I heard a few people mutter my name and swear. "There will also be a Safe and Sound club starting, to further promote…a more cautious lifestyle." Her eyes flicked to mine again when she said that and I could tell then, that she believed it too. She thought I'd been drunk. By her look and tone, she didn't seem to be condemning me for it, mistakes do happen after all, but she believed it, and she was hoping I'd join this little "purity" club.
My jaw clenched. They're all so wrong. Breathe…in…out. Calm down. I glanced over at the new girl, Sawyer. She met my eye and her brow furrowed, like she didn't get why I seemed to be repeatedly targeted. I sighed softly; she would soon enough.
Ms. Reynolds let out a shaky breath and shook her head, a large smile brightening up her almost gloomy face. I noticed a few girls in the room wiping tears off their cheeks and a few guys still muttering about the no substances stance the school was taking. No one looked at me again, but I felt the heat of every non-existent stare. Ms. Reynolds next words did absolutely nothing to dispel that feeling.
"Okay, for your first real assignment, I'm going to go easy on you. Just write a two page essay on what you did this summer. Simple right?"
My jaw dropped as I gaped at her. What I did this summer? I mourned the loss of three of my best friends. I yelled. I cursed God. I cried, no, I sobbed, for countless hours. I went to funerals, where kids and adults alike shunned me. I was alone…in my grief and in my overwhelming guilt. I still was. And she wanted me to…write about that?
Her eyes flicked over my face as she scanned the groaning room. They passed over mine again as she looked at all the students and then her head whipped back around to stare at me. "Oh…Lucas." Her face paled and her mouth dropped open as what she'd just asked me to do sank in. Her eyes watered and she shook her head. "You don't have to…you can write whatever you want."
Every head in the room turned to stare at me; most held bitterness, some outright anger, some just curiosity. My breathing got shallow again and I could feel my stomach start to rise. God, I was going to get sick right here in front of everyone. I grabbed my bag and bolted out of my chair. I couldn't do it. I couldn't calmly sit there anymore. Coming today was a bad idea.
As our seats had a bar holding up the writing table, you had to get in and out of them the same way, so I had to pass Will again. Seeing as how he had the maturity level of a five year old, he stuck his foot out again. And since today was really not my day and I was concentrating more on not throwing up or hyperventilating, or some odd mixture of the two, I tripped over his damn foot again.
I fell hard, both hands and knees hitting the ground this time. The entire room laughed and my head started to swim. I wanted it to be over with. All I did was make a mistake. All I did was drive poorly and lose control of the car. Why did no one believe that?
Soft hands helped me up and a voice cooed in my ear. "It's alright, Lucas. Everything will be alright."
My heart stopped. It was Lillian's voice that I'd heard in my ear. Her sweet, musical tone that had driven my heart straight to near imploding with love back when she was alive, and I was hearing it again, hearing it clearly. My head shot up as my legs straightened underneath me. I snapped my head around behind me, fully expecting to see Lillian, see her delicate arms under my elbows, helping to steady me. But it wasn't Lil's pale hair that filled my vision. No, I was met with black hair.
My brows scrunched as I looked back into Sawyer's gray eyes. She had sounded so much like Lil. I reached out and grabbed a lock of her hair, ignoring the sound of the class still laughing and Ms. Reynolds trying, without much luck, to subdue them. Her hair was soft but undeniably black. I didn't understand. My eyes watered and obscured vision added to my breathing and stomach problems.
"Lil?" I asked quietly, wondering if I'd gone completely mad.
"Come on," Sawyer's soft voice responded, not much sounding like Lillian at all anymore. She reached behind her to grab her bag off the floor and then shuffled me forward and for a moment, I couldn't understand why. When we got to the front, she hastily told Ms. Reynolds that she was taking me to see the counselor. I wanted to roll my eyes and tell her I was fine. I wanted to go sit back down and yell at everyone that I was fine. I couldn't though. I couldn't speak and my eyes were really starting to tear up. I'd just clearly heard my dead girlfriend's voice. I wasn't fine.
Ms. Reynolds nodded and swooshed her arms toward the door, almost looking relieved that I was about to be walking through them. A crumpled up piece of paper hit the back of my head as Sawyer opened the door, but I ignored it. I ignored it all and focused on putting one foot in front of the other, while keeping my breaths deep and my stomach down. That was enough to think about.
The door shut behind me and I slumped down, putting my hands on my knees and bending over, praying I didn't get sick in front of her. She rubbed a hand on my back while I took embarrassingly big breaths.
"Are you…alright?" she asked hesitantly.
I shook my head forcefully. Alright? No, I hadn't been that in awhile.
"Do you want me to take you to that counselor person?" She adjusted her book bag on her shoulder up over her head so the strap rested across her chest.
Again I shook my head. No, I did not want to speak with some high school grief counselor. What did they know about being responsible for ending the lives of three people that you loved? What advice could they possibly give me? One day at a time. Things will get better. Time heals all wounds. It was all crap and I didn't want to hear it.
"No…I just want…quiet." I finally got out between big breaths.
She nodded and started pulling me away. Confused, I looked around. "What are you…where are we going?"
She half grinned at me, her pigtails swishing around her shoulders. "Somewhere quiet."
She pulled me down to the first floor and for a moment I thought she was going to pull us back into "our" bathroom. She may have actually been about to do that, but when we reached the last step on the stairs we noticed Coach Taylor going in there. We both flattened against the wall so he wouldn't see us.
Coach had been my mentor in football since I had played Junior Varsity freshman year. While he was an exceptionally hard and stern man, he'd always been there for me, supporting me and encouraging me in his drill sergeant sort of way. Darren and me both. He'd been the one to see real potential in me and had worked tirelessly to stoke it. I wasn't sure what he believed about the crash…but I was sure I didn't want to find out just yet.
Sawyer didn't seem to want a run-in with a teacher either, so once the bathroom door closed, she pulled my hand in the opposite direction. She pulled us towards the janitor's closet and I felt my body tense up. Kids made out in there, just like they did in every high school across America. That wasn't what was making my already on the edge stomach rise further and twist painfully though. No, I wasn't afraid of being in a dark, enclosed space with a pretty girl. I was afraid of the ghosts that awaited me in that room.
Lil and I had been nearly naked in that room before. I know…not romantic, but we'd been in love and desperate to connect and just…feel each other. That room held the echoes of light moans and memories of soft skin and heated kisses. Even without walking into that room, flashes of the encounter filled my head: Lil's shirt dropping to the floor, her bra following, my shirt last to the pile, her sitting me down in a folding chair, her straddling my lap, our bare chests pressed together, my lips on her fragrant skin…fruity, like peaches, her hands snaking between us to unbutton my jeans…
I pulled away from Sawyer just as her hand reached the knob. She looked back at me surprised, and maybe a little hurt too, but I couldn't worry too much about offending her because I was about to lose whatever trace amount of food was in my stomach…and doing it all over her, would most definitely offend her.
I bolted out the front door and down the few steps leading up to the building. I just made it to the edge of the stairs when my stomach had had enough. Falling to my knees at the beauty bark surrounding a few decorative bushes under the windows…I threw up. Great.
It was just once, and very quick, but enough to make me feel like a jackass when I sensed Sawyer watching from behind me. I silently thanked fate that I was a few feet from the window and hadn't just done that in front of a room filled with unsuspecting students. With a shaking hand, I wiped off my mouth and sat back on my heels.
After a few calming, deep breaths in the stillness of this cool autumn morning, I turned my head to look at Sawyer. I had no idea what she'd think of that, what she thought of anything about me. If she had pieced together any of the conversations she'd probably heard this morning, she probably thought I was hung-over and heaving my alcohol soaked guts.
Looking over at her dark head, tilted slightly to the side, brows slightly bunched together, all I could read from her was concern. Still not saying anything, she extended a hand to me. I looked down at the hand, the silver ring upon her thumb that shone even in the faded gray light of this overcast day, and finally reached out to grasp it with my own.
Her hand was cool, since we were outside, and I noticed then that she still didn't have a jacket and she was shaking lightly. As we stared at each other for a moment, I dropped her hand, shrugged off my jacket and flung it around her shoulders. She started to protest and shrug it back off, although her face seemed reluctant to do so, but I immediately broke off her objections.
"I don't want it," was all I said. And I didn't want it. I didn't want that reminder of the popular, outgoing, happy-go-lucky guy I used to be. I wasn't him anymore and I didn't want to pretend that I was. I never wanted to wear that damn jacket again.
She only nodded as she took in the expression on my face and the dead evenness of my tone. She ran her arms through the sleeves and hugged the fabric to her chest, like she hadn't worn a coat in so long she'd almost forgotten how nice it could feel to be warm and cocooned.
I shivered a bit in the chill now, but I welcomed it. It woke up my senses, cleared my head, and my lungs indulged in the crisp, damp air as I took long even breaths. She studied me silently for a moment more before quietly saying, "Do you want me to take you home?"
I looked down as I thought about that. Did I want to go home? Had I punished myself enough for one day? I tried to imagine walking back into that building, walking past scores of people I'd once been friendly with who now, would barely look at me, walking past multiple reminders of the friends I'd lost…both the living ones and the dead ones.
My eyes swelled with more of those horrid tears and looking back up at her I could only say, "Yes."
She nodded as her brow scrunched further and her eyes flicked between mine. I still didn't know what she thought of me, but she was the only one showing me an ounce of friendship and compassion and greedily, I was going to take all I could from her before she was swept away from me too.
Wanting to take her hand again, but not wanting to disrupt her warmth from where she was snuggling in my jacket, I picked up my bag from where it had slipped off my shoulder when I'd embarrassingly heaved. I slung it over me and shoved my hands in my pockets. Simultaneously, we both started walking towards the student parking lot. Everyone was inside, filling their heads with vital pieces of information that they would surely need to make it out there in the "real" world, so we didn't run into anyone. Sawyer was quiet on the way there, which I appreciated. She seemed to have taken my earlier request for silence quite literally.
We approached an older looking Camaro SS and she slowed and unclipped her bag, removing it from across her chest, underneath my jacket. I smiled at the vintage car while she rummaged around inside the bag for the keys. The car was black with white racing stripes and had definitely seen better days, but it was still pretty cool. Darren loved muscle cars. He'd always joked about pimping out his Geo to look like a Tans Am, with a flaming eagle on the front and a t-top in the roof. I closed my eyes as that remembered conversation flooded through me. He'd never get his muscle car now.
A light hand on my shoulder woke me and I looked over to see Sawyer, keys in hand, silently comforting me. God, how often had she done that this morning? I tried to smile, and walked over to the other side of the car, lightly shaking my head. She must think I'm a nut job. Maybe I was.
She unlocked her side and got in while I waited. This old car not having electric locks, she reached over the seat and unlocked my side. I got in and stretched out my six-two frame in the black leather, bucket seat. For being rundown looking on the outside, it was well kept on the inside, clean and shiny and lightly smelling of lemon. I smiled at a tiny disco ball hanging from the rear view mirror as she started the car, the growl from the engine the unmistakable purr of a muscle car.
She pulled out of the lot silently and I directed her to the general vicinity of my home. We lived off the main artery that led right to the school. All she had to do was keep going straight and right as town started to fall away, she'd hit our house, the last house before the small trace of city civilization stopped. Quite literally "where the sidewalk ends."
On the drive over, she bit her lip and looked to be barely containing her curiosity. She didn't seem like she was going to cave, but she was fidgeting in her seat and I'd imagine that if I were her, I'd have a bazillion questions for this odd boy beside her.
"Go ahead," I said quietly, finally breaking our silence.
Her words spilled out in a rush, like she'd barely been restraining them and once I'd given permission, she couldn't hold them back. "The accident everyone keeps mentioning, you were involved in that?" She looked over at me and her gray eyes suddenly looked very sorry that she couldn't contain her questions.
Keeping as calm a face as I could, I simply said, "Yes." In my head I prepared my answer for the question everyone asks…
"Oh…I'm so sorry. I heard that people died…" Her eyes went back to the road while I tensed, both at her words and where I knew the conversation was heading. Do I remember? Was I drunk?
She looked over at me with only her eyes and I felt the question coming. She bit her lip and I opened my mouth to give the answer. "Do you…are you okay with this?" Her hand flashed out to indicate her driving.
Not expecting her to ask that, my answer for the question I thought she'd ask spilled from my lips before I could stop it. "No."
She fully looked at me, startled and looking unsure what to do. The car slowed and she started to turn the wheel like she was going to pull over. I shook my head and started sputtering on my words. "No, no, that's not… I'm fine. God, I'm sorry." I looked over at her, her face looked hopelessly confused. It was sort of an adorable look. "I'm an idiot…this is fine. I'm fine."
She narrowed her eyes. "Why did you say no?" Turning back to the road, her speed increased to normal.
I exhaled heavily – because I'm a moron. "I didn't think… I wasn't expecting you to ask that. People always ask…something else."
"Oh," she said quietly. "What did you think I was going to ask?"
I sighed and looked out the window, the houses were getting farther apart; we were reaching the end of town and the end of this weird car ride. "If I remembered it." I whispered my words into the glass of the window beside me.
"Oh," was her quiet response. After a few moments of silence she said, "I wouldn't ask that." I looked back at her, surprised; most people were dying to know what I knew. Since I never talked about it, there was only speculation about the wreck, and most of that was wrong. She shrugged her shoulders as she looked at my face and then back out the window. "You either don't…which is fine, or you do…which must be horrible." She looked over at me again. "Either way…why would I want you to think about that awful moment again?" She scrunched her brow like she was angry. "I'm the idiot. I shouldn't have even brought it up." Her eyes turned back to the road. "Sorry."
I nearly laughed. She was sorry…for asking me about what everyone was surely whispering about today? I was the town gossip. I was so used to everyone trying to pry their nose into my business and my personal life that it was nearly astounding to me that one person on this earth, not only didn't want to know, but felt guilty for even bringing the topic up. I could have kissed her. I smiled genuinely and relaxed back into my seat.
"Don't worry about it. I did say you could ask." A tiny laugh did escape me then and she looked over at me oddly. I really must seem a mental case to her. We drove the rest of the way in a comfortable silence and I pointed at my house when we approached it. The house was nothing spectacular, a basic one-story, three bedroom rambler with fading blue paint and a mailbox that wouldn't ever stay completely closed.
She pulled into the empty driveway and stopped the car, but didn't turn it off. I looked over at her as I put my hand on the door. Her presence was so calming to me I was almost reluctant to give it up. Being alone right now, while better than being at school, wasn't exactly going to be an easy thing – I had too many ghosts in my head today.
"Do you…" I pointed again to the house, indicating the white door with three tiny windows inlaid at the top of it. "Do you want to come in?"
She looked me over with a tiny smile on her lips, her hands never coming off the steering wheel. She seemed about to fully smile and I thought for sure she'd say yes and move to shut the car off, but instead her near smile turned into a frown and she shook her head lightly, her pig tails swishing adorably. "No, I can't."
I frowned then too and noticing my expression she quickly added, "Don't get me wrong, I wish I could, but my parents…" she rolled her eyes and sighed, "they're sort of on the rampage and they'd have my ass if I skipped school today." She gave me a wry look. "I'm sort of on probation."
"Oh," I said quietly. I was curious why, but one thing that I'd learned over the past few months was not to pry. If she wanted to say more, she would. I didn't need to force her to. She bit her lip as she watched me, almost seeming worried that I would ask. She visibly relaxed when I shrugged and said, "Well, thank you for the ride." I looked down and shook my head. "And for not giving me too much crap over flipping out."
I looked back up at her when I felt her hand on my shoulder. It was small, but warm, and that warmth seeped into my skin through my light t-shirt. "It's alright. You seemed to be having quite a morning." Her hand drifted down my arm to touch my hand, the warmth following it. "People don't seem to like you too much…" She was quiet when she said that and it seemed more a casual observance than an outright question. She'd been so nice to me today that I felt the need to answer it though.
"They don't…they blame me." I looked out the window and my hand tightened on the door handle. "They think I got behind the wheel with my friends while I was out of my mind drunk, and then drove recklessly, killing them all. They think I forced them into the car, forced them to ride with me. They practically think I'm a monster."
My voice had turned hard and rough in my sudden anger. No one understood what happened. None of them at that school believed me when I said I was sober. None of them. Sawyer gasped beside me in a way that almost sounded pained. I turned to look at her and clearly saw the pain in her features. I was confused for a moment until her other hand came up and forcibly relaxed the grip I had on the hand that had been resting on mine earlier. I flinched and retracted it. Somewhere in my heated speech, I must have clenched her hand…hard. I'd hurt her.
"Sorry," I muttered.
She laughed a little and rubbed out her palm. "It's alright."
Her laughter loosened my sudden anger and I added, "That's not what happened. I did lose control…but that's not what happened." This was the closest I'd come to admitting to anyone that I remembered. Sure, I told everyone that I hadn't been drinking at the party, but the actual wreck? I glossed over that with feigned amnesia.
She stopped laughing and cocked her head while she regarded me. The silence in the car seemed to thicken and swirl around us, but it wasn't oppressive or clingy. Like her hand, it was warm and comforting. I still held my breath though. I could see the debate in her eyes; she was judging my character based on all she'd seen and heard, and was deciding in this moment, if I was guilty of the crime the others had already convicted me of.
Finally she opened her mouth to speak, and my body tensed in preparation for her condemnation. It had been so nice to have someone who looked at me differently. I dropped my head as her speech finally made it passed her lips. "I believe you," was all she said.
I slumped my shoulders until what she'd said registered, then my head shot up and my surprised face looked over her serene one. "You believe me…why?" No one else did, people who had known me for years, grown up with me. Why would this complete stranger believe me, when they didn't?
That faint smile lit her face again. "I've gotten to be a pretty good judge of character and…" she shrugged, "I think you've got a pretty good one. If you say it didn't happen the way people gossip about, then I believe you. I believe it was just an accident."
I stared back at her, speechless. I felt my eyes watering and worked on controlling back the stubborn tears. Just an accident. It sounded so simple that way. Yes, I suppose in the very simplest of terms, it was just an accident, an accident that could have happened to anyone that night. Accidents do happen…did happen. But it happened to me and that changes things. It had happened to me and my friends were dead because of it. That was all that mattered. While it would be nice if the town believed me and while it was exceptionally nice that Sawyer did believe me…truly it was irrelevant. Drunk or not, sober or not, none of that really mattered…they were still dead. That was my truth.
I didn't say any of that to her though, I only nodded and finally opened the door. She leaned over the seat and called out after me as I stepped out of the vehicle. "Lucas?" I bent down and popped my head back inside, the lemon smell of her car battling with the putrid smell of the garbage can on the sidewalk. She started to wriggle out of my jacket. "Here…you can take this back."
I shook my head. "No. I don't want it." I repeated my earlier phrase and she stopped mid-wriggle to look at me. "Keep it," I said quietly.
She looked confused by that, and a tad relieved, like she hadn't really wanted to give up her warmth. I nodded at her and quickly shut the door before she could protest further.
I walked up to my front step to prepare myself for an afternoon of pitying, and most likely crying, when I heard her car start to pull away. I turned at the door and watched her wave from the window as she backed into the street and then drove away, towards school.
See you around bathroom girl.
Well, my first day hadn't been great, but I suppose it could have been worse. I could have thrown up on Sawyer. There's that.