It wasn't the first time that Vivianne Lee had skipped out of class. But it was the first time she had actually dared to not only leave the building, but also the entirety of the school grounds.
She wasn't sure where she was going. There was nowhere in particular that she wanted to be, nor were there many places that the presence of a lone thirteen-year-old with the physique of a ten year old would be regarded as unsuspicious on a Tuesday morning. But Vivi didn't care today if she got strange looks or pointed questions; it didn't even matter to her if someone caught her playing hooky and delivered some kind of consequence for it. Why should she care if her father grounded her, when there was nowhere she enjoyed going and no one she would be welcome to hang out with? Being suspended from school would be a privilege, a vacation rather than a hardship.
All the other usual spots for skipping gym class had become far too dangerous, far too quickly. She couldn't guarantee herself privacy in the bathrooms, even if she put her feet up on the stall where she hoped no one would see. The dumpsters behind the cafeteria always had the stoners and make-out partners claiming territory, and the bleachers in the gym were right there in the worst of the danger zone. She had considered hiding in the library or possibly backstage in the school auditorium, but there were always drama geeks and computer nerds lurking around in those settings too, and Vivi could not be sure that one of them wouldn't try to raise up their status by ratting out the one kid in school that everyone knew was lowest on the popularity scale.
So if she was skipping, and today was definitely a day that Vivi not only wanted but needed to be skipping, she had to leave the building in her dust. Maybe she'd come back later, for fifth or sixth period; she did kind of like the play they were reading in English. But probably not. Once she had gotten through one day unscathed, it seemed like it would be playing with fire to go back.
She walked with fast, almost skipping steps down the school sidewalk, head down, the oversized hood of her dark hoodie drawn up so it completely obscured her face. Shoulders hunched forced, hands shoved deep into the pockets of her baggy jeans, Vivi tried to make herself even smaller than she was in reality, to walk in such a way that she did not attract attention, yet still kept her in the fastest possible motion short of a run.
She wasn't sure what time the seniors were allowed to leave campus for lunch, but she knew that her gym class period was probably far too close to that time for her to feel safe about it. And if one of them saw her and recognized her, if one of them actually stopped her or called for someone who did…
Vivi gritted her teeth, an involuntary shudder running down her frame. She ducked her chin down into her chest, shaking her head in defiance of the possibility.
It wasn't happening. She was not going back to that locker room. She was not going back to those girls with their g-strings and their boobs overflowing out of push up bras, to the choking combination of their perfume, hairspray, and hand lotion hovering in the damp air around them. She was not getting in those stupid showers with nozzles that either trickled mere droplets or sprayed with a pressure that left actual bruises on Vivi's arms and chest. She wasn't going to endure them stealing her towel and her clothes so she had to wrap herself in the shower curtain, calling out pathetically for someone to please, please, give her back her clothes. She had been forced on more than one occasion to make the choice between stepping out totally naked to search, or else bringing her clothes with her into the shower and having to endure attending classes wet and also getting a lecture for her "carelessness."
Then there was the giggles and stares about the "dwarf" or the "freak," the suggestions that Vivi could be a transvestite or "he-she," all because she was still not quite five feet tall and had just last month made it to weighing eighty pounds. There were the jokes that were more cruel than funny- like the time someone duct-taped a double D bra, stuffed with gym socks, onto Vivi's locker.
"It's just a suggestion," Brooklyn Lewis had said with supposed innocence, her mascaraed eyes wide as she watched Vivi flinch back from even touching the bra in front of her. "It doesn't look like you're gonna get some of your own any time soon, so you might want to improvise."
It wouldn't help to protest to her tormenters that her pediatrician and frantic searches on the internet had informed Vivi that her physical appearance was within the range of normal for a girl of her age. It certainly wouldn't help if she explained to the other girls that while they were all one or two years older than her and so naturally further along in their development. That would mean Vivi would then have to explain that she had only just turned thirteen, which would then mean explaining that she was not only the only new girl in the ninth grade at Marshall Middle School this year, but also that she had skipped eighth grade entirely.
Skipped grades or not, Vivianne Lee was plenty smart enough to know when it was best to keep her mouth shut.
She hadn't, however, been smart enough to realize that she shouldn't have agreed to skip a grade at all. Back at Pinecrest Middle, when she was still in the seventh grade, Vivi had truly believed she might actually like being in harder classes, with older kids. The guidance counselor and honors teachers had all worked hard to convince her of this.
"You'll be with kids who are more on your level, Vivianne, kids who are more mature and closer to your potential academically," they had enthused. "You won't have any trouble at all with finding your niche. And best of all for you, Vivianne, with a new school and a new grade, you'll have a new start with a whole new group of students. I think you'll be very happy if you and your father choose to take that opportunity."
Clearly, none of the adults who had said any of this had any memory of what it was like to be a teenager, let alone an undersized, plain, geeky one who had actually read every single book her previous school's library stocked on its shelves. If they did, they probably would have told her she'd be better off taking online classes until college.
It wasn't that she hadn't tried to fit in. For the first few weeks, Vivi gave her new grade, new school, and even her new classmates the benefit of doubt. She raised her hand to answer questions in class, until the disbelieving, judgmental looks and mutterings started up, just as they had in her last school. She tried to find someone to sit with, but every time she approached a lunch table with her tray, people jostled against her until there was mysteriously no longer any open seats and she was forced to eat standing up against a window sill. She tried wearing the clothes she owned that fit her well and were at least a weak approximation of the ones worn by the girls who were obviously cool, but if her outfits weren't outright mocked, then they were completely ignored. Even her shaky attempts at makeup, rather than emphasizing her features and making her look older, only made Vivi look like a toddler who had gotten into her mother's makeup.
So Vivi resigned herself to her survival tactics from before, as it was clear that ninth grade at Marshall would be no different than seventh grade at Pinecrest. She carried all her books in her backpack, so she could spend as little time at her locker and in the halls as possible. She eschewed the school bathrooms unless a dire emergency struck. She spent lunch time in teacher's rooms, when possible, or line hopping in the cafeteria without actually purchasing food. She reverted back to dark, ill-fitting clothing that concealed her childish figure and stopped trying to style her hair. And during gym period, whenever she could find a way to accomplish it, she bailed.
It was October now, and so far, Vivi's strategy, weak as it was, served her well more often than not. Her grades were good enough in her other classes, and she tried to draw as little notice to herself as possible on the occasions where she could not manage to skip gym. Even there, the one class with the possibility of an adult's interest being raised, Vivi's absence were not yet attracting interest. Marshall was a bigger school than Pinecrest, nearly two thousand students in only four grades. There were many more kids causing a lot more chaos than Vivi could even daydream of doing herself. She was pretty sure that one quiet, nondescript student who caused no behavior problems and raised no eyebrows wasn't going to get dinged for excessive class skipping, especially in a class as useless as gym. At least, that was what she was banking on for the time being.
Even if someone did eventually notice and make a case of Vivi's absences, it probably wouldn't make much difference. Her mother had left her father when Vivi was barely two years old, just up and left one day without so much as a phone call or note of explanation. That left only Vivi's father, and although he had always made sure that Vivi had food to eat, a roof over her head, clothes on her back, and school supplies in her backpack, this amount of energy extended in duty to Vivianne seemed to exhaust him from doing much more for her. Andrew Lee was older compared to most of the fathers Vivi knew, and he worked at least sixty hours most weeks, sometimes even coming in for work on weekends. Vivi wasn't sure if this was because he truly worried they needed the extra money, if he enjoyed the work, or if he just didn't want to come home and be present with her for more time than he had to be.
Her father wasn't a cruel man; he had never hit Vivi or even raised his voice at her, that she could recall. He had never shown disappointment in Vivi or tried to change her from being the sort of girl into anything different. But he was a tired man, a man who had always seemed to Vivi to be trudging through his actions because he felt they must be completed more than because there was anything in particular that he truly wished to do or felt joy in doing. Even when he talked to Vivi, bid her good morning or good night, gave her a loose, one armed hug, or a dry kiss atop her head, Vivi sensed no emotion behind the gestures. Had anyone asked, Vivi could not have answered in honesty whether or not she knew if her father loved her.
So a call home from a teacher would hardly shake up Vivi's world, when it came to her father. Andrew Lee in all likelihood would ignore the call, accidentally delete it, or forget to mention it to Vivi entirely. Even if in the unlikely event that he chose to ground her, there were few places that Vivi truly wished to go.
So secure in the apathy of the world when it came to her one steady act of defiance, Vivi set out, every step that carried her further from school grounds bringing just a little more sureness to her stride and a slightly higher lift to her chin. By the time she could no longer see any sign of the building, when she finally dared to glance behind, she felt her thin lips curve into the smallest flicker of a smile.
Free. For today, at least, she was free.
Vivi let her footsteps slow, her stride becoming aimless and unhurried as she turned several corners, not bothering to note the street names or directions she had chosen. Today was hers, and she would not be missed at home, or anywhere, for hours yet. She could afford to let the day draw her wherever her feet might lead.
She had come into a small strip of older buildings, mostly empty of businesses failed decades before, when she first heard the noise, oddly sharp yet muffled at the same time. Vivi went still, letting her hood fall forward to hide her face once more, even as her dark eyes narrowed, flicking side to side in search of the sound's source. It had sounded like a person, not an animal or an object. It had sounded like someone frightened, maybe even someone in pain.
Vivi was not a person who was easily frightened. Even as a young child, she had eagerly read thick books about strange and eerie myths and phenomena, and she had always been interested in true crime shows on TV. She knew very well that it wasn't overly smart for a small thirteen-year-old girl to move toward instead of away from a strange noise, especially when she was alone and had nothing in the way of a weapon, should one be required of her.
But it was day time, out on public streets. It was still morning. And this was Vivi's day of freedom, a day where she had escaped mistreatment. It seemed not quite possible that she would come across anything too terrible, under these circumstances…and even if she did, a part of her was perversely curious, even eager to see, all the same, if she might.
And so Vivi continued forward, ears straining for another following sound. When she heard a second cry, lower and somehow crushed in comparison to the first, she continued on, anticipant excitement every bit as much as anxiety beating staccato rhythm in her chest.
She had expected to see two figures, at least, in the backway of the store fronts' alley. She had anticipated the voice of distress belonging to someone young, probably female, maybe even a teenager or a child. Because the assumed person had sounded as though they were in pain, Vivi had also expected that they would be in the process of being harmed or at least threatened by someone bigger, stronger, and possibly even armed.
But there was only one person present that Vivi could see, a man who was clearly taller than she was, although this hunched posture made it difficult to see just how much more so. As Vivi frowned, her steps slowing as she attempted to discern what it was that she was observing, she noted that the man seemed to be shielding himself behind the dumpster, his long coat pulled past his hands so his skin was not exposed. He had no hood attached to the coat, but he had his head bent over until his face seemed to be almost touching his chest, as though in effort to hide it from view. His hair was long, lank, and seemed to be patchy, in the process of falling out, and it was not thick enough to fully cover his neck, the one part of his skin exposed to her view.
As she processed the state of the man, Vivi's eyes rounded, an instinctive gasp escaping before she could swallow it back. The back of his neck was blistered nearly black, the skin peeling back until she could see not the raw, bloody crevice of wounded flesh, but rather something dark gray and almost ashy in appearance. The man's neck didn't look like human skin at all…it reminded Vivi of a picture she had once seen of concentration camp casualties in a pile, barely more than ashes and bone.
A shuddering breath whooshing from her lungs, Vivi stumbled two steps back, intending to flee the terrible sight. She hadn't yet decided whether she was running away without any thought of return, or if she was going to make some effort to get the man help. But before she could commit to her escape, the figure turned towards her, his face partly visible for the first time, and he spoke, his voice barely more than a crackling whisper in the air.
"Please…please, help me. Please, little girl, I am in such pain, and only you can help me now."
Vivi would have thought herself accustomed to seeing the aftermath of violence. She had watched a fairly extensive selection of horror movies, and the murders committed onscreen could be pretty gruesome and creative. She had seen pictures of autopsy findings and crime scenes on her favorite documentaries, and although some had disturbed her, she had never seen anything comparable to this living man, looking her in the eye and pleading for her alone to help.
It was impossible for her to determine his age. His clothes were dark and nondescript, odd only in the fact that it was not quite cool enough yet for the thickness and length of the coat he wore. But it was his face that shook Vivi, even more so than the terribly damaged skin of the man's neck. His face could not, should not belong to a man who was able to stand and remain conscious, let alone to speak and make gestures that could be understood. While his the skin of his neck was peeling and burnt in appearance, the man's face was already almost entirely gone. Long strips of skin hung down from his cheeks and eye sockets, deep enough in the severity of the wounds that Vivi could see the bone beneath. Even the bones appeared damaged, gray, and nearly soft, as though with one touch they would crumble into nothing.
As Vivi watched, her body rigid with fear, she could see smoke rising in curling wisps off the man's face, dissipating into the air between them. It seemed to be taking pieces of his skin with each drifting outward.
"Please," he rasped, through lips already mostly peeled back into little more than blackened teeth and bone. "Please, I need-"
It was only then that Vivianne noticed the comparatively less astonishing injury on the man's breast. It had been difficult to see, with the darkness of his coat, but when he turned more fully towards her, it fell open, exposing a white collared shirt beneath. A dark red stain spread across his chest, and as Vivi stared, she saw that it was slowly growing in diameter.
She could not even begin to process what may have happened. The man had been badly injured, maybe stabbed, and somehow burned in addition. The attacker could very well be nearby, maybe even still prepared to strike out again, and all she wanted in that moment was to get away as fast as her legs could carry her.
Even school now seemed a safe alternative to her current location.
"I-I'll get help," she stammered, her voice so small and shaky that even she barely understood herself, but the man seemed to hear her all the same. "I-I'm s-sorry….I'll call 911, I'll, I'll go get help…"
"No," the man called, his voice stronger than before, even as Vivi continued to turn herself away, one step lurched forward in her preparation to go. "Listen to me, little girl, you are safe. You will not be harmed."
Vivi doubted this very much. Anyone who would do what had been done to this man would no doubt not hesitate to hurt a thirteen-year-old girl. How many times had she heard from adults in her life that all students would be kept safe, whether in school or in their own neighborhoods and homes, and how often had Vivi been disappointed to realize they did not have the faintest idea how to make that a reality?
She took another step away, but the man's next words stopped her feet.
"The police and the hospital cannot help me, little girl. The only person who can help me is you."
"N-no," she muttered, still turned away, not able to bring herself to look back at the man even as her feet stayed still. "No, I can't, I don't know what to do. I don't even know what happened. I'm sorry, I can't help you, I'm only thirteen-"
"Only you," the man repeated, his words soft, yet firm. "Only you, Vivianne Fiona Lee. Only you."