Sitting with Sam and James proved to be a disaster. Sam led me to the table, but before I could sit down, a girl stood up, furious.
"No, you're not welcome here. Find somewhere else."
I recognized her, and my insides roiled with guilt.
"Hey, Amber. It's fine. Nikki is a friend." Sam rushed, rather confused.
Before matters could worsen and I ruined things between Sam and his new friends, I held up my hands to stop them. "It's fine, Sam." I could feel everyone's eyes boring into the back of my skull, ignoring it as best as I could. "Amber, you're totally justified in hating me. I don't deserve your forgiveness, and I'm not asking for it. Just please know that I really am genuinely sorry, for everything."
Amber stared at me hard for a minute, assessing my apology and determining whether meant it or not. I met her eyes, hoping she could see that I meant it. "Whatever," she huffed, returning to her seat.
"Come on, Nikki," Sam encouraged. I shook my head.
"No, Sam, I know when I'm not wanted. You go ahead. I'll be fine." I gave him a reassuring smile, hoping it looked more convincing than it felt.
I left the cafeteria with my head high. I didn't want anyone to think that because Amber told me off and got away with it, the rest of them could. I got enough yelling at home as it was. I didn't know where I was going, but I son found myself in a practice room in the music hall, which wasn't really all that far away from the lunch room. It was quiet and isolated, and I returned the next day, and the day after that too. I took to packing my lunch everyday so I could avoid the cafeteria altogether.
I didn't speak to anyone for nearly two months, not even Sam--with the exception of an occasional "hey" in passing. Without the distraction of human interaction, my grades were soaring higher than they ever had. I spoke to my mom only once since my dad left. A simple, "Yeah, whatever."
In all of my new free-time, I painted or read a book.
One chilly Friday evening in early November found me painting furiously on the fire escape. I was so absorbed by the colors on my canvas that I didn't notice when Sam's window slid open and he stuck his head out.
When saying my name twice failed, he finally came to stand behind me, resting his hand on my shoulder. I jumped, nearly painting a black streak across my shoreline.
"Oh, my God, Sam! You scared the hell out of me. What are you doing?"
"Sorry. This really good, Nikki. You never told me that you could paint."
"You never really asked. Anyway, it's sort of a hobby. I've been painting since I was seven. I wasn't good at it then, but I enjoyed it," I told him with a shrug.
He nodded, still staring at my canvas. "I haven't seen you around. Thought you might be dead, except sometimes I could hear your music through the wall."
"Uhm, yeah... I've been busy," I lied. He wasn't convinced.
"You know, Amber said you could sit with us at lunch, if you'd like. You don't have to exile yourself, Nikki. People's attitudes have changed."
"I'm not exiling myself. I just don't want to deal with anyone."
"Like you're dealing with me right now?" He sounded hurt, and guilt ripped another hole in my heart.
I ordered what wanted to say for a moment. Finally, I sighed. "I'm not dealing with you. I don't ever have to deal with you, Sam. You're my only friend. I just..." I took a deep breath. "I don't know how strong I am right now. I don't know if I can handle being in that room, with so many people who hate me." I looked at the dumpster in the alley below, feeling like that was where I belonged right now.
Sam turned me around to face him, and I rest my forehead against his chest. He smelled good, and his muscular arms wrapped around me, and I bit my lip to keep from crying, locking my own arms around his torso. We stood like this for a minute, and when I pulled away to grab my paints and go back inside, he took a hold of my wrist. I was acutely aware of how warm his hand was, and wondered if it was my imagination or if I really felt the tingling sensation his touch seemed to send all up and down my arm.
"Do you want to watch a movie with me?"
"Yeah. I was about to put in A Princess Bride, but I saw you all alone out here."
"Uhm, sure. Let me put these away first, though." He nodded and leaned against my open window as I set my canvas on my easel.
"Did you paint all of these?" He was looking at the art on my walls. I nodded, stuffing my brushes back into their boxes and stowing them in my closet. "Wow." He came inside to get a better look.
One of the paintings on the wall caught his eye. It was a simple pond with some ducklings, and no parents in sight. I took it down and held it out to him. "I did this one last week. I saw the pond in a dream, and thought it needed some friends."
He didn't say anything, and I was a little concerned. "You alright, Sam?" I put my hand on his upper arm. He nodded.
"Uh, yeah. Sorry. It reminded me of a place I knew." He cleared his throat and tried to hand it back to me. Shaking my head, I said, "Keep it."