Bitter January air slaps my face as I carry boxes to the trunk. There is more stuff to take because Chicago is wicked in the winter. A puff of breath out of my mouth makes me rush inside to get my heavy coat.
Bay and I have decided to split ways. She found someone else, much better than me. Someone who didn’t freak out when she got too close. Chucky wasn’t sad either. This move really wasn’t worth any aspect of memories, but the forest. I can imagine it covered with snow, frost, the dew frozen on the tip of grass. I can only hope Chicago does have something like it, but it’s a big city.
The sloping hills greets me again, some blanketed with snow, while other big stretches are plain brown and lone trees. I can picture thousands of homes being built, a happy family in each of them, much happier than we are. Where they didn’t have to worry about constantly moving. And they’d have a dog that didn’t slobber in the car.
Walking from the car to inside our new house is brutal. My ears are turning cherry red. My fingers are so numb I’m not sure they’re wrapped around the box I’m holding. I just about dropped it when I finally reached my room, slightly bigger than the other, and the sky blue walls are less cramped. The closet is smaller, but I’m a boy and I don’t care about closet space like my sister does.
Photos go flying up to add qualities and I set the frame next to my bed, as usual. The silver chrome is a bit scratched up, from all the nights it spent in my arms. The frame is worth nothing to me. But the picture, well, if pictures hold a thousand words, there was a million to this one.
Mom tries making conversation at dinner but none of us wants to communicate. Crystal and I keep blaming our father for our misfortunes.
“We’re giving you a week to settle in, and then you’ll start school.” Mom passes the pizza box to me, and I grab a pepperoni slice. We’ve been doing this a lot lately. Mom works at whatever restaurant she manages to find on short notice and bring home leftovers. She had a bakery back in Clovis, the best in town for twelve years, but my father is so selfish she forgot all about her baking dreams and deliriously agreed to him.
I almost don’t dread going to school because I’m determined to not make friends. We moved in a matter of months, and my father hinted we may go again. I don’t want another Bay to happen. That confliction was way too confusing.
Drumming on the desks and flashes of shorts underneath jeans catches my attention as I stroll in to U.S. history. Is this right? I’m in the smart class. Where are the smart people?
A big girl comes in and sits across the room from me. She’s not ugly, but she’s not pretty either. Her eyes are murky brown, her nose a little crooked and there’s a gap between her front teeth. She’s probably a head taller than most boys in here. Her clothes are very ill-fitting, a tight pink tank top that showcases her stomach rolls, a cropped cardigan that doesn’t cover her sides, and weird fluffy white boots that possibly sheared three sheep to make. If she’s trying to be girly, it’s not working.
“Dahlia! Let me see your homework!” A lanky boy snatches her paper as soon as she gets it out of a glittery pink folder. “All right! The answers look correct enough!” And then he just goes back to his seat.
A bent old lady appears in the doorway. Her gray hair is up in a tight bun, no wispy strands astray. I have a feeling she might’ve come straight from the book.
She introduces herself as Mrs. Henley and then introduces me to the class. They all bore their eyes onto me, the gangsters and the girls dressed in trashy outfits. I can’t pick out one person who looks nice.
The whole fifty minutes Dahlia, it seems, stares at me. Every time I look up at the board for the page numbers, she’s glaring at me. Is there a stain on my shirt? Are my thoughts showing in a bubble above my head? What is her problem?
I’m last to leave when the bell rings, and so is Dahlia. I let her go before me but she insists on letting me out first. I smile, trying to assure her I’m not a freak, and exit. Her foot sticks out in front of mine and I nearly trip on my face. She giggles quietly, satisfied.
I retrieve my book from the floor and try to piece this puzzle together. Did she really justtripme? I didn’t say a word the whole hour. Surely I did nothing wrong.
Dahlia continues to push me. It’s in the halls now, and with a lot of people around, I always assume it’s because someone pushed her and it’s a domino effect. But after several weeks, it’s still the same. Sometimes I land in air and others I smash into a locker, using my arm as a brace.
She’s coming up with creative ways to terrify me. She narrows those disgusting brown eyes when I glance up. She mouths something that I just can’t make out. She gives me a smug grin when the bell rings. And one day, I can’t take it anymore.
After lunch I decide to head to art early. I flinch at the corner, fear shooting through me like an adrenaline rush. Dahlia grabs my shoulders and slams me into a locker. Her face gets very close to mine. There’s no one around us, no one to rescue me, no one to save me. My entire body is burning with panic. My mind is a frightened mess. What is she going to do?
I’m about to mouth off to her when she kisses me.
Scrambles. Gears rusting. Lockdown. Ice frozen. Paralyzed. I don’t hold on one second longer. With all my strength, I push her away as hard as I can and go straight to the bathroom. Dahlia hits the locker with her fists and the sound echoes, bouncing, never ceasing in my ringing ears.
What the hell? What kind of bully targets a kid and then kisses them? If they liked them why would they hurt them? Hatred is only a second of a feeling. I’d have given Dahlia a chance to be friends if she wasn’t staring daggers at me all this time. What was she thinking?
That was my first kiss. It tasted horrible, too much cheap lip gloss and the smell was like cherry medicine. I’m so revolted I want to throw up. And lucky me, a toilet is right where I am. As I hurl, I hear a whistle indicating lunch is officially over. I go to a water fountain to chase away the vomit, and try my best to walk into class as if nothing happened.
Mom tells me to fix my hair at breakfast. I reach up to unsuccessfully pin the strand to my scalp and my sleeve rises. She spots the bruise, fresh and blue, and I quickly pull it down. I avoid looking at her. “Charlie, what happened?”
The rest of my family waits for my explanation. Even Thunder is looking. I can’t lie. “Some girl pushed me. No big deal.” I stuff my mouth with cereal so I don’t have to talk anymore.
“Some girl?” Crystal says, nearing a mocking tone. My father shakes his head.
“Can’t imagine how a girl could do that to you.”
“She’s big. And strong, apparently.” More cereal.
“This only happened once?”
No,I think. “Yes. Just once.”
“If she does it again I’ll call your teacher and see if we can work something out.” My father goes back to his newspaper, reading on stocks and not taking one more moment to be concerned about his son.
I don’t want to get in trouble.
Dahlia, despite the fact that she should be scared I might tell on her, still bullies me. I don’t get it. My arms ache by the end of the day, my head dizzy from the loud crashes. A month later I confront her in the same spot she kissed me.
“What is your problem? What did I ever do to you?” I ask harshly, demanding myself to be courageous and fearless.
“I…” Dahlia bites her lip. “You remind me of my ex.”
This takes me by surprise. “Me? But I’m scrawny and you’re so… big.”
I can see the reflex of insult in her eyes. Her fists curl up by her sides. “Doesn’t matter. You both have the same hair color.”
“That’s it? You’ve been obsessed with me because we have the same hair color?”
“That, and you make me happy.”
I recoil. “Happy for hurting me? Putting these bruises on my arms? Last I heard, happiness meant no violence.”
“Well, it’s not like that.” I start to turn away, and those very same hands that I feel every night in my sleep grips my shoulders. Dahlia tightens and then throws me against the locker.
“Stop,” I mumble. “Stop.”
In the distant I can hear screams and yelling, and in my eyes I can see darkness swirling around me, trapping me in a tortuous hurricane. The floor disappears beneath me and I’m falling, oh I’m falling, ever so slowly.