No one was looking at me.
Or, more accurately, everyone was very carefully not looking at me.
My locker was in the basement level, the undercroft, and I had figured that if I cut in early and through the back, I’d get the chance to steel myself in the peace of an empty hallway.
Sadly, I had been mistaken. The senior class at Howell Preparatory School held enough overachievers that about fifteen kids had beaten me there. None of them were my friends, but I had known almost all of them since the fifth grade.
I stood there for a minute, idling at one end of the corridor, waiting for someone, anyone, to acknowledge my existence.
Nope. I exhaled heavily, suddenly aware that I had been holding my breath.
I had just opened my locker when the stairwell door swung open and out spilled a full-court press—including my volleyball teammates, Amy and Alexis. The summer before junior year, a few of us had gone on a couple of day trips to Long Island, so we could practice while also relaxing on a beach. That hadn’t happened this past summer. I smiled at them and waved. Amy nodded a little but then turned away to her locker. Alexis offered an almost silent “Hey” before looking away, too, embarrassed.
The full class shuffled into the corridor, and they all continued to not speak to me. I watched the door, but she—the only one I really wanted or needed to see—didn’t show. I fished the glitter-edged mirror out of my backpack and stuck the magnetized back on my locker. With a touch of desperation, I applied lip gloss and mascara. I moved my hair to temporarily hide my face. “Just one more year,” I mouthed at my reflection.
I redid the hopeful math I’d been doing in my head all summer—in approximately six months, or thirty-two weeks, minus winter vacation, so make that thirty and a half weeks, I’d be accepted into college and, for all intents and purposes, not here anymore.
Of course, if my plans, laid out over the long, lonely summer, came to pass, I’d escape even sooner. But I couldn’t afford to get my hopes up, so I concentrated on the probable over the possible. Thirty weeks, Kendall, I thought hard, trying to will it into reality. You can survive anything for thirty weeks.
I surveyed my reflection and buttoned the top button on my cardigan. I shifted, and the lace neckline on my pastel blue camisole puckered. I had carefully selected this outfit: pale colors and soft fabrics, nothing moody or confrontational. The outfit had been neatly folded on my desk chair for a week, like empty paper doll clothes.
I unbuttoned. Maybe no one would even care about last year.
My senior year commenced. Nobody yelled at me or laughed at me. Nobody hit me or anything like that. But every time I stepped toward someone, they stepped back. I walked up to a group of student government kids hanging out by the vending machines, and they simply evaporated around me, re-congregating by the water fountain.
Third-period English class was divided into separate tables, each seating four. Lucia, Amy, and Raisa were sitting together, and I joined them. One by one, they shouldered their backpacks and discreetly relocated.
For the whole of the morning, literally no one under the age of thirty spoke to me, and the ones who were over thirty barely did. I was too proud to force a conversation with anyone in my clique and too timid to try to initiate contact with the other kids in the class, especially since I’d pretty much ignored them for the past three years.
I just wasn’t there.
As I signed out at the front desk during lunch, my spirits sinking under the pressure of being mute and incidental, I tried to look on the bright side: The school was probably too small for anyone to get away with outright bullying. As cold as I felt when I imagined being excluded from everything that had defined my life, if this benign ostracism was all that was coming my way, in terms of teens having it rough in American high schools, I was getting off tremendously light.
I attempted to cheer myself up with more math as I bought my lunch. Two hours and forty-five minutes until I could go home. Thirty minutes left of lunch, so only three more forty-five-minute blocks of having to be where people could see me. One hundred and thirty-five minutes total.
Eat. Then count to sixty, repeat one hundred and thirty-four times, and you’re done.
I hurried back down to the senior lockers—I needed to pick up my bio textbook before next period.
Crouched in front of my locker, I sensed the world go quiet behind me. I looked up and locked eyes with her. Audrey Khalil, coming right at me. I had imagined seeing her all summer, knowing that she held my fate in her hands. If Audrey—the beautiful, the benevolent, the wronged—decided to forgive me, things could go backward and be OK. If Audrey was still my Audrey.
Audrey looked at me directly, her chocolate eyes harder than I’d ever seen them. Her body was relaxed and loose; she wasn’t nervous to see me.
As always, Audrey looked perfect. Her beige knit skirt fit perfectly over her legs—long but not skinny or knobby. Her red sweetheart top was just bright enough to highlight the rich coppery undertone her warm brown skin had acquired in the summer. And her hair was tucked up in a simple twist, not a single strand out of place.
She looked me over coolly but without investment or engagement. There was no quirk of the mouth, no dip of the head, no wave, no flipping me off, nothing. Just that cool, hard, appraising gaze.
But still, she walked slowly in my direction, looking like she was coming for me, until, at the last second, she gave me a wide berth and slid her eyes away.
Something in me broke.
Audrey turned to the girls with her as they got to the stairwell door. And then she said, achingly lightly, “That’s our dear little slut.” There was a disdainful chuckle in her voice. “First day of school and she still can’t keep her tits to herself. Gotta love her.”
I was in rigor mortis.
Gulping for breath, I struggled to retreat, barely feeling the floor under my feet. The atmosphere in the hall felt tangible, thick and chilly, and blood pounded in my ears.
My paralysis broke, and I ran.
I made it to the bathroom, locked the first stall behind me, and sank to the floor. I tried to cry but couldn’t find the oxygen to do anything but gasp.
The worst part was the nauseous feeling that I deserved it. No one was lying about me. I had had sex with my best friend’s boyfriend. Every chance I could for a whole week. And then I had been caught. The entire senior class saw me do it. Their descriptions of my half-naked, sweaty, shamed self on Facebook posts were all the evidence my class needed. The likes and OMG comments proved it. I was a slut. A few of the seniors had even taken pictures on their phones. Once I saw those, I stopped going online.
Before, I had been happy enough at Howell. I heard no evil, saw no evil, and spoke no evil. I hadn’t rocked the high school boat.
Except for that one week. Grant had white teeth and pillowy lips and this way of suddenly catching me up in his arms and wrapping them around my entire body. I never saw him hug anyone else like that. Not even Audrey. Just once I saw something I wanted and took it without thinking.
I drew my knees up and put my head down on them, sucking as much air into my lungs as I could. I had broken the rules, and now I was alone.
The bathroom door opened, and I squeezed into myself tighter, hoping that whoever it was wouldn’t notice the pathetic heap behind the stall door.
There was a weird clicking noise and then silence. Whoever it was, they were still right at the entrance. What are they doing? And then I realized: Whoever it was had locked the door.
Heavy heels echoed off the tiling as the person walked slowly toward where I was sitting. Then stopped. I inched slightly away from the door and craned my neck, trying to see underneath it.
Just when I thought I was being paranoid and some girl was only checking her makeup in the mirror, a combat boot slammed the stall door into my back, twisting the hinges and knocking me forward. I smacked my head on the ceramic toilet tank as I toppled forward into a face-plant on the linoleum floor.