Why I Stayed – Part 12

I was finally a senior and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I was a month into twelfth grade and I had realized that it was really no different from the previous three years of high school. It really wasn’t that much different from the eight years before that.

Something poked me in the back of the neck and I heard someone say my name.

“Nicole,” said Kevin Richardson as he poked me again with a stack of hand outs. I turned around and scowled at Kevin. His mouth was open like it always was. His heavy breathing moved in and out of his open mouth and carried the aroma of morning breath and Big Red chewing gum. I took a piece of paper off the top of the stack and handed the rest over the shoulder of the girl in front of me.

I remembered enjoying school when I was in Kindergarten and even most of elementary school but by the time I got to middle school, all I could think of was getting to high school. When I was a freshman I wished I could skip to senior year. The seniors seemed to have it good, they looked so much older and mature. To a freshman, the seniors seemed to have the run of the school. Now that I had become a senior, I realized I had blown it all out of proportion. I didn’t have the charisma or popularity to “rule the school” and the teachers didn’t seem to care any more about how much I learned than they did three years ago. I was convinced that I was smarter than most of my classmates and many of my teachers but my complete lack of interest in the subject matter of my classes meant I had a string of Cs and Bs in my report card. My grades were a constant source of contention between my mom and I. She knew I was smart enough to get straight As. My problem was everything came so easy to me that I couldn’t be bothered to try. I could sleepwalk through the majority of my classes and still pass.

The only class in which I really showed effort was English, but not in the daily classwork and definitely not the mind-numbing torture of group reading. Each semester the teacher picked a novel for the class to read and each day we would take turns reading the book out loud. I could read really fast and it was painful to listen to my classmates lumber through the beautiful language of a classic story like a first grader stumbling through a Dick and Jane book.

I sat in English class one morning listening to Kevin read from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I daydreamed while Kevin marched his finger across the page, stumbling on the southern colloquialisms and often accidentally re-reading the same line. Kevin got to the part Where Tom and his friends eavesdropped on their own funeral. The kids heard the townspeople say all kinds of nice things because they thought the kids were dead. It made me think of what people will say when they think nobody is listening.

When I was little, I was so quiet that adults wouldn’t realize I was there. I would sit and watch and listen and I would remember. I would follow my mom around the house or sit in the living room while my dad and his friends watched football. I listened to my mother talk about my dad or about the neighbors. I listened to my dad talk about his boss. I watched my mom sneak a cigarette next to the open kitchen window. I watched my dad pour whiskey into his morning coffee. Sometimes I would seem to appear out of thin air when an adult suddenly noticed my presence. I could see the guilt or regret on their face when they realized I had heard what they were saying.

As I got older, I had a harder time going unnoticed. I remember a day in the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I was playing in the sprinkler in the front yard with Trevor Kinsey. It was the first hot day of the summer and we celebrated by running through the cool spray in our bathing suits. Late afternoon meant the end of the main shift at the mine and at about 3:45pm, the men of our neighborhood would come driving down the cul-de-sac in a daily parade. Normally, a couple of kids playing in the sprinkler wouldn’t warrant the attention of weary men on their way home. But this day was different. In every car that passed, the driver would look at us. The driver of third car slowed down to watch us and I felt like something was wrong. The fourth car also slowed and I could feel the gaze of the man behind the wheel. They weren’t looking at us, they were looking at me. The driver of the fifth car was my father. When he pulled into the driveway, I could see that he was upset. He walked up to my mother where she sat on the front step. He didn’t think I could hear him.

“Jesus, Louanne,” my father said. “Can you have her put on a shirt or something?”

Before my mom could say anything, I told Trevor I had to go and ran into the house. The towel I had brought outside with me was wrapped tightly around my body as I ran to my bedroom. I sat on my bed and began to shiver now that I was not in the warm sunlight. The movement of my shivering body was reflected in my mirror and for the first time in a while I looked at myself.

I used the mirror often when I was little to check my outfits, which were very important to me at the time. The way the colors matched would dictate the kind of day I was going to have and I never left my room without one last peek in the mirror. I outgrew my childhood obsession with matching clothes when I got to middle school and started dressing almost exclusively in jeans and t-shirts. My cousin Nessa lived in Seattle and worked at a radio station. She would send me cassette tapes of new bands with t-shirts and stickers to match. At school, I would pride myself with knowing about a band months before they made it to the local radio stations. Many of the stickers I received were stuck to my mirror and created a jagged border around the reflective glass. I opened my towel and looked at myself. My face was framed on either side by a Nirvana sticker on the left and a Smashing Pumpkins one on the right.

At first I couldn’t find anything wrong with what I saw. The bathing suit was from last year and it still fit, for the most part. I took a few steps closer to the mirror and looked harder. Between the collage of band names and emblems, I refocused my eyes and began to see something different. My vision ceased to be clouded by what I expected to be reflected in the glass and I looked at my body as if it was the first time I had seen myself in a mirror. I couldn’t believe how much I had changed.

I had lost the scrawny body I was used to. My limbs had thickened slightly so my knees and feet no longer looked too big for my legs. My hips and my butt had filled in, curving in to my waist, which was the only part of me to stay the same size. I couldn’t explain why I had not taken notice sooner, but my breasts had grown too. In a matter of minutes, the swimsuit the girl in the mirror was wearing changed from the cute two-piece I wore last summer to a revealing bikini.

I was broken from my reverie by my teacher who was calling me to read the next chapter. I pulled the book out of my backpack and fumbled through the pages, trying to find the spot where Kevin left off. Some of the class giggled and Kevin was whispering a page number to me but I was too startled to understand what he was saying. The teacher, Mr. Warner, opened his mouth to remind me that we were on chapter eighteen when the bell rang. Fourth period was over and it was time for lunch.

I stopped rifling through the book and put it in my green Army Surplus backpack. I shut the flap that closed over the top of it and buckled it shut. I stood up, put the pack on my back, and began to walk to the door with my eyes on the tiles beneath my feet.

I had nearly made it to the door when Mr. Warner spoke up.

“Nicole, can I have a word?”

I sighed and turned around. I had a habit, when talking to a teacher, of looking everywhere but their face. I couldn’t stand the the way most of them looked at me. Some of them looked at me with pity because they knew my of my father and our often tenuous financial situation. Some of them looked at me with disappointment because I was not living up to my potential, whatever that meant. Others would look at me with concern because they saw me as a troubled girl who was certainly on the road to a life of drug addiction and sleeping under bridges.

However, Mr. Warner was different. He knew literature and he gave me the most constructive criticism I ever received on my written work. I even gave him some short stories and poems I wrote outside of class for his opinion. He put one of my poems up for submission to a poetry journal and it had been published. Nothing had ever made me so excited as to see my work published in a real literary journal. I showed it to my parents and while my mom smiled and told me she was proud, my father simply asked me if the publication had made me any money. I looked Mr. Warner in the eyes and managed a half smile.

“I know you’ve already read the book, probably more than once. I know listening to the lesser beings around you read at the pace of a preschooler is horrible. But you really need to pay attention in class. If you listen to the way other people read, you can get insight into how they might interpret the words differently. As a writer, it’s extremely important to keep your audience in mind when you write.”

“Kevin is hardly the audience I have in mind when I write,” I said.

“That might be true of most of your stories and poems. But if you want to be a journalist, you’re going to have to keep in mind that more than half of your readers will be mouth-breathers like Kevin,” Mr. Warner said the last words quietly, with his flattened hand held next to his mouth like he was telling a secret. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said.

“Speaking of which, I need your piece for next month’s Pathfinder Press.”

“I have it written up here,” I said and tapped my head. “I just need to type it out.”

“Please try to get it to me by tomorrow. Have you given any more thought to publishing another poem?”

I looked away from the teacher’s face and out the small window behind his desk. The glass was textured and allowed light to pass through but without any detail. Sunlight cast shadows of the moving bodies of my fellow students as they passed the window and gave the impression of water.

“I see. Well, if you have something you would like to share again, the editor contacted me last week and asked if you had another piece. He might even take a short story if you don’t feel like submitting another poem.”

My eyes returned to Mr. Warner’s face and I said, “I’ll think about it.”

“Please do,” he said with a crooked smile. “Now go and enjoy your lunch.”

I gave Mr. Warner another half smile and walked out of the classroom. The hallway was beginning to empty as most of the students made their way to the cafeteria to stuff their faces with what they considered food. It was Monday, which meant a slice of pizza with a crust of chalky dough topped with bland tomato sauce, one salty pepperoni, and not enough cheese. The school lunches, while technically nutritious, never interested me and I rarely ate at school.

Even though I didn’t plan on eating, I had to pass through the cafeteria before I could go outside and enjoy some fresh air. To ward off the juvenile cacophony, I put my headphones on, found my Walkman in my pocket, and pushed play. The latest tape my cousin sent me from Seattle was The Presidents of the United States of America. Chris Ballew began to sing about peaches just as the I reached the cafeteria and I turned up the volume to drown out the noise. I put my hands in the pocket that crossed the lower front of my hoodie and began to shoulder my way through the crowd to the exit doors.

Since that summer day when the neighborhood men slowed to gawk at me in my bikini, I became embarrassed about my body and the way it was developing. I still wore jeans and t-shirts nearly every day but when I went to school I would always wear a hoodie or a baggy sweatshirt. Muted colors, unassuming details, and any other way to blend in to the background became my regular wardrobe. I could walk through the crowded hallways and most people wouldn’t even notice that I passed by.

I walked face-down in the general direction of double doors and the freedom of  outside. I was bumped, shoved, elbowed, and I had given up all hope for the future of America by the time I pulled my right hand out of my hoodie pocket and pushed one of the doors open. I stepped out into the cool air and took a deep breath. The heavy door shut behind me. The clatter and chatter of the cafeteria was cut off and suddenly the music in my headphones was too loud. I reached into my pocket and found the volume dial on my trusty Walkman by feel. I turned the Presidents down slowly until the sound pressure was a comfortable level . I could hear the birds twittering and the breeze blowing  around the leaves that had started to fall.

I was startled by the sound of someone rumpling a paper bag. I spun around to glare at the person that dared sneak up on me.

“Want some tater tots?”

Trevor Kinsey was leaning up against the exterior wall of the school, a few feet outside of the doors to the cafeteria. When I realized who it was, I turned down the intensity of my death glare to a mere scowl.

“Are you kidding me? The boxes they come in should be covered with Mr. Yuck stickers. The lunch ladies should be fined for serving them to children,” I said with my usual haughty attitude.

“Oh, these aren’t from the cafeteria. They’re from the Brown Owl,” Trevor said as he popped a couple into his mouth.

The Brown Owl was a burger joint and shake shack on the highway. It served greasy cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes that were better than any restaurant in town. Their tater tots were to die for. My scowl died and my face couldn’t help but show my excitement. I reached for the orange paper cup in Trevor’s hand and took it from him. The weight of it felt wrong and when I brought it close enough to see inside I noticed the only thing left was a few crumbs and the grease that had dripped off of the tots that Trevor already ate.

“You asshole,” I said and punched him in the shoulder.

“Ow, watch it or I won’t give you the ones I bought for you!”

I rolled my eyes and tossed the empty cup towards the trash can next to the cafeteria door. The cup bounced off the rim, landed on the sidewalk, and rolled over to Trevor’s foot. The emblem of the Brown Owl rotated as the cup rolled and placed a greasy kiss on the side of his sneaker. He leaned over to pick it up and put it in the orange bag next to his other foot. He leaned over to pick it up and put it in the orange bag next to his other foot.

“Nice shot,” he said and pulled out another orange cup. This one was over-flowing with golden, crispy tater tots that steamed in the cool fall afternoon.

“Well, not everyone can be a sports superstar like you, Trevor. Or am I supposed to just call you Kinsey now?”

He smiled at me and said, “You can call me whatever you want. Except asshole.”

I smiled at him, popped a tater tot into my mouth, and said, “But what if you’re being an asshole?”

“When am I ever not being an asshole?”

Why I Stayed – Part 11

I suddenly remembered a line from some movie or police procedural television show, “It’s the guilty ones that sleep.” The words drifted into my head like smoke just as the lack of sleep and the excess of whiskey finally caught up to me. My eyes were drooping shut and the fluorescent glare of my surroundings was starting to blur and prism through my eyelashes and the narrowing gap between my eyelids. I wondered if sleeping in my cell was more indicative of my guilt than being found still sitting on my victim and confessing my crime in detail to a cop. I smiled and let my eyelids close completely, the bright light was cut down to the muted tones that passed through my eyelids.

I laid on my side on a steel and fiberglass bed, my hands tucked under my head like a caricature of a person sleeping. If I was in a cartoon, I’d be wearing a pointed hat and striped nightgown instead of a blue jumpsuit. The papery fabric of the suit I wore was itchy and reminded me of the gown you put on when being examined by a doctor. The harsh artificial light and the faint smell of disinfectant added to the exam-room feel and I forced down memories of the last time I had been looked at by a medical professional before remembering could ruin the quiet calm of my cell.

In spite of the hard bed and scratchy paper suit for pajamas, I was relaxed and comfortable. Whatever indignities I faced, whatever punishment was meted out for my crime could not compare to the miserable life I had been living. I felt stress and fear melt off of my body like I had been encased in wax. The buzzing tube of glass that lit my cell sounded beautiful and reassuring. A humming murmur came from the air vent and I felt a dry, warm breeze land on my cheek.

I drifted into sleep and I did not dream. I was vaguely aware of my body as my consciousness receded. The flesh-colored spots of light in front of my eyes seemed to drift away. The sounds of my cell dimmed gradually like someone was turning down the volume on a radio. I have heard the term “fall asleep” a million times but I was not moving down. My mind was withdrawing, moving backwards through a void. I could feel that my cell and the rest of the world beyond it was getting farther away. I remembered feeling this way before but my mind could not focus on anything and the memories would not come to me. I had left my memories with my eyes and my body. They were beyond my reach there, in the dark. Soon, I was so far away that I felt nothing.

The sound and light rushed back to me in an instant, accompanied by a flash of pain. I had no idea how long I had been asleep. I sat up, groggily scanning my body for the source of the hurt. It was my wrist. I had scratched at it in my sleep. A trickle of blood started to seep and a strange type of heat pulsed up my arm from the burn under the bandage. I breathed slowly through my teeth. I wasn’t going to make any sounds of pain. I imagined Hoskins was outside my cell, his ear pressed against the door, too scared to actually look in through the window but too interested to actually leave me alone. I wasn’t going to give that bastard anything to masturbate about later. I shut my eyes, inhaled through my nose and exhaled through my teeth. I did the same thing a few more times until the throbbing pain in my wrist subsided.

It was because of Hoskins that I burned myself in the first place. After Kinsey sat with me and let me tell my story, I assumed I would go with him to the station. I let myself believe that Kinsey would be there the whole time. I was fooling myself when I thought that it was all over and I could let the cops take me into custody and not have to worry about getting hurt anymore.

I had not planned for an escape. I didn’t want to escape and I knew that it wasn’t even a possibility. After Kinsey helped me off of Jerrad’s body, I grabbed the Zippo lighter from the nightstand, and I put on some jeans. I slipped the lighter into that little pocket nobody uses anymore and it was invisible to a casual glance. I let Kinsey walk me out of the house and it wasn’t until we stepped out into the night air and I felt his piggy eyes on me that I even remembered Hoskins was there. A young cop put plastic cuffs on me and tried not to hurt me by putting the bands on too tight. When I was put in the back seat of Hoskins’ car, I hoped the young policeman would be coming too. I hoped Hoskins was too lazy to do anything completely by himself.

I saw Kinsey get caught up in a conversation with a crime scene guy. I sat there for a long time, watching the lights from all the emergency vehicles spin around the interior of the cop car. It smelled like sweat and fast food French fries. I heard a commotion, looked through the window of the cop car, and saw Kinsey talking to Hoskins. I saw Kinsey throw a sad glance my way before walking towards his own car. Hoskins and the young cop walked toward me. I watched the jowls around Hoskins’ chin jiggle with every step he took and saw his mouth twist into a disgusting smile as he approached the car. The young cop got into the driver seat. The car tilted to the right as Hoskins lowered his dense body into the passenger seat.

“Ugh, it smells like ass in here, Davis,” Hoskins chided as he rolled the window down.

“Thompson,” said the young man.


“Never mind,” said Thompson with a sigh.

Hoskins grabbed the radio mic off of his shoulder and contacted the station. I could see his eyes watching me in the rear-view mirror.

“En route with the suspect,” he said and winked at me.

Sergeant Roda said something back that I couldn’t understand.

“No, Davis here will resume patrol after he drops us off at the back portico.”

More unintelligible speech from the radio.

“You think I can’t handle this suspect by myself?”

This time I could make out one word in Roda’s response, “Kinsey.”

“Fuck you, Roda. You go back to watching your nerd movie and I’ll get her booked and into lockup. Just make sure you don’t turn it up so loud that you can’t hear me buzzing at the back door. Hoskins out.”

Hoskins returned the mic to his shoulder clip and continued to watch me in the rear view mirror. His right arm dangled out the window, his fingers wiggled in the night air like a bunch of crooked hot dogs and then started to tap a rhythm onto steel panel beneath the KVPD decal on his door.

“Yeah, me and Nicole go way back,” Hoskins said. “Don’t we Nic?”

I looked away from the mirror and looked out the window instead. Now that we had left the circus of spinning lights behind, the only illumination was from widely-spaced street lamps that lit the road. We drive continuously down hill and Thompson was took care on the curves to make the ride as smooth as possible. When the road came to the bottom of the hill and Thompson stopped for a stop sign, I noticed there was light from the headlights of a car behind us. I turned to look out of the back window and briefly caught a glimpse of Kinsey before our car turned right, toward the older part of downtown. Seeing Kinsey there made me feel a little safer. Until Hoskins started to talk again.

“Me and Nic will be just fine in the booking area,” He paused and I looked into the rear view mirror just in time to see him lick his lips. “We’ll be just fine all by ourselves.”

His words were innocuous, with a touch of innuendo. However the tone of Hoskins’ voice sent a chill through my body. The only warmth I felt came from the comforting weight of the Zippo in my pants pocket.

I watched absent-mindedly as the town crawled past the window of the cruiser. The late hour meant all the businesses were closed, even the bars. Only one car passed us going the other way and I didn’t see a single person walking outside. We arrived at the building shared by the Kiln Valley police department and the Beckham County sheriff’s office. Thompson drove past the front of the building, turned right at the corner and drove up to a gated parking lot. The gate was shut but as the cruiser pulled up, it began to roll back. The steel uprights went by like a row of skinny soldiers marching in pointed helmets.

Kinsey pulled up behind us and followed us through the gate. As Thompson pulled up to the portico that covered the entrance to the back of the building, Kinsey drove past and found a parking spot amid the KVPD motor pool. Thompson and Hoskins opened their doors. The cool air and the dome light hit me in the face. I sat, blinking while I waited for someone to let me out.

The police cruiser tilted to the left after Hoskins pulled himself to his feet. The fat man sighed and heaved his gun belt back up onto his hips. He slammed the passenger door and took a couple steps towards my door. Thompson walked around the back of the car and opened my door. He used a strong but gentle grip on my upper arm to help me out of the back seat.

I saw Kinsey waiting by the back door. Hoskins and Thompson each held one of my arms. Hoskins was digging his sausage fingers into the skin next to my bicep. I looked at Kinsey and gave him the best smile I could manage. Hoskins used his free hand to push the a button on some kind of intercom next to the back door. The door buzzed and Hoskins released his grip on my arm to allow Thompson to take me through the doorway. I heard Hoskins behind me, he stopped and turned.

I glanced over my shoulder to see Hoskins plant his hand on Kinsey’s chest and say something gruff. The two men continued to talk as Thompson guided me down the hallway. Then I heard the door shut and a single set of footsteps began to shuffle down the hall towards us.

Thompson sat me on a bench and I leaned my back against the wall. Thompson walked over to a desk and took a clipboard out of a drawer. He was busy putting carbon paper into the clip when Hoskins walked up and said something quietly into his ear.

“Sir, I,” Thompson began to reply.

“You what?”

“Nothing sir. Would you like me to call Lewis to assist with booking?”

“I’ll call Lewis. You get back on your fucking patrol like I ordered you to.”

“Yes, sir,” said Thompson.

The young cop gave me a worried look. Then his face seemed to relax. He gave me a curt nod and a half smile, then turned to walk back outside. Hoskins followed him to the button that released the back door. When the the pudgy cop turned and looked at me on my bench, he grinned again. The grin reminded me of someone who was about to open a long-awaited package, something they’ve been hoping would arrive and finally came to their doorstep.

The radio crackled and Hoskins reached up to turn it down but he stopped to listen to the following conversation.

“Thompson to Lewis. Lewis, you copy?”

“Go for Lewis.”

“Tonya, Hoskins requests assistance with booking of a female suspect at the precinct.”

“Copy that, on my way.”

“Thompson out.”

Hoskins’ grin faded.

“That little fucker. Well, we might not have as much time alone as I had wanted. But we can still have some fun. Let me go tell Roda to leave us be for a little while, okay?”

Hoskins opened the door and poked his head out, with the intent of saying something to the duty officer on the other side.

“Shit,” he said and went the rest of the way through the door, into the offices on the other side.

I started to wiggle the lighter out of the tiny pocket in my jeans and hoped I had enough time.

Why I Stayed – Part 10

On Friday morning, the day of the homecoming game, I woke up to the smell of coffee and bacon. My father was almost never home by the time I got out of bed and my mother was usually on her way out the door by the time I made it to the kitchen. The delicious scents made me confused while my stomach grumbled. I pulled on some sweat pants and a t-shirt and made my way down the stairs that separated the bedrooms from the rest of the house. I walked into the kitchen still rubbing my eyes.

“Good morning, sweetheart.”

I stopped rubbing my eyes, opened them, and saw my mom standing at the stove. She was stirring a pan full of scrambled eggs. A plate sat to one side of the stove containing a pile of bacon on top of a blanket of paper towels. Another plate was already on the kitchen table, holding a precarious stack of pancakes. The table was set for two, with forks, knives, plates, and cups of coffee and orange juice.

“I was just about to wake you,” said my mom. “I told my boss I’d be late for work today. I wanted to make you a special breakfast for your big day today.”

I walked towards her and my mom set the spatula down. She opened her arms, wrapped them around me, and gave me a hug. My mom and I had always been pretty close, but I honestly couldn’t remember the last time she had hugged me like that. I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed. She smelled like shampoo and breakfast. I let go and she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek before returning to the eggs.

“Please put the bacon on the table and sit down, the eggs are nearly done.”

I grabbed the plate of bacon and brought it to the table. I sat down and grabbed a slice to much on while I waited.

“Your father said to tell you he’s sorry he couldn’t be here for breakfast. He said he needed to get a jump on the day’s business so he could be home in time to watch the game.”

My father traveled for his job and was away more days than he was at home. For as long as I could remember, home life was pretty much just me and mom. It didn’t bother me that much, especially since when dad happened to be home for dinner it was a special occasion and mom would generally make something really good for dinner. I was happy to hear that he would be home in time to watch the homecoming game tonight. The team had been trying out my play in practice all week and Jerrad said there was a good chance we’d use it in the game against Tall Timber.

Mom walked over to the table with the pan of eggs. She deposited a healthy scoop onto my plate and put a small portion on hers. She set the pan onto a crocheted potholder shaped like flower. I took a couple pancakes off of the stack and a few slices of bacon and put them on my plate.

“Thanks mom,” I said.

“No problem, honey. I won’t be able to give you a good dinner before the game tonight, so I figured a nice breakfast would have to do.”

“It’s perfect, mom.”

“Are you excited for tonight?”

“A little,” I lied.

Tonight’s game was my chance to show that I was more than just a strong player. It was my opportunity to display my skill at strategy and planning. As happy as I was to become good at football, I could never really feel proud for my accomplishments on the field. Growing muscle and being bigger than most of my classmates was not an achievement. It was simple biology. Learning to run, juke, and handle the ball was challenging at first but it became so natural to me that I didn’t really see it as anything special.

“Well, I know you are going to play very well tonight,” mom said with a smile. “I can’t wait to watch.”

I smiled at my mom and poured some syrup on my pancakes.

“Did I tell you that Jerrad is going to run one of my plays tonight?”

“You mentioned something about it earlier this week.”

“It’s going to be great,” I said with a mouth half full of pancakes and bacon. “Tall Timber wins games with the sheer size of their linemen and the speed of their running back. I found a way to use that size against them in the offense and I gave some advice to the defensive coach to mitigate their fast kid.”

“Sweetie, I’m happy to see you get so excited. I’m sure your plays will be wonderful.”

It was pretty obvious that my mother didn’t understand what I was talking about but it was nice to have her support nonetheless.

“Oh crap,” I said after catching a glimpse of the clock on the microwave. “I gotta get ready!”

I shoved the last bite of eggs into my mouth and grabbed two slices of bacon to go. I stood up, smiled at my mom, and ran up the stairs to my bedroom.

All week, many of my classmates had been dressing up for the “spirit” days. I had declined to participate but today would have to be an exception. “Pathfinder Spirit Day” meant wearing school colors and I wouldn’t need my Stone Temple Pilots shirt to qualify this time. I put on jeans and a white t-shirt and then slipped my red “away” jersey over the top. After I tied on my sneakers, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Looking in the mirror, I saw our team name spelled backwards over my chest but my uniform number was the same backwards and forwards. For as long as I could remember, my favorite number was eight and the number “88” fell into the range of uniform numbers set aside for backs and ends.

Most days I would barely notice what my reflection looked like but today was special. I made sure I didn’t have food or toothpaste on my face and ran my fingers through my hair one more time before I considered it good enough and went downstairs again.

When I entered the kitchen, I noticed that mom had cleared the table and was pouring coffee into one of the mugs with a lid that she always took to work. She was wearing a red sweater with a compass embroidered on the front surrounded by the words “Kiln Valley Booster Club.”

“Is it spirit day for you too,” I asked her.

She turned and smiled at me, “You better believe it.”

“Do you need the car?”

“No, honey,” my mom said. “You go ahead, I can take the next bus and still make it to work before nine.”

“Thanks mom,” I said. “I’ll see you tonight!”

In my excitement, I pushed the front door open a little too hard and it banged against the stopper. My dad installed the stopper to keep the door from hitting the porch swing that hung next to the front door. Most mornings, Nicole would be waiting for me in that swing and she would either ride with me in my car or walk with me to the bus stop. She had not been waiting for me all week and I was disappointed but not surprised to see the swing was empty again today.

Being slightly deflated by her absence, I walked to the station wagon and unlocked the driver’s side door. I turned and took one more look at Nicole’s house before sitting down and shutting the door. I put the key into the ignition and turned. After a couple whining turns, the engine caught and rumbled to life. I waited for warm air to start coursing out of the vents before I pulled out of the driveway. The mornings and evenings were starting to get really cold and my breath had the tendency to fog up the windshield if I didn’t let the car get warm first.

I glanced at the passenger seat, where Nicole should have been. The only thing sitting there was my backpack. I had no need to bring it into the house last night since the teachers never assigned homework to football players on the night before a game. Without Nicole to talk to, it was too quiet in the car. I looked at the radio and found a cassette tape was sticking halfway out of the deck. I pushed it back into the radio and Mike Doughty’s awkward rap began to fill the car with words just as the vents started to push warm air across the glass of the windshield.

I put the car in reverse, released the emergency brake, and backed out of the driveway. I put the car in drive and began to head down my street. The sky was clear and the sun peeked over the tops of the low trees that grew along the edge of our development. I reached blindly for where I usually set my sunglasses but my hand came up empty. I forgot that I had them on my head when I got home yesterday and they still sat on my desk in my bedroom. I squinted into the sun and steered the car towards the high school.

As I drove, the sun was now peeking through the trees that lined the old highway. The light flickered a random pattern of light and dark into the corner of my eyes. Annoyed by the Morse code piercing my eyes, I flipped the passenger visor down to try and block the staccato light rays. However the visors in our old station wagon were pathetically small compared to the size of the windshield and barely cast any shade on my squinting eyes. I drove the rest of the way trying to ignore the aggravating flashing light and trying to ignore how bothered I was by fact that Nicole wasn’t there.

This week had been such a blur of school, practice, and worrying about my suggested play that I hadn’t given much thought to Nicole. Taking another glance at the passenger seat I was reminded that I hadn’t seen Nicole all week. I had not found her sitting on my porch swing in the evening or given her a ride to school in the morning. I didn’t even see her in the hallway between classes. An entire week went by without thinking about my best friend and I felt ashamed. My excitement about tonight’s game had been dulled by the pain in my eyes from the sun and the sadness I felt from being away from Nicole. By the time I got to school, the Soul Coughing tape had ended and I was feeling guilty and deflated.

As I pulled into the student lot, I realized I must be pretty late since the lot was nearly full. I had to park at the far end of the lot the students called “Butt Fuck Egypt” or “BFE” for short. I parked in the last spot in the row closest to the football field, turned off the car, and grabbed my backpack from the passenger seat. I opened the door and stood up out of the seat. I locked my door and held the button on the door handle while shutting it to make sure it stayed locked. Cars parked in “BFE” were often subject to search by nosy kids looking for cigarettes and loose change. I didn’t have anything of value in the car but I didn’t like the idea of some stoner weirdo going through my glove box.

I began the trek across the lot and looked through the chain link fence at the back side of the empty bleachers. Later tonight, those bleachers would be full of students, parents, and community members cheering for our team. My parents would be there with their red sweaters and red-and-white bleacher cushions. My classmates would fill the student section, their faces red with paint or cold or alcohol. None of that really mattered to me. The only person I really cared to watch me tonight was Nicole. She was the only person in the world I could think of that would appreciate the clever play I wrote. I decided I would look for her at school and make sure she would be there tonight. I quickened my pace so I might be able to find her before first period.