“Nobody likes her. Nobody wants her here,” Julia said.
“Such a loser. She didn’t even turn in the major project for art, last Friday,” Sophia responded.
“If she’s not going to try, then why is she even coming to school?”
Despite the way the conversation sounded, they were talking to me. They were just pretending to talk to one another. It was both calculating in how they were managing plausible deniability while at the same time they were acting totally juvenile by pretending I wasn’t there. A blend of immaturity mixed with craftiness in a way only high schoolers could manage. I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it, if it hadn’t been at my expense.
The moment I had left the classroom, Emma, Madison and Sophia had crowded me into a corner, with another six girls backing them up. I was unable to squeeze past them without getting pushed or elbowed back, so I couldn’t do much more than lean against the window, listening while eight of the girls were rattling off an endless series of taunts and jibes. Before one girl was even finished, another started up. All the while, Emma stayed back and stayed quiet, the slightest of smiles on her face. I couldn’t meet the eyes of any of the other girls without them barking a fresh torrent of insults directly to my face, so I just glared at Emma.
“Ugliest girl in our grade.”
They were barely thinking about what they were saying and a lot of the insults were wildly off the mark or contradictory. One would say I was a slut, for example, then another might say a guy would puke before he touched me. The point wasn’t being witty, being smart or being on target. It was more about delivering the feeling behind the words over and over, hammering it in. If I’d had just a moment to butt in, maybe I could have come up with retorts. If I could just kill their momentum, they probably wouldn’t get back into the easy rhythm again. That said, I couldn’t find the words, and there weren’t any openings in the conversation where I wouldn’t just be talked over.
While this particular tactic was new to me, I’d been putting up with stuff like this for a year and a half, now. At a certain point, I’d come to the conclusion that it was easier to sit back and take it, when it came to most things. They wanted me to fight back, because everything was stacked in their favor. If I stood up for myself and they still ‘won’, then it only served to feed their egos. If I came out ahead in some way, then they got more persistent and mean for the next time. So for much the same reason I hadn’t fought Madison for the homework she had taken from me, I just leaned against the wall next to the window and waited for them to get bored with their game or get hungry enough to leave and go have their lunches.
“What does she use to wash her face? A Brillo pad?”
“She should! She’d look better!”
“Never talks to anybody. Maybe she knows she sounds like a retard and keeps her mouth shut.”
“No, she’s not that smart.”
No more than three feet behind Emma, I could see Mr. Gladly leaving his classroom. The tirade didn’t stop as I watched him tuck a stack of folders under one arm, find his keys and lock the door.
“If I were her, I’d kill myself,” one of the girls announced.
Mr. Gladly turned to look me in the eyes.
“So glad we don’t have gym with her. Can you imagine seeing her in the locker room? Gag me with a spoon.”
I don’t know what expression I had on my face, but I know I didn’t look happy. No less than five minutes ago, Mr. Gladly had been trying to convince me to go with him to the office and tell the principal about the bullying. I watched him as he gave me a sad look, shifted the file folders to his free hand and then walked away.
I was stunned. I just couldn’t wrap my head around how he could just ignore this. When he had been trying to help me, had he just been covering his own ass, doing what was required of him in the face of a situation he couldn’t ignore? Had he just given up on me? After trying to help, in his own completely ineffective way, after I turned his offer for help down twice, he just decided I just wasn’t worth the effort?
“You should have seen her group fail in class just now. It was painful to watch.”
I clenched my fist, then forced myself to relax it. If we were all guys, this scenario would be totally different. I was in the best shape of my life. I could have swung a few punches from the very start, caused a bloody nose or two, maybe. I know I would have lost the fight in the end, getting shoved to the ground by force of numbers and kicked while I was down, but things would have ended there, instead of dragging on like they were here. I’d hurt physically for days afterwards, but I’d at least have had the satisfaction of knowing some of the others were hurting too, and I wouldn’t have to sit through this barrage of insults. If there was enough damage done, the school would have to take notice, and they wouldn’t be able to ignore the circumstances of a one-against-nine fight. Violence gets attention.
But things didn’t work that way here. Girls played dirty. If I decked Emma, she would run to the office with some fabricated story, her friends backing up her version of events. For most, ratting to the faculty was social suicide, but Emma was more or less top dog. If she went to the principal, people would only take things more seriously. By the time I got back to school, they would have spread the story through the grapevine in a way that made me look like a total psycho. Things would get worse. Emma would be seen as the victim and girls who had previously ignored the bullying would join in on Emma’s behalf.
“And she smells,” one girl said, lamely.
“Like expired grape and orange juice,” Madison cut in with a little laugh. Again, bringing up the juice? I suspected that one had been her idea.
It seemed like they were running out of steam. I figured it was just a minute or two before they got bored and walked away.
It seemed Emma got the same impression, because she stepped forward. The group parted to give her room.
“What’s the matter, Taylor?” Emma said, “You look upset.”
Her words didn’t seem to fit the situation. I had maintained my composure for however long they had been at it. What I’d been feeling was more a mixture of frustration and boredom than anything else. I opened my mouth to say something. A graceless “Fuck you” would have sufficed.
“So upset you’re going to cry yourself to sleep for a straight week?” she asked.
My words died in my throat as I processed her words.
Almost a year before we had started high school, I had been at her house, the both of us eating breakfast and playing music way too loud. Emma’s older sister had come downstairs with the phone. We’d turned down the music, and my dad had been on the other end, waiting to tell me in a broken voice that my mom had died in a car accident.
Emma’s sister had given me a ride to my place, and I bawled the entire way there. I remember Emma crying too, out of sympathy, maybe. It could have been the fact that she thought my mom was the coolest adult in the world. Or perhaps it was because we really were best friends and she had no idea how to help me.
I didn’t want to think about the month that had followed, but fragments came to mind without my asking. I could remember overhearing my dad berating my mother’s body, because she’d been texting while driving, and she was the only one to blame. At one point, I barely ate for five straight days, because my dad was such a wreck that I wasn’t on his radar. I’d eventually turned to Emma for help, asking to eat at her place for a few days. I think Emma’s mom figured things out, and gave my dad a talking to, because he started pulling things together. We’d established our routine, so we wouldn’t fall apart as a family again.
It was a month after my mom had died that Emma and I had found ourselves sitting on the bridge of a kid’s play structure in the park, our rear ends cold from the damp wood, sipping coffee we’d bought from the Donut Hole. We didn’t have anything to do, so we had just been walking around and talking about whatever. Our wandering had taken us to the playground, and we were resting our heels.
“You know, I admire you,” she had said, abruptly.
“Why?” I had responded, completely mystified about the fact that someone gorgeous and amazing and popular like her could find something to admire in me.
“You’re so resilient. After your mom died, you were totally in pieces, but you’re so together after a month. I couldn’t do that.”
I could remember my admission, “I’m not resilient. I can hold it together during the day, but I’ve cried myself to sleep for a straight week.”
That had been enough to open the floodgates, right there. She gave me her shoulder to cry on, and our coffee was cold before I was done.
Now, as I gaped at Emma, wordless, her smile widened. She remembered what I had said, then. She knew the memories it would evoke. At some point, that recollection had crossed her mind, and she had decided to weaponize it. She’d been waiting to drop it on me.
Fuck me, it worked. I felt the trail of a tear on my cheek. My power roared at the edges of my consciousness, buzzing, pressuring me. I suppressed it.
“She is! She’s crying!” Madison laughed.
Angry at myself, I rubbed my hand over my cheek to brush the tear away. More were already welling up, ready to take its place.
“It’s like you have a superpower, Emma!” one of the girls tittered.
I had taken off my backpack so I could lean against the wall. I reached to pick it up, but before I could, a foot hooked through the strap and dragged it away from me. I looked up and saw the owner of the foot – dark skinned, willowy Sophia – smirking at me.
“Oh em gee! What’s she doing?” one of the girls said.
Sophia was leaning against the wall, one foot casually resting on top of my backpack. I didn’t think it was worth fighting her over, if it gave her an opportunity to continue her game of keep-away. I left the bag where it was and shoved my way through the gathered girls, bumping an onlooker with my shoulder hard enough to make him stumble. I ran into the stairwell and out the doors on the ground floor.
I fled. I didn’t check, but chances were they were watching from the window at the end of the hallway. It didn’t really matter. The fact that I had just promised to pay thirty five bucks of my own money for a World Issues textbook to replace the one that had been soaked with grape juice wasn’t my top concern. Even if it was pretty much all the money I had left after buying the pieces for my costume. My art midterm was in my bag as well, newly repaired. I knew I wouldn’t get any of it back in one piece, if at all.
No, my primary concern was getting out of there. I wasn’t going to break the promise I had made to myself. No using powers on them. That was the line I wasn’t crossing. Even if I did something utterly innocuous, like give them all lice, I didn’t trust myself to stop there. I didn’t trust myself to keep from offering blatant hints that I had powers or spoiling my secret identity just to see the looks on their faces when they realized the girl they had been tormenting was a bona-fide superhero. It was something I couldn’t help but daydream about, but I knew the long term ramifications would spoil that.
Perhaps most important, I rationalized, was keeping the two worlds separate. What use was escapism, if the world I was escaping to was muddled with the people and things I was trying to avoid?
Before the thought of going back to school had even crossed my mind, I found myself wondering what I was going to do to fill my afternoon.