Amy Woods thinks herself a saint, and to be a saint, you should have to suffer. I haven’t paid much attention in my seventeen years of attending Mass, but that much I’m pretty sure about. So two minutes after the final bell rings, I stalk down the math hallway, transfer my cane from my right hand to my left, and use said right hand to punch Amy in the face.
I hadn’t expected doling out divine punishment would hurt my knuckles so much.
“Suspension.” The word takes on extra gravity thanks to Mr. Lennox’s heavy voice. Suspension. It falls from his lips and smacks the ground. Dull. Thudding. I’d like to kick it.
“What?” I start to jump up, but warning signals shoot down my spine. It didn’t appreciate my fist connecting with Amy’s cheek. Figures her head would be so hard. She had it coming, though, and that makes the pain worth it. And if the pain is worth it, so is any suspension, no matter how seriously Mr. Lennox and his unflinching stare proclaim it to be.
“School was over,” I mutter.
“You were on school grounds.” He sits upright in his chair, crisp as his suit.
I also sit upright, but that’s only because slouching makes the pain worse. A dull ache throbs through my lower spine into my butt. I call this the pulsing-baseball-bat pain. It’s far better than the knife-up-the-ass pain that sometimes hangs around.
Still, it sucks because I’d like to slouch. Good posture makes it seem like I’m taking this conversation far more seriously than I am.
Sighing, I run my fingers over my cane. It buys me sympathy with some people, but Lennox is a hardass. “Do you know what Amy said? She said it was God’s plan for her to become captain of the swim team this year. She thinks it was God’s plan that I got into an accident and wrecked my back and…”
I can’t even get the words out without my throat closing up and the threat of tears. I’m not about to let that happen in front of starched and proper Lennox.
I’m especially not about to let it happen in front of Mrs. Newman, the guidance counselor. She sits perched on the corner of Lennox’s desk in her rumpled skirt and sweater set. I can respect Lennox’s take-no-prisoners attitude, but Newman will probably try to have me committed if I show emotion.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Amy has the right to believe what she wants,” Lennox says. “You have a right to express your dislike of it. But your right to expression ends where her face begins.”I wet my dry lips. The lump in my throat means I shouldn’t speak yet. It’s too dangerous.
“Gabrielle, we understand what you’ve been through.” It’s Newman’s turn. The good cop, bad cop routine. Haven’t I made it clear that I prefer the hardass? “We tried to take your circumstances into account last year. We know how difficult everything has been for you with the accident and your sister.”
Why do people say that? She has no clue how difficult everything’s been, but trying to make her understand is as futile as hoping for a spine transplant or trying to raise Lizzy from the dead. So I grit my teeth and keep quiet.
“This is a new school year,” Newman continues. “I want to see you get back on track to graduate. Go back to being the honor roll student you were.”
Translation: take the pathetic mess of your existence out of my school come June. I’d do it sooner, but I have nothing else to do besides show up here every morning. College is out of the question. It used to be about swimming scholarships, but if I can’t have those, I don’t see the point.
On that note, it’s time to leave. “Can I go now?”
Newman presses her lips into a thin line, no doubt annoyed that I’m ignoring her spiel. I’m annoyed she’s patronizing me, so we’re even.
“Do you have a ride home?” Lennox asks.
“Shane Murphy’s waiting for me.”
I swear Newman clucks her tongue, but she attempts to cover it up with a cough. Even though he’s smart, Shane’s been caught smoking one too many times. So now the school’s branded him a loser in spite of his impressive smarts and artistic talent. Not that there was ever any hope for Shane, to be fair. His dad’s an alcoholic. Worse, he’s a chronically unemployed mechanic. The progeny of such are never supposed to go to college. Not in the minds of the Mrs. Newmans of the world.
“Be at my office by seven-thirty Monday morning,” Lennox says.
“I thought I was suspended.”
“You’ll be serving the suspension in school. Maybe that way you’ll get some of your work done.”
Seriously, in-school suspension? I cannot get a break.
“So how long did Lennox suspend you for?” Shane attacks the whipped cream on his café mocha as soon as the barista hands it to him.
With his biker jacket on, he looks ridiculous standing in the middle of the very quaint Alice’s Coffee, Teas, and Goodies amidst the knitting mothers and the retired folks’ book club. The copious whipped cream on his frou frou drink doesn’t help. But if you want to go for an after-school coffee around here, Alice’s is it.
Ashbury consists of barely more than one street, a drawbridge, and a boardwalk that parallels the Connecticut River for the length of five small shops. Hartford, it isn’t. Middletown, it isn’t. Exciting, entertaining, interesting? Isn’t, isn’t, and isn’t.
“You know, he just said ‘suspension.’ The topic of how many days never came up.” Now that we both have our afternoon caffeine in-hand, I push open the door and catch a musty breeze off the river. Shane’s jacket aside, the temperature’s pretty nice for early October. “He must have been too busy trying not to pity me. But whatever. So what’s suspension like?”
I don’t know what’s more sad. Is it that before the accident I was such a goody two shoes that I never even got a detention, or that since the accident I’ve become better acquainted with Lennox’s office than I am with any of my textbooks?
“Truthfully? Boring as hell. Why do you think I haven’t gotten into any fights in the last couple years?” Shane’s brow wrinkles as he sucks whipped cream from his stirrer. “Damn, I hope Lennox doesn’t figure out his brand of sadism actually worked on me.”
“Is that what it took? And all this time I thought you’d stopped getting into fights because you matured.” Alice’s has a couple plastic café tables on the boardwalk, and I plop – gently so as not to bother my back – down at one of them. Suspension can’t be any more boring than sitting through Gallagher’s history class, can it? I’m afraid to ask.
“What did your parents say?” Shane asks.
“Really?” Concern’s plastered all over his face. He knows it’s all too possible my parents will say nothing. Silence has ruled at my house since the accident.
I sip my cappuccino, which finally cooled off enough to drink. “Not exactly. Lennox left a message. But odds are it will be nothing.”
“Fucking sucks” is all Shane says. That’s why he’s my best friend. My only friend from before the accident who I can still talk to.
We spend the next several minutes theorizing whether Amy Woods will pray for my soul tonight or whether she’ll be naughty and ask God to smite me. Then we ponder what smiting actually entails. Shane bounds to his feet most unexpectedly as I attempt to riddle out if my tombstone will say I was smited or smote.
It’s not particularly funny when I think about it like that, and Shane’s erratic bounding saves me from dwelling on the insipid and meaningless inscription on Lizzy’s headstone.
“Where are you going?” I call after him. He’s left his mocha on the table.
“Nowhere. Be right back.”
His definition of nowhere apparently includes running down to the street. Then he disappears from view. I’m left with a tepid cup of cappuccino and the dank smell of the river walk’s canvas roof for company.
I play with the silver dragon’s head on my cane and pretend being suspended doesn’t bother my stomach. The cane is a gift Shane bought me because he said the cheap drugstore one I used was for old ladies. The tension in my gut over being suspended is some vestigial emotion. Post-accident Gabrielle doesn’t give a damn about such things. My body is simply too broken to get with my new attitude.
My physical therapist would have agreed with Shane about the old lady cane. He always called mine a walking stick. Walking sticks, he said, were youthful. My PT, I said, was an idiot.
I don’t know who would agree with me about the tension in my gut, but I don’t intend to tell anyone about it.
The shadows change by my feet, and I glance up. A nightmare in tweed stares down at me. My unease shifts as I decide what to make of this change in circumstances.
Before I can settle on a new emotion or an appropriate response to the threat, Catherine Woods – town councilwoman, tireless crusader against sex education in schools, and all around busybody – points a finger at me. Amy Woods’s mother is so holier-than-thou she makes her daughter look like a heathen.
“You hit my daughter.”
She doesn’t mince words so I see no reason to either. “She deserved it.”
I offer her my best fake perky smile. Catherine’s never liked me, not even when Amy and I were
good friends. My mom, back when I was young and she used to talk to me, said it was because we were Catholic. Personally, I think it’s because Catherine has a stick up her ass and it makes her hate everybody who doesn’t share her affliction. Nor her love for all things tweedy.
Catherine’s massive chest puffs with indignation. If she doesn’t explode, she might fall over because her center of gravity is so high. “You are a horrid girl, Miss Richards. I can’t even pity you for your troubles because surely you’ve brought them on yourself. Have you ever considered the reasons you’re suffering? God punishes the wicked, and – ”
I don’t hear the rest of her sermon because – back pain be damned – I’ve sprung to my feet. My hand twitches on my cane, resisting the urge to beat her with it. How is it that I can punch her daughter on school grounds and all I get is suspended, yet if I punch Catherine in downtown Ashbury I’ll get arrested? That is so messed up. Not to mention grossly unfair when I desperately want to hit Catherine.
Someone rests a hand on my arm. Since I’m busy giving Catherine my best wicked heathen glare, I don’t bother to see who it is. I assume it’s Shane.
“Hey, Catherine, shouldn’t you be petitioning the library to remove their Halloween decorations or something equally stupid?”
That’s not Shane’s voice, and I jerk my arm away from this stranger who dared touch me.
“Ah, Mr. Tennyson.” Catherine’s chest deflates, but the smugness remains stuck to her face like her garish lipstick. “Why doesn’t it surprise me to see you jump to Miss Richards’s defense? The wicked will. But I’d stick to fighting your own battles if I were you.”
“Good advice,” I say. “Next time let your daughter do the same.”
Catherine mimes wiping her hands of me. “I’ll pray for you.”
“Don’t do me any favors.” Really. I rest my cane against the table and reach for my cappuccino. “Thanks, but that wasn’t necessary,” I say, finally turning my attention to the gallant Mr. Tennyson. His last name triggers a kind of itch in my brain, like it should meaningful. Only it’s not. Maybe I’m just thinking of that poet we had to read in English class last month.
Whatever the reason, the newcomer grins at me, and I quickly take a drink to cover the flush I feel creeping up my neck. That’s unexpected.
Wavy brown hair falls around his forehead. Dark yet bright eyes. Olive complexion. He doesn’t look any older than me, so how come I’ve never seen him before? I’m quite certain I’d have noticed if he went to Ashbury High. My heart hasn’t tapped on my chest as if to say “hot guy, pay attention” since before the accident.
Before the accident and after the accident – that is how I divide my life. And I’m definitely feeling some pre-accident emotions here. It’s disconcerting because I thought they’d died right along with my sister and my dreams.
“Got to be honest,” Mr. Hot Tennyson says. “I wasn’t doing it for you. I’ll take any opportunity to piss off Catherine Woods. I did wonder for a second, though, if you might take a swing at her.”
“Thought about it.” I set my cup down, annoyed that my hand is now trembling and Catherine has nothing to do with it. “Who are you again?”
“Oh, uh, Erik Tennyson. And you are? Besides Catherine Woods’s mortal enemy, which automatically makes you a friend?”
“Wait, Tennyson?” The brain itch vanishes as I place his last name. “Like one of the Tennyson Orchard Tennysons?”
Hair flops into his eyes, and he pushes it away. “Yeah. Wow, it’s weird moving to a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. I had no idea my last name was so famous around here.”
“More like infamous. My parents used to buy wine from your family.” Back when my parents weren’t zombies. That is, pre-accident. “It’s not like there’s any other Tennysons in Ashbury.”
“Apparently not. Now I’m really at an unfair disadvantage. So your first name, Miss Richards?”
My cane – excuse me, walking stick – slides against the table and whacks me in the hip. Do I need a name? Isn’t it enough that I’m the Ashbury High cripple? But then it occurs to me that Erik must not have gone to my school. He doesn’t know I’m formerly Gabrielle Richards, honor roll nerd, Key Club vice-president, and state swimming champion. He doesn’t even know I used to have a sister.
So I tell him my name.
“Are you the former swimmer who…” He grimaces as he checks out my cane.
“Ain’t small towns grand?”
“Sorry. My grandfather gets the paper, and I saw something this morning about the high school swim team being without its star athletes this year. Richards rang a bell.”
The wind blows hair in my face and I leave it there, staring at Erik through a veil of blondness. It covers up any emotions I’m failing to repress. “Yeah, that would have been me and my sister. See, it’s not only your family that’s notorious around these parts. Feel better?”
“Mildly. Did you actually hit Catherine’s daughter?”
Finally, I tuck my hair behind my ears so I can give him my best “duh” expression. “Of course.”
“Why?” He leans against the railing, watching me as if this tale fascinates him.
“Long story. Why do you hate Catherine?”
“Also a long story, but it probably all comes down to Catherine thinking alcohol is the devil.”
The Tennyson Orchard is really a winery. Well, it’s also an orchard, but they make apple wines and hard ciders with the fruit. And where did Erik Tennyson come from, because if he belongs to the orchard people, then why didn’t he go to school here? Even if he was homeschooled, it seems impossible that we’ve never run into each other before. Ashbury’s too tiny for that. For some reason I’m burning to ask where he’s been hiding, and I don’t like it.
I flail about for something equally inane to say, but less embarrassing. “See, I would have assumed Catherine didn’t like apples because of that whole Eve and the snake deal.”
“Wow, good point. You might be on to something.” Then he straightens suddenly, like Shane did a few minutes ago, and swears. “My grandfather’s going to kill me. I was just supposed to drop the cider off to Alice. I need to run. Nice to meet you, Catherine’s enemy.”
I nod. Nice to meet you too, Mr. Hot Tennyson.
Erik and Shane almost collide at the end of the boardwalk. Erik continues to plow ahead, but Shane takes time to check out the farm boy’s butt.
“Like what you saw?” I ask as Shane lights a cigarette.
Shane makes an innocent face. I’m the only person he’s trusted enough to come out to, and I don’t understand why. He’s already proven he can beat the crap out of anyone on Ashbury’s football team. No one’s going to give him hell for it.
Of course, I could probably beat the crap out of anyone on Ashbury’s football team. Or I could have before the accident.
“Your parents aren’t going to stop you from coming to Danni’s tomorrow, are they?” Shane asks.
I actually have to think about why they would. Oh yeah. Suspension. How quickly I was distracted by a cute face. How unlike me these days. “They’d have to care in order to punish me,” I say.
Before the accident. After the accident. Caring. Not caring. Sister. No sister. Family. Not so much. My back isn’t the only thing that broke.
That’s the real reason I punched Amy Woods.