This is the first full chapter of "Heartshire High", my first novel for which I am currently seeking representation. It is a YA novel that's a modern retelling of "Alice in Wonderland" - with a twist.
Chapter 1: After Bunni
It wasn’t really a journal. I tried keeping a journal, but it would always be one long entry filling the first seven pages, and then just nothing. Too hard. Before we packed up to move, I had a whole shelf of journals. One from first grade, with a puppy on the cover, where I’d just drawn the same pictures of animals over and over, in crazy colors. I’d even colored the puppy purple with a permanent marker I took from my mom. One from my ninth birthday, where I’d written about how I was going to be a ballerina. One my mom had given me the summer after eighth grade, that was all about some fight with some girl that I couldn’t even remember. I’d thrown them out before we left. Now I just kept a notebook, a red one from the drugstore we had stopped at on the car ride here. Each page had the same four lines at the top, then just pictures.
After school, I filled it out.
Overheard: “No one die this time.” - Kid with the red hat
I couldn’t stop thinking about what that kid in the red hat had said in homeroom that morning; “There’s a rave next month -- we should go again. And like, no one die this time.” Where do I live now that still has raves? Isn’t that from like 20 years ago? I didn’t know if he was serious or not, but considering the silence that followed, I was leaning towards ‘yes’. This place was definitely different. Since I’d gotten home from school, the only thing I’d wanted to do was forget the whole day, clear my mind and paint. Usually I would have painted the ocean or mountains, but since we left California to come to this nothing town in the middle of more nothingness, those images just made me lonely. So, I put on my oversized blue jacket and decided to go for a drive in search of some inspiration.
“Bye dad,” I said to the back of my dad’s head as I walked by.
“Mmhmm,” he mumbled. This was life with Dad now. Dad-without-mom, Dad whose last parenting moment, as far as I remembered, was in that snapshot of me when I was in first grade, when he was showing me some puppies in the pet store. It was a cute picture; I had pigtails. We didn’t buy a puppy. Thanks, Dad.
“Do you want to know where I’m going or anything?” I asked from the hallway. “In case I like fall down a hole and die?”
“Have a good time.” The news was talking about wildfires or something else uninteresting, but he didn’t look away.
Mom wouldn’t have let me leave the house like this. Or she would have, if she’d been having one of her days, I guess. But when she was being Mom, when she was paying attention, she would have fussed at my messy blond ponytail and offered for the hundredth time to take me shopping for jeans that “fit”, which I guess meant they’d be tighter than these. But Mom wasn’t too short, and she didn’t have a freakishly long neck that made her look like a bird, and her hair didn’t go all fluffy if it was left down, like poodle ears. In other words, she wasn’t me.
This new town was too small; I felt like every street led me back to the same place. There were some fancy houses on the outside of town, but the part where we lived, next to the school, was dingy and wholly uninteresting. Forget cliffs overlooking the ocean; I couldn’t even get out of sight of the Wal-Mart. So I drove around for an hour, down this street or the next, taking little turns here and there, when I came across a large abandoned lot in between two brick buildings. I pulled into the lot and stepped out of the car. Broken glass and cigarette butts spotted the cracked cement, but as I walked further back, they gave way to a field where the high grass hid huge daisies and bright red poppies.
I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it this morning since it was on my drive to school, but I guessed I had been too nervous. I took out my phone and starting taking photos of things I might want to paint: the sun coming through the white daisies, a green caterpillar chewing on a poppy petal. All the pictures came out too bright, like faded postcards, losing the magic they had in the afternoon sun after being captured. The hot day made me feel very sleepy and stupid, so I just wandered around, kicking a glass bottle and listening to it rattle on the pavement and trying to get a photo where the light was right. I picked up a bottle cap that had been flattened by a car into a little metal sun and put it in my pocket next to a plastic barrette I’d found and forgotten.
As I made my way around to the back of the brick building at the corner of the lot, I noticed that it had been tagged with spray paint in a few places. There were a few curly arrows pointing toward the back corner, so I walked along, following them. When I came to the side that was only a few feet from a long, chain-link fence, I saw that someone had painted the most fantastical mural along the wall. There were all these imaginary animals, in pastel hues and bright, wild tones, tumbling along the bricks in a party. Turtles with wings and long, lavender panthers and tall neon birds with clothes and claws and capes. I took picture after picture, fascinated. I followed the wall along, even though the walking space between it and the fence got narrower and narrower. There was a deep purple dog painted there, with a quiet face, just looking out from the wall. At first he looked fuzzy, but when I looked closer, I realized that his outline was made of tiny, carefully printed words. As I read them, over and over, I recognized them as the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”.
“Blue”. The song I’d been listening to on repeat in the car all week. The song I’d written in my notebook, which had replaced that journal with the deep purple dog. I had to know who painted this. I had to find her. We were going to be best friends. Someone else who liked art and old music and, I don’t know, spending time alone in fields, which I guess was something I liked now. This awful little town, with its potholed streets and off-brand snacks in the dimly lit gas station, was going to have a silver lining. There was at least one person here who would get me, and we were going to be friends. But how would I ever find her? In the corner it was tagged with a name that looked like “Time”.
I was finally calm. Or maybe numb. The first day of senior year was supposed to be easy, not a time to start all over again. I walked back along the wall to where the fence started and sat down and focused on the flowers, picking some of the little ones to make a daisy chain. I took a few more pictures as the field started to glow from the setting sun, even the broken glass that speckled the pavement twinkling brightly, and then got back in the car. “Blue” was still playing on loop through the speakers.
I just let it keep playing on repeat until I pulled into the driveway. “Nobody die this time,” the kid in homeroom had said. Easier said than done, I felt, looking at the little house. I didn’t want to go inside and dignify it with my presence. I wished I could just keep driving until I got home. But I was home now? To my real home. To mom. Or to some imaginary home where my mom was the good way all the time, and my dad just never existed, and my friends couldn’t be friends anymore without me, and my pictures came out the way I wanted.
I eased the door and snuck through the house like a spy, avoiding the kitchen where I could hear my father on the phone, laughing. Almost giggling. Flirting, like he was trying to be a guy instead of a dad. Barf. As I went up the stairs, the floor creaked under my feet, and I froze, but he didn’t even pause in his conversation. When I made it to the fresh canvas in the corner of my room, I plugged in my earphones, turned my music up, and started painting in the makeshift studio I’d set up.
As I painted, I thought back on the day and how much I hated being in this new place. Now that I thought it out, I determined that yes, the summer before senior year might actually be the absolute worst time to move to a tiny, crappy town where everyone had had the same best friends since they were five. Being the new kid all day was so awkward and pathetic. I guessed I would still be the “new kid” at graduation. I’d started the day in English, hoping to just drift through unnoticed. Why do teachers think the ‘new kid’ would want to stand in front of everyone and introduce herself? Who would ever want to do that? When did the class ever look at that person and go, “Oh really? You’re from another state? Let’s be best friends. Because we’re seven years old”? Never. But they all still do it. It’s somehow in the teacher handbook as one of the few things they all agree is a great idea, along with putting one smart kid in each group so that they can do the whole group project while getting made fun of by the people they’re helping, or putting the desks in a circle whenever the day is going to be awful.
But I did it anyway and stood there, trying to look normal, trying to act like it wasn’t humiliating to have everyone stand there and watch me, scrutinizing. When you start at a new school, they should give you a week to just watch from behind the glass, so you know that no one else wears the sneakers that everyone wore at your old school, or that only the stoners have backpacks. Like one of those mirrors in court shows, where no one knows you’re watching. They should give you a week before they put you on display - it would only be fair.
But I got up and gave the little speech for them anyway. “Hi, I’m Celia. (True.) I moved from LA a few days ago because of my dad’s job. (False. My dad got a new job because he was leaving my mom and I had to go with him because my mom ‘can’t do it on her own,’ otherwise known as ‘mentally unfit’ if you ask the court, otherwise known as ‘whacko’. But still a way better parent than my dad, even if sometimes she cries in her bed or doesn’t come home at night. She still cared who my friends were. She still knew what classes I was taking. She knew how to make a meal that wasn’t cereal. Otherwise known as ‘a person who wasn’t perfect.’ Otherwise known as ‘a person.’ Otherwise known as ‘I miss her a lot.’) I enjoy anything art-related and I used to love watching the sunset. (Back when I had friends, and lived in a place where sunsets weren’t obscured by billboards for all-you-can-eat cornbread and lawyers helping you sue if you got in a car accident.) And even though I used to go to the ocean everyday, I have yet to stand up on a surfboard. (True. But apparently, judging by their faces, not funny or interesting at all.) I have an older sister named Ruby who goes to Stanford. (A few impressed nods for this one. Thanks, Ruby. You finally have something to offer. You left, everything fell apart, and now I’ve lost my mom, my friends, my house… my life. But at least you get to pursue your ‘true self’. That’s what’s always been most important, after all: you.)” I rambled on, trying to sound interesting, but everyone was just silent when I finished. They weren’t mean; a few of them smiled at me. But that was it.
By last period, the introduction speech in math was down to, “My name is Celia (True.), I moved here from California (True.).” No one was mean, but no one smiled. It’s like I was actually invisible, if invisible people could somehow be judged by everyone around them. A year isn’t that long, I thought. I could be invisible for a year.
I tried to forget all of it while I painted. I finished the vibrant green grass and had begun to paint the daisies when my phone rang. Ruby. I stared at it for five rings before I picked it up.
“Celia! I miss you so much! How was your first day of school?” I outlined a daisy petal and wondered if I should be honest.
“Okay, I guess, considering.” I paused. “Actually, it was awful. I didn’t really get to know anyone and since I’m new no one really asked. And whenever I did try to talk to someone, it was super awkward. This town sucks. The school sucks. There’s a framed quote hanging in the front entryway that says ‘Believe if your dreams.’ It says ‘if’, Ruby. Not ‘in.’ They framed it and hung it there long enough for it to get dusty, and no one’s noticed that it freaking says ‘believe if your dreams.’”
“I’m sorry you’re having a rough time, but I’m sure it will get better. I’m guessing you’re painting right now, and I hate to tell you this but you should really be working.” Typical Ruby.
“Oh please. I know it’s shocking, but not everyone wants to be you.” While I was on the phone, I took the metal bottle cap and plastic barrette from my jacket pocket and glued them onto a sculpture I’d started at home, a big flat circle that I called “Found on the Ground.” It was, not surprisingly, just things I found on the ground. I loved it.
Ruby laughed, but she knew I meant it in a mean way. It never had made sense to her that I wasn’t a ‘school kid’ - that once I understood the material, I didn’t care what the grade was or what the teacher thought. It wasn’t that school was hard for me, I just never really cared very much about it. Textbooks were boring; life was exciting. Or at least it used to be, when we were back home, with mom. Why read about something, when you can go to a museum or talk to someone interesting or get out in the real world and see it for yourself? It was Ruby who needed the pat on the head, who cherished every gold star that came her way.
“Okay fine, but you still need to graduate. It’s time to start being a little more serious about school, okay?” I didn’t answer. “Is the house at least good? How’s your room?”
“It’s small. It feels like you walk into a room and it gets smaller around you. I gotta go, Dad’s calling.” He, of course, wasn’t.
“I know it’s hard, Celia…”
“You really don’t. You aren’t here. I gotta go.”
I hung up. She didn’t know. She didn’t know that mom had stood in the driveway, watching the car leave. She didn’t know that mom had made me these cookies to eat in the car, where the M&Ms made the shape of a heart on each cookie. I thought about mom, manic in the middle of the night, sorting the M&Ms into colors so they’d look just right. She didn’t know that mom had gotten so drunk the day of the court decision that I’d found her in the bathroom, so white she was almost blue, and carried her to bed. That she’d grabbed my face and looked into my eyes, terrified. “They said I’m bad for you,” she said. “I never wanted to be anything but good. That’s why I made you.”
She’d thrown up in her bed, and I’d washed the blankets, and then washed them again when they still smelled sour. Ruby didn’t know any of that. She’d never cared if the blankets were sour or the hearts on the cookies were perfect. I bet she wouldn't even have noticed if she’d been there.
I went back to painting, losing myself in the details until it was 12am and I couldn’t put off my homework any more. Ruby was right - I did have to graduate. Two-hundred-thirty-seven days from now. I pulled a page from my red notebook and tacked it to the wall. It was supposed to motivate me, but it just made my room feel more like a prison.
The next morning, I grabbed a piece of toast to take with me in the car. No butter, I discovered too late. We did have a big jar of orange marmalade with a ruffly fabric top, a souvenir from Florida that dad’s girlfriend Lorina had handed me with an overly sweet smile when she and my dad came back. “Girlfriend?” He called her his “friend”. Which was somehow grosser. Even though it was clearly an afterthought from the airport. Even though who the hell wants marmalade. I put it on my toast - it was bitter and sweet and sticky. If Lorina’s perfume were a food, it would be this. Lorina, with her fake auburn hair and her hair dye stains on her ears. Lorina, who’d started leaving her toothbrush on the sink. The bristles were all splayed. Just get a new toothbrush, Lorina. They’re like a dollar.
I dumped the toast in the trash and threw the marmalade jar on top of it. I felt a little bad for Lorina, who’d see it there, at the bottom of the black bag, when she’d make dad a Hot Pocket after work. Like that was cooking. My mom would have made something good out of the marmalade - glazed pork with wild rice, Chinese stir fry. The kitchen would have been a disaster, but it would have smelled like heaven. Now we had a clean kitchen and a plastic spoon holder on the counter that said “Everything’s bigger in Texas”. I hated it.
Hungry, I got in the car. The only good thing about Ruby leaving, about Dad feeling guilty, about his new job that paid more: my car. I would still trade it to have everything back the way it was, but if things had to be like this, at least I had a car. Driving to school, I straightened my black headband for the hundredth time, put the curl of hair that always got in my eyes back behind my ear, and made it my sole goal of the day to try and socialize with every person I could, even if it was weird. I couldn’t be myself and also pretend to be like everyone here. It would be too exhausting to be two people at once; I hardly had enough mental energy left to make one respectable person. Plus I was too hungry to put on a fake personality all day. So I decided I’d just be myself and get them to like me, somehow. I would have to go up to people and just make them talk to me. I drove past the lot I had discovered the other day. Maybe I’d find out who painted the mural and be friends with her. I gave myself the little pep talk that you always give yourself before things don’t go at all like you tell yourself they will. I took a deep breath as I drove up the entrance to Heartshire High. If those flowers could grow in that abandoned lot, I could survive at this school.
Before getting out of the car, I pulled out the red notebook.
Song: Hearts and Bones
Overheard: “Why can’t any cool people ever transfer here?” - some girl
I braced myself, left the car, and in I went. Immediately after opening the door, I was hit by a wall of sound. People talking everywhere, laughing, pushing each other, slamming lockers. Even the mousey kids who stood shyly by their lockers seemed to have other mousey kids to talk to. I looked again at the framed plaque on the wall, trying to look like someone that anyone could come up to talk to, and then realizing I had no idea what that looked like, and then fake laughing at the plaque hoping someone would catch my eye so that I could start a conversation about how it said “if” instead of “in” and that was so stupid, and then realizing no one would want to talk about that, and then just walking along the wall down a hallway that went straight on like a tunnel for what seemed like forever. Pathetic. It turns out I didn’t know how to make friends as a 17-year-old. I hadn’t made any friends since I was 9. Maybe I should choose someone who has the same color hair as me and run up to them and see if they want to play princesses?
The hall had rows of lockers, with maps painted above them along the wall in what looked like it had been a class project, since the maps were all just a little off. If only there’d been a rule book you could follow for making friends. I was good at being friends, but just, could there be some rules for the starting part? We taught everyone how to draw a map of the Louisiana Purchase, apparently - wasn’t making friends a little more important? Couldn’t we get, like, a packet or something? I read the numbers down the row until I got to my own locker and was happy to see that I’d left some candy in there yesterday, which I finished off. I saw in my locker mirror that the stupid curl had gotten loose again. Sigh.
I walked into history, my first class, and took an empty seat in the middle of the room. But before I could speak to anyone, the bell rang. I turned to the girl next me and smiled, she smiled back, but then she turned around to talk to someone else. I tried to take notes but the teacher’s quiet droning was impossible to follow. He kept underlining the same arrow on the board, which was supposed to mean something to us about how one thing connected to another, but I’d missed the beginning so it was nothing but an arrow to me. He kept saying “and so it follows that…” and waiting for someone to fill in the blank with what he clearly thought was an obvious answer. You could actually hear the clock ticking. I opened up the notebook and wrote:
Remember when mom took all my toys
And gave them all away?
To kids who “really needed them”
To have a way to play?
And then I cried and wept because
I’d lost my favorite doll.
And mom said I was selfish
‘Cause I didn’t need them all?
So while my mom was missing
For a couple days or three
I took all of her jewelry
And dumped it in the sea.
I planned to tell her, when she cried,
She was the selfish one
And simply didn’t need them all,
When other folks had none.
I knew she would be sorry, once
She felt the way I did;
But instead she didn’t notice
Or if she did, she never said.
I doodled arrows up and down my notebook and tried to figure out a new plan. As class was dismissed, I noticed a short girl wearing a Jefferson Airplane tee shirt, and I remembered she was in my next class. That was one of my favorite bands from the 60s. Sure, I was more into the 70s and early 80s lately, but I still knew both sides of Surrealistic Pillow like the back of my hand. For the first time in days, I felt cool, ready to impress this girl by talking about 60s rock and finding out what her favorite Doors song was and whether she was a Stones or Beatles girl and how much she had loved Pet Sounds and how we couldn’t believe that all these other kids hadn’t even listened to Pet Sounds, or even heard of it, and then we’d be friends. I caught up to her.
“Cool shirt,” I said. “Feed your head.”
“Huh?” she said with a friendly smile.
“Jefferson Airplane, you know. White Rabbit.”
“Oh,” she smiled, “I don’t know. I just thought it was a cool shirt.” And then she saw what must have been one of her friends and sped off after her, leaving me alone in the hallway. Sigh. I just wasn’t made for these times, I thought, laughing at my own joke that no one would appreciate. Because it’s a song from Pet Sounds, and it’s also true.
And that’s how it went, all day. Each break dragged on, and every single class seemed to be endless poker game of trying to read people’s emotions or catch their eyes so I could at least have someone to smile at. Or just talk to someone. Everyone just seemed kind of mildly annoyed by whatever I had to say. Like when a teacher sees you before school and tells you your jacket is “sharp,” and someone overhears it, but you still have to smile so you don’t seem rude. Sigh.
At lunch, I bought a plastic-wrapped sandwich and went from table to table, but everyone seemed to be saving seats for their imaginary friends. By the tenth table, I was so tired of being awkwardly all alone in a sea of people that I walked to the parking lot and ate alone in my car, listening to Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones album. I used to memorize all the information about an album when I was a kid. My mom would put on an album and lie in her bed, and tell me to lie down and “listen, listen, listen.” So I’d read all the lyrics, and all the album info, and close my eyes and try to recite it. Because if I knew it, maybe I’d know her. Hearts and Bones. Artist? Paul Simon. Year? 1983. Studio? Warner Brothers. I could list all the songs. I could say all the lyrics. It was so comforting; predictable.
I thought about my mom, who was probably eating lunch alone somewhere too just now, if she was eating at all. Maybe she was doing the mom classic, wine and Swedish fish in bed. Or microwave popcorn with Hershey’s kisses. Definitely nothing with vegetables. I wondered whether hearing from me without seeing me would make her day better or worse, but I decided to text her mostly out of my own loneliness.
Celia: Hi mom, I miss you.
I watched the screen as I ate my sandwich, but there was no reply. Sitting there, I decided that since I only had three more classes, and one of them was gym, I was just going to leave. I drove to the daisy lot, pulled in behind one of the buildings, and started walking around. A little further back behind one of the buildings was a thick forest, which I wanted to explore, but unfortunately I’m absolutely amazing at getting lost, so I was afraid.
I sat down in a patch of grass at the edge of the forest, took off my shoes, stretched my legs out in front of me like a little kid, and finished off my sandwich. I sat there doing nothing, just picking petals off the daisies and being glad I wasn’t in school anymore. I was watching my phone to see if my mom would reply when a girl about my age with short, platinum blond hair and white jeans ran out of the forest and across the field towards the road.
She looked completely frazzled and fumbled a few times as her heels sunk into the grass. She kept checking her phone and then running faster and faster, as if she was being chased. I jumped up and ran a few steps after her, shouting, “Hey! Are you okay?!” Shocked at the sound of my voice, she spun her head toward me, nodded with a rushed smile and a wave, and continued to race along. I stayed standing, not sure what to do, and watched her jump into a pink bug that had been parked in the street and drive away. I stood there dazed for a moment, until I checked my phone and realized it was three o’clock and I could finally go home, so I made my way back to the car, stopping at the mural along the way to look at it one more time. Who are you? I started humming that opening line from The Who’s classic song over and over again. Who? Who? Who was that girl who’d come running out of the forest, and why? Who was the girl who’d painted that mural? Who was I, even, anymore. Like The Who, I really wanted to know.
As I pulled into my driveway, I was struck by the realization that it didn’t matter when I came home. If I came home at noon, no one would be here. No mom to freak out that I wasn’t at school. No neighbors who’d tell mom about my car if she was in bed, knocked out by whatever meds she was trying this month. And if I didn’t get home at three, who would know? Dad? He’d probably be grateful to have the house to himself, to pour Lorina a glass of wine on the back porch and lie in a deck chair with his shirt unbuttoned, laughing at her stupid jokes. Gross.
So I became determined to do everything right. To be home on time, every time. To leave a note when I left the house. To live like I still had a mom. So that he wouldn’t have any excuses - it wasn’t going to be my fault that he was a terrible dad. I would keep track of everything I did right and everything he did wrong. I would be perfect. I didn’t have any friends anyway, so I really wasn’t giving anything up. And when the 237 days were up, I’d present my evidence to whoever needed it. I’d go home, real home, and take care of Mom. Exhibit A: I am home on time, even though no one is here. I went into the kitchen and looked for a snack. Exhibit B: no food. I snapped a picture with my phone of the cold, sticky shelves, which would have been empty if not for some mustard, a couple soy sauce packets, and an old box of baking soda. It almost made me wish I’d kept the marmalade. Exhibit C: I drove to the store and bought this bag of groceries. Snapped another picture, in the checkout lane. Exhibit D: I put everything away and put the change back on the counter. Snap! Snap!
Now at least I have something to do all day; now I have a purpose. When my dad sees all the pictures, a year of his mistakes, a year of my successes, he won’t be able to keep me here.
Evidence collected, I went upstairs to paint. And as I painted I couldn’t stop wondering what was up with that girl running from the woods. Did she go to Heartshire High too? Why was she in the woods? Could she and I maybe have something to talk about now? Would someone that pretty even, like, let me talk to them? But we had something in common now, no matter how small: the lot. Maybe she was the one who painted the mural. I just knew I had to track her down. I texted some friends from home about how senior year was going, but talking to them only made me lonelier. Every second felt like forever. There’s no worse feeling than wanting to go home and realizing you’re already there.
My alarm blasted Straight to Hell, which felt accurate. Straight to Hell. Artist? The Clash. Album? Combat Rock. 1982. CBS Records. I opened my eyes slowly, hoping I would wake up in my old room. When that didn’t happen, I pulled the sheets up over my head until I absolutely, absolutely couldn’t stay in bed anymore or I would so be late. Same headband and jacket, same jeans, same toast (though when I went to get the butter, which I’d remembered at the store, I noticed the marmalade was back in the fridge. From the trash. Lorina), same hair in my eyes, same stupid town, same drive to school. But just as I pulled into the parking lot, I saw the blond girl again. I quickly parked and scrambled after her, trying to catch up while still looking like I was there by coincidence. Once again, she was hurrying, as if she were late for something.
I sped past her and then tried to look as if I’d just noticed her there. “Hey, were you okay yesterday?” I asked.
It took her face just a moment to register who I was. “Yeah! Sorry I was in such a rush! I just didn’t want to be late to my meeting, don’t worry! I’m the head of the dance team, so it doesn’t look good if I’m late. Anyways, I’m Bunni. You must be Celia, the new girl.” She answered back in the nicest tone I had heard since arriving there. And she knew my name, which made me feel weird but mostly a little bit happy. So I wasn’t invisible, for better or worse. As we walked into the school, Bunni and I kept talking. This time the loud hallway didn’t bother me, and I forgot about the inspirational typo and the wonky maps. I was a little intimidated by how pretty she was (perfect hair, bright green eyes, supermodel figure; nothing like short me, with my dull, blond puffy hair and a body my mom had once, in one of her moods, described as ‘nothing special’), but she was also super nice and seemed to be friends with everyone we passed. We walked to her group of friends and she introduced me to them. Since they weren’t in any of my classes, they hadn’t received my ‘introduction speech’, so I got a fresh start. And for eight minutes, I felt like I could actually survive this year. They asked about California and about which teachers I had. They warned me not to eat the toffee bars in the cafeteria. Some guy named Maurice was in the middle of explaining an inside joke that, admittedly, didn’t seem at all funny when the first bell rang and people started to take off. As Bunni walked away, I called out to her to ask her the question that had been bugging me since yesterday, “So, what were you doing in the forest?”
Bunni turned to me discreetly, “We can’t talk about it around teachers. But meet me at my car at lunch and I’ll show you.” Finally, something interesting was happening. Maybe.
Weather: hot again
Song: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Overheard: “She’s friends with Bunni” - Maurice, about me!!!
I didn’t even care how boring my first few classes were, and I didn’t bother trying to make friends. At lunch, I met Bunni at her little pink car and we drove back to the field. When we parked, I couldn’t help but feeling a bit weird. What was going on here that she couldn’t talk about at school? Was it really a good idea for me to be doing this, heading off with some random person, before I even had any friends? You take what you can get, I thought. Hesitant, I followed my new friend to the opening of a little trail at the edge of the woods, and along a gloomy forest passage, ducking under branches and stepping over stumps and following what I could tell was a trail only because we were following it. She had definitely done this before.
“So, uh, where are we going?” I asked as I began to see snack wrappers and beer cans littering the ground. Someone had spray painted “EAT ME” in bright orange on the side of a big rock. There were toilet paper streamers, limp and damp, hanging from one of the trees.
“Nothing, just a place. It’s where we all hang out. Well, especially if you want drugs.” She must have seen I wasn’t exactly at home with the idea, because she smiled and shook her head. “Oh, nothing bad ever happens, usually, don’t worry. Just don’t take anything from anybody except Pilar or Maddox, otherwise you don’t know what kind of crap you’re going to get.” I didn’t have any idea who Pilar or Maddox were, and I didn’t plan on “taking anything” from anyone, but I smiled back anyway. The forest was surprisingly quiet and eerie but wasn’t as dark as I had imagined. That’s when Bunni and I entered into a sort of open ring of trees in the forest.
Throughout the circle were tree stumps being used as seats and also a clear area in the center where there were ashes from a fire. It was pretty nice, cool and green except for the bits of trash everywhere, which made me a bit sad but didn’t seem to bother any of the kids sitting around chatting or looking at their phones who didn’t notice us at all. Nothing special. One girl smiled up at Bunni from her stump as we walked by. She was wearing a big, black sweater over black leggings, and with her red lipstick and wild, messy bun, she looked that kind of effortlessly cool that I didn’t know people could pull off in real life. She was picking at a take-out burrito and kind of staring off into space.
“Hey Dutch,” Bunni said. “This is Celia.” The girl nodded at me, and I nodded back. I was going to say something, but she went back to picking peppers out of her burrito as if I’d never been there.
“Her name’s Dutch?” I whispered to Bunni once we’d walked away. Bunni laughed.
“That’s what everyone calls her. She’s always got the best weed, since like seventh grade when no one had seen the stuff yet. She has a cousin or something who gets it.” I tried not to look shocked. In seventh grade, my biggest vice had been gel pens. In seventh grade, and now, I thought. But I lived here now, where people ate burritos that probably had no organic ingredients and came in a plastic bag. Where I, apparently, hung out in the woods. I tried to think of what my face normally looked like, so that I could make it look like that. So no one would know that I’d never seen a beer can before outside of a recycling bin. So that no one would realize that I didn’t belong. I pretty quickly realized that the absolute fastest and most certain way to make sure you look completely uncomfortable is to try to look comfortable, but that just made it worse. But Bunni was still smiling.
“People usually come here after school, but you can come whenever. Obviously, like you can see, lots of us eat lunch here. The cafeteria’s kind of awful. I usually come here, if I don’t have a dance committee meeting. People just, like, leave you alone here, you know? I mean, if you want them to.” We sat down on a log and Bunni ate a granola bar from her bag, while I just sort of stared at the ground and tried not to look out of place, putting my hands in my lap and then next to me and then back in my lap and basically just wishing I was dead and hoping my face wasn’t too sweaty and red. She told me all about her upcoming dance team show and how they were having to scramble to change everything because this one girl had dropped out. I was kind of half listening, but once she stopped talking I realized I had to say something.
“So, what kind of music do you like?” I asked, hopeful.
“Oh I love all music!” Bunni said. “Taylor Swift, Rihanna… everything.” I gave a weak smile but moaned internally.
Then, Bunni checked her phone and completely freaked out. “Shit! We’re late!” She jumped up and frantically began gathering her things. No one seemed to notice her panic, and they just waved goodbye to her and went back to whatever they were doing. I grabbed my bag and chased after her, but coordination and I aren’t exactly friends and Bunni was definitely not a stranger to running this path. I could see her ahead, but I wasn’t keeping pace with her. I tripped on a hole in the path and fell straight down, landing on my face in the dirt. I jumped to my feet. I looked around and to my relief no one had seen me trip. To my opposite-of-relief, no one had seen me because we were out of sight of everyone in the clearing, but Bunni ahead of me was nowhere to be seen; she hadn’t stopped to wait for me, and all I could hope was that in her hurrying she hadn’t noticed my fall.
I was brushing the dirt and twigs off my clothes when I realized that I’d really messed up my ankle – it was swelling and I couldn’t stand on it very well. I checked the time on my thankfully unharmed phone: 1:35pm. I knew I had to go back to school because they would begin to suspect my absence two days in a row. However, even if I ran, I still would be late to my next class. And since I had come with Bunni, who was obviously gone, I didn’t have a ride either; I was going to have to walk back. So, it made sense not to rush and I sat down and just stayed there little while longer watching my ankle swell and tearing up a little at the pain, and also at the fact that I was left here, alone, apparently forgotten in an instant. Nothing special, I thought again. I undid my shoe to make space for my quickly-expanding purple ankle and let the black strap drag on the ground.
Sitting there, in the dirt, I noticed a little sparkle in the grass. Probably a foil wrapper or something. I reached down next to the hole in the path and grabbed it. I brushed the dirt off of the object only to discover it was a necklace chain with a small diamond and key on it. The dainty necklace was really pretty and the key would be a great addition to Found on the Ground, and since no one was around, I put it in my jacket pocket. I limped back through the field, determined to make it back to school before my next class started and glad for the first time to see the entrance of Heartshire High. My ankle was almost too big for my shoe now, and it kept getting bigger and bigger, with no signs of stopping. I stopped at my locker to get my books, and found a note from Bunni, which made me feel a little better. “Celia, Sorry! I’m so stupid sometimes - I just forgot to wait for you. On Friday, we’ll party! Love, Bunni.”
I smiled. I have a friend. I didn’t know what was on Friday, but I was so happy to have something, anything to do. I hobbled to class, feeling like everything was going to be fine after all. It didn’t last - when I opened the door to my French class, everyone stared at me. I looked down and noticed that my shirt was covered in dirt from the fall, and I had big muddy stains on both my knees. I tightened my blue jacket around me and stuffed my dirty hand into my pocket, where the necklace was cold to the touch, and wobbled to my seat. Just go on til you come to the end, I thought. Then stop.
I'm a high school senior who loves to read, write, read about writing, and write about reading. My first novel, Heartshire High, is out now!