I curled my ponytail in my fingers and stared out the library window. The cheer squad was practicing for the upcoming pep rally. I didn’t feel particularly peppy today. I told Coach that I was nauseous. We’d once had a girl vomit right off the top of the pyramid at a competition because she was so nervous and Coach had made her go on. We’d lost sectionals that year. Now it was a surefire way to get out of practice. I watched Rachel do a flip dismount, the rest of the girls catching her with ease. She was a flier because she was so damn tiny.
Huck Finn was open in front of me but I didn’t feel much like reading. Or doing anything for that matter. The library windows were facing the field and I found the perfect spot to watch them, the sun warm on my face at odds with the blast of the AC.
“Why aren’t you out there with them?”
I jumped at the voice as Augie slid into the seat next to me, dumping his mountain of books on the table.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, my voice sounding bitter and bitchy. Not that I cared.
He raised his eyebrows. “I have study hall this period. What are you doing here?” He matched the sass in my tone and I tried not to smile at him. Coming from him, it just sounded funny.
He unearthed his own copy of Huck Finn and opened his binder, pencil shavings pouring out. He had a note written on his hand but it was all smudged. He flicked his too-long hair out of his eyes and studied me.
“I didn’t want to go to practice, I don’t feel well.” Which wasn’t a lie. I didn’t feel well mentally and that should count for something. I slouched in my seat and crossed my arms. “Is there anything wrong with those tables over there?” I asked, pointing to the row of empty study tables in front of us.
He cracked a sideways smile and leaned closer. “Yeah, you’re not sitting at them.”
I rolled my eyes at him. He really did have balls. Nobody ever flirted with me because they didn’t want to fuck with Bryce. As if I was his property. “I know I said I would talk to you, but I kind of want to be alone right now.” Again, not a lie. Honesty is the best practice, right?
He looked around the library. It was deserted. “Well, no one is here to see you fall from social graces to sit with me, and I promise I won’t talk. Can I see your notes though? I’m kind of struggling with the last few chapters of this.” He scratched his head.
He was asking to see my notes? “Have at it.” I pushed my English notebook towards him and he slid it in front of him.
I continued to stare at the window, absently biting my thumbnail. His pencil was making an unrelenting scratching sound and his leg was bouncing up and down.
“Augie, you’re shaking the whole table.”
“Sorry.” He stopped shaking but kept at it with the pencil.
“Are you copying my notes verbatim?”
“Yeah, it’s just that I suck at English.”
“I doubt that you suck at anything,” I mumbled.
“Are you flirting with me?” he smiled and I scoffed.
“No, I am not. I have a boyfriend.”
“I know, the brawny one. How could I forget?”
I ignored him and closed my eyes, relishing in the rare silence and daydreaming about the cover of my future album. Positive thoughts. I needed to get out of this slump I could feel coming on. My therapist was always asking me if I didn’t feel like participating in activities that used to make me happy. As if that was some kind of marker. Yes equals depressed, no equals fine. I eyed the cheer team wearily; had that ever made me happy? Had anything, really? Yes, I reminded myself. Song-writing makes you happy. You have your music. So, if I still enjoyed that then I wasn’t spiraling. But, why did I still feel this way?
Augie’s voice pulled me from my thoughts and I realized he’d been studying me again. Was he trying to get an A in learning my secrets or something?
“Can I ask you something?”
“What?” I snapped, craving silence right now.
“It’s just…” he stared at the window, ignoring my tone.
The girls were high-fiving and having a little freestyle cool down. I used to dance with Shauna and Rachel, twirling so my skirt flew out.
“You left for a while last year, then you came back…different. Not in a bad way, just, less interested in that stuff.” He pointed outside. Had he been reading my thoughts; did he have some sort of nerd superpower?
I was surprised that Augie had noticed anything. Bryce and my other friends sure hadn’t. They’d kept me in the hospital for a bit then insisted I stay home for a few days. My parents didn’t talk about it. As if pretending that I’d never tried to kill myself made it go away. Poof. If we didn’t talk about it then it never happened, right?
I closed my eyes, trying to block out the powdery taste of the pills I’d found in my mother’s medicine cabinet, the rocking of my father’s old boat I’d stolen from the docks, the sound of sails clanking against the poles, the yelling of the coast guard when they’d found me. My memories after that were foggy and in pieces. A scratchy blanket, a nurse’s warm hand, vomiting, a machine beeping. My mother, crying, my father, pacing.
I’d told all of my friends that I had a bad case of mono and they’d believed it. Believed it, hook, line and sinker. Yikes. Boat imagery. I shook my head and opened my eyes. Augie chewed on his bottom lip, his dark eyes searching my face. I couldn’t decide if I was angry at him for being so observant and invasive, or relieved that someone had noticed.
“It’s just not the same anymore.” I sighed and started packing up my stuff, still feeling like I was out there on that boat, watching the clouds blur and the world darken. I didn’t like to think about that. I’d come close. Too close. “Those girls out there, their biggest worry is what color dress they’re gonna wear to prom. I don’t think I’m that girl anymore. Sometimes I wish I were.” I swung my giant purse over my shoulder.
“What kind of girl are you now?” His full attention was on me, his eyes wide.
“I don’t wanna talk about this anymore,” I whispered. Trigger. That was the word my therapist had used. I knew that was happening right now as the images continued to flash before my eyes.
I looked down at my suede clogs. The carpet was stained maroon and I wondered if it had once been red to match the school colors. Looking at anything was safer than the gentle, worried look Augie was giving me. I couldn’t melt into him. He wasn’t my boyfriend. To make things worse he reached out and touched my arm, steadying me, bringing me back to this moment. Grounding. That was another thing I’d learned in therapy. I wanted to lean into that touch. To let him hug me as I cried. I wanted to be normal. Whatever that meant.
I couldn’t. I wasn’t.
He cared too much about people, that was his weakness. You just can’t survive like that.
“Look before you go—” He scribbled something on the top of my notes and handed my notebook back to me. “Just…there’s my number. Text me or call me if you ever wanna talk…I mean about something other than the quadratic equation.” He gave me a tentative smile.
I raised my eyebrows at him. My instinct was to be mean, to lash out, to tell him that girls like me didn’t talk to boys like him. He’d poked too close to the truth. But, he was giving me that look again. He was being genuine.
“No problem. Thanks for the notes it really helps.” He wiped his hands on his pants and I nodded, distracted. Cheer practice was ending and I wanted to meet them out on the field.
“See you later.” I flipped my hair over my shoulder, reminding myself of who I was and where I was, and walked away, trying to remain confident. The cheer team still needed to see me in control.
I could feel Augie’s eyes on me all the way out, but I didn’t mind it.