I stand in front of two tombstones, one withered with time and covered with ivy and leaves, and the other newer and in nearly pristine condition. I notice immediately that there are no flowers adorning either stone, which makes them stand out from the other gravestones around them in a depressing way. They are as connected in their solitude as their inhabitants were in life.
I look up and see the sky is now clear and blue again after the recent devastating storm which tore half my town to the ground. I’m reminded of her and of how much she loved to look out her window and watch the white puffy clouds dance across the mid-day sky.
I miss her so much. But at least now she is with her one true love finally at peace. I kiss my fingers and place them gently on the top of the cold, polished marble.
“Goodbye, my friend,” I say to the newer tombstone.
I turn to the old stone. “Please take good care of her.”
I sit down on the ground, open my journal, and begin to write.
I was daydreaming about my wedding with Channing Tatum when I heard my name. At first, it sounded like an echo, all distorted and mumbly. In my daydream, Channing was calling my name as I walked down the rose petal covered aisle. We were surrounded by a garden of fragrant and colorful flowers, including my all-time favorites, pink peonies. A three-piece orchestra played a soft melody which echoed all around us. Suddenly my name grew louder and clearer with every utterance. The last time I heard it was clear as a bell.
I was snapped into reality and Channing Tatum was gone. So was our beautiful wedding, the orchestra, the flowers, and all of the guests. All that was left was my cold and drab eleventh grade English classroom and my teacher, Mr. MacIntosh, who was standing over me, repeating my name.
“What?” I snapped at him, more harshly than I should have. In my defense, he had ruined my daydream and scared the hell out of me.
He pointed toward the door where Ms. Redding was standing with her arms crossed over her ample chest. When I looked at her, she curled her finger, which I knew from experience meant I was in deep shit. I knew I had no choice but to go with her.
I got up from my desk and grumbled, “Whatever,” under my breath.
“Be sure to read chapter four of Gatsby tonight,” Mr. MacIntosh instructed, as I met Ms. Redding at the door. He seemed to know I wouldn’t be back to class that day. Somehow, I knew it, too.
I followed behind Ms. Redding, listening to the “click, clack” of her heels on the shiny linoleum floor which was buffed to a high shine every night by Mr. Charlie, the school janitor. Ms. Redding’s hips swayed to and fro, confined in her tight, tan pencil skirt, as she marched me to the office, as per our usual routine. This is getting ridiculous. How many times would I have to follow the guidance counselor down this same hallway? Then again, I knew exactly why I was being summoned to her office this time, so I followed along behind her with my head hung low and my hands jammed into the back pockets of my jeans.
As we walked through the front office, I noticed Billie Jenkins sitting by the reception desk. Her fat rolls protruded through the openings in the chair and it looked as if she’d wiped the grease from a McDonald’s hamburger all over it. When she saw me, she snickered and covered her mouth with her chubby hand as if to hold in a giant belly laugh, at my expense. True, I’d spent more time in the office lately than most of my peers, but it wasn’t always my fault. This one wasn’t either and I knew it in my heart, so I held back my reaction to Billie Jenkins (shut your stupid fat face!) and continued to follow Ms. Redding.
As soon as I rounded the corner and entered the counselor’s office, I saw my mother. She was sitting there with her right leg crossed over her left, her flip-flopped foot twitching in anger. Her chin-length mousy brown hair was a hot mess and she was wearing jeans with holes in them (not the stylish kind of holes, either), and a faded navy hoodie. For her to get up off her lazy ass and drive all the way to school meant that I was in real trouble this time, with a capital T.
“What’s she doing here?” I tilted my head in my mother’s general direction.
“We’ll talk about that in a minute, Avery. Please have a seat.” Ms. Redding was a pleasant woman whom I had tried to hate, but failed. She always spoke in a calm tone, no matter what vitriol I spewed at her. She was pretty, too, which helped. She looked about the same age as my mom, only prettier. Her corn silk blonde hair was always in a bun and she wore thin-rimmed glasses which sat perfectly on her tiny button nose.
I sat down in the uncomfortable wooden chair next to my mother and Ms. Redding sat in giant black swivel chair. I looked to the left at my mother, who was glaring at me something awful. I could almost feel the laser beams of hate on my skin. I imagined her as a cartoon character: face red, fists clenched, steam billowing out of her ears. It made me laugh which totally pissed her off even more. She snapped at me. “Have some respect, why don’t ya?”
I didn’t mock her, ignoring my natural instincts. Instead, I turned from her and looked at Ms. Redding. “What did I do this time?” But I already knew exactly what I’d done.
“Avery, your mother is here today because it’s standard procedure to bring in a parent when a student is suspended from school.”
“Suspended?! That’s bullshit!”
“Watch your mouth, young lady!” my mother snapped as she smacked my leg. But it didn’t hurt, so I ignored that, too.
“Ms. Redding,” I said, directing my attention solely at her pretty face and tuning out my mother’s bitchiness. “I didn’t start the fight, I promise. It was Rayna! She walked up to me and punched me. I was defending myself. I swear!”
“Avery, regardless of who started it, and there are varying versions from witnesses, this is your fourth fight in as many months. We’ve let the other incidents slide or given you detention for a couple of them but this time, I’m afraid we can’t overlook your behavior anymore. Your mother supports our decision.”
“Of course she does,” I snorted. “She hates me. I get in the way. I’m not my brother. But he’s boring and no fun at all. I don’t want to be like him, even if it means she hates me.”
“That ain’t true.” Mother tried to defend herself. Only, she and I knew it was true. She doted on my little brother, who was eighteen months younger than me and two grades behind me in school. For some reason - and this was painfully obvious - my mother never really gave a shit. Sure, she’d yell at me and ground me, but that was about the extent of our interactions. There never was any mother-daughter bonding time, no tea parties when I was little…nothing. She wasn’t a bad person, I could say that much about her. But when it came to me, she was…indifferent. I was long past being hurt by her apathy and now I just accepted the situation for what it was. My mother didn’t love me. That was the bottom line.
Ms. Redding grabbed my attention again by asking me why I got into the fight with Rayna in the first place.
“She slept with my ex-boyfriend…before we broke up.”
Mother snapped her head in my direction and a look of disgust spread across her face. I just ignored her and continued with my story.
“I called her a whore and she heard about it I guess because I was standing at my locker and the next thing I knew, she grabbed my jacket and spun me around. She punched me right in the eye. See…I got a bruise to prove it!” I pointed at the dark blue coloring that had taken up residence under my right eye. The shiner, however, was nowhere near as painful as the knowledge that my boyfriend of three months had been unwilling to wait for me (since I informed him I was not ready to go that far with him yet) and instead had chosen to sleep with some skank who gave it up for anyone who asked.
“Regardless, Avery, your grades are suffering. You’re not being respectful to the teachers or to your peers. You walk around here, it seems, looking for a fight. What has you so angry?”
Now she was going to try to psychoanalyze me and I wasn’t going to fall for it. I knew, my mother knew, even Ms. Redding knew, my anger stemmed from the death of my father. It didn’t take a psychiatrist to solve that riddle. Plus, I probably inherited it from my mother’s father, who had apparently been a complete and utter drunken sonofabitch. He died when he drove his pickup truck off a cliff because he was so hammered when I was two years old, so I didn’t even remember him.
“Avery?” Ms. Redding’s calm and steady voice brought me back to the present. “Daydreaming again?”
I nodded my head. My mother scoffed, made a “pffft” sound and waved her hand as if to wave me away for good. “She’s always daydreamin, this one. Now my son, he don’t do any of this stuff. He’s a smart boy, Jackson. He does what he’s apposed to do, unlike this ingrateful girl here.”
I wanted so badly to correct her grammar. It was one of the things that embarrassed me the most. Somehow, some way, I’d wound up with a high IQ, despite the fact that my mother dropped out of high school when she got pregnant with me at the age of fifteen. It was obvious when my mother spoke that she had little to no education and it pissed me off to no end.
“Avery, we’ve recommended that you be suspended for two weeks.”
I did the math in my head. That meant that I’d be done for the rest of the school year. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On one hand, it would be great to start my summer two weeks early. Hells yeah! But on the other hand, I wouldn’t get to see my friends for at least two weeks, maybe longer. Bummer, man.
“What about my finals?” I really wasn’t that concerned about my finals, but I certainly didn’t want to be held back and repeat the eleventh grade. I’d be nineteen when I graduated high school. No effing way!
“You can complete your assignments at home and you’ll be able to come in and take your finals after school lets out. I’ve already spoken with your teachers and advised them of the situation. You’re lucky Principal Reagan allowed you to take your finals at all. Some kids don’t get that privilege. But, considering the fact that until this past year or so, you had been a wonderful student, we’re hoping you’ll take this seriously and realize how important it is to get yourself in gear. You only have two more years left of high school, Avery. If you want to even consider going to college, you have got to get your grades up and quit all of this fooling around.”
I had blocked out most of what Ms. Redding had said, instead drifting off into another daydream. This one was about what my life would be like once I graduated high school. I was going to get the hell out of Nicholasville, Kentucky, that was for damn sure. I would leave this small town and never look back. No more slothful, resentful mother, no more teachers on my ass…just my big bright future. I was going to be the next Stephen King and no one was going to stop me.
I could tell she was done talking so I nodded my head to indicate I understood. “I take it I have no choice in this matter?”
“I’m sorry. It’s been decided. You may go to your locker and collect your things but you may not return to class for the rest of the semester. Best of luck to you, Avery. I hope you really think hard about everything we’ve talked about and get your life in order. You have tremendous potential. I believe you can come back next year, start fresh and get the straight A’s I know you are capable of. Just stay out of trouble…you hear?”
“Oh, she’s gonna stay out of trouble, all right. She ain’t leavin her room for the rest of the summer. I’m gonna have a nice long chat with this here girl. I’ve bout had it with her bullshit.”
“Now, Mrs. Cooper, I know you are frustrated with Avery, but I encourage you to find a constructive way to help her get her life in order. Don’t be too hard on her.” Her words reminded me exactly why I liked my counselor so much. She stood up to my mother, which was a feat in and of itself. Props to Ms. Redding!
When we climbed into our old black Nissan Maxima, my mother immediately launched into a rant about God knew what. I wasn’t listening.
I was thinking about my father. If he was still here, he’d understand. I just knew it. But almost two years ago, my father had drunk enough Kentucky Bourbon to drown a horse, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Since that time, my life had begun to spiral out of control. I’d loved my father dearly, and he loved me. Unlike my mother, he took interest in my life and always told me he loved me. Of course, he was a gambling addict and a drunk, but none of that ever got in the way of him spending time with me. He would take me with him every Saturday morning when he went to Keeneland racetrack. By Noon, he’d already be six beers deep and down at least one hundred dollars, but he spent time teaching me all about the horses and racing. Of course, he’d drive me home three sheets to the wind. Miraculously, we made it home safe and sound every time, just in time to hear mother yell at him for spending the utilities money on “the ponies.”
If my father was here, he’d pull me close and tell me everything was going to be okay, but that was never going to happen again.