Chapter One - Dear Stef
With every step I took away from the house I was meant to call home the unease that had been within me slowly depleted. A week at home with no school had been almost too much to stomach. It’s not even like school is any better than home, but it is different. At least there I can retreat to the library if the shouting gets too loud.
At home the walls are paper thin, and I hear everything. There is no escape.
I let out a sigh and looked ahead, it was cold outside, so cold I could see my breath as I inhaled and exhaled. I didn’t mind it though, the tight burn in my chest reminding me I was still capable of feeling. I could hear the bus coming before it could drive past me, the loud clunking of the old engine unmistakable to my ears. I had a bus pass, but I never really used it unless the rain made walking impossible. These days the time in between leaving home and getting to school was the only time I felt free. A year ago though, well things were different. Even the bleakest of moments could be brightened by the existence of my best friend Stefanie.
I lifted my wrist and gazed at the matching sterling silver bracelets that circled my wrists. One had been hers, but her parents had given it to me after… after she no longer existed anymore.
Remnants of her were always close, but remnants didn’t bring her back.
By the time I could see the orange brick fortress walls of school I’d let my thoughts drift to the english assignment we’d been given the previous monday. We were meant to write an essay about who we were and what we were going to do after high school is over. Usually I was on top of my school work, I had to be in order to get the scholarships I needed to get me the hell out of this place.
But this assignment had me lost, it wasn’t due until the end of the semester, just before graduation… but I wasn’t sure I’d be any closer to knowing the answers expected of me by then anyway.
“Did you hear. The Crew is heading to a kegger this weekend out at Tiffany’s I heard it’s going to be amaze. We should totally go.” The voice of a random student filled my ears from behind me as I finally made it through the school gates. She wasn’t talking to me though, because here… I was invisible… mostly.
“Count me in. I totally need the break. Like my Mom made me babysit three times this last week.”
“Good. I’ll let Tiff know we’re coming.”
I shut off from the conversation. The last thing I wanted to know about was some party where scores of teenagers planned to act recklessly. I had to keep a clear head, I had to get out of here. I walked to my locker and twisted in the combination without looking down. I yanked the door open and took out my english book.
“Good morning students of Ridgeland High. Don’t forget about tonight’s season opening basketball game where the Ridgeland Wolves will be taking on the Harrison Hounds. Our cheerleaders will be leading a pep rally at lunch for anyone who wants to gain some school spirit in advance! Welcome to your Friday and happy learning ridgsters!” The deputy principal’s voice echoed through the halls, and unlike the usual morning announcements, this one garnered the cheers of the students around me. I just closed my locker and turned around, just as the entire basketball team and their cheerleader girlfriends walked down the hall. The talked amongst themselves, as though the rest of the student body wasn’t even there. Laughing and high fiving one another as they walked. A girl on the other side of the corridor fanned her face like she was watching the members of her favorite boy band walk past. The jocks here were like gods, worshipped by almost everyone.
Almost like it was natural and not cliche, the head cheerleader Tiffany Jones and her boyfriend captain of the basketball team Kelan Adams spearheaded the group. Tiffany was tall, blond and the picture of high school beauty perfection. She smiled sweetly at all of us lowly minions who stood around her, but I knew she probably didn’t even see us. Girls like her didn’t see much farther than their own reflections. Her boyfriend Kelan was an aesthetic match to her attractiveness. As much as I hated to admit it, the guy had a smile to die for. I’d known him since elementary, in fact until middle school Kelan, Stefanie and I had been friends.
Times had changed us all, one of us got popular, one of us became invisible, and one of us stopped existing.
I pushed myself off my locker and turned away from the horde of people, only to find myself shunted forward, until my book went flying and I landed flat on my face.
“Watch it lard ass.” One of the boys laughed as he walked past. I frowned and pushed myself up off the ground. I was hardly a “lard ass” but with today’s beauty standards it didn’t surprise me to hear the words being directed at me. “Cool it watson.” A voice said. “Willow… uh, you dropped this.”
I looked up as I stood and straightened out my clothes. Kelan looked down at me with sad eyes and an equally sad smile.
“Dropped.” I murmured back sarcastically.
“I’ll talk to him.” Kelan offered.
“Please don’t.” I said shaking my head. I was invisible and I liked it. “Thanks for picking up my book Kelan.”
Kelan’s eyes seemed to light up as I said his name and his smile widened, he was about to speak when Tiffany sided up next to him and looped her arm through his.
“Kel… we’re going to be late for the pep rally council meeting. You can’t stop and help every little stray dog.”
Kelan stiffened and let out a tight breath. He looked at Tiffany and bit his lip, but before he could say anything I shook my head and lifted my book up. “Woof.” I remarked dryly.
Tiffany let out an amused laugh before she tugged on Kelans arm. He hesitated before following her. Together they walked down the hall before disappearing from view. I looked down at the book and sighed. It didn’t even matter that for the first time in years Kelan had said more than two words to me because right now, staying invisible was more important to me.
My classes past by in a blur, I’d barely slept due to the sound of my parents fighting yet again. I skipped lunch and went straight to the library to use the computer lab. It was state of the art, and unlike my dinosaur laptop at home, it could handle the programs I needed to run in order to do my school work well. As soon as I signed in, my student email pinged. Surprised I clicked on the envelope at the bottom of the screen. It was from Mr barrett.
I have assigned your first student. He is a senior like yourself who has recently been struggling to manage his grades. He is having difficulty mostly in Math and English. Like you he wants to remain anonymous, so I have given him the email you provided. If there are any issues, email me directly. This way of doing things is as I told you, unorthodox. However I am willing to trial it.
He will be contacting you today.
I smiled, Mr Barrett my english teacher had approached me to become a tutor. Due to my overwhelming need to be a shrinking violet I’d originally said no. It was only when Mr Barrett had explained that the credit on my transcript would look attractive to colleges that I agreed. As long as I could remain anonymous. I’d thought it would take longer to be assigned someone, I’d only signed on the friday before hand. I sent Mr Barrett a quick response, before returning my focus on school work. The library was quiet and peaceful… a sanctuary. The bell ringing to signal the end of lunch usually filled me with a sadness I couldn’t control. LIke my own personal haven had a time limit. Today was Monday though, and drama class meant I could pretend to be someone else, something that was equally as appealing.
I logged out of the computers. There were only ever a handful of other students in the library at lunchtime, and all of them were already gone. I sighed and walked out, as I sped my walk up to a slow jog.
I walked into music class just as Mrs Cleaver had started talking. She had a student, a boy up the front, and they were both facing away from me. I snuck around the outside of the class and sat at the bottom tier of the seating that circled the dimly lit room.
“Don’t you go thinking I didn’t see you Miss Hartford.” Mrs Cleaver interjected I looked up at her and gave her a half smile, which was quickly followed by me almost choking on my own tongue. The boy standing at the front, the one who had been facing away from me was Kalen Adams. The very same Kalen who only hours earlier had helped me to my feet. Until this morning I hadn’t spoken to him in years, and now it seemed like he was popping up all over the freakin place.
“Sorry Miss.” I murmured.
“No harm, you can partner with our new music student for today’s workshop.” Mrs Cleaver exclaimed as though it were no big deal. “Kalen, please take a seat next to Willow Hartford.”
She directed him toward me, and he listened, much to my dismay. Kalen sat down beside me, so close our thighs were touching.
“As you know our senior talent show is being staged in the final semester. Think of the classes leading up to the event as rehearsals.”
I frowned and shook my head. Don’t get me wrong, I loved music, I loved creating it… privately. But being on stage, not being invisible. It scared the living daylights out of me.
“Problem Miss Hartford.”
“Is it compulsory.” I asked.
“No… but any involvement will look good on college applications.” She exclaimed.
My eyes narrowed and for a moment I wondered how confidential my guidance counsellor appointments had been. I had stressed the need for a scholarship to her, and she had advised me to take on any extra credit I could get and she would do the rest. First Mr Barrett and now Mrs Cleaver. I looked down at hands, talent shows needed sets… I could paint. Kind of.
“Right, well…. Pair up and brainstorm ideas! Go forth and conquer class!”
Mrs cleaver walked around handing out pieces of paper with information about the show. Finally she stopped in front of me and Kalen and held out two of the pieces of paper.
“I do hope you take this seriously Mr Adams.” Mrs Cleaver noted. “This isn’t just an attend and pass class.”
“I know.” He replied. “I promise I want to be here.”
Mrs cleaver left the pieces of paper with us and I stared down at the words in frustration. I didn’t want to be paired up with Kelan, but I had no choice.
“I guess we should brainstorm.” Kelan exclaimed as if this whole situation wasn’t the definition of awkward. I lifted my head and turned it until I could see his face. He was the same picture of attractiveness he’d been earlier, the guy probably woke up looking instagram ready after all. He smiled at me, but I didn’t return it. I ignored the hypnotic brilliant blue in his hopeful eyes and looked back down at the paper.
“I guess so.” I said, conceding defeat.
It only took a minute to realize that Kelan wasn’t the one dimensional person I had pigeoned holed him into being. Without saying a thing, he picked up one of the acoustic guitars and began to play Counting Stars by One Republic. When he opened his mouth and the words lyrics softly left them I almost reeled back in shock. He was good, better than good. I couldn’t look away and I couldn’t stop listening. I wanted to give the bare minimum back, because ultimately I didn’t want to be in this show. However I felt like I owed it to him to give him something to work with, so I did. I caught the bridge as the tempo picked up and took over the vocals. It was the first time I’d sung in music, but in the moment I just didn’t care about hiding.
Seamlessly we worked together, finding a harmony that worked for the song and for us. Once we finally finished Mrs Cleaver hurried up to us. “Brava… perfect.” She paused and pulled on both mine and Kelan’s hands till we stood. “Now stand and project your voices.”
She walked away, leaving Kelan and I standing a few feet apart from one another. I looked down, suddenly self conscious, which was unlike me.
“She’s intense isn’t she?” Kelan noted as he adjusted the guitar strap.
I bit back a grin and shrugged. “She’s a performance arts teacher, they’re all a bit kooky.”
“It’s nice to see you smile.” He offered.
I frowned and shook my head. “Why do you care Adams?”
“What made you think I stopped caring?” He responded.
“Oh, I don’t know. You stopped talking to me for over four years.”
“We grew apart. Doesn’t mean I didn’t care.”
I closed my eyes, overcome by a sudden wave of emotion. I’d been like this since Stephanie had… left. Small reminders of her like icepicks on my ice wall barrier. I had worked hard to freeze everyone out. I didn’t need this.
“Actually. I think that might be the definition of not caring. If you care about someone… you don’t discard them.” I walked over to the tiered seating and picked up my books. “I’m not doing this.”
I went to walk away, but Kelan caught my arm. “You didn’t fight to keep our friendship either.”
I nodded and looked at Kelan. “Yeah, I did. You were just too popular to notice me.”
Kelan folded his arms across his chest. “Fine, I’m a shitty friend. Can we just do this?”
I looked over at Mrs Cleaver who at that particular moment was watching us and sighed. I needed to pass this class with flying colours
“Okay.” I replied dryly, returning my focus to the task at hand.
Kelan started the song again, only this time his soft voice was replaced with a louder one, it filled the room and commanded it’s attention. I felt the other students stop and watch us, their eyes burning into my skin like dozens of tiny scorching suns. I almost choked, I almost ran from the class. But I looked at Kelan, who smiled and me and it seemed like that was all I needed. Once we were done the class applauded, a fact which concerned me. Being around Kelan meant being seen… I liked my cloak of loser invisibility.
The bell sounded, interrupting the classes applause. I brushed passed Kelan to retrieve my books, gunning to make a hasty exit but before I could Mrs Cleaver placed her hands on both mine and Kelans shoulders.
“I will be watching you two.” She said, and without explaining any further she released us and walked toward her desk.
I glanced at Kelan awkwardly and smiled. “Well bye.” I muttered.
“Willow.” Kelan’s voice called out. I stopped, even though I didn’t want to. “I really am sorry I was a shitty friend.”
I frowned and let the guilt absorb. “I was too.” I replied. “I gave up too easy.”
I walked away, out of the room and into the overflowing corridor. It was amusing how I seemed to be most invisible the more there was going on around me.
After school I walked home, much like the morning, eager to extend the time away from the place. The only thing I had to look forward to was tutoring… and even I could admit that it was sad. Unfortunately the walk home was not a never ending road and I ended up standing outside of my own personal hell, filled with the kind of dread you get from watching horror movies.
Dad’s car wasn’t in the driveway, a saving grace. I swallowed down my fear and walked inside.
As soon as Mom heard the door close she walked into the foyer. I frowned at the fear in her face.
“It’s just me Mom.” I murmured with a soft smile.
He face softened, but her eyes stayed lost. She nodded and quietly walked back into the kitchen. It was always the same after they’d had a big fight, I had spent most of my life watching my mother slowly lose herself while my father fed of her emotion… inflating his already swollen ego. I had given up on telling her to leave, she never did.
I walked up to my room and closed the door. Stephanies parents has given me most of her things a few months after she had died. They had tried keeping her room as it was, but they’d felt they were not moving on. Nature seemed to sense this and they announced they were expecting… They told me that Stefanie would have wanted me to have her things, and I was doing them a favor. Here, in this room I felt closest to her, like part of her was here with me. It seemed almost bittersweet that I felt most comfortable inside my room which just happened to be inside a house I couldn’t stand.I sat down at my desk, it was black and hard wood. It had been Stefanies. Her old laptop sat on there, and I grazed my hands over it.
I opened it up and clicked on my diary icon in the taskbar, entering my password as it prompted me. I started the entry just like I had every other entry. As a letter to the girl who no longer existed. It was meant to serve as a tribute, a way to tell her everything I would have told her in life.
Today started off the same. I woke up, I went to school. I was invisible. But then something weird happened. One of the jocks pushed me over and Kelan of all people helped me up. For a moment I wasn’t invisible and it scared the living shit out of me.
Then Mr Bartlett emailed. I have my first tutor student. I’m expecting to hear from him this afternoon. I thought maybe today wouldn’t turn out so bad after all.
Yeah right. I am Willow Hartford after all. After lunch I was late for music, and who ends up transferring to the class today? Kelan ‘freaking’ Adams. Mrs Cleaver put us together and I planned on ignoring him, but he was really good and we ended up kind of singing together.
For the second time I wasn’t invisible, and what scares me now when I think about it, I wasn’t afraid…
Anyway, I have homework to do and tutoring to start.
Talk soon, Willow.