Despite my reassurances that everything will be fine, I have no idea how I will make it through the next three days. Between the weight of the Meadows’ family secret upon my shoulders, the unbridled tension within my own home, and the fact that I have one more day of school to face, I feel as though I will burst.
Just remain calm, I think. Everything will be fine.
Will it, though? Will it really? Because it seems like everywhere I turn something comes up.
On this Friday morning, on which I imagine will be the first true test of my endurance, I rise hesitantly, and with regret I know comes from the fact that I will soon face my schoolmates. The warm water in the shower doesn’t ease my burdens, nor does the makeup I put on my face hide my fears.
Of everything that I could go through—walking through fire, treading through rain—I would rather do anything but this.
You could ask to play sick, a part of me thinks as I finish applying my fine layer of eyeshadow. It’s not like Mom or Dad are gonna care.
They’ve been so morose over the loss of their livelihoods that I doubt either of them would put up much of a fight, especially given that I was almost a murder victim.
After a moment, though, I shake my head.
As much as it pains me to do so: I have to face this head-on.
Besides, I then think, before turning and making my way out my bedroom door. It’s not like you’re gonna be alone.
J’vonte will be there. And so will Jackson.
To think that I would’ve been dead had he not arrived is more than alarming. It’s downright terrifying.
As I step from the hall and into the kitchen, I find my mother sitting at the kitchen island, her hands wrapped around a mug of coffee while she examines a number of papers in front of her.
“Hi, Mom,” I say.
“Hi, honey,” she replies. “Do you want breakfast?”
“I’ll just make toast.”
Normally, my mother would try to argue—say that toast wasn’t a proper meal. But on this morning, she doesn’t. She simply lowers her eyes and sighs.
“Where’s Dad?” I decide to ask.
“In town,” my mom replies, “dealing with some things.”
“Is something wrong, Mom?”
“Everything seems wrong at this point.”
Though I try my hardest not to frown, it comes anyway, slithering onto my lips and implanting itself within the fine muscles around my mouth.
My mother lifts her eyes. Sighs again. Clears her throat. Says, “Oaklynn—“
“It’s okay,” I reply. “I know you’re bummed out.”
“Bummed out is an understatement,” she says. “That shop was my pride and joy.”
“I know it was, Mom.”
I retrieve the bread from the toaster and slather it with jelly before taking a bite and turning my attention out the window. It’s as gloomy a day outside as it is in, but surely that doesn’t mean anything. Right?
I shiver as I consider what I might face at school, and find myself regretting my decision not to fake sick.
“Can you take me to school today?” I ask, turning to face her.
“I planned to anyway,” my mother replies. “I don’t want you walking in this rain.”
“A little rain never hurt anyone,” I offer.
Mom doesn’t say anything. Instead, she stands, then, and makes her way over to me, only to say, “I’m not worried about the rain.”
Then what— I start to think, then stop as it hits me.
She’s still worried that the arsonists knew I was in the shop. That I was specifically targeted.
With a nod, I finish eating my toast, then turn toward the door as my mother grabs the keys.
“You’re sure you don’t want to stay home today?” she asks after a moment’s hesitation.
“You’re offering to let me stay home from school?” I ask.
“It’s just… I worry about your lungs. You breathed in a lot of smoke.”
“I feel fine, Mom. Besides,” I then add, “I need to go. People are going to think it’s weird that I’m not there, especially after…”
My mother’s face dampens.
“The store,” I say.
“I know,” she replies. “I just… don’t want you to get hurt, Oaklynn.”
“I know you don’t, Mom.”
She leans forward and wraps me in a tight hug.
I thought she was worried before. But now?
Now, I think, she’s terrified.
But of what? I wonder. Something happening at school? Outside of it? While I’m walking home? While I’m in town?
Unable to know, I merely follow her outside, wait for her to lock our home’s front door, then follow her down to the car.
No matter how hard I try to ignore what’s going on, I can’t.
Something is wrong.
What exactly that is I cannot be sure.
Their stares are unnerving.
They begin as soon as I walk through the door. Dangerous in their clarity, and vicious in their intent, my fellow classmates watch me with cold, calculated stares as I not only enter the school, but make my way toward my locker.
Okay, I think. This is weird.
Not weird, I then think. Painful—not only because I have not done anything, but because no one asks about me.
Not to see if I’m fine.
Not to see if I’m hurt.
Not to see if I’m recovering.
This reality, and the fact that they know I must be in some way responsible for this, leads me to keep my eyes turned down, my gaze set on the floor.
Come time I reach my locker, I feel as though I’ll burst.
“Hey,” a voice says.
I jump, startled. “J’von,” I say, more than a bit unnerved at her sudden appearance.
“How are you feeling?” my friend asks, turning her head to look at me.
I don’t say anything. Instead, I dial my combination, open my locker, and pull out the necessary books for the day’s studies.
“Oaklynn?” she asks. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I say. “Just… a little uneasy, is all.”
“Because of them?” J’vonte casts a glance out her peripheral. “Just ignore them, Oak. It’s not like anything they say can do anything to you.”
“It’s not just them,” I say as I turn to face her. “It’s… everything.”
“Is there something you’re not telling me?”
I want to scream it out—to declare to the world that yes, there is something I’m not telling her. Between finding out Jackson’s true identity, my mother’s store burning down, and the meeting that is to occur within three day’s time, it seems as though the entire world is against me.
But it isn’t, I force myself to think. You just feel like it is.
It isn’t impossible to admit that part of this is my anxiety taking over. Slithering forth like a snake before wrapping around and injecting its venom into my leg—it’s a poison all people have, but few truly experience.
The truth of the matter is that the whole world isn’t against me.
It just feels like it is.
Sighing, I lift my eyes to scan the area and ask, “Have you seen Jackson yet?”
“Not today,” she replies. “Why?”
“I just… think it’s a little odd. I saw him yesterday and he was just fine.”
“Maybe his dad got sick?” she offers.
“Maybe,” I say, and decide not to push it further.
While I know the truth is likely more sinister—at least in the sense that it’s something supernatural rather than something ordinary—I know I can’t dwell on it.
For now, I have only a single mission:
To make it through the rest of the school day.
That alone feels like a monumental challenge.
As I close the locker door, and as I spin to face J’vonte, I catch sight of the principal talking to Police Officer Ronson.
“Do you know what’s up with that?” I ask, subtly nodding my head in the direction of the front office.
J’vonte casts her eyes in that direction. “There’s been rumors that they’re checking the security cameras,” my best friend says.
“Why?” I ask.
J’vonte swallows and takes hold of my arm. “Come with me.”
“Why are we—“
“We don’t want them to hear,” my friend whispers.
I offer a slight nod and allow her to tug me down the hall.
When we are far from the front office, and down at least two halls, I turn to face J’vonte and ask, “What’s going on?”
“They think someone from Red Wolf High was the one who set fire to your mom’s store.”
“Yeah,” J’vonte says, releasing her hold on my arm before turning and scanning the area. When she finds no one is nearby, she leans forward, then whispers, “They think it might’ve been people from the football team.”
“People?” I ask. “There was more than one?”
“That’s what they’re saying.”
A frown crosses my lips as I consider the likelihood of this scenario. It would make sense, in theory, especially considering that there were multiple Molotovs thrown into the shop. But who would go to such lengths to do that to my mother? Or—
I shiver as I consider it.
It takes only a moment for everything to come spiraling into focus, but when finally it does, it all comes down to one person.
Whether or not he was a part of the firebombing or just the person who orchestrated it I cannot be sure. Regardless, it raises a single question:
Did Easton organize this whole thing? And if so: did he mean to hurt my family, or me?
“Thanks for explaining this to me,” I say as I turn and begin to make my way down the hall. “I gotta get to class.”
“You’re sure you’re all right?” J’vonte asks.
“I’ll live,” I say.
This burden is mine alone.
I can’t possibly leave it to rest upon J’vonte’s shoulders too.