II: Old & New
That night, I tried my best to get some sleep. Try as I might though, whenever I finally managed to drift off a bit, I was always jolted back awake by that same damned sound that apparently nobody could hear but me.
At one point, I had even decided to get out of bed and figure out what was causing it. It was then that it occurred to me that I couldn’t figure out which direction the sound was coming from. It was there, of that I was sure. I’m a lot of things, but I’m certain that crazy isn’t one of them. Rather than coming from any one direction, however, the sound had seemed to be permeating from everywhere, all at once.
In spite of this, I had turned the whole house upside down searching for it. Search as I might though, I never managed to get any closer to it. I began to suspect that the sound was centering around me, maintaining its distance. It was almost like it was stalking me, perched in some imaginary corner assessing my every mood. It was at that point that I decided that the lack of sleep was beginning to make me paranoid. Finally, I gave up and went to bed, attempting to sleep despite the mysterious bump, bump, bump, which seemed intent both on not going away, and on not being found.
Now though, it’s morning, and like all decisions, the ones that I made last night are having their consequences. It’s first period English, and it’s a constant struggle even to keep my eyes open. The coffee that I had with breakfast isn’t helping at all. On the bright side, when I woke up, the strange noise seemed to have finally disappeared.
Still, the fact that I hadn’t been able to discover where they’d been coming from is a thought I can’t shake no matter how frequently I reminded myself that it’s now time to focus on the day that I have ahead of me. As the bell rings I jump a little in my seat, the unfortunate side effect of having too little sleep and too much on my mind.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Tanner booms in his usual extravagant tones. To him, the front of a classroom is a stage, or at least that’s how he’d described it to us on our first day in his class. He made no qualms about treating it as such. He was nothing if not the epitome of pomp and flourish. “I hope that you’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for me today, because frankly, it’s going to be a long one. We’ve got a lot to get into, starting with peer review sessions for the stories that you wrote last week. Before we get into that though, I have an announcement to make.
“As many of you may or may not have noticed—I’m looking at you, Pete. Put the phone away, or I will add it to my collection—we have a new student here with us today. Now, I’m well aware of just how unusual it is for all of you to be getting a transfer student this late into your senior year. I assure you, she is well aware too. That said, instead of rubbing that in her face, I want you all to do your very best to make her feel welcome in our class. Ms. Emerson, if you would please take the stage?”
In one smooth motion, Mr. Tanner manages to indicate the front of the room with his hands, while also situating himself comfortably behind his desk. As much as it makes me want to roll my eyes, I have to admit that his flair for the dramatic is actually pretty impressive...if you’re into that kind of thing.
I hear a chair scrape the floor behind me, and a girl walks past me with an air of utter nonchalance. As she finds her way to the front of the class, she’s a sight to behold. The reason for this isn’t because of how pretty she is, even though she does happen to be very pretty. Rather, it’s her style which seems to demand the attention of everyone around her.
She’s wearing a high cut black leather jacket, decorated with canary yellow accents which only seem to accentuate her milk chocolate features. Her jeans are worn and torn in strategic places up and down her legs, and tucked into a pair of heavy-looking combat boots. Her bright red lipstick is so distracting, that it takes a moment before I realize that her hair is done up into two voluminous pigtails on either side of her head which bounce up and down with even the slightest movement of her body.
I’ve seen transfer students before. There are some who try to play it off, but they’re all nervous; you can tell by the way they carry themselves. Not her, though. As she stands up there, it’s as though she’s spent her whole high school career here, and we’re the new kids in her class. She takes a long moment, scanning all of the faces in the room. I can swear that her eyes rest on me a split second longer than any of the others. It must be the sleep deprivation. Finally, Mr. Tanner chimes in.
“I’m sure you know the drill. Why don’t you introduce yourself? Tell us something with some substance. Help us get to know you a little?” The teacher phrases it like a question, but we all know that nothing else is going to happen until she complies.
The girl takes another moment, and then nods to herself. Apparently, she’s decided what she’s going to say. Before she opens her mouth though, she looks dead at me. This time, I’m sure of it. “My name is Tasha,” she says. “I used to be a ballerina. I’m not anymore.”
With that she simply walks back to her desk, and takes her seat behind me. Still, I can feel her eyes burrowing into the back of my head. Everyone in the class has their eyes still on her, but I feel as though they’re on me as well. There are few feelings more unnerving than being watched and not knowing why.
“How very interesting,” Mr. Tanner says, breaking the tension with his trademark enthusiasm as he retakes his stage.
I feel a welcome surge of relief as all the eyes in the room slowly begin to shift back toward him; all of them except for Tasha’s, whose stare I can still feel burning a hole in the back of my head.
“You know,” the teacher continues, “I feel it’s worth noting that the absence of information can sometimes be even more enticing than having all of the facts laid out for you. You seem like an interesting kid, Tasha. I have a feeling we’re all going to have a lot of fun together.”
For some reason, Mr. Tanner’s words fall on my ears with a much more menacing ring to them than they should have any good cause to.
Half the day passes, and it appears as though Tasha Emerson is somehow in not just one, not two, not even three of my classes, but all of them. Each time the bell rings, I walk out of my class only to find that she’s walking the exact same way. I’m not sure whether it’s completely bizarre, or if her constant dead-eyed stare is causing me to make more of it than it really is.
As she navigates the school, she seems entirely sure-footed. Either she knows exactly where she’s going, or she knows that she’s always going the same place that I am. Either way, it’s becoming unsettling. In every class, the teacher calls her up to the front and asks her to introduce herself. In every class, she says the same damned thing.
“My name is Tasha. I used to be a ballerina. I’m not anymore.”
At first, it had seemed like some bold defiance of authority; misplaced anger for having to relocate in the middle of her senior year. The more she says it though, the more it seems like she’s just reading off of some invisible teleprompter, somewhere way off in the distance. By fourth period, the intensity with which the original declaration had been issued has all but faded away. Regardless, in each class, her eyes burrow into me all the same.
Initially, I was perturbed, off-put, but too devoid of energy due to my fruitless night spent searching for the phantom sound to do much about it. Now, I’m just annoyed.
As I sit at my usual lunch table, ignoring whichever tedious joke Ty is currently in the middle of trying to tell, the same way that I always do, I notice her sitting across the room. Still, she’s staring at me. This is getting to be too much.
“Ty,” I say, interrupting my cousin mid-idiocy, “have you noticed anything weird about that new girl?”
“What, you mean the hottie in the leather jacket?” he asks me. “I mean, she’s a little bit intense, but you know...hot.” He shrugs, twirling his plastic fork around in his watered-down mashed potatoes.
“Why do I still ask you questions and expect serious answers?” I groan. “I should know by now that I’m just setting myself up.” I must be even more agitated than I realize, because Ty—who is usually completely oblivious—suddenly stops and takes notice.
“Whoa, you’re for real,” he says, managing to look even more confused than usual.
“Yes, Ty, I am ‘for real’. Why would I not be?” I ask him.
“Idunno,” he replies. “You’re just not usually interested in, you know...humans; but you’re serious?”
"Yes,” I grumble, now more than a little bit agitated that this seems so unusual to him. “And I’m not a robot, you know. I notice people.”
“I know you do, Birthday Boy, calm down. I never said you didn’t notice them. Anyone who knows you knows that you notice everything. Like, everything. It’s just...”
He trails off as though unsure of how to continue. I should be used to this. Ever since my parents passed away, my family have treated me as though I’m made of glass whenever it comes to topics that are even slightly sensitive. Today though, I’m tired, fed up, and the whole combination has caused my fuse to become pretty damned short.
"What?" I demand, losing my cool.
"Whoa,” Ty jumps, putting his hands up in front of his face in a sort of futile barrier between himself and I.
He knows that I’m not going to hit him, but my cousin has never been great with conflict. That’s probably a large part of why he tries so hard to be friends with everyone around him.
“Calm down, man,” he says. “Look, I know that you notice people. Don’t get me wrong, but you do get a major case of tunnel vision from time to time. You’re prickly, quiet, a total loner—”
“Can we please get to the point?” I ask through a deep sigh, attempting to regain my composure
“You just don’t normally care,” Ty says simply. “People kind of just roll off you. Sometimes, it’s like you’re made of glass, you know? Why are you so curious about this girl, anyway? It’s just...unusual, is all.”
“Are you done?” I ask, attempting to ignore the uncanny parallel he’s just made to my own thoughts.
Ty makes a noncommittal sort of gesture with his shoulders. I don’t feel like attempting to figure out what it means, so I just get on with it.
“Look, I don’t care about her, okay? It just seems like she’s somehow in all of my classes, and she’s been giving me this death glare all day. It’s...weird.” I indicate the direction she’s sitting in with my chin, and Ty takes a quick look backwards.
“Okay, I see what you mean,” he says. “That is definitely a death glare. Take it from someone who’s seen his fair share. Hey, at least there’s a bright side in all of this.”
“This is going to be something stupid, isn’t it?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“This totally makes way more sense than you actually caring about another human being,” he winks.
“You know that the only reason that I put up with you is because I have to, right?” I retort.
“Words hurt, Jim,” Ty says, feigning indignation as he crosses his hands over his chest. “Words hurt.” I throw one of my french fries at him.
“Seriously though,” he goes on, “did you do anything to her?” as he asks me this, he deflects my flying hunk of potato without even breaking step.
“Not as far as I know,” I answer. “I’ve never even seen her before this morning.”
“So. the answer isn’t a no, then,” Ty observes.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
“Cuz, let me try to phrase this delicately for you.” Ty scratches his chin, and his gaze slowly drifts upward as though he’s deep in thought. After a brief moment, he comes back down to earth, and finally finishes his statement. “You’re a really smart dude, but you have the social skills of a flaming cactus in a room full of kerosene and iodine.”
“Words hurt,” I say in a monotone, mocking Ty. Secretly, I’m a little surprised that Ty even knows what kerosene and iodine are.
“Not as much as fists do, you can take my word on that one. Look, if you really want to know what her deal is, why don’t you just ask her?”
In all honesty, Tasha Emerson’s demeanor throughout the day has been so off-putting that this is the first time that exchanging words with her has even crossed my mind.
“I know that look,” Ty says, pointing at me with gleeful excitement. “I had an idea before you did!”
“Doesn’t count,” I say as I stand and make my way toward Tasha’s table. “I’m suffering from sleep deprivation.”
“A win is a win, is a win,” Ty calls after me.
I answer him with a one-finger salute, not taking the time to look back and see his reaction. If he says anything, it becomes lost in the drone of the cafeteria as I make my way from him to my destination.
As I draw closer I notice for the first time that Tasha’s bright red lips are moving as though they’re forming words, even though she’s sitting completely alone. Is she talking to herself, I wonder? If this girl is actually crazy, maybe I’m better off just sitting back down. I suppose that would have been sound logic, had she not been looking square at me the entire time I was making my approach.
“Got a problem?” she asks as I draw near, stealing my thunder.
“Excuse me?” I ask, answering her question with a question.
“Well,” she says, “you’ve either got a problem, or you’ve got a death wish. Don’t get me wrong, both scenarios end exactly the same way. I just like to know what it is that I’m laying someone out for before I get started.”
That answers one thing, at least. She’s definitely crazy.
“Have I done something to you?” I ask, taken aback, but not so much so that I can’t stand my ground.
“No,” she says. “If that’s all you wanted to know, you can go away now. You’re ruining the atmosphere.”
I look around at the chaotic cafeteria. The veritable maelstrom of unchecked teenage angst and hormones is almost palpable. I’m pretty sure that the atmosphere in this place was ruined long before I was ever even born.
“Why have you been watching me all day?” I ask. I’m doing my best to remain calm, but this girl has a way of working my last nerve that I can’t seem to shake.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she says bluntly, not going into any further explanation.
“Why are you in all my classes?” I ask. With each unanswered question, I can feel my blood getting just a little bit hotter.
“Trust me, not by choice.” She says this in a way that implies more than what she’s saying, but gives no indication of what that may be.
“Okay, what’s your issue?” I demand. I’ve had enough of this. If she’s not going to be civil with me, then why should I be civil with her? “You don’t even know me, yet you’ve been staring holes in the back of my head all day, and now you’re crapping all over me like I’m your worst enemy? If you’ve got something you want to say to me, say it.”
For a long moment, she looks at me with this expression that appears so unimpressed that I may as well be talking to a brick wall. Then, she breathes an exaggerated sigh, and answers me.
“I’m not your enemy, James. You’re not my friend either, though. You haven’t earned that. Funny thing? I bet I know more about you than you do. So far, I’m not a huge fan of any of it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I press on, trying not to let her unfounded insults get to me.
Just as I finish my question, though, the bell rings. Tasha simply rolls her eyes at me, and walks off toward her next class. Of course, her next class just so happens to be our next class. Even though we’re walking the same way, I don’t engage her any further. Making a scene in the hallway doesn’t seem very appealing to me.
As I take my seat in fifth period physics, something dawns on me. I haven’t raised my hand once today. I’ve been way too drained to engage much, so instead I’ve been electing to just take notes instead. I haven’t been called on, either. Generally, I contribute enough that my teachers don’t make a habit of singling me out if I don’t participate every so often. As I go over the day in my head, I am absolutely certain that my name hasn’t been spoken aloud once in any of my classes.
How, then, does Tasha Emerson know it?
I sit solemnly over my half-finished dinner of ribs and potato salad. Aunt Clarice and Uncle Bobby made it for my birthday, knowing that it’s my favorite, but I can’t seem to work up the appetite to enjoy it. My mind is trapped on the thought of how the second half of my day had transpired in much the same way as the first. In each of my remaining classes, Tasha Emerson was there. In each of them, she gave that same, stilted introduction, each iteration more bored than the last.
“My name is Tasha. I used to be a ballerina. I’m not anymore.”
I had attempted to confront her once again after the final bell rang, but she had somehow vanished before I could even catch sight of her. It’s all becoming too much to deal with. I want to know what it is she supposedly knows about me that I don’t. I want to know why she believes that it gives her the right to treat me the way that she is. I want to know how it is that she knows my damned name, even though today is the first time I’ve ever so much as known that she existed. All of it is just so—
“Are you okay, Bud?” Uncle Bobby asks me, snapping me out of my fixated trance. He, Clarice, and Ty are all looking at me with concerned expressions on their faces, albeit that Ty is showing his through a sloppy mouthful of potato salad.
“I’m fine,” I lie. “I just didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”
“More excited about your eighteenth birthday than you’ve been letting on?” Aunt Clarice suggests with a hopeful smirk.
“No, it isn’t that,” I assure her. Part of me feels bad for so brazenly dashing that pleased look from her face, but I was always taught to be honest, so honest is what I’m being. Well...I’m being mostly honest. “Honestly, I was just restless last night. I think I may just have to finish up with my homework and then call it for the day. I’m really sorry that I wasn’t hungrier. I know that you guys were trying to do something nice for me.”
“It’s alright,” Uncle Bobby says with an unfazed wave of his hand. “Sometimes food tastes even better when you reheat it, right?” Even though I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment, I nod all the same. He’s giving me an out, and for that I’m grateful.
I push my chair free of the table, and prepare to scrape my plate clean. I’m halfway out of my seat before my uncle stops me.
“First, though, your aunt and I have something that we want to give you,” he says.
I stand the rest of the way up, and look blankly at him. I’m not entirely sure what it could be, since I’ve made a point of the fact that I didn’t want anything for my birthday this year. My aunt and uncle are willful people, though. Eleven times out of ten, if they want to make something happen they’ll find a way.
In the brief moment of uncertainty while my uncle is reaching into his pocket, I’m not proud to say that I feel a twinge of expectant curiosity. Obviously, it’s something small enough to fit on my uncle’s person, but important enough for him to make a show of handing it over to me. What could it be?
What he pulls out surprises me. It’s a weathered old packing envelope, wrinkled in several places and folded over on itself. By all rights, the manila parcel should seem completely innocuous. But something about it says otherwise. Whatever this item is, it’s not new. Bobby has been holding onto it for a long time. He takes a long, hard look at the dilapidated sheathe of paper before his gaze finally returns to me. When he speaks again, his words hit me like a heavyweight punch, right in the stomach.
“These,” he says, “belonged to your parents.”
Suddenly, I’m a mass of shaking nerves. All thoughts of the past twenty-four hours are pushed free of my mind, and fall to the floor around me like hunks of lead. At first, it seems almost as though a dull thud radiates from each thought as they each hit the ground with steadily increasing force. Then, I realize that those sounds are the echoes of my heart beating in my ears. My pulse has rapidly become manic, in much the same way as my breaths have rapidly become shallow. My aunt must notice this, because she speaks up.
“You don’t have to open it right now,” she tells me. “We know that you don’t really like to make a big scene. You can open it whenever you’d like.”
I look over at her and nod, though the gesture is so weak that I’m scarcely aware that I’ve made it at all. I walk over to my uncle, and hold my shaking hands forward, folded into a modest cup. I want desperately to say something, but my words seem to be scattered across the floor with the rest of my thoughts. Bobby, though, isn’t one for formalities. He simply looks at me and nods as he transfers the delicate parcel into my possession.
Even though the envelope itself is almost weightless, I feel the weight of my whole world sitting there in my jittery palms, pressing down on me like gravity, yet somehow stronger than that; more important. It may seem silly, but in this moment, that beaten up old package is heaviest thing that I have ever held.
For the second night in a row, I find myself unable to fall asleep. Much more of this, and it’ll become a habit. I’m not sure why, but in times of deep thought, I always find myself drawn to the roof outside my bedroom window. As I sit there, I weigh the priceless package in my now somewhat-more-steady hand. Part of me wants nothing more than to open it right then and there. The other part is terrified. What is it? What if I’m psyching myself out over nothing?
I attempt to trace the outline of the envelope’s contents with my fingers before I open it, but it’s been stuffed with tissue paper which obscures the shape of whatever’s inside. As I sit and agonize over this small choice which may as well carry the fate of millions, I’m almost relieved when a familiar sound shakes me free of my self-imposed purgatory of indecision.
Bump, bump, bump.
The sound from last night has returned, only this time it feels closer than it did before. I close my eyes tight and focus as hard as I can. Something needs to make sense today, anything. I’m going to figure out where that sound is coming from, even if it takes me all night to do it. I push everything else out of my mind. Right now, that sound needs to be the only thing that matters.
Bump, bump, bump.
The rhythm is more pronounced, more frequent than it was yesterday.
Bump, bump, bump.
The more I hone in on it, the more familiar it seems.
Bump, bump, bump.
It begins to feel as though last night wasn’t the first time I’d heard it; as though this sound holds some meaning, is important to me for some reason.
Bump, bump, bump.
I wrack my thoughts, trying frantically to remember where I know this haunting, rhythmic refrain from.
Bump, bump, bump.
Then, it comes to me; something so far back that I’m shocked I remember it at all. Before last night, the last time that I’d heard this sound was—
“About time,” a sly-sounding voice says from directly behind me. “Although, to be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if you never remembered me at all.”