I am barely six steps into the school when the feeling sneak attacks me, waves of nausea crashing down onto me. I clench at my stomach, my hand flying to my mouth.
The bathroom is packed with a horde of freshman girls putting the finishing touches on their makeup and chatting about which upperclassmen’s attention they are hoping to capture, but I couldn’t care less about them right now. I damn near kick the stall door off its hinges, making it to the toilet at the exact moment the contents of my stomach make their appearance.
The previously giggling girls now shriek in disgust at the sounds of my gagging, fleeing the bathroom. I convulse again and pain flares in my abdomen. I wretch, only bile coming up this time.
After three or four vomit free minutes pass, I lean back and rest against the side of the stall, letting the cold paint cool my heated skin. I wipe the back of my hand across my forehead and watch as it returns covered with sweat.
The first bell, the one warning students that they have a total of five minutes to get to class or suffer the consequences, sound off. I flinch, the high pitched noise assaulting my eardrums, and force myself off the floor.
Cold water fills my palms and I splash it on my face, thankful that I lacked the time to apply any kind of makeup this morning. Thanks to my mother and her need to see that I still eat, I now get to spend the first day of school looking like I am recovering from the plague.
The late bell sounds seconds after I enter my homeroom and Katrena Belmonte, the pink haired misfit I befriended my freshman year, waves me over.
She nods her head approvingly as I slide into the empty desk next to her, chewing on the eraser of her pencil. “Wow, I almost didn’t recognize you. You look like a completely different person.”
“So I’ve heard. Thanks, I guess?” I try to figure out whether this common statement is a compliment to my current looks or an insult to my previous one. However, being that Katrena is a legitimately good person, I pass it off as a compliment.
“Let me guess. Um, diet pills? No, you don’t seem like the time. Plus, I’ve met your mother and there is no way she would sign off on that. Was it one of those crazy celebrity diets? I mean, you did say you were spending your summer in Cali and that place is just crawling with weirdo diet fads. How did that go, by the way? Your texts were always so short.”
I shrug, pressing my fingers to my temples as the pounding in my head grows stronger. “Bad service and it was a blast.”
The entire statement is a lie; the service was perfect and the whole trip was a shit-show.
My mother had warned me of my father’s failing mental health before I boarded the plane for our agreed upon summer stay, but it wasn’t until I arrived that I realized how badly she had downplayed the whole thing.
My father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was ten and, from the day those doctors uttered those words, things with him have only gotten worse. My mother did all she could to hold our family together but, after a particularly violent episode that ended with my father trying to drown me in the bathtub before slitting his wrist, she filed for divorced and moved me out of my childhood home.
The ink on the finalized papers was barely dry when he packed up his belongings, sold the house, and then purchased the beachside condo in San Diego where he planned to live out the rest of his days in.
Rosalia, the in-house nurse my father had hired to care for him, was the one to greet me at the airport and was the first tip that things were not going to go the way I had expected.
From there it was a forty-five-minute ride to his condo, which was on the edge of town and as far from civilization as he could get. Once his mind began to decay, being near anyone who wasn’t Rosalia or immediate family seemed to send him diving headfirst into an episode.
My mother had tried her hardest to keep me from leaving McCall but seeing my father before he passed seemed like something I needed to do. The last few memories I had of him were not pleasant ones and wasn’t how I wanted to remember him, especially since most of those memories involved my mother shouting him from the opposite side of a locked door as he tried to explain that he had trapped us in that room ‘for our own safety’.
Unfortunately, due to his frail state and deteriorating mind, we didn’t get much done in the way on conversing. There were a few times where he was lucid enough to remember who I was and why I was there, but even then he seemed to be struggling to remain rooted in reality.
Those days he would start the conversation by bringing up school and my college plans and I would feel a twinge of hope that this would be the day we bonded, but then his eyes would darken and he would whisper under his breath, asking me if ‘it’ had happened to me yet. He, like my mother, seemed convinced something was wrong with me and would eventually work himself up so much that Rosalia would have to sedate him for a while.
The rambunctious chatter in the room comes to a sudden halt and I force away thoughts of my father, forcing myself back into the moment. I peer over at a wide-eyed Katrena, following her stare to the front of the classroom and the boy entering it.
Those are the first and only words that Axel Browning, the guy who currently has everyone’s attention, ever said to me.
It was the fourth day of my freshman year and, being the anxious wreck that I was, had managed to find myself in the hall designated for the senior class. I had gotten the feeling that I had wandered far from where I was supposed to be headed but I was too nervous to ask anyone for directions.
The fear of looking like an idiot had left me wandering the halls longs after class had started, looking very much like a deer caught in headlights. It had also made me the perfect target for the three larger than life rugby players who happened to be lurking in the area at the same time.
One of them, a ginger-haired jerk with pockmarks covering his face, had undone two of the buttons on my blouse and insulted my weight five times before he was violently ripped away from me.
“What the hell, man?” Pockmark had snarled once he regained his footing. “What the hell is your problem? We were just messing with her.”
“Well, now you’re not. If you’re that desperate for a friend then I’ll play with you,” a gravelly voice had replied.
Pockmark and his friends had contemplated the suggestion for a moment before shrugging it off and heading towards the auditorium.
It was then that I had gotten my first good look at the person who had bravely come to my rescue.
I recognized Axel Browning the moment my eyes fell on him. I might have been new to the school but the boy was somewhat of a legend around town, known mostly for his smart mouth and pension for fighting.
He stood a little over six feet tall and was the kind of attractive where you couldn’t quite place what made him that way. He was abstract art come to life, a series of perfect lines and shapes that you couldn’t look away from.
His hair, which was a rich shade of chocolate, fell lazily to one side of his face and did nothing to hide the metal stud that ran through his left eyebrow. Even darker eyes had glared down at me, looking over me as if I was a specimen under a microscope.
I had watched him gather up the things that had been knocked from my hand, stacking them up neatly before handing them over, and I had managed to squeak out a very weak ‘thank you’.
Axel, however, had chosen not to respond and brushed my comment off, heading away from me and towards an exit.
Something about the action had infuriated me to the point where I followed after him.
“Hey!” I’d shouted, grabbing him by the forearm so that I could spin him to face me. There had been no faltering in my voice that time. “I said ‘thank you’. Just because you did something nice doesn’t mean that you can follow it up by being an ass. It doesn’t work that way and I fairly certain that saying ‘you’re welcome’ wouldn’t kill you.”
He ripped his arm free of my hand. “Fuck off.”
Then he was headed off again but, that time, I didn’t follow him.
He tried to kill himself two days later.
All eyes are fixed on him as he sulks towards the back of the class, practically throwing himself into the last remaining desk.
Those around him scoot their desks and chairs away like sitting too close might cause them to catch his less than lively mood. They move away from him in the same manner someone does when encountering something that is hazardous to their health. Then again, from the dark look perched on his face, they might not be in the wrong to do so because he looks downright explosive.
The chatter resumes but this times, instead of going on about what they did over the summer, all conversation revolves around him and his return.
This is the first time anyone has seen Axel since his suicide attempt. No one is certain what happened to him once he was released from the hospital, or even why he tried to kill himself in the first place, but that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from churning them out.
From what I have pieced together, his family relocated out of state that he could be placed in a mental health facility more suited for his needs and then, once he was done with treatment, attended the reform school on the edge of our town.
I can tell from his scowl, the one that has only deepened since sitting down, that he is aware of the things being said about him but he doesn’t address them. Instead, he pulls down the hood of his dark jacket and lets that thick hair of his spill around his face. A light dusting of facial hair has formed across his jaw, the dark stubble sticking out against his tanned skin as he turns his glare towards the window.
I allow mine to follow his but I can’t find anything out there worth staring at, only a few once bloomed bushes and dead trees.
“Miss Peak?” Mr. Peron, my homeroom teacher, taps an impatient finger on my desk and slides a piece of paper towards me. “Were you planning on paying attention this morning or was staring longingly at Mr. Browning all you had scheduled for the day?”
Laughter erupts from the front of the class and I feel my face grow flush with embarrassment.
I stare down at the paper, letting my hair waterfall around my red face. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
“That you are to report to the library at the end of the day to finish out your final week of EC work detail.”
I shove the paper into my bag, allowing it to crumple loudly. “Okay, thanks.”
Mr. Person returns to his lecture about his in-class expectations and dress code and I throw a glance over my shoulder, instantly regretting allowing myself to be so brazen so quickly after being called out when I find myself in a stare down the disgruntled boy at the back of the class.
Axel leans forward in his seat and cocks his head to the side curiously, examining me closely through envy-inducing eyelashes.
My stomach clenches and, in an attempt to seem less like a future stalker, I give him a friendly smile.
He raises one hand off the desk, gives me the finger, and then turns so that he is once again staring out the window.