01: First of Many [2/2]
The beginning of that new day came soon, as I expected. Within the blink of my ‘ain’t gettin’ no sleep’ eyes, I was standing at the double-wide doors of the school, trying to talk myself into reaching for the swirling, chrome handle.
“It’s just a door,” a deep male voice said, slicing through my thoughts.
I took an involuntary step to the side and back, turning to face the guy who interrupted. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t realize I was in your way.”
The guy--man--had glasses and his dirty blond hair was tousled from the gentle, but persistent wind. “You weren’t in my way,” he said, offering a friendly smile. “I’m Mr. Peterson and you’re gonna be in my Sophomore biology glass. It’s Grace, right?”
Frowning, I nodded. “How did you know that?”
Mr. Peterson shrugged. “We don’t usually get students in the middle of the second semester. This isn’t an easy school to get into as is. So when I heard we were getting graced--” he paused, lifting an eyebrow to see if I understood his joke. I gave him an eye roll that made him chuckle before he continued, “with your presence I became curious. Either you were incredibly gifted, or your parents come from money.”
I didn’t miss the ‘scrunched-up-nose’ glance he’d given me as he examined my clothes. They weren’t so bad as all that. My clothes, I mean. His clothes weren’t exactly screaming rich and spectacular either, yet somehow, looking the way he does, I had a feeling the female student body didn’t care when it came to him. He could make dirt work and I’ll bet he knew it too.
Taking another step back, I pushed my glasses up my nose and frowned as his gaze lingered around the black material that stretched across my breasts. They weren’t exactly stellar, so the look of mild appreciation in Mr. Peterson’s eyes was surprising. I didn’t know if I should be offended or flattered.
Of course, he could just be a very, very slow reader.
I folded my arms across the white lettering on my black t-shirt ‘Sar-casm: Noun - Your body’s natural defense against stupid,’ and cleared my throat. He took his time lifting his hazel eyes to mine, but when he did his head tilted to the side, a curious expression crossing his features as he licked his rising lips.
I wanted to say it out loud. I wanted to be highly offended, but God had made me flat as a board and unrecognizable to the opposite sex. So, even though this teacher was at least ten years older than me, it made me feel good... and uncomfortable.
“Well, at least you can pull off those second-hand clothes, yes?” he asked, his eyes twinkling as he teased me.
I didn’t care that I was obvious, or that his backhanded compliment may have hurt my feelings, but I couldn’t deny the truth of my clothes being second hand. I mean they weren’t, just old... too old. Eighth grade too old.
My scuffed up tennis shoes were probably the worst, but I’d carefully chosen what to wear, hoping I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. I’d thrown some tight blue jeans on that were so faded and worn--from my years wearing them in eighth grade--that it looked like the material could be erased off. Even with the thin material, they were still my best pair of jeans and I’d only filled out a bit since then, so while they were tight, they weren’t like a second skin.
Mr. Peterson reached forward and the tip of his finger pushed my glasses up my nose. “Cute,” he whispered next to my ear, and I stiffened at his close proximity. He was so close I could feel the heat of his breath, laced with sweetened coffee, dampening the side of my neck. He lingered there, his head bowed towards me for a minute too long before bypassing me to get to the doors.
I must have stood in that spot, in that position, for at least five minutes. It’s what it felt like, but then again, maybe it wasn’t that long because a female someone cleared her throat and gave a gentle shoulder check to mine.
“Mr. Peterson. That eye candy and erotic dream maker goes through the girls in this school almost as much as the four.” There was a bitter angry tint to her voice that made me insta-curious.
Inhaling, I twisted towards the girl. Her eyes were aquamarine and surrounded by black lashes so thick it looked like she had layers of black mascara coating them, yet the usual cake of foundation was absent. Did she even have any make-up on?
“Hi,” was all I could mumble.
The girl readjusted her book bag straps on her shoulders and held a hand out. “I’m Sarah and you’re new,” she paused and glanced down at my clothes. She was much less invasive about it than Mr. Peterson, but it still gave me an ‘on the spot’ type of feeling. “You must be super smart or super talented because you definitely don’t have money.”
My shoulders slumped and the huff I gave out made Sarah smile down at me. She leaned forward and tugged a piece of my hair, which was longer in the front than in the back. “You might get some slack for it, but don’t let it get you down. Also,” she paused, her expression darkening as she glanced around, “Mr. Peterson usually sets his sights for someone with more -um--ample qualities, but that was his ‘I’m interested’ look. I suggest you don’t be in a classroom alone with him. Remember, just because he’s a teacher doesn’t mean it’s okay.”
I could feel my mouth drop open at the pure, undiluted hatred in Sarah’s voice and it made me wonder if Mr. Peterson was one of those men who thought ‘no’ meant ‘yes’. “Understood,” I said, eyeing her hardened face.
Sarah noticed my attention and her gaze softened to the friendly one she’d greeted me with. “What’s your name?”
“Grace, Sophomore, soon to be Junior if I can make it through the catch up of this semester.”
Sarah chuckled. “You seem smart enough, I think you’ll be fine. I’m a senior. Last semester here and I can’t wait to get away from this place. Too many demons here waiting to pick my bones, you know?”
I didn’t know exactly, but her reaction to Mr. Peterson made me take an educated guess. “That’s a shame.” I offered a pout. “I could’ve used a nice, obviously intelligent beyond her years individual like you to show me the ropes.”
Sarah tilted her head, a small, yet appreciative smile forming on her lips. “Lucky for you, I have a little sister who is also a sophomore. It was nice meeting you, Grace! I’ll be sure to have her lookout for you.”
I nodded my thanks but stopped her when her hand reached the door. “Sarah, I’m sorry for whatever he did to you,” I said. I wanted to know my hunch was correct so I pushed. When her shoulders tensed and the red-pinkish tint of her fingers turned white as she gripped the door handle tighter, I worried that I’d gone too far.
Sarah turned halfway towards me, giving me a timid smile. “You think he did something to me?”
I’d read a few books on abuse, the powers of authority, body language, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in-depths of the human psyche--okay, so maybe more than a few. Now, I felt disgusted with myself for letting his predatory charm get to me. I’d imagine that’s how he got a lot of his students to do what he wanted.
I nodded. “And he should be rotting in jail for whatever the hell it was.”
I watched her shoulders expand as she inhaled and the glisten of tears in her eyes as she tried to collect herself. “You’ll hear different stories. They’ll all tell you that I wanted it, that I--”
Scoffing, I shuffled forward. “People form their own conclusions without all the facts and even more so in ‘he said, she said’ situations. What most people don’t know is making up that type of trauma requires serious method acting skills and even then...” I paused, shrugging my shoulders, “Well, I can read people pretty well. My mom says it’s like an internal lie detector.”
She smiled at the ground. “You sound very no-nonsense.”
“Keep that Grace. It might just help you survive Oak Ridge.”
I wanted to talk to her more, but I could see she wanted to go. “Wait, Sarah, you said something about four?”
This got her to turn back around fully. She took a few steps towards me and whispered more under her breath this time than when she had about Mr. Peterson. “If you can, don’t associate with them. They’re almost worse than Mr. Peterson because everything they get you to do you know is your own choice.” She bit her bottom lip and then shrugged. “Or, maybe that’s the one good thing about them, they know that ‘no means no,’ but it’s almost impossible to say it to them. When they’re done with you, you’ll have nothing left. Here me when I say: Stay. Away.” Sarah paused again and looked down at my clothes with a small smile playing over her lips. “Of course, they probably won’t notice you dressed like that anyhow.”
For once I might be glad we’re poorer than dirt. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
I don’t know why I asked. I knew it was pretty drastic on the negative zero scales of lit, but it was all I had so I would rock it to the best of my ability.
Sarah wiggled her hand in the air, trying to not flat out say ‘yes,’ but in the end, she caved. “I’m sorry. It really is.” She tilted her head and ruffled my hair. It had to be the way my mom cut it this time because I’d never had anyone touch my hair this much. “It’s kind of cute in an orphan Annie, come save me, kind of way.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I don’t need saving.”
Sarah nodded, pursing her lips as she once overed me again. “I know. That’s why I know you got this! First days ain’t got nothin’ on you!”
My laugh startled me and I could only stop when she said her goodbyes and dipped off. That was when the feeling of dread that had started last night, morphed into panic and an ‘oh shit, I’m gonna screw this up so bad’ mantra started, but I quickly stopped it and replaced it with ‘first days ain’t got nothing on you, Grace!’
Squaring my shoulders, I lifted my chin and took the last few steps towards the school that would change my life. I just hoped it would change for the better.