The loud, deafening, honking tone of a car reverberated in Mina Joyce’s ears as she bounded down the staircase at a trot, taking two at a time until she reached the bottom, barely pausing as she swiftly made her way into the pristine porcelain kitchen. She moved to grab her backpack from its place on one of the identical iron black stools, lined like sentinel soldiers against the dark granite counters, but paused abruptly at the sight of something small and yellow in the corner of her eye. Her heart dropped. Attached to the fridge, where she had missed it before, was a bright neon yellow sticky note, glittering with sparkly red ink that she could only interpret as her mother’s curvy handwriting. Mina didn’t even bother to read the entire note through before she was snatching the paper into her manicured fingers and hurling it into the trash with the rest of the neon notes that lay waiting patiently for another friend to join them. Mina had gotten used to the feeling of living alone, though the cathedral ceilings and the long empty hallways filled with nothing but relics of statues whose eyes seemed to follow her around the house had never made her to comfortable, but she found the silence that blanketed over the house in her parent’s absence more comforting than the sound of their overlapped shouting voices. She couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t behind closed doors, whispers of secret business she wasn’t allowed to know cascading over their lips until they left again.
Another loud honk reverberating through the core of the house brought Mina crashing back to reality and she realized that her foot was still on the pedal of the trash can her eyes staring idly past the mountains of notes cascading like a landfill of fake promises without seeing anything at all. She shook her head of the thought, shouldering her backpack tighter against her body as she grabbed a pair of silver keys from a bowl on the counter and continued her now, brisk jog, through the front door and out into the crisp fall air. The weather was to warm and humid to mimic fall temperatures, and the heaviest thing she wore was the dark green pleated skirt of her school uniform. She plastered, what she hoped to be a believable smile, on her face as she chaussed down the length of her driveway.
“Hey beautiful” a soft voice cascaded over her as she opened the passenger side door of the navy blue Audi taking up her driveway. Immediately she was blasted with cool, minty air, and her nostrils were filled with the smell of fresh upholstered leather. A pair of soft wet lips were pressed, briefly against her own before the sound of a loud gag pulled them away once more. She turned to the backseat, where a girl in a pair of blue combat boots and heavy colorful eye makeup sat repeatedly rolling her eyes as she pretended to choke on air.
“Oh my god!” she exclaimed, to no one in particular. “Leave room for Jesus!” This time Mina was the one to lean in, reconnecting her lips once again to the figure in the driver’s seat beside her, and again exclamations and curses ravaged from the back seat. Mina pulled away smiling.
“You guys are so cute it’s disgusting.”
“Thank you!” Mina sung. She wrapped her hand in her boyfriend’s, and he took the opportunity to leave light kisses along the back of her hand. Suddenly the landfill of sticky notes in her trashcan ceased to exist, and instead euphoria tingled throughout her body. Who needed absentee parents, when she could have Asher instead.
“Jealousy isn’t a good look on you Noah” Asher called over his shoulder, his eyes inching to the rear-view mirror for only a millisecond before he grabbed the gear-shift in his free hand and began to slowly reverse them out of Mina’s driveway and onto the smoothly paved gravel road of the subdivision. His hand never once leaving Mina’s.
“Jealous?” Noah let out a small, unenthusiastic laugh at Asher’s assumptions. “Trust me” she drawled out each syllable slowly, enunciating each letter as if it were its own word. “If I wanted your girlfriend I could have her.” Noah’s and Asher’s tirades emptied Mina’s mind of all the anxiousness that had once plagued the heavy pit in her stomach, and when they arrived in the student parking lot amongst the sea of other expensive sports cars and waves of students roaming in hordes, she found herself strangely looking forward to whatever the day held for her, her parent’s note the farthest thing from her mind.
“MJ!” Mina’s name fell from the lips of every student she passed, each of them waving with a wide grin spread the length of their face. Mina had to admit, she didn’t know who half the people who were speaking to her were, but she walked on regardless, smiling and waving to each face in turn as she followed Noah and Asher into the glass double doors of Palm Valley Prep. The three of them had only made it as far as Asher’s locker before she heard her name called yet again, this time by a face she could recognize.
“MJ!” a petite girl in a dark green pleated skirt that looked two sizes to small, and a cardigan of the same color, rushed across the hall with an eager smile on her face. An illegible piece of paper flew from her hand as she waved it back and forth through the air.
“MJ!” the girl was standing in front of her now, out of breath and panting slightly.“Hi.”
“Hi Hailey.” Mina mimicked her teammate. Noah looked annoyed at the disruptance, suddenly finding interest in a spot of dirt on her boots, but Asher’s back was turned to the pair of girls, the only sound coming from him, that of the rustle of his backpack as he fed one book after another onto the shelves of his locker.
The girl quickly shoved the paper she had been holding into Mina’s hands with a ferocious urgency and Mina didn’t have to read far to realize that what she was holding was an invitation to a seclusive surprise party for one of the boys on the lacrosse team.
“Chris’s birthday is this weekend, so me, and a few other girls on the cheer team.” she mentioned the last part in an air of unimportance that made Mina question why she had joined the cheer team in the first place. “are throwing him a surprise party at my place to celebrate.”
The feeling of warm breath on her neck and the shuffling of feet behind her told Mina that the word “party” had caught Noah’s attention, and now she was hovering over Mina’s shoulder reading the flyer in her hands word for word. Hailey immediately let out a loud scoff , shaking her head. Both girls looked up to see the prominent frown written across her face.
“Sorry.” she feigned, mocking innocence “but the party is invitation only” her eyes were glued to Noah as she said this. “I only have so many invitations to hand out.”
Noah’s eyes became daggers and she opened her mouth to rebuttal Hailey’s comment, no doubt with something even nastier, but before she could get a word out of her gaping mouth the sound of ripping paper bought her silence. Smirking at the girl in front of her, Mina handed Noah a piece of the flyer that was now ripped in half, her eyes never leaving Hailey’s once.
“Oh look, now she has an invitation.” Mina couldn’t suppress a smile at the image of the smoke fuming from Hailey’s ears and the sight of her now slitted eyes roaming over Noah’s figure behind her. The worst thing about attending private school was having to make friends with “high-class society” like Hailey who all thought they ruled the world because their parents were business men and women of influence, and the thousand of dollars they payed to keep the school running only added fuel to the already burning forest fire. Hailey looked as if she had a snarky underhanded remark in mind, but before she could blow off her steam Asher chose the moment to become aware of the drama that had been unfolding behind him. Slamming his locker shut with a loud bang that echoed off the hall walls, he wrapped his arms around Mina’s waist, hovering over her shoulder at the half paper in her hand with curiosity
“What are we talking about?” his words were directed towards Hailey, and both Noah and Mina sat patiently eyeing her, waiting for her response, daring her to speak her mind, but all that came out was a frustrated choke that she tried to hide with a quick and forced tight lipped smile.
“Hailey invited all of us to Chris’s birthday party this Friday.” Mina answered Asher’s question without hesitation, holding her half of the party invitation up to him as proof. She was taking pleasure in watching Hailey writhe in her own frustration. There was no way she was going to uninvite she and her boyfriend just to get rid of Noah, Hailey knew she was stuck.
“Sweet!” Asher chimed.
“Yeah, sweet!” Noah mimicked, smiling a little to tightly.
“Can’t wait to see you all there!” Hailey forced out, but before any of them could reply to her well wishes she had scurried off down the tiled hall in recruit of the boys of the swim team, adamantly calling out their names one by one. Mina had never been to public school, but being here made her want to live a different life. Everyone was after something, they all knew their goals and dreams, which were both frankly the same thing. They knew where they wanted to go in life and what they wanted to do, whereas she was still trying to figure out how to navigate through high school unassisted, she would be lucky if she even made it out alive.
“What a bit-” Noah’s words were lost in the deafening clanging sound of the school bells resounding off the walls. Immediately students began to disperse, echoes of “goodbyes” trailing through the halls. Mina felt the warmth of Asher’s arms around her dissipate and suddenly she was spinning on her toes, stopping when she could see her reflection in a pool of gray. A quick kiss to the cheek and Asher was lost in the horde of forest green blazer and skirts, untraceable in the avalanche of students all being swept in different directions.
“Can I ask you a question?” Noah persisted, her arm interlinked in Mina’s as they made their way down a short hallway to the left of the departing mob, passing classroom after identical classroom. A few teachers nodded in their direction as they walked, though most were to forgetful to even remember one of 41, 610 names.
“Mhm” Mina hummed in reply.
“Why are you friends with those girls?” Mina didn’t have to look at Noah to imagine the confused and annoyed look her best friend was making, she had seen in all to often to mentally manifest it. “They’re all annoying and rude and completely self-absorbed and-”
“And loaded with money.” Mina interrupted, as if her explanation justified everything.
“So are your parents.” Noah shook her head, perturbed. Everyone in the glass monstrosity they called a school had money more or less.
Mina opened her mouth to speak, closed it, and opened again. “You know how they say it’s not who you know, but what you know?” She said the words slowly and without affection. Noah nodded that she understood.
“This would be one of those situations.” Mina interpreted.
Three seconds and then a blink of comprehension. “Your parents.” she realized.
“When they’re not busy secretly flying off to remote locations and ignoring my calls and texts, they’re controlling my life, grooming me to be the perfect canidate for my college applications.”
There was a small pause in the conversation where neither girl said a word, both to scared to acknowledge what Mina had admitted.
“They’re gone again aren’t they?” Noah asked after a almost a minute of silence only succeeded by the symphony of footsteps clamoring down the hall. The pity in Noah’s voice was evident, and Mina was beginning to regret confiding in anyone other than her bedroom walls. Her thoughts immediately returned to the pile of unread notes accumulating in the kitchen trashcan and she bit down hard on the inside of her cheeks to keep from losing herself.
“Aren’t they always?” Mina answered Noah’s declaration without hesitation, the words falling from her lips thoughtless, she didn’t even realize she had spoken until the burning sensation of Noah’s eyes beside her drew her attention, and she was met with a pair of sorrowful eyes and down-turned mouth. But there was no time reminisce in her loathing; the repeated clanging of the brass school bell overhead rang just as the girls ducked into the nearest classroom, both of them taking parallel seats in the middle of the room. Mina could still feel her friend’s eyes boring a gaping sized hole in the side of her head, and instead decided to focus on the meaningless conversations of her peers around her buzzing with the honey of fresh gossip: Chris’s party.
“Good morning homeroom” a stout, pencil-shaped, lady in a purple plaid dress marched intp the room with an air of arrogance, slamming the wooden door behind her with a loud thud of frustration. Mina was feeling the exact same way this morning. The chatter immediately ceased to reverberate through the air as the portly woman took a perch at the front of the room, each student sliding into a cramped metal desk with surprising speed and agility. Mina’s head dropped into her hand, her elbow barely supporting the weight of her thoughts as she slowly began to tune out the voice of the woman in front of her. She could vaguely remember the words “roll call” and the monotonous, repeated, sound of the word “here” about a billion times before she slowly began to slip back into the labyrinth that was her brain. Her life was a rigorous routine laid out for her to follow meticulously, everyday the same empty house, the same fake smiles, and the same fictitious personalities surrounded her. She wished she could be someone else for a day, live life without having to worry about adhering to the rules she was constrained by.
The soft sound of a fist pounding against the classroom door interrupted the steady stream of chatter that was beginning to overtake the room once more, though not a single student looked up from their desk with an inclining of interest. The teacher let out a short and abrupt sigh at the front of the room, slamming her clipboard down on the wooden desk behind her, frustrated with the late student who had interrupted her.
The two soft knocks echoed through the room once more, though the unbothered chatter of the students continued.
“I understand that school is not some of you guys’ favorite place” the teacher began, her heels clacking against the linoleum floors with urgency. “but you could at least give show your teachers the courtesy of showing up!”
The chatter ceased in the room all of a sudden as if all the sound in the world had been cut off. Not a single breath could be heard. Mina’s head shot up from the pencil lines in her desk at the speed of light to discover all of her classmates eyes trained on the figure of the late student who had just emerged through the door. Mina didn’t recognize his face, and by the surprised looks on her classmate’s faces, neither did they.
Illuminated in the doorway of the room, eyes wide and moving rapidly about the room taking everything in stood a tall lanky figure of a boy, long and unruly shaggy brown hair covering most of his forehead. He looked permanently anxious, like he might startle easily and run off without warning. He wore the same ebony pants and dark green blazer typical of the rest of the boys in the school, but something about the way his body fit into the clothes made him seem uncomfortable and awkward. The clothes hung off his skinny figure so that he looked as if he were drowning in the fabric instead of wearing it.
His eyes still roaming over the room, he handed the teacher a piece of paper with shaky hands.
“Khalil?” the teacher spoke after a moment, her eyes scanning the sheet of paper vigorously. The boy nodded his head in confirmation, he was still flighty. “Find an empty seat please Khalil.” Eyes followed him like lasers all the way to the desk he situated himself in near the back of the classroom and Mina could feel herself heating up with second hand embarrassment. The teacher continued on down the list of names on her clipboard, but no one was paying attention anymore, and instead of their usual meaningless chatter, the room was filled with unanswered questions, and biased assumptions of the skinny, brown-haired, boy who had just walked through the door.
“Here” came Noah’s reply from beside her.
“Mina Joyce Mendis”
“Here.” It took all of Mina’s will not turn around and gawk at the boy she knew was behind her, but she, like the rest of her class couldn’t help herself. This new, unfamiliar, stranger with messy hair and baggy clothes was the epitome of everything that the school strove to eradicate in it’s students and his appearance alone cracked the very hierarchy the school was built upon. The boy had just walked through the door and already the student body had put a target on his back, Mina could already hear the echoes of the laughing jeers and sarcastic compliments that were sure to stab him over and over again.
She couldn’t help but sympathize for the boy, even with the thousands of students that surrounded her everyday she still felt completely alone, much how she was sure the boy behind her was feeling and all she wanted to do was turn around, catching his eyes, and give him a word of comfort. A friendly face in this sea of unfamiliarity.
She would giver herself four seconds for a quick glance at him she assured herself, she wouldn’t gape at him like a caged animal, she was only satisfying her curiosity. Four seconds, starting now.
One. She peeked shyly over her shoulder as if she were scanning the ground for a lost item.
Two. Her eyes landed on the busted soles of his mangled trainers, the laces barely holding the broken fabric to his feet. His legs were trembling a mile a minute, his feet constantly tapping his soles against the linoleum tiles in a steady staccato.
Three. She traveled his small frame with her eyes, slowly moving from his legs to his knees to his torso, but on the fourth count, she looked up to find a pair of soft caramel colored eyes staring intently at her figure. She froze. Mina found herself taking a sharp breath in as their eyes met, her heart beating so loud she was afraid it might come out of her chest. She fumbled with the hem of her skirt in embarrassment, attempting to turn herself around before she exasperated herself even more, almost overturning herself in the process.
“Hey?” Noah had noticed her discomfort. “Are you ok?” her hand skimmed the edge of her desk inquiringly. Mina nodded her head back and forth, a curt and unconvincing close-lipped smile plastering itself the length of her face. Mina hoped her friend would assume that she was still upset over their earlier conversation of her parents, not the cold and callous look she had just received from the harmless looking new boy that had sent chills up her spine.
Khalil Maffa. That was the name that seemed to glide off the walls in soft echoes, floating from one pair of lips to the next until the entire school was a dry brush for the fire that was the tall lanky boy with the baggy clothes. By fourth period everyone had concocted unrealistic theories of where he had come from, making childish bets in regards to how long he would last at the school. The highest bet was three days. Everyone had become enamored by Khalil’s silent arrival and school was the last thing on anyone’s mind, including Mina’s.
“I heard he was kicked out of his last school for almost killing a kid.” Asher’s lacrosse friend, Chris, entertained anyone who would listen at their lunch table, regaling false rumors Mina was sure he had picked up from the cheerleaders. Squished between her boyfriend and Chris she sat silently, her head in her hand, swirling the ambiguous school food around on her lunch tray as she tried to block out the sound of the tables laughter around her. It was no use, her table wasn’t the only one abuzz with the rumors of Khalil’s past and, as hard as she tried, she couldn’t drown out the entire lunch room.
“Shut up, Chris!” She snapped, dropping her fork to the table with a loud clatter. Several pairs of eyes were now trained on her frown.
“What?” The boy laughed nonchalantly, entertaining the entire table with his infectious personality. “I’m only telling you what I’ve heard!” he shrugged his shoulders, his grin still spread wide across his face. “Don’t get mad at me, I’m just the messenger. Besides, wouldn’t you want to know if you were going to school with a serial killer. I’m not trying to get stabbed in the middle of my calculus test!” Laughter rang around the table.
Mina could feel the slight pressure of Asher’s hand on her leg under the table attempting to steady her increasingly heating figure, his eyes boring into the side of her head.
“Hey” he leaned over to whisper in her ear, and though she knew it was supposed to be comforting it only made her more angry. “You know Chris was just joking?” Mina nodded head subdued. Why was she the one getting reprimanded when it was his own friends who were being jerks? Why wasn’t he “hey”-ing them?
Mina was sure she had imagined the indifferent stare Khalil had given her earlier, because there was no way the shy silent boy sitting by himself two tables in front of her was capable of hating anyone, though he had every right to loathe them all. He hadn’t fought back once all day. He had sat there silently and endured the jeers and laughter that had echoed around him with his head down passively.
She watched from afar as Khalil’s eyes roamed the large monstrosity that was the cafeteria, examining the walls as if they were closing in around him. She noticed his hand clamped over something hanging from around his neck, but she was to far away to see anything but a small speck of silver.
“Mina, chill-” It was Noah’s voice trying to sedate her this time, but before she found herself at the end of another chiding, she was throwing her legs over the bench she was sitting on and standing, hovering over the rest of the surprised table.
“Woah! Woah! Woah!” Asher almost tripped over himself trying to catch Mina’s arm before she could travel far from the table. “Hey?”
“MJ!” Chris was grinning like a maniac again, barely containing the laughter that was threatening to erupt from inside him. “MJ I’m sorry, you know I was joking with you right. I was joking.”
“Ok” Mina replied matter-of-factly, before turning to walk away once more, but she still didn’t get very far before Asher was wrapping his hand around her arm once more. Mina let out a frustrated sigh.
“Ok?” Asher nodded as if he didn’t believer her, though she couldn’t blame him because she barely believed herself. Mina nodded in confirmation. “Ok” she repeated, throwing her hands in the air in exasperation.
“Ok.” He still sounded disapproving. “Come sit back down.“his grip on her arm loosened and instead wrapped itself around her waist, attempting to guide her back towards the table of onlookers who were eyeing the entire situation with an air of amusement. Mina slipped out of his grip with ease, shaking her head, much to the surprise of her boyfriend.
“I’m going to invite Khalil to sit with us.” There was eerie silence before a storm of laughter erupted around her, though she couldn’t find anything remotely funny. A chorus of “what?“’s echoed from the table in a wave and even Mina could have sworn she had even seen Asher’s lips twitch slightly.
She cocked her head at her boyfriends thin-lipped smile, crossing her arms over her chest in unamusement. Asher’s smile proceeded to disappear at the speed of light at his girlfriend’s reproachful look.
“Hey!” he yelled at the table behind him, silencing them to nothing more than a hushed murmurs, though a few snickers of small laughter-filled smiles still floated around the table.
“MJ!” Noah was holding in a confused smile, her voice full of amused disbelief. “Are you seri-”
“He doesn’t know anyone here, and no one else is going to sit with him.” Mina interrupted her friends protests.
“Don’t you think there’s a reason for that?” More laughter, it seemed like there had been a lot of that today.
“Chris” Asher shook his head, silencing his friend, who held his hands in front of him innocently.
“I’m just saying” Chris payed no attention to the daggers his friend was shooting his way. “Can you blame people for being cautious, we know nothing about this guy.”
“Shut up, Chris!” Asher raised his voice this time, though it did nothing to dismiss the wide smile that was still inching its way across Chris’s face.
“We know that he’s sitting alone, with no friends, in a new place, where he doesn’t know anyone!”
“Mina-” Noah was halted by the sound of Asher’s voice.
“Ok” Everyone’s head turned in perfect synchronization, all wondering if they had heard Asher right.
“Asher!” Asher ignored the rising chatter of his team behind him, Chris’s roaring quarrels especially, nodding his head at his girlfriend’s request. Mina realized that the only perk of being her was that everyone did what she asked without fail and she couldn’t hide the evidney skip in her walk as she chausseed across the cafeteria, but her victory was short lived and it was to late before she realized that Khalil was gone. The only evidence that he had even been there, an overturned lunch tray and the vision of his anxious face burned into Mina’s mind.