Staring at the large metallic letters that spell HELENA HIGH SCHOOL boldly on the brick building before me, I feel my heart plummet. On the first day of school I had felt optimistic as I walked toward those letters. Not exactly happy—no senior in high school is happy to begin her last year of high school in a new town and at a new school—but I had been naïvely hopeful that this change wouldn’t be all bad. Now, thirty-two days later (but who’s counting?) reality has beat me down and the closer I get to the building, the more slowly my feet drag.
Despite my feet’s good intentions to save me, I do eventually reach the front door and join the throng of students shoving their way inside the building. I wrap my arms more tightly around my body. It’s a move designed both to protect my body from the crowd and also to warm myself. Ever since coming to Montana I have been cold. This is silly, since Montana obviously doesn’t lie in a continual blanket of snow and throughout sunny September, most of my peers had stubbornly continued to wear T-shirts, but I cannot get warm. I wonder if it’s mental. As if my sadness at feeling so alone is also making me feel so cold. Maybe if I had friends here, I would be wearing a T-shirt too.
Sullenly striding down the hallway, I get to my locker, but it won’t open. Again. I pound my fist against the chilly metal. That combination lock must really hate me. The hallway is almost empty—just a long row of the metal rectangles with hardly any students left—so I rush off to my English class without my copy of Hamlet. Again. I spot an empty desk in the back corner of the room and gratefully slide into it. If I sit in the back, the teacher won’t notice that I am unprepared. Again. I know this because I seem to have a talent for going unnoticed at this school.
Not that I can blame any of them for ignoring me. Helena is a small town so I get it. Most of the people here have known each other since preschool. Why should they bother to get to know the new girl? Everyone already has a place here except for me, both literally and figuratively. There are the smart kids, sitting in the front of my English class and the rest of us sitting in the back. I watch Devin Rose Rochester sitting in the front center desk, eyes alight, nodding agreement as Mrs. Blackwood, our teacher, lectures about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s culpability in Hamlet’s demise. The teacher also notices Devin Rose and an expression of pride passes over her face. All of her lecture is directed toward the front row students, the students that care, the students that are going on to universities. It’s the last year of high school for all of us, and even the teachers have given up on reaching the students in the back. So I know I’m safe here.
Chewing on my bottom lip, I mull over my current situation. I wish that I could blame someone for my misery—I think it would consoling. But I can’t blame the students for not befriending me—the new girl in senior year. I think about my parents. I should blame them. If you asked them, I’m sure they wouldn’t hesitate to say that I hold them responsible for ruining my life, I have certainly tried to express my unhappiness at home. Most of the summer I spent secluded in my bedroom, feeling alone and ignoring the outside world. Like a toddler, I even cried and slammed doors just to make sure that my parents know exactly how wretched I am. But really, I just use them as an outlet. Deep down, I know that they were trying to make a better life for us so I can’t blame them either.
My parents were following their dream by moving to Montana and they assumed that I would be happy here too. And perhaps I could be happy if I weren’t the pariah of the school, the untouchable that walks through the halls without garnering so much as a glance my way.
They’d always loved nature (no doubt I inherited that from them) so when my grandpa died and left my dad a little money, they decided it was time to live out their dream and find a place to call home in the mountains of Montana. And that’s how I ended up here.
Helena may be the capital of Montana but it’s not the biggest city in the state. It’s generous to call it a city; it’s a town really and a small one at that. Quaint and with a conservative-leave-me-alone attitude meets liberal-love-the-environment kind of feel.
It’s beautiful here. I can’t deny it. A village nestled among the wild things.
My mom had been the first one to see the little white clapboard house listed on the internet real estate site. “Isn’t it charming?” she had asked, scrolling through the pictures on her phone and then shoving it toward me. She clapped her hands enthusiastically.
“Isn’t it small?” I had countered, noting that the description listed only two bedrooms.
“How much room do we really need?” she’d asked. Which I couldn’t argue with because we were currently living in an Airstream R.V. But I guess I had always hoped when we moved into a house, that it would be more spacious. “There’s you, me, and dad. And soon you’ll be off to college and it will just be dad and I. Besides, waste not, want not.” That is one of her favorite mantras and useable in more situations than you may think. “And it’s on five acres of wooded land,” she continued. “So who wants to be inside a house with all of that lovely nature calling your name?”
The sound of the lunch bell is like the cock crowing thrice and snaps my thoughts back to the present. I walk to the cafeteria and glance around at the tables teeming with people. It’s an exquisite kind of desolation to be in the throng of so many other humans but not have anyone look at me or talk to me. It almost makes me feel unhuman. I might as well grow three heads and a tail.
I sit in the first open seat I can find and glance up to see a girl approaching with her lunch. Her eyes are darting around the room as if she is searching for someone, but then she puffs out a little breath of air and sits next to me. Hope bubbles up inside of me, a sure sign of how desperate I am since I don’t even know this girl and if I had to guess from the inch-thick layer of glitter eye shadow surrounding each eye like a life preserver, I would guess that she is not my type. Still, she is a living breathing human to have a conversation with. She has to offer better conversation than the endless monologues I have been holding in my head daily since the first day of school. I’ll keep it simple since I feel so out of practice. “Hi,” I say.
But I’m too late. The girl is standing, waving frantically to another girl. “I’m over here,” she calls.
“And I’m over here,” I think sorrowfully.
Without any acknowledgment of my existence, the two girls begin their own private conversation of gasps and whispers and the name Steve is repeated over and over. I notice the grey laminate cafeteria bench beneath me feels like granite. It’s uncomfortable to be sitting so close to these girls but not be a part of their conversation. I discreetly scoot a few inches to the right and scan the room. It’s depressing, I decide. The grey tables, the mint green speckled floor, the beige walls. All of the neutral colors combine to create a dreary wasteland where joy goes to die. Even the lunch ladies look pale and sickly in the fluorescent lights. And the food they serve has been transformed from meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans into scoops of only slightly different colored mush on a tray. The other students don’t seem to mind though. In fact, they seem oblivious to the asylum-like conditions the school administration has created for them. Maybe it’s just me.
I peer at the girls next to me from the corner of eye. They are trying to get the notice of some boy at another table. It must be Steve. He’s cute, with wavy blonde hair and an easy smile. One of the girls is licking her white plastic yogurt spoon slowly, wiggling her eyebrows at him.
“Gross,” I mumble. I sigh, sad that I was right—we wouldn’t have been friends anyway. “Just one more year,” I think. “One more year and then I can escape the torture of Helena High.”