It was deathly quiet. The kind of silence that settles into your bones.
No light shafted in through the windows. Just shadows overlapping in the dark, of craggy birch trees clawing at each other. Suddenly, a chime of bells whispered. A voice.
I opened my eyes. Morning had leaked through and draped over all the packed cardboard boxes lining the walls. I was tangled in a bed sheet, the fabric twisted around my legs. Trying to kick it off, I was thrown onto the floor, meeting the hardwood with impact.
“Anne, what are you doing!” It was more of an insult than a question.
Groaned. I shut my eyes again.
We moved to Bourgade last month, when the rent in Liverpool was due. An odd town, to say the least. The houses ran cheap, and we got a skinny little thing by the railroad tracks. The grass was too long and yellow and there were closet doors everywhere inside, often leading to boarded up rooms.
I was to start at the high school today, according to the letters we got. Pieces of paper printed off of an old typewriter with a little poplar tree leaf in each letterhead. The mayor adds a little smiley face to the end of his signature every time. I often busied myself by counting how many spelling errors there were.
When I fled the house, my mother was still dancing around to multiple CD’s playing at the same time. The Beatles, Counting Crows, and Carole King, I believe. But who really knows?
The streets were cobbled, except for a few on the outskirts of Bourgade that were just rusty old dirt.
A run down apartment building was the school, windows set between the bricks. A girl sat on the stoop, lighting a cigarette. She shook her head, her hair not moving. It was a dark shell of hairspray. Glancing at me, she smiled, bright teeth out of place on her dark face.
“You’re new.” She was smirking now, sizing me up. She shook her head again, and I heard the little tinkling of the bell earrings sing.
The fluorescent-lit hallway was right behind the front doors, bustling with people. “I’m Anne.”
“They call me Nira.”
“Nira.” I commit it to memory.
She smiled again, brown eyes laughing. Like the Cheshire Cat. “Anne.”
Cheshire Cat got up, taking a long drag on her cigarette. Flicking it onto the steps, she ground it into the concrete with her sandal. Digging into a large bag at her feet, Nira reaches for a fragrance bottle, the dark liquid shining.
“Patchouli,” she explains, dabbing the perfume on her wrists and behind her ears. Shouldering the bag, she forcefully opens the front door.
Grinning. “Welcome to hell.”
Through the doors, into the wide hallway, and the sea of people, I started to drown. Shrill laughter and muttered deals swam to the ceiling as I struggled to stay afloat. Nira darted through expertly, disappearing behind open lockers every once and awhile. When I got sidetracked by displays of PDA, she materialized in front of me to pluck me out of the freak show.
“How do so many people fit in such a small school?” I sighed, picking up my feet.
Nira shrugged. “They fit where they want to.”
Did that even make sense? She pulled us into a stairwell lined with big, open windows that showed the alley.
Pausing, Nira looked at me. “Junior year, right?”
I nodded. Pulling a crumpled piece of paper from my pocket, I read the class schedule I was assigned. “Homeroom 26?”
A bell sounded, and Nira scrambled to get up the stairs. I followed in pursuit, wondering how such a square building could fit a staircase to begin with. Throwing open the nearest green-painted locker, Nira tossed in her smokes and a few books from her bag.
She ushered me to the closest open door, marked with an official looking twenty-six, and waved to a student sitting in the front row of desks.
The teacher sat on a large desk near the chalkboard, feet up, while going through some sort of attendance. Nira’s friend in the front pointed to an open seat a few rows back where I could easily slide in without being noticed.
“Good luck.” Nira whispered.
Walking with my head down, I silently hustled to the desk when the teacher spotted me.
He coughed. “Who are you?” A few snickers.
“Anne Quivley, I just transferred.” I didn’t look at him. Just sat down with whatever dignity I had left.
“Aha, a new student. Fresh meat. I don’t tolerate any whingeing in my classroom, you’ll be having me for history, I believe.”
I quickly reread the printed schedule. “You teach the AP class?”
He scratched his head. Neanderthal. “Oh. Never mind then, you’ll have Jones.”
I relaxed, let out my breath. I hadn’t realized I was holding it. The knot in my stomach still didn’t relax. Someone tapped me on my shoulder.
“Where you from, girly?” The boy had a Scottish accent.
Refusing to turn, I picked at my nails. “London. Bath. King’s Cross. Liverpool.”
A small chuckle. “That’s some list, hon. How long do you think you’re gonna stay here?”
“Who are you talking to?” The person in front of me swiveled around, head tilted in question.
I looked over my shoulder, only to see an empty desk. Speechless, I focused on my nails again. I’ve gone insane.
Another bell rang and immediately everyone in homeroom jumped to their feet. Nira’s friend from the front row leaned against the class door. Waiting.
“I’m Linnet.” She smiled, flicking long bangs out of her face. She had perfect teeth too, and a fake tan. Golden necklaces with star pendants hung from her neck, clinking together.
She’s one of them. With the perfect grades and the perfect life and the perfect boyfriends. It’s the tan that tipped me off. I tried to smile back, acting cool and confidant like Nira.
Taking a deep breath, “I’m Anne. Just came from Liverpool.”
“Wonderful.” What an odd word. She meant it. She’s smiling again, tucking her straight hair behind her ears. Piercings ran up and down her cartilage, sparkling.
“You already met Nira, and she’s just the best. The craziest, but so nice. You’ll like her. What class do you have next? Most of the teachers aren’t such pompous jackasses as Mr. Warren, our homeroom teacher. Lucky you, you don’t even have him.”
My smile grew looser. “He’s that bad?”
“Lordy, he’s the wickedest. He used to the be the fitness teacher, so he really has no idea what he’s doing, the poor man. Not that he needs pity. He has enough ego to keep him warm. Jackass.”
She laughs and I laugh, and Cheshire Cat appears. “How’s our little Annie?”
“Wonderful,” I answer for myself. Linnet nods with approval.
Extending the ever-faithful schedule, “I have art first period.”
“With Miss Cohn?” Linnet reaches for the pink printer paper.
Nira smirks. “You’re with me, kid.”
Linnet waves us off, and I’m after Nira down the stairs. She emanates patchouli, mixing with the different smells wafting from classrooms. Freshly cut wood from the Wood Shop, cinnamon raison bread from Introductory to Foods, and acrylic paint from another set of stairs, leading down a flight.
A decorated sign hung over the stairs to the basement. In a flourished cursive, someone painted Art Class.
The walls were tiled down here, and the fluorescents seemed oh so much brighter. The teacher, a Miss Cohn, sat on her desk as did that Warren. In lotus position, she sat in a huge white, short sleeved shirt, printed with a purple zodiac chart. Spotting me, she lit up. Miss Cohn hopped from her desk and greeted me. She was shorter than me, with bright eyes and an encouraging smile. She screamed artsy, from her paint-splattered arms and Capri pants to her zebra print high heels.
“You’re the new student, yes?” Her brown hair was pinned up into a sloppy bun with several paintbrushes.
Miss Cohn tapped a finger to her lips. “Quivley. That name sounds very familiar. It’ll come to me, don’t worry. In the meantime, pick your seat.”
Nira was on a stool facing a circular table carved with initials and marking. I pulled a chair opposite to her and sat down without much emphasis. Miss Cohn slapped some old watercolors on the table with spirit.
“Why not paint something? The class is just finishing a project, and you will be a part of the next one, don’t worry. It has to do with sculpture!”
Hurrah. The cases of paints were caked with clay themselves, impossible to open. Miss Cohn stood over my shoulder, watching my struggle with her precious inanimate objects. Taking them, “Maybe oil paint instead.”
Nira laughed, winking at me.
This was going to be a long day.
I found Nira by accident when school let out for the day, talking with Linnet on her favorite stoop.
“Annie,” she grinned, squinting in the sun. Linnet inched over, to give me room to sit.
“How was your first day?” Linnet asked with concern.
Nothing impressive. “Okay.”
“Wait till tomorrow.” Nira was fishing in her bag again.
My gaze slipped from the steps onto the sidewalk before us. The cement path looped around a patch of grass, home to a large dogwood tree ‘donated by the class of 1973’ according to the little plaque at its roots.
A car pulled onto the curb and honked its horn viciously.
“Atrocious parking,” Nira muttered, sucking on a fresh cig.
Linnet swatted her arm, waving to the car. The doors swung open, and a girl about our age climbed out of the drivers’ side. Hiding behind huge aviator sunglasses, you couldn’t tell what she was looking at. She had long blonde hair, stick straight, that hung to her elbows. Somehow the jean cutoffs and the basketball jersey didn’t affect the elegance she carried about her.
“Kelly, this is Anne. She just moved here.” Linnet motioned to me.
Kelly propped her sunglasses onto her head, and she smiled. “Hi, nice to meet you.” She offered her hand. What a firm handshake.
“Ready to go?” Linnet pulled herself up.
Kelly kissed her. “They’re waiting for us, so we should leave now-”
Linnet cut her off. “Bye, guys!”
“Adios.” Nira blew a straight stream of smoke to the sky.
The couple headed to the car.
“Linnet’s gay?” I’m slow.
Nira flicked ash, nonchalant. “Yes. Those two have been together, since, what, two years ago?”
Linnet waved to us from the passenger seat, laughing at something Kelly said. She’s so nice.
“They’re a sweet couple.” I smiled. I meant it.
Nira nodded. “They’re happy, that’s what matters. So, what are you’re plans?”
“Go home, I guess.”
Nira clicked her tongue.
“What is it-”
“You’re coming with me. See the sights.” Picking up her bag, Nira strutted to the curb. I scurried after her, without much thought.