Ticktock, ticktock. I stared at the oversized clock on the wall at the front of my English classroom. The sound of Mrs. Barker’s monotone voice as she recited Shakespeare’s Hamlet dulled my senses. The stuffiness of the classroom made my eyelids droop. I muffled a yawn behind my copy of Hamlet.
Mrs. Barker earned herself a reputation for having her favorites or pet student per se. The word around school was she picked on students who didn’t fall into her category of chosen ones. When I spotted her name on my list of classes, my nerves gnawed. I was determined to keep my head down and avoid her snare.
The clicking of her orange fluorescent heels on the taupe-speckled vinyl tiles grated at me. Her fiery-red hair hung long and heavy like a cheap wig. The denim blue sleeveless blouse she wore revealed the three-quarter-length sleeve tattoo covering her right arm. She calculatedly outlined and arched her eyes in black eyeliner to achieve an overdramatic extended cat-eye appearance.
My attention span drifted involuntary to the disinterested students around me and gridlocked on Lexi Clark. As expected, she sat close to the front of the class. Above all the rest, she was one of Mrs. Barker’s chosen ones. I’d seen them walking the halls last year laughing and carrying on like they were besties. Lexi didn’t like her any more than the next student; she simply tolerated Mrs. Barker because it earned her favoritism. I’d known Lexi since junior high, and for a time, we actually were friends. Until she turned on me … and I’d become her target ever since.
After all these years, I still couldn’t wrap my brain around why I had become a walking bull’s-eye for people to unload their internal issues on. Maybe my lack of self-esteem had aided in the nastiness they ejected on me. Or maybe it was their lack of control over their own lives and their own inner self-hate. In their desperation to find a release, I happened to be the lucky winner. This unjust world became my reality.
Throughout my freshman year, I had tried to fit in, and even lowered my standards once or twice to belong in their clique. Until I began to resent myself and them for who I’d become. The gatekeeper of self-worth continued to enforce her mom views of selling my soul to fit in. Mom’s continued guidance on demanding respect helped me believe in my self-worth, and my wayward ways halted. I began to require more of myself and the ones around me. It didn’t help me make friends, nor did it make me like myself any more, but it did give me something to grasp onto.
On the outside looking in, I appeared to have it all. A loving family and parents who were checked in and present in our lives. They traveled the world with us, and I had all the luxuries a teenager could want. But I didn’t have the one thing I yearned, which was to belong and be accepted. I struggled within myself to figure out why because becoming friends with a girl or group of girls would eventually lead to me being excluded and left behind.
After years of ill-treatment and bullying, I formed a shell of defense. Girls who ran in cliques, in my experience, were cruel and catty, often showing no mercy and going straight for the jugular. If they weren’t attacking me physically, they would try to go after my family. Anything to raise them up and leave me scratching at the ground looking for the will to go on.
“Miss Hart, is it?”
My heart seized.
I smelled her sickly floral perfume, which had my stomach churning all morning. Her shadow hovered over my desk. Peeking up, I found her scowling down at me.
“Yes, that’s correct.” I managed to forge a faint smile.
“I expect you to be focused and attentive in my class. I have no time for dreamers. Got it?” she said with an arctic stare.
Good job, Jewel. You couldn’t fly under the radar.
The sharp slap of her hand on my desk jarred my nerves, and I jerked back. My reaction caused a satisfied smirk on her thin, red-painted lips.
“Maybe now, I can get back to teaching the students who want to be here.” She straightened her plump figure. Circling me one time, she made sure to exude her authority, then she swayed to the front of the class, pausing briefly at Lexi’s desk.
Mrs. Barker smiled a nauseating, worshiping smile upon her. “I absolutely adore that color on you, Lexi.”
Lexi showered her with an Academy award-winning fake smile. “Thanks, Mrs. Barker. My mom got this shirt for my birthday.” She admired herself in her too-revealing spaghetti-strap teal top.
Lexi Clark. Let me tell you a little about her. She aimed to rule the school these past two years. Mean was her middle name, and she had successfully accomplished the mean girl mentality. Yet the underlying cause of her meanness was her broken home life. Abandoned by her dad, she was the definition of a girl with daddy issues. Because of this, I’d allowed my heart to feel a bit of compassion for her. She portrayed herself to be superior, exuding a high level of confidence, but I knew this to be her coping mechanism. I’d taken the brunt of her personal hatred for years, and in some twisted way, it made her feel better. How someone could feel better after inflicting pain on others, I couldn’t quite understand.
Her lowest of low attack on my self-esteem was in grade ten in the girls’ changing room before gym. I lifted the sweater I was wearing over my head and was struggling to get out of it when someone’s hand went to the clasp of my bra strap. I jerked to move away as the clasp released. My breasts fell out and were exposed to the other girls in the changing room. In horror, I untangled myself from the sweater and covered myself. Tears scalded my eyes as Lexi’s laughter seared my ears.
“So you don’t stuff it?” She pointed at my breasts. “Guess we were wrong, Jess. She does have some.”
“It appears so. Still doesn’t change the fact she needs makeup to cover up the ugly mug of hers.”
I wanted to say something, but I was so horrified I couldn’t move. No words could describe the humiliation I felt when that memory popped into my head.
Mrs. Barker’s voice drew me back. “Well, it suits you,” she said with a light touch to Lexi’s shoulder before spinning to address the class. “Class, I would like to finish up our lesson on Hamlet by the end of the week. I will be expecting an essay on my desk by Monday.”
A chorus of groans resonated through the class at the logical requirement to do homework. The chime of the end of second-period was a welcoming relief. I gathered my books and made a beeline for the door.
The cafeteria had been hijacked by students. Their murmuring voices were like buzzing vultures scouring for their next meal. I stepped in line and secured a plastic orange tray. In front of me, an overweight girl with chestnut, shoulder-length tight curls spoke in hushed tones to her pretty, willowy Jamaican friend. They were considered part of the bookworm club. Sensing my gaze, their conversation hushed. I smiled an inviting smile at them. They graced me with an unwieldy half-smile before turning back to continue their exchange on the anticipation of the release of a book. At least these stereotyped bookworms had each other.
A shove clipped me from behind as Chad Palmer and Eric Jackson from the swim team lurched into line behind me. Chad was Lexi’s current boyfriend. These guys were your typical jocks. Endless parties on the weekends. They left a trail of pathetic drooling girls in their fading footmarks. From there, they differed altogether. Chad had it all—wealth, popularity, the girls, the hot car. He was tall, rugged, and a pretty boy with his short blond waves and piercing, cobalt blue eyes. Like Lexi, he put the ‘S’ in selfish and added a bold capital at the beginning. He capped the egotistical category.
Eric ended up on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. His dad ran off with his mom’s best friend, leaving his mom to care for him and his younger brother. Summer of grade nine and ten, he earned extra cash by doing lawn maintenance for my parents.
“Oh, sorry about that, Jewel,” Eric said, using his free hand to steady me. His brandy brown eyes emitted kindness. Though we’d never become friends, he was always polite and respectful to me. Even if I frowned on him for hanging with the likes of Chad Palmer. Eric was amiable, and I considered him to be one of the good ones.
Chad’s appreciative eyes pored over me. My skin crawled at his boorish intent.
“Sweet curves, baby,” he said followed by a wet whistle. He reached out and brazenly stroked my collarbone with the back of his hand before he started to trail down my cleavage.
“Stop,” I sputtered, staggering back out of his reach.
Mortified, I tugged my cardigan snugly around myself. Heat embodied my cheeks at his insinuations.
“What the hell, Chad?” Eric aligned a critical glare at him.
Chad scoffed. “What? You want first dibs on her dude or what?”
“Back off her. She isn’t that kind of girl.” Eric said, squaring his shoulders as his body weight shifted.
“Please, Jackson, don’t dictate to me what I should and shouldn’t do.” Angry and embarrassed at being called out for his presumptuous ways, his face reddened.
“Relax, Chad,” Eric stated his own discontent.
“Excuse me, can I help you?” I heard the annoyed cafeteria lady behind the counter shout at me.
Swiveling to her, I sputtered out my order. Swiftly, I retrieved a white milk and a banana and deposited them on my shaking tray. In my desire to flee, I thrust my money at her and told her to keep the change. I found an empty table in the middle of the room.
Humiliation entombed me, and acid tears threatened to shed from my eyes. Eric was right; I wasn’t one of those girls. For Chad to even think I was open to the vulgarness I’d seen guys like him openly imply on girls without any repercussions was revolting.
I poked at the tossed salad on my tray. Picking up the packet of ranch dressing, I drowned my salad in it along with my sorrows. Anger pillaged me at the crap I continued to endure. I was so sick of this place. University couldn’t come fast enough.
During my ninth grade year, my mom homeschooled me in hopes of taking me away from the toxicity school had caused in my life. Selflessly, she added my schooling on top of her excruciating schedule. During that year, I learned more about myself, and an inner strength grew in me. My parents signed me up for therapy with a local counselor and riding lessons at a local ranch as another form of therapy. At the ranch, I found a new love, and it became my escape from the loneliness. I excelled at western riding. I even volunteered on Mondays in hopes of brightening my resume for pursuing my dreams of a career as a vet. Thus beginning my ongoing road to self-discovery.
“Do you mind if I sit?” His velvety voice pummeled my moment of reflecting.
I glance up into Kaiden’s enticing and welcoming eyes. Like pools of hot fudge, trickling down a sundae on a summer day, they warmed my depleted heart.
“I was actually saving these empty seats for all my friends who are going to show up, never.” I gestured to the human-less blue plastic chairs.
“Well, when they arrive, I’ll move out. How about that?” he engaged.
I laughed. “Sounds like a plan. The chairs are yours then.”
Sitting, he unwrapped his Italian sub, and without hesitation, he took a big bite and after finishing his mouth full, he asked, “A girl like you should be surrounded by friends. What’s the deal?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. It’s been this way all my life.”
He shuffled in his seat, and I began to doubt myself. “Well, it’s quite simple, then isn’t it?” he asserted nonchalantly.
My eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “I don’t believe I follow you.” He appeared to be a straight shooter, and I was drawn to this.
“You threaten them. You are beautiful, charming, and seem to be the kind of girl a guy can be himself around. I don’t know much about you, but this is my first take on the situation,” he said, resting his gaze on me.
A slew of exotic butterflies tumbled around in my chest, and I broke our gaze. Surprisingly, I didn’t analyze his words for a double meaning.
“Whatever it may be, it does grow exhausting after a while,” I said grimly. “Enough about that. What about you? Where do you come from?”
“Well, Jewel Hart, you will have to grace me with a first date if you wish to know more.” His mouth curved in merriment.
Students started filtering out of the cafeteria to get to class. Kaiden stood, gathered his tray, and shot me a wink as he sauntered off.
He knew my last name. Had he asked about me? I watched him as he walked to the counter and handed his tray to the volunteer acne-covered grade-eleven student. His polite ‘thank you’ grasped my ears, and the wide smile he offered her grabbed at my heart. Her face flushed a scarlet red, and she clumsily returned his smile. It was my turn to sit back with a gaping mouth. Maybe Kaiden Carter was a guy of substance? What were the chances?