Natalie's struggling and nobody is gonna make it any easier...
Sunlight streaming through the window in the bedroom wakes me up. It’s directly on my eyes. Moaning I roll over in my sleeping bag and stuff my head under my pillow. A hand roughly shakes my shoulder and Tyler swipes the pillow from me.
“Get up, Natalie! Don’t make me drive you to school again!” Tyler complains in exasperation. He’s still shaking my shoulder. I open my eyes and glare at him. He’s staring at me and still hasn’t stopped shaking my shoulder.
“Let go of me!” I snap, irritated. He shakes his head and disappears out into the main room. Tyler’s my older brother. He’s 20 years old and we live in an apartment together. It only has a main room which is large enough to be a kitchen, dining room, and living room in one, a single bedroom, and one full bath. Ty gets the bed, so I sleep in my bag on the floor. It’s been this way since I was 10, so I’m used to it. In fact, it’s homey to me now. Reluctantly I climb out of my sleeping back and shudder in the chill. I replace my “personal bed” as I call it and smooth my pillow. All of our clothes are combined into one little closet, so I have to rummage through Ty’s clothes to find mine. I pull out a plain black tee and a pair of dark denim skinny jeans.
The bathroom door is closed and I bang on it impatiently.
“What are you doing, Ty? I need to get in there!” I holler through the door. I need to get a shower quickly before school.
“Relax, the world isn’t ending!” he hollers back.
“Unlike SOME people, I have a school to get to! You DON’T!” I snap. The door swings open and Ty pushes past me, apparently irritated. I hurry in, lock the door, and rush through a shower. I step out and am surprised to hear Tyler’s voice very elevated. I can’t hear what he’s saying because the door muffles it and water is clogging my ear, but I catch little bits.
“…not have…why…other guy…you…how could…” was all I was getting. Could he be talking to a girlfriend? Or an ex more likely. Tyler is such an amazing guy and he’s so kind, but he somehow comes home with the worst, trashiest girlfriends around. They usually hang around long enough to fuck with him and then it’s over. His latest was Rosa, a slutty, whiny red-head who didn’t even say hi when introduced to me. I personally wished he’d would go out with Miley Rowen, a senior at my school. She’s so nice and funny and outgoing. As far as I know, she’s even still a virgin so she’s not after sex or anything. I think she’d make the perfect, sincere girlfriend for my brother, but my opinion doesn’t count.
I dress and leave the bathroom, hanging up my towel. I put my clothes in the hamper just inside our bedroom and head into the…well, I guess it’s just the central room or something. I don’t know. Tyler is just hanging up the phone. He’s facing away from me so I can’t see his face, but he’s leaning on the counter looking out the window. I can see he’s very tense and upset.
“Tyler, who was it?” I ask genially. He doesn’t answer, just flicks his hand in the air as if to shoo me off. Well, whatever with him. I have school to get to. I pull on my favorite sweatshirt and hurry to make some toast. School starts at 8:30 and it’s 8:00 now, so I don’t have long to eat and run to the bus stop.
I finish my breakfast and snatch up my backpack onto my shoulders. Tyler has shifted position, but he’s still staring out the window. From my position at the door, I can just see the side of his face. He’s frowning and muttering softly to himself. I hope he’s not too hurt if it was Rosa. I slip out the door and pause on the doorstep. We rent an apartment, which is weird since it’s a ground level, single-person home not connected to any other apartments. We live in southern Atlanta, Georgia in a little development sort of. But it’s a bunch of little apartment houses owned by some rich guy named Richard Blanc. He came up with the idea of apartment houses in a little development and it’s surprising how many people actually rented here. The whole development is always filled, whether it’s people who live here, or people passing through.
I run down the winding street between houses, then I decide to screw that and cut across backyards. I slow to a walk once I reach the bottom of the development and hit the sidewalk on Main Street. The morning air is crisp and chilly, which I hate. It’s supposed to be warm down here in Georgia, but recently it hasn’t been. Probably a result of the recent hurricanes that passed along the coast and stirred up funny weather. I shove my hands in my pockets, feeling a suddenly familiar piece of paper. Pulling it out I recognize the phone number of Jay Royce. Of course, good thing I didn’t lose it…although it really wouldn’t have been my loss. I still don’t get why bad boy senior Jay would be so interested in me. If he thought he liked me, that wouldn’t make any sense because he could have any senior in school. I’m only in my Sophomore year.
I see the bus stop ahead and lightly jog to it. A small group of freshmen are chattering beside the sign, so I sit down on the bench and relax. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve been able to reach the bus stop this early and chill out. I’m usually rushing or I’ll have to ask Ty to take me to school. I really hope the whole empty-locker empty-head thing has worn off by now. I was so late yesterday and to top it off I had forgotten my backpack. Not a single student, not even my former friend Mia Williams, let me forget it all day. I wish I had a cell phone or even a watch to see what time it was, but sadly I am cut short of those things. It’s not a necessity, I can live without it, but it’s convenient. Tyler makes all the money (which isn’t much) and we limit ourselves to the necessities. Although somehow he grants himself an iPhone and unlimited talk/text.
“Need any company?” I recognize Jay’s voice instantly. I look up to see the handsome senior smiling down at me. He steps past me and sits down on the bench beside me. “You’re here early,” he adds.
“Yeah, I have time to relax for once,” I reply, shifting on the bench.
“Well, it’s nice to see a pretty face hanging out once in a while.” I involuntarily smile and look away up the street, hoping the bus is coming soon. I try not to feel it, but my stomach gets fluttery. He’s a senior, Natalie, and he does this to every girl. But the scolding in my mind does little to help. Suddenly I’m aware of Jay leaning closer to me.
“By the way, somehow I managed to never catch your name,” he chuckles to himself. I reluctantly and yet at the same time willingly turn my attention back to Jay.
“Natalie Kosher.” I answer. He smiles and sits back.
“I’d introduce myself, but you know me. Or my name at least,” he states somewhat arrogantly.
“Who doesn’t?” I comment, seeing if I can get a reaction like he does. He actually looks at me, his expression appearing somewhat surprised. “What?” I ask, wondering why I just said that. He’s just looking at me, literally, in my eyes and he’s expressionless other than the same surprised look. “What?” I ask again.
“I don’t know.” And he sits quietly, looking across the road. Great, Nat, just great. Now you’ve offended the guy or something. Why did you have to say that? I look up the road, relieved to see the bus finally approaching. Then I feel a hand around my shoulders. Startled, I face Jay again and he’s looking at me again and leaning slightly in.
“You know, Natalie Kosher, you’re different from most girls I’ve talked to. We should hang out sometime, maybe you’re something special,” he smiles, looking right into my eyes. And I melt away. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before, I just get totally lost and before I know it he stands up and walks to the edge of the sidewalk. Special? Really? A fluttery hope starts in my stomach, but despite my efforts, I cannot suppress it. The bus pulls up and Jay’s the first one in. Then the freshmen and I hurry over to the door. I hesitate before stepping inside. Can I really face the students? Surely they’ll still call me names and stuff. Maybe I should call Tyler to drive me to school.
“Get in, girl!” the bus driver yells. Frank is a very heavy man with a mean, gruff voice to match his attitude. I swear he hates kids and yet here he sits. Forcing myself onto the bus, I slowly walk down the aisle. I look at the kids and immediately notice the indifferent, demeaning glances and the whispers. Then the dreaded comment breaks the silence.
“Trying to live down that airhead, blondie?” somebody calls. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Now comments and laughs are coming from all over the bus and there’s no escape. Dammit, I should have called Tyler! I hurry towards the only empty seat near the back. As I approach, I see Jay watching me, taking in the offenses. His head is cocked to the side, arms crossed like he’s studying. I sit down uncomfortably and slide to the window where I lean my head against the class and stare out. This is my only escape. I daydream. On the bus, in class, in the hall, wherever I can to escape. But it’s a 50/50 chance that it ever works. And today, nothing is being drowned out. Every threat and insult is getting right to me, starting my school day off in a depressed state. I can just see the back of Sammy’s head a few rows in front of me. She’s looking down, shaking her head. And beside her is Mia Williams, joining in the abuse and laughter. Today is going to be great.
At lunch, I don’t eat. I don’t sit either. I stay in the hall on my own, hoping to be left alone. I managed to get my books in my locker and I decided that I’d keep them there from now on. Another dent was found dead center in my locker and a note had been slipped inside.
You ever get here earlier, be sure to come with armor, bitch.
~ Alicia and Candy
Great, physical threats too. I know they don’t have anything against me, I’m just a very easy target and popular kids apparently find pleasure in beating on the insecure. Then an idea flashes through my head. I could bet money and win that those older kids are behind those buildings now, getting high and happy. I know what they are doing is bad, horrible in fact. But right now the idea of being carelessly happy is unbelievably appealing. And it’s physically drawing me. I’ve stood up now and I’m looking down the hall in the direction of the rear exit. All I would have to do is slip out and see what’s what. The effects can possibly show in class? Suddenly I realize I’m almost at the end of the hall. I’ve been involuntarily walking towards the exit and I can’t stop.
I slip around the bottom of the hall and stop at the back exit. The double doors are the only thing between me and an hour of happiness and utter contentment. I slide outside and pause in the grass. Fresh air hits me and a wave of nerves. Sure enough, the gang of kids are behind the building. They are huddled together, giggling and leaning on each other. They’re having so much fun and they don’t give a damn about the world. The same senior that saw me last time looks and and motions with his head for me to join. He knows why I’m here.
Shyly, I approach. I almost feel embarrassed that I came to take part in such hysterics. Immediately the senior meets me halfway and welcomes me to the group.
“I’m Dylan,” he greets, shaking my shoulder gently and smiling into my eyes. I look down, but he lifts my chin back up and brings me into the group. “Everybody, we have a new friend.” I’m about to object, but everybody in the group is smiling at me. The junior red-head next to me wraps her arm over my shoulder.
“I’m Lonny! Why don’t you join us?” she introduces, pointing around the circle. “You’ve met Dylan and me, and then there’s Tanya, Alex, Sasha, Mike, and Austin.” I smile at each of them nervously. “You’re?”
“Natalie,” I reply quietly. Dylan grabs my hand and looks me in the eyes.
“Don’t be shy, we all have the same story, don’t we?” he looks up around the group and everybody agrees with him. I fit right in. Everybody here knows and understands, why else would they be hanging together for the same reason? Then Lonny passes me a little baggy. And suddenly, there’s no going back.
The group disbands, going their separate ways, and I hurry back into the hall to reclaim my former position. I’d gone through with it and boy was I so glad I did. Not long after, the effects of the drug set in. I became utterly relaxed, the world slowed down, literally, and I felt unbelievably light. I was completely happy and content to be exactly where I was and not do anything. I didn’t care if Candy was threatening me, she’d never carry her threats out on me. I didn’t care if Jay was hitting on me, I didn’t care for any guys right now. I didn’t care that I lived with my brother in an apartment, because right then, I was living with Dylan and Lonny and the rest of the gang.
But now, I could feel the effects starting to wear off. I was feeling tired, heavy, and unsettled. I even felt a tiny bit motion sick if I moved too fast. I sat down against my locker and leaned my head in my knees, taking deep breaths. Depression was setting in fast. I no longer felt happy or content. I didn’t feel high and relaxed, I felt edgy, scared, and sad. I was bursting with emotions that gave me a splitting headache and made me feel like I just wanted to sleep and be left alone for my life. I was dimly unaware of students flooding back into the halls. Nobody noticed the state I was in, they simply noticed that I was in the way so they had no qualms about kicking and stepping on me. But I couldn’t get up.
The class bell rang and I had to slowly stand up. The halls were emptying and the overwhelming noise had died down. I fumbled with my locker code, then struggled to remember which class was next. I grabbed my math books and slammed my locker shut. Another headache set in and I leaned back to breathe. It left that quickly and I was able to clear up my mind as best I could. I was in control of my body again and my mind was focusing. I hurried to class…English class. And it was too late to fix my new dilemma.
Yeah, my new nicknames were “Blondie”, “airhead”, and the latest, “math geek”. Showing up to English with a math book was the biggest mistake of the century and I was given no slack. Math class went alright considering Mr. Edwards tolerates no bullshit in class. I left hurriedly, returning my books to my locker and running home, skipping the bus. Tyler was nowhere to be found, so I escorted myself to the bedroom and fell asleep.
The next week went this way. Every lunch period I would slip outside and join my gang where we would take an hour to be happy and high. I learned how to deal with the after effects of the drug and was soon able to manage the wearing-off side-effects and clear up my head twice as fast. I took my abuse from the students without retaliating or obsessing over it and simply avoided my locker if I arrived early. Needless to say, my locker suffered quite a bit of damage, but the lock held out. I even started hanging with the gang after school for a little bit since I was always absent from the bus. The only downfall was Sammy’s constant questioning. She could tell something was different and I had to come up with excuses every day. I even started writing down ideas in the morning. I made sure to be at the bus stop early to talk to Jay, who was oddly interested in everything about me and we hung out in the hall a lot lately. Today, I was especially cheerful, knowing I’d manage to get through it.
But as soon as I reached my locker, that cheerfulness vanished. There stood Alicia and Candy, waiting for me. I slowed my walk, but it was too late. They’d seen me.
“You stuck up bitch!” Alicia lashes out. I step up to my locker and face her, hoping I can let this abuse go like I do every other day.
“What did I do?” I ask coolly.
“You walk around like you’re floating through the clouds. I know you do drugs, that’s how come you disappear so often!” she snaps. I go cold, fear rushing through me.
“I’m gonna have your bathroom pass confiscated,” she snarls. Then I almost laugh out loud. I would have had Candy not been there.
“You think I’m sniffing in the bathrooms?” I blurt, struggling not to laugh.
“She’s too much of a blonde to know how that even works, there’s no evidence, Alicia.” Candy snickers, not caring to accuse me of drug use. But that blonde comment for some reason irks me. Usually I brush off those comments, but lately all this blonde shit was getting to me.
“What did you say?” I demand, speaking out of irritation. Unfortunately, I need to reign in this new found temper of mine. Candy slams me against the locker, causing a loud clash to echo through the halls.
“I can say whatever I want, bitch!” she snaps. “Where’s your boyfriend to save you now?” Everybody had noticed how I was hanging out with Jay Royce. They’d seen me talking to him at the bus stop and in the hall sometimes. And to my luck, nobody ever picked on me when he was around. But until now, nobody had ever said anything. But for some reason, I’m not able to let this go. I raise my arm and swing around, slamming my fist into Candy’s face. She stumbles back and yelps in surprise. Nobody would have expected something like that from me and cold fear shoots through me because I know what I’ve just done. I see Dylan watching me over Candy’s shoulder. He nods, looking me in the eyes with understanding. What did that mean? But then he was gone, apparently predicting what would happen next. Because Candy looks at me and doesn’t hesitate. She flies into me, slamming her fists into my stomach hundreds of times. I can’t breathe, pain shocking through me and I double over. Candy lands several blows directly to my head, knocking me to the ground. I gasp, but no air comes. I curl up on the floor, screaming but no sound coming out. Candy kicks me in the back repeatedly and then it’s over. The world spins and darkens until I am blind by my pain. I can’t breathe and I feel I will suffocate. Surely I would pass out and die from lack of oxygen. It’s as bad as sticking your head in a plastic bag. What you have in you is all you get. And I go out cold.
I open my eyes to see Dylan searching my face. His brown eyes are darkened with worry. I’m sitting up against the lockers, Lonny’s there too.
“Nat? Nat, wake up,” Dylan encourages. I’m fully awake and fully aware of everything. Including the paralyzing pain still quaking through my body. I have a splitting headache and feel like I’ll be sick. I look back into his eyes with the question I can’t get to come out.
“It was the drugs that lashed out,” he explains to me.
“But I didn’t even…” I trail off as another wave of nausea rushes through me.
“You don’t have to. It’s a side effect we’ve all suffered with. You have to be especially on your toes with that one,” Lonny replies. I sigh and close my eyes. Dylan’s hands are still on my shoulders, gently rubbing the tension away. I’m grateful for that.
“Don’t to your classes. At least not until after lunch. We’ll stay with you if you want,” Dylan instructs me. I’m still trying to regain some control of myself. I open my eyes again and allow my head to slowly clear.
“Lonny, I’ll stay. You go to your classes. You don’t need another citation,” he orders. Lonny gives me a sympathetic smile and hurries down the hall. Dylan sits down next to me, his shoulders against mine, and sighs. “You alright then?” he asks. I nod, regretting the movement immediately as a heavy dizzy spell spins the world around me. I lean my head on his shoulder and close my eyes. Then something occurs to me.
“You don’t mind me doing this, do you?” I ask, hoping he doesn’t find it weird.
“No, of course not. You’re not the first to need support,” he answers. “Lonny and I have both been beat up because of lashing out. It’s the only side effect that stays with you even when you don’t take it. Guess it’s just because it’s worked into your system. But no joining us today, no matter how bad it feels. You’ll make yourself violently sick…” and Dylan’s off just talking with advice and the stories of each of the gang members. I think I fell asleep at some point, because the next time I open my eyes he’s asleep too and I feel much better. My head is clearer and the pain has receded to a low throbbing.
Dylan awakes and checks on me, asking how I feel. By lunch time, my head is completely clear and I am able to get up and walk around as long as I am slow and careful. Dylan even sits with me at lunch, but I can tell he is feeling the effects of missing the gang. Both of us are drowning in depression, unable to eat barely anything, but we force it because our bodies need it. Then we depart to class, walking as if in a daydream of depression.
I hesitate at the bus stop. There is no way I am walking home, not in the state I am in. But there is no riding the bus with the way my temper is out of control. Yet I have no other options. Suddenly, I’m aware of Jay beside me. He wraps an arm over my shoulders and smiles. Looking into his eyes, I feel a little safer.
“I know what you’re thinking. I can offer you a ride home?” he says in his deep, sexy voice, holding up his car keys. Relief floods through me, all judgment gone because I know this is the best option. I follow Jay to his car, an older Dodge Charger. The blue paint is scratched and some is scraped off, but inside, the leather seats are unbelievably soft and welcoming. Jay turns the ignition and pulls out of the school parking lot.
“School didn’t go so well?” Jay asks. He knows the story, but he wants to make conversation.
“No.” I reply simply. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think at all. We’re silent for a bit.
“Listen, um…maybe…I don’t know you’re schedule and all…” Jay starts. I glance at him uncertainly. He’s focused on the road, both hands gripping the steering wheel. He glances at me then back at the road. “I was thinking maybe we could hang out sometime. You know, not at school?” he suggests. My heart leaps at the thought, but I remind myself he didn’t ask me on a date. It was just a hang out. Probably with some other friends.
“Well, I usually just stay at home after school. I’ve never really done anything on weekends though except with Sammy.” Suddenly Sam jumps into my head and I realize I never did ask her how her mom’s birthday went. I feel bad. I haven’t really spent any time with Sam recently.
“Well, we’ll have to do something then,” Jay states, interrupting my thoughts. “You still have my number?”
“Yeah, I do.” Involuntarily my hand slides into my sweater pocket for the paper. All too soon I see our development coming up. Jay swings the Challenger up the road and I direct him to the apartment. He stops the car at the curb and sits there. We’re silent. I’m looking out the window, kind of staring at nothing. Then I feel a hand on my thigh. Surprised, I look quickly at Jay. He’s looking deep into my eyes thoughtfully.
“Natalie, when I say ‘hang out’, I guess I really meant I’d like to take you out sometime,” he says softly. My pulse leaps and I hope he doesn’t feel the little shiver that runs through my body. If he did, he gave no sign.
“I don’t know, I mean…” I trail off, not knowing what to say.
“Look, I’ve never met a girl like you and…it would just be like a movie or something. I didn’t really plan the whole thing.” He’s waiting for my answer. This is one of the times I wish I had my own cell phone. Then I wouldn’t have to use the stupid landline for stuff like this. I’m not in control when I answer.
“Sure, I’d love to,” I say without thinking. I didn’t even make the words come out and immediately I feel a rush of nerves. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. Jay smiles and gently squeezes my thigh. Then he climbs out of the car and gets the door for me. I step out and thank him for driving me home. Then, clutching the paper with his number, I hurry into the house.