Author:S. Walden

He was nineteen—too old for high school—but it wasn’t by choice. He repeated second grade, and that changed everything. At first it was cool to be older than his classmates, but that didn’t last long. The notion disappeared altogether with his unsightly scar. He thought it amazingly ordinary how children operated—scared of anything different. Scared to be different. Many followers. Few, if any, leaders. They had no legitimate reason to dislike him. They were just assholes. And nothing changed when they grew older.


He felt his mouth form the word—her name—and swallowed it whole. He didn’t want anyone to hear he loved her. It meant nothing, anyway. Love didn’t count when it was one-sided. He learned that early on. He loved a mother who abandoned him. Didn’t count. He loved a father who hit him. Didn’t count.


He parked his bike at the racks near the east entrance, locked it, and headed inside. That sterile public school smell wafted in his face as he yanked open the door. For most, the smell offered the hope of a do-over. Fresh start. Clean slate. For Jeremy, the smell suggested a chance to make right all the wrongs he’d experienced. This was the year to make right.


“Ready for another super duper year?”


He smiled at her facial expression. If anyone could show him the humor in his dire straits, Hannah could. She was as bad off as he was—just another bullied kid desperate to get out of high school.


“Is it weird that when I walked through that door, I couldn’t stop saying ‘fuck’ over and over? I mean, it was like Tourette’s. That’s weird, right?” she asked, falling in pace with Jeremy as they moved down the nearly empty hallway.


“No,” he replied. “What’s weird is that we got here early. What’s up with that? Are we trying to punish ourselves?” He paused, thinking. “We’re like those priests who beat themselves.”


“Flagellants,” Hannah said.


“How do you even remember that?” Jeremy asked.


“Because I’m a star student. Hello.”


“Hey, as long as you’ve got something going for you,” he teased.


Hannah snickered. She leaned against the locker and watched Jeremy put away his notebooks.


“I got here early so I didn’t have to listen to my parents,” she explained.


“Listen to them say what?” he asked.


“Just anything.”


Jeremy snorted with laughter.


“Now you,” Hannah said. “What’s your excuse?”


Jeremy hesitated. “I . . . I didn’t wanna listen to my dad either,” he mumbled.


Hannah narrowed her eyes. Total bullshit, but she didn’t pry.


“Like my hair?” she asked.


“It’s spikey.”


“I meant the blue tips,” she said. “They’re new.”


He studied her—super short spikes of blond, blue-tipped hair cradling a round head.


“You look like a medieval weapon,” he said.


She chuckled. “You’re an asshole.”


Jeremy nudged her. “You know I’m messin’. And yeah. I like the blue. Nice upgrade from last year.”


“I see you still wear your hair like a shaggy dog,” Hannah noted.


“Well, I try to look as insecure as possible,” Jeremy replied.


Hannah cracked up. “Dude, I missed you.”


“I was around this summer. Where were you?” Jeremy asked.


“In Connecticut.”




“Just don’t ask,” she muttered.


It wasn’t the deepest connection, but it was a connection. Hannah could be considered a friend—not a close one—but definitely someone he could hang with at school. It meant he wasn’t completely alone. Some time in tenth grade they found each other, formed a loose bond. They shared enough and left out the intimate details. For the most part, they witnessed each other’s abuse at school, anyway. There wasn’t a need to talk about it.


The hallway flooded with students, and he knew she’d be there at any second. He wanted to be alone when he saw her for the first time, just to be certain nothing in his expression betrayed his true feelings. He didn’t want Hannah asking.


Introverts were good at recognizing the subtle, nonverbal signs. Hannah knew Jeremy was done talking and needed space. She lightly punched his arm.


“I’m out,” she said, and walked off.


He steeled himself and waited.




Regan stood in front of the full-length mirror assessing her first-day-of-school outfit.


“I pretty much hate everything that’s going on here,” she said aloud. She fingered the fabric of her conservative blouse and crinkled her nose. “Boring.”


She looked like a Brooks Brothers advertisement: not her style. Somehow, in the space of becoming a popular boy’s girlfriend, she morphed into a preppy girl—boat shoes, salmon-color button-ups, even shorts featuring embroidered sailboats.


“I have anchors on my shorts,” she said to the mirror.


She paused and waited for her reflection to reply. Nothing. Just staring.


“I have anchors on my shorts!” she screamed.


“True,” her mom said, standing in the doorway to her room. The tiniest bit of amusement danced around her lips. “Is there something wrong with that?”


“Why did you and dad buy me these clothes?” Regan demanded.


“Because you asked us to,” Mrs. Walters replied.


“Why didn’t you say no?”


Mrs. Walters was silent for a moment.


“Honey, I don’t know what’s going on here,” she confessed finally. “Is this a first-day-of-school freak-out moment? Should I have expected it? What do you need me to do? What can I do? How do we fix this?”


Regan grinned in spite of her agitation. “I’m not freaking out. It’s just, Mom, you know me. You know this isn’t me,” she said, grabbing a handful of shirt.