It’s Halloween night. I’m walking home in the dark by myself, taking my usual shortcut through the industrial district. Up ahead is the empty lot, a patch of ragged garbage-strewn grass between the old factories. Big, leafless cottonwoods reach skeleton arms against moonlit clouds.
And they’re waiting for me there. Three of them. Wearing Halloween masks.
The leader of the three steps forward, his green mask grinning in the flickering light of a nearby streetlamp. “Don’t try to escape,” he says.
And I can’t. Can’t move. Can’t do anything but watch helplessly as they come at me.
My alarm clock snaps me out of the dream. I reflexively hit the snooze button.
But I don’t snooze. I just lie here in bed trying to think about something else. Anything else. My pillow and my sheets are damp with cold sweat. It’s not the first time I’ve dreamed about it and it won’t be the last. Did I dream about the blows too? The wounds?
Or am I just remembering them?
I finally force myself out of bed. Time to go from one nightmare to the next. It’s the first day of the rest of my life.
The first day of junior year.
An hour later, here I am on the campus plaza. There’s the new school sign they finally installed. It has a big digital panel with scrolling text. Welcome to the new shcool year PHS students, it greets us. Yes, the word “school” is misspelled. What a testament to our academic excellence.
I cross the plaza to the sprawling, blocky, concrete-and-brick structure that looks basically like a prison. (Frighteningly ironic, isn’t it?) I heave a sigh as I step through the bank of front doors into the crowded entryway.
And so it begins.
I put my head down and make my way to my locker, weaving between clusters of chatty teens. It baffles me how many of them sound like they’re actually happy to be here.
No one says a word to me. No one glances my direction. No one seems to even be aware of my existence.
Don’t feel bad for me. That’s the way I like it. That’s the way you’d like it too, if the only attention you ever got was the kind you didn’t want. If I’ve learned anything in two years at this place, it’s that flying under the radar is the best way to survive. I’m satisfied with just not being noticed.
Especially not by them.
There they are. All three of them. Hanging out by their lockers. Talking. Laughing.
Masks and fangs and gnarled tree branches. The memory doesn’t ask permission to come into my mind, it just does.
I veer over to the opposite side of the hall as I pass by them. Are they looking at me? I don’t know. My hood is up. My eyes are aimed straight ahead.
I slip into Mr. Timmons’ classroom early. I’m always early to class so I can get a seat alone in the back corner.
Hold on. Someone else is already in the back corner. Someone I’ve never seen before. A new girl.
Maybe this scenario seems like no big deal to you. But you have to understand, we don’t get new students at Pyticalis High. Ever. This is the sort of dead-end town people get out of, not into.
So a new face is an occasion for plenty of intrigue.
Not to mention gossip. Pyticalis is close enough to the Bible belt that this girl’s tattoos and weird clothes and purple-streaked hair are prompting plenty of whispers from other students as they file into the classroom. They plop into their seats in their usual cliques, speaking in hushed tones and shooting occasional looks in the new girl’s direction. Uncomfortable looks. Judgmental looks.
The sort of looks I’m used to getting.
And then something really weird happens: I sit down right next to her. Why am I doing this? I couldn’t tell you. This flies directly in the face of my under-the-radar philosophy.
But she hasn’t acknowledged my presence yet. She’s sitting there in her own world, sipping from a giant thermos and staring blandly at her phone. A lock of purple hair hides her eyes from me.
Then I notice one of her tattoos in particular happens to present the perfect icebreaker.
Hey, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve had to start over—new house, new town, new school, new everything. Not the first time and probably won’t be the last.
But it still sucks.
We were supposed to move into our new place three days ago, but the stupid moving truck stalled on the freeway. So we tried to move in the next day, but the landlord forgot to turn on the water and electricity, so we had to stay with my Aunt Rosa in Roxin (that’s a crappy little town forty miles away from this crappy little town). We finally got our stuff into the new place super late last night. That should mean I’m excused from school today, right?
Not according to my mother.
So here I am sitting in the back of the classroom waiting for first period to start, wearing wrinkled clothes I dug out of a box, chugging really strong coffee and hoping the caffeine kicks in soon.
It’s not what you’d call a welcoming environment around here. I haven’t gotten any real greetings, just dirty looks and snickers. Whatever. In six months my mom will probably have to find a new job again and I’ll leave all these losers in the dust. We’ll go to a new town with new losers for me to avoid.
Oh, great, I think someone just sat at the desk next to mine. Stay cool, Jess. Just stare at your phone and he’ll probably leave you alone.
Nope, he’s not going to leave me alone. He’s clearing his throat ready to try to be nice to me. I’d rather he didn’t. I have a strict fly-under-the-radar policy when it comes to surviving high school.
“Maximum Fervor,” he says.
Okay, that’s the last thing I expected to hear. I find myself looking up from my phone at him. He’s sort of hiding out in a dark sweatshirt, hood up, but his smile seems friendly enough. He’s pointing to the stylized antlered skull tattooed on my forearm, the emblem of my favorite band. Literally the best band of all time. It’s a scientific fact.
“Have you heard their new album?” he asks.
Now I’m actually turning sideways in my seat to face him. “Hell yes! It’s crazy you say that because I was actually just listening to it on the drive here this morning.”
“Really? It’s their best one yet, right?” Yeah, his smile is definitely friendly. I’ve known enough guys to know if a guy is sincere or not, and this guy is sincere.
“Definitely!” I agree. “Their best since their first.”
“I actually saw them in concert a few months ago.”
“Really? Lucky! They never tour anywhere near where I live. Where I used to live, I mean.”
“They never tour anywhere near Pyticalis, either. I had to get my mom to drive me about a hundred miles.”
I realize I’m smiling. Smiling at school. Smiling while deliberately interacting with another human being at school. I did not see this coming. “Not too many people know MaxFerv. It’s nice to run into a fellow fan.”
“Likewise. I’m Sam, by the way.”
“I’m Jess. Good to meet you.”
“You too. So, you just moved here?”
“Yep. My mom lost her job over the summer. This is the only place she could find work. My aunt hooked her up with a position at Gredlin’s. Not the greatest, but, you know.”
Sam is about to reply when the bell rings to announce class has begun. Whoever’s in charge of the bells around here apparently decided to set the volume to “teeth-rattling.”
We exchange a let’s-talk-more-later look. The teacher is already up front starting class, some old guy with a gold tooth right in front. He immediately begins a monologue about the glories of mathematics. Time for me to get into lecture-endurance mode; I slouch down in my seat and let my eyes start to glaze over.
I have to stifle a laugh when I glance over at Sam. Apparently he has the same lecture endurance method I do.
Well, I’ve almost made it through my first day at Pyticalis High, and honestly it hasn’t been half bad.
I’ve stuck with Sam pretty much all day. Thankfully we’re in most of the same classes. He’s helped me get the lay of the land and given me some pointers.
Such as, “Here’s a shortcut from your locker to the cafeteria.”
And, “Those guys are on the football team. You can tell because they wear their letter jackets every day. Yes, seriously, every single day.”
And, “That’s Miss Dubois, the English teacher, and yes, her outfits are always at least that inappropriate.”
And, “That’s the principal Mr. Chaffers, and no, he’s never any happier than that.”
And maybe most importantly, “Every second Tuesday is sloppy joe day in the cafeteria—you definitely want to pack your own lunch that day. One time last year, five kids had to have their stomachs pumped.”
Pearls of wisdom like that.
The last bell finally rings. Sam walks out with me as I head to my car.
“So, do you need any help unpacking tonight?”
“Thanks for the offer, but I think we’re good. The movers already took care of the furniture, and we don’t have much other stuff.” We’re poor, I don’t say aloud. “My mom thinks we should be totally unpacked by the end of the night. Then we’re going out for a late dinner to celebrate.”
“Yeah? Hey, since you’re on the west side, you should go to Blue Jay’s on Milton Avenue. Great bacon cheeseburgers.”
“Thanks for the tip. We’ll check it out.”
We’re walking up to my parking spot now. “Well, this is me.”
“Wish I had a car.”
“You don’t wish you had this car. Believe me. It’s actually my mom’s, she just lets me drive it because her job’s close enough to walk.” The old coupe used to be black. Now it’s sort of a mottled pattern of sun-bleached gray and rust. I open the door and sling my backpack into the backseat. “No AC, and one of the windows doesn’t roll all the way up anymore.”
“Beats walking. Or the bus.”
“I guess.” I turn to face Sam before I get into my car. What’s the protocol, here? Offer a handshake? A hug may be too much. A frontal hug, anyway. What about the ever-reliable side-hug? I’m not at a good angle for that, so…
Sam rescues me from the dilemma by reaching out for a handshake. “Well, good luck unpacking tonight!”
“Thanks. Thanks for everything today, Sam.” I hope my smile is relaying the genuine gratitude I’m feeling.
“My pleasure. See you tomorrow.”
I’m sort of in a surreal haze as I drive off. I’m trying to convince myself that it all really happened. That Sam actually likes me. I mean, not likes-me-likes-me, but, you know, as a friend.
Now there’s a term I haven’t used about anyone for a while. Boyfriends, sure, I’ve had plenty of those. You can keep them. In my experience they don’t care about you, they just want to use you. But an actual friend? That’s something I’ve had to learn to live without for a while.
Lucia Gomez. My neighbor in fourth grade. I’d say she was the last person who as an honest-to-goodness friend to me. I haven’t talked to her since she moved that summer.
Maybe it’s because people just find me repulsive. Maybe it’s because I find everyone else repulsive.
Sam didn’t seem to think I was repulsive. Did he? Maybe he did but he was just being nice. Maybe he’ll get over trying to be nice to me and move on with his life in a day or two.
Then it occurs to me: Sam didn’t seem to talk to anyone else today. And no one else seemed to talk to him either. Or even notice him.
Maybe friends are something Sam’s learned to do without for a while too.
I can hear MaxFerv’s new album thumping from her stereo as she starts her car. Without even meaning to I start to sing along.
She waves goodbye, then pulls out of her parking spot. Her rusty little car chokes out three cars’ worth of exhaust as she rattles away.
I stop singing as soon as I notice the back of her car. A string of paper crosses hangs just inside the rear windshield. On the windshield itself is a big sticker that says JESUS SAVES, with a crown of thorns around the text.
She drives away and I just stand here alone, staring.
Maybe it’s a big deal and maybe it’s not. She said it’s her mom’s car, not hers, right? So I should try not to overthink it.
Easier said than done for a compulsive overthinker like me. Believe me, it’s hard not to overthink people when people always seem to overthink you. Always tell you why you’re the way you are and what you should do about it. I don’t ever ask, they just volunteer.
I’ve been told many times that I was born this way and I should just embrace it. Whatever that means.
One classmate described me as a genetic anomaly. He may have meant it as a compliment, I’m really not sure.
Lots of people say something “turned” me. They all know exactly what it was, too. It was society’s influence. It was a childhood trauma. It was my relationship with my mom. It was my relationship with my dad.
A few people have informed me that I’m an abomination and I’m going to hell. They seem more disappointed than angry about it, really.
“Just be yourself,” the campus counselor always tells me. I’ve noticed he checks his watch a lot whenever I’m in his office.
“Have you, you know, tried girls?” a classmate once asked me under his breath. I didn’t bother replying that no, I’ve never gone up to a girl and said, Hey, I’ve been told I should try women, would you be up for that?
And then there are the church girls with their long skirts who tell me I need to “repent.” They don’t explain what that means. I wonder if they even know.
“Good for you,” Miss Anthem told me when she found out. She’s the history teacher and the sponsor of our school’s LGBTQ club. “You know, I’m just so glad we live in an age that celebrates people of your sexual orientation instead of condemning them!”
Apparently not everyone got that memo. I’ve got the scars to prove it. Inside and out.
A few minutes after saying goodbye to Jess, I’m standing at the edge of the school’s north lawn. I stare across the street at the chain link fence and the dense cluster of blocky buildings with a forest of smokestacks jutting up from them.
You’d think they would build a high school in a decent part of town, like in the middle of a nice residential area or something. But they decided to put Pyticalis High right next to the industrial district. Which means that between the school and my neighborhood is a maze of old warehouses and smelly factories.
I’m not budging. My feet seem to have grown roots.
I could do it, I tell myself. I could cross the street and hop that fence like I used to. I could weave my way through the graffiti-covered cinderblock and concrete. I would still remember the way. After all, it’s the route I used to take home every day after school.
Until last Halloween.
And since last Halloween, this is what I do at the end of each school day. I stand right here and tell myself I should just go for it, just grow a pair and make myself take that route home again. And every day I chicken out and don’t take that route. I know I’ll chicken out again today, but first I’ll stand here a minute and pretend to think it over. It’s my routine.
Past the first row of warehouses, I’d reach the auto salvage yard. I could slip between the stacked steel corpses of former cars. And then…
Then the empty lot.
The weedy empty lot that collects wind-blown garbage beneath a few tired old cottonwoods. Cottonwoods that look like huge, multi-limbed creatures when their leaves have fallen off and the overcast sky behind them is glowing with moonlight.
Hideous mask. Dark eye slits. Twisted fangs.
I’m still not moving.
I finally take a step. Not north—east, toward Main Street. It’s the way to bypass the industrial district, circling around it to get my neighborhood. It’s a twenty minute walk versus a ten minute walk. A coward’s walk. The route I always end up choosing.
I stop thinking about garbage-strewn weeds and gnarled cottonwoods and masks. Instead I’m thinking again about Jess and paper crosses and JESUS SAVES.
From what I’ve seen of Pyticalis so far, it’s basically a dump. But the place my mom and I are renting makes the rest of the town look like a resort in the Bahamas.
The duplex is painted a lovely shade of booger-green that’s flaking away by the minute. The landlord promised us he’d take care of it. (Yes, the same landlord who promised to have the water and power turned on when we got here.)
So it’s not much to come home to. So what? It’s what we can afford, and it’s only a few blocks away from mom’s job. I’m not complaining.
I pull into the driveway and hear shouts from the neighbors the moment I step out of the car. The cement walk to the front door of our half of the building is cracked and angled like it’s been through several earthquakes. I tread carefully to avoid tripping.
As I step inside I’m greeted by dim light, stacks of boxes, and some nameless smell lingering from the previous tenants. I hear my mom’s voice coming from somewhere out of sight. She’s yelling.
I squeeze across the living room through the piles of boxes and emerge into the tiny kitchen-slash-dining-room-slash-workspace. More boxes. Mom’s standing with her back to me, looking out the smudged sliding glass door to the back “lawn” (about ten square feet of weeds and crabgrass).
She’s on the phone. She’s not yelling any more, but her voice is tense. The conversation ends with her tossing her phone onto the table and cursing.
Then she notices I’m here. “Oh, Jessica! Sorry, sweetie, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Dad?” I ask. I don’t have to ask. I know he’s the one she was talking to.
Mom nods. “He wants to visit us.”
“Don’t tell me you’re letting him!”
“I told him we’re too busy settling in right now.”
“Yeah, we’ll probably be too busy for the next, I don’t know, century or so.” I sling my backpack onto the table. “Why’d you even take the call?”
“Unknown number. He must have been calling from his job.”
“Wow, so he has a job, huh? Just where is this place he’s about to get fired from?”
“Hey, maybe he can hang in there this time and stay employed.”
Mom’s always hopeful like that. It’s why she would’ve answered the phone even if she’d known it was him. It’s why she’s still Margarita Taylor instead of reverting back to Margarita Gonzalez; she’s kept Dad’s last name even this many years after the divorce.
“Sure, maybe.” I roll my eyes. I’m not trying to hate on Mom’s optimism, but I sure don’t share it. Someone has to be the realist in the house, and apparently it’s not going to be Mom. “Hopefully next time he calls I’ll be here to answer.”
Mom crosses her arms. “So you can tell him to go to hell again?”
“I can come up with something different this time if you want. How about ‘Go play in a food processor’?”
She sighs and sits down at the little table. “We need to give him a chance, Jess.”
“Oh, like the seventy-five thousand chances we’ve already given him?”
“Don’t give up on him, all right?”
This old argument is so easy to slip into. I can tell we’re already jumping onto the verbal merry-go-round, so I’d better jump off before it gets going too fast. “I’ll think about it, Mom. Really.”
“Good.” She smiles. It’s a tired smile, even more tired than usual. It’s hard to see that weariness in her eyes. I’ve always been able to count on Mom’s strength—and believe me, there’s no stronger woman on Planet Earth than Margarita Taylor. Don’t be deceived by that petite frame and that nice soft voice, people, this woman will kick your ass if it needs kicking.
But even Margarita Taylor has her limitations. Hence the tired smile. Hence the dark circles under her eyes.
I dig through one of the boxes until I find a couple glasses, fill them with cool water from the tap, set them on the table and have a seat across from her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even ask how work went.”
“I didn’t ask you about school, either. I’m sorry!”
“It wasn’t bad, really. I already made a friend, sort of.”
Mom seems surprised. And relieved. “Really? That’s great! What’s her name?”
“His name. It’s Sam.”
Relief gone. “Oh, wonderful, a boy already.”
I laugh. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m pretty sure he’s not into me in that way.”
She was right about the unpacking not taking too long.
And Sam was right about the bacon cheeseburgers at Blue Jay’s.
Thankfully our dinnertime conversation doesn’t tread anywhere near my deadbeat father. Just details about the day, thoughts on Pyticalis and Pyticalis High and Gredlin’s. It feels pretty good, actually, just the two of us on a new adventure in a new place. We share a huge chocolate malt to top off the celebration before we head home. Mom insists she only drank her half, but don’t believe that for a second.
I stay up late blitzing through the homework I didn’t do while we were unpacking.
As I finally settle into bed I look around my room. You know, it feels pretty much like home. It’s a different house in a different town, and the room’s a different shape and painted a slightly different off-white shade than my last couple rooms.
But it’s same MaxFerv posters. My same shelf of sci-fi books and theology books, each alphabetized by author because I’m sort of anal about that. My same set of teal sheets and weird patchwork quilt with matching pillowcase that my grandma Gonzalez made me before she died.
And it’s my same Bible, the one Mom gave me for my twelfth birthday, sitting in its place here on my bedside table tonight instead of buried in some box like the last few nights. I decide not to read a section before bed like usual tonight. Instead I just flip through the pages for a few minutes and look at some things I’ve underlined or scrawled into the margins over the years. It’s like rehashing memories with an old friend.
Around midnight I finally close my Bible and stash it in my backpack before I turn out the lights. I lie in the darkness praying for Mom, praying for this fresh start, praying for Sam.
I try to decide if I can bring myself to pray for my dad too, but I’m asleep before I can make up my mind.
It’s amazing how wrong your first impressions about someone can be.
My first impressions about Jess, for instance. Yesterday I saw her hiding out in the back of the classroom, and I assumed she was shy. Then I spent the rest of the day watching her get dirty looks from students and teachers alike, and she returned every one of those looks without blinking. They were the ones who ended up looking away.
Timid? Introverted, maybe, but hardly intimidated. There’s something in that gleam in her eye, in her facial expression, in the way she carries herself, that tells everyone, It’s me versus the world, and don’t bet on the world.
I admire her already.
Maybe some of that pluck could rub off on me. Maybe I could learn to look some of my own critics in the eye. Maybe (I can’t believe I’m saying this) I don’t have to keep slinking around and pretending I don’t exist.
Today I find her pretty much like I found her yesterday, alone in the back of Mr. Timmons’ classroom. The same desk, the same slouch, the same giant coffee thermos. She doesn’t look quite as petite today, for some reason.
I walk toward her and open my mouth to say hi.
And then close it, halting in mid-stride.
She’s not looking at her phone this time. She’s reading a book. I don’t need to read the title to know what book. I see the gold-edged pages and twin columns of fine print.
Suddenly it’s hard to breathe.
I make an about-face.
I should’ve known.
I get to class early again and wait for Sam. I pull out my Bible while I’m waiting and open up to my bookmark.
Lately I’ve been reading through the section called Leviticus. Maybe this sounds blasphemous, but it’s the one part of the Bible I always try to avoid. Super dry sometimes, as you know if you’ve ever read it. Right now I’m at a part about how the Jewish priests back in the day were supposed to deal with mildew in somebody’s tent. Riveting.
The absurdly loud bell jolts me from my reading. Class is starting. The desk next to mine is empty. I look around for Sam.
He’s sitting by himself all the way across the classroom.
When math class is finally over I jump up quickly to go talk to him, but he’s hurrying out of the classroom before I can catch him.
He doesn’t sit next to me in our next class either. Or the next one. Or even say hi.
And now I’m feeling stupid because I should’ve seen this coming. I must have scared him off yesterday. I’ve scared everyone else off in my life, so why should Sam be any different? I was an idiot for letting myself think we could actually…
Actually what? Be friends? Or that someone could at least tolerate my presence for longer than one day?
My jaw is set, my strides are determined as I head up the hall toward my locker. The daydream is over and it’s time to be a realist again. Junior year will be just like sophomore year and freshman year and eighth grade and pretty much every year as far back as I can remember.
That’s not so bad. I can survive.
Are my eyes getting a little misty? Maybe I’m allergic to something in this godforsaken part of the country.
It’s my fault. I let my guard down and hoped for something and set myself up for disappointment.
I won’t let it happen again.
The search for acceptance has always been a losing battle for me.
For starters, there’s my severely introverted personality. In case you haven’t noticed, we live in an extrovert’s world. Whereas most of my classmates like to go to football games or dances or rogue parties at the house of whoever’s parents are out of town, I like to be by myself and read and sketch and play my guitar.
Call me antisocial if you want. The fact is, I want friendships as much as the next person does. Not a whole bunch of friendships—just one or two good ones, that’s all I ask.
Even that is asking too much, apparently.
There was a phase where I tried to be popular. Everybody has a phase like that, right?
In middle school, I tried to dress punk. Then Goth. If I succeeded, no one cared. Freshman year I tried to dress hipster, which all the kids were doing in order to show their individuality. I didn’t pull it off very well. Last year I tried to go with the name brands and be stylish. Apparently I don’t fit the gay stereotype when it comes to fashion sense.
I went to a few parties, but I found them nauseating. It’s lost on me, this attraction to getting drunk, acting like an idiot, puking all over, and waking up with a pounding headache instead of salient memories about what, exactly, happened last night.
I’ve tried listening to the music everyone else listens to, but I can’t get into it. I prefer my fringe bands. Do I sound like I’m flaunting superior artistic taste? I’m not trying to. Maximum Fervor’s interwoven melodies move me in a way the top radio hits just don’t.
I even (this just goes to show how desperate I’d gotten) tried out for football. I didn’t make the team. Which was a total relief.
Yes, there’s a long list of ways I’ve tried to fit in. Tried, and failed.
Not surprisingly, being gay doesn’t exactly help.
I’ve always heard that “coming out” is an important event, something you do in your own time and in your own way. I never had the luxury. Somehow the word got out early, and the gossip beat me to the punch.
By the end of freshman year, I’d gone from being ignored to being shunned. When I’m not being shunned, I’m being mocked. Or worse.
Not exactly progress.
Hence my philosophy of invisibility. People can’t hurt you if they don’t notice you, so I don’t let them.
Yesterday was an exception. Yesterday I blew it. I’m chewing myself out about that as I walk home from school (the cowardly route again, obviously).
Maybe it was her MaxFerv tattoo that lured me in. Maybe something about her personality that seemed to click with mine. Maybe just the fact that she was new and lonely and I felt bad for her. So I let myself slip.
I won’t let it happen again.