Terror is chilling my veins. I hear the door bang open. My breath is visible here. Surrounding me. Choking me. I curl up as tight up as I can. I try to believe that I am invisible. Maybe, if I think that I don’t exist, I really won’t and he will just go away. The footsteps are getting louder, I can see the boots under the crack of the covers. The footsteps have stopped. So has my heart. I can see the shadow come closer. He is bending down. I can smell the liquor. He is drunk. The sheets are lifted. Our eyes meet. Mine filled with tears, his glassed over.
“The sweet sound of mother would fill my ears. Her soft lips like a feather against my cheek. She was the kindest mother there ever was. Papa would then come in when he heard Mother had stopped singing. They both thought that I was asleep, but I could see them. I saw the way that they looked at each other. They were so passionately in love. With a kiss on the lips, they would walk out of my room with their arms linked and their eyes gazing into each others.” -Maria
Maria finishing her nightly story about Mama, stood up from kneeling besides my bed, pulled the blankets up to my chin, kissed me goodnight, turned off the lights on her way out, walked silently across the hallway to her room, and closed her door.
How I long for Mother’s sweet lilac perfume and midnight giggles opposed to Papa’s pungent liquor and tobacco. Sometimes I envy Maria, she knew Mother much longer than I did. It was already seven years ago, when I was only two years old, the night of the terrible accident. That year Maria turned six and her whole class threw her a surprise party thinking how hard it must be for her, with her losing her mother. Even my friends are only my friends because they feel bad for me. I guess that it is better having pity-friends than having no friends at all, but I would like to have real friends who value me as a person and truly want to be with me, not just because they feel bad for me. Maria, she has real friends, she has everything, her life is perfect. She always knows what to do when Papa is in one of his moods, and they are only increasing every day. I hope that I will be able to learn all of her tricks for how to deal with Papa before she leaves and it is just me at home with Papa. Maybe I could go with her, wherever it is she goes.
When I wake up the next morning it is up to the grunts and thuds that Papa makes, not the sing-song birds that I was dreaming of. Why is it that dreams are always better than reality? Even when it is a nightmare I am not scared because I know that nothing could actually happen to me and I usually make sure to never wake up until my guardian angel defeats the evil of my dream. I hear a door slam, Papa has just left for “work.” Then, as expected a door creaks, and my own door cracks open and light floods over my face as Maria turns on my bedroom light.
“Good morning, Sleepyhead. If you don’t get up now then you will be late for fifth grade, and you don’t want that now do you?” Before I can sit up, Maria is already gone and a new outfit is draped over the back of my desk chair. I kick the blankets off of my legs and crawl out of bed. Walking straight over to my stash of pictures of Mother, I can feel my eyes begin to burn and the tears well-up.
Don’t cry. You know Mother would want you to be strong. Maria has said how proud Mother would be, don’t let her down her now. I am Helena Audrey Clark, daughter of Naomi and Terrell Clark. I am strong. I can do this.
I stood up quickly and got dressed in my new clothes that Maria must have bought for me. But how? We are so poor, I am surprised that she had the money. As I bend the corner downstairs I see Maria sheepishly grinning, looking as if she is hiding something behind her. She didn’t move as I attempted to push her away. As I try to peer around her she just moves to block my view and her grin only grows. When I finally give up she hands me a plate full of sausage, eggs, and bacon. “How did you get all this?” Between the new clothes and now this wonderful breakfast, I am seriously wondering, concerned even, where Maria found the money.
There are some weeks when we hardly have enough for basic groceries, much less for an extravagant plate for breakfast. I usually just skip breakfast, especially the weeks before Papa’s next paycheck, when it is almost out and the next one hasn’t come. All of my worries over where Maria got the money vanished when the first forkful of entered my mouth. It tastes so delicious. The sausage is very juicy, the eggs seem to melt like butter, and the bacon very crispy that I hear it snap. Also, it is still fresh and warm. I began to shovel the food into my mouth and all too soon the plate is empty and I have to run in order to catch the bus and not be late for school.
I stood at the bus stop, panting, and took a look around at the new faces and tried to come up with their back stories. Most of the new children are entering kindergarten. Some look nervous, some excited, and some both. However, I see a girl who looks about my age standing all alone, outside of the group looking in. What is strange is that I have never seen her around town before and she doesn’t have a parent standing with her, comforting her. I know what I should have done. What Maria would have done. What Mama would have expected me to do. For some reason though, I couldn’t make myself go over to her and introduce myself. I wanted to, truly, but it was as if my feet were glued to the ground and my tongue had been cut off.
The bus arrives on time, but it takes awhile to leave the stop because of all the hugging, kissing, and photo taking that is done by the parents who are sad to see their babies begin the adventure of school. Without meaning to, I let a silent tear slide down my face, remembering my first day of school. Mother had already passed.
Papa stood behind Maria and me with a hand tightly, maybe a little too tightly, gripping our shoulders. Even at that age I could tell that Papa did not want to be there, he was only there because he had to. When the bus had finally come, I ran towards its open door without even looking behind me. It was only on the bus that I looked at Papa. He was smiling, but it was not a proud smile, it was a happy smile, for he no longer had to take care of two immature and naive kids all day long.
“Are you alright?” I jump, not noticing that someone had quietly slid into the seat next to me. “There are no other seats in the front and it didn’t seem as if you were saving this seat for anyone, I hope you don’t mind. I could move if you want. It’s just that I am a bit nervous of the back of the bus.’
“No I don’t mind at all. I like it here in the front, too. It is much safer and quieter, too. It is just safer and quieter. My name is Helena, by the way and I am going into fifth grade.” I rub my eyes and cheeks to get rid of any trace that I was crying. When I look over at my seat partner, I see that it is the girl from the bus stop.
“Nice to meet you, Helena. I am Amika and I just moved into town last week. It was so hard to leave all my friends and transfer schools for my last year in elementary school,” Amika pauses and turns around to watch the rest of the bus before asking me, “I hope that you don’t mind me asking me this, but what were you crying about?”
“It’s a long story. You don’t want to hear it.” I turn back to looking out the window. That seems to get Amika quiet. It sounds as if she is about to say something to me when she put her hand on my shoulder, but caught herself. We don’t say anything else to each other until I say to her that we are at school.
Amika and I wait for everyone else to get off the bus, both of us dreading the inevitable of the first day of school. School is my safe haven, but even still I despise the first day. When everyone else is so excited to catch up with friends and share Summer gossip about how hot the new lifeguard at the pool is, I am excited to meet my teachers. To say the least this is one reason why I don’t have any true friends and I am an outcast with my peer group.
As I walk off the bus behind Amika I can tell just how nervous she is. It is as if she is a maple leaf at the start of fall and is ready to let go, but stops when she notices that nobody else is willing to take the plunge; that is how much she is shaking It never crossed my mind how much harder it could be for Amika than me today, saying that it is the start of fifth grade and she just moved into a town where she doesn’t know anyone. Well, anyone but me.
“Welcome back everyone from what I hope was a terrific summer break. I sincerely hope that you are back to continue your education and make this school year the best it could possibly be,” the principal said over the PA system that morning. Even if my eyes were closed I would have been able to see my classmates’ eyes rolling. Already, I have a clear picture of my teacher for this year implanted into my mind. She looks very young, as if she graduated from college just last year. Her hair has a slight copper tone that hangs loosely on her shoulders and frames her face very nicely. The bright caramel color of her eyes looks kind and full of passion. I can tell that this is going to be a great year.
“Sorry I’m late” A girl came scuffling into the classroom with her head bent over her books and her eyes never leaving the floor. She is clearly flustered for being late. The only empty chair is the one next to mine, it is also the closest to the door. Heavily, she lets out a sigh, plops down her books and slides into the seat. “Hi,” she whispers introducing herself, “I’m Amika,” finally looking up and that is when our eyes met.
“And we’ve met before,” I said finishing her sentence. I can tell she had been crying, probably about being late and being the new kid. Before I know what I am doing I slip my hand into hers and hold tightly to let her know that I know what she’s going through and that I’m here for her.
The teacher claps her hands trying to get the attention of the class. I don’t think that she has ever taught fifth grade before, because if she had she would have known that the clapping only gets mixed in with all the other noise. Then, she does something that I have never seen any teacher do. Grabbing the closest chair, she climbs on top of it, carefully stands up, and yells, “Class, attention please.” When every head turns towards her and all mouths closed, she climbed off the chair. “Well, now that I have your attention,” she said sweetly, “I would like to introduce myself and learn a little bit about every single one of you. We will go around the room and I want everyone to say their name, one interesting fact about yourself, and one fun thing you did this summer. My name is Sophia Wilson. When I was a freshman in college I had no intention of being a teacher, I hated all of mine. Though, by sophomore year teaching was my calling and passion. Oh, and this summer I went with my fiance on a tour of Europe.”
One by one everyone took turns sharing their answers. One by one it got closer to my turn to share. One by one they would tell of their magical trip to Disney World or the numerous hours in the sun lying on the soft sand of the beach, listening to the waves crash close by. One by one I was sweating, not sure what to say. Finally it was my turn and I did not know what to say, but my mouth opened before I knew it and out came an outrageous lie. “My name is Amika and I love to snowboard. This summer I went to Alaska for a snowboarding competition.” Okay, so it is not exactly a lie exactly, it is true, except for the fact that this is Amika’s story and not mine.
“Liar!” Someone shouted. I didn’t know who it was, one of the populars for sure, but I’m not sure which one. “Her name is not Amika,” the person stood up and I can see that it is Ally, leader of the populars. “Her name is Helena. One interesting thing about her is that it is true that she has no true friends because her mother died many years ago and ever since her father has become alcoholic and abusive. She couldn’t possibly have done anything fun this summer because everyone knows that she is too poor.” Ally finished with a smirk. I could feel my face burning from all the stares of my classmates. Without meaning to I let a few acidic tears burn down my face, I try to wipe them away before anyone notices. My eyes do not leave my lap. I tried to focus on the details of my jeans, how faded they are, the little rips, and the countless stains that mark then as hand-me-downs.
“Ally! Do not say such things. I will deal with you later, but for right now you need to apologize so that everyone can hear you and then sit down keeping your mouth shut,”
“Sorry, Helena,” Ally grumbles. Miss Wilson was not pleased with Ally’s apology, but she turns to me anyways and with a much softer voice asks, “Helena, is this true?” Miss Wilson asks. I look up and stare into her troubled eyes. Without answering her I push my chair back and run out of the classroom. I don’t know where I’m going, I just go. I find myself standing in a bathroom stall. I close and lock the door to the stall. Afraid that I might get sick, I lean my forehead against the door. Once I’m there I let everything out, not caring if anyone comes in and hears me. In fact, I’m crying so hard that I don’t notice when someone does comes in. I don’t even hear it when they knock on the stall door. It is not until they say my name do I realize that someone is in the bathroom with me.
“Helena, it’s me, Amika. Miss Wilson wants to talk with you.”
“I don’t want to go back there. Back there is where everyone laughed at me,” I replied.
“Well, not everyone. I didn’t and neither did Miss Wilson. Besides, Miss Wilson has told everyone that they need to apologize.”
“Those are just words, they don’t actually mean it.”
“I’m sorry, Helena.”
“What? Why are you sorry?”
“For not standing up for you. I know how hard it can be, but it’s easier if you don’t show how much it hurts you inside.” Reluctantly I let myself out of the stall and I let Amika guide me back to the classroom. We walk in silence, but before Amika opens the door, she turns her shoulders so that I am forced to look into her eyes. “If apologies are only words and don’t matter, why did you accept mine?” I don’t know the answer to that.
“Because I think that you are different than them,” I whispered. The explanation was hardly audible to me, I doubt that Amika heard, but she opened the door and followed me inside. The class is busy doing something when I return and Miss Wilson is bent over helping someone. I think that I would be lucky enough to slip in undetected, but just as I was sliding into my seat, Miss Wilson looks up and calls my name. I am not sure if she was saying my name to announce that I am back or calling me over to her desk, but she motioned for me to come.
“Is what Ally said true?” I couldn’t look at her so I stare at the wood grains on her desk.”I would like an answer please.” Slowly I lift my gaze and nod. “Then why did you lie?” Another question that I don’t know the answer to. Dropping my gaze again so that she couldn’t see me fight the tears. “Well, there is no reason that you should have to live like this. I want you to come in at lunch so that we can discuss what to do next.”
“What do you mean by that?” Sure, I don’t love my papa, but he is still my papa, I couldn’t see him go to jail. Could I? I have to convince Miss Wilson that it is not as bad as Ally made it sound.
I suffer through the rest of the work until it is time for lunch. Keeping my head down and trying to get lost in the crowd of classmates. I am trying to escape the room before Miss Wilson remembers that she wants to talk to me. No such luck, she quickly locates me on the outside of the group. I guess I stick out from the rest of my classmates. Instead of fighting the current of kids, I wait for everyone to pass before I head over to Miss Wilson. Even looking at my feet I can feel everyone trying to hide their stares. I couldn’t help but let a scowl spread across my face.
“Why don’t we sit over here?” Miss Wilson asks as she pulls out two chairs for us to sit in. Before I can say or do anything Miss Wilson is already sitting down and opening her salad container. Placing my brown paper lunch bag on the table, I slide into the chair next to her.
Trying to make small talk with Miss Wilson to keep the inevitable from coming I ask, “So, how has your first day of teaching been going at Fairview Elementary?” Looking up with a fake smile plastered on my face, I can tell that Miss Wilson is not entertained.
“It’s been fine, but I think that we both know that we are here to talk about your first day, not mine.” I look back into my lap swallowing my fake smile. “I want to talk with you because I truly care. What was said about you upset and worried me. Everything said between us will be confidential unless I have your consent. I want you to trust me. Now please tell me, is what Ally said true?” Looking up with my vision blurred from tears I can tell that Miss Wilson eyes
are also filled with tears. Why is she about to cry? She isn’t the one who is being asked to share her heart wrenching story that she has tried to make disappear. And tell it to basically a stranger on top of that! I want to answer her, truly, but I can’t. My mind was telling me to speak, but my mouth didn’t obey. Miss Wilson had stopped eating her salad, but starts again, “If you’re not going to talk, might as well eat.”
I started to move to open my bag, but stopped. “What not hungry either?” Miss Wilson asked exasperated. There is something in her tone that I have not yet heard, and it and it kind of frightened me, but she quickly switched back to her sweet, caring voice. “Look, I’m trying to help you. If there is a problem going on at home it needs to be solved. No person, no child, should have to hurt physically or mentally at home.” At this I saw hot, angry tears slide down Miss Wilson’s delicate cheek. “I’m here to help you. I really am,” She said softly.
“It’s true,” I whisper. I am so quiet and it is directed to my lap that I was surprised that Miss Wilson heard me.
“Helena,” she pauses and I think that it is all she is going to say but she continues, “I’m sorry to hear that. Thanks for telling me though, because if you let me, I am willing to help you with whatever you need.”
The bell rings telling us that lunch is over, but neither of us moves. After lunch comes recess, my least favorite part of the day. “Is it alright if I stay in here and read instead of going outside?” Miss Wilson looks as if she is about to reject, but when she looks into my eyes she must have pity for me because she doesn’t say no.
“You may stay only if you eat your lunch, it isn’t healthy to skip meals.”
Looking down into my lap I respond, “I don’t have any food.” I can feel Miss Wilson is looking at my brown bag. “It’s only a book in there. Knowledge is the best food isn’t it?” Trying to make a joke again to lighten the mood, but it still didn’t work. Miss Wilson is not pleased.
“Well, we need to get some food in you. It isn’t healthy for someone not to eat, especially not anyone as skinny as you.” Miss Wilson started rummaging in a bag looking for food. When she couldn’t find any food, she told me to follow her.
“I have no money. You heard what Ally said, we’re poor.”
“Well consider it my treat then. Besides, there is no money needed in the staff lounge.” Staff lounge? The whole time that I’ve been coming to this school I had never been to the staff lounge. I didn’t even know where it was until now. It was surprising to see couches and big comfortable chairs along with several different vending machines. There was even a refrigerator, microwave, and several cabinets filled with teas, coffee, hot chocolate, and several mugs. This little room is nicer than my whole house. As if Miss Wilson was reading my mind, or the look of wonder on my face, she asked, “You have never been in a teacher lounge before? Have you?” I slightly nodded my head in response. She opened up the fridge and pulled out a sandwich and handed it to me. I was a little hesitant at first, but Miss Wilson told me that it was alright to eat it. Once I started eating, the sandwich was gone in under five minutes, it was just too good.
The bell rang and Miss Wilson and me hurried back to the classroom. “Be sure to come talk to me if there is any problem. I am all ears and ready to help any of my students, especially you.” That was all I needed to turn my completely bummer day into what became the best first-day-of-school in Helena Clark history. Well, until I got home.
I could not wait until I got home and saw Maria to tell her what a good day I had. She would be pleased, I just knew it. She would say that she was right, as she usually is, about me not having to worry about anything. She would say that Mother would be pleased with me. My head was swimming with all the possibilities that Maria would say with a glowing smile.
“Where were you at lunch?” Amika asks, sounding kind of worried, as she slides into the seat next to me once we are back in the classroom for the rest of our classes.
“I’ll tell you on the bus,” I said, not wanting to talk and turning back to the work that was sitting in front of me. We didn’t talk again until the dismissal bell rang.
I followed Amika through the crowded hallways, making sure that I could always keep the sight of her back in front of me. We both made it to the bus in one piece. “So, where were you today during lunch? I was worried for you, and I had to sit with Ally and her posse.
“I’m sorry about that. It is just that Miss Wilson wanted to talk with me,” I watched the realization spread across her face as she realized what we must have been talking about.
Amika and I got to know each other a little bit better over the busride. The more we talked the more I knew that I had the makings of a true friend. For one thing, our friendship was not being built on pity. It was really nice not having to talk or even think about my horrible life. There was a moment when I almost forgot that I wasn’t normal.
When I got off the bus I was surprised to see Papa there. Much less she that he was somewhat sober. Anyone from the outside would think that he looked like a slob with his messy hair, threadbare and stained t-shirt and loose pants with almost more holes than fabric.
However, to me, he was dressed nicely. I forgot all about my glorious first day. I didn’t hear Amika call my name or see her wave goodbye when she left. The world started to blur; all I could see was Papa. My mind started to race, thinking of the worst. The house was robbed, though we didn’t have much of value, our account being robbed would be more devastating. Maybe our house had burned down. We would be moving and I would loose my one true friend. We had been kicked out of our house. Papa is being sent to jail and Maria and I are being sent to a foster home. Any of that was better than I what I feared the most.