Mary’s steps echoed down the locker-lined hall-way. Doors whisked shut as she passed. She caught snippets as the doors closed: Welcome back for a new school year; hope everyone had a nice summer; please turn to page sixty-four. She’d been in one of those classrooms; bored out of her mind and doodling pentagrams onto the cover of her spiral notebook. She wished that she still were.
When she shoved the door to the guidance counselors’ suite of offices, it bounced off the door stop and startled the attendance secretary Mrs. Higgins. Mary marched past the scowling secretary to Mr. Landa’s office. She raised her hand to knock, but it opened before her fist could fall.
Mr. Landa greeted her with an already weary smile. "Welcome back, Mary."
She put her fist on her hip. “Who gets called to the guidance office on the first day of freaking school?”
Mr. Landa’s smile didn’t falter as he held the door open for her. She rolled her eyes and ducked by him.
From behind the desk, a disembodied female voice said, “I’m so sorry, Mary. I tried to stop him from summoning you. I hid his pass pad. Made all of his pens leak. I even banged his knees with the desk drawers. I can’t believe he had the office secretary call you over the P.A. system. Whatever happened to student confidentiality?”
As she took a seat, she flashed a smile toward Mrs. Brown, or at least, where she thought Mrs. Brown was judging from where her voice emanated. Mary couldn’t tell exactly because she couldn’t see her. Mrs. Brown was a ghost. She haunted Mr. Landa’s desk.
Mr. Landa didn’t know his desk was haunted. He just thought it was a vexing piece of junk. Mrs. Brown had been a school nurse. The desk had been hers when she’d been alive. It wasn’t unusual for schools to reuse furniture. It also meant that it wasn’t unusual for schools to have ghosts.
Once, Mr. Landa turned on the white noise machine by the door and flipped his sign to ‘In Session’, he took his seat. “I called you down here because we need to talk. Ready for the new school year?”
Mary slouched down into the chair. “No, but ready or not, right?”
Mr. Landa shuffled the papers on his desk. “I hope this year is good for you. What did you do over the summer?”
“The usual. Talked to ghosts. Cavorted with demons. Worked on my tan.”
Her answer made him pause. He took a moment to process it and looked at her. Her skin was pearly white. “Well…I’m glad you had a productive summer. I called you in today because I wanted to touch base with you on a few things.”
She frowned at him. “And you couldn’t wait until after the first day of school?”
He gave her a wry smile. “I did wait. It’s second period. I thought about calling you out of first.”
"He’s not joking.”
Mary slouched down further in her chair. Mr. Landa flipped open her file. “All right, let’s not have a repeat of last year, shall we? First, no beaning boys in the head with soft balls.”
She shrugged. “I can’t help it that he didn’t duck.”
Mrs. Brown tsked. “You broke that boy’s nose.”
“No spiking girls’ milks with Ex-Lax.”
“Did the janitors ever manage to unclog that toilet?”
“No more threatening to shrink freshmen’s heads.”
Mary’s eyes snapped up. “Now come on! You’ve got to leave me something!”
Mr. Landa closed the file. “This is a warning Mary, either shape up, or you’ll be expelled and that would be a terrible shame, seeing how you’ve made it to your junior year. Your grades are good. We know you deserve to be here. Try to work with us.”
“I heard Mr. Landa talking to Principal Hoke. She wants to expel you. He had to promise to keep a very close eye on you.” This was one of the problems with Mrs. Brown haunting Mr. Landa’s desk. Sometimes there was justification for the guidance counselor’s meddling, though Mary would have been happy not knowing it.
“I’ll do my best,” she said, but her voice didn’t hold much promise.
Not all of Mary’s transgressions were strictly her fault. Her bad deeds were not done to innocent victims. She’d broken the football player’s nose with the softball because he’d been ragging on her for the past four days. He’d been asking her if she liked corpses. Did their cold bodies make her hot? Did she drink her own menstrual blood? Disgusting stuff like that. The coaches had heard a lot of it, but they didn’t tell him to quit it. Fact was some of them had snickered at his comments. When she’d seen her chance to shut him up, she’d taken it. He never asked her any more questions. Ditto for the girl and freshmen. They should’ve listened when she told them to shut up.
“Very good. You know people would be a lot nicer to you if you let them.” Mrs. Brown took in a sharp breath. Even she knew that was a lie.
Mary’s eyes narrowed, and her jaw tightened. “You want ME to be nicer? Nicer to the teachers who ignore everything until I do something? Or the vice principals who always assume I’m the troublemaker? Or maybe you mean my classmates who are all oh so friendly and nice as they sneer and insult me?”
“Mary...” Mrs. Brown warned.
He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Mary, have you ever tried just telling those that upset you to stop? I know it sounds too simple and couldn’t possibly work, but maybe you should try it.”
“Oh, just ask nicely and say please?”
He nodded. “What could it hurt?”
Mary straightened and dropped her jaw in fake amazement. “Wow! Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll just say please and thank you, and the world will be a better place!”
He peered over his glasses at her. “Tell me, has what you’ve been doing worked any better?”
She crossed her arms and looked away.
“Just try it once and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, you’ll at least know for sure.”
“I have tried being nice. ‘Please don’t call me that. Please give me my teddy bear back. Please don’t push me. Please don’t kick me. Please stop throwing rocks at me.’ They just laughed, and the teachers just watched.”
“And how old were you when all that happened?”
She hunched over and stared at the floor. “I was six.”
“Don’t you think they’ve changed by now?”
“No, they’ve just gotten bigger rocks.”
“Now, I know children didn’t actually throw rocks at you while your teachers watched.”
Her jaw tightened. This was another reason why seeing Mr. Landa was stupid. He rarely believed her when she told him real stuff. “They did.”
“No teacher would stand by and watch a child be abused like that.”
“You’re right. Mrs. Haversham turned away when it began.”
He shook his head. He didn’t believe her.
She clenched her fists to keep herself in check. It wouldn’t do to get emotional. He would only make a note in her file. “It did happen. Just like everything else I’ve ever told you.”--Except for the cavorting with demons, the abduction by little green men, and the Elvis sighting. Mary told Mr. Landa outrageous things because he insisted she tell him something. She’d tried to tell him the truth at first, but like now, he always refused to believe her. She wished she hadn’t tried to tell him something truthful now.
He waved away the disagreement. “It’s long in the past now. We should focus on this school year. Don’t antagonize the other students. Don’t talk back to the teachers. Don’t cause trouble.”
She stared at a spot over his head and gave him a clipped nod. She just wanted to get out of there.
“Okay, we’ll talk more next week. Go and get a pass from Mrs. Higgins. I’ll see you next Wednesday during third period, okay?” He pushed himself to his feet and moved to leave his desk but tripped hard over a side drawer that had slid open. He banged his leg and had to grab the desk and wall to stop himself from belly flopping to the floor. His face went maroon. She knew he was biting his tongue to not curse. Mrs. Brown didn’t like it either that Mr. Landa didn’t believe Mary. Mary stood up with an unrepentant cheery smile.
“Mary, hang in there. High school isn’t forever. It won’t always be like this.” She knew what Mrs. Brown said was right on one level, but she was wrong on another. She would always hear ghosts and that meant she would always be different.
Mary exited the office with a vague wave to Mrs. Brown, though Mr. Landa thought it was for him and nodded goodbye while nursing his bruised shin. She weighed the pros and cons of skipping school next Wednesday. If she skipped, no meeting with Mr. Landa. On the con side, she would possibly get written-up, get detention, and Mr. Landa would reschedule with the added bonus of a lecture on the evils of skipping school. The pro side still edged out the con side.
Mrs. Higgins was busy with a student. Mary leaned against the wall to wait. She needed a pass if she didn’t want to get into trouble when she returned to second period. From her vantage point, she saw that Mrs. Higgins was showing the male student a map of the school.
Mrs. Higgins’ voice droned like an old automated message. “All even numbered rooms are on the first floor, and all odd numbered rooms are on the second floor. Stairways are here and here. Any room with a letter connected to it is in the gym wing.” Mary crossed her arms and tapped her foot. Mrs. Higgins didn’t even glance at her to acknowledge her presence. She really wished she had some forged hall passes.
As she waited, Mary scanned the new guy to identify his destined clique. He had on a loose pair of jeans, a pair of scruffy Nikes, and a faded green T-shirt. Surprisingly, the ratty baseball cap required for all teenage boys was absent. He had wavy dark blond hair. The absence of hat, nice hair, and all right looks tipped the scales to Shiny person. Shiny people were the ‘in’ crowd. They were always happy, got the car for their sixteenth birthday, had girlfriends or boyfriends, always got invited to the party, and were the people everyone else wanted to be or date. The exact opposite of Mary.
The guy glanced over his shoulder at Mary to give her a rueful smile. Mary was flustered by being caught staring and dropped her eyes to the floor. When Mary peeked up at the guy through her lashes, his smile had changed to a good-humored grin. Mary’s mouth twitched in response, but she pressed her lips together to keep from smiling back. Mrs. Higgins snapped her fingers to get the guy’s attention back on the map.
Mr. Landa came wandering out of his office with an empty coffee mug dangling from his fingers. He stopped when he saw the new guy, then he looked at Mary. She could see the wheels turning in his head. He was plotting something and that was never good for her. He moved over to stand beside her and waited for Mrs. Higgins to finish with the new guy. She tried to edge away, but he dropped his free hand onto her shoulder to keep her from leaving.
While Mrs. Higgins wrote the guy a pass, Mr. Landa stepped forward and dragged her with him. “Are you a new student?” he asked. The guy nodded. Mr. Landa let go of Mary to extend his hand for a shake. He pumped the guy’s hand like a used-car salesman. She began edging away again.
“Welcome to Eastern Snyder High, I’m Mr. Landa, one of the guidance counselors. I’m here if you ever need to talk.”
“Hi, I’m Cy. I mean Cyrus Asher, um, new student,” said the guy.
“If you think you’re balanced, he’ll convince you, you’re not,” muttered Mary. The new guy glanced at her in surprise, and then shot her a grin. Mr. Landa heard her too and grabbed her shoulder again to pull her back into the impromptu group.
“I know it’s sort of hard to find your way around a new place. Mary, why don’t you show Cyrus where his class is?”
“Do I have to?”
He chuckled and shook her shoulder. It was a little harder than good-naturedly. “Now Mary, I know you’re eager to get back to class, but surely, you can spare five seconds to show Cyrus to his classroom.”
She wanted to argue, but she had the definite suspicion that Mr. Landa would not let go of her shoulder unless she agreed. In fact, if she refused, he could very well drag her back into his office, so they could talk more.
“Sure, it’s no trouble.”
“Mary, what class are you going to?” asked Mrs. Higgins.
“Mr. James’ chemistry class, room 36.” Out of the corner of her eye, Mary saw the new guy glance over to take a better look at her. She would’ve told him not to bother. He wouldn’t be impressed with what he saw.
Her hair was black and couldn’t decide to be straight or curly so settled on being a black nimbus glob on top of her head. Nothing about her could decide to be one way or the other. Her hazel eyes were constantly changing from green to brown, and her body fluctuated from scrawny to plump every few months.
She was dressed in her first day of school finest: a pair of ragged jeans, Doc Martens, and an old, torn, black T-shirt. Her wardrobe just screamed dysfunctional youth. It wasn’t exactly like she tried to look dysfunctional. It was just stuff from the Gap or Old Navy gave her hives, and she couldn’t afford it.
“Here, Mary.” Mrs. Higgins handed her the hall pass. “Cy’s going to room 18.”
“Thanks.” Mary pocketed the pass and pulled her book bag onto her shoulder. Cyrus was a strange name for a boy. He was probably named after a rich uncle. She walked out of the office with the guy trailing behind her. Once they were down the hall, she glanced back to see if he was gone. She’d figured he’d ditch her as soon as they were out of the guidance office, but he was still back there. This mildly annoyed her. Didn’t he know that she only said sure to get out of there? She wasn’t a tour guide. She was the most frightening girl in school--that exempted her from showing guys where their rooms were, pep rallies, school dances, and yearbook signings. At her glance, he took a few quick steps to catch up. She slanted her eyes at him. He was NOT about to speak to her. That was another thing she was exempt from: empty, stupid, hall chatter.
He evidently didn’t know of all her many exemptions due to her rarefied status. “Hey,” he said.
She quickened her pace.
He lengthened his steps to keep up. “What year are you?”
“A junior,” she muttered. Room 18 was visible at the end of the hall. She increased her pace.
“I’m a junior too.” She smirked at how breathy his voice had become from their almost jog down the hall.
“Fascinating. This is your stop.” She wheeled around and jerked her thumb at the door.
“Thanks. I guess, I’ll see you around?”
“Yeah, sure, whatever.” She was already turning away. Glad that she was rid of the guy.
“Are you this unfriendly to everybody, or is it just my lucky day?”
“Your lucky day. I’m usually scary,” she said as she walked away.
Continue to Chapter 2