Oklahoma State University’s campus was just under an hour away by car, in Stillwater. The campus was small enough that I wouldn’t need a car and the transit system would take me anywhere else I needed to go nearby. But I had to figure out a way to OSU. The acceptance letter came in the mail a couple of weeks before, and I celebrated alone, jumping up and down in the kitchen. Gina didn’t know. I hadn’t even told Frankie. I didn’t want to jinx it.
Half a block before I reached the school, the sky opened, and a cold spring rain poured down. My pace broke out into a sprint. I didn’t want my shoes to slosh and draw attention more than my sopping hair already would.
Once inside, I walked straight to the east wing bathroom. It was next to the office, so teachers were more likely to be in there. Sure enough, Mrs. Pyles was drying her hands under the automatic dryer.
She greeted me with a smile, but once she recognized how drenched I was, her expression changed. “Oh, Erin!” She yanked paper towels from the holder and handed them to me. “Didn’t you know it was going to rain today?”
I shook my head. “I had a feeling. Hoped I could make it here before it started.”
She helped me slide my backpack to the floor and took my jacket, holding it under the electric dryer. “I’ve given you my number a dozen times. Why won’t you call me?”
I shrugged. “I like to walk.”
She frowned. “Next time the weather man calls for precipitation before school, I’m going to be parked in front of your house.”
“Please don’t,” I said. “You’ll embarrass Gina. She won’t like it.”
“I don’t care.”
I pushed the silver button and leaned beneath the dryer. “I just have a couple more months. It’s not worth it.”
Mrs. Pyles shook her head, her bright blue eyes heavy with sadness. “I haven’t done enough for you, have I?”
“You’ve done plenty. See you in class.” I left her alone in the bathroom.
Mrs. Pyles cared about her students, and she’d asked me so many times if everything was okay at home. It had to be so frustrating to be in her position. Gina had a bad temper, and she was a mean drunk, but DHS had been called a few times before and they could never find a good enough reason to save me. Mrs. Pyles always seemed to be in a mood the day after DHS made a surprise visit to my home. It had occurred to me that she might be the one reporting Gina, but I’d never asked. It didn’t matter, and no one should have to answer for trying to protect someone.
First period was Mrs. Merit’s Advanced Biology class, and I shared it with Brady Beck. Four students sat at assigned seats around five round tables with black counter tops, carved with initials and pluses or hearts, the abbreviation “Sr.” followed by every year since 1973, and inappropriate pictures.
I sat in my seat at the middle table and watched other students filter in. Brady and his friend Brendan ran in just before the bell rang, sliding into their seats with shit-eating grins on their faces. They were both at the corner table. Brady had traded spots with Andrew at the beginning of the year so he could face me and mouth things like whore or skank. Sometimes he said it out loud, but Mrs. Merit wasn’t one of the teachers that minded if I was bullied.
Once the shrill beeping of the bell ended, Mrs. Merit offered them an annoyed smile, and began setting up for the lesson.
Sara Glen sat across from me at our table. She was only chatty with me when she wanted to tell me what rumor was spreading about me that day, like when Brian Grand began a discussion in health class about how disgusting it was that I wore the same dirty jeans every day.
I had two pair that I’d found at the Second Hand, and they looked nearly identical. Once I’d spilled something on them two days in a row, and because of work, I didn’t have time to take them to the Laundromat. That was when Brian noticed, and I couldn’t argue, because it was true.
“Erin,” Sara whispered. She put her elbows on the table and leaned in. “I heard you got fired from the Dairy Queen for spitting in Sonny’s ice cream. People are saying you have AIDS and were trying to give it to her out of spite.”
“AIDS. That’s a new one,” I said, doodling in my notebook.
“So it’s not true?”
“All of it.”
Sara seemed satisfied, so she returned her gaze to the teacher.
“Spring break is the week after next, people,” Mrs. Merit said. “We have a mid-term test. I’ll hand out the study guide a week from today. Look it over.”
Mrs. Merit’s study guides were the questions and answers, albeit worded slightly different, of the test, in order. Even though it was supposed to be an advanced class, studying consisted of memorization, so it didn’t surprise me that Sara didn’t know AIDS couldn’t be transmitted through a little bit of spit. A percentage of the girls in our class hadn’t even gotten to graduation before getting pregnant, so basic biological knowledge didn’t seem to be a priority among these students. Or maybe there just wasn’t enough to do besides stand around and drink at bonfire parties at the Diversion Dam or have sex.
Lunch came and went, then I had fifth period Health class—my least favorite—with the Erins. I had third period Calculus with Alder, but she didn’t speak to me without her cohorts around. Brady was in fifth period, too, but he typically left me alone to pick on Annie Black, a sweet and incredibly smart junior with cerebral palsy. He did an Annie impression every time she passed him in the halls. Only a few people called him out on how disgusting he was. He was born into one of the most affluent families in Blackwell, and his parents were pillars of the community. His father had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school, and his mother was a rather rabid bitch and shrieked to her good friend the superintendent whenever someone dared instruct her son on rules or common courtesy, so even the teachers tried to ignore his antics. Brady Beck had been caught vandalizing the school, drinking on school grounds, skipping class, and bullying dozens, but he never once sat through Detention. He was everything that was wrong with our little town.
I sat at my desk and waited. It was Friday, so Coach Morris didn’t make us do much. He usually had us do a word find or let us read to ourselves. When we didn’t have much work to do though, the Erins made themselves busy with me. It would be easy to ignore them if Weston didn’t sit right behind me. But for whatever reason, when he was around, their jabs felt more humiliating.