by Chris Eng, illustration by Karlene Harvey
Claire loomed over Jenn’s desk. “Nice fuckin’ friend, McNabb.”
Their math teacher had written the day’s lesson plan up on the board, waited a few minutes to make sure that everyone was working and then wandered off. That was his usual routine. No one expected him back for at least half an hour. The general suspicion amongst the students was that he was using a vaporizer to smoke up in one of the portables, but no one could prove anything and no one wanted to. If anyone called attention to him, he’d either get fired and they’d get a more vigilant teacher or he’d stop doing whatever he was doing and the effect would be the same. Let him get high if he wanted; more time to slack off. More time for Claire to have one-on-one conversations with Jenn in front of the whole class.
“I think she might have ruined my whole day,” Claire continued, leaning in.
This was the confrontation Jenn had been dreading. She spent the rest of her lunch break darkly anticipating it and when Jenn saw the way Claire glared at her as she walked into class, she knew she was right. Jenn had to defuse the situation and try to get it back to normal or things were going to get a whole lot worse.
“Look, Claire, I’m sorry about all that. She didn’t know what she was talking about. And I made sure she’ll never come back to the school. It’ll never happen again.”
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t care. I meant what I said—if I ever see her again, I’ll fuck her up. But I don’t give a shit whether it happens again or not. It happened once and that’s once too many. She’s your friend and this is your fault. So,” Claire reached forward and flicked a loose piece of hair out of Jenn’s face, “you’re dead.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this. Isn’t there anything I can do to make it up to you?”
“Seriously? What could you, with your librarian clothes and your librarian life, possibly come up with that would make my life better? I don’t want anything you’ve got. You need to face facts, McNabb: you aren’t cool, your friends aren’t cool and your friends won’t make you cool. And speaking of friends, did you see the way you just rolled over on yours right now, trying to save your own ass? Super loyal. What a sweetie.”
“Okay, let me put it another way, since you’re obviously not getting it. Your friend may have started this, but she’s not the reason we’re having this talk. I don’t like you and I don’t want to. You’re gutless. So, you and me are going to fight and I’m going to win. I’ll try to make it fast, but, y’know, no promises. See you soon.”
Claire punched Jenn hard in the shoulder and went back to her seat. Jenn rubbed her arm and winced. She was going to have a gigantic bruise, but as she looked around the room at the sea of faces silently watching her, she realized that was the least of her problems.
Thankfully, the rest of Jenn’s day was as stress-free as it could possibly be. Claire and the other students ignored her during the rest of Math class, and that was followed by English where she was studying The Chrysalids, a book Jenn had read four years earlier. Jenn was glad for the light workload because she was wound so tight she couldn’t concentrate on a word anyone said. She would have just skipped the rest of the day if it wasn’t for her mother. Jenn figured she had an okay chance of making it out of school without having to fight Claire, but if she skipped, she knew her mother would hear about it and her home life would turn into a warzone.
Jenn would have liked to have spent the afternoon scrunching up anxiety balls and tossing them into the pit, but the pit was way too full. All she could do was tune everything out, manage the stress she had going, get through the day without accumulating any more of it, and get rid of it later with a rebar workout.
When the three o’clock bell rang, Jenn raced to her locker. She grabbed her coat, dumped her books, and was about to make a beeline for her mother’s car when she saw the bag of clothes at the bottom.
She had no idea what to do with them. If she left the knapsack here, she’d be reminded of Lark Street every day between every class. If she took it home, her mother would throw it out. If she threw it out, she’d be abandoning that entire chapter of her life.
Then it came to her. She reached down and opened the bag. The contents of her drawer in Spit’s room had been crammed unceremoniously into the knapsack. Her Chucks were sitting on top, almost like an afterthought. She removed the sneakers and pulled out two other random items: a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. She slid her knapsack off her shoulders, crammed the shoes, pants and shirt into it, closed it up and put it back on.
Bringing the bag home as-is was a no-go, because her mother would see it right away, but Jenn could smuggle the clothes in a few pieces at a time and hide them in the multiple dark crannies around the workshop. She had a decent chance of getting away with it, too, because things had been normalizing in her house over the past month (relatively speaking) and her mother was no longer constantly searching her bag afterschool. That’s not to say it couldn’t still happen, but Jenn was willing to roll the dice.
She slammed her locker, slid the padlock on and made a dash for the parking lot.
Jenn never saw the shove coming as she breezed through the fire doors. But suddenly there was a hard blow to her upper arm and she was flying sideways, her arms splayed out in front of her as she hit the ground. She was winded and still didn’t know what was happening until she heard Claire’s voice.
“Told you we were gonna fight. Now get up and try to make this a challenge.”
Dazed, Jenn pulled herself to her feet, her hands achy and numb. She glanced down and saw the sidewalk had drawn deep gouges in them, the deepest already speckling red with blood.
Jenn had never been in a fight before. Not a real one. Not anything beyond a shove or two. But a crowd was already gathering and she knew this wouldn’t be over quickly.
She slid the knapsack off and unzipped her coat, setting both of them on the ground. She was shit-scared, but there was nothing she could do to get herself out of this. She couldn’t run, couldn’t break through the crowd and even if she could, where would she go? Into the parking lot to get her mother to save her? Yeah, that’d be a foolproof way to make sure no one at school ever bothered her again. Plus, it was impossible to imagine her mother saving her from anything. No, she was in this alone and all she could hope for was make it out with as much dignity as possible.
Jenn put her fists up in front of her like she thought you were supposed to and crouched slightly, imagining she was in a martial arts movie (and hoping she didn’t look like she had cramps). Claire moved in, hands loose, and punched Jenn solidly, a huge crack issuing as her fist connected with Jenn’s cheek.
Jenn spun back down to the pavement, suddenly aware of how slow time was moving. It wasn’t like the way time stopped when she and Spit were together. This was different. It felt like the fight was going to take hours. She wasn’t just going to have her ass kicked, she was going to spend an eternity watching it happen. She hit the ground hands-first again and the concrete took off another layer of skin.
“Is that all you got, you fuckin’ pussy?!” Claire yelled, booting Jenn in the ribs. Her side erupted in fire and her breaths came in hot, ragged gasps. She was positive she looked a mess. She wasn’t sure why that bothered her, but it did.
Claire’s foot connected with Jenn’s ass as Jenn staggered to her feet, and she stumbled forward.
“Can you pretend you’re not totally useless and fight back?” Claire asked and a few laughs rippled through the crowd.
Jenn turned to face Claire, who was still looking good. Her hair was buoyed by hairspray and her pants and shirt were undusty (as opposed to Jenn, who looked like she’d been rolling in it, which she supposed she had).
Claire nodded at Jenn, apparently reaching some internal decision. “I’m gonna break your teeth,” she said.
Jenn steadied herself as Claire came at her again, this time sidestepping the blow right before it collided with her face.
There was only one way Jenn was getting out of this fight intact. She had to drag it out until someone broke it up. If she tried to fight her way to victory, she was dead. If she let Claire get close enough to lay down hand-to-hand beats, she was dead. She needed to keep her distance, keep circling and throw the odd punch now and again to make it look good.
Jenn threw what she thought was a hard and fast right, but Claire stepped gracefully out of the way and punched Jenn so hard she saw stars.
“All right,” Claire said, bored. “Enough of this faggotry.”
She reached out, grabbed Jenn’s shirt, and yanked her forward, pulling her off balance. Unable to right herself in time, Jenn saw herself pitching toward Claire’s fist. The bitch wasn’t even punching her, she was just holding her arm out and letting Jenn fall on it.
Claire’s fist connected full force with Jenn’s throat.
Jenn landed on her knees, her hands scrabbling at her neck, unable to breathe. Was she going to suffocate? Her breaths were tiny and she wasn’t getting enough air. She thought she might pass out. Before she had time to do that, though, her hair was grabbed and her head yanked back and exposed. She was staring at Claire’s fist, which was cocked and ready to jackhammer into her face.
“Broken teeth,” reminded Claire and suddenly one of Claire’s cronies was waving her off wide-eyed and saying, “No, don’t.” Claire let go of Jenn’s head and walked into the school without another word.
Jenn’s gasps were like hot ash and all she could do was kneel in the dust, hold her throat and look over at what made Claire leave.
She was advancing across the parking lot, lividity twisting her expression. The crowd cleared a path for her and Jenn had just enough time to reach for her stuff before hearing a resounding, “JENNIFER!”
The students were mesmerized. They knew they were seeing something that wasn’t supposed to happen, but they weren’t sure what. Jenn held her throat with her left hand and turned toward the advancing juggernaut. The crowd held its collective breath as Jenn’s mother loomed over her and a new spectacle unfolded.
“WHAT WAS GOING ON WITH THAT GIRL?!”
“A fight,” Jenn croaked. She was still hoping to make it off the school grounds with as much of her dignity as possible, as per her original plans, but her rage was rising again. She’d stayed remarkably clear-headed during the fight and the pit in the centre of her had remained firmly at the back of her mind, but her mother’s yelling was bringing it back into sharp relief. Jenn had an awful feeling where things were heading. “I’ll explain everything in the car. Can we go, please?”
“Why don’t we stick around so you can explain it to the principal!”
“I don’t want that any more than Claire does. I’d just like to go. Please.”
Jenn moved around her mother, not waiting for a reply and made her way to the Celica, letting herself in the passenger side. Her mother watched her go, looked at the crowd, scanned for Claire (who was long gone) and headed back to the car. She got in, put the keys in the ignition, and sat unmoving.
“We’re not going anywhere until I get an explanation.”
“Well,” Jenn said, her limbs visibly shaking from the barely restrained tension. “I was leaving school to meet you and she jumped me. I think you caught most of the rest.”
“She just picked a fight with you for no reason.”
“I told you we’re not going anywhere.”
Jenn noticed a good number of teens still standing around, watching her and her mother hash this out and she felt queasy. “You know what? Okay. Here’s the full version. One of my friends came by earlier to give me a bag of stuff I’d left at the house. While she was here, Claire, the girl I was fighting with, insulted me. My friend insulted her back and then Claire jumped me over it.”
A smile curled up at the corners of her mother’s mouth. “You see,” she said, righteousness coming off of her in waves. “I told you those punks were nothing but trouble.”
Anxiety wrapped itself around Jenn like iron bands and she knew she needed to get home as fast as possible before someone said or did something they couldn’t take back. “Look, can we talk about this at home?”
“No, I’m not done. I’d like to hear more about the bad habits those punks instilled in you. Insults, fighting—what else are they responsible for?”
Grab, crumple, toss. The ball bounced off the top of the pile, which had now crested the top of the pit, and landed at her feet.
“Oh, please,” Jenn snapped. “Like the punks are the ones who taught me how to insult people, get into fights and hate myself. I learned all of that at home!” She’d gotten in enough verbal sparring matches with her mother to know what was coming before her mother did. Jenn’s arm shot up, blocking the blow and she wished any of the defensive moves she’d tried against Claire had come off that easily. “That’s what I’m talking about. Learn from the best,” she said, grabbing her things and exiting the car.
“GET BACK HERE!”
“Or what?” Jenn answered through the open car door. “You’ll try to hit me again?”
The bands had tightened to the point where Jenn couldn’t breathe, and shreds of anxiety and frustration fluttered around her like a thick black snow. She was trying to keep the pieces off of her, trying to stop them from burying her and as she walked across the parking lot she grabbed armfuls of it and forced them into the pit, packing it down with all her might.
There were sounds behind her now, sounds she knew were coming. A slamming door, running footsteps on the gravel, heavy angry breaths. And then there was a claw on her upper arm, digging into her flesh, and Jenn leaned back into the grab, pulled her mother to the side, and threw a solid left cross into her face.
From deep below Jenn’s heart there was a rumble like two stones the size of the universe grinding against each other and every negative emotion she’d ever tried to forget or ignore erupted up and out of the pit in a thick black flood of hate.
“You don’t fucking get it, do you?” she yelled at her mother. “All the sacrifices I’ve made, I made for you! Not because I thought they’d make me a better person, but because I was afraid of you and afraid of what it would do to dad if you and I fought! I dress like this for you! I live my life like this for you! I even gave up the company of the only people who loved and cared about me FOR YOU! I tossed away everything important to me so I wouldn’t rock the boat and upset a cruel, bitter, drunk bitch whose all-consuming control over her family was the only fucking thing she cared about! And now you’ve lost control over me. God help dad.”
They faced each other, neither making a move. Jenn could see the other kids had formed a line against the cars and were watching the proceedings. She couldn’t blame them. The wallflower got the crap kicked out of her in a fistfight and then proceeded to do the same thing to her mother. This was some legendary, epic shit, and Jenn didn’t want any part of it.
“I’ll be home later,” Jenn stated and walked toward the drainage ditch which marked the edge of the school’s property. She realized this was a golden opportunity for her mother to try and jump her, and the worst part was Jenn couldn’t decide whether she wanted that or not.
But her mother didn’t follow her and Jenn didn’t hear her walking away, so she assumed her mother just watched her leave. Jenn scrambled down the side of the ditch, leapt across the tiny creek in the bottom and ran up the far bank, pushing bushes and brambles out of the way to get at a hole in the chain link fence. She ducked through and followed a barely marked path around hedges and underbrush until she got to a clearing. Some partyers had left a few milk crates in a semi-circle along with a pile of empties. Sitting down on one of the milk crates, Jenn set her things next to her and rested her face in her hands prepared for whatever emotions needed to be let out.
No tears came.
She was surprised about that. Jenn lifted her head up and took a deep breath. She was definitely tense, but she didn’t need to cry. She was beyond crying.
Next, she took a look into the pit. The black ooze was still there, but it was subsiding, shrinking back into the depths. The bands around her chest had loosened and she felt like she’d be able to behave normally for a while… whatever normal was.
The anger Jenn felt toward her mother was still there, but it was muted, and some of it had been replaced by pity. The fear her mother instilled in her was gone, but she could still see the outline of the space it had occupied, a lurking reminder of what she’d lived with her entire life. She no longer felt the need to please her mother or to be the daughter her mother wanted her to be. Similarly, she no longer felt compelled to try to be the girl she thought the punks wanted her to be. Jenn was free to figure out exactly who she wanted to be on her own terms. She could wear what she wanted, go where she wanted, be friends with who she wanted and date who she wanted without fear of the consequences. There would be consequences, there was no doubt about that, but since she was no longer afraid of her mother, they didn’t matter nearly as much. Jenn was in a position where she was entirely in control of her own future. She felt lost, dizzy, and elated.
She still wanted to give Claire a savage beating, but some of the anger Jenn had for her had dissipated when she realized Claire was right. Not about everything, but definitely about Jenn not sticking up for Becky. Jenn had betrayed her without a single protest and sold her out the first chance she got. Even worse than that, she’d walked out of her best friend’s life a month ago without so much as a goodbye. Maybe Becky was a little bitchy today, but considering the way Jenn had treated her (and everyone at Lark Street), she had every right to be. Apologies and amends would have to be made.
Jenn got up, bent her legs and flexed her arms. She was sore, but that was nothing time wouldn’t fix. Certainly nothing worth seeking medical attention over. Good. Because if she wasn’t going to cry and didn’t need to go to the hospital, she needed to find a bus, ‘cause there were things she needed to do.
Before anything else happened, though, she needed to change. Jenn dug the clothes out of her bag and smiled.