Blend in. Stay quiet. Survive.
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The sound of an old bell echoes all around me as I stare at the school. It could have been built before my grandparents were ever even thought of. Two levels of solid weathered red brick with white columns around the arched main entrance are the only things standing between me and a fresh start—a fresh start that I want to run from.
“Honey, staring at it won’t make it go away,” my mother says through the passenger window, leaning from the driver’s seat of her beat-up faded green minivan that’s about one mile away from expiring. When we bought it, it was the only vehicle in our price range that was bigger than a skateboard.
I glance back at her as her eyebrows knit together. My mother has always been a pretty woman. Her shoulder-length blonde—now slightly grayer—hair frames a proportional face complete with steely blue eyes and a small, pointed nose. She has thin lips, with a few more wrinkles around her mouth and eyes than I care for, knowing I put them there.
“It will be okay, Fallon. We’ll make this work. I promise,” she says, trying to look reassuring. She sees the concern etched on my face.
I face the school, closing my eyes while I breathe in slowly. I hold it as I count to five before releasing it into the air along with the build-up of stress in my body.
“I have to go. I’ll see you here at four?” I hitch my bag up my shoulder, checking back with my mom.
“I’ll be waiting. Have a great first day. I love you,” she smiles, then rolls up the window before driving away.
I stare at the school again. My view from the sidewalk has my stomach in knots.
“It has to work out,” I say out loud to myself as I force my feet to move forward. “We’re out of options.”
The inside of the school is nothing like the outside. While the exterior is extremely outdated, the interior is entirely modern. The front lobby has marble floors and high ceilings. There is a statue of an old man off to the left, with a plaque inscribed with a name and the word “Founder” engraved underneath. To my right, there is a sign on a fancy stand that says “Main Office” in swirly letters with an arrow pointing towards a door not far from the entrance.
I step in front of the same door, staring at the words “Main Office” in frosted letters across the glass; it opens to a world I’m not sure about. It seems like I’m playing “What’s Behind the Door” a lot lately. Let’s hope I pick the right one this time.
Hoping it will calm my worried mind, I breathe in deeply. It doesn’t help, but I take the step anyway and grasp the handle. Just as I push, the door is pulled away from me. I fall forward, bracing myself for impact with the floor, but it never comes. Large hands grip me by the arms. I glance up to see who’s fortunate enough to catch me, but what I find are the most piercing dark eyes I have ever seen. They are almost black, but consumingly beautiful.
“Hey, you alright?” A deep, husky voice asks, jarring me from my swim in this stranger’s eyes. I find my footing and straighten myself, taking a step back from his steady hands. I get a good look at my hero. He can’t be much older than me. He has short, messy dark hair, a bar piercing through one of his bushy eyebrows, and a day’s worth of stubble over his strong chin. Looking at his body, I’d guess he plays some kind of sport. He isn’t too big, but his shoulders are broad, and his arms are defined. Black ink swirls over his knuckles, working its way up his forearm.
What else is hiding under his white shirt?
I bring my gaze back to his and swallow thickly, something in his swirling eyes pulls at me. Anger, or sadness? Maybe both?
I clear my throat, rasping out what I believe sounds like a yes.
“Ok, cool. So, can I . . .?” he says as he gestures towards the doorway I’m currently blocking, frozen in place.
“Oh! Yeah, sorry,” I shuffle to the side with fidgety hands, allowing him to pass, but my eyes betray me as they follow him until he disappears down a hallway.
“Excuse me, can I help you?” A raspy voice speaks from behind me, but it takes me a long minute to register that the voice is speaking to me.
I reluctantly turn away from the direction the boy went to meet the stare of an older woman with smoky-gray hair standing behind a chest-high counter. The prominent lines are the first thing I notice about her face. They appear earned, like the wisdom in her bones is worn proudly through lines of honor. But her weathered skin is pulled tight, almost like leather, likely from years of smoking.
“Yes, I’m Fallon Blake. I’m looking for a . . . Mrs. Tate?” I say as I quickly pull a sheet of paper out of the side pocket of my bag. It has all of the instructions I wrote down for my first day.
“That would be me, Miss Blake. I have your schedule and locker combination ready for you.” She grabs a folder with my name clearly labeled on the front.
“Your locker number is 159. Your combination is on the inside of the cover of your student handbook. I would advise reading the handbook entirely, as we have a full dress code and a strict plagiarism policy.” She takes a small booklet from the folder opening the front cover to show me the combination, then places it back in the folder as it was. She pulls out a few sheets of paper from the front pocket, placing them in front of me.
“This is your schedule. Your homeroom class is Art History with Coach Henry. His classroom is room 205, on the second level. At the end of the hallway take the stairs to the second floor. It will be on the left. There is a map here to help you get around to each class. We have an open lunch policy. You can leave the campus, but you are required to be back for the next class, or we will consider you skipping. Any questions?” she asks, as she neatly places all of the papers back into the folder with the student handbook. When I don’t answer right away, she peers up at me through her eyelashes, raising her eyebrows expectantly.
“No, thanks. I think I can manage.” I force out an answer, fighting through the flight response racing through my body.
“Well, good. Let me know if I can do anything for you. Your teacher is expecting you.” I take the folder and turn to leave, but midway to the door, Mrs. Tate calls out for me, making me pause.
“I must advise you, because of your previous . . . situation, to choose your company wisely,” she tells me nonchalantly—as if she didn’t just give me a cryptic warning ten minutes into my first day of school.
I go in search of my first class, finding it right where she directed me. My heart starts pounding in my chest when I reach the classroom door. I watch a short, stubby man standing at the front of the classroom through the glass pane in the door. He’s pointing to something on the board. It’s kind of ironic to me that a coach is on the heavier side.
I prepare myself to walk through the third life-changing door of the day. Again, I question if this is the right move for me.
With a sigh, I open the door and enter the class.
Like I have any other choice.