My attic is dusty and has a plethora of junk in it. I must say it's a fun place to hang out and look at what's rolling around in my head. If you don't mind the dust, I'd love to have you.
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Suicide is selfish.
It tells the world that you are weak. It tells the world your family and friends have failed. It leaves them with the guilt that they should have done more, but didn’t.
I am weak, but I am not selfish.
My suicide will not leave my loved ones with guilt and pain. It will leave them thankful that they knew me for the short time I was here. And when I reach my final goal, to meet my brother in Heaven, and we’re looking down at my victims in Hell, he will say to me, “Well done, Cosette.”
The crowd whispers as I walk through them. Their stares weigh me down, alerting me to my impending doom. Clicks of smart phones preparing to post my demise on-line echo in the hallway. It’s passing period and I just want to get to my next class with all my limbs intact. Every step away from Hilda is another step toward safety. If I can just make it to my desk, I’ll be able to breathe.
My heart pounds in my ears as the adrenaline kicks in. This fight is going to happen whether I like it or not. It’s hard to move when you know danger’s approaching. Hilda Dyson is slowly following me, snickering at me. I can hear her back there as her fingernails skim the fresh red paint of the old dinged-up lockers. She flicks each padlock making it rattle, warning me, taunting me. I hug my books, pretending they could somehow shield me from her. The bell is getting ready to ring but the students hang around to see my slaughter.
I know seven different ways to kill a person. My brother, Victor, taught me. What he didn’t teach me was the confidence I need to use them. I’m weak and I’m a coward, especially when it comes to Hilda. And Victor could never fix that for me.
A locker slams behind me and I jump. The gawking students snigger at me. Hilda’s blonde, beautiful, and cruel—and everyone knows I’m scared of her. My leggings are itchy and my rain boots feel heavy. They are slowing me down enough that I’m worried. Not about the beating; I can deal with the physical. It’s the psychological torture that terrifies me. Nothing’s happening and I’m already starting to tear up. My hands are shaking but I smile as I take off my glasses. If she’s going to hit my mouth, it will be her skin that gets cut on my braces. Expressions of pity from the students warn me that I don’t have a chance in Hell of escaping, much less winning.
I resign myself to it and lean over to put my books down. Before they hit the floor, Hilda grabs my hair and slams my head into the lockers. She throws me to the ground. I grab her ankles and yank. She lets out an oomph as her legs come out from underneath her. I swing wildly and finally land one on her lip. Rolling over, she jumps back up on the offense, kicking at me.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” the students yell as I’m getting my ass handed to me.
It isn’t a fight. It’s an attack—.a sneaky, dirty attack and I’m doing a horrible job of defending myself. My brother would be so disappointed that his military training was wasted on me.
Stumbling up, I get in a few good blows, but one knee to my stomach and I’m down again.
I’m making it too easy for her. What the Hell is wrong with me?
I try to curl up into a ball like Victor taught me, so I can roll over and pop my head up into her chin. I get into position and hold my breath. Squeezing my eyes and praying for courage, I get ready to jump but Hilda grabs my hair and rolls her hand in it, gaining complete control.
She shoves my face into the filthy carpet and laughs at me—she knows more about me than I want her to. I’m disgusted and humiliated. It has a smell, humiliation; it smells like musty sweat and old feet layered in dirty, grey Berber. I spin around and elbow her twice, then knee her in the thigh.
It hurts. I can see it in her face. Honestly, I hope it leaves a mark.
Thinking I have gained the upper hand, I hit again. The shot connects—just not with Hilda.
Shit! Ms. Lazelle.
Three teachers separate us. Mostly, they separate Hilda from me. Ms. Lazelle glares at me as she tugs. Her face is swelling. I’m going to pay for that. Locks of my long hair come out as the adults untangle me from Hilda’s arm. I’m getting better at fighting and I almost had a chance—right up until the point the teachers stopped it before I could turn the tide on Hilda, proving once again that I’m a loser.
The teachers march us single file into the front office. Hilda grins and spits blood onto the carpet. I slink hunched over, feeling the stares burning into the back of my head.
I hate my damn life!
“Thank-you for coming in Ms. Murphy.” Principal Peeler is smiling—nothing ever seems to bother him.
I hate him for it. It’s hard to respect a man that looks like Paul Bunyan in a suit.
“As I explained to you on the phone, your Cosette and Ms. Hilda Dyson have been fighting again,” Peeler says as he escorts my mom to his office.
Mom shoots me a you’re grounded glance as she passes me. I don’t care about being punished. I care about how much the icepack is burning my eyelid. My stomach aches as I glare at Hilda sitting across from me.
She hates me. I’m scared of her and she knows it.
From the corner of my good eye, I see her pull the icepack off of her lip.
At least I got one good shot in. The dried bits of blood in Hilda’s silky, blonde hair make me happy. Until I realize it’s probably my blood.
“I am so sorry, Mr. Peeler. Cosette knows not to fight. I’ve told her to stay away from those girls and to stop Facebooking them,” Mom says.
My fists clench and what’s left of my ragged nails dig into sweaty palms.
I don’t pick the fights, they pick me. My leaving Hilda alone isn’t the problem.
“I understand, Ms. Murphy. We all can see that Cosette has changed since your divorce and the loss of her brother, Victor. Without Victor around, she needs guidance. That’s why I am putting her on a new program. Cosette is smart but she needs something to focus on.”
Oh great, why not make me more of an outcast? I just want to be like everybody else. Just let me make it through Christmas break and start over in January.
“What type of program are you suggesting?” Mom pencil-twists her long, brown hair into a bun, exactly like mine. If it wasn’t for my braces and the age gap, we could be twins. I look nothing like my dad.
“I don’t have a lot of time, Mr. Peeler. I’m always on call. Two nurses quit this week and I’m covering their shifts.”
News to me, sounds like I’m stuck making dinner again. Cooking has become my new hobby.
I glance past the icepack at Hilda. She’s straining to listen to their conversation.
I don’t want her to know I’m always alone. I have no idea what she’s really capable of and it’s terrifying.
“This program is for our gifted students to help kids who are struggling. Since Cosette is a junior with straight A’s in the accelerated classes, she qualifies. She will be tutoring a freshman. The program begins in January, after school on Thursdays, so it shouldn’t interfere with her cross country schedule. I assume she’ll be running again this year. I have asked Hilda’s father to give permission too. There will be a counselor there for both of them—just in case. If we could just get these two to work together, I think they could be great friends.”
Are you kidding me? I think I’m going to be sick. I really think I’m going to puke right here.
Hilda’s eyes dart up at me. I look down but not fast enough. She heard everything and she caught the blood draining from my face.
Great friends? Really? I can buy her the entire line of Red Bottom shoes or every Prada purse in the world and she would still hate me. There is no hope. This is a death trap—a slow, grinding, death trap.
“Hilda?” her dad calls out as he barges into the front office.
Wow. Her dad is huge. And angry. He should be angry, she’s horrible! I hope she gets beat for…
“Are you the one who’s picking on my daughter?” He barrels at me with his finger out, until it’s in my face. “You stay away from my little girl or I’ll…”
My stomach wrenches and I dart into Principal Peeler’s office. Mrs. Hurley, the secretary, has to jump up from her desk to step in front of Hilda’s dad.
“Miss Cosette Hugo, I have not called you in yet.” Peeler’s voice is soft and patient. “Your mother and I are not finished here. If you will please step back out so the adults can continue.”
Peeler’s gonna snap one day. No one can stay that calm all the time.
Fear takes my voice and prevents anything resembling obedience. I sit down in the nearest chair and ignore everything he just said. Peeler can deal with it.
Mrs. Hurley comes in with Hilda’s dad. I swallow hard. “Mr. Dyson is here to see you.”
“Great.” Mr. Peeler smiles like we’re at a wedding instead of my funeral. “Come on in. Might as well call in Hilda too. Hilda, will you please join us?”
I am trapped. The air is being sucked out of my lungs. I’m stuck in this filthy office with these horrible people. And it isn’t helping that the office is stuffy and outdated or that the navy and maroon, paisley wallpaper makes me dizzy.
Glass shelves hold dead plants and crappy gifts his students have given him. A thick layer of dust coats the certificates and plaques that line the walls that are closing in on me. They’re as dusty as Peeler.
I can’t breathe.
“Mr. Dyson, we understand you are upset, but girls will be girls.” Peeler chuckles. “And we are figuring out a way for these two to work out their differences. Do you give Hilda permission to join the tutor program I called you about? If these girls can get to know each other then there should be no more bullying.”
“Damn straight. There better not be!” Mr. Dyson is turning slightly purple. I’m still trying to figure out what the Hell is going on.
Is he talking about me? Does he think I’m the one who’s bullying Hilda? Does he not live in the same house with her?
Hilda looks at me, then turns to her dad, and bats her eyelashes. He puts his arm around her in a comforting hug.
Daddy’s little girl.
“No need for that language, Mr. Dyson.” Mom shifts in the faded leather chair. “And my Cosette’s eye tells me that she’s the one being bullied.”
Wow, my mom stood up for me.
“Yeah? Well my Hilda’s lip tells me otherwise.” Mr. Dyson sneers at Mom.
Principal Peeler stands up and smiles. “Now, now, everyone. The adults here need to set a prime example of how to work together for the benefit of these girls.”
He grabs a pile of paper-stuffed folders and plops them on the floor. A cloud of dust rises. I squint my eyes at Mom and hold my breath. As the dust settles, I force some air into my lungs. Peeler lays two forms on his cluttered desk for everyone to sign and says, “Do you give permission? Thursdays starting in January?” Hilda’s dad nods and scribbles his name, then slides the paper to Hilda. Her signature is big and bubbly and she dotted her I with a heart. My mom rolls her eyes at me as she’s signing our form. I’m shaking so bad my name has a large C and a wavy line after it. Peeler takes both papers and frowns at my illegible signature. He smiles and thanks us as if it was voluntary.
I really hate this man.
I shuffle silently to the Camry. When my seatbelt clicks into place, I bust out crying. “I didn’t do anything, Mom. I don’t know why she hates me. She and her stupid cheerleader friends are so mean. They shove me into the lockers whenever I walk by. They pull my hair and hit my books down. Please don’t make me do the tutor thing! Mom, please?”
“That’s enough! You are acting like a five-year-old on the playground.” Her voice gets deeper and more forceful with each word. “We’ve been through this before. I got called out of work to come to pick you up and now you’re acting like this? If you don’t want to be picked on, then stand up for yourself. Honestly, Cozy, do I have to send you to your dad’s?”
Yeah, like that’s gonna help. He barely remembers my name and I’ll have to babysit on top of that.
“No, Mom.” I sit back, fold my arms, then shift my body to face the frosty window. “Dad doesn’t want to see me anyway. He can’t help.”
No one can help. I’m worn out.
She sighs her frustrated, disappointed sigh. “I’m sorry, Cosette, but this has to stop. We’ve been through this before with the other girls. This is the second time this year.”
“She’s the same girl, Mom. And this is the fourth time this year.” And I lost all four of them.
My mom is clueless. She works too hard and zombies through every aspect of her life, including me. My brother was so independent. Maybe I’m so needy that she doesn’t get me. I hate feeling alone. I love her. I just wish she would open her eyes.
“There’s only so much I can do, Cozy. I have to make up for this shift so I won’t be home ‘til midnight. Do you want me to drop you off at home or Three J’s?” This is her way of passively making me feel better.
“Three J’s. I’ll get a ride home from Mattie.”
Mattie runs up and holds the door open with her foot. Balancing a tray of cappuccinos, she kisses my cheek. “Your chair’s open, Cozy, I’ll get there in a second.”
Mattie, born Matilda Daniels, is my best friend. Her parents, Lucy and Mike, own the Jitter Jungle Java Café—Three J’s for short. Mattie’s a senior this year and she’s waiting for the official acceptance letter to go to the Air Force Academy after graduation. For now, she’s serving coffee at her parent’s café.
Walking to the back side of the fireplace that splits the seating area in half, I tuck bamboo chairs under the mahogany tables as I go.
It’s like I work here too. Even if it wasn’t Mattie’s, this would still be my favorite hangout.
Overhead, a blanket of tiny, blinking lights cover the cafe’s black ceiling. They twinkle like the night sky and illuminate the hanging vines. The walls, rich with orange, forest green, and plum tones, leave me expecting to hear wild animal sounds coming from them.
I feel warm and invited when I’m here.
Lucy glides in my direction. “Hold on, Cosette, I just Febreezed your chair.” She flips the round papasan cushion to the dry side and gently pushes me into its comfortable folds.
“Thanks, Miss Lucy,” I say. She frowns at me, inspecting my eye.
“It looks worse than it feels,” I lie.
“I’ll get some ice anyway. Here, get comfortable.” She pushes a small table next to my seat and puts my book bag on it. I yank off my rain boots, drop them on the floor, and cross my legs up on the chair.
Mike takes an empty tray from Mattie and hands her an icepack for me. She reaches up and ties her wavy brown hair into a short ponytail then maneuvers her body to block my view of Mike. He leans around to look at me, then steps back, blocking my view again. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I grimace at the thought of being the subject of any conversation.
As they talk about me, I watch Mattie.
She’s athletic and pretty and one of the popular seniors. Mattie can have anything she wants. Still, with all that going for her, she chooses to slum it with me. You would think that since my best friend rules the in-crowd, that I would be off limits to Hilda, but Mattie’s humble and doesn’t see herself that way. She thinks Hilda’s jealous and that’s why she’s so mean to me.
“Is it Hilda again?” Mattie’s voice is soft and concerned.
I blink, trying to suck back the tears. She squeezes in the chair with me and hugs me. I let it all out.
“Mr. Peeler, I hate him. He wants me to tutor some freshmen on Thursdays. With Hilda! He thinks it will make us good friends.” I shift backward in my seat and wipe my eyes, forgetting how much the left one hurts. I cringe.
“Maybe it will work.” Mattie mocks a jealous face. “Maybe you’ll leave me. I’ll lose my bestest friend. To Hilda. Maybe, maybe…” She flings her arms around my shoulders, blubbering, and faking a cry. She always knows how to make me laugh.
I snicker at her. “Stop it you dork. It will never happen. Besides you’re going to leave me first.”
“True, very true. But my bosses will be missing me dearly and they will need a replacement daughter. Will you take responsibility and fill the void? Will you stand in the gap, rise up, and fill your destiny?” Mattie stands up, waving her arms, over-dramatizing them for humor. “Will you…”
“Matilda! Order up!” Mike dings a bell and yells for Mattie, taking preventative measures.
“Thank-you,” I mouth. He winks at me, then covers that eye, and winks at me with the other one.
This is where Mattie gets her sense of humor from.
They are the family I wish I had.
They are the family I did have, when Victor was alive.
When my brother came back from Iraq, our lives were perfect. I was thirteen and happy. My parents were together. We had a beautiful home with a nice pool and my mom only worked when I was at school. She painted murals for rich people, like those useless politicians who came to my brother’s funeral. Victor came back a hero and the town celebrated him. But then the crash…
“Cozy, Honey, do you want me to turn on the fire? It’s getting chilly.” Miss Lucy turns it on without waiting for a response. I smile.
The fire is perfect even though it’s gas and doesn’t have the burning wood smell. It gives great ambiance.
“Do you want dinner? Mr. Mike made chicken noodle soup and you know how good it is,” she says.
I nod yes and close my eyes, trying to make this moment last a little longer.
My life is perfect here. At Three J’s, I can get lost and forget all about my reality. The only time I think about my future is when I’m in this chair. I have no set goals and no clue what I want to do with my life. But that’s okay, I’m only a junior. There’s plenty of time and at Three J’s I’m safe and relaxed enough to think about it.
Mattie’s smart—she know exactly what she want to do with her life. She wants to be an aerospace engineer and she can achieve it in her sleep almost. I think she’s destined for it. Her parents met in the Air Force and she grew up with patriotism and honor. They’ve been to every Memorial Day parade, every Veteran’s Day service.
The day I met Mattie, Victor had come home from the war. Her mom and a few members from their church made signs and balloons to welcome back the troops. They did this every time a service member came back—dead or alive.
Mattie had been crying the day I met her. I didn’t understand why; it wasn’t her brother coming home. She shook each Airman’s hand, whispering kind words. When she got to Victor, she told him how proud she was of him, then thanked him for his service. It was strange to me. Normal girls didn’t act like that.
Mattie smiled at me and gave me a balloon. At the time, I thought she had extra. On the drive home, Victor told us that two guys from his unit didn’t come back. I still have that deflated balloon in honor of them. And I still see Mattie as the kindest person I know.
Mike calls Mattie back to the counter for another food pick-up. It startles me out of my flashback. She looks back at me and raises an eyebrow. I shake my head and lower my eyes to the floor. I can feel her bright brown eyes burning a hole into the top of my head. Mattie is so sure of herself, but not so sure about me right now.
I wish I was like her—strong and confident enough to be able to worry about someone else besides myself. There are lots of girls out there like me. Cowards mostly. I know there are. We just want to be left alone to do our thing and we don’t want attention. Don’t look at us, don’t talk about us. Just leave us alone. But not Mattie. She’s unique.
My phone buzzes on the table and my message light begins to blink. I have no intention of logging in to Facebook to see my slaughter through the lens of every camera phone at Jeffersonville High. I’m sure Hilda is commenting on every post. I punch the power button with my finger and shut the phone off.
I drop my head so my hair curtains my face. My eyes scan my history book. There are fresh tears in between the words on the page. The Louisiana Purchase is wet and messy and I can’t remember a word. I slam the book shut.
Lucy interrupts my hissy fit and kisses my head like a good mom would. She’s whispering something encouraging, I’m sure, but I can’t hear. She sneaks a napkin in through my parted hair so I can wipe my eyes in private.
Mattie joins us, bringing the aroma of Mr. Mike’s chicken noodle soup with her. She makes a part in my draped hair and swirls the soup under my nose, goading me to eat. It smells like it can fix anything, but my appetite is gone. And nothing can fix my life. Out of respect for them, I eat it anyway, feeling slightly better because of it.
I peek up at Mattie through my part. Lucy wanders back to the kitchen now that reinforcements have arrived. “Mattie, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have to figure out how to get out of this tutoring thing. January is three weeks away and working with Hilda will make me more miserable than I already am.”
“Well let’s not freak out until then.” She pulls my hair back and secures it with a cloth napkin ring so she can see my face. “Let’s have a good Christmas break. Just four more days. As I’ve suggested many times before, I can have a word with Hilda. She used to be normal, before her whole jealous of Cozy thing. I can still pull her fingernails off for you.”
“That is the sweetest thing you have ever offered. But no, my problems aren’t going to be the reason you don’t go to the academy. We can’t have a criminal in the ranks. And she’s not jealous of me. What does she have to be jealous of?”
“Cozy, I love you, you stupid, stupid girl. You have no idea what others see in you.”
I frown. The others can’t see me. I’ll never let them. I’m glad they can’t see the pure hate I’m feeling for Hilda right now. Mattie kisses my forehead and disappears back to the kitchen to clean up while I dream of unusual ways to kill Hilda.
Truthfully, I don’t want Hilda dead, I just want her to hurt like I do. Not just physically either. I want her gut to wrench every time an enemy walks by. I want her scared whenever she hears girls giggling and talking behind her back. I want her to know that hollow, sinking feeling I get when my life is imploding around me or when someone that doesn’t even know me, goes out of her way to make things worse. Unfortunately, Mattie cannot be the one to hurt Hilda. And after today’s showing, neither can I.
I despise myself for being so weak. I hate this life. I’m done living in it.
My thoughts swirl as I stare at the fire and wait for the Daniels to close up so I can go home and cry by myself.
“Thank-you, Lord, for this prosperous day.” Miss Lucy speaks up to the sky as we walk to the car.
I guess God gave them a good day. Maybe He was too busy helping them out to notice my problem. It doesn’t matter, I would rather see the Daniels happy than anyone else. They actually deserve it.
Mattie’s car is a restored, light blue AMC Pacer with dark tinted windows. Jeffersonville, Indiana summers get hot—so hot that tint on a car made of eighty percent window is a necessity. The winters are a damp cold, making the heater even more of a necessity than the tint. And Mattie’s Little P has super-hot heat that warms me all the way through.
“Thanks for the ride home. I could have run. I might do that later anyway.” I climb out of Little P, zipping my jacket up against the wind.
“No, Cozy, it’s too dark out. Wait ’til morning when it’s safer—or after school. If you don’t have another scheduled meeting with Principal Paul Bunyan in the morning, that is.”
“Funny, Mattie. I’ll see you tomorrow. Just four more days.”
I’m trying to reassure myself, not her. And I’ll probably run anyway, despite Mattie’s wishes. Running is my release. When I run, I’m a real person. When I run, I want to stay alive. Sometimes if I can’t sleep, I’ll go out for a mile or two just to calm my brain. If I could run every minute of every day, I would be happy.
Mattie drives off as I open the front door. I hesitate to go inside.
We live in a boring, two bedroom, three shades of tan apartment. After the color and excitement of Three J’s, it’s even more boring—if that were even possible. We need a pet. Or at least someone to tell my mom it’s okay to use color again.
After the divorce she went drab. My dad kept everything and my mom yard-saled to compensate. She bought every beige thing she could find. I think maybe somewhere in her head, she equated bland with safe.
It’s dark and our place is lonely when Mom works late. She’s gone a lot and when she’s home, she’s sleeping or in transit or just unplugged. It’s definitely better than her not being here at all but still, I hate coming home to empty. A dog, now a dog would make a good pet. Hell, even a fish would be better than the lonely beige. I drop my book bag at the door and head straight for the bathroom. Starting the tub, I climb in before it’s filled an inch. Just like running, and my chair at Three J’s, my bath is safe. Like Mom’s beige. After Victor died, I spent four to six hours a day pruning and thinking in my bath. Not all in one sitting—the water gets too cold.
Running water drowns out my tears while I hug my knees and wait for it to rise. No one can hear me cry in here, but I close the shower curtain anyway. Some people crawl in bed, some have a recliner, I have a tub.
I towel off, throw on my robe, and put split-end smoother in my hair. It’s the only way to keep my super-long, super-boring hair from getting too much static. Maybe I should feel around for bald spots where Hilda pulled out my hair. I skip it. That’s too depressing.
I blink my eye at the mirror, pulling on it, inspecting it. It doesn’t look too bad. It’s nothing a little makeup can’t cover. I head for my bedroom, throw the towel over a chair, and set my Happy Face alarm clock a few minutes early so I have extra time to cover the bruise.
I frown at the happy face on the clock. He’s mocking me. I turn my back to him then frown at my laptop, wondering if I dare check my Facebook. I still have no idea what Hilda posted since I shut off my phone. But I can imagine. I close the laptop lid, without checking. I’ll never sleep if I look. Then again, there’s a chance I won’t sleep anyway.
Tuesdays at school usually fly by, especially with Christmas break closing in. Art is first period and I’ve been working for months on a scarf for my mom. The scarf is more decorative than functional with its intricate Celtic pattern, my mom will love it. She has to, she’s Irish. She was born Celeste Murphy—until she married my German father and got stuck with Hugo.
Mom got pregnant at sixteen so she didn’t really get to be a teenager. My parents met when Les Miserables was touring America and their high school class went to see the musical as a field trip. They started dating and ten months later, my brother came. They commemorated their meeting by naming us Victor and Cosette. Cosette is a character from Les Mis and written by Victor Hugo. I refuse to see it. Now that they’re divorced, she gets to be a Murphy again while I have to explain my Hugo name to everyone.
Trying not to think of my life, I focus on my painted scarf. It’s good. I fold it carefully and lay it in a small shirt box.
My art teacher, Mrs. Iris, interrupts me. “Cozy, I already graded your scarf. It’s beautiful. I would really like it for the district art competition.”
“Thank-you, Mrs. Iris, but it’s a Christmas gift for my mom.” I close the lid and push it away from her.
“I’m sure it will make a great gift.” Her lanky over-tanned hands reach for it. “Couldn’t you make her something else? We have never gotten less than third place in state and I know this is a winner.”
She opens the box and softly touches the silk. I cringe at the germs she’s leaving. What part of Christmas gift doesn’t she understand? The competition runs until January. Why can’t she just give me my A and pick someone else? I have nothing else to give my mom. Of course I have nothing to give my dad either, but that’s no big deal. For my birthday, my dad gave me a Wal-Mart gift card for fifteen bucks. For his fake blonde, high-maintenance, trophy wife’s birthday, he bought her new boobs and a treadmill with a flat screen T.V.
But am I jealous? Hell yeah.
“Mrs. Iris, I only have this one gift for my mom. I can paint something else for the competition. I would be more than happy to stay in here for the rest of the day and work on it.”
Please, oh please, let me hide out in the art room. Anything to avoid Hilda for the rest of the day. Nothing would make me happier than to get lost in oil paints and turpentine.
“Let me call Mr. Jarvis and see.” Her eyes light up when she mentions his name. Her too long, hot pink fingernails can barely dial the assistant principal’s extension. Mrs. Iris spends way too much time and money at the salon and tanning bed. Her attempt to keep her youth is a waste, especially if it’s for Mr. Jarvis. I wonder if Mrs. Iris’s husband finds leather skin attractive.
Mr. Jarvis doesn’t answer, most likely because he knows who’s calling. I like Mr. Jarvis, he’s very good-looking for an older guy. His red-brown hair and bright white teeth are kind of cute. He smiles a lot, particularly at the female students. Mrs. Iris may be the same age, but she looks too old for him. My Mattie however, is Mr. Jarvis’s type. And she likes him. Too bad the student-teacher thing is so problematic.
“Actually, Cosette, let’s walk on down to his office so I can show him your work.” Mrs. Iris takes the scarf, using me as her excuse to see him. Disgusting.
“Miss Cosette Hugo, what brings you in?” Principal Peeler asks, scratching his beard. “Are you excited about the tutor program?”
Yeah, that’s it. Mrs. Iris looks around for Mr. Jarvis. She frowns when she doesn’t find him. Sighing, she hands Principal Peeler my scarf. “Mr. Peeler, look at Cosette’s beautiful artwork. I think it would be a great entry in the district art show.”
He yanks it open and tosses the lid on his desk, then he roughly pulls out my delicate creation. Might as well be toilet paper the way he’s handling it.
I have to speak fast. “Mr. Peeler, please, it’s a Christmas gift for my mom and I worked hard on it. I can stay and paint something else for the competition. Anything you want. Just let me have this for my mom. It’s her only gift.”
Mr. Peeler flashes his politician’s smile. “Oh, Miss Hugo, this won’t be her only gift.” He presses a button on the phone for the secretary. “Mrs. Hurley, please get Ms. Murphy on the phone.”
“Cosette, I think a great gift for your mom would be the honor of her daughter winning the competition.”
“What? Are you kidding me?” I try to protest, but Mrs. Iris pushes me into a cracked leather chair, shushing me with her twig finger pressed to her collagen-injected lips.
“Ms. Murphy’s on line one.” Mrs. Hurley’s timing cut off my next round of protests.
“Ms. Murphy, this is Principal Peeler. I have Cosette in my office here… No, no, everything is fine, no need to come in. I just wanted to let you know that she made the most beautiful Christmas gift for you. We would like to enter it in our district art competition. If she wins, she will move on to state where the prize is a ten thousand dollar scholarship for her and a ten thousand dollar check for the school.”
I hate my principal. He is ruining our Christmas—for a stupid competition. Of course she’s going to say yes, he’s manipulating her.
“Yes, Ms. Murphy, it is that good. I think it could go all the way to nationals… I understand… Yes, you will get it after the blue ribbon is rewarded… Well consider this your Christmas gift. Not only did she paint you a beautiful scarf, but now you have the honor of it being displayed at the city courthouse.”
Asshole! He just told her what it is! Even if she says no, I still have no surprise for her on Christmas morning. Frickin’ lumberjack. I hate this man!
I can’t take much more of this life. Every turn I take, things just get worse. I’m ready for it to be over.
“…Yes, Ms. Murphy? Yes? Thank-you so much. You should be proud of your Cosette. She will make this school proud.” He hangs up.
I have nothing.
I have nothing to look forward to. I have no gift for my mom and I can’t hide out in the art room. Mrs. Iris is beaming. She’s ruining my Christmas and she’s happy.
Her pink fingernails point toward the outer office. “Cosette, see Mrs. Hurley about your picture for the competition.”
Mrs. Hurley gives me a grimace coupled with a sympathetic nod. She tells Mrs. Iris that she’ll take care of me then sends her back to her class.
“Cosette, I’m sorry the way this played out.” Mrs. Hurley is sweet and round, like the kind of woman you want as your grandma. “Do you want me to give you time to fix yourself up for the picture?”
“No.” I hold the empty box a little too tightly. Blinking the tears back, I take a deep breath. Slowly, I blow it out through my quivering lips.
This week is horrible. Monday I get beat up—again. Now today I have this. What is Wednesday going to be like? I could care less about a competition picture, especially one with a black eye in it.
Mrs. Hurley tries to fluff up my hair. My thick, straight strands refuse to comply, even for Mrs. Hurley. She gives up on the fluffing but not on me.
“Here, let’s at least do a bit of selective placement.” She takes off my glasses and pulls a few strands of hair down in front of my eye to hide it. “Now tilt your head down, but look up at me with your beautiful brown eyes. This way, the hair will hide the bruise. It will look like a shadow. And whatever you do, Cosette, don’t smile or it will look like a mug shot.”
Easy enough, I don’t feel like smiling.
“I want you to give me a serious, thoughtful look that says, ‘I am so into my art that I have nothing else’.” Mrs. Hurley acts it out.
It makes me laugh. She puts a hand on her hip and wags a finger at me. “I said no smiling.”
I tilt my head down and look up at her with my eyes. The flash makes me recoil.
“Well at least something about this is going to be perfect.”
Mrs. Hurley ignores my spastic blinking and shows me the camera screen. “Wow. I am good. Nice picture.”
I nod, giving my pupils a few extra seconds to dilate back to normal. Mrs. Hurley puts a hand on mine. “Cozy, I want you to know, there are some of us who really do care about kids. We understand that not everything is about test scores, game points, or blue ribbons. Hang in there sweetie, life begins after high school.”
I decide not to tell her that Victor might disagree with her. Instead, I flip my hair out of my face, put on my glasses, and breathe. I step out into the hall to continue my day, anxious for lunch. It’s the only time I see Mattie and she knows how to make me feel better.
The lunch room is filling up with people. I plop down at our table and hand Chris my fries, trying not to drool on him. It’s not just that he’s hot, he’s funny too. I’m a sucker for tall, pale, and hilarious. Too bad the only thing he likes about me is my lunch.
Mattie’s friends start gathering. I pretend to concentrate on my food, avoiding the small talk. The Reds approach. I glance up through the part in my hair. Decker and Rose fascinate me. Rose steps in front of Decker to clear a place at the table for him to sit. He takes the chair arrogantly and begins to eat while Rose settles in next to him and across from me. I adjust in my seat and enjoy the view. I like staring at them, especially her.
The Reds are both drop-dead gorgeous just like everyone at Mattie’s table. Well, everyone but me. I’m not ugly— just average. Rose is gorgeous enough for the both of us though. She’s like a stunning, red-headed version of Marilyn Monroe. It’s hard to look away from her, unless she’s with Decker. She’s like his puppy, always following him, always obedient. Sometimes, it’s a little less than attractive.
There’s safety in numbers and Mattie’s got plenty of friends. They’re nice to me—for Mattie. We probably wouldn’t even talk if it wasn’t for her. They are all seniors, except for Rose and her best friend Shelby. The rest are juniors like me. Shelby has a little sister, Sierra. She’s the only sophomore in the group. I couldn’t call up and hang out with any of them. I think they would be bored with me. Sometimes I’m bored with me.
Mattie and Paige finally show up. They’re talking loudly, obviously ignoring me.
“So, Paige, what was it that you heard?” Mattie’s eyes widen with curiosity. She’s being melodramatic.
“I heard that Mrs. Iris picked out the piece for the junior’s division for the competition and that someone was very jealous.” Paige flashes a smug grin.
“Really Paige? Well I heard that another junior wanted to be asked for her painted birdhouse, but apparently there was a silk scarf of much higher quality getting all the attention.” Mattie moves next to me, but continues to face Paige, ignoring me playfully.
“Yes, Mattie, this birdhouse girl was told by her former friend, namely me, that that’s what she deserves for treating people so badly.” Paige shoves a green bean in her mouth and keeps on talking. “What goes around comes around.”
I blink mutely. What is there to say? Thank-you Paige for putting Hilda in her place? I wish Mrs. Iris did pick Hilda’s birdhouse.
“Thanks, guys. But that was my mom’s Christmas gift and now I have nothing to give her. Not only that, but Mr. Lumberjackass Peeler called Mom and told her what it was. So even if she didn’t give him permission, he still spoiled the surprise. At least Mrs. Hurley was able to hide my eye for the competition picture. Doesn’t look too bad, does it?”
“I think you’re beautiful,” Chris says as he shoves another fry in his face. He’s staring at me like he wants me to be the fry. I shudder a bit—in a good way.
Mattie’s been saying that Chris has a crush on me and that’s why Hilda hates me, but I don’t see it. I think he just blurts things out for attention. He can’t be serious, although he certainly gets my attention.
“You’re only saying that because she gives you fries, and you think she’s hot.” Mattie grins at me.
“That’s exactly why I’m saying it, and Cozy,” he says as he points a fry at me, “if you want me to take you to the mall to get your mom a gift, I’ll drive you.” He eats the fry then presses his finger in the leftover salt and sucks on it. I stare at his lips.
Mattie shoves him. “I’ll take her. You can go wash your hands.”
Chris gets up. “Just call me anytime you need retail therapy.” He tosses his shaggy, brown hair out of his hazel, long, eyelashy eyes.
He is too cute and he’s as fair skinned as I am. If we have kids, they’ll be translucent.
“I couldn’t do that to you, Chris, but thanks.” I stare at my lunch. Why didn’t I just say yes?
“Anytime.” He takes his tray and leaves for the gym. Chris always stretches before his class. Last year, he took third at state in gymnastics. This year he vows first. I suspect it’ll be easy for him.
Paige adjusts her headband, pushing her short curly blonde hair away from her face. “Seriously, Cozy, it’s awesome that your scarf is in the competition. I mean, it does suck that Peeler ruined the surprise, but you have to have some serious talent to be picked for that thing. You should be happy.”
Paige Keller, the ever-optimist is two years older than me and see’s the silver-lining everywhere. Freshman year, they held her back after her parents moved her back to America. They were missionaries in Senegal. When they came back, Paige’s education credits didn’t apply. If that happened to me, I would be mad. Not Paige though, she’s very mature about the whole thing.
“Okay Paige. I’ll admit I’m a bit happy. It won’t last long though. Now Hilda’s going to make things worse because she didn’t get picked and I did. I just want Christmas vacation to start soon. Maybe I can salvage it and make something for my mom while she’s at work. I should have plenty of time, she’s always there.”
I hate sounding so whiny and weak.
Beautiful Rose smiles at me. “There you go, make the most out of this crappy situation.”
“Screw that!” Decker snaps. “I would take the scarf, give it to your mom, and tell them you want Hilda to be in the competition. Let her fall on her face.” He never holds back his Irish temper.
“Decker!” Rose says.
“What? If you girls were really Cozy’s friend, you would teach her how to stand up for herself, give her some self-confidence. She’s like a wet noodle.” Decker stands up, his light-green eyes go cold, and glare disappointment. Rose follows him out, mouthing her apologies.
“He didn’t mean it.” Paige lies.
“Yes he did, and he’s right. I gotta go.” I pick up my tray to throw away my uneaten lunch.
The apartment is empty, but I still say hello to my non-existent dog. I just need something to acknowledge that I’m here, otherwise why bother being here? Of course the dog doesn’t respond, so plan B it is. Nothing left but the T.V. to talk to me. I turn it on and watch the local news. More reports on the serial rapist-murderer. His latest attack was in downtown Louisville, the one before that was downtown Jeffersonville. I hit the power button on the remote. The creep only likes pretty girls that are blonde so I’m safe on both counts.
Homework is easy and my granola bar is tasteless. Thanks to my shitty day, nothing’s gonna satisfy me. I need a run to snap out of this. Seeing Mattie tonight will help too. Three J’s café is the turnaround point of my nightly run. Every night, I stop for some orange juice then run back. Lucy always urges me to stay so she can drive me home. I just never take her up on it.
I braid my hair carefully and wrap it up under my knitted cap. Normally I wear all black, but it gets dark early in the winter. I settle on black sweats with a more visible red hoodie. A smile creeps over me as I tie my shoes, stretch, and think about Chris and how flexible he probably is. Then I grunt myself back to my pathetic reality, jog out the front door, and find my stride before I get to the end of the street.
When I am out, my heart is pumping and I am breathing the frigid air. I feel perfect. And I don’t care how cold it is outside. Nothing can touch me. No one can laugh at me. It’s my own little world, a safe bubble that surrounds me as I go.
My pace is good. There’s a smooth rhythm to it as I pass the full gas station. I smile and wave at the shivering patrons without slowing. With my black cap, glasses, and hair up, I bet I look like a man to them. Since I’m a small B cup in the breast department, I’m sure I look like a scrawny man at that.
The sun has just set giving my brother’s cemetery a soft, blue glow. It’s beautiful, but I don’t linger. I pass a few more businesses then reach the hospital parking lot. I find Mom’s car and kiss her window, leaving a lip-gloss print so she knows I’m thinking about her. On the way home, I’ll kiss the other side so she knows I’m safe.
The coldness of the window under my hot breath leaves a foggy circle that extends itself to my glasses. I feel flushed and have to drop my hoodie. I run the rest of the way to Three J’s enjoying the cold air on my neck.
Mattie opens the front door, just as I arrive, and I run right through it. We giggle at our perfect timing.
I slow down, raise my arms, and pace around a table next to the kitchen and away from the customers. Mattie pulls a chair out for me to use as a stretch prop then pours me a glass of juice. She beams at me while I chug. I cock my head and set the glass down. She’s up to something.
“Cozy, I have a gift for you. Starting this Thursday, we’re taking self-defense classes at the Y.M.C.A. together. I already paid for a two month membership, so don’t tell me no. Since you won’t let me take Hilda out for you, I figure you should learn to do it yourself. Teach her a lesson even. Whaddya say?”
“I don’t know. Uh thanks? You’re gonna be there with me right? I won’t have to take it alone?”
“Of course I’ll be there. It’s free to all our members because of the increase in attacks. I know Victor taught you a lot, but it might be good to have a refresher course—especially since you only run the Pike.”
I like Hamburg Pike. It connects most of my universe. The road runs from my neighborhood to the cemetery, to my mom’s hospital, then to Three J’s in downtown Jeffersonville. And the Y is on the same road, so it will be easy.
“Oh, Cozy, it would be wonderful for you to take that class.” Lucy jumps on team Mattie as she hands her a homemade, flower-print apron. “I am always praying for you when you leave here. I know God can protect you, but it would help Him out if you were a little more armed. And a few prayers from you wouldn’t hurt either. He won’t go where He’s not invited.”
Mattie’s family goes to church a lot. I’ve tried to go, but their pastor is hard to understand. Mattie’s uncle says it’s not a church for beginners—maybe that’s why I don’t get it.
Last time I went to church with Mattie, the pastor talked about how people can deny Hell all they want, but it still exists. That I understood, even if I didn’t appreciate it much. Mattie took me with her one Sunday, right after my brother was killed in the car accident. She was trying to make me feel better. It was bad timing and made me feel worse.
I didn’t want to think about Hell. I only wanted to think about my brother looking down from Heaven and smiling, waiting for me to come up to see him. I did get one thing out of the whole experience though. I realized the guy who killed my brother couldn’t text and drive in Hell. I also realized what a bad person I was for being happy about it.
I take the final gulp of juice and hand Mattie my glass. She opens the door for me. It’s completely dark and the temperature has dropped at least ten degrees. I smile and yank the braid out of my hair, looking forward to the dark aloneness of the weather. Mattie hands me my gloves and Lucy follows us outside.
“So, Thursday night at the Y, okay?” Mattie’s afraid I’ll back out.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there. I’ll run up to the Y, we’ll take class, then I’ll finish my run after. No problem.”
“Cozy,” Lucy adjusts my hat, “be careful out there. It’s getting dangerous. If you get spooked, run into a business, and call us.” Her warm hands hold my face.
“I’m fine. I’ve been running for years.”
“Sorry. Just being a mom.” Her warm lips kiss my forehead.
Mike and Lucy are like my parents. I think they are trying to pick up the slack since my mom is too busy and my dad isn’t really my dad anymore. I’m fatherless. I appreciate what they do, but I don’t need it. I just need my mom, but she just needs work. So I deal with it.
Lucy and my mom say the same thing about my father. That I remind him of Victor and he can’t handle it. Lucy says a lot of marriages end when there is a tragedy. Apparently Victor’s death wasn’t honorable enough to get my dad to man up and lead our family. It was just easier for him to start a new life with his shiny, new wife than to try to polish up the old one.
I have a run to finish and I can’t get started thinking about Victor or I’ll lose it.
I take off and call out, “I’ll be okay. Thanks you guys.”
My mind has other things to worry about. Things like what to get Mom for Christmas and how to avoid Hilda for the rest of the week. More like how to avoid her for the rest of my life.
It’s a shame this thing with Hilda. She used to be good friends with Paige, but when I started hanging out with Mattie at the popular table, Hilda started acting funny. Then Paige and Hilda had a falling out about something. And Hilda’s prissy princess act got worse. I think it might be her mom’s fault. She’s really high maintenance and passed it on to Hilda. Such a shame too. Hilda used to be beautiful, but all that beauty was ruined once she became a bitch.
I hit my stride and shiver a little. The run home gets creepier after it gets this dark. I’m not a fan of running by the alleys this late either. They’re a black void that put my senses on high alert. A cramp bites at my calf, slowing me down. I should have stretched longer at the café. The moon’s no help. It’s just a sliver. Between the dark and the cramp, I can’t get going as fast as I want. Slower pace makes the Pike eerily quiet. I pull my hoodie tighter, trying to ease the slightly scared feeling sneaking up on me. Not scared like when Hilda’s around—nothing scares me that bad. I’m just scared enough to be extra cautious.
I think I see Mom’s car in the distance, but the parking lot lights are casting strange shadows. A ding and a scuffling sound echoes to my left. Slowing down, I strain to hear if it’s coming from the alley ahead. A high pitched squeal pierces what I hope is my imagination. It’s muffled, but I’m almost sure it’s real. I stop short of the alley opening.
Just keep running, Cozy. Your life is bad enough without going into witness protection. My knees won’t do what they’re told.
“Go home. Don’t stand there,” I whisper to my trembling heart. But I know I have to stay. Cars driving by on the next block drown out what I need to hear. Please just be a stupid cat, or some rats, or a homeless guy rearranging his stuff. My knees begin to shake.
Then I hear voices. “Hurry up man, knock her out before she screams.” Two or three men laugh and egg each other on. Their voices ricochet off the wet, brick walls and land at my feet.
I edge up to the corner of the building, flattening myself behind a stack of crates, and squint my eyes against the dark. The amber street lamp gives just enough light to confirm what I imagine is going on. Sounds of fists hitting flesh piss me off enough to get moving.
“HEY!” I scream into the alley, letting my voice bounce down to them. Peeking around the crates, I see two men let go of the arms they’re holding. They run toward the back of the alley, jump on a dumpster, and disappear over a chain link fence.
“Cowards!” a hulking, hunched over guy screams after them. I guess he didn’t hear me. Bowing forward, he whispers something to the person beneath him. Then he yanks her lifeless legs to his sides and pulls her in closer. He grinds on her and bites at her neck.
I tiptoe deeper into the alley. What the Hell am I thinking? The guy is lying on top of a battered, bloodied blonde. He talks to her like he doesn’t even notice I’m here. He’s laughing and licking her face. With one hand in her mouth and the other pulling her hair, he thrusts into her, laughing harder. With every shove, her legs jolt along with my stomach. Rage engulfs me.
There has to be something to hit this guy with, but shadows blind me from seeing anything clearly. I step further in, feeling for hidden obstacles that my eyes may have missed. The alley smells of mildew and feels damp underneath my sneakers. I try not to slip as I make my way further toward them.
My hand glides against the stack of crates as I feel my way around them. If any of the boards are loose enough for me to pry off, I might be able to stop him long enough so she can run away. My shoulder bumps a loose board. I wiggle, softly working the wet, rotting wood. Slowly, I work it free.
Breathe in, breath out, Cosette, there’s no room for error here. Timing is everything. I shut my eyes and count in my head. One, two, three! Wood pops and creaks as I yank at the board free. A nail at the end finally catches. The pile of crates begins to creak and topple.
My feet move backwards in fast little steps and my arms flail, trying to help me regain my balance. Stepping on the edge of a wet piece of cardboard, my weight slides it out from underneath me, and I slam down on the pavement. My elbow painfully breaks the fall. A searing sting shoots up my arm and takes my breath away as the pile of crates clatter and crash on top of me. Knowing I interrupted the rapist’s adventure, I hold my breath, terrified I might be next.
“What the fuck?” He climbs off of her unconscious body, pulls his pants up with one hand, and peers into the dark. I push up at the crates. With a board in one hand and the other elbow throbbing, the crates won’t budge. They make random thunk sounds as he throws them off of the pile. A hand grabs my leg and I feel myself being dragged, then thrown, next to the lifeless girl. Fear has taken over my body and my voice. Frozen, I lie there, too scared to kick or even scream. I reach to touch her hand, too useless to help her.
The rapist comes closer for inspection. He looms mere inches from my face, inspecting my body, sniffing me. He’s deciding whether I’m rape-worthy. An involuntary shudder runs through me as I hold on to my plank of wood for security. Splinters dig into my palm, but I’m too scared to let go. Tears stream back into my hair. I want to close my eyes, but I can’t even blink. My stomach climbs into my throat as he grabs a lock of my dark hair. He sneers at the color, but looks me up and down. His face breaks into a smile, as he approves of the rest of me. He licks his lips, peering at the blonde, probably trying to figure out how to violate us simultaneously. She’s not moving so he quickly focuses back on me.
As the hulking psychopath lunges in to attack, my instincts finally take over. I slam the board into his knee. A husky scream escapes as his jeans begin to soak with blood. His leg buckles underneath the embedded nail and he falls face first on the fire escape ladder. There’s a sick, crunching sound as his head bounces off the railing. His bloody, hefty body lands on me sideways, squeezing every ounce of air out of my lungs. My gasp hangs thick in the air.
The alley is silent.
Nothing moves—not her, not me, and thankfully not him.
The woman’s hand twitches and goes limp. She can’t come to. How foolish to think she could just get up and run out. It doesn’t matter. We have to get out of here before he wakes up.
I suck in for strength and carefully slither out from under him. Grateful that I didn’t wake him, I scuffle backward and take a moment to assess the situation.
He’s lying on his side with the board attached to his knee. The girl moans then stops moving and goes silent again. Her yoga pants are ripped and she’s completely exposed and bleeding. Quietly I move over to her, careful not to upset my probably broken elbow. I close her legs, pull up her pants, and pull her sweater down, covering her. Then I lean over her face to see how bad it is.
It’s very bad.
Her face is torture to me. Her face is in all of my nightmares. Hilda Dyson, my worst enemy, is beaten to a pulp, lying unconscious before me. Tears fall freely over a person I hate.
How many nights did I dream about this? How many times did I wish I could do this to her or wish my fists could use her as a punching bag and repay her for all the shit she’s put me through? But now that I see her like this, I want to take it all back. No one deserves this. Not even Hilda.
The tears come faster as I imagine what they did to her and what she will soon have to go through. I swipe at the tears, drying them up. I have to help her leave. We can’t stay here. The T.V. said that not one of this gang’s victims lived. They murder them when they’re finished having their way. I try and push past the thought of waking up Hilda. The image of her with those ice-blue eyes coldly staring through me, freezes me again. Avoiding Hilda at all costs has been my primary goal for so long that it’s hard to think of doing anything but running from her. I don’t know if I’m more terrified of Hilda or the rapist. I shake my head, trying to get it back on straight. Of course I’ll help her. We have to go before he comes to. Wait, why hasn’t he moved?
I turn to look at the attacker, wipe my eyes, and then my glasses to see better. Slowly, I reach down, turn his fat head, and press into his bloated neck. I can’t feel a pulse. He isn’t knocked out. He’s dead. I just killed the man who raped Hilda.
I am in so much trouble.
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