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One is the Loneliest Number
I don't want to get used to this feeling. Of wanting to be invisible, but not wanting it at the same time. But this is nice, slinking along the lockers as the crowd swarms past me. No one turning sideways to notice me. To laugh. Point a finger and say, there's the slut. Which makes it that much more annoying to hear the voice in my head yelling Look at me! I'm still a person! Look. At. Me.
Shut up! I mutter back, irritated. Wanting one thing while hoping for the opposite is just plain stupid. Or it's a sign. That I'm fit for the mental ward. I try to shoo the thought away. I'm just lonely.
The thought sits in the hollow of my mind like an old wooden rocking chair. Creaking back and forth driving me just a little more crazy and desperate each day. But there's also the hatred, draped across the chair like an ugly old quilt that's too comfortable to throw out. I wish I could say that I don't want to get used to being hated. After all, it's only been a few weeks since I became the most despised student in school. But there's a weird comfort in the hatred. It gives me something to work with. To build upon. With loneliness, there's nothing.
A group of guys with thick necks sweep past me, punching each other in the shoulders, chests. A fist nicks my shoulder blade. I look up to see who did it, but none of them seem to know, or care, that I'd been hit. I inhale deeply, groaning with my exhalation. A release of something ugly that's accumulated in my chest over the past few weeks. Emotional phlegm.
As the hallway empties, my ears perk at the sound of heels clicking in my direction and my stomach crumples. I hear the familiar high-pitched laugh that curdles in my ears. Do I speed up or wait to let them pass?
"S-s-s-s-slut." The word slithers out. Giving it the venomous quality it so deserves. I cringe, but refuse to face them. I'd know Alysa's voice anywhere. Ten years of gossip-whispering, ice-cream-gorging, inside-joking, boyfriend-bashing years of friendship will do that. I hate her. I hate all of them. The fabbies. It was me who came up with that name to define our exclusive group of girlfriends. Over time, it expanded to include the select few who knew how to dress, how to party and, basically, how to be the envy of everyone else in the grade.
"When are you going to crawl back into the hole you came from?" Alysa asks casually. Like she's talking about our next trip to the shopping mall. I turn to meet her gaze. The fake lashes are extra long today, reaching almost to her eyebrows. Her full lips glint under a fresh coat of pink lip gloss. I try to maintain a stone face as she walks by but the muscles around my eyes and mouth are tensing into something ugly. The f-bomb rolls toward my tongue, but I swallow it. Why give her ammunition to shoot me up with more insults? I've heard my fair share already today. I stop to lean my back against the lockers and stare, my teeth clenching so hard that my jaw aches.
With a smirk and flip of her long black hair, she turns her head and sashays down the hall with BFF Sarah next to her. I watch them until they've been swallowed up by the students gathering around the exit doors, jockeying to be the next to leave.
Three weeks and two days. That's how long I've been the official Sacred Heart High School Bitch target. All because of one photo. I still don't get how it blew up the way it has. I wasn't the first fabbie to let her boyfriend take photos. Not that we openly admitted to doing it, but the assumption was always there. Wasn't it? The way we'd all purse our lips and widen our eyes when teachers warned us of the latest teen headline.
GIRL COMMITS SUICIDE AFTER NUDE PHOTO GOES VIRAL
That would never be one of us, we thought. We prayed. Silently vowing to never do it again. Until it was time to snatch a new boyfriend, or keep the one we had. We would never do that. The teacher or cop (after an especially bad headline) would stare hard at each of us until she felt convinced we were speaking the truth. Just a bunch of good kids.
Well, I wasn't. I'd always assumed they weren't either. Maybe I was wrong. I've been realizing lately that I've been wrong about a lot of things in my life. The truth hurts. Yep, cheezy sayings have found new meaning in my life. Here's another one: Life's a bitch and then you die. I'm due to hit the coffin any day now, based on that one.
Still, I'm hopeful that this will all blow over. It can't drag on for much longer. Soon enough, we will all be friends again. Go back to the way it was. At least that's my hope. Delusional, yes, but it's all I've got to get out of bed every morning.
The hallway is almost empty now. Yet, here I am still standing in one place. My eyes fixated on my boots. They are a delicious chocolate brown with copper buckles at the ankles. Mom bought them as a back-to-school surprise gift. Not that I didn't expect to find them on my bed eventually, smelling like fresh, overpriced leather. Every time we'd walked by the store, I'd beg her to buy them. Wearing her down until she was convinced the happiness of my senior year depended on them.
"Everyone will be wearing them, Mom." Translation: I want to look better than all my friends. Dad was surprised, though. Told me to return them when he'd seen the credit card bill. Too late, I'd said. Already worn them. Translation: No freaking way. But that was before. When I still believed that she who collects the most envious stares is happiest. I miss those days. Being shallow. It's like living in a pink mist of self-adoration. It's easy. Although now that the mist has cleared, I realize it was just an excuse for being a bitch. There's a perk to being in pain that I forgot to mention. It forces you to be nicer. To realize you aren't all that, after all. And, isn't the first step to fixing yourself simply recognizing your faults? I think I read that on the back of one of my mom's 12-steps to self-actualization books. I'm a long way off from working toward world peace, but at least I'm no longer laughing at girls with bad hair and ugly clothes. That's good, right? Sadly, they're laughing at me now. Mercy.
I draw a circle with my left toe around the wad of pink gum flattened against the speckled linoleum. Little good these boots did me now. Killer boots can't save a tattered reputation. I should write that on Facebook. Has a nice ring to it. But the new me doesn't post anymore. It tends to set off a string of scathing comments.
Suck it, bitch.
When will you shrivel up and die, already?
Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut.
I've come to the conclusion that people are assholes.
A couple of grade nines are talking by an open locker as I head down the hallway and out the door. They're the nerdy kind. With too-tight-in-the-ass grey pants and collars that stick out like bat wings to the tips of their shoulders. Harmless, though. Not even a hushed glance as I walk by. I have a sliver of hope that maybe not every student at Sacred Heart has seen the photo. At least not the ones that are too immersed in video games to waste time looking at boobs.
I park on the street in front of my house, cringing when I hear the scrape of tree branches against the roof. Dad's home from work early, and his car is parked on the driveway. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle is beside it. One of those really old ones, like from nineteen-sixty-five, or something. The license plate reads AutoMedic. Sweet. Dude must be here to give a quote on fixing my Civic. I turn back to look at the dents on the hood. More on the passenger's side. I feel the anger rising the longer I stare at it. Found it this way when I came out of the mall last week. Horrible, isn't it? Who would do such a thing? At least that was the story I told Dad. He couldn't argue. After all, I'd parked in the outskirts, just like he'd taught me to do in public lots. Less chance of getting dinged, he'd say. He knew as well as I did, though, that the story didn't make sense. Who's going to take a bat, or golf club, or whatever, to a car in a shopping centre parking lot in the early evening? Certainly not a stranger.
"Do you think this was done by people who know you?" He'd asked in a steady voice. Careful not to alarm me to the possibility that there may exist a group of people who aren't fond of me.
"I dunno." A shrug, an eyebrow lift, and shifting of the eyes. A stone-cold lie.
The front door opens as I'm about to walk in. Dad is shaking hands with a round faced woman with equally round sunglasses. Short curly brown hair, the faint outline of a moustache that shouldn't be there, and a gentle sneer that almost disappears when she says hello to me. Total butch. That's what the old me would have labelled her. But the new me, well, the new Lana is working hard to not judge others by their appearances. The same way I'm trying to not swear so much. We'll get to the world peace thing eventually. Baby steps.
"I'll take good care of her for you," the butch who shouldn't be called a butch says to me with a curt nod of her head.
"Awesome!" I can't wait to see it gleaming like a lollypop. "When will I get it back?"
"Hmm?" She tips her head. The sneer is back with harsh lines bending around her small tight mouth.
"We'll see you tomorrow morning," Dad interrupts, holding his arm out to direct the woman to her car. "Nice to meet you." He flicks his thumb at me, motioning toward the front door. "Go on inside, Lana. We'll talk in a minute."
"What the fu- fudge is there to talk about?" I mutter, walking into the hallway and tossing my bag to the floor. Something in the way he stiffened when he saw me has me feeling paranoid. Mom's in the kitchen pouring red wine into a blue-coloured drinking glass.
"Lana!" She lifts the wine bottle and freezes like she's being busted for shoplifting. "You're home already?"
I open the fridge and pull out a Diet Coke. "It's three. I'm always home now." Leaning against the counter I stare at her. She sets the bottle on the counter and pushes it into the corner beside the flour and sugar canisters. Like now I won't notice that she's already into the booze.
"How was your day?" She asks, running her fingers through her blonde hair with one hand while the other strums against the counter.
"Awesome. What's going on with my car?"
Bringing the glass to her mouth, she sips her wine, then looks out the window. Pretends she doesn't hear me.
"Leaves are starting to change colour." I know better than to repeat myself. When Mom avoids my questions, something is up. She is the purveyor of good news only. We're going on a cruise! I've made your favourite dinner! You're getting a car!
That's how I know they're not fixing my car before Dad even tells me. She can't pretty this story up. Dad's the bad news guy. Or, in many cases, he's simply the reality check. When Mom says we've booked a cruise for the family, Dad explains it's on a river boat down the St. Lawrence with Grandma and Granddad in tow. Even his good news is interpreted as bad. When I'm not pissed off at him, I feel sorry for him.
I'm stuffing a chocolate chip cookie in my mouth when Dad walks in and stands with his arm around Mom's shoulders. His lips are tightly drawn, nostrils flared.
"We have to talk to you about something, Lana." He turns to Mom for support. But she's still gazing out the window at the damn leaves.
"I know. You're not fixing my car," I say, grabbing another cookie. "So, how long am I stuck driving around in that pockmarked thing? It's a bit embarrassing, to be honest." Mostly because I know the people who did it giggle and point every time I pull into the school parking lot.
"Ah," big exhale. "Lana, uh, you won't be driving it anymore." He drops his arm from Mom's shoulders. He knows as well as I do that any effort to look like a united couple is a sham. "We're selling it. Tomorrow it's getting picked up."
My mouth drops. Do I hear this right? Prison. The word echoes through my head. My car was my one guaranteed escape from everyone at school. How many times in the past two weeks had I slipped out of school early, hopped into my car and driven to the mall, the coffee shop, the anywhere-but-here. But you're taking away my freedom! I wish I could say it. Tell them how hellish my life has become. Show them the texts. The Facebook comments. Give them a glimpse.
"It's too expensive to repair, Lana." Dad explains. "When we bought the car ..." He looks down at the counter and presses his fingertips together. "A lot has changed since then. With my job. Our income. Frankly, we don't have the money."
The clang of prison doors. Forcing my tongue to push the cookie down my throat, I allow myself to speak. Don't scream. Just talk in a normal tone.
"How will I get to and from school every day?" I'm trying too hard to stay calm. The words come out jagged and forced. Mom stares at me now. Her jaw tense and square. She's fearful that this will erupt into a pre-menstrual-esque explosion of emotions. And by emotions, I mostly mean self-pity. It's been my modus operandi for years and I'm not particularly proud of it, but like my propensity to swear like a drunken truck driver and make fun of ugly or weird people, this one is a hard habit to break. But look at me now. I'm making progress. Before I turned into the most hated person in my school, I would have never had the insight to recognize these faults in myself. I love it when I can find an upside to my crap life.
"You'll be taking the bus." Dad's words come at me like daggers. I actually fall back and clutch my chest.
"I'm in grade twelve, Dad!" I half-cough, half spit. "Only losers take the bus at my age. Are you kidding me?"
Dad folds his arms and shakes his head. "I am sorry that things are not working out the way you'd hoped but we are all making sacrifices. You start tomorrow morning. I'm sure your friends will still like you."
"That's not really my biggest concern," I mutter, swallowing my anger. If I let a word slip about my friends then it could snowball into a full confession. And we can't have that. Now, not only am I the biggest slut in school, I'll be the biggest loser. This might all be manageable if I was on a reality show. They could call it High School Girls. I'd be the girl that everyone roots for because don't all viewers love the underdog? Hundreds of tweets packed with short-form words of support. Thousands of Facebook friends commenting on how far I've fallen. From popular girl to bus-riding loner. She's suffered enough, they'd claim. If a camera were on me now, I'd cue the tears. Get the fans riled up. Instead, I storm upstairs to my room, slamming the door behind me. Another bad habit. God, I have a lot to work on.
Pulling my phone from my pocket, I stare at the screen saver of me and Alysa blowing kisses at the camera. Can't believe I haven't changed it yet. After everything she's put me through. I try to throw the phone across the room but it rebounds off the corner of my bed and lands back at my feet. Sliding down the wall and onto the carpet, I stretch my legs out and pick the phone back up. Rub the fingerprints off the screen and scroll through my photos until I settle on a selfie that, not too long ago, earned over two hundred Facebook likes. I look pretty, thanks to the lash extensions I had done that day. It's better than my fake friend screen saver. I replace it and hit Save.
Reading my messages, I see the last one I received was from Mom this morning telling me to have a great day (sideways smiley face!) Another reminder of my loser life.
I scroll down to Stu's messages. I sent him five this morning. All variations of 'Where the hell are you?' He has yet to respond. I know it's probably because he leaves his phone at home most days. Our school has a firm no mobile phone policy that most students ignore. Stu excepted. I've often wondered if he purposely leaves it elsewhere so that I can, also, remain elsewhere. Another hint that it's time to dump him. I need another reason like I need a nail in my brain. It's thanks to him that the photo went viral. I hate him almost as much as I hate the fabbies. Almost. But he's my last connection to them, and by them, I mean the source of all that defines popular, beautiful, and worthy at Sacred Heart. Stu represents the single thread from which all my hope hangs that one day, soon, I'll be back in the game. They say there's a fine line between love and hatred, so I figure it wouldn't be so hard to flip from the dark side, if given the chance. I type him a message.
What r u doing? My day has gone from bad to worse
Then I delete it before hitting send. Leave the phone on the floor as I crawl to my bed and climb under its covers. I know he'll text me later when he's ready for some action. He's dependable, that way. It lessens the loneliness in the smallest way.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Like Lana"
Copyright © 2019 Danielle Leonard.
Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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