No Monday in history has ever sucked more than this one.
I'm kind of an expert on sucky days. It's been thirty-two of them since the party in the woods that started the battle I fight every day. I step onto the bus to school, wearing my armor and pretending nothing's wrong, nothing happened, nothing changed when it's pretty obvious nothing will ever be the same again. Alyssa Martin, a girl I've known since first grade, smirks and stretches her leg across the empty seat next to hers.
I approach slowly, hoping nobody can see my knees knocking. A couple of weeks ago during a school newspaper staff meeting, Alyssa vowed her support, and today I'm pond scum.
"Find a seat!" Mrs. Gannon, the bus driver, shouts.
I meet Alyssa's eyes, silently beg her for sympathy-even a little pity. She raises a middle finger. It's a show of loyalty to someone who doesn't deserve it, a challenge to see how far I'll go. My dad keeps telling me to stand up to all of Zac's defenders, but it's the entire bus-the entire school-versus me.
I gulp hard, and the bus lurches forward. I try to grab a seat back but lose my balance and topple into the seat Alyssa's blocking with her leg. She lets out a screech of pain.
"Bitch," she sneers. "You nearly broke my leg."
I'm about to apologize when I notice the people sitting around us stare with wide eyes and hands over their open mouths. When my eyes meet theirs, they turn away, but nobody does anything.
This is weird.
Alyssa folds herself against the window and shoves earbuds into her ears and ignores me for the duration of the ride.
The rest of the trip passes without incident-except for two girls whispering over a video playing on a phone they both clutch in their hands. One of them murmurs, "Six hundred and eighteen hits," and shoots me a dirty look.
I know exactly what she means and don't want to think about it. I look away. As soon as the bus stops, I'm off. On my way to my locker, most people just ignore me, although a few still think they've come up with a clever new insult. An elbow or the occasional extended foot still needs dodging, but it's really not that bad. I can deal. I can do this. I can make it through school unless I see-
My feet root themselves to the floor, and the breath clogs in my lungs. And I know without turning who barked at me. I force myself to keep walking instead of running for home, running for the next town. I want to turn to look at him, look him dead in the eye, and twist my face into something that shows contempt instead of the terror that too often wins whenever I hear his name so he sees-so he knows-he didn't beat me. But that doesn't happen. A foot appears from nowhere, and I can't dodge it in time. I fall to my hands and knees, and two more familiar faces step out of the crowd to laugh down at me.
"Hear you like it on your knees," Kyle Moran shouts, and everybody laughs. At least Matt Roberts helps me up, but when Kyle smacks his head, he takes off before I can thank him. They're two of his best buds. Nausea boils inside me, and I scramble back to my feet. I grab my backpack, pray that the school's expensive digital camera tucked inside it isn't damaged, and duck into the girls' bathroom, locking myself into a stall.
When my hands are steady, eyes are dry, stomach's no longer threatening to send back breakfast, I open the stall.
Miranda and Lindsay, my two best friends, stand in front of the mirrors.
Make that former best friends.
We stare at one another through the mirrors. Lindsay leans against a sink but doesn't say anything. Miranda runs a hand down her smooth blond hair, pretends I'm not there, and talks to Lindsay. "So I've decided to have a party and invite Zac and the rest of the lacrosse team. It's going to be epic."
No. Not him. The blood freezes in my veins. "Miranda. Don't. Please."
Miranda's hand freezes on her hair. "Don't, please?" She shakes her head in disgust. "You know, he could get kicked off the lacrosse team because of you."
"Good!" I scream, suddenly furious.
Miranda whips back around to face me, hair blurring like a fan blade. At the sink, Lindsay's jaw drops. "God! I can't believe you! Did you do all of this, say all this just to get back at me?"
My jaw drops. "What? Of course not. I-"
"You know I like him. If you didn't want me to go out with him, all you had to do was say so-"
"Miranda, this isn't about you. Trust me, Zac is-"
"Oh my God, listen to yourself. He breaks up with you, and you fall apart and then-"
"That is not what happened. I broke up with him! I was upset that night because of Kristie, and you know it."
She spins around, arms flung high. "Kristie! Seriously? You played him. You wanted everybody to feel sorry for you, so you turned on the tears and got Zac to-"
"Me? Are you insane? He-"
"Oh, don't even." Miranda holds up a hand. "I know exactly what happened. I was there. I know what you said. I figured you were lying, and now there's no doubt."
Lindsay nods and tosses her bag over her shoulder, and they stalk to the door. At the door, Miranda fires off one more shot. "You're a lying slut, and I'll make sure the whole school knows it."
The door slams behind them, echoing off the lavatory stalls. I'm standing in the center of the room, wondering what's holding me up because I can't feel my feet...or my hands. I raise them to make sure I still have hands, and before my eyes, they shake. But I don't feel that either. All I feel is pressure in my chest like someone just plunged my head underwater and I tried to breathe. My mouth goes dry, but I can't swallow. The pressure builds and grows and knocks down walls and won't let up. I press my hands to my chest and rub, but it doesn't help. Oh, God, it doesn't help. My heart lurches into overdrive like it's trying to stage a prison break. I fall to the cold bathroom floor, gasping, choking for breath, but I can't get any. I can't find any. There's no air left to breathe. I'm the lit match in front of a pair of lips puckered up, ready to blow.
Minutes pass, but they feel like centuries. I fumble for my phone-my mom's phone since she made me switch with her-and call her.
"Grace, what's wrong?"
"Can't breathe, Mom. Hurts," I push out the words on gasps of air.
"Okay, honey, I want you to take a breath and hold it. One, two, three, and let it out."
I follow her instructions, surprised I have any breath in my lungs to hold for three seconds. The next breath is easier.
"Keep going. Deep breath, hold it, let it out."
It takes me a few tries, but finally I can breathe without the barrier. "Oh, God."
"Yeah. It doesn't hurt now."
"Want me to take you home?"
Oh, home. Where there are no laughing classmates pointing at me, whispering behind their hands. Where there are no ex-friends calling me a bitch or a liar. Where I could curl up, throw a blanket over my head, and pretend nothing happened. Yes, take me home. Take me home right now as fast as you can.
I want to say that. But when I glance in the mirror over the row of sinks, something makes me say, "No. I have to stay."
"Mom, I have to stay."
There's a loud sigh. "Oh, honey. You don't have to be brave."
The word hangs in the air for a moment and then falls away, almost like even it knows it has no business being used to describe me. I'm not brave. I'm scared. I'm so freakin' scared, I can't see straight, and I can't see straight because I'm too scared to look very far. I'm a train wreck. All I'm doing is trying to hold on to what I have left. Only I'm not sure what that is. When I say nothing, she laughs too loudly. "Well, you're wearing your father's favorite outfit, so just pretend it's a superhero costume."
That makes me laugh. I glance down at my favorite boots-black leather covered in metal studs. My ass-kicking boots. Ever since Dad married Kristie, Mom lets me get away with anything that pisses him off, and wow does he hate how I dress.
"Grace, if you feel the pressure in your chest again, take a deep breath, hold it, and count. Concentrating on counting helps keep your mind from spiraling into panic."
"Yeah. Okay." But I'm not at all convinced. "I missed most of first period."
"Skip it. Don't worry about getting in trouble. Where are you now?"
"Why don't you go to the library? Relax and regroup, you know?"
Regroup. Sure. Okay. "Yeah. I'll do that."
"If you need me to get you, I'll come. Okay?"
I meet my own gaze in the mirror, disgusted to see them fill with tears. Jeez, you'd think I'd be empty by now. "Thanks, Mom." I end the call, tuck the phone in my pocket, and head for the library.
The library is my favorite spot in the whole school. Two floors of books, rows of computers, soft chairs to slouch in. I head for the nonfiction section and find the 770s. This is where the photography books live-my stack. I run a finger along the spines and find the first book I ever opened on the subject-A History of Photography.
I pull the book off its shelf, curl up with it in a chair near a window, and flip open the back cover. My signature is scrawled on the checkout card so many times now that we're old friends. I know how this book smells-a little like cut grass. How it feels-the pages are thick and glossy. And even where every one of its scars lives-the coffee ring on page 213 and the dog-eared corner in chapter 11. This is the book that said, "Grace, you are a photographer."
I flip through the pages, reread the section on high-key technique-I love how that sounds. High-key. So professional. It's really just great big fields of bright white filled with a splash of color or sometimes only shadow. I took hundreds of pictures this way-of Miranda, of Lindsay, of me. I practiced adjusting aperture settings and shutter speeds and overexposing backgrounds. It's cool how even the simplest subjects look calm and cheerful. It's like the extra light forces us to see the beauty and the flaws we never noticed.
I unzip my backpack and take out the school's digital camera. It's assigned to me-official student newspaper photographer. I scroll through the images stored on the card-selfies I shot over the last few weeks. Why can't everybody see what I see? My eyes don't sparkle. My lips don't curve anymore. Why don't they see?
I shove the camera back in my bag. With a sigh, I close the book, and a slip of paper floats to the floor. I pick it up, unfold it, and my stomach twists when I read the words printed on it. A noise startles me, and I look up to see Tyler Embery standing at one of the computers. Did he slip this paper into my favorite book? He's had a painfully obvious crush on me forever. Every time he gets within five feet of me, his face flushes and sweat beads at his hairline. Tyler volunteers at the library during his free periods and always flags me over to give me the latest issue of Shutterbug that he sets aside for me as soon as it arrives. He grabs something off the desk and walks over to me. I smile, thankful there's still one person left in this world that doesn't think Zac McMahon is the second coming of Christ. But Tyler's not holding a magazine. He's holding his phone.
"Six-eighty-three." There's no blush, no sweat-only disgust.
I jerk like he just punched me. I guess in a way he has. He turns, heads to the magazine rack, and places this month's issue, in its clear plastic cover, face out, in a subtle fuck you only I'd notice. I stuff the paper into my backpack and hurry to the exit just as the bell rings.
I make it to the end of the day. At dismissal I make damn sure I'm early for the bus ride home so I can snag an empty row. I plug in my earbuds to drown out the taunts. It's not so bad, I tell myself repeatedly, the taste of tears at the back of my throat familiar now. I don't believe me.
Once safely back in my house, I let my shoulders sag and take my first easy breath of the day. The house is empty and eerie, and I wonder how to fill the hours until Mom gets home. Thirty-two days ago I'd have been hanging out after school with Miranda and Lindsay or shopping at the mall or trying to find the perfect action photo at one of the games. In my room, I stare at the mirror over my dresser, where dozens of photos are taped-photos of me with my friends, me with my dad, me at dance class. I'm not welcome at any of these places, by any of these people anymore. I don't have a damn thing because Zac McMahon took it all. I think about Mom killing all of my online accounts and switching phones just until things settle. But now that the video of me that Zac posted on Facebook has 683 Likes, it's pretty clear that waiting for things to settle is a fantasy.
I rip all the pictures off the mirror, tear them into tiny pieces, and swipe them into the trash bin next to my desk. Then I pull out the slip of paper I found in the photography book, and after a few minutes of staring at it, I dial the number with shaking hands.
"Rape Crisis Hotline, this is Diane. Let me help you."