She put her hand on the front door and took a moment to study herself in the reflection. But it wasn’t her own face that caught her attention, but the face beyond the glass. It was turning. The school receptionist was walking away from the reception desk and into the warren of hallways and offices behind her, and what Nayma realized was that she was being given a chance.

She didn’t delay.

She pulled open the door and shot through, past the metal detector and the sliding second door that was—thank you!—unlocked before the door could even chime her arrival. Behind her she sensed the woman returning—excuse me?—but Nayma was already in the main hall crowded with lunch traffic.

She walked as fast as possible without running. The woman was still behind her. “Excuse me? Miss? Stop please.” But she wasn’t stopping, not now and not ever. She rounded the corner and ducked into the girl’s bathroom—okay, she was stopping now, but this was strategic. She went to the farthest stall, locked the door, and crouched on the closed toilet seat so that her feet wouldn’t show.

She waited and then came down, took a moment to collect herself at the bathroom sink. Splash her face, smooth her clothes. She put her phone on vibrate and took Dr. Agnew’s keys from her pocket. That was all that was left: to return his keys, get to her next class, get through her next class, her next day, week, and so on until she could walk. Where didn’t matter. Just not here.

 

Middle hall was less crowded. She passed the band room and the art rooms and turned right toward the English wing. A few couples were pressed along the walls, blowing little bubbles of privacy out of the otherwise public. Girls with their shampooed hair against the walls, showing their vulnerable throats. The guys were all lean. Elbows and knuckles and bristled hair. Eighteen-year-olds in letterman jackets kissing girls in cheerleading skirts. Resting their sweaty hands on hip bones. No one looked at her. She heard the guys whisper and the girls giggle as she walked past. Giggling in such a way as to let her know how different she was. Giggling to make certain she was cognizant of how ugly and brown and plain. That there was nothing of the strawberry to her, she knew this. No strawberry-blonde hair. No strawberry sun-kissed skin. Never the right shoes or jacket or skirt, never the eyeliner that was oh my God so on point. But there was something that made them giggle: the remarkable extent to which she didn’t belong. Even if she did.

You’re a woman with a torch, Nayma.

She tried not to walk faster.

You can do this, Nayma.

She tried to keep her head level, her eyes straight ahead. She rounded the corner—she was near the gym now, past the groping and giggling—and then heard something. Whispers. But not whispers directed at her. These were people oblivious to her presence. They were arguing. She could tell that much. Two people—a boy and girl. She peeked around the corner.

The hall here was long and dim and off-limits. Along one side were framed portraits of Walhalla athletes who had gone on to play college sports. Point guards and goalies and fast-pitch catchers in jerseys that read Warriors and Tigers and Chanticleers. Along the other side was fencing behind which were large wheeled bins full of everything from shoulder pads to orange traffic cones. The voices, the arguing—it wasn’t louder now so much as more intense—was coming from there.

She shouldn’t stop.

She knew she shouldn’t stop. This was a wholly unnecessary detour yet some part of her—there was no use not admitting it—really did believe she was a woman with a torch. Someone put in the world to light the way, to take care of others, be it her parents, grandparents, whoever it was now tucked back among the portable soccer goals and arguing very volubly.

“Stop, please. Please don’t, Stinson.”

Stinson?

Then she knew why she had stopped: because she recognized the voice.

Two quiet steps forward and she recognized the faces. It was Stinson Wood and Lana Rogers, both from English II. Stinson had Lana backed up against the wall just like all the other boys. But unlike all the other girls Lana wasn’t kissing his throat or idly fingering whatever faux-gold chain he hung around his neck. She was pushing her fingers into his smug handsome face. She was begging him to stop.

Nayma had her hands on his jacket before she realized she was even moving. It was the white heat they talked about in books, rage, supernatural strength. The sort of thing that allowed mothers to lift wrecked automobiles off their trapped children. Except it wasn’t a car she was lifting but what turned out to be a kite-thin boy who was mostly hair gel and lip—“Fucking bitch!”—and a cloying cloud of Axe Body spray. She pushed him behind her where he arranged himself, smoothed his hair, his clothes, all the while repeating to her what a fucking bitch she was.

But Nayma registered it as no more than noise.

She had one hand on Lana Rogers’ shoulder, the other extended toward Stinson Wood, palm raised like a crossing guard arresting traffic.

“Are you okay?” Nayma asked.

The girl nodded but said nothing.

Then Stinson grabbed Nayma’s hand and knocked it aside.

“This has nothing to do with you, Chiquita Banana.”

“Leave her alone,” Nayma said.

“Fucking make me, how ‘bout it?”

“Touch her again,” Nayma said, “and I will.” And with that she watched something terrifying take place: she watched his face morph from normal human rage to something approaching a mask of smug—that word again—comprehension. It was a look that said he was suddenly realizing this wasn’t a joke, this fucking Mexican bitch was serious. That she didn’t get it. Yet who the hell was she to interfere with him? Did she not know how this game worked? Then the bafflement was replaced by the sort of cruelty that only comes in very deliberate calibrations.

“I will have your daddy’s ass on the banana boat back to fucking taco-time by sundown,” he said. “You understand that?”

“Don’t touch her again.”

“She wants me to touch her,” he said then, a strange tactic in argument. “Don’t you, Lana?”

They both looked at the girl who said nothing.

“Don’t you?” Stinson said again, but Nayma cut him off.

“Let her speak for herself.”

She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and this seemed to fuel something deeper in Stinson, some tertiary rage that had thus far remained buried.

“Fuck you both,” he said, straightened his jacket a last time, zipped his open fly, and started down the dark hall. Halfway down he stopped and turned. “When you’re ready to apologize you know where to find me, Lana,” he called. “And you, you fucking illegal bitch. You will suffer for this. I promise you that.”

And then he was gone.

Nayma turned to Lana and was about to speak but then she was gone too, rushing past her, all unsteady legs and bed-headed hair.

Gone up the hall.

Gone around the bend.

Gone, Nayma could only hope, anywhere but back to him.

 

Dr. Agnew’s door was open and thankfully he was not at his desk. She put his keys by a paperweight bust of Evelyn Waugh (where on earth did you buy something like this?), and had started for the cafeteria when she heard him.

“Nayma, my dear.”

It found her like a spotlight, his voice. One of those cartoon moments where the searchlight settles on the bandit escaping prison.

“Dr. Agnew,” she said. “Your keys.”

“Yes?”

“Thank you. I’m sorry about that. They’re on your desk, right there by Mr. Waugh.”

“Mr. Waugh, my dear. As in War.”

“Right there by Mr. War.”

“All right, dear,” he said. “Thank you.”

She was by the door when he spoke again.

“Excuse me, Nayma.”

She stopped but didn’t turn.

“If you ever want to talk about it,” he said, “I’ve told been told I’m a good listener.”

She said nothing.

“I know what it is to need a good listener,” he said. “I also know what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. If that’s not too saccharine a thing to admit. Realizing fully that perhaps it is.”

She stood silent and still. He was moving, walking, but not toward her. He had exited through the backdoor into the materials room and she realized she was alone, and then she realized she was crying and couldn’t stop. Crying for her mother and father and grandparents. For the scared girl in middle hall. Crying for creepy D.C., who was back from the war and lonely. Crying for Dr. Agnew who was simply lonely. And crying for herself. These endless tears. These stupid, stupid tears she felt running down the copper of her robe, beneath her torch, past her book, and over her sandaled feet, these tears gathering in the vast harbor she suddenly realized surrounded her life.

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