Laurel Middle School was a sprawling relic primarily made up of old-fashioned portables; small rooms hauled into place and assembled into what should have been temporary classrooms. All of the older, outdated structures, aside from the cafeteria, auditorium, and administrative buildings had been razed to make way for new middle school facilities, which were tied up in state funding and never seemed to appear.
All Tabitha had on hand for today’s adventure, besides her backpack and some scavenged school supplies, was a handwritten note. She’d managed to prepare the names of her teachers and the class period for each, information gleaned from headings scribbled at the top of various old assignments she’d collected her room. Although the middle school seemed vaguely familiar, she only remembered the actual location of her last two classes with any certainty, so her first stop was the administrative office.
“Hello. My name’s Tabitha Moore,” she said, sliding her note forward across the counter there. “I suffered a severe head injury last Thursday. I was told to have someone write down the locations of each of my classes.”
“You... don’t remember where your classes are?” the administrative assistant behind the desk frowned, looking over the list with a doubtful expression. The lady was a spry woman in her mid-forties, quite a bit younger than Tabitha used to be, and Tabitha found herself wondering how similar working at a school was to working as a clerk in town hall. “Should you be here attending class at all then, if you hit your head that badly?”
“I don’t know?” Tabitha shrugged, giving the woman a helpless expression. “Maybe not, but—my Dad said, with it being this late in the school year, I might as well try to finish the year anyways?”
Just like that, her hastily-planned excuse was rewarded with a simple printed map that had her classes circled in highlighter, and she started her school day without a hiccup.
Okay. Here we go. Although Tabitha would be bullied severely later on in high school, here in eighth grade she felt almost like a non-entity—she lacked any sort of presence at all. Not a single one of her fellow middle-schoolers tried to engage her in conversation on the way to her portable, even after waiting outside the boxy structure with several other classmates.
When their language arts teacher, Mrs. Hodge, arrived to unlock the door, Tabitha cautiously followed them all inside, pretending she didn’t feel terribly out of place. She loitered awkwardly around the back of the room as the other students showed up and gravitated one by one towards their desks, eventually exposing a lone empty seat. Tabitha carefully sat down, trying not to seem as self-conscious as she felt. The bell rang, a series of tones over the loudspeakers, and class began.
“Tabitha—you missed a practice test on Friday,” Mrs. Hodge smiled, and strode forward wetting her fingertip with her tongue so she could separate the stack of papers she was preparing to pass out. “Here’s the packet for this week. I understand you had to visit the hospital?”
You almost gave me a heart attack, Tabitha thought wryly, and she looked up from her own tightly clenched hands to take another look at the young woman who was her teacher—seemingly in her thirties, surely no older than thirty-five. But, I must seem like a child to her... I guess I’ll see how far I can push the SLOW act.
Tabitha had decided to keep answers to her teachers’ questions short and perfunctory, so that she wouldn’t give away that she was now a drastically different Tabitha. Since she wasn’t sure she could portray a convincing normal Tabitha, she was going to be attending instead as severe head injury Tabitha. So, she gave Mrs. Hodge a muddled look and forced herself to slowly count to three in her head before finally responding.
“...I hit my head,” Tabitha answered after that long pause. “I hit my head really bad. Had to get an MRI.”
“Er... are you okay?” Mrs. Hodge asked, appearing surprised.
“...I don’t know,” Tabitha said, looking back down at her desktop and then back up to Mrs. Hodge. “They said it wasn’t good.”
“Are you... feeling alright for class now?” Mrs. Hodge asked, her smile faltering. The young woman looked like she regretted bringing the topic up, and Tabitha felt a pang of guilt. “Do you think you’re okay to work on review material, today?”
“...Yeah. Yeah,” Tabitha nodded weakly, furrowing her brow. “I just feel kind of... dizzy… I guess?”
“Well,” Mrs. Hodge stared, apparently hesitant to hand Tabitha one of the review packets. Finally, she let out a slight sigh and offered one. “If you have any trouble with the packet, then you can come see me, alright? This isn’t due until the end of the week.”
“...Okay,” Tabitha tried to look confused as she accepted the small stack of stapled-together worksheets from her teacher. Mrs. Hodge lingered over her for a moment before moving on down the row to pass out the rest of the packets.
That was some of my best acting yet, Tabitha decided, slightly pleased with herself. Didn’t get nervous after all... except at the beginning. I think it helps really realizing how young Mrs. Hodge seems to me now.
The thoroughly concussed charade would hopefully establish a believable change in her behavior, with any luck precluding unwelcome curiosity or questions from students. Tabitha really had no idea how she’d acted as a thirteen-year-old girl back then in middle school, and being among so many of her peers, someone would have been bound to notice discrepancies.
In some ways, it was convenient for Tabitha to not have any school friends—she wouldn’t have known how to interact with them, how to maintain that appropriate thirteen-year-old facade. At the same time, however, it would have also been nice to be able to share a textbook with someone. All of her books were probably in her locker... which she didn’t know the combination for. Or even where the blasted thing was located.
Turning her attention now to the first page of her work packet, she blinked in surprise at the coursework laid out before her.
8th Grade Language Arts Section 9, Vocabulary Terms
Match the following vocabulary words to their definitions:
You can’t be serious.
There were thirty vocab words, and definitions for each were printed out below, each with a blank space for filling in a word. Tabitha was forced to cover her mouth to stifle her laughter.
As an English Major, I could write a dissertation expounding and elaborating on any one of these terms. As a former aspiring author, I have personally worried each of those ideas down to the bone to comprehend every last nuance of profundity from the marrow therein! Look unto my knowledge and despair, Eighth Grade Language Arts Section 9 Vocabulary Terms, for you are not my equal!
Tabitha then hastily scrawled in all thirty correct answers—having read and solved all of the questions at a glance—and flipped to the next page. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that the work was far too easy to pose any sort of challenge to her, and she breezed on through the packet oblivious to the fact that someone was watching her.
“Oh my God—she’s even more stupider than she was,” Carrie whispered, letting out an amused giggle. “Elena, quick, look!”
“Who?” Elena asked, arching an eyebrow at her friend.
“Tubby Tabby,” Carrie whispered, pointing out the chubby red-headed girl across the room with her pencil. “She was staring at the first page forever, shaking like she was about to cry, and then she just gave up and scribbled in whatever. Look, she’s doing it again!”
“Wow. Wooow,” Elena laughed, watching as Tabitha moved down the next page, pencilling in answers without more than a cursory look at the questions. “Least now we know somebody’s not making it to 9th grade with us.”
“Right?” Carrie snorted. “I heard she hit her head bad last week, and lost like, half the brain cells she had left. Like, look at her—can she even read anymore? I bet she’s turned illiterate.”
Many of the girls in their grade had long since decided that Tubby Tabby was, to anyone familiar with the cruelties of adolescence, an unfortunate existence. One that few would ever willingly associate with. She was fat, unattractive, looked like she rarely showered, wore gross clothes, and even often smelled distinctly unwashed. Now, apparently, the tubby girl was also mentally damaged in addition to all of that.
“Yeah, like you’re any better,” Elena rolled her eyes. “I’m getting into AP English at Springton High.”
“Fuck AP,” Carrie rolled her eyes. “I’m not doing summer reading.”
“See? See?” Elena goaded her friend, prodding her with the eraser-end of her pencil. “You can’t read any better than Tubby Tabby.”
“Uh, I can read, I’m just not ever gonna read books if I don’t have to, thanks?” Carrie scoffed, turning to a guy several seats behind them. “Ethan. Ethan! Did you see what Tubby Tabby’s doing?”
When Tabitha returned home from middle school, rather than relief, she felt strangely... unsatisfied. None of the middle school curriculum seemed specialized enough that she struggled with anything, and with sixty-years of knowledge somehow or other burned into her young brain, she’d been finishing everything well before anyone else in each of her classes. They were all simple review sessions leading into their finals, but, everything seemed so terribly unorganized and inefficient.
With fifteen minutes between classes, and about that long again for each of the teachers to get any traction with what they were trying to teach, too much of middle school seemed like a blatant waste of time. Thankfully, each school day was short—actual class time in middle school only amounted to some five hours or so—time didn’t seem to drag on and on endlessly like her work shifts at the Safety plant had so many years ago.
Well, any more than that, and it’d interfere with my training schedule, Tabitha decided, hanging her backpack on the peg behind her door and pulling out the slightly musty clothes she was using for work-outs.
“I don’t want you doin’ any of that runnin’ around outside today, ‘till your homework’s done,” Mrs. Moore yelled. The large and fat woman had enthroned herself upon their battered and beaten sofa, and was nursing a pitcher of iced tea—idly drinking from it directly rather than pouring it into a glass—as commercials flickered by across their boxy old tube TV. “What homework have you got?”
“I was assigned a set of thirty Algebra review questions, a worksheet in Social Studies, and I was given the final weekly study packet for Language Arts,” Tabitha reported, already changing into one of those cut-off T-shirts so she could head out for her daily circuits around the trailer park.
“Did you hear a word I just said?” Mrs. Moore demanded in annoyance. “You sit your butt down at that table and get to work on all of that. You’re not steppin’ foot outside this house ‘til then.”
“My Language Arts class was on the way to the bus loop from my Social Studies class,” Tabitha shrugged, pausing as she opened the front door. “All of my homework has been completed, Mother. I thought it expedient to turn in all of the outstanding assignments before boarding the bus and returning home. Now that I have your permission, I’m proceeding with my daily run.”
“What a bunch of bologna!” Mrs. Moore scowled, twisting around to shoot a look after Tabitha. “Don’t you think for one instant that I won’t—Tabitha! Tabitha!”
Her daughter was already gone.
“Unbelievable!” Mrs. Moore swore, shaking her head in indignation. “That girl. I’m liable to call up her teachers right this instant. If she’s so much as a little behind in her lessons, her sorry behind’s getting tanned.” But then, her sitcom came back on. The pale glow of the television illuminated her bloated and frowning face as one liners were followed up one after another by the prerecorded laugh track, and her outrage and anger were gradually forgotten.
“Why’re you always runnin’ around, goin’ nowhere?” Mike asked. The scrawny eleven-year-old boy was idly riding his bike alongside her as she jogged her familiar route around the circumference of the Lower Park.
“I’m... running away from something,” She huffed between breaths. “Or... chasing something. I’m not sure, yet.”
“Weird,” he said. “My Mom said you’re tryin’ to lose weight.”
“That’s another way... of putting it,” Tabitha gasped, “yeah.”
“Oh. So, how much have you lost so far?”
“Okay, what’s your like—you know, your goal?”
“What... do you care?”
“I’m bored,” Mike shrugged, lazily pedaling along with his bare feet. “You’re at least, like, trying to do something. So, that’s cool.”
“My goal... is to lose fifty pounds. Before high school starts.”
“Jesus, lady,” Mike goggled at her. “Fifty pounds? That’s impossible. That’s like, almost as much as I weigh. I’m seventy-six pounds.”
“It’s not impossible,” Tabitha struggled out, her breathing still ragged. “It’s... the upper limit... of how much my body can endure. I was overweight... to begin with. Hundred and forty-eight pounds. I can safely lose... four pounds, every week. I can do this.”
“Yeah—if you don’t die,” Mike laughed. “That’s not healthy. You’re crazy.”
“High school’s... a cruel place, Mike,” Tabitha panted, tilting her head as she ran to give him a look. “I think… I’d be crazy... not... to do this.”
“Okay, okay. If you say so,” Mike said, letting his bike coast to a stop in front of the turn-off for his trailer. He watched the chubby girl plod along ahead of him with no sign of slowing down or stopping.
“Well, good luck.”
Her dreaded last week of middle school passed by without major incident. Tabitha immediately and impeccably dispatched any homework sent her way—her playing dumb act seemed sufficient for students to continue ignoring her. The most trouble her sudden academic ability aroused was Mrs. Hodge remarking on how focused she’d become. The exams for her classes ended up almost all being laughably easy multiple-choice sections, and she simply filled in all of the correct bubbles at alarming speed, racing through everything except for the essay on her Language Arts final. That, she worked and reworked until moments before time was called.
She’s certainly going to be surprised when she tries to grade THAT one, Tabitha thought, smiling to herself with satisfaction. I believe they’ll all find my thoughts on how the growing advancement and availability of computer technology might affect the nature of all social interaction in the future… rather prophetic. They’ll also realize that not setting a limit on essay length may be biting off more than they can chew.
School was never my real opponent, though, now was it? Grimacing, Tabitha, stretching from where she stood on top of the living room chair to reach the mildew on the ceiling with her wet rag.
“Are you even listening to me?” Mrs. Moore demanded, slapping the remote control onto the armrest of the sofa she occupied.
Tabitha paused for a moment, took a deep breath to calm herself, and resumed scrubbing away at the ceiling. Back when she was growing up, her mother possessed a commanding, authoritative presence. Mrs. Moore was one to be feared and respected—and never disobeyed. Now, however, the woman seemed to irrationally be in direct opposition to every single task Tabitha set her mind on, without any logic or reason. Was she always this way? Did I repress all of this?
“I said, I really don’t like all that karate you’re trying to do,” Mrs. Moore called over to her. “You’re just askin’ to hurt yourself, like you did on that trampoline jumper. And I don’t want to ever see you trying to fight with people, either!”
“It’s not karate,” Tabitha said, wringing brackish water out of the washcloth and into the waiting bucket perched on the window ledge.
“Karate, kung-fu, whatever it is you think you’re doing,” her mother shook her head in apparent distaste. “It’s disgraceful seeing you standing out there with your leg up in the air, where everyone can see you.”
“I’m a practitioner of Taekwondo, a Korean martial art known for its emphasis on kicking techniques,” Tabitha explained in a dull voice, wiping absentmindedly at the dirty water trying to trickle down her wrist before returning to scrub the paneling.
“Martial arts, Korea, listen to you. You’re thirteen. You don’t know a damn thing about Korea.”
“I may know more about Korea right now than anyone else alive,” Tabitha muttered under her breath.
“Don’t get smart with me,” Mrs. Moore warned. “I mean it, I don’t want you out there doing who knows what anymore. The neighbors are asking what on God’s green earth you’re up to, and I don’t know what in the world I’m supposed to tell them, anymore. So, no more. I don’t want you leaving this house unless—”
“Okay,” Tabitha threw the filthy rag down into her bucket hard enough to splash water out across the clean living room. She stepped off of the chair and dropped heavily to the floor, turned, and finally glared at her mother.
“Fine. Okay. How do you plan on stopping me?”
“Excuse me?” Mrs. Moore heaved herself up from her indentation in the sofa.
“How do you plan on stopping me?” Tabitha repeated, her voice going cold as the last of her patience today ran out. “What consequences are in store for me, should I refuse to obey? What are you going to do?”
“Tabitha Anne Moore, if you ever speak to me like that again, I’ll tan your sorry—”
“Go ahead,” Tabitha said, and the heavyset thirteen-year-old girl stepped forward. “Try it. Violence might just be the only leverage you have left. Let’s just see if my will breaks before your hands do.”
Stunned by her daughter’s cold indifference, Mrs. Moore was flabbergasted, still deciding how to threaten Tabitha next when her daughter simply stormed out the front door of the trailer, leaving it hang open behind her.
“Tabitha!” The fat woman exclaimed, stomping to stand in the doorway. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Grandma Laurie’s. Again,” Tabitha answered with a shout, not turning back. “Before either I do something stupid… or you do.”
“You’re thirteen years old, you’re not walking the whole way ‘cross town!” her mother bellowed. “Come back here, right this instant!” Your father’s going to hear about this!”
Summer sun filtered through the trees overhead as Tabitha jogged along the city sidewalk towards Grandma Laurie’s. Since receiving a talk from Grandma Laurie, Mr. Moore had provisionally agreed to allow Tabitha free reign in both planning their groceries and cooking meals for the family. As a result of that first batch of real food, Tabitha’s energy levels had skyrocketed. Gone were the days of teetering on the brink of exhaustion from failing to scrounge up healthy food—now the fridge was fully stocked with a variety of produce.
All she’d had to do was keep the cost well under their normal budget, and promise they would get more meals out of the purchases, both of which were easy to achieve. The quality of some of the grocery store vegetables was debatable, but Tabitha planned to use even that as a point in favor of at least visiting one of the farmers markets nearby.
The only problem was… once again, Tabitha’s mother. The sudden and alarming change in their foodstuffs threw the woman into fits for more reasons than one, and she was perpetually on edge and irritable. As if being robbed of everything she enjoyed eating wasn’t enough, the entire situation came about because Tabitha used Grandma Laurie to pressure Mr. Moore, which totally circumvented Mrs. Moore’s household authority.
I never wanted to take sides in these stupid family squabbles, Tabitha fumed, gritting her teeth. I just want to eat right. Is that so much to ask?!
She knew that her impatience to reshape her life was at fault here, but as she rounded the corner into Grandma Laurie’s familiar neighborhood, she just couldn’t see any other feasible route to take. I can’t live that same life again. I CAN’T. Even if it earns me all of her ire, even if it turns Mom completely against me. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Things were going to get bad between us once that blue album comes out, anyways.
Tabitha felt her shoulders start to reflexively hunch up at even the thought of that.
“I know I said I’d like to see you more often,” Grandma Laurie called over. “But, you’ve been coming by every other day, now. Is everything all right?”
“No,” Tabitha admitted honestly, trudging the last few steps of her journey across town and collapsing on her grandmother’s porch step. “Had another argument with that woman.”
“...Ah.” Grandma Laurie sighed, easing out of her chair so that she could sit down on the steps next to Tabitha. “What was it this time?”
“It’s always the same thing, I guess,” Tabby said, staring across the yard. “I’m growing up, and growing up fast. I think I can manage to deal with all of the changes I’m going through. But, I don’t think that she can.”
“It’s hard watching your children grow up,” Grandma Laurie nodded, stroking a hand through Tabitha’s hair.
“Do you think I’ll ever have kids?” Tabitha wondered out loud, leaning into her grandmother.
“Well, of course you will, Sweetie,” Grandma Laurie laughed, shaking her head as if it was a silly question.
...Huh? Tabitha blinked. What? I know I’m still young now, but... did my relatives actually assume I’d ever find someone? Tabitha had already long since stopped considering it as an option, years and years ago. Well, it still isn’t anything to think about now. Maybe if the right guy appears in my life this time. Then, I’ll think about it. After Julie’s older.
“I think I’m going to adopt,” Tabitha said. “When the time’s right. I want things to be perfect. I want to be able to give her everything.”
“Adoption?” It was Grandma Laurie’s turn to be surprised. “That’s always an option too, I suppose.”
“Are the boys home?” Tabitha asked, standing up and brushing leaves off the seat of her sweatpants.
“I’m sure they’re still playing their video games,” Grandma Laurie smiled. “I was just about to take them to the playground, so they could burn off all of that energy before I send ‘em on back to their parents.”
“Can I take them?”
“You want to take them to the playground?”
“School’s out for summer really soon,” Tabitha nodded. “I can look after them every other day, so that you can get some peace and quiet.”
“Uh… that’s very thoughtful of you, Sweetie,” Grandma Laurie said, surprised again. “But, you don’t have to do that. They can be a bit of a handful.”
“You’ve helped me out, a lot,” Tabitha said, looking at her grandmother with a serious face. “I meant it when I said I’d find some way to return the favor. Can I do this for you?”
“If that’s what you want,” the older woman chuckled. “You can take them today. I’m not going to pass up a chance for some peace and quiet—why do you think I’m out here on this porch?”
“Thank you,” Tabitha said, enveloping Grandma Laurie in a hug. “I’ll have them back by dark.”
“Oh, trust me—you’re very welcome.”
“Booooys!” Tabitha crossed over to the screen door and called inside, a grin spreading across her features. “Who wants to go play tag at the playground?”
“Huh,” Tabitha’s History teacher, Mr. Mann, grunted to himself as he graded the exams he’d given his classes. After going out of his way to make the thing obnoxiously difficult—and even throwing in several trick questions—someone had still managed to get a full score. He’d purposefully made his test a nightmare to give those damned lazy eighth-graders of his a real kick in the pants.
“Well, s’only one out of all the classes, anyhow. Let’s see, who’s our little prodigy… Tabitha Moore? Tabitha… Moore? Wait, isn’t that... that chubby head injury girl, from second period? SHE got full marks?”
“That... can’t be right…?” He flipped the paper back over with a frown, intent on double-checking all of her written answers again, more closely this time.