Don’t think I’ll ever actually feel compelled to act in anything, Tabitha mused to herself, idly glancing around at the throngs of scattered students boarding their buses.
But, the things Mom wants to teach me will still be helpful writing-wise. Simply WRITING a character doesn’t quite measure up to actually trying to BECOME one. Actually putting yourself in their shoes and trying to adopt their mannerisms and everything gives you a perspective that’s so much… DEEPER.
The school day was over, and Tabitha was standing at the curb along the edge of the bus loop among the small crowd of those still waiting for their bus to arrive. Hers was bus fifteen, and it usually arrived a few minutes late.
The dismissal times of Springton Middle and Springton High were staggered an hour apart because they shared school buses, and her bus made a more meandering trip through the district than most. Bus fifteen would make a dozen stops along the suburbs at the far edge of town before swinging back through Springton’s main drag towards her trailer park, seemingly almost as an afterthought.
Tabitha had taken up an interest in people-watching after the abrupt acting lesson her mother had foisted on her yesterday. High school teenagers yelling, chatting, and hurrying amid the row of parked buses had a certain energy to them she found fascinating. As a writer, she could simply sum up the general atmosphere with a few words, perhaps describing an air of excitement and relief at the drudgery of the school day finally concluding—but how would she express that as an actress? It felt like there were discernible differences in the way everyone carried themselves, but it was difficult to pinpoint what exactly they were.
They’re a bit more lively, for sure, Tabitha thought, watching people pass by. Their gait is a little different, too. They walk a little bit more quickly, more freely after final bell. But, there’s also this tinge of IMPATIENCE to it, too, like they don’t want to waste another single second—
With an abrupt and forceful shove, the world around Tabitha whirled as she was thrown forward off of the curb and onto the pavement. There was no time at all to think—she twisted in the air, right arm flailing out on instinct in an impossible attempt to reorient her balance as she fell. For a numb instant she observed her left hand flash out in pure reaction to keep her face from smashing into the pavement, and then she landed heavily.
What—The graceless fall hurt in a way that shook her bones and completely knocked the breath out of her, and it took a second to collect her thoughts and begin picking herself back up. The curb she’d been poised on was only six inches tall, but the push—
Somebody pushed me!
—The push had sent her sprawling forward so quickly that she’d gone more than horizontal, hit the ground at an angle. Landed on just her chin, her shoulder, and her left hand, her left hand that was in raw agony from the way it’d twisted beneath her—
Fuck it hurts—FUCK. Not good. Not good.
“Oh my God—are you okay?!” The girl who’d been standing nearest scrambled down beside her in a crouch. “Hey, that guy just—HEY! STOP! STOP THAT DUDE! THAT GUY JUST PUSHED HER!”
No no no, this can’t be happening, Tabitha’s eyes filled with tears at the sheer blinding pain, working her way up to sit with her knee beneath her while doubled over and clutching her left hand tightly in against herself. I—I’ve never broken a bone in my life, never. This—why would anyone—?
“Hey, are you alright?” A teenage guy was trying to steady her.
Despite herself, all she could manage out in reply was a choked sob. It hurt, it hurt so much. She didn’t want to cry right now, couldn’t cry right here, in front of everyone, but the humiliating tears just kept on coming regardless. The group of people she’d been standing in devolved into further chaos, people were running past them now— after somebody?—and highschoolers were actually disembarking back off of the buses they’d gotten on to see what all the commotion was about.
If-if I’d just had, like, ONE SECOND to—to prepare myself, I could’ve just made that into a handspring, Tabitha thought, furious and ashamed and struggling to awkwardly wipe her face with the inside of her right arm. But, there wasn’t one second, it just—it just happened, and I wasn’t prepared or paying attention or… or anything. Fuck, FUCK IT HURTS!
“It’s Tabitha Moore, some dude just came up and—”
“Think she broke her wrist, she’s—”
“That guy pushed her, just saw him make a break for—”
“Who was it?”
“Oh shit they’re fighting! Look, he—”
Everyone was talking, people were crouched beside her now, crowding all around her, and someone helped lift her up and back onto unsteady feet. People were still running past, and although she couldn’t actually see what was going on over there, Tabitha had a sense that a fight had broken out wherever they’d chased the pusher down to. Only, it hurt, and her throat kept constricting, seizing up in tiny sobs that she wasn’t able to stifle.
Everyone was looking at her, everyone was gathering, talking, staring, gawking at her predicament, and she’d never felt so wretched. Why? Why would anyone—is it just bullying, anymore, with this? This—it hurts so much. What did I do to anyone?!
“Check on her,” She recognized the stern older voice of what was probably the school dean yell out. He didn’t appear, so she assumed he was rushing over towards… whatever was happening over there.
“Excuse me,” Another man—a bus driver?— pushed through the teens and carefully took her by the shoulder. “Are you alright? Can you let me see it?”
Trying to quickly blink the stinging tears out of her eyes so she could see, Tabitha slowly lifted the hand she’d had cradled up against herself out so the man could see. It was trembling, she couldn’t keep it from shaking until the bus driver cautiously took hold of her fingertips, and it looked wrong. The silhouette of her pale hand wasn’t correct—there was a puffy wrong—looking area between her wrist and her pinky. It hurt.
“Yeah, that’s broken.”
“Might be a break, might be a fracture,” the bus driver admitted. “Are you hurt anywhere else? What’s your name?”
Tabitha shook her head from side to side, trying to clear her throat, trying to breath, but someone answered for her.
“She’s Tabitha Moore,” one of the nearby guys supplied.
It wasn’t anyone she recognized from her classes, she didn’t think, and it was a bit overwhelming right now that everyone in Springton High seemed familiar with who she was. All of the sudden sympathy and support might have felt really nice, if not for the circumstances that evoked it all. She’d never been the object of so much attention all at once, not even on the first day of school, and the alarming abruptness of it all felt crushing, made her intensely vulnerable, like her troubles were exposed for everyone’s interest and entertainment.
My troubles… Tabitha whimpered to cut off a wail before the rest of it could escape her lips, trying and failing to stiffen her face into a grimace rather than continue losing control and breaking down. Which she did. There was grit on her right palm from when she’d first lifted herself up off the blacktop, so she attempted to hide her crying behind the back of her hand, covering herself with her forearm, smearing it with her unabated tears.
It hurts so much! This—this isn’t bullying like it was before. I was—someone ATTACKED me. That’s not okay. That’s not okay. What did I even do? What did I even DO?! Why? I tried so hard, I tried to be so nice to everyone...
She didn’t realize she was being led forward until the dozens of gathered teens surrounding her fell away and were behind her as the bus driver led her back into the school towards the nurse’s office.
“No, I’m taking her to the fucking hospital now, and you all better have some goddamn answers for me when I get back,” Mr. Moore swore. “Or you’re all fucking through. You hear me?”
There was an unbridled fury in her father’s quiet voice that made Tabitha flinch in the plastic seat of the tiny waiting area within Springton High’s nurse’s office. Seeing him like this, witnessing something cruel in her typically plain, unassuming dad terrified her on a deep, subconscious level. It was as if these warnings he gave them were just a brief precursor to him actually erupting into violence, and the situation was growing more uncomfortable with each passing second.
She was balancing a large bag of ice atop the hand in her lap, and the intense pain had been subdued to a dulled, aching throb in time with her pulse. The biting cold was spreading up her entire arm, though, and she couldn’t help but shiver, gritting her teeth in irritation at how unpleasant it all was.
The initial shock and trauma of the incident had already given way to anger and annoyance, her mood plummeting to rock bottom and then settling in there for a long stay. The tumult of emotions took an enormous, exhausting toll on her, and she just wanted to sit and blankly stare off into the distance by herself for a long time.
“C’mon Sweetie, we’re going,” Mr. Moore said in a soft tone, helping her up out of her seat with exaggerated care as though she were made out of glass. “Up up up, easy does it.”
“Thank you,” Tabitha murmured, letting him guide her out the door. “Sorry for all this.”
“This isn’t your fault, Sweetie,” her father promised. “But, it sure as hell is someone’s fault, and we’re gonna get to the bottom of it once and for all. This isn’t going to happen ever again, okay?”
“Yeah,” She nodded, deciding not to display her doubt and bewilderment. Maybe. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I don’t even understand why it would ever happen to me.
His familiar truck was parked right in the staff parking area just outside the school offices, a strange juxtaposition to the eerie sight of the now empty and quiet school grounds. Mr. Moore brushed aside polite and helpful and unabashedly went full overprotective father on her, not only opening her door for her, but actually lifting her up into the passenger seat of the cab and buckling her in. The sentiment was embarrassing, but also… nice, in a way. A tiny island of contentment in her sea of distraught anxiety.
This broken… hand? Wrist, maybe? Is going to affect everything I do, Tabitha accepted with a sullen sigh. Guess I’ll probably need a cast? For… what, months and months? How am I going to even…?
Mr. Moore started the vehicle, pulled out of the parking lot, and they rumbled their way through town in tense silence. Tabitha felt like she needed to think, needed to plan, or figure out solutions, or something, but every shake and bounce of the bumps on the road sent distracting pangs up the length of her left arm even despite the bag of ice she was smothering the contusion with.
“This’s twice in a row now, Tabitha,” her father remarked. “In just a couple months. You gettin’ pushed and hurt, me gettin’ the call. I don’t like it, s’giving me gray hairs. I know you’ve been keepin’ things to yourself, but… Honey, I don’t like it. Not one bit. You just say the word and we’ll transfer you to Fairfield. These girls can’t keep treatin’ you like this, it’s… it’s inhuman.”
“I think it was a boy,” Tabitha said. Something about what he’d just said still felt off to her, though. “They said it was a boy who pushed me.”
“Yeah, I’ll just bet it was,” Mr. Moore grunted, scowling. “What grade’s that Taylor girl in, by now? Tenth? Eleventh?”
“That… who?” Tabitha turned to give her dad a puzzled look. “What?”
“That Taylor girl, the oldest one,” Mr. Moore continued. “Whichever one of them that pushed you off of that trampoline. Courtney? Brittney?”
“Pushed me off of the trampoline?” Tabitha dumbly repeated. What? “I thought I... fell?”
“Yeah, you fell, okay,” her father sounded genuinely irritated, now. “Only promised not to say anythin’ on it ‘cause you were bawling your eyes out, but Tabitha… enough is enough. You gettin’ hurt like this again, the bullying, whatever’s going on—this wasn’t supposed to happen again. What on God’s green earth am I supposed to tell your mother, now?”
“I… forgot,” Tabitha realized, a sinking sense of dread pervading throughout her as something important, some missing piece she’d been intentionally overlooking for all too long finally fell back into place. “I... didn’t fall off the trampoline? Someone—they, they pushed me.”
No, I didn’t forget! Tabitha’s breath hitched, and her heart was racing now. It wasn’t amnesia, either, or the concussion. I just… walled it all off, buried it, repressed it, all of it.
I came back to life as a thirteen year old, but I never manage to put an exact face to the girls who pushed me around and called me a goblin? How do I not realize that? How does a big fucking missing gap in my memory like that not stand out, until now? I fell off a FRIEND’S trampoline? Friends, what fucking friends?! Why did I never think to look into them?
Tabitha felt her stomach lurch, and she struggled to keep from vomiting right there onto the dashboard.
The three Taylor girls. The youngest one—Ashley? Ashleigh? Something like Ashley, but spelled a weird way?—was nice, but the older two… were fucking terrible, to both of us. They hit us, hurt us, ABUSED us. Fuck, FUCK. One of them’s been here with me in high school all this time—they both fucking HATED me. It’s either Erica or Brittney Taylor. And, Ashley—
“I forgot about Ashley,” Tabitha blurted out, her eyes watering all over again at the magnitude of her mistake. “I forgot all about. Ashley.”
“You what?” Her father asked, concern evident in his voice. “Ashlee Taylor?”
Oh my God. I forgot all about Ashlee—she’s been dealing with them, with this all alone. I never went back. Never went back after the trampoline thing the first time through, I was too scared to go back. Then, I just… what, fucking REFUSED TO REMEMBER? To ever think about it? Is that even possible? That poor girl, she must’ve thought I—no, I DID abandon her. Didn’t I? What the FUCK have I done?!
“They made me promise not to say anything,” Tabitha stammered out, tears running freely down her face again. “So—so they wouldn’t get into real trouble. Said they’d hurt Ashlee if I told anyone they pushed me.”
“They what?” Mr. Moore barked.
“But, I told you anyways, made you promise,” Tabitha finally remembered, feeling her heart sink and sink until it felt like it’d dropped right out of her. “I just, I didn’t tell you about Ashlee. I was scared. I—I was her friend, and then I just fucking forgot all about her.”
“Great to see you again, Miss Tabby,” Officer Williams took off his reflective sunglasses and put on a friendly smile, trying not to intimidate the girl. “You sure look a hell of a lot calmer than I’d be, in your shoes.”
That scrawny redheaded girl looked even smaller than he’d remembered, sitting now up on the paper sheet of the hospital examining table like this. Though her eyes were puffy, likely from crying earlier, she was seated upright with proper posture like a young lady. There was a certain stillness to her, a sense of presence that didn’t seem to fit her age at all. She didn’t seem like a teenage girl overwrought with emotion and struggling with pain—there was just a wistful, sad sense of resignment as she sat there clutching carefully at her new cast.
“It’s the codeine, I’m afraid,” Tabitha said with a weak smile. “I’m actually... quite ill at ease.”
Quite ill at ease, huh? Officer Williams paused, giving her a second look.
The girl’s demeanor had startled him back then when they’d been together trying to stop his idiot buddy Darren from bleeding out. A couple busy weeks had dulled the impression, making him wonder if he’d been overstating things simply due to the nature of the situation and circumstances… but no, this girl was definitely different. He dealt with Springton’s youths all the time, hell, he had his own kid about this same age whom he considered pretty sharp—but no, none of them were quite like this.
“Mr. Moore, good to see you again,” Officer Williams stepped over to shake the man’s hand and gave him a perfunctory nod.
“Yeah,” Mr. Moore grunted.
“Let’s have a looksie, how bad is it?” Officer Williams asked, gesturing towards her brand new cast.
“...Three to five months bad,” Tabitha said in a small voice, lifting the hand for his inspection.
The outer shell of the orthopedic cast was a ridged and rigid light shade of blue fiberglass, with softer white bandaging beneath visible at the edges. The big, clunky shape of it all but buried all of the fingers on her left hand, leaving only her thumb somewhat free to wiggle. Although he’d already learned she’d hurt her hand taking that fall, the cast was larger than he’d expected, continuing on down to just a few inches shy of her pale elbow.
“The fifth metacarpal is broken, and then my wrist is fractured—a Colles fracture,” Tabitha sighed. “I’m told it was a terribly unlucky fall... and also, that I’m not been getting enough calcium in my diet.”
He almost made a careless comment about how she needed to drink her milk every day, but tactfully managed to stop himself. They lived in that lower park area, this was a pretty poor family—maybe they didn’t go out of their way to buy milk, maybe they drank water for breakfast. Who knew where they had to cut corners to save money? Their income and dietary practices really weren’t anything it was appropriate for him to say things about.
“Uh-huh. Well—just wanted to get down a few things ‘bout what happened real quick, then I’ll get out of your hair,” Officer Williams finally said, letting her lower her broken hand back into her lap again. “Miss Tabby, the one who pushed you was a kid by the name of Chris Thompson—are you familiar with this boy?”
“No, not at all,” Tabitha shook her head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even see what he looks like.”
“...Huh. Well, that takes care of my next question too, then,” Officer Williams chuckled, clicking his pen out and jotting down no relationship at all? into the spiral notebook he’d brought in with him. “Now, I’m to understand all this has somethin’ or other to do with my son Matthew, and some sorta misunderstandings that might’ve been goin’ around the school this week?”
“Yes and no,” Tabitha frowned, taking a moment to gather her thoughts before she began elaborating. “There was a rumor. Supposedly, your son Matthew grew enamored of me when driving me to Louisville this past weekend and asked me out, kissed me, or some other such variation—which we know is false on all counts, as he wasn’t present there with us on that trip.”
“Right,” Officer Williams nodded. That was actually the main reason he was here in the first place—when he’d offhandedly asked his son if he knew anything about the situation, Matthew had said Dad… this might actually be my fault somehow, people taking what I said the wrong way or something somehow.
“However,” Tabitha continued. “I’m of the opinion that there was never any credence to the rumor at all; that it was simply another useful misunderstanding being leveraged by third parties as part of the ongoing harassment targeting me.”
“...Say what, now?” Officer Williams laughed, looking from her to her father and back again.
Our legal guy can’t even rattle off stuff like that without reading it off of his paper, He thought, feeling that sense of discongruity grow even further.
The hell’s this girl doing growing up in a trailer park? After a few beers those two weeks ago, he’d remarked to his wife that a shithole mobile home park like Sunset Estates was no goddamn place for a cop like Darren Macintire to die—this little girl was living there in that shitty place.
Even more recently, his wife had gone on and on about how intelligent the girl was, and apparently she was great with Hannah, too.
I offered to grab some quick McDonald’s for everybody, his wife had sighed into her pillow. Tabitha all politely asks for just A SALAD, and she digs out this crumpled old five-dollar bill for me. Like it was only natural, like of course she’d pay for her own meal—my heart just broke this little bit. You know Hannah—she wasn’t shy at all, went on about getting her Happy Meal toys. That’s how children should be, not… oh, Honey, I don’t know. Burdened with so many worries, it’s like, whatever it is growing up in a place like that—she carries herself differently, and it’s just fascinating and heartbreaking to see.
“So,” Officer Williams cleared his throat, “You think that’s what this is about? You’ve been being bullied?”
“All my life, yes,” Tabitha gave him a dry smile. “The school board had to launch an investigation because people were spreading the rumor that I was... engaging in inappropriate activity with a teacher. I was actually hospitalized just a few months earlier, under similar circumstances to these today.”
That got his attention in a big way.
“Hospitalized?” He quickly started scrawling out quick notes on a new line—that student/teacher misconduct thing would have to be looked into, as well. “Can you tell me what happened there?”
“I was pushed, off of a trampoline,” Tabitha explained. “By one of the older sisters of a… friend of mine.”
“Hairline fracture on her skull,” Mr. Moore spoke up, sounding just as angry as he looked. “She got her X-rays here, then they sent her upstate to Emsie Saint Juarez children’s hospital for an MRI.”
“Yeah, trampolines are dangerous, someone’s always gettin’ hurt,” Officer Williams remarked. “Sure it wasn’t just an accident?”
“Just as much of an accident as today’s incident was,” Tabitha said, looking a little amused. “I was threatened—told that if I spoke up about them pushing me, they’d hurt my friend Ashlee. One or possibly both of those older sisters currently attends Springton High, though I don’t think I’ve run afoul of either of them since.”
“You think they’re related to this time?” Officer Williams asked.
“I don’t know,” Tabitha admitted. “Maybe? I don’t mean to implicate them in this affair today without cause... but, I really don’t have any other conjecture at all on why anyone would attack me. I keep to myself, and seldom interact with any of my peers. I have two friends, and… that’s it.”
“Well, somethin’ to look into, in any case,” Officer Williams said with a thoughtful frown. “So, I’m to assume you’ve been speaking out about this, that this whole situation is possibly just some escalating drama that got out of hand?”
“No, not at all,” Tabitha shook her head. “I’ve kept my mouth shut—I haven’t said a word. In my experience, you never feed the trolls. The conventional wisdom is that they’re deliberately attempting to provoke an upset or angry response out of me—why should I give them what they want? In time, they’ll eventually lose interest and move on to attack someone else.”
“Hah, never feed the trolls, huh?” Officer Williams chuckled. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard it put that way. I’ve heard somethin’ like playing dead during bear attacks and whatnot, but hell—teenage girls’re way meaner than any bear.”
“Trolls or bears is damn right,” Mr. Moore grunted. “It’s inhuman, the way these kids’ve treated her.”
“But—if you’d spoken up, defended yourself, said—no, hey, that’s not how it happened, it mighta defused the whole story,” Officer Williams pointed out. “Put all those rumors to rest.”
“I don’t think you really believe that,” Tabitha replied with a bitter smile. “None of the talk is ever about what really happened. It’s senseless mud-flinging—they’ll throw whatever they can get their hands on in hopes that something will stick. I refuse to play into their game, and there’s no point dirtying my hands just giving them ammunition to use against me.”
“What you’re doing is very mature, Sweetie,” Mr. Moore said. “Makes me damned proud of you, that you don’t stoop to their level.”
“When you put it like that, it’s hard to see how things went this far,” Officer Williams remarked, rubbing his jawline in contemplation. “They don’t seem to have, as you say, lost interest and moved on to someone else, and this is headin’ in the direction of an actual criminal case if we don’t do something.
“If there’s no connection between you and this Chris Thompson boy, then somebody sure as hell put him up to it, or said somethin’. You think it was these girls that pushed you before?”
“I think it’s possible,” Tabitha shrugged, carefully cradling her cast. “Like I said, I really do keep to myself. I don’t know any of those girls, and I can’t think of who else it might be.”
“Worth looking into, for sure,” Officer Williams said. “Could I have their names?”
“Brittney and Erica Taylor,” Carrie revealed, her voice tinny-sounding and distant through the phone Elena had pinned between her cheek and her shoulder. “They absolutely hate her the most, anyways. Tabitha used to go over to their house to play with their l’il sister Ashlee, and I guess stuff kept coming up missing, you know what I mean?”
“They’re sisters?” Elena asked, furiously writing down the two names as quickly as she could. “Both sophomores?”
“Erica is, Brittney’s a senior,” Carrie said. “But, did you hear what I just said? You sure you wanna hang with a girl like Tubby Tabby? Do you even remember her from back in Laurel? You know she’s from that nasty trailer park, right?”
“She’s, really, completely, totally not whoever she used to be,” Elena said with conviction, trying hard not to carry even a hint of anger in her tone. “Like, at all. I mean—Carrie c’mon, you’ve seen her.”
Calling up Carrie for answers had been extremely hard for her, yet surprisingly, her former friend wasn’t being all that antagonistic. It was somehow still so easy to talk to Carrie, but at the same time this estrangement was now there, and Elena wasn’t sure which hurt more—the realization that Carrie had changed so much, or the thought that actually, Carrie hadn’t really changed much at all.
“Well, it’s gonna be this whole stupid big thing now!” Carrie sighed. “I’d keep my distance, ‘Lena, I’m so serious.”
“Why? Elena asked slowly, struggling to not immediately leap into the same active defense she’d become so practiced it over the past two days. “Because of Matthew Williams, or just because of some newspaper article?”
“Matthew Williams? Newspaper article?” Carrie sounded bewildered. “Elena—were you on one of the buses that was already gone? Chris Thompson’s probably gonna get suspended ‘cause of her. Like, I’ve already heard talk like they’re not gonna let him play anymore—so, yeah um, our whole football team’s basically fucked, now.”
“—What?” Elena abruptly sat up on her bed. “Fuck our football team, Carrie! Chris Thompson, the varsity running back? What happened, what the hell did he say to her?”
“Say to her?” Carrie paused. “Wow. You really don’t even know? Elena—please please please, quit hanging around with those trailer trash girls and stick with Monica and me and the rest of us from now on? Tabitha’s seriously bad news, they’re both such bad news. Did you know that black girl friend of hers is the one who made up that photo and sent it in? I heard that—”
“Carrie, what happened?”