Like always, Alicia sat by herself on the bus, settling into a comfortable slouch with knees up against the vinyl of the seat in front of her so that she could stare out the window and watch the scenery pass by. The dark-skinned girl wasn’t brooding, exactly, but nor did she feel like a particularly friendly and talkative morning person. When another kid dropped in beside her, singling her out by asking if she was that Tabitha girl’s friend, Alicia couldn’t suppress her annoyance.
Until the boy—a friend of one of the guys who’d tried to pick a fight with Chris Thompson yesterday— began catching her up on what’d happened in the bus loop yesterday. Alicia listened on in dismay and disbelief, mentally kicking herself for never exchanging phone numbers with Tabitha.
Can’t believe I was in the dark about this, Alicia thought to herself, furious. All this nonsense is finally exploding completely out of control. These kids are fucking unbelievable!
The trip to school had seemed to take forever, with Alicia sitting up and gripping the top of the seat in front of her impatiently, silently swearing up a storm. When they finally arrived, she burst out of her seat and down the aisle to run off of the bus, dashing over to Tabitha immediately upon spotting her slowly trudging along in the distance of the quad area. First bell wouldn’t ring for some fifteen minutes, but it felt like there were a million things she needed to ask.
“I’m so sorry! Didn’t hear anything ‘til this just this morning!” Alicia hurried to apologize as she slowed to a stop beside her friend. “Are you okay? Tabs—Jesus, you look like shit.”
“Feel like shit,” Tabitha admitted with a weak smile. “Didn’t sleep much.”
“What happened?” Alicia asked, stepping closer to examine her friend. The new cast was held up across the girl’s chest in a faded nylon sling, and she couldn’t help but stare at it.
Alicia really wanted to grab Tabitha into a fierce hug, but the redhead was looking more than just a little under the weather—it looked like she was barely managing to stand upright. The girl’s shoulders were stiff and hunched in, and her already pale features had a dreadful sickly pallor to them, with bruise-like dark circles under her red-rimmed eyes. It seemed like a stiff breeze could come along and knock this slightly swaying Tabitha completely off her feet.
“Got pushed, fell,” Tabitha said with a grimace. “Hurt. Three or five months to heal.”
“Are you okay?” Alicia fretted, carefully taking Tabitha by the shoulders to steady her. “Jesus. Did they give you like, painkillers? Tylenols?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tabitha nodded with a strained face. “Codeine. Kinda.”
“It came back up this morning—couldn’t keep it down.”
“You... threw up?” Alicia frowned. “Can you try and take another one? Tabitha—”
“It’s not as bad as last night,” Tabitha refused with a pained expression. “They only gave us so many tablets. I just—I need to sit down for a minute. Please.”
More than a few people were watching them as Alicia guided Tabitha over towards one of the nearby concrete planters lining the quad. The decorative foliage within had long since died and been rooted out, and students typically now just used all the planter ledges as seats. When she finally sat Tabitha down, the redhead folded, doubling over to clutch at her knees in an alarming way. Alicia dropped to a crouch beside the crumpled girl in concern.
“Tabs?” Alicia asked. “Hah, Tabs, you’re scarin’ me. You are not okay—you shouldn’t be in school today. Tabs? Tabitha?”
“I’m okay,” Tabitha grunted unconvincingly. “Just. Need a minute.”
“Um…” Alicia glanced around for Elena, but it looked like their other friend hadn’t arrived yet. “I mean, how’d this even happen? Shouldn’t you have known like, just the right moment to dodge, or something, to prevent it from happening? Or the right day to skip takin’ the bus? With your, uh, bein’ from the future?”
“Hah,” Tabitha let out a tired laugh, slowly straightening herself to sit upright and carefully adjusting her sling. “I wish. Changed too many things. I guess. Never got pushed, last time through—never broke a bone. This is... a first.”
“Oh, shit,” Alicia felt stumped. “Guess I never considered that. Uncharted territory? So things are now like, worse than they were the first time?”
“No, not worse,” Tabitha gave her a bitter smile. “Just… different. Hard. I didn’t break anything back then, but also… no one would’ve cared if I had. This time, I have you. And Elena. Friends.”
“Sorry,” Alicia blurted out, feeling a wave of guilt wash over her. Geez, some friend I’ve been.
“No, don’t be sorr—” Tabitha began, looking troubled.
“Tabitha!” Elena was quickly crossing their way with that long stride of hers. “Hey. My parents talked last night—they’re gonna try to do something ‘bout all this.”
“Try to do something?” Tabitha repeated, blinking.
“Yeah,” Elena gave them a serious nod. “My Dad thinks that so long as we just apply this little bit of pressure, the school’ll cave like, right away.”
“Oh. Elena— your family doesn’t have to, um,” Tabitha said sheepishly. “Do all that on my behalf.”
“It’s not a problem,” Elena frowned. “Tabby, I’m like—I’m pissed. Look at what they did to you!”
“She’s right,” Alicia nodded in support. “This has all got to stop.”
Although she completely agreed with Elena’s stance, Alicia couldn’t help but feel terribly inadequate as a friend. The confident blonde white girl always seemed to be in the know, always seemed to have parents or someone to turn to right away for immediate results. She didn’t dislike Elena for that, not anymore, but there was this helpless frustrating feeling she couldn’t shake all the same.
“Tabby… are you gonna be alright?” Elena asked. “You don’t look so good, like, at all.”
“I’m better, now,” Tabitha softly smiled. “Better than I’ve been in a long while, I think.”
“Tabs—I’m gonna get you a marker by lunch period,” Alicia promised Tabitha, hopping up to sit beside Tabitha and then gingerly pulling her into a hug. “For you to keep with you.”
“Don’t let anyone else sign your cast before I do—I wanna be the first, okay? It’s gonna be really cool, I promise.”
I think... I’m in serious trouble, Tabitha thought, weakly clutching at the edge of her desk with her remaining hand.
The first period Marine Science classroom felt like it was slowly spinning, and she was afraid to meet the worried looks Elena kept shooting in her direction. Tabitha knew she couldn’t take today’s codeine tablet on an empty stomach, so she’d tried to force down half a banana for breakfast. That had apparently been a mistake, and she’d kneeled over the bathroom toilet retching it right back up shortly afterwards.
Stomach ulcers from her past life made it extremely easy for her to mentally associate hunger with gastric pain, which had been a great help in rapidly losing weight over the summer. Now when she actually needed to keep food down, however, it was working against her in a terrible way. Intellectually, she recognized her body was actually famished, that she was practically faint with hunger. But, some subconscious part of her brain stubbornly continued to interpret the increasing discomfort as ulcer pain, and her body seemed intent on rejecting everything in a dizzying bout of nausea.
I mean, I also I don’t want to gain weight, sure—I’m TERRIFIED of ever gaining weight again. Especially right now, Tabitha slowly winced. Damn. Am I, what, turning anorexic now?
The problem was, she just didn’t feel like she was hungry at all—instead it was registering as a steadily deepening pit of stress and pain in her tummy, until the very idea of eating felt absolutely vile. Which meant the last actual meal she’d had was yesterday’s breakfast, the morning of the day she’d taken that fall. Right now she felt feeble, like her body was well past running on fumes and instead starting to coast to a complete stop.
Didn’t work out last night. Didn’t sleep much. Didn’t do my morning run, or even just a walk with my mother, Tabitha inwardly tallied her recent negligence. Need to figure out how I’m going to cook dinners with just the one hand, for a while. Start teaching Mom to help? That would—
“Tabitha Moore? Excuse me, can we speak with Tabitha Moore outside for a moment?”
The adult voice jarred Tabitha out of her thoughts, and she twisted in her seat towards the door of the classroom in confusion. The entire class had turned to look as well. A rotund older man she recognized as a school administrator of some sort was leaning in through the doorway.
Oh. Okay. She’d paused for a moment in something of a daze, and before she could get up herself Elena was helping her up out of her seat and down the row of desks. There was another adult waiting outside, along with a teenage boy that Tabitha assumed was a student aide of some sort. She felt Elena’s grip on her arm tighten at the sight of them, and when Tabitha looked up, she saw her friend was scowling with such undisguised malice that she was nearly baring her teeth at them.
“Just Tabitha, please,” the administrator waved Elena away.
Ignoring the man, Elena trotted over to grab a plastic chair from the table at the back of the room, carrying it outside the classroom and placing it down for Tabitha. The tall blonde then went back inside, closing the door behind her, and stood there—glaring out at them through the vertical rectangle of glass set in the classroom door with her arms crossed.
“Good morning,” the administrator greeted, putting his hand forward. “I’m Principal Edwards, this is Mr. Thompson and his son. We’d like to talk to you about what happened yesterday.”
Fucking hell, Chris, Mr. Thompson wanted to swear, looking from this scrawny waif of a girl to his tall and athletic son in growing outrage. You pushed THIS girl? She must weigh ninety pounds soaking wet—just look at her skinny little arms!
From the rumors and hearsay, he’d expected some sullen, sulking teenage girl, maybe one styling herself after… damn, who is it nowadays? Madonna? Shakira? Whatever stupid fashionista kids imitate these days. Instead, this Tabitha girl dressed tastefully and had a gentle, somewhat mousy demeanor that seemed completely at odds with all prior assumptions.
The pain the girl was experiencing didn’t look feigned in the slightest, either—she was unsteady on her feet, her eyes were tight, and she was forgetting her own dangling arm sling to instead protectively hold her cast up high against her own collarbone. Her entire little frame seemed to be radiating distress, and it was all he could do not to slap his son stupid at the mere sight of her.
Scoffed at the idea anyone’d break anything just falling down off a curb, Mr. Thompson found himself struggling and failing to reign in the protective instincts that Tabitha naturally aroused. Looking at her now, seems damn lucky she didn’t break more—she got shoved by a running back probably twice her size! Jesus, the cast even looks huge on her. Chris, don’t you see how damn bad this ends up looking?
“Have a seat, please,” Principal Edwards said, gesturing towards the chair the girl’s surly friend had brought out for her.
“Um,” Tabitha hesitated warily for a moment before easing down into the seat. “Thank you.”
“This is Chris Thompson,” Principal Edwards motioned Chris forward. “He’s here to apologize for what happened yesterday.”
The girl shrunk back in her chair, hunching her shoulders in ever so slightly, as if only now really registering the teenage boy’s presence.
“Yeah,” Chris reported stiffly, as if reading off a script. “...Sorry.”
Donald Thompson turned an incredulous stare at his oaf of a son, but it appeared that was all the boy was willing to say. Before he could resist, he found himself swatting a smack upside the idiot sixteen-year-old’s head. In front of them, Tabitha flinched back at the sudden violence, timidly half-rising out of her chair.
“Mr. Thompson—please,” Principal Edwards frowned, holding up a hand. “Chris, c’mon now. I know you’re a team player and you’re a good kid—is that really all you’ve got to say for yourself?”
“Yep,” Chris replied with a stubborn set of his jaw. “Sorry.”
“How do you two kids know each other, if you don’t mind my asking?” Principal Edwards pressed, looking from Chris to Tabitha for answers. “I’d like to know how things got to this point.”
“I’m sorry, I… don’t believe we’ve ever met?” Tabitha turned a perplexed look of her own towards Chris.
“Yeah, right,” Chris scoffed, refusing to look her in the eye. “She’s been telling everyone I run like a faggot.”
“No—I haven’t,” Tabitha sagged back into her chair, displaying a bitter smile that didn’t seem to match her age. “But. I suppose one of the Taylor sisters told you that.”
“Not really,” Chris gave them an unapologetic shrug. “Everyone’s been hearing her say it.”
“The Taylor sisters?” Mr. Thompson prompted.
“They... put me in the hospital earlier this year,” Tabitha explained slowly. “Under similar circumstances. They pushed me when I was visiting their younger sister, Ashlee. Cracked skull, had to be sent up to Louisville for a better MRI. I think they’ve been… out to make things difficult for me here, ever since I started school.”
“No they’re not,” Chris sneered. “She’s the one always starting shit—ask anyone.”
“She has not,” Elena interrupted, opening the door a crack so that she could speak through. “The Taylors are the ones spreading all the nasty rumors about Tabitha nonstop. Mr. Simmons almost lost his Goddamn job! Hey, Mr. Simmons, come tell them about— ”
“Could you go take your seat, please, Miss?” Principal Edwards frowned. “This is a private issue between Tabitha and Chris.”
Except… that doesn’t seem to be the case? Mr. Thompson coolly turned to appraise the Springton principal. Seems like some other girls were just using him to harass this girl? This Tabitha girl didn’t recognize Chris from Adam when she stepped out here. God DAMNIT, Chris. You’ve got to be smarter than all this.
Visibly fuming, Elena slammed the door closed again. She continued to scowl out the little window at them, refusing to go sit down.
“Did one of these Taylor girls say something to you?” Mr. Thompson pressed, giving his son a cold look.
“I guess?” Chris grudgingly shrugged again. “Everyone’s saying it, though.”
So that’s it, then, Mr. Thompson narrowed his eyes. You might’ve just thrown away your whole football future, all because you never stopped to question anything that was said for a single damned second.
Donald Thompson liked to imagine that his boy was pretty sharp, that Chris had great prospects and a promising athletic career ahead of him. Realizing just how immature and shortsighted his son actually was... had an incredibly sobering effect. This time he could almost feel the gray hairs coming in.
“Tabitha,” Mr. Thompson resigned himself to a sigh, looking away from his wayward son. “Has your father said anything about pressing charges? We’d like to cooperate and settle all of this as cleanly as possible, no matter what that ends up meaning.”
“No, but. Um,” Tabitha hesitated and then winced. “Can I give you our phone number? I don’t think my father’s insurance likes me being so, um. Injury-prone. He hasn’t said anything to me, but I’m sure he had to pay mostly out of pocket for the x-rays and cast, this time. If there’s... any sort of assistance you could—”
“Consider it all covered,” Mr. Thompson agreed immediately. Right out of Chris’ college fund, and he’s gonna work his ass off to put it back into shape before the end of the year. For STARTERS. “That goes without saying. How bad is it?”
“It’s…” Tabitha frowned, unconsciously trying to wiggle the cast-encased fingers of her left hand. “The fifth metacarpal is broken, and my wrist is fractured. I’m sorry, I-I don’t know how much it all cost.”
“We’ll take care of it,” Mr. Thompson promised, frowning in his son’s direction but somehow managing not to hit him again.
“Good, good,” Principal Edwards smiled. “I’m glad this was all able to be resolved.”
“No this is not resolved,” Mrs. Cribb growled in exasperation, digging and hunting through the dish of Halloween candy someone had set back behind the front desk. She threw Principal Edwards a dirty look. “Are you serious?”
Wearing a sweater featuring a pumpkin patch atop her more professional button-up blouse and suit pants, forty-nine-year-old Pamela Cribb from the Springton school board couldn’t help but think she’d arrived not a moment too soon—the situation here was turning into a total fiasco! Although ostensibly just another member of the school board, in practice Pamela Cribb found herself doing a lot of legwork and oversight between the schools, as their district was considered too small to appoint an actual assistant superintendent.
Resolved? Mrs. Cribb seethed, finally singling out an individually wrapped little Milky Way. Not damned likely. Mr. Edwards—you don’t seem to have any grasp of the SEVERITY of this situation.
Karen Williams had called her late last night, angry to the point of tears, and Mrs. Cribb hadn’t had any clue where to even begin placating the woman. They were longtime friends—both members of the Springton United Methodist church, and they’d been in Women’s Fellowship Choir group together for years. Karen Williams was such a nice, friendly woman that hearing her so furious, even over the phone, had been more than a little startling. Worse yet, it was Karen Williams, and that woman knew everyone.
“Erica Taylor, Brittney Taylor, Kaylee Mendolson,” Mrs. Cribb double-checked the names she’d written down. “Pull these girls out of class and have them sent up to the office. They’ll all be facing suspension.”
“Suspension, based on a he said, she said?” Principal Edwards frowned. “When it’s just one of these girl’s words against another—”
“Yes, suspension—based on the school board’s immediate harassment investigation,” Mrs. Cribb’s anger was rising, and she found it difficult to keep it out of her voice. “Springton police has a county lawyer preparing to press charges, the parent teacher association’s flooding with angry calls already, and we just received a second notice of claim, now from the law offices of Seelbaugh and Straub.”
“Seelbaugh and Straub?” Principal Edwards began to bluster. “The Thompson family already agreed to cover expenses for—”
“This isn’t just about the Thompson boy!” Mrs. Cribb interjected. “Henry—we’re being threatened with lawsuits based on information that we, the school board, haven’t even begun to collect yet. Everyone’s out for blood—if it’s going to be ours, I think I’d at least like to know why! Go pull those girls out of class. Now.”
She rubbed her temples in vexation as Principal Edwards left with the brief list of names. The heavyset Principal had just been so confident that smoothing things over between the Thompson and Moore families would put the entire matter to rest. Mrs. Cribb felt the pressure and urgency, even if the Springton High administration did not—she knew that she needed to get to the bottom of this before things snowballed completely out of control. The situation didn’t seem to warrant an emergency school board meeting—yet—but if she didn’t get a handle on things quickly, the matter wouldn’t end at just a few expulsions.
The last thing we can afford right now is any kind of legal battle!
“Mrs. Clara?” Mrs. Cribb asked, knocking on the door of the rear office. “You have the student record for Miss Tabitha Moore out?”
“Have it here—Ninth grade. Graduated from Laurel, recommended for advanced placement English. Birthday in December. Vaccinations are up to date,” Mrs. Clara read from the brief file while shaking her head. “There was the one rumor about inappropriate conduct with a teacher, but it was just a rumor—we thought it best to handle as quietly as possible. Nothing grade-wise ‘till the end of this first term, but Mrs. Albertson’s insisted the girl’s at the top of her class.”
“Top of which class?” Mrs. Cribb asked. “Mrs. Albertson teaches her, what—English?”
“The advanced placement English, yes,” Mrs. Clara nodded. “From what I understand though, she means Miss Moore may be at the top of the entire class, the entire freshman class. We have signatures from three teachers, recommending we skip the girl on up another grade level.”
“You’re kidding,” Mrs. Cribb sighed, palm on her forehead. “Freshman, birthday in December? Is she thirteen years old, or fourteen? Fifteen?”
“Looks like…” Mrs. Clara checked the printed date of birth. “Thirteen?”
“Thirteen—that’s way too damned young for this kind of bullying,” Mrs. Cribb growled, letting out a slow breath. “Have either student aides, or a monitor, or someone keep a close eye on her—in fact, I don’t want this poor girl out of anyone’s sight until this is all taken care of. Classes, between classes, at lunch. The bus loop, too. Send any problems right here to the office for suspension—worst comes to worst, we pull the whole damned student body into the auditorium and give them all a long talking-to about acceptable conduct.”
Thankfully, Mrs. Clara didn’t dilly-dally once she had her instructions. The woman gave her a prompt nod and immediately stepped out, off to track down and notify each of Tabitha’s teachers.
Our saving grace so far seems to be that the first major incident with that fractured skull didn’t happen on school grounds, Mrs. Cribb pursed her lips, leaning across Mrs. Clara’s desk for the office phone and pressing for an outside line. If this does wind up in court, I’m gonna make sure it’s the parents of these girls answering, not the damned school board.
Punching in the number on record and then dropping down heavily into the office chair, Mrs. Cribb fought the urge to drum impatient fingers across the surface of the desk. She remembered Karen Williams had always been a delight to collaborate with, on anything—be it organizing a fundraiser dinner, a surprise birthday party to celebrate one of the congregation’s elderly members, or even putting together a fun trip for the youth group at the last minute, after original plans had fallen through. It was more than a little frightening imagining that smiling woman instead working against her, and Mrs. Cribb couldn’t help but grit her teeth at the prospect.
“Hello—am I speaking to the parents of Erica and Brittney Taylor?”
“Well, both Erica and Brittney got sent home, so something’s up,” Elena deduced. “Everyone’s talking about it.”
Tabitha was slumped over, leaning up against Alicia at their lunch table. Her left arm was trapped under Alicia’s, and even pinned into place, because her artistic friend needed her to be absolutely still so that she could finish drawing on Tabitha’s cast. Today, it was easy for Tabitha to obediently lie still and motionless—she felt exhausted and empty.
“Everyone here’s always talking, about everything,” Alicia grumbled. “Don’t know how you do it, Elena. I sure couldn’t put up with it.”
Even though she didn’t feel quite all there, Tabitha wasn’t blind to the marked difference in the way Springton High treated her today. Students had openly stared, steering a wide berth around her and gawking at her from a distance. The chatty teenage girls in each of Tabitha’s classes had fallen into a strained, somehow angry-seeming silence in her presence. It seemed foreboding to her, made her glumly suspect that the worst was still yet to come.
Most of the severe stomach pain had faded away throughout the day, and she was now more than content to listlessly watch on as Alicia did her thing. Her friend was carefully creating what looked to be a scrollwork series of swirls and flourishes, according to some larger intricate plan that Tabitha couldn’t discern. Each steady touch of fine-point marker embellished the light blue of Tabitha’s cast with more and more of the artful pattern, and it was mesmerizing to watch.
Looks like one of those fancy designs from the future, like they’d have in those stress relief coloring books, Tabitha mused to herself. Maybe we can color it in? Can you paint a cast, or does it need to breathe?
“Communicating with others is super important, though,” Elena argued. “I don’t like what they have to say, but you need to be able to hear all of it, you know? Otherwise it’s just, I dunno. Burying your head in the sand, missing out on details and things ‘cause you just don’t wanna hear them.”
“It’s okay, Alicia,” Tabitha murmured, patting her friend’s shoulder. “I’m not good with people, either.”
“I think you can be,” Elena laughed. “You were great with your little cousins, it’s like you were this whole different you.”
“My cousins aren’t… people,” Tabitha tried to not make a face. “They’re my cousins. My little tribe of goblin warriors.”
“Can’t believe you’d call them that,” Alicia chided with a snort. “Shame on you, Tabs. Calling other people goblins, already.”
“They’re not… people, though,” Tabitha insisted. “They’re my little cousins. Don’t you have little cousins?”
“Tabitha… you’re pretty out of it,” Elena said. “You should probably be at home resting today, or something?”
“My Dad said he’d pick me up early if I don’t feel any better,” Tabitha explained, giving her blonde friend a bleary look. “I just, I don’t want to be at home. It’s frustrating there.”
“You still look terrible,” Elena said, pausing and sitting up straight as someone approached their table. “Oh, uh... hey. Tabitha; this is Carrie. Don’t know if you remember her from Laurel? We all had stuff together.”
Carrie? Tabitha wearily looked up at the new arrival, trying to recall where she’d heard that name before.
An unimpressed looking teenage girl had walked up to their table, wearing one of those fashionable winter vests that puffed out between the quilted seams. It took her a moment to place the design—the closed vest’s three colors made up the Tommy Hilfiger logo flag, the first instance of it she’d seen in her second trip through life. But definitely not the last…
Carrie had a pretty face, touched up with impressive if a little over-the-top makeup. A combination of liberally-applied nineties-style blue eyeshadow and cosmetic glitter gave the girl a frosty ice princess aesthetic, and then her long hair was just a few shades blonde of natural, pinned above the thin arch of her eyebrow on either side with barrettes. Two carefully chosen tendrils of hair were left free to frame her face, and while the look worked because she had naturally attractive, youthful features, the placement was so deliberate that it came off as a little pretentious.
“You really do look terrible,” Carrie appraised, looking Tabitha over in return with a level of scrutiny that made Tabitha distinctly uncomfortable. “They’re all saying you’re faking it—but like, how do you fake it when you’re the one that got pushed, right?”
“Right,” Elena nodded in agreement—as if she’d coached Carrie in what topics to broach earlier.
“...Hi, Carrie,” Tabitha said with caution, trying to sit up and look a bit more presentable. “I think I do remember you.”
Or at least, my subconscious does? Tabitha thought in embarrassment. Last night’s feverish dream was hazy now, but she definitely remembered that this Carrie girl had been present—the teen bragging about how she’d been back in time getting laid.
“All that was back in middle school,” Carrie shrugged in way of apology, eyeing Tabitha for her reaction as if daring her to say something about it. “We’re in high school now, sooo, all of that back then was whatever. Right?”
“She means she’s sorry,” Elena attempted to mediate, throwing Carrie a glance of warning. “And, that things are gonna be different from now on.”
“It’s okay,” Tabitha said with an awkward smile. “I’ve put it all behind me, whether I wanted to or not. That concussion back then did a number on me—everything at Laurel is all just kind of... a big scary blur, now.”
“Okay, cool,” Carrie nodded. “I am kinda sorry things were like that. Anyways, ‘Lena says you didn’t get lipo?”
“Hey, everybody’s been saying things,” Carrie held up her hands defensively. “Just wanna know what’s for real, alright?”
“It’s okay,” Tabitha sighed. She carefully shifted her sling until her cast was resting at her shoulder, and then leaned back from the table, peeling her blouse up to reveal bare midsection.
“Uhhh—” Carrie laughed, giving her a skeptical look. “What are you doing?”
“It’s only been a few months,” Tabitha explained. “Scars would be noticeable. Fat reduction surgeries, they make little incisions so they can remove tissue. I’m too young for that kind of procedure, anyways, though. Don’t think you can get it below the age of eighteen.”
“Okay, yeah!” Carrie leaned in for closer inspection, finally looking mollified. “Not a scratch anywhere, cool. You’re super pale, though—yikes.”
“It’s October,” Elena said, exasperated. “All of us are gonna be a little pale, okay? ‘Cept Alicia, of course.”
“Hey!” Alicia yelled in mock-indignation.
“I’m not that pale,” Carrie retorted, looking from girl to girl. “And—Alicia’s black.”
“I am?!” Alicia held out her hands and gaped at them in feigned shock. “Gee, nobody’d pointed it out for a few minutes, thanks. Sure wouldn’t wanna forget!”
“Har har,” Carrie made a disgusted face. “Chill out, geez. I have black friends.”
“I’m actually just… always pale,” Tabitha tried to explain. “I’m pale, or I burn—there isn’t any, um. In-between, for me.”
“You didn’t have to show Carrie anything, Tabitha,” Elena said. “You don’t have to prove yourself to anybody.”
“That’s dumb,” Carrie disagreed, giving Elena a doubtful look. “Like, if she can prove it with that, she should’ve just shown everybody?”
“S’not what my Mom says,” Elena refused, crossing her arms. “You shouldn’t ever try to appease the people who put you down, for any sort of validation—‘cause then from then on, it’s like you’ve given them authority over you.”
“That doesn’t even make any sense,” Carrie rolled her eyes. “Elena, you’re turning into a total nerd.”
“You’re... both a little right,” Tabitha said as diplomatically as she could manage, carefully smoothing her blouse back down. “I just.. I’m not great with confrontation.”
“You’re really not,” Carrie decided, seeming to have made up her mind. “Like, the more you think about it—there’s no way you’d’ve called Chris Thompson a faggot. Even if he kinda is, like for pushing you and all. Just doesn’t really fit with what you’d say though, y’know?”
“I’ve never called him anything,” Tabitha took a deep breath, squeezing her eyes shut. “I just first met him today. When he came to... apologize.”
“Everyone’s tryin’ to figure out why you’ve had this big vendetta against him,” Carrie grinned. “But, you never did, did you? It’s all made up, huh?”
“No shit—everything going around about Tabs has been made up,” Alicia groused. “She saved that cop, I was fucking there. Mr. Peterson’s pissed about all the naysayers, too. People keep saying like the photo in that paper was faked—uh, Mr. Peterson developed it himself, right from the negative.”
“Yeah, and that whole thing with Mr. Simmons?” Elena chimed in. “Totally bogus. She was in the library every day at lunchtime, they checked. There’s a security camera in the ceiling there.”
“Okay, yeah. And Matthew didn’t ever ask her out,” Carrie nodded, casting a glance from Elena to Tabitha to gauge their expressions. “Yeah, I knew that one was fake already—they started it just to try and like, drive a wedge between you two. Since fuckin’ everyone knows Elena has the hots for Matthew.”
“Not... everyone knows,” Elena scowled. “Geez.”
“You did tell both of us you were crushing on him right away,” Tabitha pointed out with a slight smile. “Like, the very day we met.”
“No, I didn’t,” Elena denied. “Not like, right away, anyways. Besides, he is hot. Try to tell me he’s not.”
“You guys do realize he’s randomly wandering around right over there, right?” Alicia smirked. “Matthew Williams. He keeps glancing over this way.”
“Duh, he’s been trying to look out for Tabitha,” Elena rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Everyone look over at him for a second.”
Matthew Williams’ stride faltered midstep as the table of four girls he was discreetly keeping an eye on all turned in unison, and then pointedly stared in his direction.
Damn, He flashed them a somewhat guilty smile. Abandoning his pretense of idly roaming around the outer area of the quad, Matthew turned and headed over towards them. How do they DO that?
His mother’s smooth move, detective joke for Dad had been completely beaten to death over the years, and Matthew would be the first one to admit he and his father didn’t have any particular proclivity for sneaking around. He was relieved to notice he wasn’t the only one watching over Tabitha—one of the deans, Mrs. Clara, was sitting at the one out-of-the-way corner table, and hadn’t taken her eyes off the girls the entire time.
Guess… I’d better just go say what’s up? Matthew Williams ran a hand through his hair. I can just invite all of them. Mom REALLY wants Tabitha to come to the party, but I don’t wanna make it seem weird or anything—especially after that stupid rumor.